Tennessee state legislators found themselves in the middle of Turkish protesters at one point during a 10-day tour of Turkey and Azerbaijan that ended last week, according to state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.
“They were really a lot like the Occupy Wall Street crowd, or Occupy Nashville,” said Campfield, adding that he had talked with several of the protesters, who were in a peaceful mode when encountered by the Tennesseans in Istanbul.
“They had the same type of arguments” in complaints about capitalism, interrelated with what the protesters saw as unwarranted development of a city park, said Campfield, one of several legislators making the trip sponsored by the Turkish-American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast. On his blog, the senator posted multiple pictures and travelogue-like commentary on the trip. The pictures include shots of marching protesters and vehicles that had been battered or burned.
Since 2008, outside parties and private interest groups have spent $402,436 on travel for Tennessee’s nine U.S. House members and their staffs, according to a Chattanooga Times Free Press analysis of 106 trips.
While the total averages to about $45,000 per member and $3,800 per trip, some lawmakers fly more than others on someone else’s dime. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., leads the pack with $96,606 in privately funded travel.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Jasper Republican elected in 2010, brings up the rear with $21,563.
Here’s the list with number of trips and cost:
• // Steve Cohen: // 21 // $96,607
• // Jim /Cooper: // 25 // $86,429
• // Marsha Blackburn: // 25 // $50,663
• // Diane Black*: // 5 // $42,120
• // Phil Roe: // 12 // $32,322
• // Stephen Fincher*: // 4 // $24,939
• // Chuck Fleischmann*: // 3 // $25,574
• // John // Duncan: 7 // $22,219
• // Scott DesJarlais* // 4 // $21,563
Total: // 106, // $402,436
* Elected in 2010
Politically active Tennesseans are traveling to other states to get involved in the presidential campaign and Michael Collins has talked with some of them. Forrest Erickson wants to make a difference in the presidential election, so most Saturday mornings he leaves his home in Maryville, travels for two hours to Asheville, N.C., and campaigns for President Barack Obama.
Armed with a clipboard and voter registration forms, he signs up new voters. He knocks on doors, reminds people that early voting is an option and asks if they need a ride to the polls. He also tries to persuade voters to give Obama a second term.
“Barack Obama won North Carolina by only 14,000 votes last time, and it’s important that what I do makes a real difference in terms of winning some Electoral College votes,” Erickson said, explaining why he chooses to campaign in North Carolina instead of Tennessee.
“The race in Tennessee is not close enough,” Erickson said, “but what we do in North Carolina might make a difference.”
…Last week, a busload of 60 GOP volunteers left Knoxville and spent the weekend in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they knocked on more than 5,000 doors and called more than 7,000 voters on behalf of Romney.
Afterward, “we were happily exhausted,” said Jennifer Little of Bean Station, who was among those pounding the pavement for Romney. “At the end of the day, when we got back home, we felt like we had really accomplished something.”
Little’s rationale for campaigning for Romney in Ohio is the same motivation that drove Erickson to North Carolina for Obama.
“Ohio is an important swing state, and you make that decision — where can I make the biggest difference,” Little said. “We can make the biggest difference in a swing state like Ohio or Virginia or North Carolina.”
Thus, another busload of Tennessee volunteers is in Cincinnati this weekend campaigning for Romney. A third trip is also possible.
As a parting gift before leaving the state Legislature, five outgoing lawmakers spent more than $13,000 of taxpayer money to go on a four-day junket to Chicago, according a TNReport review of state records. Taxpayers are covering the costs for everything from airfare and mileage to staying in $227-a-night hotels and taking $40 taxi cab rides during the trip. The registration fees were as high as $615 per person for the National Conference of State Legislatures annual summit in August. Some of the lawmakers, who had been defeated at the ballot box or announced their retirement, claimed five and six days’ per diem at $173 per day.
For lawmakers who knew at the time they would leave office after the November election, those bills amount to a taxpayer-funded “retirement party,” one critic said.
“People who serve in the Legislature for long periods of time tend to get a sense of entitlement about what the taxpayers owe them,” said Ben Cunningham, spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt, a taxpayer advocacy group.
What’s worse, he said, is that the speakers of both chambers signed off on the $13,388 worth of expense reports.
,,,The outgoing lawmakers are House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, who lost their primaries on Aug. 2, four days before the conference, and retiring lawmakers Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill; Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; and Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.
— Note: The article referenced above is, I think, the last story filed by Andrea Zelinski for TNReport. She’s moving to The City Paper, where she will continue to report on state government and political stuff, after a week or so vacation with her husband. The move has inspired some commentary — HERE, for Betsy Phillips, who is glad there’s a woman around among the dwindling Tennessee Capitol Hill Press Corps. I’m glad she’ll be around, too — not because she’s female, but because she’s a relatively fresh face compared to us old coots and is cool, competent and professional while actually paying a lot of attention to the ongoing process.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick says he would like to see state law changed to prohibit lame-duck legislators from taking taxpayer-funded trips outside the state.
The comment came in response to a reporter’s questions about six legislators who signed up for a trip to the National Conference of State Legislators meeting in Chicago last week even though they won’t be in office after November.
“They’re on the way out. They’re not going to have much time to use their experience to benefit the taxpayers and their constituents,” he said. “I think the rules ought to be changed in the future.”
Why weren’t the rules changed earlier?
“I just wasn’t thinking,” he said.
Four of the legislators who signed up for the Chicago trip had announced their retirement plans earlier this year. One of them, Democratic Sen. Roy Herron, says he wound up not making the trip after all. The others were Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, and Reps. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, and Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.
Also making the trip were Reps. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, both of whom signed up before being defeated in the Aug. 2 primary.
Tennessee’s Sen. Bob Corker spent more on travel than lawmakers from geographically larger states such as California, Texas, Alaska and New Mexico, reports The Tennessean, with the total nearly $207,000 during the 12 months ending March 31. That’s more than all but eight other senators, a Tennessean Washington Bureau analysis of Senate records shows. Most of the senators who outspent Corker hail from large states where they often must fly to travel between cities, or from sparsely populated states where commercial flights are typically expensive or unavailable.
Corker also spent more than Tennessee’s senior senator, Republican Lamar Alexander, who reported travel expenses of $156,771 during the 12-month period. Alexander still spent more than most of his colleagues, however, ranking No. 29 out of 100 senators.
Those figures include only travel expenses paid out of lawmakers’ fiscal 2011 and 2012 budgets. They do not include trips taken by groups of lawmakers to foreign countries or travel funded by outside groups.
Corker’s spokeswoman, Laura Herzog, said the senator travels frequently to keep in touch with constituents.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen could have as much as $5.08 million in assets, drew a state pension of $23,128, and traveled to Rwanda, Germany, Israel and Spain at someone else’s expense last year, according to a disclosure that’s the subject of a Commercial Appeal report today. All members of Congress are required to file an annual description of their assets, liabilities, outside positions on boards, compensated travel and other financial information each May 15. The reports do not include their annual $174,000 salaries as members.
Among Mid-South members, U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., whose district will include even more of Shelby County next year, reported $33,943 in income from row crop farming and paid-for trips to Israel and Los Angeles. In addition, he and his wife, Lynn, own farm land worth between $500,000 and $1 million but have outstanding debts from the purchase of equipment of between $795,000 and $1.7 million.
…U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., whose district will no longer encompass parts of Greater Memphis next year because of redistricting, received a $4,202 state pension for service in the legislature and reported she could have as much as $660,000 in assets. She has mortgages on property in Brentwood, Tenn. Blackburn’s travel paid for by others included trips to Vienna, Austria; Palm Beach; Las Vegas; Dallas; and Hilton Head, S.C
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — About 900,000 people are projected to travel by car over the long holiday weekend in Tennessee with a special law enforcement crackdown in effect.
Various law enforcement agencies will be especially on the lookout for seat belt violators, impaired drivers and speeders as part of the state’s new “More Cops, More Stops” campaign. Kendell Poole, director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, says authorities will be out in force.
State transportation officials will halt all lane closures during the weekend in anticipation of higher traffic volume. However, workers may be on site in some construction zones.
Tennessee had 1,031 traffic fatalities in 2010. So far this year, 831 people have died in traffic accidents, down from 945 at this time a year ago.
Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville has taken six privately financed trips this year, with values adding up to more than $47,000 — the highest travel tab of any member of Congress, The Tennessean reports. Three of the trips, sponsored by the nonprofit Aspen Institute, took Cooper and his wife, Martha, to San Juan, Puerto Rico; Barcelona, Spain; and Banff, Alberta. Topics included energy-security issues and education.
Travel to Barcelona to address “policy challenges in the Muslim world” cost $18,487 — Cooper’s most expensive trip this year, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Legistorm. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, also joined that trip.
Four years after Congress imposed new restrictions on travel funded by outside groups, federal lawmakers took 415 privately funded trips between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30. That’s a jump of nearly 75 percent compared with the number of trips they took during the same period in 2010, according to a USA TODAY review of congressional travel records compiled by the nonpartisan CQ MoneyLine.
The value of the trips exceeds $3.1 million, making it the most expensive year of travel since Congress enacted ethics rules in 2007 aimed at clamping down on lobbyist-funded trips, records show.
….Big-ticket items include travel by more than 80 lawmakers to Israel, much of it courtesy of the American Israel Education Foundation, a charity affiliated with the influential pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Political Affairs Committee. The average cost: $18,120.
Tennessee’s freshman Republicans, Reps. Diane Black, Stephen Fincher, Scott DesJarlais and Chuck Fleischmann, joined that trip with their spouses.
Ethics rules approved four years ago bar lawmakers from taking trips longer than two nights at the expense of corporations, unions and others that employ lobbyists. The changes were prompted by lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s 2006 admission that he provided gifts and luxury trips to lawmakers and other government officials in exchange for official favors.
However, the House and Senate imposed few limits on travel funded by nonprofits, which
are now are funding dozens of lawmaker trips each month.
Note: The Legistrom list of travels by Tennessee members of Congress is HERE.
The organizer of a trip by 15 state legislators to China this summer says he returned with a “verbal commitment” from Chinese officials to match up to $5 million in state money for establishing educational ties between the nation and Tennessee.
The lawmakers, including Reps. Ryan Haynes and Harry Tindell of Knoxville, spent 10 days touring the Asian nation last month.
In interviews, several said they were impressed by the extraordinary amount of construction under way and by the extraordinary amount of pollution. They offered mixed reviews on other matters, including the quality of the food they were served.
The legislators were responsible for paying their own airfare and related expenses, which two said was about $2,500. Once in China, their food, travel and lodging costs were covered by Hanban, a branch of the Chinese government, said Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, who organized the trip. Some said they used campaign funds to cover their portion of the cost.