Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Jack in the bag sparks new look at gifts

Plus: Gov. Lee spurns Dolly’s biggest attraction

July 9, 2021 5:00 am
A pickup truck emblazoned with the Jack Daniel's Distillery logo parked in front of the Cordell Hull Legislative Office Building Wednesday. Inside the building, officials with company gave one-fith bottles of Jack to legislators. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

A pickup truck emblazoned with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery logo parked in front of the Cordell Hull Legislative Office Building in February. Inside the building, officials with company gave one-fith bottles of Jack to legislators. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Jack Daniel’s owner Brown-Forman didn’t violate any rules on gifts to lawmakers when it handed out bottles of sipping whiskey to lawmakers in February.

But the gift bags are causing the Tennessee Ethics Commission to take a new look at the guidelines for giveaways.

The Ethics Commission voted recently to have staff review a 2008 advisory opinion on gifts to lawmakers and offer suggestions for a new opinion the commission could tweak to stop questionable moves to curry legislative favor.

Bill Young, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, told the commission during its recent meeting Brown-Forman did nothing improper when it put on a virtual reception in late February and offered all state legislators the opportunity to pick up a goody bag with Jack Daniel’s paraphernalia and then log online and take a virtual tour of its whiskey-making plant. Of course, the bag included the obligatory fifth of Jack.

Erica Vick, lobbyist for Brown-Forman, told the Ethics Commission recently, “It is never our wish to be here.” She added they “want to always do things the right way.”

Vick noted the 2008 advisory opinion covered the bottle of booze and other items that could be used later to make a cocktail.

Young agreed that Brown-Forman followed the opinion, which was based on an event years ago when lawmakers were offered commemorative bottles of champagne to take home. As long as the gift didn’t break a monetary limit of $65 per event for lobbyist gifts or an annual limit of $135 from lobbyists’ employers to a person, the bottle was fine.

Young noted, however, “The staff has looked at that opinion and, to be quite honest, the staff is not convinced that opinion is correct.”

Some lawmakers called the Bureau of Ethics in February: they weren’t upset that Brown-Forman was giving out whiskey. They just wanted to make sure they could take it home legally. 

Ethics Commission member Jim Stranch pointed out during the meeting the commission faced a similar situation when the National Rifle Association came to Nashville for its national convention and wanted to offer gifts to legislators. The commission didn’t have enough time to address the matter but told the NRA they could do it at their own peril. Ultimately, the NRA opted against the gifts, which included “wining and dining” preferred lawmakers, according to Stranch.

“I was in that group that had that concern. I still have that concern,” Stranch said.

Commission member Tammy White added that her primary problem with the NRA convention was that the organization was not sending invitations carte blanche. But she said she had no problem with Brown-Forman’s gift bags as long as all lawmakers were invited.

Young, though, contended the rules really should apply only to items consumed at a reception, not things lawmakers take off premises. For instance, someone could walk out the door with a sandwich, but other things, such as a bottle of Jack, tend to raise eyebrows.

Several lawmakers called the Bureau of Ethics office to make sure they could accept the whiskey. And some pesky reporters, including yours truly, wanted to know if it was up to snuff, after spotting a Jack Daniel’s truck and trailer in House Speaker parking spots outside the Cordell Hull Building one sunny February day.

Of course, lawmakers weren’t upset that Brown-Forman was giving out whiskey. They just wanted to make sure they could take it home legally. 

Word has it some legislative staff was a bit irritated, though, because they didn’t get any of the good stuff, which can come in handy after a long night of legislative BS.

Move to California and visit Tennessee

It might not be a financial wash, but if you could pack quickly and take up residence in California – or any other state, for that matter – you could apply to win $250 to fly to a Tennessee tourism destination – one of the big four cities at least.

Gov. Bill Lee’s latest idea to bolster the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is to pay out-of-staters to jet here, as long as they book at least two nights in a hotel in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville or Chattanooga.

Gov. Bill Lee and country music star Brad Paisley yuk it up in a video to promote Lee's "Tennessee on Me" giveaway to out of state tourists. (Still photo from video on tn.gov.)
Gov. Bill Lee and country music star Brad Paisley yuk it up in a video to promote Lee’s “Tennessee on Me” giveaway to out of state tourists. (Screen capture from video on tn.gov.)

Lee teamed up with country singer Brad Paisley for a Tennessee on Me campaign announcement detailing $2.5 million worth of vouchers for 10,000 people.

This is an oddity, considering the governor recently said the state is no longer in a health crisis but is managing a COVID situation. Tennessee is also flush with cash and seeing revenues breaking predictions every quarter. The state and its cities and counties are set to receive so much federal money soon that some small banks aren’t even sure if they can handle it.

Predictably, Democrats bashed the governor, which they do at every opportunity. They pointed out the vouchers come on the heels of unemployed Tennesseans losing federal jobless benefits, which weren’t supposed to run out until September.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally was not enthused with the giveaway (that word seems to keep coming up), but not quite for the same reason.

He had this to say: “I was not briefed on the details of the promotion prior to launch. The mission of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development is to motivate travel to and within Tennessee. While the tourism industry in our major cities was hard hit during the COVID crisis, it has bounced back in record time. Under the circumstances, I would have preferred a more traditional approach to tourism development rather than direct transfers of Tennessee taxpayer money to mostly out-of-state recipients. It is especially troubling that the promotion is limited to our major cities. At least two of those cities exacerbated the economic crisis by instituting overly aggressive lockdown policies. It makes little sense to limit the promotion to those cities when our rural areas were hit as hard, if not harder, by the economic crisis than those cities. I will be asking the administration and the Department of Tourist Development to provide more detail to the legislature about such initiatives during the budget process in the future.”

Spokeswoman Casey Black explained that tourism is the state’s second largest industry, employing thousands of people, and lost more than $300 million revenue from March to December 2020. Before the pandemic, leisure and hospitality saw the biggest year-over-year growth for any industry and totaled 349,000 employees.

“Today, the industry employs roughly 302,200 Tennesseans, which is well below pre-pandemic levels,” Black said in response to questions.

Dolly Parton attends a press conference before a performance celebrating her 50-year anniversary with the Grand Ole Opry at The Grand Ole Opry on October 12, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)
Paisley’s in, Dolly’s out: Gov. Bill Lee’s tourism initiative provides no funds for visitors to get plane tickets to Sevier County, home of Dollywood. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)

The campaign is funded with a one-time investment in the Department of Tourist Development budget and is separate from the “temporary” federally-funded pandemic unemployment program, she said.

It is true: The governor’s budget amendment includes a line item of $2.5 million for a tourism marketing project.

Apparently, lawmakers didn’t ask enough questions. Maybe the media let that one slip by, too.

McNally’s criticism is interesting, because he usually doesn’t get hit with these types of surprises. Maybe that’s why he took a shot at the governor’s idea.

His point about rural areas getting left out is notable, too, considering Sevier County is one of the state’s biggest tourist destinations with Dollywood. Gov. Lee loves to talk about how much he likes Dolly Parton. This time, he left out her biggest attraction. Well, almost her biggest attraction.

Travelers already coming

Thousands of state lawmakers from across the country are set to converge on Nashville this week for the annual Southern Legislative Conference where they’ll party a bit and learn about all sorts of important topics.

As Southern Legislative Conference chairman, House Speaker Cameron Sexton is playing host to the activities, which run from Saturday through Tuesday.

To be sure, the sessions are going to be educational, including one on the “gigification” of the economy and setting policies to respond. Strategies to correct the “COVID Slide,” (if you believe COVID is a problem) could prove to be another interesting presentation for legislators.

A conference for Southern legislators in Nashville features speeches by University of Tennessee men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes and a purveyor of upscale leather goods.

University of Tennessee men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes is to speak to the group on Saturday.

Closing out the session will be Colonel Littleton, known for his Col. Littleton brand of upscale leather goods and specialty products he makes in his Lynnville, Tennessee shop. He started in 1987 in the third-floor attic of his home selling antique cufflinks and has expanded his wares.

No doubt, lawmakers of every stripe will be turning in per diem and travel requests for four solid days to make sure they catch every minute of this conference. That means we pay them to have fun. But at least we’re not giving out-of-staters vouchers to get here. Or are we?

Bathroom battle resumes

@JeremyFaison4TN, R-Cosby, tweeted this week: The Supreme Court refused to hear the Virginia bathroom case this past week. I am thankful that during the #112th we passed a bill that protects our students’ privacy in bathrooms and locker rooms. Biology and human anatomy is still relevant in TN. #FollowTheScience!

Tennessee Republican House Majority Leader Jeremy Faison has been a frequent critic of unemployed Tennesseans and supported cuts to unemployment insurance, while accepting $79,000 in federal paycheck protection handouts. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Tennessee Republican House Majority Leader Jeremy Faison. (Photo: John Partipilo)

His tweet is accompanied by a logo with men and women symbols and the words “Private & protected bathrooms in Tennessee.”

@JRClemmons, D-Nashville, responded with, “Teachers are still underpaid, bridges/roadways need safety repairs, state’s unemployment system is still broken, 100s of thousands don’t have health coverage, suicide rates are increasing, guv spent $490M on no-bid contracts, but yeah … bathrooms. Bravo, guys. Bravo.”

So far, the only legal challenge involving new bathroom laws in Tennessee was filed by the ACLU against a different law governing peeing and pooping, one requiring businesses to post signs if they allow transgender people to use restrooms matching their gender.

Will this ever end? If not, pretty soon we’re going to need a green book for bodily functions alone.

 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

MORE FROM AUTHOR