Battle over ethics reform bill rages as group calls for veto

By: - May 18, 2022 6:00 am
Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

More than two weeks after the legislative session’s end, lawmakers continue warding off the efforts of advocacy groups to kill increased reporting requirements for “dark money” campaign spending.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally this week characterized those who oppose the legislation as either “wildly misinformed or willfully obtuse.”

And state Rep. Sam Whitson, a Franklin Republican who carried the legislation for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, said the legislation must have struck a nerve.

Whitson, who introduced the bill in 2021 and then let it simmer until passage this year, said this week he doesn’t understand how organizations that readily accept “our contributions” are opposed to disclosing how they spend money.

“There is no requirement to disclose donors. Our legislation must have hit too close to home on something they are not comfortable with the public knowing,” Whitson said.

Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Tennessee Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Several groups have argued that the bill will wind up making them disclose donors, even though the legislation was amended to make sure it dealt with spending only.

McNally and Whitson made their statements after ALEC Action, the advocacy group for the American Legislative Exchange Council, sent Gov. Bill Lee a letter asking him to veto Senate Bill 1005/House Bill 1201, a development reported by the Tennessee Journal

In part a reaction to an FBI investigation into the workings of shady campaign vendors and political action committees in the Legislature, the bill enacts several new reporting requirements for lawmakers.

But advocacy organizations are focused on a section requiring groups with 501(c)4, 5 and 6 tax status to report how they spend their money to the Registry of Election Finance if their campaign expenses on a race hit $5,000 within 60 days of an election.

Gov. Lee’s office declined to say this week what action he would take. The bill will be reviewed when it reaches his desk, said spokeswoman Casey Black.

A veto, however, would be uncharacteristic for the governor, who has allowed legislation he opposes to become law without his signature, including a recent truth-in-sentencing measure that runs counter to his criminal justice reform efforts.  

In the letter to the governor, Lisa Nelson, chief executive officer for ALEC Action, complained that the legislation contains “ambiguous language” and “low thresholds” for expenditure reporting that could contain “unconstitutional requirements of compelled donor identity disclosure.”

In fact, lawmakers considered requiring groups with this tax status, such as Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association, to disclose donors, but ultimately they opted against that strategy as part of an effort to clean up graft in the Legislature.

Still, groups such as ALEC Action keep crying foul, even after lawmakers adjourned the 112th General Assembly and went home for the year.

“If enacted, this legislation would implement an extremely broad, unclear, and dangerous state registry dragnet targeting non-profit organizations, many of which are currently engaged in standard issue advocacy,” Nelson’s letter states. “Further, it is unclear how Tennessee agencies and courts will interpret this law, creating a variety of issues for them, the tens of thousands of organizations spread across the political spectrum in Tennessee and the donors who support them.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Lt. Gov Randy McNally. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

ALEC Action contends philanthropic groups have constitutional protections against disclosing donors and that referring to a candidate’s position on policy matters should “never result in the disclosure of donor information from non-political groups.”

Legislative leaders, however, question the sensibilities of these types of advocacy groups that pour money into campaigns, saying they are missing the mark.

McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican who sponsored the legislation, points out ALEC Action is “just the most recent” of several groups to express “discomfort” with the bill. Lawmakers amended the bill to clarify that groups don’t have to reveal donors and can communicate with members “freely” without triggering the disclosure requirement, he noted.

“But if a group spends more than $5,000 within 60 days of an election with the intention of influencing that election, they must disclose their expenditures,” McNally said in a statement. “At this point, those continuing to critique the bill seem to be either wildly misinformed or willfully obtuse. Either way, my reaction remains the same. This legislation is a reasonable and common sense approach to increase transparency in our political process.”

The lieutenant governor, who is also Senate speaker, contends “shadowy political operatives working for special interests have been allowed to exploit loopholes” in the state’s system and “operate in darkness” for too long.

“If you are attempting to influence the outcome of an election in Tennessee, the voters deserve to know who you are and what you are doing,” he said. “Now they will.”

Speaker Sexton, who sponsored the House version of the bill, did not respond to a request for comment on the ALEC Action letter.


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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.