published Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Tennessee legislative event costs totaled

  • photo
    Guenther Scherelis, General Manager of Communication for Volkswagen in Chattanooga
    Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee businesses, professional and trade groups as well as other organizations spent at least $458,000 on legislative receptions during this year's General Assembly, records show.

Expenditures ranged from breakfast, luncheon and dinner receptions to an ice cream "social," heart health screenings and the opportunity to ride in a Nissan Leaf electric car. All told, there were 67 such events by the time lawmakers adjourned May 1.

It's all legal provided all 33 senators and 99 representatives are invited and the spending is disclosed publicly. That move was made in the mid-1990s when lawmakers banned entertainment of individual lawmakers by special interests because it appeared a little too cozy to the public.

Tennessee Ethics Commission filings show telecommunications giant AT&T had the highest priced single event -- a Jan. 10 welcome-back-to-Nashville gala featuring an "open bar and heavy hors d'oeuvres" on the 27th floor of the AT&T Tower in downtown Nashville.

The annual event carried an equally heavy $23,537 price tag, according to AT&T's filing. Not all of that was for lawmakers, emphasized AT&T Tennessee spokesman Chris Walker.

"Invited guests included policy experts, business leaders, employees, representatives of phone companies and Internet providers across Tennessee, and members of the Tennessee General Assembly," Walker said in an email.

He said the reception "presented an opportunity to discuss a broad range of technology and telecommunications issues that affect Tennessee consumers."

Among AT&T interests this year was a flap over costs the company incurs to attach its gear to electric utility poles. It didn't get very far.

The No. 1 spender overall was the Tennessee Development District Association, which spent a total of $25,375 on a breakfast and a dinner for lawmakers in a hotel ballroom.

The group is comprised of the state's nine publicly funded development districts, which are regional planning and economic development organizations made up of, and operated by, the cities and counties within each district.

An effort to contact the association was unsuccessful.

Coming in at No. 7 in terms of spending was Volkswagen Chattanooga, which reported it spent $12,348 on an April 16 reception. It was the German auto manufacturer's first real venture into Capitol Hill entertainment. According to the invitation, the reception was "celebrating Volkswagen Chattanooga's successful plant ramp-up and vehicle launch" of its Passat.

The company's Chattanooga president and CEO, Frank Fischer, was there to greet officials at the reception, which included sushi and carving tables filled with meats.

Volkswagen spokesman Guenther Scherelis said Chattanooga and Tennessee officials, business leaders and the public have given the company "overwhelming support" since coming to Tennessee nearly four years ago.

The company has received millions in tax incentives and grants.

"So far, our management was not able to make it to Nashville to meet the legislators," Scherelis said. "After having completed the production ramp up and having announced an additional 1,000 jobs for this year, we felt it was time to catch up with it and invited [officials to] the reception to thank them personally."

Tennessee Common Cause President Dick Williams said many of the receptions are often thrown by "savvy business people" and others with issues pending before the legislature.

"In most cases they aren't buying specific votes, but they are getting a seat at the table," said Williams, whose group advocates for stricter ethics and campaign finance laws. "I think it's good that in our process most of what's done is at least publicly available. It's not like wining and dining individuals or small groups."

Until mid-1990s reforms, the public had little clue what various interests were spending, he said. Some lobbyists even used to loan certain powerful legislators credit cards.

Williams noted that today that there "may be lots of interests on opposite sides of these groups that may not have the money to get their voices heard."

But smaller entities increasingly band together to put on events and those with even less money can request permission to set up informational tables in the Legislative Plaza to get their positions across to lawmakers, Williams said.

Local lawmakers said when they go to events, it's often because the groups have members from back home. Often, organizations hold their annual meetings in Nashville during the session, giving local insurers, businessmen, bankers, lawyers, doctors, hospitals and others an opportunity to press the flesh with their senators and representatives.

"I usually go and check if anyone from Hamilton County is there," Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said. "If there isn't ... I'll do the appropriate thanks" and leave.

Receptions are an opportunity to "meet folks in a less formal atmosphere," he said, noting that was the case this year when he attended an event hosted by the Tennessee Press Association, an organization of newspapers, including the Times Free Press.

The TPA spent $7,108.30 on the evening reception, records show.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said when he gets a heads up locals are coming, he believes part of his "job is to be there, see the constituents and talk to them. The reception is less important than the people I see who are [from] back home."

But lawmakers "certainly should be careful of the role of special interests in the legislature," Berke said, noting there has to be a balancing act to maintain open lines for those who don't come to Nashville, hold events or have lobbyists.

Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, said they generally don't go many receptions.

"I've never been much of a party animal," Floyd said.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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