NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly overwhelmingly passed ethics bills yesterday that would limit cash campaign contributions, restrict lobbyists and create an independent ethics commission.
Negotiators from each chamber will meet later this week to work out the differences between the versions. (See H.B. 7001/S.B. 7001.)
For the most part, the Senate bill sticks closely to the measure drafted by a bipartisan committee of lawmakers to serve as a blueprint for the special session on ethics.
The Senate’s stricter version bans all cash contributions to political candidates, but the House would allow cash contributions of up to $50 per person, per campaign.
Five sitting and former state lawmakers were arrested last year in the Tennessee Waltz sting operation and charged with taking cash bribes from undercover federal agents.
The Senate adopted a surprising amendment yesterday to create the “Tennessee Democracy Fund,” which would provide public funding for candidates running for governor or the General Assembly.
The public-financing amendment, which was approved 19-9 in the Senate, failed in the House and isn’t given much chance to survive in the final bill.
“That’s one that just shocked me,” said Senate Majority Leader Ron Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville who voted against the measure. “Maybe one day we’ll be ready for public finance, but I don’t think that day is today.”
The Senate unanimously passed the bill, while the House vote was 94-2. Reps. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Jere Hargrove, D-Cookeville, were the only “no” votes in the House.
While differences remain, there was also consensus on major issues:
Both versions set limits for how much employers of lobbyists can spend on food for lawmakers — $50 at a time, or $100 total for the year.
Both versions make all meetings of the General Assembly open to the public.
And both chambers approved the creation of an independent ethics commission to investigate complaints against officials and lobbyists. Some lawmakers still hope to combine that new commission with the existing Registry of Election Finance.
Gov. Phil Bredesen called the Legislature into special session Jan. 10 and asked for reforms in three areas: campaign finance, lobbying regulation and the ethics commission.
“We have accomplished those objectives,” said House Majority Leader Kim McMillan, D-Clarksville. “I appreciate your dedication to trying to restore confidence in state government.”
House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, also praised the vote.
“We had a good vote that shows how much hard work has gone into this bill over the last few months,” said Naifeh. “We’re ready to go to conference committee with it.”
Recalling the saying that “Laws are like sausages — it is better not to see them being made,” Bredesen said yesterday that he was encouraged after the Senate vote.
“There have been a lot of things that have gone on and come off these bills,” Bredesen said during an appearance in Knoxville. “But I am still very optimistic that in the end we will have a sensible bill that accomplishes the big things.”
Dick Williams of the watchdog group Tennessee Common Cause said he liked what he saw.
“I think both houses are making significant progress toward a very good bill,” Williams said.
Bredesen has challenged lawmakers to pass a bill before his State of the State address on Feb. 6. If necessary, legislators say they’re prepared to work into the weekend to meet that goal.