Disclosed spending on legislative receptions and events hits all - WSMV News 4

Disclosed spending on legislative receptions and events hits all-time high

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Tennessee State Capitol building (WSMV) Tennessee State Capitol building (WSMV)

Special interest groups and organizations spent more than $960,000 on hosting in-state events for lawmakers in 2016 – the highest amount ever disclosed to the Tennessee Ethics Commission since 2006 when reporting became mandatory.

In-state events, oftentimes known as “legislative receptions,” present lobbyists, corporations and special interest groups with a chance to meet lawmakers and discuss various issues.

More than two-thirds of the events in 2016 took place during the legislative session, a time when laws are actually passed.

Last Tuesday just after 5 p.m., dozens of people flocked to the Hermitage Hotel, which is located just one block away from Legislative Plaza.

Six insurance companies co-hosted the event that one attendee said was well worth his time.

“You got shrimp and grits and prime rib,” he said. “And the bar’s good.”

Oftentimes lawmakers and staff will attend multiple receptions in one evening. For example, eight events are taking place just on Feb. 7.

Employees and lawmakers at the statehouse are bound to receive upwards of 90 invitations every year for events such as NCAA viewing parties, Titans tailgates and even a gathering called “Brew Ha-Ha.”

In 2016, AT&T spent more than $57,000 for its annual reception. At this year’s party, the company provided drinks, shrimp and even free shuttles from Legislative Plaza to the AT&T building downtown.

A spokesman for AT&T declined to comment.

“It’s my favorite not because it’s nice so much, just because no one’s mad at each other yet,” said Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville.

The most expensive event disclosed in 2016 was hosted by Southwest Airlines at nearly $114,000. The airline said the roll out of its new airplane was mainly for employees and community partners, but for lawmakers, too.

Guests were treated to live music – and some attendees even got to take a trip on the new aircraft from Nashville to Memphis.

“What would some constituents say if they knew their lawmakers were attending some receptions that could go up from $50,000 to $70,000?” asked reporter Alanna Autler.

“I don’t know what the cost of them are,” said Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville. “Certainly I would not think that would be a wise use of their money because legislators’ doors are always open.”

But does what happen on the outside of the Capitol affect what happens inside?

“They’re not important to the legislative process at all,” said Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis.

Others voted aye.

“Yes, these are attempts to again kind of, for all practical purposes, pull together or harness a crowd of decision makers and to influence them,” said Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden.

Some political science experts said there’s no doubt.

“My daddy always told me you don’t get anything for free and so you just kind of have to ask yourself, ‘Well, what do these organizations want in return?’” said Carrie Russell, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

It’s impossible to prove one party or conversation leads to passing a law. But groups that host receptions certainly have positions.

Last year lawmakers defeated a bill to expand municipal broadband, an issue AT&T publicly opposed.

The education group, SCORE, fought for teachers’ pay raises.

These events are completely legal, as long as groups invite all lawmakers and spend below $61/person.

So how do these receptions get so expensive?

All lawmakers and usually staff are invited, plus anyone else invited by the host. But groups do not need to disclose how many people they are inviting or who actually attends.

The Channel 4 I-Team found in 2016, the average cost of an event was about $10,000. But some events fell far below that total, such as the legislative round tables hosted by Youth Villages.

One of their round tables cost just $42.

Others view the spending differently. SCORE spent approximately $76,000 on its reception. President David Mansouri said their spending focused on the educators– not the lawmakers who attended.

“We think treating educators like the rock stars they are is worth some resource,” Mansouri said.

Some leaders argue their events do connect legislators with real people, such as local business owners.

“The goal is to provide them an opportunity where if they want to weigh in on things they can talk to their legislator,” said Bradley Jackson, the president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “They can say, ‘This impacts me this way.’”

But some taxpayers said if they’re off the invite list, their voice isn’t heard.

“Because I wasn’t invited, and I’m the poor man on the totem pole,” said Beverly Yokley, of Dickson. “You’re getting the answers that affect my life, and I don’t get a choice.”

Numerous organizations held receptions last year including the Press Association and Vanderbilt University.

Disclosure requirements were created in 2006 following Operation Rocky Top and Operation Tennessee Waltz, two investigations that uncovered corruption at the legislature.

The record amount of money spent last year could reflect inflation and the rising cost of renting space in Nashville or stricter enforcement of the disclosure laws.

Click here for the disclosures for all in-state events.

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