Monthly Archives: April 2022

NRA opposes bill requiring more campaign spending disclosures

Rep. Cameron Sexton presides over his first session as House speaker on Aug. 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The National Rifle Association is speaking out against an effort to require dark money groups to disclose their campaign spending in Tennessee. The bill sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and his Senate counterpart, Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), seeks to require 501(c)(4) groups to report any spending above $5,000 before elections.

The NRA says the legislation as drafted could lead to confusion among nonprofits and campaign finance regulators. State Director Matt Herriman also says the bill lead to the names of donors to become public, despite sponsors’ assurances to the contrary. Some of the issues were address in an amendment to the bill advancing out of the House Finance Subcommittee on Tuesday (after the the letter was sent), but the gun rights group still has concerns.

Here’s the letter from the NRA:

Members of the Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee
RE: Senate Bill 1005/House Bill 1201: Campaigns and Campaign Finance

Dear Chairman Hicks and Members of the Committee:

On behalf of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its hundreds of thousands of members in Tennessee, I write to express our strong opposition to Senate Bill 1005 (SB 1005) and House Bill 1201 (HB 1201). To be clear, we oppose this legislation as passed in the Senate and with today’s proposed amendment #017654.

SB 1005/HB 1201 is akin to efforts by states like California and New York to compel 501(c)(4)s to turn over their private donor information. Disclosure of this type of information potentially can subject donors to unwarranted harassment.

If this legislation is enacted in this form (even with the proposed amendment), 501(c)(4)s will have a difficult time anticipating what agencies and courts will interpret it to mean.

The amended legislation provides that if 501(c)(4)s make qualifying expenditures, they must, “report expenditures, in accordance with § 2-10-105(c)(1) and (h),” and appoint a treasurer (something normally only required of political committees). As the law stands now, reports in accordance with § 2-10-105(c)(1) include disclosure of both expenditures and contributions. Even with the amendment, there is a danger a court could use the requirement to “report…in accordance with -105(c)(1)” to read a donor disclosure requirement into the amendment.

Further, the amended language also requires groups to “report expenditures, in accordance with [-105(h)].” Nothing in § 2-10-105(h) has anything to do with the reporting of expenditures. This language is unclear. This seems to open the door even wider for a court to read a donor disclosure requirement into the bill.

For purposes of Chapter 10, the definition of an expenditure is spending, “for the purpose of influencing a measure or the nomination for election or election of any person to public office…” Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-10-102(6)(A). Spending that would trigger the new requirements of this bill is not limited to spending for the purpose of influencing an election. Spending having nothing to do with elections, including but not limited to grassroots lobbying communications, could trigger the obligations to report and appoint a treasurer. This creates the very real prospect that groups like NRA could spend $5,000 on a legislative communication or the like, incur the obligation to file reports and appoint a treasurer, and yet have no reportable “expenditures” under the relevant definition.

It is also unclear over what period of time the qualifying $5,000 must be spent in order to trigger the obligations in the bill. Is it $5,000 in a quarter? In a calendar year? Per election (primary, general, special, runoff, etc.)? Per election cycle? Or would a group have to keep track of qualifying spending for an indefinite period of years, and start filing reports once the aggregate spending reaches the threshold?
Finally, it is unclear how far into the future the obligation to report, and to maintain a treasurer registration, extends. Nothing in the bill seems to specify when the obligation to keep filing reports ends.

In summary, the bill (even with the amendments) fails to answer some of the most basic questions that it raises. If it is enacted, this legislation will be a mess for the Registry of Election Finance, the courts, and the regulated community, including NRA and countless other advocacy groups. Its final effects could be significantly different than what was intended.

For the foregoing reasons, the NRA respectfully opposes Senate Bill 1005/HB 1201.

Sincerely,

Matt Herriman

Tennessee State Director

NRL-ILA

CPAC organizer pans Tennessee’s ‘truth-in-sentencing’ bill

Lawmakers attend Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State address in Nashville on Jan. 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The American Conservative Union is speaking out against legislation pending in the Tennessee General Assembly to make people convicted of violent crimes serve 100% of their sentences without the possibility of parole. The measure has been championed by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and his Senate counterpart, Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), but appears to fly in the face of Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s criminal justice reform efforts.

Lawmakers are expected to include the sentencing measure in the annual state spending plan they intend to pass later this week.

Legislative analysts have projected a $28 million annual cost increase for making the change, while the state Department of Correction puts the number at $90 million.

“It would be one thing to spend massive sums on prisons if the proposal was based on evidence that requiring criminals to serve 100% of their sentences would increase public safety,” according to the letter. “However, there is no such data.”

The ACU “strongly opposes” the bill and urges lawmakers to reject it. Voting in favor will adversely affect annual lawmaker rankings, the group said.

Here’s the letter sent to McNally and Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga):

Dear Lt. Governor McNally and Chairman Watson:

The American Conservative Union (“ACU”) is the nation’s oldest grassroots advocacy organization. Founded in 1964 by William F. Buckley, we have a 50-plus-year track record of advancing policies that reduce the size and scope of government, advance liberty, and reduce burdens on families.

Historically, Tennessee has been a beacon of conservative principles and leadership. With an overall rating of 74% all-time from our sister organization, the American Conservative Union Foundation, Tennessee stands head and shoulders above other state legislatures in its conservative voting record. But we find ourselves very concerned about a particular proposal making its way through the legislature: House Bill 2656/Senate Bill 2248.

Commonly referred to as “Truth in Sentencing,” the proposal under consideration would require individuals convicted of certain crimes to serve 100 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for release. While this sounds tough on crime and reasonable on its face, there are many factors that go into the effectiveness and long-term consequences of such policy changes. More than 90% of those in Tennessee’s prisons will pay their debts to society and return to their communities. Our goal is to have them return as better versions of themselves by completing their education, addressing addiction, and participating in mental health counseling and other proven anti-recidivism programs. Offering prisoners time off for good behavior is a key incentive that makes this possible, and in turn makes Tennessee safer.

Of course, no one is arguing that people should be given a pass for wrongdoing. Those who break the law must be held accountable for their actions. The counter is that if we fail to provide incentives, prisons will remain mere warehouses of humanity. Those returning will be no better than when they went in. And this means that Tennessee communities will forgo public safety benefits that would otherwise be available.

Adding to the concerns around the public safety impact of this bill is the tremendous uncertainty around its true fiscal impact. While the fiscal note indicates this bill will create $27.7 million in increased expenditures, TDOC data reflects costs much closer to $90 million. One report reflects that increasing aggravated burglary offenses alone to 100 percent will cost taxpayers $38.7 million per year, including $8.7 million of that absorbed locally.

As eye-opening as these numbers are (especially for a state that prides itself on fiscal conservativism), this legislation could cost taxpayers far more. According to TDOC testimony before the Senate Judiciary, cost projections around this bill do not account for the possibility that new prison facilities might be necessary to accommodate the prison population growth that would result from the passage of this bill. With Tennessee’s prisons are already operating at 92% capacity, there would become a much higher likelihood TDOC will either have to build new prisons or contract for more capacity. Either option is likely to run into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in new government spending.

It would be one thing to spend massive sums on prisons if the proposal was based on evidence that requiring criminals to serve 100% of their sentences would increase public safety. However, there is no such data. But there is analysis from the United States Sentencing Commission that indicates that early releases of drug offenders had no adverse impact on crime. In fact, there was a marginal reduction in recidivism for those who were granted early release.

Finally, we would note that eliminating time off for good behavior in the Truth in Sentencing package under consideration would endanger the safety of Tennessee’s corrections officers. Stated simply, those who have nothing to lose have no reason to follow the rules. And this has proven true in other states.

After Arizona enacted its own version of Truth In Sentencing, rules infractions in facilities increased by 50 percent, education program enrollment dropped by20 percent, and the three-year reincarceration rates rose by over 7 percentage points(a nearly 40 percent increase). Unfortunately, this trio of negative results also cost the Arizona taxpayers millions of dollars, while furthering the damage to already broken communities and families.

Accordingly, we view House Bill 2656 and Senate Bill 2248 as proposals that cost too much, do too little to make Tennessee communities safer, and endanger correctional staff along the way.

Accordingly, ACU strongly opposes this legislation and urges you to reject it. We have also recommended to our colleagues at the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Legislative Accountability (Ratings) that they rate a vote to approve HB 2656/SB2248 negatively in our 2022 ratings.

Should you have any questions regarding this matter, please feel free to contact me […].

Respectfully,

Patrick Plein

American Conservative Union

Tres is out on leave: Wittum joins 5th District race

A sign in the Senate Finance Committee office in Nashville indicates aide Tres Wittum is on leave while running for Congress. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tres Wittum, an aide to state Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga), has joined the field seeking the Republican nomination for the open 5th Congressional District Seat.

Other candidates seeking the GOP nod include Beth Harwell, Baxter Lee, Andy Ogles, Morgan Ortagus, Robby Starbuck, and Kurt Winstead — though some of those have having their Republican bona fides challenged with the party.

Here’s Wittum’s release:

Nashville, TN – Tres Wittum announces bid for the 5th Congressional district. In a video released on Treswittum.com, Tres set a course for the campaign “ “For the first time in nearly 150 years, the Tennessee 5th Congressional District has an opportunity to pick a new kind of leadership. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been out talking to Tennesseans, listening to their concerns – but also hearing their vision and hope for the future.”

In the announcement Tres also outlined the next steps in the campaign, “In the coming weeks, I’ll be out traveling the district. If you see me, I hope you’ll stop me and share your Tennessee story, so together we can go to Washington and let them know that the Tennessee Volunteer spirit is alive and ready to lead this country in the right direction.”

Tres announced that the campaign will be sharing many of those “Tennessee stories” on the campaign website TresWittum.com as well as the campaign’s social media.

Tres Wittum has been active Tennessee politics for over 15 years. Wittum also has served the Tennessee Senate since 2011, in the Senate Speaker Pro Tempore’s office as well as the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee. Tres came to Nashville from Cleveland, TN in 2008. He is a graduate of University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Tres is a bona fide Republican whose credentials are unchallenged and will be on the ballot in the Republican primary on August 4th.

Starbuck raises $104K in quarter, $350K to date in 5th District

Robby Starbuck’s quarterly fundraising trails top-tier candidates in the Republican primary for the 5th Congressional District. The music video producer brought in $104,524 through the most recent reporting period, well behind Morgan Ortagus (nearly $600,000), Kurt Winstead ($520,000), Beth Harwell ($350,000). and Baxter Lee ($317,000).

But Starbuck got into the race long before his rivals and has raised $349,386 since last summer. About a quarter of Starbuck’s haul in the first quarter came in form of small, unitemized donations. He spent $71,000, bringing his total to $179,979. He had $172,265 remaining on hand as of March 31.

Baxter Lee reports $317K in donations, same again from self in 5th District race

Businessman Baxter Lee has reported raising $317,380 in outside contributions — plus a matching donation from himself — in his bid for the Republican nomination in the open race for the 5th Congressional District. Developer Steve Smith, the finance for the Lee campaign, said the campaign had $560,000 on hand at the end of the fundraising period.

Contributions include $1,000 from former senator and governor Lamar Alexander and the same amount from Crown Bakeries founder Cordia Harrington. Jim Haslam, the founder of the Pilot truck stop chain. and former CEO Jimmy Haslam each gave $2,900. as did their spouses.

Here’s the release from the Lee campaign:

NASHVILLE, TN – Steve Smith, Finance Chair for Baxter Lee, announced over $630,000 for the first filing in Tennessee’s 5th Congressional district since Lee officially announced his candidacy three weeks ago. “I have worked with Baxter for years helping Republicans all over Tennessee get elected and I look forward to doing anything I can to help Baxter win this race,” Smith said. Lee has over $560,000 cash on hand.

Baxter Lee, a Tennessee native and entrepreneur, announced that he was running for Congress at the end of March, “I am humbled and honored by the encouragement myself and my family have received during this process so far. It speaks volumes of the confidence a person has when they financially support a candidate and my first quarter shows that I am someone they are putting their trust into,” Baxter stated. “The 5th district is looking forward to finally having a conservative Congressman to represent them again and wave goodbye to Nancy Pelosi.”

Lee is an eight generation Tennessean and business owner. This is Lee’s first campaign for office but has been an influential player in the success of many Tennessee Republicans being elected to public office. In 1994, his family hosted a fundraiser for Fred Thompson and worked hard to get him elected for his first term. Senator Thompson became a mentor to Lee, and he instilled conservative ideals like more freedom and less government. His first campaign donation was to Lamar Alexander in 1999 at twenty years old.

New TNJ alert: Never mind the constitution, here’s the new state Senate districts

The Tennessee Supreme Court building is seen in Nashville on Dec.8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The new print edition of the Tennessee Journal is out. Here is what’s in it:

— Supreme Court finds election commission deadlines are more important than pesky constitutional language on state Senate districts.

— Party politics: Lee slow walks (in)action on residency requirements for congressional candidates, dumping 5th District hot potato in lap of state GOP.

— From the campaign trail: 41 state House members get free pass to re-election, Anti-Skulduggery Act to kick in after Brenda Gilmore’s announces plans to withdraw candidacy, and Andy Ogles drops mayoral bid to focus on Congress.

Also: Scott Cepicky wants to tear public education down to the “bare bones,” Butch Spyridon denies “bait and switch” on football stadium, former Nashville Banner executive editor Joe Worley dies, and Todd Warner’s Dixieland band.

As always, access the your copy of the TNJ here.

Or subscribe here.

State unveils new tax credit program for entertainment projects

The state Entertainment Commission and the Departement of Economic and Community Development are launching a new tax credit program to promote projects in Tennessee.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Entertainment Commission (TEC), in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Revenue and Department of Economic and Community Development, announced today a new franchise and excise (F&E) tax credit program aimed to advance Tennessee’s entertainment industry by promoting job creation and economic development.

Companies approved as a qualified production can apply for a tax credit generated through resident and non-resident Tennessee payroll expenses and apply for a point of purchase sales tax exemption certificate on non-payroll expenses. Qualified productions include scripted and unscripted television, feature films, video game development, animation, commercials and audio/visual postproduction.

“Tennessee is home to one of the most robust entertainment industries in the world, and we strive to provide the resources needed for our state to build upon this momentum,” TNECD Commissioner Bob Rolfe said. “We are proud to partner with the Department of Revenue and Tennessee Entertainment Commission and look forward to seeing how this new program will further strengthen our state’s entertainment footprint while creating additional jobs for Tennesseans.”

The F&E tax credit is generated by Tennessee payroll expenditures for all above-the-line and below-the-line talent services being performed in the state on a qualified production. The standard credit generates up to 40 percent on resident and non-resident payroll expenses, with a 10 percent uplift on payroll expenses for Tennesseans living in economically distressed areas.

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the Tennessee Entertainment Commission, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, and the entertainment industry to make this incentive a success,” Revenue Commissioner David Gerregano said. “Through this collaboration, we are happy to support the continued growth of Tennessee’s entertainment industry.”

In addition to the tax credit, the program offers a point of purchase sales and use tax exemption on qualified goods and services providing an immediate and usable benefit to the taxpayer. This point of purchase sales tax exemption generates a savings of 9.25 percent to 9.75 percent on all taxable goods or services and tangible personal property necessary to the qualified production.

The program creates a sustainable model for the industry, encouraging musicians, professional filmmakers, television producers and video game developers to create and share their craft. The F&E tax credit program will also help market the state while supporting the talented professionals in the entertainment industry.

“Incentives play a pivotal role in the development of talent, workforce and infrastructure in the entertainment industry,” TEC Executive Director Bob Raines said. “The Tennessee Entertainment Commission continues to work toward dedicated and intentional strategies that reinforce and retain our creative class.”

TEC promotes and facilitates economic development of the entertainment industry through the recruitment of business to Tennessee. Since 2017, TEC has assisted more than 1,100 production projects, and nearly 10,000 Tennessee workers have been hired as a result of these projects.

To learn more about the new F&E tax credit program, visit tnentertainment.com/film/incentives/fe-incentive.

About the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development’s mission is to develop strategies that help make Tennessee the No. 1 location in the Southeast for high quality jobs. To grow and strengthen Tennessee, the department seeks to attract new corporate investment to the state and works with Tennessee companies to facilitate expansion and economic growth. Find us on the web: tnecd.com. Follow us on TwitterInstagram and LinkedIn. Like us on Facebook. Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Winstead chalks up $520K in donations, plus half million from self

Kurt Winstead

Republican Kurt Winstead, a retired brigadier general in Tennessee National Guard, announced he has raised more than $520,000 since joining the race for the open 5th Congressional District seat. Winstead said in a release that he will report more than $1 million cash on hand, meaning he has matched his outside donations with personal funds.

Among Winstead’s rivals for the GOP nomination, Morgan Ortagus said she has raised nearly $600,000, while former state House Speaker Beth Harwell announced she has landed nearly $350,000.

Here’s the full release from the Winstead campaign:

Nashville, Tenn. – General Kurt Winstead (Ret.), a conservative Republican candidate for Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, announced he will have more than $1-million cash on hand in his first filing with the Federal Election Commission. 

In the effort, Winstead raised more than $520,000. 99% of those funds were from Tennessee, and 73% were from the counties within the newly drawn 5th Congressional District — Davidson, Lewis, Marshall, Maury, Williamson and Wilson Counties.

“We are so grateful for the outpouring of support in Tennessee and voters in the 5th District. Our campaign is gaining momentum, and these numbers are clear evidence of that support,” said Winstead.

The filing period, which ended on March 31, is required by law to be reported no later than April 15. Winstead, a political outsider, announced his candidacy at the end of February.

“General Winstead’s 30-plus years of service to our state and our community shows by these strong fundraising numbers. People know a leader when they see one, and it’s evident they want a conservative who knows the district and their state,” said businessman Jimmy Granbery, Finance Chair of the Winstead campaign. “This is a tremendous start for a fundraising effort that is strengthening, with many events scheduled in the coming weeks across the district.”

“This is a strong start and indicative of a winning campaign,” said Kim Kaegi, a veteran fundraiser with over thirty years of experience in Tennessee, and who is managing the fundraising efforts for the Winstead campaign.

Kurt Winstead is an eighth generation Tennessean and was raised in a home of educators and farmers. He served for more than thirty years in the Tennessee Army National Guard, including Director of the Joint Staff, Tennessee’s Staff Judge Advocate, and Brigade Command Judge Advocate during Operation Iraqi Freedom III.  Winstead is a graduate of Centre College and received a law degree from the University of Richmond School of Law. He also holds a master’s degree in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. Kurt and his wife Beth attend St. Matthew Church in Franklin. They are the proud parents of two adult daughters raised and educated in Williamson County.

Ortagus raises $600K despite fight over eligibility

Republican Morgan Ortagus has raised nearly $600,000 for her congressional bid despite persistent questions about whether she will be able to appear on the primary ballot for the 5th District.

Ortagus made a big splash when she landed the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, but state lawmakers overwhelmingly passed legislation to require people seeking to run in party primaries for Congress to have lived in Tennessee for at least three years. Ortagus moved to Nashville last year. A legal challenge is pending.

Here is the fundraising release from the Ortagus campaign:

NASHVILLE, TN — Team Morgan Ortagus today announced that Trump-endorsed conservative Morgan Ortagus raised nearly $600,000 in the first six weeks of her campaign to represent Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District. Team Morgan Ortagus has over $550,000 cash on hand.

“Our team is building momentum every day, as Middle Tennesseans make it clear they want their next Congressman to fight for our conservative values and President Trump’s America First agenda,” said Morgan Ortagus. “I’ve never run for public office before, and I’m truly humbled by the outpouring of support we’ve received in the first two months of our campaign. Together, we’re going to take back the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and fire Nancy Pelosi once and for all.”

Morgan Ortagus is an active U.S. Navy Reserve Officer and a business executive. She served in President Trump’s Department of State and has received President Trump’s “complete and total” endorsement.

Redistricting lawsuit tests judicial philosophy on Tenn. Supreme Court

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery, right, speaks with Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) on the House floor in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

When the applicants for a recent state Supreme Court vacancy were being interviewed, most went out of their way to declare a dedication textualism — the judicial philosophy focusing on the words as written in law books or the constitution rather than the intent behind why they were drafted that way.

The state’s highest court has agreed to take on state’s challenge of a recent ruling throwing out new state Senate maps because lawmakers ignored a provision in Tennessee Constitution that multiple districts within a single county must be consecutively numbered. Under the plan passed in January, Nashville would be home to districts 17, 19, 20, and 21 — meaning three of four seats would come up for election in the same year.

Here is what the Tennessee Constitution says on the matter:

In a county having more than one senatorial district, the districts shall be numbered consecutively.

A three-judge panel made up of two Republicans and one Democrat determined that while state Attorney General Hebert Slatery’s office had made a “detailed and nuanced” argument for why lawmakers had arrived at the House maps, the record did not include a sufficient explanation for why federal law or the U.S. Constitution “mandated the non-sequential numbering” of Senate districts.

Slatery’s office in a legal response to the lawsuit backed by the state Democratic Party argued the case should be thrown out for the plaintiff’s lack of standing, the absence of harm to voters, and because opponents had taken too long sue.

“The consecutive numbering of senatorial districts is solely an administrative distinction,” according to the state.

Supporters also argued past failures to consecutively number districts had gone unchallenged, though the historical record suggests otherwise.

The state Supreme Court has agreed to skip the intermediate Court of the Appeals and take up the case directly. Plaintiffs have until 1 p.m. Central on Monday to file their response the government’s motions to overturn the ruling and to lift an injunction on implementing the new maps while the challenge is underway.

UPDATE 1: The court’s newest justice is former associate solicitor general Sarah Campbell. She said during confirmation hearings she would recuse herself from cases involving legal matters she had personally bee involved in while at the AG’s office. A courts spokeswoman says Campbell did not participate in the legal advice given to Republican lawmakers during the redistricting debate.

Campbell previously recused herself from an appeal of the state’s school voucher law and by a man seeking consideration of early release from his life sentence for first-degree murder when he was 16 years old.

UPDATE 2: Plaintiffs have filed their motions. Here’s an excerpt:

In setting out the supposed parade of horribles that will flow from the injunction and touting the State’s compelling interest in the integrity of its election process, not once do Defendants acknowledge the bedrock requirement that the General Assembly must comply with the Tennessee
Constitution in enacting its voting district maps. This is a striking omission. Indeed, the State’s compelling interest in its election process is rendered meaningless if the State can run roughshod over the Constitution simply because fixing the problem is not convenient.