Senate votes to keep secret some free out-of-state legislator travel

A bill that requires lawmakers to disclose expenses and the source of funding for travel was watered down in the Senate on Monday, reports The Tennessean.

One effect of the Senate amendment to HB275: Free trips for legislators to conventions of the American Legislative Exchange Council, sponsored by corporations interested in state policy issues, will remain undisclosed. ALEC covers costs of selected state legislators, typically freshmen or those holding ALEC leadership positions, with “scholarships.”

State law now requires disclosure of out-of-state trip expenses to such gatherings if the state pays the costs. But when the organization covers the cost, they are not reported.

The bill by Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, followed reports of legislators traveling to Europe, the Alabama Gulf coast and North Carolina with the cost paid by people pushing a policy viewpoint on various issues though not registered as lobbyists. It’s illegal under current law for lobbyists or those employing lobbyists to take legislators on free out-of-state trips.

The amendment exempts travel expenses paid by “an established and recognized organization of elected or appointed state government officials.” That covers many other groups besides ALEC, though apparently few of the others pay member travel expenses on a regular basis. For legislators, the biggest such organization is the National Conference of State Legislators. NCSL trips are typically covered by the state and disclosed in reports on the Tennessee legislature’s website.

HB275 had passed the House unanimously in its earlier, un-amended form. The Senate passed the bill unanimously with the amendment. It now goes back to the House for concurrence on the Senate amendment.

There’s a separate bill (SB1373) that, as introduced, would have banned state payment of travel expenses to conferences and such. It was amended in a Senate committee to instead call for disclosure of such travel when expenses are covered by the sponsoring organization. The bipartisan bill (sponsors are Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoville, and Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville) is apparently dead for the year. Mitchell took it “off notice” in a House committee that has closed for the year.

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