Political contribution limits to be revisited in 2018



Tom Humphrey, Special to USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee

Published 5:00 a.m. ET May 15, 2017 | Updated 5 hours ago

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NASHVILLE — In the last minutes of the 2017 legislative session, a group of Republican legislators proposed a major increase in the amount of political campaign contributions lawmakers can collect – then backed off after many GOP colleagues sided with Democrats opposing the notion in a trial vote.

The result was to leave the proposed increase in political contribution limits awaiting a floor vote in both the House and Senate at the start of the 2018 legislative session, though the proposal was never discussed in regular committee meetings during the 2017 session.

The proposal evolved out of HB16, which, as originally filed, generally would have allowed legislators to raise political money when there’s a special session late in an election year after adjournment of the regular session — as occurred last September in a special session and could occur in the future if legislators hold a veto override meeting.

That would be an exception to the general blackout on fundraising while a session is underway and, with restrictions incorporated into the bill, was generally noncontroversial.

The Senate, however, added an amendment that would effectively double the amount of PAC money they – senators, not representatives – can collect in an election cycle. The House refused to go along with that amendment and a House-Senate conference committee was set up to try and resolve the differences.

The conference committee — meeting Wednesday as the legislature moved toward adjournment of the 2017 session — resolved the differences by proposing broad increases for both House and Senate contribution limits. Under the “majority report” of the conference committee, embraced by all Republican members:

  • The limit on an individual’s contributions to a candidate for the legislature would increase from $1,500 to $2,000 per election (or from $3,000 to $4,000 for both a primary and general election).
  • The limit on a single PAC’s donation to a single legislative candidate per election would increase from $11,800 to $19,800.
  • The “aggregate” PAC limit – applying to total contributions from all PACS combined to a single candidate – would increase from $118,100 to $198,000.

All the increases would take effect on Jan. 1, 2019 – after the 2018 elections. Current law includes a provision that increases the limits every two years in line with the increase in inflation under “cost-of-living adjustments” as estimated by the federal government. The COLA increase would continue in the future for the new limits under the proposal.

House Minority Leader Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, appointed by House Speaker Beth Harwell to serve on the conference committee, filed a “minority report” that called for rejection of the majority report and, instead, reverted to the original bill as filed by the sponsor, Rep. Tilman Goins, R-Morristown, who also sat on the conference committee.

The conference committee report was the last item considered before the 2017 session official adjournment.

In a floor speech, Stewart said it would be wrong to make a “momentous decision” that “allows monied interests much greater power over our elections” based on a conference committee meeting that lasted just 15 minutes. He noted that the proposal had not been through the legislative committee system and was not otherwise considered previously.

“The entire nature of this bill has changed… (to) a new set of laws that will completely change our contribution limits for individuals, PACS and nearly double the aggregate PAC limit,” Steward said.”This shouldn’t be the last remembered event that we do (in the 2017 session)… at the last second, without any public notice, without any public review.”

Goins argued that the underlying original bill, which remained in the final proposal, was needed to assure incumbent legislators are not handicapped in their reelection efforts when special sessions occur in an election year. The majority report, he said eliminates the Senate amendment that benefits senators only to give representatives more equal treatment in authorized fundraising.

“This House is made more powerful by what came out of the conference committee report,” Goins said.

Goins moved to table, or kill, Stewart’s minority report. The motion succeeded in killing Stewart’s minority report, which would have negated the majority report, but only by one vote. Forty-one legislators voted with Goins, 40 voted against him.

Twenty Republicans, including Harwell, voted with Stewart. No Democrats voted against him. Eighteen legislators did not vote one way or the other. That trial vote indicated that the proposal was well short of the 50 votes needed for passage of the bill on the House floor.

After conferring with House Majority Leader Glen Casada, Goins then postponed a vote until the start of the 2018 session. The Senate, awaiting House action, wound up never taking up the measure.

 

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