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The Tennessee Conservative [By Jason Vaughn] –
All members of the Tennessee General Assembly are provided with a taxpayer-funded postage and printing account which can be used for constituent communications.
According to Lauren Topping, General Counsel of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Committee, candidates are prohibited from using state funds (taxpayer dollars) to send out campaign materials.
However, some legislators have sent out some questionable materials, paid for with taxpayer funds, since the end of this year’s legislative session.
With 2022 being an election year, mailers that appear to be focused solely on self-promotion, with the purpose of highlighting a legislator’s accomplishments, essentially work as campaign pieces funded by Tennessee taxpayers.
Senator Jack Johnson (R-District 23-Franklin), Tennessee Senate Republican Leader and member of the Senate Ethics Committee, Commerce and Labor Committee and the Finance, Ways and Means Committee recently sent the following mailer out to constituents in Williamson County.
Although nothing on the mailer mentions a campaign, the only purpose of the mailer appears to be self-promotion.
According to the Director of the Office of Legislative Administration, Connie F. Ridley, all constituent communications must receive approval of the respective Speaker, or the Speaker’s designee, and the Office of Legislative Administration prior to distribution.
Ridley states that the review and approval procedure ensures mailings are only related to legislative business and do not contain any campaign or fundraising solicitations.
When questioned about Senator Johnson’s mailer specifically, Ridley said, “The mail piece you reference contains no campaign material whatsoever, only the Senator’s legislative priorities and accomplishments. It was approved as an appropriate use of the account.”
Ridley stated that Senator Johnson’s postage and printing account was charged $6,000 for the mailer.
Also of note is that Senator Johnson’s mailer’s return address is that of his state office, not his campaign office.
In a records request to the Office of Legislative Administration, The Tennessee Conservative asked for information concerning all mailers approved within the last month and charged to any legislator’s postage and printing accounts.
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In a mailer very similar to that of Senator Johnson, Representative Mark Hall (R-Cleveland-District 24) highlights his ‘accomplishments’ during the last session of the General Assembly.
As with Senator Johnson’s mailer, there appears to be no purpose for the piece other than self-promotion and the return address is his office at the Capitol versus his campaign office.
The postmark states that the postage was paid by MarginOV.com (Margin of Victory Partners, LLC), which is a full-service political consulting firm.
It is reasonable to assume that taxpayer funds paid for this mailer as the piece would not have required approval from Legislature officials had it not.
The cost of Hall’s mailer was reported by the Office of Legislative Administration as $4,281.
Another approved mailer example is for Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown-District 31).
Kelsey’s mailer does have a bit of self-promotion but it also serves a function in asking his constituents to fill out a survey to help the Senator determine what matters most to them.
The postmark states that the postage was paid by the Stoneridge Group, which is another full-service political consulting firm.
As with Representative Hall’s mailer, this piece would have also been paid for with taxpayer dollars and the return address is Kelsey’s office at the Capitol.
The cost of Kelsey’s mailer was reported by the Office of Legislative Administration as $13,259.
The final approved mailer for a Republican in the legislature in the last month comes from Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon-District 17).
This example doesn’t bend the rules in any blatant way as other examples do.
The postmark states that the postage was paid by Direct-Edge.com, another full-service political consulting and direct mail firm.
As with Senator Kelsey’s mailer, this piece would have also been paid for with taxpayer dollars and the return address is Pody’s office at the Capitol.
The cost of Pody’s mailer was reported by the Office of Legislative Administration as $9,321.
Senator Pody is the 2nd Vice Chair on the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, 2nd Vice Chair on the Transportation and Safety Committee, member of the Government Operation Committee, Chair of the Joint Commerce, Labor, Transportation and Agriculture Committee and member of the Joint Judiciary and Government Committee.
All public records on file with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance are available for review on their website.
However, current campaign finance laws do not require candidates to identify items like those above and the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance does not keep separate records of such.
Lauren Topping of the Bureau states that, “Candidates are required to report the source of their campaign funds, but would not necessarily identify any particular donation/contribution as state/taxpayer funds.”
In an ongoing poll, conducted by The Tennessee Conservative, we asked “Do you think Tennessee Taxpayers should foot the bill For Incumbent Candidates Self-Promotional Mailers & Related Materials?”
100 Percent of respondents voted “No.” Note that this is the first time all respondents voted a particular way on any of our surveys/polls.
House Bill 1201 / Senate Bill 1005, known as the ‘Incumbent Protection Bill’ by some, supposedly was created to increase transparency in campaign finance for the benefit of Tennessee voters and taxpayers.
However, the legislation does not address the usage of state funds (taxpayer dollars) for the self-promotion of incumbents during an election year.
About the Author: Jason Vaughn, Media Coordinator for The Tennessee Conservative ~ Jason previously worked for a legacy publishing company based in Crossville, TN in a variety of roles through his career. Most recently, he served as Deputy Director for their flagship publication. Prior, he was a freelance journalist writing articles that appeared in the Herald Citizen, the Crossville Chronicle and The Oracle among others. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a Bachelor’s in English-Journalism, with minors in Broadcast Journalism and History. Contact Jason at news@TennesseeConservativeNews.com