Lobbying Spending Cloaked in Secrecy - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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Lobbying Spending Cloaked in Secrecy

(Story created: 2/12/03)

Mention Golden Rule Insurance Company, and some Capitol Hill veterans will recall a legislative battle of a decade ago.

It was a battle in which the health insurer convinced lawmakers to let it raise rates without first getting state approval.

On one side: the state's insurance commissioner.

On the other: veteran lobbyist Betty Anderson, who was hired by Golden Rule and later married House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh.

These days, Golden Rule pays to maintain a strong lobbying effort on Capitol Hill, like an elegant dinner at Mario's for members of Naifeh's leadership team, hosted by Anderson and Golden Rule lobbyist Sherry Hopkins.

"I can leave Tennessee in Betty's hands," Hopkins tells the House leaders, adding that if they support her agenda, she'll support them.

"Betty makes sure that we know who supports us, and that's who we take care of."

In fact, Golden Rule reports making thousands of dollar in campaign contributions -- but it won't say how much it spends on lobbying lawmakers for their votes.

"We have virtually no disclosure about what kinds of money are being spent on lobbying in the state," says Dick Williams of Common Cause of Tennessee.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, Tennessee is the only state in the country that does not require special interest groups to report how much they spend on lobbying.

In the case of hot issues, like the lottery, that could be "probably, an obscene amount," says Sen. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis.

Cohen says at least one company that wants the state's lottery business has hired lobbyists under the condition they'll get paid big -- only if they deliver the votes.

"That scares me," Cohen says. "When somebody is getting a contingency, it kind of takes limits off them, off what they might do, because they only get paid big if they win."

Several states have outlawed contingency contracts. Under pressure from lobbyists, Tennessee has only required those contracts to be in writing. But they are not required to be filed anywhere for the public to see.

And the lottery isn't the only big money issue.

"The health care industry -- the hospitals, the doctors -- they hire a lot of lobbyists," says John Summers, who lobbies for the state's trial lawyers. He expects the medical community to mount an effort to put a cap on the awards that victims of medical malpractice can get.

"They spend hundreds of thousand of dollars every year -- probably upwards in the millions -- in terms of just the number of lobbyists that they have."

So how much do all the special interests combined spend on lobbyists and all their activities? Summers guesses: "probably there's upwards of $40-50 million that are spent up here by all the various groups."

Others say it's less than that.

Still it's an amount that good government advocates think you should know.

"They are trying to influence public policy and the public ought to at least know the range of financial influence that's being brought to bear," says Common Cause's Williams.

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