NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Legislation being pushed by Airbnb, designed to limit Nashville's ability to regulate short-term rentals, reveals a side of Tennessee's Capitol Hill the public never sees.
It shows how special interests spread campaign contributions among lawmakers before trying to secure their votes, how lobbyists use their influence to get lawmakers to sponsor legislation benefiting their clients.
And it reveals how those practices can affect ordinary Tennesseans.
During this year's legislative session, our NewsChannel 5 Investigates team has been tracking a bill that could affect lots of Tennessee neighborhoods.
Yet, the intent of that legislation wasn't always clear.
That's because, on Capitol Hill, there are Trojan horses, legislation that essentially just has a title — they call them "caption bills" — where you really don't know what they're intended to accomplish until you get into committee and see the amendment that "makes the bill."
Back in February, NewsChannel 5 was in a House subcommittee where a newly filed amendment became public.
Brought by lobbyists for Airbnb, it would restrict local governments' ability to regulate short-term rentals.
For example, Nashville now permits only "owner-occupied" short-term rentals in residential areas; the amendment would redefine "owner-occupied" to include residences where the owner may live elsewhere but "the person has a definite intention to return" — a claim that regulators would not be able to disprove.
It would also require that anyone making a complaint against a short-term rental must be warned that they could be prosecuted for perjury for making a false complaint.
We showed the amendment to Metro Nashville Council member Freddie O'Connell, asking: "If this amendment were to become law, what is your fear?"
"My fear then," he said, "is that we just don't have any urban neighborhoods, that we just have a lot of hotels that happen to look like a house in the urban core of Nashville."
O'Connell's district in downtown Nashville has more homes that have been converted to short-term rentals than any other area of the city.
Because Nashville has become such a hot party scene, the more of a foothold that Airbnb can establish in these neighborhoods, the more money it makes.
"The hard part is when that party comes back to somebody's home," O'Connell said, gesturing to the houses around his own home. "We've got multiple families on this block with kids under the age of 5."
Just a few blocks away, what used to be apartments is being converted into what will essentially be an Airbnb motel — and more could be on the way.
"This used to be affordable housing in a neighborhood that desperately needs it in a place close to the urban core that's got a community center literally across the street from it," the Metro Council member said.
NewsChannel 5 noted that the amendment says a city cannot curtail short-term rental units until they constitute 5% of the entire city's housing inventory.
"Yeah, that's a lot," O'Connell agreed.
"You could have the entire neighborhood of Germantown, the entire neighborhood of Salemtown be short-term rentals before you hit 5%."
Outside the subcommittee, we spotted Airbnb lobbyist Michael Bivens who, along with his brother, operates one of the most connected lobbying firms on Capitol Hill.
So exactly what does Airbnb want?
Bivens refused to say.
Still, a database of campaign contributions shows that, back in September, Airbnb gave $40,000 to BIV-PAC — that's a political action committee operated by the Bivens lobbying firm -- for them to spread around Capitol Hill.
And BIV-PAC didn't forget the subcommittee that's the first stop for legislation affecting Airbnb.
Right before session started, four members got $500 contributions for their campaigns: Reps. Patsy Hazlewood, Eddie Mannis, Greg Vital and Jason Zachary.
Subcommittee chair Clark Boyd and Rep. Rebecca Alexander got a thousand bucks each. Curtis Johnson received $2,000, and John Hosclaw got $3,250 after Airbnb gave the money to their lobbyists.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Michael Bivens, "What were they hoping to accomplish?"
"They are a bipartisan PAC like any other organization and they support good government," Bivens answered.
So why did they just suddenly decide to spread $40,000 around right before this session?
"All kinds of groups around state government do that all the time. That's not unusual," Bivens insisted.
We asked, "They were not trying to influence the votes on this legislation?"
On that day, the Airbnb lobbyists ran into a procedural problem with the bill that they had chosen.
Three weeks later, they had found another caption bill, and they were ready to try again.
"Members, I am here to talk about private property rights as they pertain to short-term rentals," Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson.
Curcio had a caption bill to which he agreed to attach the Airbnb amendment.
The entire Bivens lobbying team was in place in the hearing room as Republican Rep. Jason Zachary from Knoxville gave voice to what many had whispered: that the bill was really aimed at Nashville.
Zachary noted that Curcio was targeting communities where he doesn't have to worry about the effects of Airbnb's business.
"This is another case of a piece of legislation being brought that's targeting a particular area that's brought by a legislator in which it doesn't impact. So that frustrates me," Zachary said.
But when we pressed Curcio on the back story, he claimed to be confused about why the lobbyists were so interested in his bill.
Q; "Who brought you this bill?"
A: "Um, what do you mean?"
Q: "Did the Bivens brothers bring you this bill?"
A: "Um, I'm working with the Bivens group."
Q: "And they represent Airbnb."
A: "That I don't know. I'd have to look at the registry."
Freddie O'Connell's take?
"I expect a lobbyist is talking to me on behalf of a client. That's always the interaction that I've had," he said. "A lobbyist doesn't usually just come to me with a bill in the public interest, I'll say it that way."
Asked at one point by the subcommittee to interpret the amendment, Curcio looked to the Airbnb lobbyists for his answer.
Altogether, the Bivens PAC has handed out $283,000 in campaign contributions over the past five years to the people they're trying to influence.
Curcio got $4,000 of that.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the Dickson lawmaker, "Do you understand that some people may think it's untoward to take money from a lobbyist and then turn around and sponsor legislation for that lobbyist?"
"Well, I know you are familiar with our campaign finance laws. We can't accept a contribution from a lobbyist," Curcio answered.
We noted, "But you do take contributions from lobbyists' PACs."
"Absolutely," he agreed.
"So what's the difference?"
"Well, it's not their money."
In fact, ethics reform groups say it's all the same, that lobbyists should be prohibited from delivering campaign cash in any form to the people they are trying to influence.
Still, we were trying to get a better understanding of what the Airbnb bill reveals about how Capitol Hill really works.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Curcio, "Could we see your texts between you and the Bivens brothers?"
"Between the Bivens brothers?"
"I don't know why you would need that."
We explained, "We would like to see how lobbyists impact legislation. You brought this bill at their request. So can we we see your texts between you and them?"
"I know you've got a job to do," Curcio responded. "I don't understand the point of this, honestly."
On that day, with our cameras present, the bill was ruled to have failed on a voice vote, but it could still be brought back.
Two other related caption bills on listed on committee agendas this week.
As for those texts, Curcio made it clear: how he conducts the public's business was none of our business.
"Why would I let you see my phone? I've got pictures of my children on there," he said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted that we were "just asking for texts between you and the Bivens brothers about this legislation."
"You're a silly person," the lawmaker shot back.
Again, as we've noted before, all of this is perfectly legal.
That's because the lawmakers write the laws that affect themselves — and they do not appear to have any incentive to change the law and potentially cut off one of their primary sources of campaign money.
SPECIAL SECTION: Revealed
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