NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Special interests spend an estimated $60 million a year to influence state officials - almost a third of a billion dollars over the past five years - according to an analysis by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Because entities that hire lobbyists are not required to report the exact amount they spend on lobbying activities, those dollar amounts reflect a best possible estimate. Employers of lobbyists are required to report ranges of spending. The estimates were derived by picking the mid-point of each reporting range.
"If the interest groups are willing to spend that kind of money to make their voice heard and to sway the opinion of legislators, there are some very important things that might affect persons here in the state going on right here in the legislature," said former Republican lawmaker Martin Daniel from Knox County.
That analysis comes as NewsChannel 5 Investigates launches an on-going focus on who's attempting to influence your lawmakers.
The story of the Tennessee General Assembly is a story of power, a story of the powerful and the powerless, a story of those with connections and those without.
Like with the classic film The Wizard of Oz, where the image of the title character was orchestrated from behind a curtain, the real story of the Tennessee legislature is sometimes the story of who's pulling the levers of government from behind the scenes and the vast amounts of money they spend to do it.
"They are here advocating for their client; they are not necessarily here advocating for the best interests of the state and for the people," Daniel said.
Debby Gould, with the non-partisan League of Women Voters, said NewsChannel 5's estimate "takes my breath away - it really does."
"Obviously that much of an investment means somebody thinks they're getting value out of it," Gould said.
NewsChannel 5 noted, "They are not spending the money for no reason?"
"Exactly, exactly," Gould agreed.
Daniel said "that money buys access to legislators because those lobbyists are frequently in the Cordell Hull building" where legislative offices are located.
"It buys them awareness as to what's going on."
Former Democratic lawmaker Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley said the average person can have a voice, but it's more difficult for them to be heard.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Does the average person have as much access as someone who has a big pocketbook?"
"I don't think so," Fitzhugh acknowledged. "I think that's always been the case. and it's not changed."
Take, for example, the first day of this year's legislative session.
The business on the House and Senate floors wrapped up after just 20 minutes.
As night fell, NewsChannel 5's cameras were there as lawmakers reconvened at the Tennessee State Museum for a private reception, where tables of food were free along with the wine and liquor - just one of the perks of power.
While the public was shut out, special interests cozied up inside to your lawmakers, even to the governor.
The tab, a whopping $65,000, was picked up by the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, along some of the state's largest corporations.
Some like Amazon and FedEx have received hefty tax breaks.
The next night, high atop the downtown Sheraton, our hidden cameras captured another reception offering an incredible view of the setting sun, along with free food and free drinks.
This tab was picked up by short-term lenders who who rake in tens of millions of dollars every year charging sometimes exorbitant interest rates to the state's poorest residents.
And almost every night, there's some event from some group that wants to curry favor with your lawmakers.
"I think it's mostly designed to provide access to the legislators for those special interest groups," Martin Daniel said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "They're doing it to try to influence legislation."
"In a subtle manner," Daniel acknowledged.
"You don't see a lot of overt lobbying at those receptions. It's more of a friendship, introduction type of thing."
Among the biggest spenders, according to NewsChannel 5's analysis, are the state's hospital industry, spending an estimated $10 million over five years. That estimate includes the Tennessee Hospital Association, as well as individual hospital chains.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates provided those estimates to the Tennessee Hospital Association, which declined our request for an on-camera interview about what the industry views as the power of its money.
It's a group that Daniel took on, trying to force more competition that he argued could drive prices down.
"When you try to propose legislation that one might think is in the best interest of the state and of its people, you run into well-funded lobbyists who try to persuade legislators otherwise," he recalled.
We asked, "Does that money give them an unfair advantage?"
"It gives them an advantage. I wouldn't say it's unfair."
Among the other big spenders:
- Privatization groups pushing charter schools and school vouchers: just under $8 million over the past five years.
- Roadbuilders and their allies who pushed for higher gas taxes a few years back: an estimated $5.8 million.
- Payday lenders and other companies that make money by lending to the poor: just under $5 million.
- And the nursing home industry; an estimated $4.5 million on lobbying.
"One of the senior lobbyists on the Hill told me a few years ago that when he came in, alcohol and tobacco were the two moneymakers for lobbyists," Craig Fitzhugh recalled.
"Now, you just read the list. One of them was education, one of them was healthcare."
And why is that?
"Well, because these issues have become political."
Perhaps even more influential than spending on lobbyists are the millions of dollars donated to legislators' political campaigns by special interests.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered a brochure from the Tennessee Realtors that says the group's political contributions "earn us a seat at the table."
The group's defeat of an impact-fee bill was heralded as example of "Your RPAC Dollars At Work!"
All of it is legal.
"It's interesting to see someone who explicitly say it is a quid pro quo," the League of Women Voters' Debby Gould said.
"You're saying that money buys you influence, very clearly. I mean, how else can you put it except money buys you influence - and that's just a distortion of how we think government should be operated."
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