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Saturday, June 19, 2010

$ can't Buy Love But It Can Buy Access

Corporations and special-interest groups spent thousands of dollars throwing big parties for state lawmakers this year. It raises questions about whether money buys influence, because some of the biggest spenders had stakes in the bills state lawmakers passed. State lawmakers were invited to dozens of events this year, from early-morning breakfasts to evening receptions promising free food and drinks. Add it all up, and special-interest groups spent more than $390,000 wining and dining state lawmakers."Special-interests as well as maybe non-special interests want to influence the process," said Dick Williams of Common Cause of Tennessee.The Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association spent the most for its legislative reception at $23,000.Other big spenders include AT&T at $19,000, the Tennessee Hospital Association and Insurers of Tennessee each spent about $18,000 and Tennessee Electric Cooperative spent $16,000."Most of the big expenditures are from very well-heeled corporations, if you will, or business interests, and their bottom line is, does it help them or not?" said Williams. "They aren't going to spend a lot of money glad-handing legislators just to be nice."Thanks to changes in the ethics law in 2006, Special-interest groups must now follow specific rules when it comes to wining and dining state lawmakers. Rules now require seven days' notice of the event, and groups can't spend more than $51 per person.All receipts must be submitted to the Tennessee Ethics Commission within 30 days."It's a better process," Williams said. "You can't completely eliminate it. And it's certainly not a level playing field. Groups that can't afford to do it, don't do it, obviously."But it allows the public to see what happens outside of the chambers and what could potentially influence what happens inside the chambers.Groups actually spent less money on legislative parties this year. Last year, they spent a total of $450,000 on parties for lawmakers.

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