frank_talk (2007-02)

Reformed Ethics

Sometimes it’s the business-as-usual that’s the scandal

by Frank Cagle

As another legislative session opens the early focus will be on last year’s ethics reform. The legislators will gather in a joint session this month to hear from Bruce Androphy, executive director of the Tennessee Ethics Commission, created in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz FBI sting that has some legislators sentenced to jail and others awaiting trial. Sitting state Sen. Jerry Cooper remains under a cloud.

We now know that several legislators were doing wrong, and the legal process will play out. If the past is any guide the FBI will wander in six or eight years from now and see if there are others who have decided to succumb to the constant temptation. In the meantime, legislators will be filling out more forms.

As disturbing as unethical and illegal behavior is, I sometimes find the regular legal conduct of business in the General Assembly to be even more disturbing. Sometimes it is the regular run of business that is more damaging to the public than the unethical actions of a few.

There are more than 500 people registered as lobbyists at the General Assembly. There is hardly any piece of legislation that passes without its first being ratified by the lobbyists. It is often said the lobbyists keep an eye on each other and they balance out the equation. Well, that is often true. We harp on open meetings and transparency by legislators—but the final bill is often crafted by a meeting of various lobbyists who horse trade and effect a compromise. Most any bill in a committee that is controversial will lead the chair to tell the lobbyists to go work out their differences and come back with a bill they agree on. That is usually the version that passes.

This system gives legislators a comfort level—if the lobbyists have all agreed on this version, no one can get mad at them. It also allows legislators to duck actually getting down and studying an issue and coming up with an objective, and theoretically fairer, version for the people they represent.

Because, you see, when the lobbyists get together down at Morton’s and work out the details on a bill there is one interest group that doesn’t have a lobbyist at the table. That would be you, the taxpayer and the consumer.

Most bills are so esoteric and limited in scope they get little if any press coverage. There is no “news” in them except to business executives. That little recycling company, a front for the FBI sting, got no attention with its little bill until legislators started marching out in handcuffs.

The most egregious thing the General Assembly has ever done was to legitimize the rape of poor people by the check-cashing industry. Check-cashing scams were ubiquitous, but they operated in a gray area of the law. The Legislature decided to “regulate” the industry. Rather than pass a law saying charging 300 to 400 percent annual interest is illegal, they let the check-cashing industry write its own legislation. Rather than regulate the check cashers, the Legislature just gave them the color of law and declared open season on poor people.

Whether the bill involves telecommunications, insurance or banking, these often-complicated bills are agreed to, if not written, by the lobbyists for the affected industry. They are often fighting over how much of the pie each company gets—not whether it is a good or bad thing for the consumer.

Of course lobbyists have a right to advocate for their clients. In theory the average citizen and taxpayer does have a representative at the table. That would be your part-time legislator who hasn’t read the bill, doesn’t understand it and is not inclined to hack off the gaggle of lobbyists writing the final version.

After the Supreme Court’s “Kelo” decision, throwing eminent domain back to local governments, it was a hot issue. At the beginning of last session it appeared public pressure would demand a tough and comprehensive eminent-domain bill. There were a dozen different bills introduced, and the opportunity for citizen rebellion had to be squelched. House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh sent all the bills to the House Judiciary Committee. All of them were killed with the exception of the one sponsored by Judiciary Chair Joe Fowlkes. Fowlkes had the lobbyists from the Tennessee Municipal League (the cities) get together with the Farm Bureau, and those lobbyists wrote the final bill. The bill went to the floor with a commandment from the chair that no amendments would be allowed.

It was business as usual on Capitol Hill.

We will applaud a tough new ethics commission, and we hope it discourages wholesale theft and envelopes of cash. But maybe we should start paying more attention to the regular, lawful, business-as-usual screwing of Tennessee taxpayers.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at .