When Sen. Tim Barnes recently came under attack from Republicans for spending $15,517 in taxpayer money on printed direct mail fliers to constituents during an election year, Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle rose to his fellow Democrat's defense.
The criticism of Barnes, D-Clarksville, came from Jordan Young, Senate Republican Caucus executive director, and was reported by the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle. Young acknowledged that Barnes complied with legislative rules in his mailings, but said "that doesn't make it right."
Barnes, opposed by Republican Mark Green in the Nov. 6 election, is effectively using taxpayer money to build up his name recognition and that is not fair, said Young, when "our candidate has to pay for it himself."
Barnes told the newspaper that his use of the legislature's "postage and printing" account is "perfectly ethical . . . common practice and a vital and needed way to communicate with constituents." Kyle, the Senate's top Democrat, went further in deeming the Republican attack "unfounded criticism."
"All legislative mail – from the content to the timing – is approved by the speaker’s office, therefore if they have an argument, they have to take it up with Speaker (Ron) Ramsey, who the last time I looked was a Republican," Kyle said in the Leaf-Chronicle article.
"And I guarantee he reads every one of those word for word.
Envisioning Lt. Gov. Ramsey, the Senate speaker, sitting down with a pile of legislator mail to read and edit was rather difficult for us. So we have taken a look at how things work with the sometimes controversial taxpayer funding of "constituent communications" through the "postage and printing accounts."
Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration, oversees the process in accordance with policies adopted by the Joint Legislative Services Committee. Under the system, each state senator is annually allocated $6,832 -- each representative $2,016 – for his or her account. There's a specific list of what the money can be used to purchase – Tennessee or American flags for presentation to constituents and "fax machine toner cartridges" are OK, for example, but not a website.
As for mail to constituents, Ridley says there are basically two categories. First, there is what might be called regular mail – the daily flow of letters, postcards and the like to and from legislators, their constituents, other government officials and various parties interested in legislation.
Basically, a legislator need only put his or her outgoing mail in a box outside a Legislative Plaza office and it is sent out with the postage paid by the state and charged to the legislator's account. The envelopes and typing paper can also be billed to the account.
"We do not read a legislator's mail," says Ridley.
Ergo, Kyle is off base in describing "all legislative mail" as subject to approval of the speaker's office. A second class of mail, however, may be subject to approval by the Senate speaker in the case of senators, or the House speaker in the case of representatives. This is "bulk mail," defined by policy as 200 or more pieces of the same printed material, according to Ridley.
Even with "bulk mail," approval is not required if the legislator or his staff takes care of reproducing the letter and stuffing the envelopes, Ridley said.
But if the mailing is printed – either by the State Printing Office or a private printer – then approval is mandatory for payment of the printing and postage costs. In effect, this gets the slick, hard-paper mailers with photographs and different colors that are also typically used in political campaign direct mail advertising.
For state-paid mailings, however, the rules prohibit any political messaging and this is where the approval of content comes in. Officially, the rules require the speakers' approval of bulk mail that includes a printing expense.
Actually, however, the speakers have delegated the approval process to key staffers, according to Adam Kleinheider, spokesman for Ramsey, and Kara Owen, spokeswoman for Harwell. In Ramsey's case, he has delegated to Russell Humphrey, chief clerk of the Senate; while Harwell has delegated review responsibility jointly to Scott Gilmer, House chief of staff, and Owen.
As a practical matter, much of the reviewing is done by Ridley, who works with the speakers' designated point persons to check content for anything that could be seen as a political pitch – using the word "vote," for example. Ridley recalls a recent case in which a legislator wrote that he would "welcome the support" of constituents. Thinking that could be interpreted as a solicitation for campaign contributions, Ridley had that edited out.
The mailings are supposed to be means of communicating information. Typically, they will list legislation passed by the General Assembly and the individual legislator's role in passage – or defeat, as the case may be. And some lawmakers send out questionnaires to constituents asking their views on issues.
The Barnes' mailers criticized by Republicans are typical. One, mailed in June, carried the headline, "Working for You" and listed legislative actions the senator supported. The other, mailed in September, carried the headline, "Fighting For Us. Delivering For Our Community" and also reported on legislative doings.
There's a timing aspect that comes into play for printed bulk mailings. The rules prohibit such mailings for 30 days prior to an election – either a primary or general election. This, of course, doesn't involve much approval – either the mailing is sent before the pre-election blackout period or is not.
Even during the blackout, legislators can continue with regular mailings. If they do their own reproduction in their office and stuff the envelopes with a letter requiring no special printing, that's fine, said Ridley.
The state mail service is on notice to report to the Office of Legislative Administration any "bulk" mailing of over 200 pieces, Ridley said. If she receives such a notice, Ridley said it would trigger an inquiry to the legislator and perhaps a reminder about the rules – but no penalties.
Should any legislator use the mail for political purposes, he or she could face after-the-fact fallout, perhaps starting with complaints from the legislator's political opponent.
After being educated on the procedures for constituent communication at taxpayer expense, we asked Kyle about his comments. The senator said he was not aware of some of the details, even though he is a member of the Joint Legislative Services Committee, and acknowledged making a mistake in suggesting the speaker individually reviews "all legislative mail."
"I retract that," he said.
Kyle noted that he has printing of his mailers done in Memphis and mailed in Memphis, then bills the state through his account. That printing triggers the requirement of approval.
Kyle certainly has had no problem in getting approval, having sent 17 separate bills to Ridley's office this year, spending a total of $40,001 from his account. That used up the surplus accumulated in his account from previous years – the rules allow lawmakers to carry over unspent funds year after year – and then some. His account is actually $6,022 in the red, awaiting infusion of his next year's $6,832 allowance to cover the shortfall.
The Democratic leader pointed out that, with Republicans in control of the Legislature, they in general benefit more from the constituent communications accounts than do members of the minority party. And he correctly noted in comments to the Leaf-Chronicle that Barnes followed all the rules.
But by going on to declare that all legislative mail requires approval of the speaker, Kyle erred. We rule this statement as False.