Thursday, June 2, 2016

Are State-Supported "Legislative Updates" Crossing The Line?

These "Reports" Look More Like Campaign Mail Pieces
By Jeff Hartline, Executive Director, Tennessee Spotlight - With the Memorial Day weekend behind us, most re-elections campaigns for State House and Senate seats are in full swing.

But wait, now comes a "Legislative Update" sent to constituents before Incumbents can "begin" campaigning for re-election.  That's right.  This week, four-color direct mail pieces that look very much like Campaign Direct Mail began appearing in voter mailboxes all across Tennessee.

These "Direct Mail Campaign for Re-election" pieces were sent under the protection of state law that allows members of the General Assembly to send one "Legislative Update" to voters after the end of session.

And the best part?  You get to pay for it.  You pay for the design, raw materials, printing and postage.

Now let's review a few things.

First, the session will have seen over 1,000 bills filed and hundreds of committee hearings and hundreds of floor votes and hundreds of bills stalled by those in Leadership who do not want them to move forward.  (You see, some bills that never see the light of day on the floor, like the Bathroom Bill, Constitutional Carry, Insure Tennessee, etc. are just as deserving of attention as Skunk County getting its hotel/motel tax raised to pay for a new Skunk Habitat.)  So, there is no way to give a legitimate "update" on an 8" x 11" four-color card stock, especially when the Legislator wants to get some real good pictures on there, too.

Second, these "updates" are, in fact, nothing more than claims of what the General Assembly got done during the three months it labored, in between parties catered by Lobbyists.  It mattered not what the real issues were for the people of Tennessee.  What mattered is that the recipient got the strong impression that Mr./Ms. Legislator is sparing no expense to inform the voter that they actually got the budget balanced in time to get back home to start campaigning for re-election and raising money (which they are prevented from doing until after May 15 if they are still in session).  "And don't forget that I love children and the elderly and Tennessee's economy is great!"  (Let's not talk about contentious issues while I'm trying to get re-elected.  The questions are so hard!)

Third, note that most of those missives come more than six weeks after the close of session and less than seven weeks before the start of early voting.  If it was so all-fired important to get this information out to voters, why didn't they get these juicy details out a month ago?

Fourth, as a consultant to numerous campaigns, I recognize a Campaign Direct Mail Piece when I see one.  The "duck" principle is full view here.

Fifth, one wonders why the need to "spruce up" the "update" when the local TV Stations, Radio Stations, and newspapers have been chasing these people around for months trying to get just this "hot-off-the-press" story.  Newspapers all over Tennessee give FREE SPACE to lawmakers to give reports of their activities and successes.  Many already take advantage of that.  Radio hosts beg them to come on and discuss the topics that people want to hear about.  (That would not include 75% of what goes on in Legislative Plaza.)  TV stations in the larger markets run all over these cities looking for interviews for usable video.

Sixth, the return email address on many of these is the official state email address.  This smacks of using State Assets for personal campaign benefit.  (We're gathering examples from all over the state.  Perhaps our next Spotlight will "spotlight" some of them.)

The power of incumbency is already out of control.  These mail pieces force voters who support other candidates to pay for the campaign mail of their opponents.  Perhaps lawmakers would be willing to place some limits on this abuse of taxpayer money and promote more election fairness.

Maybe some incumbents will run on that platform.  Stay tuned.

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