A Tennessee state lawmaker sponsoring legislation aimed at stopping politicians from trading votes for money and favors directed to their districts says there’s nothing frivolous, petty or partisan about his efforts.
The “Ben Nelson Act to Ensure Public Integrity,” introduced last week by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, is named after the Democratic Nebraska congressman who negotiated a much-maligned exemption for his state from increased Medicaid costs as a result of Washington’s attempt at health reform.
“Ben Nelson looked at the health care bill and saw it was bad for his state, but he voted for it after he was taken care of,” Dunn told TNReport. “He knew it was bad policy, but he was willing to inflict it on everyone else so long as he got his own desires met.”
The legislation would expand the definition of bribery to include lawmakers agreeing to vote — or not vote — for certain legislation in exchange for monetary benefits or special privileges to their constituents.
Under the language of the bills, HB3123 and SB3160, a politician would be guilty of a Class B felony who votes, “absent a rational basis,” in a particular way on a piece of legislation having secured “budgetary or fiscal benefits,” or “exemptions” from budget or fiscal measures not generally applied to other districts.
“This would go after things like the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ where there is really no rationale for it except to bring money back home,” said Dunn.
Dunn and Bunch have drawn criticism and even some mockery for their proposal. One political science professor observed, “We don’t have enough prison space in the country to house all the congressmen and state legislators who would have to be incarcerated.”
“(I)f your state rep happens to be a doddering, distracted moron who doesn’t lift a finger when all the education, parks and hospital cash go to better reps from other districts — you, as a citizen, would now have the right to prosecute competent legislators — and crown your guy’s incompetence as a civic virtue,” wrote Glenn Thrush. “I’m not in Tennessee, but I’d love to see an analysis of state allocations to Bunch/Dunn’s districts — and whether they brag about not bringing home the goods come election time.”
State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said Dunn and Bunch are engaged in “pure silliness,” and doubts the rest of the Legislature will take them seriously either.
“There is a difference between voting a certain way to get personal gain, and voting a certain why to help your constituents. We shouldn’t blur the lines between the two,” said Berke.
Dunn acknowledged “the bill may need to be refined some,” and agreed that many people today probably regard it a politician’s essential job to “bring money back home.”
But Dunn said there’s no denying that elected officials who “sell their vote for a project” do get a “personal benefit” in the form of campaign support from the constituencies to whom they directed the favor or public monies.
When they do so, they are in essence soliciting a bribe, he said.
Furthermore, Dunn said, he has received assurances of support for the ideas outlined in the bills from other lawmakers, notably House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada from Franklin.
Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said such legislation might get considered this session if for no other reason than the “appalling” nature of Congressman Nelson’s deal, which Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen has called “outrageous.”
“It’s creative. It’ll be fun to see where it’s going,” Coley said.
Dunn added that he indeed anticipates his own votes and political activities being probed to determine “in all my time in office if I’ve ever been offered one of those types of deals: ‘You vote for this and I’ll do that’.”
“I hope people would understand that I’m not the type of person who would cut a deal like that,” he said.
For his part, Nelson, formerly the governor of Nebraska, has said that the deal he reached for his state has been misinterpreted and misrepresented. More than anything, Nelson said, his political maneuvering was in fact an attempt to blow the whistle on “the issue of the unfunded mandate during Senate negotiations.”
The exemption deal he struck in exchange for his vote was “intended to serve as a placeholder that would be removed during the conference negotiations and replaced with a mechanism applying to all state governments,” said Nelson.
“I believe I have been clear that my intentions during all stages of negotiations were not that the State of Nebraska be given a special deal, but rather that all states be given the same tools to address an unfunded federal mandate,” he said.
Andrea Zelinski can be reached at 615-489-7131 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Todd Engler contributed to this report.