NASHVILLE (NBC) - State lawmakers say they saved the taxpayers almost $500,000 this year by shortening their session on Capitol Hill. But the spare time was filled with quite a few parties.

Lobbyists and special interest groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars entertaining elected officials.

Even though session was shorter, special interest groups spent almost $130,000 more on events and parties.

The invitations promised open bars and meals from breakfast to dessert -- 75 invites in all.

Special interest groups spent at least $519,000 this year wining and dining state lawmakers. Last year, even though the legislative session was longer, only $390,000 was spent.

So, why the big increase?

"You've got a lot of new legislators that special interests or lobbying groups want to 'educate' to their issues," said Dick Williams of Common Cause of Tennessee, a voter watchdog group.

Williams said the fact there were so many contentious issues could be another reason.

The five of the most expensive events were:
* The Farm Bureau spent more than $23,000 on a luncheon
* AT&T shelled out $22,000 for a reception
* The Hospital Association spent $18,000
* Both the School Board Association and the Chamber of Commerce reported events costing $17,000.

AT&T had a bill opposed by small phone companies up in the Legislature. The hospital association was a big backer of capping lawsuit damages. The School Board Association was the force behind this year's most controversial issue: ending collective bargaining for teachers.

"Corporations and for-profit companies don't spend that kind of money on something they don't feel is going to bring them some return either financial or otherwise," said Williams.

Because of 2006 reforms, all of the activity must be made public.

"Lobbying, we always say, is a protected First Amendment activity, but since it's people trying to influence public policy, it's important for the public to know what's going on," said Williams.

And that total will go up. All groups must report expenditures within 30 days of the event.

Five of the groups have yet to report and four groups have missed the 30-day window.


This story originally reported by the NBC affiliate in Nashville, WSMV-TV.