A change in the attorney-client privilege system for filing bills in the Legislature next year could significantly decrease the amount of legislation filed and cut down on unnecessary work at the Capitol, says House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick.
Gov. Bill Haslam has called for substantial reductions in the number of bills, and McCormick says he’s “all for it.”
McCormick said the process of using a “sign-off form” the Legislature plans to utilize next year will go a long way toward that goal. Haslam recently said he would like to see the amount of bills filed to be cut by one-third from more than 2,000 bills typically entered for consideration now.
Haslam’s call brought immediate concurrence among Republican leaders, while complaints about the governor meddling in legislative affairs were heard from the Democratic side.
Currently, when a lawmaker files a bill, there is considered to be an attorney-client privilege between the legislator and the legal counsel for the Legislature. It’s not at that point considered public record, and not even other legislators are privy to the information.
But under the new system, lawmakers could give their lawyers permission to share information about their bills with others, opening the way for more collaboration.
“If I were to have a bill on whatever the subject matter was, I could sign a form where, if somebody else went to the lawyers with the same bill, the attorney would have permission to say, ‘Listen, McCormick has already filed a bill just like this. Do you want to move forward, or do you want to just talk to him about it and sign onto his bill?’” McCormick said.
“That alone will get rid of hundreds of bills.”
Even inquiring about other bills now is covered under the attorney-client privilege.
“If you were to go in and say, ‘Rep. McCormick, has he introduced any bills, or has he asked you about any bills?’ It’s not public record yet,” McCormick said. “Or if another member goes and does the same thing, the attorney is not supposed to say, ‘Well, yeah, McCormick wants to talk about this and this and this.’
“I will give the attorney permission. Some members may not want to give that permission, but I will give permission, saying if somebody comes in and wants to file a basically identical bill, you can tell them I’m already working on it, and they can come talk to me about it,” McCormick said.
McCormick said the Legislature has a number of bills that are alike, and he gave various bills on the Hall Income Tax, which applies to interest and dividends, this year as an example.
“Every year we have someone who wants to repeal it or reduce it. We probably had 7 or 8 or 10 of those this year. Eventually everybody figured out which one was going to keep moving, but in the meantime, you had to do a fiscal note on each one, and it’s just a lot of unnecessary work,” McCormick said.
McCormick said the governor’s staff currently has to review bills and that commissioners have to send someone down to ask how a department will be affected by the bills.
But McCormick noted another suggestion being floated on how to address the problem is to limit each legislator to 5 to 10 bills.
“I’m still thinking on that one,” McCormick said. “That would still reduce it, but inevitably there would be something at the end of the session that somebody didn’t file a bill on, and we’d have to go back and re-open committees and that kind of thing.”
Then there is the matter of going back and cleaning up bills where questions have been raised after the fact — like lingering issues of free speech with the “cyber-bullying” law, HB300, sponsored by Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, and Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro.
The law, aimed at harassment on social networking sites, has been criticized as possibly infringing on free speech, and lawmakers have asked for an attorney general’s opinion on it.
McCormick said lawmakers can make mistakes, and he pointed the finger at himself on one bill he carried this year.
McCormick carried a bill for the music industry meant to crack down on the illegal sharing of music by making it illegal to share passwords on a music subscription service. It was meant to protect the music industry, but it wound up potentially producing broader, unintended consequences.
“I didn’t really think it through far enough to realize it was going to affect some other things, too, and that technically a husband and wife sharing a Netflix account might be illegal, which certainly was not the intention of the legislation. So we might have to take a look at that, too,” McCormick said.
He said lawmakers, like anyone else, are prone to mistakes.
“It’s physically impossible to read every bill and every amendment that comes through,” he said. “There are not enough hours in the day to do it.”
McCormick was asked what Tennesseans should expect from next year’s round of legislation, and he said he believes the budget will be the most important item, adding that the state will be looking closely at its sales tax receipts and overall revenue figures to see if they match projections. Tennessee is constitutionally bound to produce a balanced budget.
When asked about tax incentives given to businesses as a way to attract much-needed jobs, McCormick acknowledged the trade-off involved.
“I wish we could just compete on the business environment, where we don’t have to do these tax incentives. Unfortunately, that’s the playing field we’re on,” he said. “You don’t go to an SEC football game wearing a basketball uniform and play the game, because you will get beat up pretty bad. If we don’t play the game the way it’s being played right now nationally, companies simply won’t come here.
“As long as those are the rules of the game, we have to play by them, as distasteful as it is.”