The Tennessee House of Representatives is scheduled later this week to vote to limit the number of bills a chamber lawmaker can introduce or sponsor throughout the course of the session.
The House Rules Committee on Tuesday approved a cap of no more than 15 bills per member. That was a 50 percent increase over what Speaker Beth Harwell had originally suggested.
Harwell, who was unanimously re-elected as speaker Tuesday afternoon, said she wants to cut down on the staff time and taxpayer resources unlimited bill-filing has cost.
During a GOP caucus meeting that was open to the media Tuesday morning, Harwell reminded members of the new supermajority that not too many years ago Republicans were in the minority and used to complain bitterly that the Tennessee Legislature was passing multitudes of unnecessary laws.
The GOP mantra in the mid 2000s was, “We don’t need more laws, we need laws that do more,” Harwell said.
The Nashville Republican said her aim now is to “change the culture of the General Assembly.” She noted that many Republicans have campaigned on a theme of that nature in the past.
During the last legislative session, almost 4,700 bills were filed in the Tennessee General Assembly, compared to 1,900 in Kentucky, 1,700 in Oklahoma and 1,600 in Missouri. Harwell said the cost of processing, researching and tracking those bills “is astronomical.”
Despite the number of bills being bumped to 15 from 10, Harweel described herself as “very pleased” following the Rules Committee vote to send the limit to the full House for deliberation. The new rules, if approved on Thursday, would also limit the governor’s office to 75 bills.
“We’ll be at half (the total number of bills) we introduced last legislative session,” she said.
There are eight exemptions to the rules, which include general bills of local interest, appropriations bills, resolutions memorializing or congratulatory in nature, confirming appointments or authorizing charitable events.
According to Harwell, the cap won’t just save money. It’ll prod some of the newer members of the chamber to become more involved in the legislative process. she said.
Capping the number of bills will also elevate the reputation of the House by putting forth the message that “when we introduce a piece of legislation in Tennessee, it means something,” Harwell declared.
However, not all in her caucus are eager believers just yet.
Rep. Vance Dennis spoke out strongly against the proposal in the morning caucus meeting. “It’s my firm conviction that this is the wrong way for our state to go,” said the Savannah attorney.
Not having a limit on the pieces of legislation state lawmakers can introduce “makes Tennessee unique,” said Dennis.
“Everyone can affect change,” he said.
While Dennis was the only House GOP caucus member who stood up and voiced outright opposition to Harwell’s plan during the caucus meeting, he’s not alone among Republicans with concerns.
Lascassas Rep. Joe Carr believes one troubling outcome is that high-profile lawmakers who make it a point to carry a lot of bills for a diverse range of citizens and activist groups will be unfairly hamstrung.
“About 20 or 30 percent of the legislators carry most of the legislation,” Carr told TNReport.
Carr worries that limiting bills has the potential to spark “a bidding war for bills, potentially, on the part of lobbyists.” He said there are already lobbyists asking lawmakers to keep slots open for their bills.
“You can potentially get into ethical situations,” Carr said.
Despite the some skepticism from within the party, and a request for more bills for use by all caucuses from the Democrats, the bill still passed the committee with only Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner casting the only no vote against the change before walking out of the meeting.
Turner asked for additional bills to be filed as strictly caucus bills. Harwell and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga both noted that the increase of bills per member on the table gives the Democrats between 140-150 more bills.
Turner said not giving the caucuses additional bills “totally blocked (Democrats) out.”
“I commend the speaker on putting this forward, but we need a few bills that the minority party can put forth there,” he said.
Alex Harris contributed reporting to this story.