Depending on who you talk to in the Tennessee General Assembly, regulating the number of bills state lawmakers can sponsor is either a great way to restrict unnecessary government, or an unnecessary restriction on the people’s voice in government.
Last week the House of Representative passed a batch of new rules for the just-commenced legislative session and among them is a cap on how many pieces of legislation an individual lawmaker can carry in a year. Under the new rules, each member of the House of Representatives will be limited to 15 bills per year, meaning 30 total per lower-chamber politician for the entirety of the 2013-2014 General Assembly, according to a press release issued by House Speaker Beth Harwell last week.
The governor is restricted to 75 bills a year, although last year the Haslam administration only filed 55.
Harwell said limiting the number of bills will save time and taxpayer resources. In years past, the Tennessee General Assembly has averaged over 4,000 bills filed. That’s compared with an average of 2,500 per year in neighboring states, said the Nashville Republican, who was the prime mover behind the effort to “streamline government.”
“This is an important step in furthering the principle of limited government that our Founding Fathers intended, and one that voters expect,” said Harwell.
House GOP Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said the effort will “help the House of Representatives operate more efficiently, saving taxpayer dollars in the long run.” It will also enable the body to “prioritize and focus more on those issues that Tennesseans expect us to tackle: jobs, lower taxes, and reducing government waste,” said McCormick, who lives in Hamilton County.
Glen Casada,R-Franklin, expects there’ll be lawmakers on both sides of the fence as the pros and cons of this “paradigm change” become more apparent throughout the session. But perspectives and opinions won’t break down along majority- and minority-party lines, he predicted.
“It’s not a partisan issue, it’s really not,” said Casada, the House GOP caucus chairman.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris didn’t seem particularly bothered by the move, although he didn’t say he was altogether convinced it was necessary, either. “We got out the earliest in 14 years last year in the 107th General Assembly — without an artificial limit, just hard work and resolution by individual members,” said Norris, R-Collierville. “I am willing to try about just about anything, but I do think it needs to be fair so that the people of Tennessee aren’t short-changed in any way.”
Democrats, who are in the “super minority” in both chambers, were mixed in their responses to Harwell’s initiative. Some are hopeful the limit might potentially brake legislative efforts designed to appease the more conservative elements of the Republican Party base.
Others regard the limit as an effort to politically marginalize some. “I haven’t seen any need for this change,” said Rep. Mike Stewart. The Nashville Democrat said he anticipates the limit could “restrict groups and the ability of citizens to propose bills and get them filed.”
Short-changed is indeed how Memphis Rep. Joe Towns said he feels. He called it an effort “to prevent the members from being able to represent their legislation to this body.”
“I’m really peeved about that,” he said in a press conference after the 15-bill limit passed on Thursday. “It’s like the members are being constricted and constricted and constricted. In my opinion, these are draconian tactics to control the Democrats from even producing conversations around the issues.”
He called the limit “bad business and bad policy.” Towns added that conscientious, constituent-conscious Republicans ought to find it offensive, too.
His sentiments were in fact shared by some Republicans.
“This is the wrong direction for state government to go,” Savannah Republican Rep. Vance Dennis said during a House GOP Caucus meeting earlier in the week. “Each one of us has the ability to affect change by filing a bill.”
Campfield: “A Terrible Idea”
Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, who served in the House for six years before being elected to the Senate in 2010, called the limit “a terrible idea.” He said the effect is to bestow upon the governor virtually “unlimited power” to propose legislation, while at the same time dramatically restricting “the people’s body.”
“It’s really going to kill people’s ability to work with their legislators to get things done,” said Campfield. “I understand the concept and the idea of trying to have less duplication of bills, but there are better ways to deal with it.”
Campfield fears the legislative process in Tennessee could morph into something resembling that in Washington, D.C., “where a bill looks like a Christmas tree with all the other bills attached to it.”
“We’re going to start seeing bills that have like eight good parts and five bad parts — and we’re going to start passing bad things because that’s what happens when you start to trying to make many small bills into one big bill,” he said.
Ramsey Taking a Wait-and-See Approach
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he’s “always looked for ways figuring out how to limit bills,” and he’s willing to give the House limit his blessing this year. “Obviously, any Senate bill has to have a House sponsor,” said Ramsey. “So, in effect, senators get 45 bills when you divide it up evenly. You have 33 senators and 99 members of the House of Representatives. What the House did does affect us.”
Ramsey said he doesn’t believe the limit will perceptibly cramp any elected lawmaker’s style too much. They’ll continue to be able to get most of what they really want into the committee system for discussion. Most of what will get pruned will be duplicates or placeholder-type bills, he said.
“This year we’ll try the (limitation on the) number of bills,” Ramsey said. “Then next year, come back with no bill filing deadline, and just introduce bills as time goes along and see if that cuts down on the number of bills that are filed in the second session of the General Assembly.”