Legislature Abandoned Bills In Conference Committee

Lawmakers left four bills hanging when they adjourned sine die last week.

Lawmakers spent the last two years introducing almost 8,000 pieces of legislation, probably well aware that all but a fraction would die quietly, with little debate at all.

Others stood a chance but perished because they lacked solid support while trickling through the legislative process. Some died in legislative committees and others failed on the House or Senate floor.

But four bills this year died simply because House and Senate lawmakers failed to find common ground between the two separate versions passed by each chamber.

They were only a compromise away in a six-member “conference committee” from being agreed upon in the Legislature. But they were caught up when committee delegates from the House and Senate couldn’t hammer out agreements.

Those bills included requiring potential voters to prove their citizenship and allowing judges with handgun permits to carry their weapons like police officers.

Roughly one out of every eight bills became law this past session. As of this posting, 1,044 bills were signed into law during the 106th General Assembly. The total number of bills and resolutions filed was 7,955 during the two-year period the General Assembly met.

When lawmakers walked out of the the Capitol Building during the wee hours of June 10, they left behind them HB270. The measure was supposed to require new voters show proof of citizenship.

House members easily approved the measure 92-1, but rejected the Senate’s amendment requiring citizens to provide a drivers license number, a legible copy of a birth certificate, copies of passport documents, naturalization documents or any other paperwork to prove an individual is a U.S. citizen. The Senate voted 20-12 for the measure.

Both chambers appointed members to the conference committee, but the group never reported back with a compromise.

Sen. Dewayne Bunch, a sponsor of the bill, said the committee met for over an hour on the issue, but he couldn’t convince enough House members in the small group to go along with their changes — which had since become “the heart of the bill.”

“I saw it as a way to place tools in the tool box for election administrators,” said the Cleveland Republican. “Two members didn’t see it that way.”

Another bill that died in the conference committee was HB82, which authorizes current and retired judges with a handgun permit to carry their firearm under the same circumstances as police or correctional officers. Lawmakers took up the bill last year but never revisited it during the 2010 spring session.

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, said he carried the bill for a judge who said he is sometimes threatened. But opponents said they weren’t comfortable with a judge bringing a gun in the courtroom.

The measure was then assigned to a conference committee, but the group never met, said Shaw. He said he pushed the issue to the back burner and never picked it up again.

House bill 2593 was also sitting in a conference committee when legislators adjourned sine die. The measure would have renewed the Board of Examiners of Architects and Engineers.

It was one of 19 boards that were not extended this year because House and Senate members couldn’t agree on changes to how top government officials appoint members to serve on those and other boards. However, the House bill was the only one to be assigned to a full conference committee. In most cases, the House created one but Senate opted not to.

A final bill that died in a conference committee, SB2418, was a nuts and bolts piece of legislation regarding the rules used to implement state laws.

The Senate measure would have erased a section of state code that was mistakenly left behind last year when it rewrote an act on rule-making.

In the House, lawmakers made changes to how rules are reviewed. The legislation insisted that issues relative to the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act — which governs rule making — be vetted in standing committees before going to the House and Senate Government Operations committees.

Sen. Bo Watson, a Hixson Republican who chairs his chamber’s gov-ops committee, said the Senate couldn’t approve that bill without violating its own set of rules that dictates a bill’s committee assignments.

Passing the Senate version wasn’t critical this year, he said, but he’ll take the issue up again in 2011.

“The best thing to do is drop back, punt, write the caption a little tighter and fix the area that we intended to fix with this bill,” he said.

House sponsor and House Government Operations Chairwoman, Rep. Susan Lynn, said she was disappointed her version didn’t pass. It also would have changed the way new occupational license requirements are vetted in order to allow affected workers to to give feedback, said the Mt. Juliet Republican, adding that the current system “creates suspicion among the general public.”

Although the House and Senate both appointed members to the conference committee, the group never met.

Legislators have now adjourned for the year and say it’s unlikely that they will be back before the new General Assembly is sworn in next January. At that point, legislators will have to begin introducing a brand new set bills and will not be able to resurrect any of the dead ones.

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