A proposal from House Speaker Beth Harwell to limit to 10 the number of bills each lawmaker can sponsor during the legislative session comes with plenty of loopholes — and those loopholes are starting to stir debate.
One of the biggest loopholes deals with Gov. Bill Haslam. He is potentially exempted from the 10-bill-limit and can ask for as many bills as he likes.
“It increases the power of the executive branch,” said Bob Rochelle, who’s currently a Democratic nominee for the state Registry of Election Finance.
Rochelle, who served in the Tennessee Senate from 1982 to 2002, was known as a particularly skilled parliamentary tactician. “It reduces the power of the legislators,” he said.
Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron also raised concerns about ceding too much power to the executive branch. “I’m not saying this governor will take advantage of that,” said the Murfreesboro Republican. “But what about the next governor? Or the next?”
Other proposed exemptions in the 10-bill cap include:
+ Bills dealing with cities and counties
+ Sunset bills
+ Memorializing or congratulatory resolutions that are not referred to a standing committee
+ Resolutions confirming appointments or authorizing charitable events
+ Resolutions that are procedural in nature that are not referred to a standing committee
Harwell’s office defended granting the governor and his staff special latitude under the measure.
“Much of the legislation presented by the administration has more to do with the nuts and bolts of running state government, and is necessary to the process,” Harwell spokeswoman Kara Owen told TNReport in a statement. “Further, we certainly want to allow members the latitude to use their ten bills for their districts’ priorities, so we feel the exemption to Administration is needed.”
Both Rochelle and Ketron said they understand the desire to curtail the number of bills. Indeed, in the past both have tried — unsuccessfully — to put a limit on the number of bills filed each legislative session.
And both Rochelle, Ketron and many more say that reducing the number of bills means less red tape, less staff time used — at the end of the day less costly to taxpayers.
“I know she has good intentions,” said Rochelle said of Harwell.
Ketron said he gets where Harwell’s coming from. When Ketron was crafting his bill-reduction proposal years ago, it was the price-tag to the taxpayer he was chiefly thinking about.
“I was looking at it from an economic standpoint,” he said. “How can we cut down the cost?”
In Tennessee, with each bill a financial statement is crafted showing how much will this legislation cost the taxpayer. Sometime the bill is in the millions of dollars; sometimes it is zero. But each time a state expert has to calculate the cost — and that adds up to big bucks, considering many of these bills never pass committee and see the light of day.
“Every single bill has a fiscal note,” said Owen. “It does mean savings, no doubt about it.”
House Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, R-Franklin, agreed. Filing so many bills is “a frivolous waste of money,” he said.
He also said the move will will lead to better legislation, since lawmakers will have fewer bills to shepherd and over which to gain an expertise.
“We have members who file 90, 100 bills,” Casada said. “It’s impossible to carry that number of bills and do a good job.”
But concerns simmer below the surface.
Since the potential changes were announced last week, lobbyists have been scrambling to find sponsors for the bills their clients may want. If the number of bills do become capped, some special interests may not be able to get legislation favorable to them through the General Assembly.
“The immediate impact was that the bigger, more successful lobbyists starting calling,” prominent legislators who are known to get bills passed, “saying ‘save me one spot, two spots, three spots.’” Ketron said.
“I have heard they are scrambling to the go-to legislators,” Jim Brown, lobbyist for the Tennessee branch of the National Federation of Independent Business, said of his fellow lobbyists. “They are working much harder and much earlier to prepare for the session.”
Ketron also raised the spectre of something more worrisome that might come from a bill limit: ethics issues — something that the Tennessee legislature is no stranger to.
Ketron suggested that, with a bill limit, lawmakers who are skilled at getting legislation through the General Assembly may become the subject of campaign-contribution bidding wars from big-monied special interests who want to make sure their bills get through the legislature.
Even worse, Ketron said, non-profit organizations who can’t pony up campaign cash — and who may need the most help from the legislature — may be left out in the cold.
“Are they going to be blocked out?” Ketron asked. “I’m not saying it will happen, but it’s something that needs to be brought up and debated.”
It’s not surprising there is controversy over limiting bills — and the controversy is not limited to Tennessee.
Legislatures across the US have struggled with the overwhelming number of bills and tried to find ways to deal with it, according to a study by the National Council of State Legislators.
Colorado legislators, for example, have a limit of 5 bills per year — although they can go to a special committee to plea for additional legislation.
In the Florida House of Representatives, members are limited to 6 bills during the legislative session, but a two-thirds vote from the House can waive the limit.
And members of the Montana Legislature can request an unlimited number of bills before December 5. After that date, a member may file up to 7 bills or resolutions — but unused requests by one member may be granted to another member.
And it’s not that bill filing limits are unheard of in Tennessee, either. Members of the Tennessee state Senate, for example, can file as many bills as they like before the legislative session — but are limited to 9 once the session begins, according to 2012 rules.
Trent Seibert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter (@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501.