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Regulatory Boards Stuck In Political Debate

State boards regulating everything from auctioneers to K-12 educators are caught in a debate over how people are chosen to serve on those bodies.

Nineteen governing bodies, including the state Board of Education, are now set to “wind down” beginning next month, and could dissolve by July 1, 2011 if the Legislature fails to reach an agreement.

They run the gamut from the state Election Commission and Department of Education to the Air Pollution Control Board and Alcohol Beverage Commission.

All state boards, departments and commissions have a sunset date. As that day approaches, legislators review the governmental bodies and decide whether to extend their existence, or let them fade away.

The issue holding up this year’s batch boils down to whether the governor — or other leaders choosing board members — should be required to pull a candidate from a recommended list of applicants, or be able to pick appointees freely. If the issues aren’t resolved, said Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Sen. Bo Watson, “these boards will go away.”

Some say top officials should maintain the current practice of appointing some members to boards and commissions from a recommended list of candidates suggested by professional associations such as the Chamber of Commerce, Tennessee Association of Nurses or other organizations relevant to the subject of the committee.

Supporters of the system say it ensures candidates have a genuine expertise in the field and are respected among their peers — instead of letting the governor decide by himself who is the best for the job, said Rep. Susan Lynn, who chairs the House Government Operations Committee.

“This is their government. It’s not the governor’s government. It’s the people’s government,” she said, adding that that the practice deters “strictly political appointments.”

A nominee who has the blessing of a professional association would generally have more experience than someone appointed to the board because they contributed to a politician’s campaign, Lynn said.

Anyone appointed to a committee must be committed, she added, saying they take up complex issues, work long hours and make decisions that can often mean the end of someones career.

“The government literally owns the title to what you do and you cannot work unless you take the test and pay the fee and get licensed by them,” said Lynn, often a vocal opponent to many occupational license requirements. “And then the government, say a board or commission, made up of political appointees can apply laws and rules to you that these political appointees make up. And then they also judge you and then enforce discipline on you and they can even take away your ability to work by taking away your license.”

But other lawmakers — mainly Senate Republicans — say a professional association doesn’t represent all experts in a given field. Individuals who chose not to associate or pay dues for a certain group have no chance of earning an appointment to a state board or commission, said Watson.

Professional associations “should not control the process. They should have no greater standing than any citizen does,” he said. “We believe government should be open for all Tennesseans.”

To guard against political appointments, all selected board members should be held to a specific set of standards, Watson added.

“If you define the qualifications, then a governor, a lieutenant governor or a speaker of the House cannot pick their friends,” he said. “Furthermore, it’s patronage either way. (If) the Chamber of Commerce picks the person they like, who’s to say they’re not practicing patronage,” said Watson.

Legislators in both chambers had the option to renew the sunset dates for various control boards, but the measures were usually held up by the Senate. Those government bodies include: the Air pollution Control Board, Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Board of Dietitian/Nutritionist Examiners, Board of Examiners for Architects and Engineers, Board of Examiners for Nursing Home Administrators, Board of Nursing, Board of Pharmacy, Committee for Clinical Perfusionists, Council for Hearing Instrument Specialists, Council on Children’s Mental Health Care, Department of Education, Emergency Medical Services Board, Real Estate Appraiser Commission, Real Estate Commission, State Board of Education, State Election Commission, Tennessee Auctioneer Commission, Tennessee Medical Examiner Advisory Council and Tennessee Medical Laboratory Board.