published Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Area lawmakers trigger fuss over special interest influence

NASHVILLE — Two Southeast Tennessee lawmakers have helped stir up a hornet’s nest in Capitol Hill’s lobbying community, challenging a tradition in which trade and professional associations are given authority by statute to make recommendations to governors about who gets to serve on dozens of regulatory boards.

Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, and other Republicans in recent weeks have begun stripping out such language when deciding whether to recommend continuing the boards’ and commissions’ existence during regular “sunset” reviews.

Lobbyists and trade groups privately have been complaining for at least a week over the situation. On Wednesday the issue prompted a full-fledged debate among panel members.

Sen. Bunch questioned “why any special interest group should be listed in the Tennessee Code Annotated (state code) more or less giving them a leg up on other Tennessee citizens who may be qualified?”

“Let’s remove all special interest groups’ (recommendations),” the senator said.

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, however, a potentially pivotal vote on the panel, downplayed Sen. Bunch’s assertions, noting that a “patchwork” has grown up over the years. Some statutes say governors “shall” accept recommendations. Others say “may,” he noted.

“I don’t think it’s anything sinister at all,” Sen. Crowe said, noting that lawmakers may want to change all recommendations to “may.”

But Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, charged that statutes reflect choices made by Democratic legislative leaders who “picked favorites among their friends and gave advantages” to them.

David Connor with the Tennessee Association of County Commissioners told the committee that groups such as the association can identify local people with expertise to governors looking at appointing county officials to boards.

“We can be there and provide some input,” he said, later noting, “there’s some concerns we have about losing any input on that process.”

WHAT’S NEXT

Government Operations Committee members will resume their debate next week on what role trade and professional associations should have when recommending appointments to state regulatory boards.

Sen. Watson said the discussion is “very healthy. And it gets to the root of concerns of what many members have expressed concerns about in the process this committee is responsible for.”

After the meeting, Mark Greene, who lobbies for the Tennessee Lobbyist Association, said groups provide an important “vetting process” by making recommendations to governors on who is qualified, respected among their peers and has the time needed to do a good job on a regulatory board.

Moreover, Mr. Greene said, “we think it provides an important check and balance, because before we assume that more inclusion in appointments is good government, let’s look at the other side of that which would be unfair (political) patronage. Not all governors have made great appointments.”

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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