Some complain about session's fast pace

Some complain about session's fast pace

April 8th, 2013 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

The Tennessee Capitol

The Tennessee Capitol

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - The grueling pace set by GOP leaders to complete this year's legislative session early has sparked bipartisan criticisms for weeks that proposed laws are sometimes not getting properly vetted while debates on others are short-circuited.

Among others, Transportation Committee Chairman Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, and Calendar and Rules Committee Chairman Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, have raised concerns as leaders drive lawmakers to complete business quickly.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, wants lawmakers to finish by April 18. That would be the earliest date for concluding business since 1990, Ramsey said proudly. House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said she has not set a specific date but thinks colleagues need to be "efficient." Lawmakers tended to dawdle when Democrats were in charge, she said.

Last month, Dean took the unusual step of complimenting the Criminal Justice Subcommittee on the House floor for wanting to take a closer look at one of his bills instead of just blasting it out.

"Sometimes when we do things in a hurry, we may overlook something," Dean said Friday. "I just wanted to thank them for doing it right."

If his bills aren't "properly vetted, it doesn't do the public any good at all," Dean said. It "remains to be seen" if panels are moving too fast, he said.

Dunn recently complained about "glassy-eyed" lawmakers spending hours wading through dozens of bills on committee and subcommittee calendars.

"If the speaker of the Senate had to sit in on a committee and study 85 bills and sit there for six hours and try to do his work also, he may have a different view of how it's going," Dunn told House Republican Caucus members recently, Nashville public radio station WPLN reported.

Ramsey later lashed out at Dunn and other House critics.

"Let me assure you, I keep up with about 1,500 bills, and during committees that television is on over there, and I'm making sure of what's going on," he told reporters.

He said 500 bills were up in Senate committees that week in March, compared to 1,100 last year.

"To say we're going too fast and not reviewing things, then what were we doing last year?" said Ramsey.

In one marathon Senate Judiciary Committee meeting last week, the panel had a 75-bill calendar. The meeting lasted six hours. Members came in for 90 minutes more the following day.

Members in both chambers serve on multiple committees.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, has served in the Legislature for nearly three decades.

"We might not be doing as quality work as we should be," he observed. "We'll just have to see how it plays itself out in the next year or two," alluding to mistakes that are discovered later.

For weeks, House lawmakers, secretaries and assistants of both parties have groused about confusion with bills members wanted to be heard in committee or not put on the calendar. Meanwhile, bills they didn't expect to come up suddenly did.

Since 2000, sessions have tended to go longer. Republicans say it started during the battles over a state income tax when sessions sometimes went into July. But Ramsey said it became a routine that sessions would go to the end of May.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said that was because the Great Recession hit and lawmakers wanted the latest state revenue figures possible as they looked at budget cuts.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree or 615-255-0550.