Two legislative oversight panels reassert themselves

Two legislative oversight panels reassert themselves

October 11th, 2009 by Andy Sher in Politics State

NASHVILLE -- Two of the Tennessee General Assembly's potentially more powerful oversight panels, which have helped eliminate or revamp at least 100 state government agencies since 1977, once again are cracking the whip, lawmakers say.

Plagued by squabbling or indifference in recent years, according to some legislative leaders, the House and Senate Government Operations committees have gotten back on course and caught up with backlogs in reviewing state departments, boards, commissions and other state-created entities.

"The Government Operations Committee, if used properly, can be a very powerful committee," said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who noted he has put a priority on panel functions since becoming Senate speaker in 2007. "And I think the last year or so you've seen it be that."

In this year's legislative session, Republicans used the Senate Government Operations Committee to block reauthorization of the state's Judicial Selection Commission, members of which reviewed and recommended applicants for appellate court judgeships to governors.

Some Republicans argued the state's system of retention elections for appellate judges, including state Supreme Court justices, was unconstitutional and that the Tennessee Constitution requires competitive elections. Under a compromise, the Judicial Selection Commission was reconstituted as the Judicial Nominating Commission with the House and Senate speakers given a much freer hand in appointing commission members of a conservative bent.

Republicans also used the government operations committees to force the merger of the State Ethics Commission with the State Registry of Election Finance.

Created to give lawmakers a formalized way of providing oversight for state agencies and regulations, the government operations committees review all state agencies periodically. Each entity has a "sunset" date providing for its automatic termination unless specifically reauthorized by lawmakers.

"Instead of every entity staying alive unless repealed, every entity stays alive only if reauthorized," said Rep. Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, the House Government Operations Committee chairman until earlier this year when the new speaker, Rep. Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, replaced him.

Under the review process, the State Comptroller's Office conducts performance audits of agencies that committee members use to see if the entities continue to meet their mandates, remain relevant and operate effectively. The government operations committees make recommendations to the entire House and Senate, which often are followed.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey last month named Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who already was serving on the Senate Government Operations Committee, as the panel's new chairman.

"I think it's a vitally important committee because it has the responsibility for reviewing all these government entities to ensure they're doing what their core mission is and making sure they're following the statutory requirements," Sen. Watson said.

"Failure to have that type of oversight would result in agencies that are potentially running quasi-independent of any legislative oversight whatsoever," he said.

No one is sure exactly how many government entities the government operations committees have helped ax over the years, but an examination of two documents provided by the State Comptroller's Office shows at least 104 entities that were not extended or were reconstituted or merged.

Those renewed are typically extended for four to six years. The committees also review new agency regulations and check proposed legislation with an eye toward technical compliance on issues involving rules.

In recent years, the committees have at times been hampered by House and Senate wrangling, Rep. Kernell said. He recalled how in 2005, the Senate Government Operations Committee then-chairwoman, Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, refused to set up necessary joint meetings in the summer and fall to review agencies and rules.

Current House Government Operations Committee Chairman Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, said she and her previous Senate counterpart, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who replaced Sen. Harper earlier this year, have caught up on backlogs that included reviews of two dozen state agencies and six months of agency rules.

Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, House speaker until earlier this year, said that in recent years, many members shunned service on the House Government Operations Committee. He sought to bolster its prestige by requiring top Democratic and Republican leaders to serve on it.

Panel reviews

The General Assembly created the House and Senate Government Operations Committees in 1977 to review state departments, agencies, boards and commissions periodically and establish if they are performing as they should and whether public need justifies their continued existence. At least 104 state agencies have been eliminated, replaced or reconstituted over the years. Among them are:

* Judicial Selection Commission (replaced by Judicial Nominating Commission)

* Tennessee Ethics Commission (merged with Registry of Election Finance)

* State Racing Commission

* Tennessee Public Service Commission (reconstituted as Tennessee Regulatory Authority)

* Interagency Council and Advisory Panel on Osteoporosis

* State Seed Board

* Association for the Relief of Ex-Convicts

* Board of Trustees for Tuberculosis Control

* Tennessee Sentencing Commission

* Institute of African and Carribean Affairs

* Modular Building Units Advisory Council

* Ocoee Development Agency

* Presidential Landmark Commission

Source: State Comptroller's Office