House panel OKs rules to allow only 15 bills for each Tennessee legislator

photo Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary R. Wade, front left, administers the oath of office to members of the House of Representatives on the opening day of the 108th General Assembly on Tuesday in Nashville. Among those being sworn in are Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, front row right, and Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, front row center.

NASHVILLE - Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell agreed to alter her proposed cap on the number of bills each representative can introduce annually after some representatives objected the original limits were too harsh.

Instead of just 10 bills, the cap would now be 15 under an agreement approved by the bipartisan Rules Committee late Tuesday afternoon. Various exceptions could allow individuals to file more.

Still, if the full House approves the rule on Thursday, it will be the first known instance of bill limits on members. Harwell commended Rules Committee members and said the change did not represent a setback to her goal.

"I said I will fight for a bill limitation. And I think we've come out of that in Rules Committee," said Harwell, a Nashville Republican. "You know whether it's five, 10 or 15, the idea is we're going to limit the number of bills and change the culture of the Tennessee General Assembly."

The move came as the new 108th General Assembly officially started and members took their oath of office and elected leaders for the two-year session.

Figures compiled by Harwell's office show that the 132-member Tennessee General Assembly had the second-highest average of filed bills among 13 Southern states over the last eight years. The 4,682 bills filed per session average was exceeded only by Mississippi, which had 5,958 bills but 174 lawmakers.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who called for fewer bill introductions in 2011, has told lawmakers he will limit the administration's package of bills to no more than 75.

The Rules Committee, with Harwell's concurrence, put that figure into the proposed rule, which is set to become part of the permanent rules that lawmakers will consider.

Earlier in the day, Harwell's 10-bill limit came under criticism from some fellow GOP lawmakers during a meeting of the 70-member Republican Caucus.

"This is the wrong direction for state government to go," Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, told colleagues. "Each one of us has the ability to affect change by filing a bill."

Noting he filed 125 bills during the last two-year session, Dennis said capping the number of bills a member can introduce would just encourage lawmakers to introduce broader bills and pile on amendments. Moreover, he argued, setting limits also would "further entrench the power of the executive branch."

Democrats, who have only 28 members in the 99-member chamber, also have voiced concerns. There is one independent, a former Republican who generally sides with the GOP.

The bill cap was not offered in the proposed set of temporary rules presented to and approved by House members earlier in the day.

Harwell argues that Republicans since 2006 have campaigned on a philosophy of less government and that her bill-cap plan would help demonstrate that and prompt colleagues to prioritize more.

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During the later Rules Committee meetings, Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, argued unsuccessfully that caucuses should be able to introduce a package of bills.

Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, retorted that because the cap was being raised from 10 to 15, Democratic leaders could use some of their own bills. The Turner proposal went nowhere.

Other Rules Committee changes include exempting general bills that are written to affect one locality from the cap. Budget-related bills for both the governor and members were also exempted, mostly eliminating Turner's concern. The House Rules Committee also can allow a member to introduce a bill over the 15-bill cap.

Earlier in the day, Harwell, who in 2011 became the first female speaker in state history, was re-elected to a second term without opposition and all Democrats joining in.

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, was re-elected on a 28-4 vote with only four of seven Senate Democrats voting for Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle, of Memphis. Ramsey, first elected speaker in 2007, is now the longest-serving Republican Senate speaker in state history.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, challenged Republicans to amend Senate rules to require the state's Open Meetings Act apply to the chamber, which the Senate Rules Committee will consider.

New members from the Chattanooga area are Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga; Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah; and Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton.

"So far, it's just been circumstance and ceremony, but I guess we'll get down to it tomorrow," Carter said. "I'm looking forward to that."

Lawmakers will continue meeting through Thursday with elections of the state's constitutional officers (secretary of state, comptroller and treasurer) today. On Thursday, committee assignments will be announced.

The Legislature will then adjourn until Jan. 28 when Haslam is scheduled to give his State of the State address.