Routinely held secret 'pre-meetings' in Tennessee House criticized

The House Civil Justice Committee holds a "pre-meeting" at the legislative office complex in Nashville on Monday.

Every time they meet in secret, while it might be more convenient or politically expedient, they're really telling their constituents 'Go away. Thanks for putting me here and for giving me the money, now go away.'"

photo The House Civil Justice Committee holds a "pre-meeting" at the legislative office complex in Nashville on Monday.

NASHVILLE -- In a major break from past practice, most Tennessee House committees are routinely holding unannounced, secret "pre-meetings" where they thoroughly vet pending bills prior to their public consideration in committees.

The undisclosed meetings occur behind closed doors in far-flung members' offices in the state Capitol complex, away from committee rooms where hearings are videostreamed for the public's benefit.

At least 10 of the 15 House standing committees are discussing bills first behind closed doors.

Several House Republicans say the informal gatherings allow a freer flow of discussion and insist they are not taking actual votes on bills.

"It's worth debating. If there are individuals who think it's secretive, it's manipulative, maybe we need to look at it," House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, R-Franklin, told reporters. "But I would submit, it's not what you think it is."

Besides, Casada said, Democrats did the same thing when they were in power. Democrats did hold secret meetings but it was restricted largely to the Finance or Commerce committees, say veteran lawmakers and lobbyists.

Joint effort

This article was reported in a collaborative effort by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Associated Press, the Commercial Appeal of Memphis, the Knoxville News Sentinel and The Tennessean of Nashville. March 15-21 is national Sunshine Week, in which news organizations seek to examine and highlight issues related to transparency in government.

Regardless, public advocates of open government, as well as some legislators and lobbyists more privately, question the practice.

"Every time they meet in secret, while it might be more convenient or politically expedient, they're really telling their constituents 'Go away. Thanks for putting me here and for giving me the money, now go away,'" said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum and senior vice president of the First Amendment Center.

Nashville Tea Party President Ben Cunningham said he had heard "here and there" about the pre-meetings, called "bill review" by some.

"I didn't know how extensively they were used, but obviously that is a complete betrayal of open government," Cunningham said. "Any kind of substantive deliberation should always be in public."

The Tennessee General Assembly does not come under the state's Open Meetings Act or Sunshine Law. And lawmakers of both parties have steadfastly refused to set rules banning secret gatherings, saying one legislature cannot legally bind future legislatures.

OK, said Cunningham, why not just let each two-year legislature set rules for the two years they're in charge?

Some lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists complain such meetings have become standard practice in the House after Republicans won firm control of the chamber in 2010. In fact, some say Republicans are in some cases holding "pre-pre-meetings" before the pre-meetings which include minority Democrats.

Each pre-committee sets its own rules. At least some exclude non-committee members, including bill sponsors, as well as lobbyists. Others don't. Excluding lobbyists allows members to get a different look on what bills do, members say.

Rumblings about pre-meetings on a mass scale have been ongoing for several weeks this session.

In a letter last week to House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga -- part of an ongoing tit-for-tat exchange between the two chambers over their respective work ethic -- Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey alluded to the House's practice.

"Our committees publicly debate each bill and do not meet in private before a meeting to discuss outcomes," Ramsey wrote. "And, most importantly, Senate committees conduct a roll call vote on all bills."

Armed with a recently leaked schedule of various pre-meetings, reporters from the state's largest newspapers, including the Times Free Press, sought entry into several of the meetings on Monday and Tuesday.

Reporters representing the Times Free Press, The Commercial Appeal of Memphis and Knoxville News Sentinel were initially rebuffed by the chairman of the House Civil Justice Committee, Rep. John Lundberg, R-Bristol, when they asked to join the group's meeting in Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell's conference room.

"No," Lundberg said. Asked why, Lundberg said he "never had anyone come" before.

photo House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, speaks at a joint conference of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business and the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association in Nashville on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015.

Asked about the meetings by reporters from the aforementioned newspapers as well as The Associated Press and The Tennessean of Nashville, Harwell said "they're not having meetings as you think of meetings."

Regarding Lundberg's discouragement of news outlets, reporters then asked if the public should accept it on good faith that no votes are being taken.

"You'd have to ask Chairman Lundberg that," Harwell said. She noted that when she was a committee chair she did not hold pre-meetings.

Later, at Harwell's prompting, Lundberg did open up his meeting, where a thorough, often-free-wheeling discussion of various bills expected to come up in committee or subcommittee was in full swing.

One bill under discussion involved taking some discretion away from judges on a particular issue.

"By what authority do we tell that branch of government what they can and cannot do?" asked Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, an attorney and former Hamilton County General Sessions Court judge.

No actual votes were taken. But each bill was thoroughly reviewed in a way not always done in subcommittees, which are now tasked with vetting, and committees.

Carter defended the practice.

"Here's what a pre-meeting is good for," Carter later said. "You saw today where I'd said, 'What are they trying to get to here?' We can't do that in a committee because it will delay the process for weeks. We'd be here all year."

Carter said that in a committee "you've seen me disagree with a bill that I understand. There's a difference. One is, OK, now I know all the facts and I'm going to tell all the world why I'm for or against it. The other is, what are we trying to fix?"

Lundberg later said no votes are ever taken.

"No, no, no, no, no. We can't take votes. But the neat part here it's very free-flowing as you saw. And in the committee, you're recognized and you can only ask some questions this way. It's just lots of perspective and everybody's throwing things out."

Lundberg said he doesn't allow lobbyists in the pre-meeting.

In the House Education Administration and Planning Committee Monday night, Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, allowed reporters in with no questions and told them later they were always welcome. Also present was Ken Meyer, a former Republican lawmaker who now heads lobbying efforts for K12 Inc., a for-profit school offering online services under contract with Union County schools.

On Tuesday, the House Business and Utilities Committee met with Chairman Pat Marsh, R-Shelybville, allowing reporters. Midway into the meeting, Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, a non-committee member, showed up.

"I didn't know y'all had this meeting," Williams told committee members. He then promptly began discussing his two bills, which panel members had already vetted, and defending it against "flag" letters from Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, indicating his opposition to them.

Also showing up was Jim Brown, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Tennessee, who asked if he could come in. Committee Chairman Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, waved him in.

Brown proceeded to argue against a previously discussed bill that would require licensing for roofing contracts on projects that cost between $3,000 and $25,000.

But Brown was too late because the committee, whose members included Rep. Patsy Hazelwood, R-Signal Mountain, and Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge, had already voiced concerns about the very administration bill he was opposing.

No actual vote was taken, but as they like to say in the General Assembly, a cool breeze was definitely blowing.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550.