NASHVILLE — Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton on Monday night delayed for a third time his legislation to ban state lawmakers' service contracts with the General Assembly as well as to restrict members' general state government work.
The move to put House Bill 1040 in the State Committee for additional work comes amid members' continued concerns about the measure, which the Crossville Republican brought in response to Jan. 8 raids by the FBI on the homes and legislative offices of Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, former speaker and Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and Rep. John Warner, R-Chapel Hill.
The bill is not in trouble, Sexton told reporters later.
"No, I think we're fine. I mean it's just like always, you're trying to make sure you get it right," Sexton said following the House session. "So we had some questions on the House floor that we're going to continue to work through and try to meet with both caucuses and answer questions and see if we can clear up confusion."
That includes both what's in the bill as well as "what's not in it," Sexton said. "We hope to be back here. The thing is we have a process in place and it needs to go back to the committee system to rework a little bit."
Federal Bureau of Investigation officials have not stated what the nature of their probe is. But both Smith and Casada, who are political consultants, have handled government-funded legislative constituent mail on behalf of GOP colleagues.
Sexton initially delayed a scheduled floor debate and vote on the bill last month amid members' questions. Then last Thursday, he put an amended version on the floor which quickly encountered problems as legislators from both parties raised concerns and confusion spread.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, jabbed at the legislation, saying it doesn't go far enough.
One portion of the bill would ban representatives and senators from having service contracts with the General Assembly. It inserts the prohibition into an existing 1950s-era criminal law that makes it a Class E felony punishable by up to six years in prison to sell physical goods to state government.
That's not generated much heartburn. Nor has a provision affecting new members elected in 2022 and afterwards. It allows them to bid on, sell, or offer for sale any service to the state so long as they do not have a "controlling interest" in the firm. That's defined as having more than a 50% interest.
At issue is Sexton's effort to thread the needle with current legislators who lawfully hold existing state executive branch services contracts either directly or as subcontractors. Sexton's most recent version of the bill allows them to continue their current contracts and renew them. But it appears to put them under the same standard of having no more than a 50% stake in an entity when seeking new executive branch service contracts.
During last Thursday's debate before the bill was pulled, confusion reigned. Several lawmakers raised concerns about how it might impact them in areas such as renting to low-income people through the Tennessee Housing Development Agency and other areas.
"The first amendment we didn't think was a wholesale change," Sexton said Monday. "We thought it was adding to clarification. Based on comments there were additional changes that might be needed. The House floor is for debate, not for amending legislation significantly, that's what the committee process is."
Sexton said whether it's his bill or other members' "it should be the same for everybody" to have a committee examine the legislation.
Smith has previously argued that Sexton's bill doesn't go far enough in terms of addressing the legislature's constituent mail program. She has said the ban applied to lawmakers on constituent mail should also be extended to legislators' family members and personal political consultants.
Her attorney, Ben Rose, continued to criticize Sexton as he has through much of the process. On Monday, Rose tweeted a photo from the movie Titanic, showing the massive ship breaking up.
"I don't know whatever that guy's name is is talking about so I don't talk to him," Sexton said of Rose. "If he wants to voice something he can call the office instead of putting it on Twitter or somewhere."
In a brief interview last week just before Sexton's bill came to the floor last Thursday, Smith indicated that she would likely vote for the measure although she'd like to see it go further. Sexton has said the provisions impacting consultants would not fit within the bill's legal description and thus can't be added.
But Smith's attorney Rose said in a statement Monday night that "Robin supports a reform to the mail program currently approved through the Speaker's office by including family members and political consultants of Members, who will not be able to access taxpayer-funded contracts."
Smith also had a bill last year that sought to prevent legislators from paying family members more than $1,200 a month to handle their campaign accounts. Sexton has previously said that doesn't fit the bill's legal description either.
Rose, who has previously criticized Sexton's consultant, Chip Saltsman, said the speaker "can reform the program now through a simple change in House rules."
House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, who is carrying Sexton's bill, said the measure is "not in any trouble at all, what we're doing is the right thing to do. It's going to be bipartisan support of this bill.
"But," Faison added, "we also revere the committee system and there are some adjustments that we need to make on the bill to make sure we accomplish exactly what we want to accomplish."
He said he and Sexton agree "the best and safest place for that is in the committee system. So we'll be there next week, we'll bring it out of the committee system and bring it back to the floor."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.