TN lawmakers set cap on bills, shake up committees

8:44 PM, Jan 10, 2013   |    comments
Speaker Ron Ramsey, right, and state senators recite the Pledge of Allegiance during the opening day of the legislative session.
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By Chas Sisk / The Tennessean

Republican leaders capped the number of bills lawmakers can introduce in the state House of Representatives and shook up the committees in both chambers, moves that could strengthen their hold over the General Assembly.

House Speaker Beth Harwell won approval for plans to reorganize committees and to bar members from asking others to cast votes for them when they are absent. House lawmakers also agreed to limit each member to 15 bills a year, despite opposition from members who described the cap as an effort to muzzle them.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey removed state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, from her position as chair of the Judiciary Committee. Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he decided to relieve her because he'd been "disappointed a time or two with some of her decisions."

The changes could rein in a state legislature that has earned a reputation for wildness. In recent years, Republican leaders have complained frequently that some debates - on topics like the proper waistline for pants, whether roadkill should be eaten and the possibility that a United Nations iniatitive is a secret communist plot - have overshadowed their work and earned outsized attention nationwide.

"The quality of legislation will be enhanced," said state Rep. Steve McDaniel, the Parkers Crossroads Republican who presented the plan.

Tennessee lawmakers have become known for producing volumes of legislation. They filed more than 5,000 bills and resolutions in the past two years alone, much of which failed to advance out of committee.

Harwell, R-Nashville, and others have argued that these bills take up staff time and are costly to print. She originally proposed a limit of 10 bills each.

With 99 members, a 15-bill limit should theoretically cut the number of measures filed by about 40 percent. But with numerous exemptions, it is unclear whether the limit will succeed in reducing the volume of legislation.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, predicted the limit will simply prolong debates as lawmakers try to pin their ideas onto other measures as amendments.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, described the limit as censorship. He said constituents expect lawmakers to spark debate by filing bills - even if they have no likelihood of passing - and questioned whether the limit violated lawmakers' right to free speech.

"This is not Russia," he said. "This is not the chamber of a communist country."

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, countered that lawmakers could be effective under a bill limit.

"Moses did a really good job with just 10 laws," he said. "We're given 15 apiece."

Committees reorganized

Harwell also won support for her plan to split several key committees and merge others.

The reorganization includes splitting the State and Local Government Committee into two pieces. The Commerce and Judiciary committees were also divided.

Meanwhile, Harwell merged the Conservation and Environment Committee with the Agriculture Committee. Children and Family Affairs was also eliminated, with much of its functions being transferred to the new Civil Justice Committee, which also will take on some judicial issues.

Harwell said the changes were meant to balance the workload between committees. But the reorganization gave her a chance to name eight new committee chairs.

Ramsey's changes to Senate committees were not as extensive, though they could have a major impact nonetheless.

His biggest move was to replace Beavers with state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Memphis, a one-time backbencher whose standing among Republican lawmakers has risen steadily over the past few years.

Beavers frequently sparred with the judicial branch and often has split with the Republican caucus on key issues, such as the GOP-authored redistricting plan passed last year. Earlier this year, she lost a vote to remain the Senate Republican Caucus's treasurer.

Ramsey took Beavers off the Judiciary Committee entirely while naming three freshman senators to the panel. He declined to name specific issues on which he had differed with her but acknowledged their disagreements were the main factor for her removal.

"Everybody needs to be a team player, and sometimes I wondered about that," Ramsey explained. "That's as far as I'll go about that. ... It's a combination of things. I don't want to pin it on any one thing."

Over in the Senate, lawmakers wrapped up business for the week without settling on whether to bind the chamber to the state's Open Meetings Act.

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