(Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel.)
An annual phenomenon in Tennessee – perhaps occurring this year more than most — is that many people only discover what the General Assembly has been doing after the deeds are done and the Legislature has gone home for the year.
This is somewhat understandable, since the volume of legislation is such that even active participants in the process don’t know what’s going on with more than a few dozen of the 2,500 or so bills in the works during session.
As Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey acknowledged, regarding a bill to prohibit social promotion of third graders (SB1776): “I don’t think it got the first ounce of media coverage…I didn’t know the bill existed until a week before it passed.”
Actually, it got several pounds of media coverage, but most came after it had already passed and had been signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam.
Haslam, incidentally, had a legislative package that was tiny by his predecessors’ standards, just 20 bills. He got dragged into some level of involvement in another couple of dozen or so, occasionally with some eagerness but mostly, it seemed, with some reluctance..
But, by gosh, he has signed every bill put in front of him. Unlike Phil Bredesen and Don Sundquist, he hasn’t even occasionally shown his disdain by refusing to sign a measure and letting it become law without his signature.
Yet post-session media reports tend to show some fixation on signature affixing. So do legislators, for that matter. They love to have their picture taken with the governor signing a bill they had something to do with. So you see lots of stories declaring the governor has signed something or other into law.
One reason Ramsey may not have noticed the social promotion bill is that it was sponsored by a Democrat in the Senate, Sen. Charlotte Burks of Monterey, though a Republican, Rep. Harry Brooks, was sponsor in the House.
Maybe bipartisan bills – or those with Democratic sponsors in either chamber – just didn’t get much attention during a session focused on social promotion of Republican super majority legislation.
Another example could be the bill (HB300), sponsored on a bipartisan basis by Democratic Rep. Charles Curtiss of Sparta and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro to extend the state’s current anti-harassment law to cover electronic communications.
It got a fair amount of debate – taking on some softening amendments – during the legislative process and a bit of media attention. But only post-session did it really get noticed, thanks to bloggers — some of whom may have hyperventilated over the prospect that a web posting that causes “emotional distress” could result in misdemeanor criminal prosecution.
Then there are sometimes provisions in a broader bill that just don’t get noticed by many people until after the fact. This year’s most remarkable example is the mystery amendment to the monstrous $30.8 billion state budget bill that undid another amendment aimed at steering money away from Planned Parenthood, touching off a series of moves by the governor and the health commissioner – along with much talk of future action by legislators – to re-do the mysteriously undone.
In that case, legislative leaders have pretty much unanimously declared they didn’t know what they were doing at the time. But they also don’t want talk about who did know.
In contrast to silence on the mystery amendment, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States sent out a news release last week promoting a provision of SB1224 that, one suspects, many legislators did not notice.
It allows liquor stores and bars to give away free samples of their alcoholic beverages for “educational and promotional purposes.”
The bill is an interesting example of how legislation is transformed in the process. As introduced, it would have simply have reduced the Tennessee residency requirement for a liquor store owner from five to one year. It was rewritten late in the session to legalize manufacture and sale of high-alcohol beer in Tennessee – a business-friendly move, it was said, to entice Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. to build a facility in Alcoa.
That got some attention. The free sample provision was down at the bottom of the final version of the six-page rewrite amendment.
“Tasting events allow consumers to sample more premium products before making the important buying decision. So, this is a win-win for both retailers and consumers, and we commend Governor Haslam and the State Legislature for modernizing Tennessee’s liquor laws,” declared the Council’s vice president in the news release.
So even if they didn’t know what they were doing then, they can be commended now that it has media attention.