Secret Budget Meeting: First, GOP Only; Then Democrats Allowed

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers’ long tradition of meeting secretly to hash out budget plans is alive and well.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick confirmed to The Associated Press that key legislators met for several hours at a Nashville restaurant on Sunday to work through budget amendments.
“There have been secret meetings, I’m not going to deny,” McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Monday. “There’s been a lot of secrecy for 200 years. I don’t think it’s any worse than it’s always been.”
David Smith, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, said no administration officials attended Sunday’s meeting. Haslam’s predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, sought to discourage secret budget meetings, though that effort yielded mixed results.

State open meetings laws do not apply to the Legislature, though House rules and the state constitution urge lawmakers to ensure public access to their proceedings.
“The doors of each House and of committees of the whole shall be kept open, unless when the business shall be such that ought to be kept secret,” according to the Tennessee Constitution.
McCormick said the meetings were held to expedite the conclusion of the legislative session, echoing similar claims made by Democratic leaders when they controlled the Legislature.
“We’re trying to get out this week, so we’re just trying to get an early start,” he said.
McCormick said Republicans met first among themselves to discuss their priorities, and later invited Democrats along to voice their preferences for the state’s annual spending plan.
“We’re considering their recommendations, as tempting as it is not to, because I don’t feel they treated us so well a few years ago,” he said. “But that that’s not the responsible thing to do.”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said he was invited to the private meeting, but didn’t attend.
“I had other things to do,” he said. “I just didn’t think it would be productive to be there”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville acknowledged that secret meetings are nothing new.
“I’ll be the first to admit that Democrats did it,” he said. “But they always (complained) about it, too.”
And Turner said secrecy in the Republican-controlled Legislature extends far beyond budget matters.
“They have pre-meetings on everything,” he said. “Some of them Democrats are invited to, and some of them they’re not.”
Turner said he wasn’t invited to the weekend budget meetings, attributing the snub to animosity with House Finance Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin.
Turner said he has also stopped attending a weekly breakfast between legislative leaders and the governor. “Nothing really nothing really gets done with our input,” he said.
The response is more along the lines of a pat on the back and a “thank you for playing the game,” he said. “So it’s a waste of our time.”

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