The ceremonial signing season, which is currently under way, may in some ways be the antithesis of efficiency in government that our governor and all legislators proclaim as a goal. But it enjoys great bipartisan popularity.
Our state constitution requires the governor to sign or veto a bill passed by the state Legislature within 10 days after it reaches his desk or it becomes law without his signature. But the real signature merely marks the beginning of the ceremonial signing season, which can stretch for months after the Legislature has adjourned and the duly signed bills are already in effect as laws.
About 660 bills were really signed into law. You won’t see any ceremonial signings for measures that involved controversy. In such cases, the less said, the better. And you darn sure won’t see a ceremonial veto for the one measure Haslam killed this year. Or a ceremonial nonsigning of legislation that became law without his ink.
No, ceremonies are reserved for bills that were popular with most everybody — or at least the special-interest groups that pushed them with no serious opposition.
Gov. Bill Haslam has, if anything, expanded on the ceremonial traditions of his predecessors.
He traveled to a grocery store in the Southeast Tennessee town of Whitwell to ceremonially sign a bill slightly reducing the sales tax on food, to the Bartlett Justice Center in suburban Memphis to ceremonially sign anti-crime legislation, to Bristol to ceremonially sign a bill outlawing synthetic drugs and to a farm in West Tennessee to ceremonially sign a bill cutting the inheritance tax.
In each case, batches of legislators showed up to applaud the ceremonial signing, which was duly recorded and reported by various television stations and other media. And, naturally, there were pauses for posed pictures of the ceremonially signing governor with all the ceremoniously attending politicians and local dignitaries.
A week or so ago, the governor devoted much of an afternoon in Nashville to ceremonial signings on a mass basis of bills deemed not worth the time and expense of an out-of-town trip — those sponsored by Democrats, for example. Like the “Tennessee Works Act.”
On that one, the smiling governor posed with pen in hand for a picture while completely surrounded by a dozen or more Democrats — a novelty in recent political photography. Republicans are featured most often in bill signings — they pass more bills these days — and like pictures with the governor for use in campaign brochures.
There was one episode of partisan sniping in the aftermath of the Whitwell ceremonial signing. Sen. Eric Stewart, a Democrat who is giving up his seat to run for Congress, was on hand as an area legislator. So was Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Jasper (which, like Whitwell, is in Marion County). Stewart and DesJarlais will be opposing each other on the 4th Congressional District ballot in November.
In a campaign news release, Stewart declared DesJarlais “quite hypocritical” in joining the ceremony. “The congressman wants to be in the photo announcing bipartisan legislation for working Tennessee families that he had absolutely nothing to do with, yet he voted against working families when he had the chance to support them in Washington,” Stewart said.
Setting aside the partisan sniping, one suspects that some GOP legislators, too, might be a bit disconcerted by a congressman climbing aboard the gubernatorial-legislative ceremonial signing showboat. It is traditionally intended for legislators and the governor as sort of a public bonding experience.
Maybe it does cost a few thousand dollars of taxpayer money to have the governor and his entourage travel from one end of the state to another for ceremonial signings that are completely unnecessary. And legislators doubtless bill for a “per diem” day of expense money to attend the functions. The costs in ceremonial pens given away and picture printing costs could be substantial.
Ceremonial signings would probably be on any list of places where spending could be cut, producing more efficient government without impact on effective functioning. Somehow it was apparently missed in the governor’s top-to-bottom review process.
Or maybe not. Perhaps a review found that ceremonial signings are low in cost, and the value received, in terms of legislative and gubernatorial morale, priceless.
Note: This is a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel, also available HERE.