By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Lobbyists are scrambling to nail down sponsors for their clients’ key legislative initiatives following House Speaker Beth Harwell’s announcement that she wants to impose a cap on how many bills are filed each year.
Under the Nashville Republican’s proposal, each lawmaker would be limited to 10 bills each legislative session. That comes out to an average of about two bills each for the more than 500 lobbyists registered to ply their trade at the state Capitol.
“When we heard the news I called one of my colleagues and said, ‘The session just started,'” said Mark Greene, the lobbyist for the Tennessee Lobbyists Association who also specializes in the health field. “The experienced, smart lobbyists got engaged that first day or two and went to people and asked them to hold a spot.”
Greene said lawmakers with a reputation for successfully shepherding bills through the legislative process will be in high demand because of the limits.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get a popular sponsor,” he said. “If you wait until session, those guys are going to be filled up.”
Another effect could be that more junior lawmakers get more involved in prominent legislative initiatives than in the past, he said.
“If you need a bill filed, resourceful lobbyists will find a way to get it done,” he said. “It just may not be the first choice of sponsor.”
Harwell’s proposal would have to be approved by a special committee she will appoint when the session begins. Another part of her plan would reassign several committees to help make their workload more equal.
“Fellow Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville has offered a different approach to limiting bill filing. Under his proposal lawmakers would be limited to seven active bills, but could introduce new measures once one measure either passes or fails for the year.
“It would also allow people who have a little more experience in carrying legislation to carry a few more bills,” Dunn said.
Lobbyist Stewart Clifton, whose clients have included the League of Women Voters, Tennessee Conservation Voters and the Nashville chapter of the YWCA, said he’s concerned about preferential treatment for more powerful interests.
“What does this do to citizen organizations, groups that aren’t heavily involved in campaign financing?” Clifton said. “There is some thought that it will be hard for some (of them) to get the attention of legislators who will sort of naturally be more interested in preserving their 10 bills for large groups or groups they have traditionally worked with.”
Republican Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol said he’s already fielded several calls from lobbyist asking him to reserve one or more of his allotted bills for them.
“But I’m not doing that,” Lundberg said. “Holding spots for lobbyists? No.”
Lundberg said the majority of his 10 bills would be taken up by his longstanding priorities, including proposals to allow wine to be sold in grocery stores, making cock fighting a felony and creating an statewide open container ban. He said he’d hold any spare bills to cover an unexpected need during the session.
“With 10 you need to be very precise about which legislation you truly want to move forward, and which ones are critical to you, the district and the state,” he said.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett as a former state representative and senator was known for filling dozens of bills each session, including measures to increase the state speed limit to 70 mph, require birthdates to be printed in enlarged red lettering on driver’s licenses and making it legal for motorists to take home the deer they kill on state highways.
“I didn’t go to Nashville to play golf or become a country music star,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a chairman of a committee. I was asked by constituents to carry bills and I enjoyed addressing problems people were concerned about.
“I don’t know if limiting it will decrease the size of government,” he said.
Burchett said he understands the urge to reduce flow of legislation. But he said he’s concerned the change will just cause lawmakers and lobbyist to file numerous amendments to bills going through the committees to ensure their priorities make it to a floor vote.
“I don’t know if 10 is the magic number,” Burchett said. “I don’t know what the magic number is.”
Greene, the lobbyist for the lobbying association, said his colleagues are already adjusting the proposed changes.
“People are also telling their clients to lower their expectations,” he said. “Instead of having three or four bills, maybe do one or two, and really focus on those.
“I think that’s the intended effect.”