On Limited Legislators and the Self-Restrained Governor

Gov. Bill Haslam graciously consented to including a 75-bill limit on annual introductions of legislation by his administration last week and the restriction was thereupon approved as part of House rules — along with a 15-bill limit on legislators.
As a practical matter, of course, this is not a big restraint upon gubernatorial production of legislative ideas. Last year, Haslam’s administration proposed 55 bills. So, if he meets the new limit, the governor will have 20 more bills under the restriction this year than under last year’s unlimited filing.
In contrast, some individual legislators introduced more than 100 bills last session. The 15-bill limit will thus mean a big change in such folks’ standard operating procedure — perhaps for the better in many cases.
Still, the practical effect is a limitation on legislators; no limitation on the governor. A handful of representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, complained about this as a lessening of legislative powers versus gubernatorial powers.

They’re probably right. And there are other indications that our popular governor, generally liked by fellow Republicans and even by Democrats (at least as compared to some others in his party), is incrementally increasing gubernatorial power with legislative acquiescence.
Under one of those 55 administration bills last year, Haslam took for himself the power to hire and fire executive directors of some key state entities, notably including the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. The governor has not exercised his right to fire the longtime executive directors now in place, but the power is there.
Also last session, via a Republican legislative initiative, various “oversight” legislative committees were abolished. The primary duty of these joint House-Senate panels was to watch over executive branch operations, dragging in commissioners for hearings and annoying questions every so often. Eliminating the panels may be seen as another bow to gubernatorial superiority.
Democrats last week were noting that one of the areas overseen by an abolished oversight committee — the Department of Children’s Services — has come in for a lot of critical attention lately. Another, the Department of Corrections, has reported a looming shortage of prison bed space.
Indirectly, Haslam’s successful initiative to abolish the state’s civil service system, replacing it with a system that gives the chief executive more firm control over hiring and firing state employees, may be seen as lessening legislative oversight.
This year, the Legislature will be voting on whether to give its final approval to a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would allow the governor to appoint appeals court judges without input from a Judicial Nominating Commission.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said that he sees this as a lessening of legislative power and a growth of gubernatorial power but will still probably vote for it because it’s the “only game in town” given the complicated legislative situation.
The proposed amendment calls for legislative confirmation of the governor’s appointment, but as a practical matter the Legislature isn’t going to reject anyone likely to be appointed. And the proposal says that, if the Legislature doesn’t act in 60 days while in session, the appointment is considered affirmed.
Decades ago, when the Democrats held lopsided majorities in the Legislature and the governor was always a member of the same party, the General Assembly was widely regarded as little more than a rubber stamp for the governor. It’s said that governors dictated who would be elected speaker of the House and Senate.
In the 1960s, the Democratic-controlled Legislature staged something of a rebellion against gubernatorial power and eventually won. The General Assembly has since taken pride in functioning as an independent, co-equal body.
(Note: No, I was not covering the Legislature in those days. But when I started doing so, circa 1980, there were still a lot of people around who went through the independence assertion era.)
The Tennessee political power pendulum appears to be swinging back toward the governor today while we have the same basic setup — one-party dominance and a popular governor legislators are loath to criticize. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Maybe the state needs less legislating and more gubernatorial guidance. Just like in the old days.

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