By standards of legislative speed of the not-too-distant past, the so-called “guns in parking lots” bill roared through the General Assembly at a breakneck pace, crossing the finish line at just one month after starting.
The bill (SB142) was introduced Jan. 28 and sent to the governor Feb. 28. If you subtract the days legislators were not working during that period, just 18 days were involved. That, folks, is warp speed in Legislatorland, especially on a matter of some controversy. It may be an indication of things to come.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner says the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cosby, spent 11 minutes in his speech in support of the measure on the House floor Thursday, while one committee approved the bill after just six minutes discussion.
Indeed, the only lengthy discussion — one hour and 20 minutes, including Faison’s speech — came on the House floor. That was because 13 amendments were proposed and it took awhile to kill them all in a methodical manner.
Now, this was something of a special situation. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell both pushed for rapid action, deeming that legislators had spent entirely too much time last year in inconclusive arguing over the issue, which pits gun-owner rights against property-owner rights. Once the leadership had decided what should be done — the “compromise” was crafted by Ramsey — they wanted no time wasted in doing it.
Harwell’s new 15-bill limit has reduced the number of bills filed this year, as compared to last, by about one-third. The speakers have set a goal of adjourning by April 19. Under the normal schedule of legislators working four days per week, there will be 28 more days to deal with almost 1,400 bills.
At the committee level, things do appear to be functioning efficiently. At one typical House committee meeting last week, for example, it took about two minutes to kill a Democratic-sponsored bill to allow Election Day voter registration in Tennessee and about five minutes to approve a Republican-sponsored bill putting new restrictions on local government contracts with businesses.
The latter bill (HB501) says cities and counties cannot insist on a wage level higher than the minimum wage, cannot require that companies offer insurance or family leave to employees and cannot enforce “wage theft” laws, which deal with situations wherein an employer doesn’t pay salaries as promised. The only discussion was a Democrat asking the sponsor, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, whether he had discussed the bill with any representatives of city or county governments. No, said Casada, but he had spoken with the Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations, which considered the bill “business friendly.” The measure was thereupon approved by voice vote.
There is some concern, publicly voiced by Democrats and quietly by some Republicans, that super speed might lead to crashes along the legislative highway. Or at least a wrong turn or two.
There does seem an increasing tendency not to hold as much discussion of legislation in public committee meetings and instead work things out with various special interests, their lobbyists and any opposing legislators in advance, privately. That may be great for efficiency, but not necessarily healthy in the long run for open government and healthy debate.
At this point, to the credit of leadership, the supermajority has not really run roughshod over the superminority. Democrats have been allowed to sound off. Ditto for Republicans who may be pushing a bill or viewpoint unpopular with the leaders.
There have been occasions when Republicans in charge seemed close to shutting off comment to speed things along. Say, for instance, in a hearing on voucher legislation last week presided over by House Education Subcommittee Chairman Mark White
Without getting into the full back-and-forth, suffice to say that it was clear White didn’t wan to waste time hearing a woman’s anti-voucher commentary but relented under Democratic Rep. Joe Pitts’ courteous-but-slightly-barbed prodding.
The hurry-up routine will likely reach the point where obstacles to the Republican railroad are simply overrun. That happened in old Democratic rule days, too.
It just didn’t happen until June or so.