Some state legislators of both parties are criticizing the push to end the legislative session quickly, contending the rush has led to confusion and limited vetting of bills by lawmakers working long hours.
House Calendar Committee Chairman Bill Dunn of Knoxville has become one of the first Republicans to publicly criticize the rush to adjournment, first in a speech to the House Republican Caucus in which he said some colleagues were left “glassy-eyed” by listening to bill presentations hour after hour. He repeated the criticisms in an interview aired Thursday on WPLN, Nashville’s public radio station, that irritated Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey.
“If the speaker of the Senate had to sit in on a committee and study 85 bills and sit there for six hours and try to do his work, he might have a different view,” Dunn said. “He doesn’t feel the pain that we are (feeling).”
Ramsey, specifically citing Dunn’s remarks, devoted the first portion of his weekly news conference later in the day to disputing the notion that lawmakers are working too fast in trying to meet the deadline he and House Speaker Beth Harwell have set for ending the 2013 session. At one point, they had set the date as April 19. Ramsey has since moved it up a day to April 18.
If the target is met, adjournment will come earlier than any annual session of the General Assembly since 1990, according to a listing provided by Ramsey’s office. Last year, adjournment came on May 2.
Sessions in 2001 and 2002 lingered into July.
Dunn recalled going at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to the House Education Subcommittee, which had 85 bills on its agenda and had been meeting since noon. After seeing the “blank stares” from some of the weary committee members, Dunn said he decided to come back another day with the two bills he had to present to the panel.
In some committees, Dunn noted, chairmen are telling citizens or lobbyists wishing to comment on bills that they must limit remarks to one minute as part of the move to speed things up. “A lot folks have a little bit of difficulty in explaining something in 60 seconds,” he said.
Bills are also sometimes coming up for votes — especially when a new amendment has been filed — without legislative staff having time to prepare a “fiscal note,” which provides a calculation of the proposal’s cost to taxpayers. And there are mulitiple meetings at the same time, requiring members of a committee to leave so they can present bills in another committee.
“I do think we’re moving too fast,” said Dunn. “We’re making decisions that will affect people’s lives and livelihoods. They need quality, not quantity.”
“There’s a time for speed and efficiency and a time for quality,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten off balance and we need to get back in balance.”
Dunn said he was also concerned that “lobbyists are going to zero in on the rush-rush” and push complicated changes to bills while things are moving at a hectic pace and with high volume while lawmakers are tired.
“If you’re brain is not comprehending, it’s going to slip right on through,” he said.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner says the Republican supermajority wants to rush to adjournment “so they can brag that they’re more efficient.”
Turner and other Democrats have argued for weeks that speed is likely to lead to mistakes.
Ramsey said “it does bother me” that a member of his own party has raised similar criticism and declared that was not the case in the Senate. When reporters cited recent comments by Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, in committee hearings, Ramsey joked that Niceley is a former House member “and it’ll take him a little time to adjust to the pace (of the Senate).”
Some other senators have questioned the present pace, but Ramsey said that was “mild” and
not like they’re going on public radio. … They’re not that crazy.”
Ramsey also produced figures comparing actions by the Legislature on March 23, 2012, and on the same date this year. He acknowledged the comparison is not exact since lawmakers took a two-week break in January of this year, but did not do so last year. So lawmakers had actually been at work for two more weeks last March 23 than this March 23.
The figures show House committees had 1,018 bills up for consideration and had passed 672 bills in 2012 versus 583 put on notice in committees this year and 463 passed. Looking at the number up for consideration, Ramsey said that it is only about half of this year’s total — refusing the notion that the House is in a rush.
Senate committees had 1,592 bills up for consideration by March 23, 2012, and had passed 672 of them. For this year, the comparable figures were 1,106 considered and 441 passed.
Ramsey said the hours worked by legislators are unlikely to provoke sympathy from “regular citizens” working eight-hour shifts in factory jobs, sometimes with overtime. And he said that, though as speaker he does not sit in on long committee meetings, he does keep track of “about 1,500 bill” and monitors proceedings on streaming video.
“We’ve not made any mistakes I know of,” said Ramsey. “We’re not going fast for the sake of going fast. We’re going fast because it can be done.”