Sunday column: Legislators rule the roost, in session or out

Judging by some recent reporting, there seems to growing enthusiasm among members of the Tennessee General Assembly for asserting legislative authority when the Legislature is officially off duty— “out of session” in the lingo of Legislatorland.

Indeed, state Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, last week floated the notion of the Legislature being in session more often. He told Johnson City TV station WJHL that there’s a lot of support among colleagues for scheduling a regular September session of the General Assembly and he plans to introduce a bill to launch that process.

A lot of public policy matters come up with the Legislature in exile from April through December, Hawk says, and it makes sense to have lawmakers come in to deal with them rather than leaving everything to the governor.

“From January through April we are an equal third branch of government … but my fear is that the other eight months out of the year we lose that equality as a branch of government. And we are to be the voice of the people,” he said.

Passage of Hawk’s forthcoming bill is unlikely, given that Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey gave a quick thumbs-down response to the idea. Other members of the Republican supermajority are equally loath to do anything that could be portrayed by a critic as a spending more government money — as in the $198 per day each lawmaker gets while in session as a supplement to the modest $20,884 annual salary.

On the other hand, Ramsey is generally a big fan of asserting legislative authority. He recently declared, for example, that any major effort by Gov. Bill Haslam to expand outsourcing of state government should get legislative approval. The governor said he doesn’t know about that since he doesn’t know what he’s going to propose on privatization.

But as a general proposition, perhaps Haslam has learned a lesson from previous attempts to get along with a GOP legislative gang that is more conservative than he is himself and would like to avoid the Legislature as much as possible.

Prime example is his promise to seek legislative approval — arguably unnecessary — before any expansion of Medicaid, then signing a bill that made his promise part of state law. The governor then spent two years negotiating what he considered a conservative reformist Medicaid expansion deal with the federal government, only to have it instantly shot down by the supermajority concerned about anything that could be portrayed by a critic as supporting Obamacare. He’s now basically surrendered on that idea.

A couple of of other recent examples of out-of-session legislator assertiveness:

n The Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability was awarded two months ago a $193,000 federal grant to study whether giving employees paid leave when they act as a “caregiver” for elderly or disabled kinfolk is a good idea. But state Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, pointed out that a bill to authorize the commission to seek such a grant died in a committee she chairs earlier this year and taking the money would be an end-run around legislative authority. The commission promptly retreated and said “no, thanks” to the federal money. The governor was silent during the whole process.

n While Haslam did a 15-city tour of the state to promote the concept of more money being needed for highway construction and maintenance, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy did basically the same thing with a 10-city tour — and pushed the idea of doing nothing for another year or so. Tracy, House Speaker Beth Harwell and others in the supermajority contend the revenue shortfall can should be kicked down the road and, as a stopgap, some surplus state funds should be given to the road program next year. Haslam says something surely needs to be done, but he is unwilling to say what that is and, given GOP legislators’ fear of being portrayed by critics as supporters of a tax increase, will likely go along with the legislative procrastination plan.

Legislative committees, meanwhile, have met out of session to question the Haslam administration’s handling of prison problems and his outsourcing ideas. In both of those cases, the result seems to have been some backpedaling by the governor in an effort to avoid confrontation.

The upshot: Legislators don’t really need to meet in September. They already rule the roost, in session or out.