The legislature's dizzying finish raises concerns about what's pouring through the pipeline 

Sausage at Super Speed

Sausage at Super Speed

The final days of a legislative session are a dizzying blur. In this frenzied lawmaking orgy, a legislative process that theoretically allows for transparency and openness is severely truncated, if not undermined altogether.

That was the scene on Capitol Hill in recent days as the Tennessee General Assembly stampeded a passel of bills into the narrow chute of the lawmaking apparatus. In a mad dash to gavel out the 2012 session before May, state lawmakers spent their final week on the Hill holding marathon floor sessions and ramrodding through as many bills as could possibly fit in a day.

The occasional recess allowed for committee meetings — where more bills would be piled on the schedule. The result had legislation sluicing through the pipeline at such speed and volume that public scrutiny of any one bill, let alone all of them, became increasingly difficult. Try reading a pamphlet in the jetstream of a fire hose.

The madness began in earnest in early April when legislators, like hungover undergrads realizing the term paper assigned in January is due in mere weeks, decided to speed up the process. In the name of efficiency, legislators employed the common practice of suspending rules that cap the number of bills each chamber can take up. They also lifted requirements demanding a certain amount of time between a bill's passage in committee and its appearance on the floor.

Relegated to mere legislative speed bumps, Democrats briefly held up the effort but eventually acquiesced, with assurances that their members would be able to chime in from time to time. With that, the dam-burst began. Five of the last seven House floor sessions went longer than five hours, broken up only to gather more bills or for Republican leadership to get their caucus in line and keep things moving.

Those unending gatherings included lengthy detours for debates about the insidious nature of Agenda 21 — yes, the U.N.'s sustainable-development plan, a cause of major concern for Tennessee lawmakers if not voters — and whether or not Congress should return to an 1850s understanding of the Commerce Clause. On either side of those diversions, however, a torrent of actual laws was pouring through the legislature's sieve, including:

• Changes to what constitutes agreement between an insurance company and the insured.

• A contentious bill allowing Memphis suburbs to hold referendums on creating municipal school districts.

• A proposal to implement a system of suspicion-based drug-testing for Tennessee welfare applicants.

• A plan to restructure the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.

All of these awaited Gov. Bill Haslam's signature at press time. In among those measures were others aimed at stamping out "Gateway Sexual Activity" in the state's schools; preventing businesses from allowing minors to engage in sex acts on their property; and rewriting the state's controversial cyber-bullying law.

In those fast and furious days, calendars for various committees — as well as those for the House and Senate floor sessions, which are typically posted online for the public to see — became obsolete, if they even appeared at all. All the while, legislators were haggling over the budget, a squabble that led to the first budget conference committee in more than a decade.

The budget conference committee met on a Friday night, just hours after its formation. It might have done so out of the public eye were it not for Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, who requested that it be streamed live on the Internet.

Just as the speed and dramatically magnified scope of the legislature's work blurred its activities, it also allowed legislators to resurrect (nearly) dead bills and force them back into the fray. A once-dead piece of guns legislation and the infamous "Don't Say Gay" bill were at the center of short-lived attempts at doing just that, although party leaders eventually squashed both bills.

The most interesting example, though, is a bill once thought dead that was brought back up on the second to last day of the session. Originally, the bill, sponsored by Rep. Glen Casada, would have repealed limits on the total amount of money individual candidates can receive from political action committees and corporations. Casada had taken the bill "off notice," which is typically a sign that the sponsor does not intend to pursue the bill any further.

But in an early morning committee meeting, Casada called the bill up again and added an amendment that would have given corporations the freedom to act as individuals or as PACs when making political donations. The committee adopted the amendment and passed the bill — over the objections of Democrats, who decried the "last hour" attempt to make such a change in campaign finance laws.

Under normal circumstances, Casada's resurrected bill would likely have been caught ahead of time by reporters or citizens keeping a close eye on the committee's calendar. At the very least, there would have been days, if not weeks, between its surprise appearance in the committee and a vote on the House floor.

As people questioned the action on Twitter, House Republican communications director Brent Leatherwood asserted that it was technically proper. "Still going thru process, just at abbreviated pace," he tweeted in response to News Channel 5's Phil Williams, who had posted a link to a story on the bill.

As Leatherwood said, the bill was technically going through the process. But in the accelerated final days, a bill granting corporations the benefits of acting as an average citizen, without the accompanying limitations, went from committee to the House floor in a matter of hours. Had Casada not withdrawn the bill the next day, Tennessee's campaign finance laws could have changed before most citizens had time to drive to the Capitol, let alone watch it happen.

The effects of legislators' haste were not confined to the daylight hours. With the blinding pride of Ahab in search of the great white whale, they continued on into the night of Monday, April 30, after finally passing the budget, hoping they might be able to say they finished before May. (The legislature adjourned Tuesday night; only one other time since 1970 has it spent so few days in actual session.) Although it soon became evident that they'd be returning the next day, they struggled on until 10 p.m.

Somewhere around 8:30 Monday night, they took up perhaps the most controversial item under consideration: a bill that would prohibit universities from implementing all-comers policies for student organizations. Though designed to govern state schools, the bill specifically targets private Vanderbilt University, where the issue has resulted in a face-off between campus conservatives and the university administration.

The legislature fired its warning shot across West End by way of an amendment that skipped the committee process and was added on the floor, despite objection from some party leaders. For the second night in less than a week, lawmakers engaged in heated after-hours debate on a bill that opponents called an unprecedented case of the state interfering with the affairs of a private university — no small irony in a legislature controlled by laissez-faire Republicans.

After more than an hour of debate, the legislature passed the bill, which is now awaiting a decision from the governor. Add it to this session's pile of quietly introduced, quickly debated, hastily approved legislation, which Tennessee's citizens will have plenty of time to read — and hopefully not regret — in the slow, cold light of day.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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