Friday, April 18, 2014

About That Closed-Door Amp Conference Committee

Posted By on Fri, Apr 18, 2014 at 9:28 AM

If you're unfamiliar with the way the end of a state legislative session plays out, here's how it goes.

Once the deadline the legislature has set for no particular reason is in sight, they throw out most of the rules that keep the legislative process moving slow. Under normal rules, it moves slowly enough for it to seem like something you could call a process at all. But when the deadline approaches, they suspend rules requiring a certain amount of time between votes, and capping the number of bills allowed on an agenda, and basically anything that would impede their now-urgent progress. Rules that were so important to ensuring that state government is an open process that citizens can observe and even participate in are discarded because they have to get out of here. For some reason.

As this chaos plays out, there will inevitably be some matters on which the House and Senate come to a different conclusion. When one chamber passes a version of a bill with different language than the version passed by the other chamber, the legislation is often sent to a conference committee made up of three members from each body who are charged with hashing out a compromise.

The speaker of the Senate and the House respectively will appoint the members of the committee while their chambers are in session, but that is the last it will be spoken of publicly until the committee members return with a new version of the bill. There is no announcement about when or where this meeting will be held, and unlike the legislature's other business, they are typically not streamed on the Internet. (If memory serves, a conference committee on the budget a couple of years ago was broadcast after some legislators pressed the issue, but that was a rare if not totally unique event.)

If you're a reporter you sit in the House or the Senate and watch the members who have been appointed to the committee, and when they leave you follow them to whatever small office or glorified closet will act as their meeting room.

All that to say, the final days of the session, and conference committees in particular, are not exactly examples of transparency and open government in action. In a piece nearly two years ago, I referred to it as a "frenzied lawmaking orgy." I should have also mentioned that, occasionally, they even turn out the lights.

Anyhow, this is what happened yesterday, after the House and Senate appointed conference committees on legislation related to Mayor Karl Dean's bus rapid transit project, The Amp. I followed Sens. Jim Tracy, Frank Niceley, and Charlotte Burks into a small office outside of the Senate chambers reserved for the Speaker of the House. We arrived to find the members appointed by the House — Reps. Mike Turner, Jeremy Durham, and Tilman Goins. And that's when Turner, the Nashville Democrat serving his last day at the legislature, said that "they" had asked him to ask the media — of which I was the only representative — and lobbyists to leave the room "if you don't mind." I asked Turner, what if we do mind? In that case, he said, we would be removed.

And that's when I, and some lobbyist types including Stop Amp's Rick Williams, and some staff left the room. I shouldn't have left without an explanation as to whether he was really allowed to eject us from the meeting, and if so, where it was written. I won't next time.

As we left, Speaker Beth Harwell entered, and the door was shut. They emerged shortly thereafter with the bill that was ultimately approved by both chambers.

Other conference committees went down differently. My colleague Andrea Zelinski reports walking into the committee on Common Core legislation to find the members filing into the speaker's office, signing what was apparently an already-agreed-upon deal, and then filing right out. At the same time as the committee on the Amp-related bill was another conference committee on anti-meth legislation. That committee, according to reporters who were there, functioned more like you might expect: both sides talked through their differences, a lawyer was on hand to work out the language, and the media was allowed to stand there and watch.

It's not completely clear whether ejecting me and others from the conference committee was against the law and/or the rules, or just a transgression against tradition and good taste. But it was certainly the latter. No reporter I spoke to could recall finding a conference committee closed, much less getting kicked out of one, during this session or any other. And some of them have been covering the legislature since you could still smoke in a committee meeting.

Then again, when asked about the situation yesterday, Turner said "I think the rules say that we try to have open meetings unless there's a reason for us not to."

And as it happens, he was just about reciting Section II, Article 22 of the Tennessee Constitution, which reads: "The doors of each House and of committees of the whole shall be kept open, unless when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret."

I've asked for some more clarity about where the laws and rules and policies of the legislature come down on this sort of thing. For now, the reason the meeting was closed is apparently "such as ought to be kept secret" as well. Turner explained vaguely that the deal on the Amp-related bill could have affected other bills, although he said it didn't end up playing out that way. When asked whether the people should know about that — whether a major proposed Metro project up for horse trading, for instance — he recalled handing me a copy of the final legislation as he walked out of the meeting.

"I think the people send us up here to do that, and I think that we represent the people, and I think we represent the people's interest, and they know what we did," he said.

But that's the thing. We don't.

All things considered, what happened yesterday wasn't really that dramatic. I wouldn't call my exit from the meeting voluntary, but it wasn't completely forced. It's not as if anyone was roughed up. But the principle is what matters. If the only difference between your committee meeting and the back room meetings of old is that yours is non-smoking, you're doing it wrong.

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