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VOL. 35 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 15, 2011

Assembly passed 154 bills in 3 days

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Pressed by GOP leaders to end the legislative session earlier than usual, the General Assembly passed 154 bills in the final three days of the session, 30 percent of the year's entire package of enacted legislation.

According to an Associated Press analysis of public records, lawmakers moved out 133 of them in the final two days. That number was roughly a fourth of the 510 bills the Secretary of State's office lists as passing both chambers during the session that stretched from Jan. 11 to May 21.

"That was utterly ridiculous," said Democratic Rep. Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, who tried to get lawmakers to extend the session a few days. "It's just all because they wanted to rush this thing through, and for what reason I'm not sure except for them to be able to say that they got us out on that particular day."

Among the bills were items that were extensively debated, such as reshaping tenure and collective bargaining for teachers. Others got little attention, including measures that brought far-reaching changes to how residents are allowed to use the Internet, and some are going to need to be redone in the next session because they contained mistakes.

At the time, Republicans pointed to their ability to end the session before Memorial Day as a sign of how efficiently they run state government. "Feels good to be home on a Monday knowing I don't have to drive in to Nashville. And you save money because of it!" Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey posted on his Twitter account on May 23.

David Smith, spokesman for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who wants to reduce the number of bills filed by a third, said it's not unusual for a large number of bills to be pushed through at the end of session.

"Historically, as the Legislature nears the end of any session and works longer hours, there are typically more bills moving to the floor for final consideration," Smith said.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis agreed, but said "there was a greater push this year than in previous years."

"The natural function of the Legislature is to have a lot of bills at the end of session because so many bills go behind the budget, and you can't take up the bills until we pass the budget," he said. "But it did appear to me that there was a great deal of interest in trying to get out as quickly as possible and meeting their goal. It doesn't surprise me that some mistakes would have been made."

One issue that made headlines after the session was confusion over an attempt to cut off tax dollars to Planned Parenthood.

When lawmakers passed the state budget, an amendment was inserted declaring that all federal money sent to Tennessee for family-planning services "shall be used fully" by government-run health agencies and none "shall be paid to third-party providers or private organizations or entities."

However, a second amendment basically nullified that action by stating the first should not supersede provisions of federal and state law.

State law said all federal Title X funding goes to state and local health departments, unless they can't provide all the services required, in which case the state can contract with private agencies such as the nonprofit Planned Parenthood.

The sponsor of the first amendment said the second one was "arguable" and he was trying to find out why it wasn't removed as he was told it would be.

Ramsey told reporters last week that the matter was an oversight and had nothing to do with adjourning early.

"I think we saved the taxpayers over half a million dollars by the time we got out this year compared to last year," said the Blountville Republican. "I plan on adopting a schedule ... to get out what I consider on time next year, too."

There's no correction, but lawmakers in the next session are expected to clarify a measure that caps payouts for medical malpractice and other civil cases at $750,000 for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. The issue still under discussion deals with bodily injury.

The original House version sought to lift the cap on non-economic damages if the defendant caused the injury while committing a felony. But the chamber agreed to Senate language to lift the cap only if the defendant is found to have intended to cause bodily injury.

The main sponsor of the House version said he's filed legislation for next year to adopt the House standard.

In some cases, lawmakers didn't realize the impact of some of the bills they pushed through. For instance, one broadens the offense of harassment to include the electronic communication of certain images. Another makes it a crime to use a friend's login — even with permission — to listen to songs or watch movies from online entertainment services such as Netflix or Rhapsody, a law that is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick acknowledged, "There were some mistakes made and some things overlooked." Nevertheless, the Chattanooga Republican didn't think the session needed to be extended.

"It can literally drag on for months with some of the people we have in the Legislature," he said. "You have to set a deadline and stick to it, even if we have to come back the following year and clean up some things."

The General Assembly adjourned on June 10 last year, and June 18 in 2009. An early adjournment means the state doesn't have to continue paying lawmakers their $185 daily per diem. They are paid an $18,000 salary for the part-time job.

Vanderbilt political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said because a large number of bills are usually addressed toward the end of session, the main concern — particularly with the public — is "if any of the mistakes have major repercussions."

"If you find out that because of the rush to get out you made mistakes that really have costs that are not easily correctable, then I think that's something else," he said. "But I think if they're modest, or minor, then the public really doesn't pay too much attention to that."

However, while Republicans have worked to show their efficiency in the last days of the session, another incident that's drawn national attention shows one freshman GOP member may not have used her time constructively — literally.

Rep. Julia Hurley of Lenoir City told the Knoxville News Sentinel last week that she carved her initials into her desk during a late-night House floor session in May. The House speaker has said the initials will be removed at the fellow Republican lawmaker's expense.

"It was like 1 in the morning on the last day of the session," Hurley told the paper. "I wasn't thinking straight."

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