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VOL. 36 | NO. 50 | Friday, December 14, 2012

Harwell proposes bill limits, committee shakeup

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NASHVILLE (AP) - State House Speaker Beth Harwell on Wednesday proposed an overhaul of the way the lower chamber of the Tennessee General Assembly does business, including limiting members to 10 bills per session and restructuring the committee system.

The Nashville Republican said the changes would streamline operations, save money and "help members prioritize what's most important to them." The limits would not apply to bills affecting local issues or to lawmakers carrying bills that are part of the governor's legislative agenda.

Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, applauded the efforts to stem the avalanche of bills filed every session, many of which are duplicates.

"It's worth trying to see if it results in less overlap and more efficiently," he said. "As long as it doesn't unduly cut off any issue that should be dealt with."

Rep. Curtis Johnson, of Clarksville, estimated the House would save "hundreds of thou sands of dollars" from the changes.

"You've all been there at the end of session where our legal staff is working until the wee hours of the morning in fiscal review," said Johnson, the Republican nominee to become House speaker pro tempore. "If we have 1,000 or 4,000 bills, they have to treat every one of them the same."

The shakeup includes splitting the State and Local Government Committee into separate panels and merging the agriculture and environment committees. The powerful Judiciary Committee would be split into criminal and civil justice panels, and the latter would absorb most of the duties of the Children and Family Affairs Committee.

"We sat down and analyzed the workload of committees in the General Assembly, there were some committees that had fewer than 100 bills, and we had some committees that more than 500 or 600 bills," Harwell said.

Harwell said she will also set stricter voting guidelines on the House floor, banning members from vo ting for colleagues who are away from their desks.

"This clearly states that a member on the electronic machine votes for his or herself, and no one else," she said. "I think that's an expectation that the taxpayers have upon us."

Lawmakers who are conferring with other members away from their desks will still be allowed to signal the speaker or clerks about their votes, she said.

Another proposed change would limit each lawmaker to two floor presentations per session.

"When someone is recognized on the House floor, it's very prestigious," Harwell said. "And we want it to be very dignified and a true honor to be brought on the House floor. And I think members just need to prioritize again who they bring to the floor and pace themselves."

The changes would have to be approved by the House Rules Committee after the Legislature convenes next month. Harwell said she will make her appointments for committee membership and chairs once the new rules are approved.

Newly elected Democratic Rep. Harold Love of Nashville said the proposed bill limits could lead to better communication among lawmakers.

"I think it will cause more conversation among legislators about ... what bills are priorities and how someone can work with someone else to make sure they get their priorities taken care of," he said.