Tennessee lawmakers squash ‘sunshine’ bills

Tuesday, March 20, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A few Tennessee citizens last week distributed black blindfolds at Legislative Plaza in Nashville after state lawmakers virtually killed proposals designed to make the government more open to the public.

“The state Legislature is being run by a small group of legislators and big-money lobbyists who want to keep Tennessee voters and taxpayers in the dark,” protester Ben Cunningham told the Associated Press on March 14.

Cunningham, a Nashville real estate developer, said the blindfolds were given out to symbolize how little lawmakers let the voters know about their plans.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s like a dictatorship.”

The House State Government Subcommittee on March 14 defeated two bills that would have opened legislative meetings to the public and required recorded votes in all committees.

The first measure, House Bill 755, would have required that all meetings of the General Assembly and its committees and subcommittees be open to the public. That measure was postponed pending the state Supreme Court’s action in a lawsuit challenging the General Assembly’s right to hold closed meetings.

The state high court yesterday refused to hear arguments in that case.

The second measure, HB 756, would have required roll-call votes in all committees and subcommittees, which now work on a voice-vote system. That measure was delayed until July 4 — after legislators plan to be finished for the year. Any bill not decided before the General Assembly finishes its session is dead.

Rep. David Davis, R-Johnson City, who introduced the defeated bills, still has two pieces of legislation pending. One measure, HB 754, combines several open-government proposals and is currently before the State Government Subcommittee.

The other measure, HB 757, would require legislative votes to be posted on the Internet. The State Government Subcommittee delayed the bill until March 28, but supporters don’t expect it to survive.

Frank Gibson, chairman of the Tennessee Press Association’s Freedom of Information Committee and government editor for The Tennessean of Nashville, says some legislators are uncomfortable discussing certain bills before the public.

“Some leaders claim they don’t get as much done in the public view as in private,” he said. “I think they don’t want the public to see the political considerations that go into some of their votes.”

Gibson said journalists had expected Davis’ open-meetings bill to be squashed because of the pending state Supreme Court case. The high court’s refusal yesterday to hear that case allows state lawmakers to continue to meet privately when they see fit. That practice was challenged in a lawsuit by law student Mark Mayhew and various news organizations, including The Tennessean.

A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals in January overturned a lower court ruling in favor of Mayhew. The panel said the state’s 26-year-old Open Meetings Act did not apply to the legislative branch because the General Assembly did not include itself in the law.

But Gibson said, “Everyone including the legislature assumed they were subject” to the law. “So the fact that this discussion is taking place is sort of ironic.”

The state House and Senate rules say that all committee meetings are open to the public, except when committee members vote to hold secret meetings to discuss national or state security or impeachment matters.

Gibson says no other meetings are supposed to be closed. “But they have done that,” he said. “So they have violated their own rules, but they haven’t been penalized for violating the rules.”

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