frank_talk (2006-13)

New Age Assembly

A changing legislative culture gets an ethics boost

by Frank Cagle

I spent some time in Nashville last week. I wanted to see what an ethical Legislature looks like, as opposed to the bad old days before the new ethics bill was passed.

The most striking visual was 10 legislators sitting around a restaurant table figuring out how to split the check and compute the tip without the help of a lobbyist. I’m told it was not an uncommon sight last session or in this one—the rank and file legislators “got it” early on and have come to prefer getting together with each other for fellowship and to discuss issues. The nightly lobbyist-paid bacchanals have, for some time, been the practice of a very small group of insiders. Rumor has it that business at Texas Roadhouse is up while business at the more pricey eateries is down.

An insider told me about a lobbyist friend who was concerned about turning in less than $150 in expenses for the month. How does a lobbyist show his client he is working if he doesn’t have restaurant receipts to prove it?

I’m told some of the members of the Knox delegation occasionally get together for “potluck” with state Rep. Harry Brooks providing a pot of stew or state Rep. Parkey Strader a pot of chili. Rep. Joe Armstrong and I had appetizers one night from the case of canned Vienna sausages Strader keeps around, accompanied by saltine crackers.

The culture of the Legislature has been changing for several years. Newer members have generally preferred to stick to business and visit with each other after hours. It should be noted that many of the legislators caught up in the Tennessee Waltz FBI sting were long-time members. The watershed event in beginning the culture change in the Legislature was the income tax vote in 2002. That turmoil and its aftermath sent a lot of the old guard home. They were replaced by serious people, many of them Christian conservatives, who arrived with a sense of purpose, not with an expectation of getting free tickets to Disney World.

The influence of lobbyists on legislators with after-hours entertaining has always been the principle issue in ethics legislation. But what may be even more important is the result of the ban—free nights out on the town are replaced by dinners between legislators who can talk freely among themselves about philosophical issues, constituent concerns and the ins and outs of a particular bill.

I’m not talking about committee members plotting strategy, but members from diverse backgrounds talking about issues in general, which may be the best continuing education legislators can receive. It has really been beneficial for the younger members.

Rumor also has it that many more long-time members will not be running in the next election, because “it isn’t fun anymore.”

Goodbye and good riddance.

Cultural observations aside, the Legislature’s business appears to be business as usual. The most important thing that occurred last week was the House Judiciary Committee sending out a bill on eminent domain.

Eminent domain has been a hot issue with the public and with a lot of legislators since the Supreme Court said it was up to state and local governments to decide the limits on whether private property can be forcibly purchased from one private owner and sold to another. More than 50 bills were introduced, but, as usual, lobbyists decided what the final bill would contain.

The Tennessee Municipal League and the Farm Bureau shaped the final bill carried by House Judiciary Chair Joe Fowlkes. It is unlikely to be changed from the version that emerged from the Judiciary Committee last week. One good thing the bill does is to say that “public use” does not include using eminent domain to transfer property to increase tax revenues—the issue in the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. New London decision. If passed, the bill takes effect July 1, the beginning of the state fiscal year.

The TML got an exemption in the bill for the acquisition of property by a housing authority or community development agency to implement an urban renewal or redevelopment plan in a blighted area. A blighted area is defined as “areas with buildings or improvements which, by reason of dilapidation, obsolescence, overcrowding, lack of ventilation, light and sanitary facilities, deleterious land use, or any combination of these or other factors, are detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community. Welfare of the community does not include the need for increased tax revenues.”

But the most glaring problem with it is the “protection” afforded farmland. In order to take farmland for an industrial park you must get a “certificate” from the state Department of Economic and Community Development that it is needed. The day ECD turns down a request for an industrial park will be the day people in hell start ice-skating.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .