State Rep. Eddie Yokley, D-Greeneville, spent 10 minutes (one-sixth of the hour) getting clarification on his son's yard-mowing business. Would he have to report on his disclosure form all the yards that his son mows? No. A
legislator needed clarification on whether she had to report serving on a board for her church. There were also questions about the difference between serving on a bank board and serving on a church board. Only legislators would fail to see the difference.
I went to Nashville last week to watch the sausages being made; the more things change, the more they remain the same. Legislators are waiting around to find out if a federal judge will require them to cough up another $600 million for TennCare. Until they get the ruling, there isn't any possibility of passing any legislation that costs money. Legislators complain that they are doing nothing, accomplishing little. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Things are so boring legislators are talking about ethics reform.
The House leadership desperately wants to pass a "bipartisan" bill, to avoid current ethics problems being labeled a Democrat problem. (It is a coincidence that issues have been raised about Sen. John Ford, Sen. Jerry Cooper and Rep. Ben West, all Democrats.) The only bipartisan idea I ran across is that most legislators of both parties want to avoid voting on a bill requiring lobbyists to reveal how much they are paid to influence legislation. It's not that they are that sensitive to lobbyists' feelings, but they do want to avoid making them so mad they dry up campaign contributions.
The lobbyists say what they make for writing bills, passing bills and regulating your life or your business isn't any of your concern. It's none of your business how much they get paid to shape worker compensation and bank regulations, to regulate the health care industry or to kill anti-littering bills. It would be an invasion of their privacy.
The salaries that are currently public record include TVA employees, state employees, city and county employees, judges, district attorneys, legislators and teachers. People who take these jobs know that they are public record because they involve the expenditure of taxpayer or ratepayer money. But it is somehow terribly wrong to expect the same sort of disclosure for the 500 people who really decide which bills get passed and which bills get killed. It's a ridiculous argument that is laughable everywhere except in the Legislative Plaza. I firmly believe that there are about 10 lobbyists who would have to report income from $500,000 to $1 million per session.
In the House government operations subcommittee last week the calendar included Democratic State Rep. Frank Buck's bill to disclose lobbyist compensation. Citizens groups had come to the Capitol twice before to lobby for the bill, and it was put off each time. They were there again last week for the third time, about 50 people squeezed into the smallest committee room. There were a couple of minor amendments to another ethics bill up first that had to do with legislator disclosure forms. The amendments would require legislators to report outside income, the income of family members and the source of the income. The chair announced that the subcommittee meeting would last an hour. Members were ready. The filibuster started.
State Rep. Eddie Yokley, D-Greeneville, spent 10 minutes (one-sixth of the hour) getting clarification on his son's yard-mowing business. Would he have to report on his disclosure form all the yards that his son mows? No. A Memphis legislator needed clarification on whether she had to report serving on a board for her church. There were also questions about the difference between serving on a bank board and serving on a church board. Only legislators would fail to see the difference.
So on and on it went until the hour was almost expended. In the final few minutes the committee passed a bill presented by Majority Leader Kim McMillan, D-Clarksville, that does require lobbyists to report the total spent per session entertaining legislators, without naming the legislators. Then the chair announced that time had expired and that the remainder of the calendar would be taken up again in a couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, the Chattanooga Times Free Press has reported that lobbyists in Georgia reported spending $745,000 on lunches, liquor, neckties, ball caps, tickets to sporting events and newspaper subscriptions for Georgia legislators. The Georgia Legislature passed a bill this session that requires lobbyists to report any client that pays them more than $10,000.
Looking at the issue from the outside, it's obvious that the people of Tennessee want some serious ethics legislation and they want disclosure. The reputation of the Legislature is at stake. But inside the Plaza, with 500 lobbyists lining the halls, the issue isn't very clear.
Still, the momentum is there for something to be done. Ethics reforms declared a "farce" early in the session are now being studied. McMillan and Minority Leader Tre Hargett are working on a comprehensive package of reforms. But read carefully. Will lobbyist disclosure be included? What will be the enforcement mechanism? And what will be the penalty for violations?