Why Lawmakers Act Out and Waste Time in the General Assembly

Hang onto your wallets and take a care for your liberties. The Tennessee General Assembly is about to crank up again for another spring of creative legislation, wacky speeches, and political pandering in preparation for the upcoming sprint toward re-election.

A few thoughts on our esteemed representatives; I have a slightly different take than some of my colleagues.

Legislators are often scorned for being afraid of the National Rifle Association and passing gun bills, quaking in fear of the special interest group. Most Tennessee legislators are not afraid of the NRA, they are the NRA. Most rural Democrats and most of the Republicans have been members of the NRA for decades. They feel exactly like the NRA lobbyists on most gun issues. The easiest lobbying job in Nashville is the gun lobby. The only controversy on gun issues is an argument over who gets to sponsor which gun bill.

It is also argued that the last session of the Legislature was only about guns and gun bills. The last session of the Legislature passed more bills than any other in modern history. The gun bills got coverage, as they should have, but it doesn’t mean the regular work of the General Assembly did not proceed as usual. There are always one or two big issues that suck up the coverage and the vast majority of legislation passes unnoticed. That’s how we get blindsided with bills like the workman’s comp bill, which turned out to be such a disaster it will have to be dealt with in a special session.

This is not the fault of the people who cover the Legislature. They get limited minutes and inches to report on the doings of the day, and gun bills are going to get more play than workman’s comp.

Legislators were often castigated for arguing about trivial crap or spending all their time on gun bills, when the big issue is the budget. Why weren’t they working on the budget instead of wasting time?

There is a structural flaw in the fiscal year and collection procedures of Tennessee government. A large source of revenue, necessary for computing the budget, is the collection of franchise and excise taxes from businesses. The largest chunk of this revenue arrives in April and is compiled in May. Until an administration has a handle on the amount of these collections, it is not possible to finalize a budget. This is especially true during recessions, when the numbers are often unpredictable.

Gov. Bredesen’s administration, waiting for hard numbers, did not submit a budget to the Legislature until the final two weeks of last session. Hearings were quickly held and, after some stupid posturing in the state Senate, passed pretty much as presented. Expect the same this year.

The state needs to change its fiscal year, change the deadline for tax collections, or move the legislative session later in the year. Or all three. Even though it’s an election year and legislators have an incentive to finish and get home to campaign, the session may run long again this year. Because the revenue collections are screwy, getting a handle on the budget will be difficult. Whatever magic Bredesen uses to balance the budget, don’t expect the Legislature to tamper with it. They don’t have the staff or resources to come up with an alternative and they will be happy to leave the blame or the credit to the governor.

That is not to say there won’t be some posturing and some arguing around the edges, but nothing substantial should be expected.

There are 99 members of the House and 33 members of the Senate. It is a broad mix of personalities, political beliefs, and backgrounds. It is the nature of a legislative body. It is also true that wackiness gets rewarded. Hey, if someone says something stupid, offers outrageous bills, or generally “acts out” they are sure to get attention.

The reward for this behavior, for a House member, is usually a Senate seat.

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