Spot check on legislative pre-meetings reveals significant debate

News reporters Joel Ebert with The Tennessean and Rick Locker with The Commercial Appeal attended four legislative pre-meetings of House committees Monday as part of Sunshine Week to spot check what happens there.

Pre-meetings came under criticism last year after news reporters were initially shut out. Lawmakers defend them as a way to work out logistics before the real committee meeting that takes place, where votes are taken and the proceeding is video-recorded and streamed live on the Internet on the General Assembly’s website.

Ebert and Locker reported that not all House and Senate committees have such pre-meetings, but the ones checked on Monday drew some large crowds of lobbyists and representatives from state agencies.

Read the full story: House continues practice of pre-meetings

Here’s a taste of what the reporters recorded, from the story:

Six Republicans and two Democrats attended Monday’s pre-meeting of the House Civil Justice Committee. Lawmakers discussed a series of bills, including one that would change the age threshold for obtaining a handgun carry permit.

Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said the bill is going to apply to members of the Tennessee National Guard, as a follow-up to the Chattanooga shootings last summer.

Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, talked about her MaKayla’s Law bill, which would make it a crime for a gun owner to recklessly leave a gun in an area accessible to children.Jones asked Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Hendersonville, whether she’s “OK with the bill.” Rogers said she wants “to hear about the rest of it.”

At the education committee pre-meeting, lawmakers went through a number of bills and asked anyone in attendance to weigh in on a bill as it came up. In some instances, there was significant discussion between lawmakers and lobbyists, including those representing the Tennessee Education Association and the University of Tennessee.

At a transportation committee pre-meeting, as many as 23 people, including lawmakers and officials with various state agencies, discussed legislation that would allow public-private partnerships for mass transit projects in Middle Tennessee. The meeting was significantly more casual than typical committee meetings.

At several points, the audience laughed at jokes before continuing their discussion of bills. Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, led the meeting and was asked by someone attending  about the possibility of allowing testimony about a bill in full committee. Weaver said she would allow the person to speak for a few minutes before “the shut up music comes on.”

While discussing a bill from Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Franklin, which would grant a 50 percent discount on the vehicle registration fee for persons 65 or older, Weaver asked Sexton if the legislation was something that was brought forward by a constituent.

After Sexton admitted that it was, Weaver said, “We want you to present it, we want you to talk about it. … I want to make sure you’re on record for taking it.”

While discussing a bill he was sponsoring, Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, who is chairman of the full transportation committee, said he would allow a constituent to testify about the bill before allowing others to testify against it.

“And then I’m going to ask one of you to move it to a summer study and going to give it a soft landing,” he said.


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