By Chas Sisk / The Tennessean
Republican leaders capped the number of bills lawmakers can
introduce in the state House of Representatives and shook up the
committees in both chambers, moves that could strengthen their hold over
the General Assembly.
House Speaker Beth Harwell won approval for
plans to reorganize committees and to bar members from asking others to
cast votes for them when they are absent. House lawmakers also agreed
to limit each member to 15 bills a year, despite opposition from members
who described the cap as an effort to muzzle them.
Gov. Ron Ramsey removed state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, from her
position as chair of the Judiciary Committee. Ramsey, R-Blountville,
said he decided to relieve her because he'd been "disappointed a time or
two with some of her decisions."
The changes could rein in a
state legislature that has earned a reputation for wildness. In recent
years, Republican leaders have complained frequently that some debates -
on topics like the proper waistline for pants, whether roadkill should
be eaten and the possibility that a United Nations iniatitive is a
secret communist plot - have overshadowed their work and earned outsized
"The quality of legislation will be
enhanced," said state Rep. Steve McDaniel, the Parkers Crossroads
Republican who presented the plan.
Tennessee lawmakers have become
known for producing volumes of legislation. They filed more than 5,000
bills and resolutions in the past two years alone, much of which failed
to advance out of committee.
Harwell, R-Nashville, and others have
argued that these bills take up staff time and are costly to print. She
originally proposed a limit of 10 bills each.
With 99 members, a
15-bill limit should theoretically cut the number of measures filed by
about 40 percent. But with numerous exemptions, it is unclear whether
the limit will succeed in reducing the volume of legislation.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, predicted the limit will simply prolong
debates as lawmakers try to pin their ideas onto other measures as
Meanwhile, state Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, described
the limit as censorship. He said constituents expect lawmakers to spark
debate by filing bills - even if they have no likelihood of passing -
and questioned whether the limit violated lawmakers' right to free
"This is not Russia," he said. "This is not the chamber of a communist country."
State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, countered that lawmakers could be effective under a bill limit.
"Moses did a really good job with just 10 laws," he said. "We're given 15 apiece."
Harwell also won support for her plan to split several key committees and merge others.
reorganization includes splitting the State and Local Government
Committee into two pieces. The Commerce and Judiciary committees were
Meanwhile, Harwell merged the Conservation and
Environment Committee with the Agriculture Committee. Children and
Family Affairs was also eliminated, with much of its functions being
transferred to the new Civil Justice Committee, which also will take on
some judicial issues.
Harwell said the changes were meant to balance the workload between committees. But the reorganization gave her a chance to name eight new committee chairs.
Ramsey's changes to Senate committees were not as extensive, though they could have a major impact nonetheless.
biggest move was to replace Beavers with state Sen. Brian Kelsey,
R-Memphis, a one-time backbencher whose standing among Republican
lawmakers has risen steadily over the past few years.
frequently sparred with the judicial branch and often has split with the
Republican caucus on key issues, such as the GOP-authored redistricting
plan passed last year. Earlier this year, she lost a vote to remain the
Senate Republican Caucus's treasurer.
Ramsey took Beavers off the
Judiciary Committee entirely while naming three freshman senators to
the panel. He declined to name specific issues on which he had differed
with her but acknowledged their disagreements were the main factor for
"Everybody needs to be a team player, and sometimes I
wondered about that," Ramsey explained. "That's as far as I'll go about
that. ... It's a combination of things. I don't want to pin it on any
Over in the Senate, lawmakers wrapped up business for
the week without settling on whether to bind the chamber to the state's
Open Meetings Act.