Questions abound over closed-door legislative session

House budget hearings head  in Nashville on Dec. 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The closure of General Assembly proceedings to the public in response to the coronavirus pandemic is raising questions about fairness in the legislative process.

Under the guidance issued by the governor and the speakers on Friday, no one other than lawmakers, staff, and the media, will be allowed inside the Capitol complex. That means entry will be barred to all other parties interested in the fate of  legislative initiatives.

While lawmakers like to downplay the effect Capitol visitors have on their ultimate votes, there’s little question that advocates — both professional and amateur — can have a huge effect.

A prime example was last year’s passage of the $27 million Katie Beckett waiver to cover healthcare costs for children with disabilities whose families wouldn’t otherwise meet income restrictions. That Medicaid expansion took place following a concerted effort by parents to bring their children to lawmakers’ offices and committee meetings to make their case for the waiver.

Big public participation in legislative debates is usually reserved for the hot-button topics, and this year’s session still has several of those pending. They include bills on abortion, guns, and medical marijuana. There are are also several less public, but just as hotly-contested items being still being wrangled about, ranging from the regulation of roadside billboards to updating online sales tax requirements.

Lobbyists fear that if they are excluded from the building, the governor’s army of legislative liaisons (who as staff are expected to keep their access to the building) will have unchecked influence with lawmakers.

The word from legislative leaders is that members will be urged to set aside bills unrelated to the getting the budget enacted, but it remains to be seen how lawmakers will react to putting their pet legislation to bed for at least another year. There are also several bills still pending that would have an impact budget, both in terms of new revenue and over spending priorities.

For now, the public is told to just watch the live-streaming video if they want to keep up with proceedings. But as anybody who’s spent time at the legislative office complex knows, just about everything of consequence happens off camera.

3 Responses to Questions abound over closed-door legislative session

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    LeeAnn C. says:

    ” But as anybody who’s spent time at the legislative office complex knows, just about everything of consequence happens off camera.” So, if you haven’t already done your due diligence to communicate with your legislator, it’s already too late. I’d be happy if the media was also excluded since the sessions are available via the General Assembly’s website. The media doesn’t deserve any special exceptions that aren’t extended to the general public. After all, is the media less germy than Joe Public Citizen?

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    JEH says:

    The media will be what saves this country and democracy by dispatching information to thousands of readers and viewers, many more than the general assembly’s website -so yes they deserve special exceptions. Someone needs to be watching the lawmakers, the more eyes the better . And its a lot harder to look a person in the eye and vote against their child’s health care than read an email and dismiss it, so no—its not to be dismissed for lack of “due diligence.”

  • Avatar
    LeeAnn C. says:

    The media is hardly trustworthy. I’ll watch the sessions of interest and they could certainly do the same. The media’s mission is no longer to inform the public but to manipulate headlines for the biggest drama.

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