Steve Gill Commentary: Are Summer Legislative Study Sessions and Meetings Worth the Cost to Taxpayers?

Steve Gill
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Conservatives disagree on many policies among ourselves, but in general we do agree in strengthening the free enterprise system, championing families and pro-moting limited and efficient government. Conservatives detest waste, fraud, and abuse—especially in government.

In January Tennessee will have a new Governor, due to Governor Haslam being term-limited, and a new Speaker of the House, because Speaker Beth Harwell is running for Governor rather than for re-election to her House seat. A large number of new legislators will be sworn in as well, due to an extremely high turnover this cycle resulting from retirements, those seeking higher office and others who have taken government jobs. Those new leaders will have a unique opportunity to make a compelling case for more efficient and effective government operations while exercising spending restraint to keep the state’s budget under control.

One area that candidates who are looking to fill those slots should focus on is the unnecessary cost of travel for meetings and attendance at legislative conferences and summer study meetings. Do we really care what the California or New York legislative delegations think about most issues facing Tennessee? Our House members are elected every two years, so why during election years would you hold a meeting during the campaign season — unless it is to score political points and receive free media coverage to promote a reelection campaign.

The tasks associated with performing the duties of office are certainly difficult to separate from those of a candidate. So, meetings held while an office holder is campaigning for office are debatable. If the purpose is to address an urgent issue, that could not be addressed during regular session then that might make sense. For example, if the state had a natural disaster or a catastrophic event then meetings to develop and implement strategies and to allocate funding to deal with those events would be reasonable.

Keep in mind that no action can be taken by a legislative committee without the passage of legislation by the full General Assembly. Meetings for the sake of meetings waste taxpayer money. Tennessee legislators receive a per diem pay-ment for reimbursement for meals and incidentals, and in most cases hotel ex-penses, for each legislative day; they are also reimbursed for miles traveled to and from the Capitol. Many of the legislators attending the committee meetings this summer are not seeing reelection and others may not even be re-elected.

A big part of the problem is legislators who prefer to “kick the can” down the road during legislative sessions rather than definitively killing or passing a bill. Sending a bill to “summer study” allows them to not have to say no to sponsors, donors or lobbyists — they just push it off and let it die in the dark. Then they tell constitu-ents that demanded some particular piece of legislation that they “did their best.” In the interests of taxpayers, most bills should be passed or killed during the Ses-sion, with very few exceptions.

While legislators cannot legally raise campaign funds during the legislative ses-sion these summer committee meetings provide a great opportunity to reconnect with lobbyists and special interests who gather in the meeting rooms as potential legislative items are discussed. These gatherings are a great way for incumbents to raise additional campaign donations by reminding the lobbyists and their cli-ents what can, and cannot, happen if certain incumbents — hint, hint – don’t return in January. But what is the value to taxpayers who are paying the bills?

This week the Government Operations Joint Committee will convene for no par-ticularly urgent or significant discussion of legislation on Wednesday to discuss the Questar contract regarding testing. The Commissioner of Education has been requested to appear, but she has apparently not been provided with any indica-tion of what the Committee is planning to discuss. A report from the Comptroller is being prepared that will focus on the problems involved with the recent testing failures and security of that testing process, including whether or not the system was “hacked” earlier this year. However, that report will not be available until sometime later this Fall. The current contract with Questar is being negotiated and it has already been announced that for 2019-20 the testing contract will be re-bid. So, other than political grandstanding or a stab at free media, what’s the purpose of the Committee meeting?

From a taxpayer standpoint, is this costly meeting necessary or even marginally justifiable? Will it produce ANY tangible results? What about the dozens of others of similarly wasteful and unnecessary legislative meetings during the next few months? Republicans are fond of talking about “draining the swamp” when it comes to Washington, and rightly so. But the drainage process needs to extend to Nashville as well so long as legislative leaders allow this abuse of taxpayer dollars by the Committee Chairs (who they appoint) to continue.

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Steve Gill is Political Editor of The Tennessee Star.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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