State Senator Kerry Roberts Explains the Tennessee General Assembly’s Protocol and Personality


Live from Music Row Tuesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – Leahy was joined in the studio during the program’s second hour by Tennessee state Senator Kerry Roberts.

During the segment, Roberts and Leahy discussed the bill process in Tennessee’s General Assembly including the differences between House and Senate. Specifically, Roberts identified the differences and protocol via committees and subcommittees noting strategies that can be used to kill or pass a bill forward.

Leahy: We are joined by our good friend state Senator Kerry Roberts here who’s coming down. He comes down every Tuesday morning from Sumner County and joins us. Kerry Roberts, welcome to The Tennessee Star Report. I can see you are here in your very comfortable camouflage outfit. You weren’t at the Second Amendment rally in Richmond there were you?

Roberts: (Laughs) I got punch my buttons right here?

Leahy: Punch the buttons and you are in the studio.

Roberts: It’s not about having camouflage, it’s about having something warm on.

Leahy: It is a little brisk today, isn’t it Kerry?

Roberts: Yes indeed. So normally, I have these camo pants obviously people can’t see what I’m wearing, but they’re lined. They are like flannel on the inside and it’s what I wear when I feed my horses.

Leahy: How many horses do you have?

Roberts: Three little piggies out in the field.

Leahy: So you’ve got some land up there?

Roberts: Yeah. Small farm. About 30 acres.

Leahy: Do you actually grow things on your farm?

Roberts: I grow grass. (Men laugh) Not to be confused with the decriminalization of marijuana. I grow hay for horses. So and square bale it and sell it to horse owners.

Leahy: So in my mind’s eye, I’d love to have a farm. That’s my mind’s eye. And the reality is I don’t really want to do any of the work.

Roberts: Yeah.

Leahy: How about if I owned the farm and people did the work and I didn’t have to pay them. (Leahy laughs)

Roberts: I don’t have that kind of money, so I’m not going to kid my self. You know, we live in an old house built in the 1860s. We actually have 15 acres and rent 15 acres. So when I say we’re on 30.

Leahy: But you own 30?

Roberts: Own 15 and rent 15.

Leahy: OK. Got it.

Roberts: I just decided that as far as growing things, I’d just started growing hay. We had cows at the time and switched over to horses. It’s hard for people to find square bales. Nobody does it anymore. You know the farmers don’t roll their hay any more right? You see people out bailing the field and it’s a big roll of hay. It’s not a square bale anymore. There’s a lot of work to pick it up.

Leahy: When I was a kid in upstate New York, haying in the summer at that time there were a lot of dairy farms. And typically they would be at that time you’d have maybe 100, 200, 300 acres of farmland. And then the herds would be 50-200. And every kid would go out. If you needed money and you lived nearby you would go and you would hay. It was haaard work. I actually did it once, and I was just exhausted. (Laughs)

Roberts: I grew up doing it on my grandpa’s farm. It’s funny, you get older and things that were hard you have a lot of nostalgia for.

Leahy: But you don’t want to do it again. (Chuckles)

Roberts: I’ll never do that when I get older. But here I am. I like doing it. I use old stuff to do it. My newest tractor is from 1959.

Leahy: There you go. So speaking of work, the Tennessee General Assembly…

Roberts: We went back in session last week…

Leahy: Back in session last week.  Tell us, what’s that like? What’s going on? What are the priorities?

Roberts: So a general assembly is like a game with half time except the first half was last year and the second half is this year. It spans two years.

Leahy: The state representatives are elected for a two-year term.

Roberts: Two-year term.

Leahy: And there are 99 in the state of Tennessee. There are 33 state senators.

Roberts: Correct.

Leahy: They are elected for a term of four years. And so every two years, about half of them, 16 or 17 are up for reelection. You just got reelected right?

Roberts: In 2018. So I’m up in 2022.

Leahy: So you are up in 2022.

Roberts: So I’m not in a presidential cycle. It’s a two-edged sword. There are some presidential cycles which are good for you and some are bad for you. I think Trump is just going to steamroll Tennessee.

Leahy: In Tennessee. What you find is typically voter turnout in a Presidential year is…

Roberts: Higher.

Leahy: It is like, 65 percent. 60 percent.

Roberts: It’s significant. I wish I brought my briefcase. I actually have the numbers from the last presidential election.

Leahy: And the non-presidential years and the midterms typically it’s about 40-45 percent turnout of registered voters. So what are the big agenda items? And by the way, I had a Twitter question for you that was posted last week and I’ll ask you that about the Heartbeat Bill and the status of that. What’s going on? What’s the big news in the Tennessee General Assembly?

Roberts: To set the stage here is House members have a 15 bill limit. So you can expect every House member to have 15 bills so you’re going to have 1500 bills you’re going to have to consider. Not all of them move forward.

Leahy: Mercifully so. (Laughs)

Roberts: People don’t realize this we have a bicameral system.

Leahy: By the way, for our listeners. Take your civics notes here. There is one state in the union that does not have a bicameral state legislature. It’s unicameral. And it’s Nebraska.

Roberts: That’s correct. The Corn husker state only has one chamber which is really kind of weird. A bill, just to remind everybody has to be filed in both the House and the Senate. But it can get changed along the way.

Leahy: As it goes through, the committees have hearings. And then somebody on the committee says, “I don’t like section 3024, part A, section 2.”

Roberts: Yes.

Leahy: And I want to change it.

Roberts: Yes.

Leahy: And they change it in committee sometimes.

Roberts: Or you can completely re-write a bill. Here’s what’s unique about Tennessee. So the bill can only relate to that section of code that it’s designed to amend or insert. You can’t add the golden toilet seat like they do in Washington. That’s the metaphor of throwing some pork. Don’t bribe me for my vote. It doesn’t work in Tennessee. So the Tennessee Constitution prohibits that.

Leahy: There’s a lot of great things about the Tennessee Constitution and that’s one of them.

Roberts: The gas tax increase. I thought it was unconstitutional because it addressed more than one subject. And specifically, you try not to be able to add things to a bill to get a vote. Well, what tax reduction here has to do with the tax increase there?

Well, their logic was that it was constitutional. I disagree. You know, I’m not the arbiter of what is and isn’t constitutional. But I thought it was unconstitutional, and they thought it was. So there you have it.

Leahy: That was a classic jam down of the governor’s agenda.

Roberts: And that’s the point. It’s not supposed to happen that way. And the other thing people need to note is that if you lose anywhere along the way in either chamber it’s over.

Leahy: It’s over.

Roberts: It’s completely over.

Leahy: So it goes to a subcommittee right?

Roberts: In the House.

Leahy: OK.

Roberts: But we don’t tend to have subcommittees in the Senate.

Leahy: Because there’s only 33.

Roberts: And I jokingly say it’s the wild wild west in the House committee because it’s a voice vote. I’ve had House members just walk into my office in frustration and say “the I’s have it but the chairman said the no’s had it and there’s no voice vote. “It’s not recorded.

Leahy: What? What? They actually tried to be unfair? I’m shocked. I’m shocked.

Roberts: I have never seen it.

Leahy: Oh, I believe it. I’ve  just heard. I’ve had House members come in and just complain about it. They say that someone will get up and leave. And it’s a majority of whose in the room when they vote. Unlike the Senate where it’s always roll call and it’s always a constitutional majority. And that’s where some shenanigans are at play. So if you want to kill a bill the best place to do it is generally in a House subcommittee.

Leahy: House subcommittee right. So in the House, you go through a subcommittee, then the committee of the area of focus. Then it goes to a rules committee? Where does it go next?

Roberts: So in both of them, after the bill has been filed, it is going to be assigned to a committee generally related to that section of code and topic. In the case of the Senate, there is not a subcommittee, so if something is about an insurance company it will go to the commerce committee.

But if it costs money, it will go to the finance committee. There’s no rules committee along the way here. It’s part of the committee process that everything we do is with attorneys and keeps the constitutional guard rails on. In the House, it’s the same thing.

It will go through the subcommittee and full commerce and maybe subcommittee for full finance. And then, if it passes through all the committee processes and winds up on the committee floor it’s got to have 17 votes on the floor to pass or to fail. You’ve got to have a constitutional majority.

Listen to the full second hour here:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 am to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Kerry Roberts” by Kerry Roberts. Background Photo “Tennessee Senate Floor” by Terrancee. CC BY-SA 3.0.




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