Legislature should pause race to adjournment

Frank CagleFrank Talk

Instead of going into recess for a time, the state legislature is plowing on toward an early adjournment. Who knows what mischief will occur when legislators are making laws while the public and the lobbyists are shut out of the process? And it means a state budget may be passed before anyone has a firm grip on what a pandemic will do to state revenue.

But it’s important to legislators to hurry home and begin fund-raising and running for re-election. Ethics rules do not allow fund-raising during session, hence the haste.

Frank Cagle

The response to the Coronavirus has been a ban on the normal crowds of the public and lobbyists rather than go into recess for two or three weeks. The governor closed the Capitol and the speakers have closed the Cordell Hull Building where the committee rooms and legislator offices are – where the real business of the legislature is done. But the Hull building and the Capitol will still contain 132 members, each with staff, other state employees as well as the press corps. That could add up to 250 to 300 people. Are these people invulnerable?

But the press is allowed in and proceedings are live streamed, so what’s the problem?

The press is there to observe and produce stories. It is not there to debate bills or argue with members and correct misinformation. There are bills which affect local governments but local government representatives won’t be there for the debate. You can watch your bill get gored in committee streamed onto your laptop, but if you aren’t there to argue for it what good does it do?

The legislature used to meet all the way into May but in recent years there has been a major effort to cut session shorter and shorter. On the one hand, your life and property are safer sooner when members leave town. But on the other passing a lot of bills the last two weeks of session can lead to unintended consequences. Or worthy bills run out of time.

The most critical issue facing the legislature has finally moved to the forefront. The only action absolutely required of the legislature is to pass a budget. And the discussion and debate need the public and the lobbyists to participate. Can anyone doubt we are going into a recession? Think of the concerts, billion-dollar basketball tournaments, professional sports cancelled. Nashville will be hard hit as will Sevier County. Empty malls mean less sales tax. In addition to tourism taxes and sales taxes, a disrupted supply chain of parts from China may result in factory closings.

The legislature has bills to cut taxes again, but one assumes no action will be taken in that direction. The comfortable expected budget surplus may not occur. Spending and revenue issues are what the state budget is all about. Do you want legislators making these decisions in a vacuum? Or should there be vigorous debate?

A recess for two or three weeks might present a clearer picture of what will happen to the economy and the budget before final decisions are made. The uncertainty about the future makes it too difficult to make informed decisions. Legislators need to go home and come back when they have more information.

Bet on what? Tennessee is working on producing a sports book, so residents can bet on sporting events. But what if you don’t have any sports to bet on? The state still doesn’t have a program in place, though it was authorized during last year’s session. But the state doesn’t have a casino like other states who have offered sports gambling. Casinos have experience running a sports book and negotiating the fees and regulations of the industry. Tennessee had to start from scratch and dumped the details on the Tennessee Lottery Commission.

The Coronavirus has led to the cancelling of the NCAA “March Madness” tournament, not to mention professional hockey, basketball and baseball spring training. Last year sports books handled $8.5 billion in gambling on the NCAA basketball tournament.

It is not an auspicious time to launch a new sports book when what you have to bet on is Japanese baseball.

Forrest bust to stay: A politically connected policeman in West Tennessee has been named a U.S. Marshal which delays for some months any decision on removing the bust of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust from the state Capitol.

Jackson Deputy Police Chief Tyreece Miller is one of two black members named to the Capitol Commission by Gov. Bill Lee. His leaving the post leaves a vacancy that likely won’t be filled until well after session is over. The first step in removing the bust is a majority vote of the commission.

Look at the signs: It’s becoming more and more obvious that the bean counters and venture capitalists are running the nation’s newspapers. If newspaper people were making these decisions, they’d all die of embarrassment.

Frank Cagle is a veteran news editor.

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