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VOL. 43 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 11, 2019

Tennessee House to require 2 lawmakers to file complaints

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NASHVILLE (AP) — The Tennessee House signed off Thursday on a proposal dictating that ethics complaints must be co-signed by at least two lawmakers before they can be filed.

It's a change the sponsor says is based on the Bible.

"It's a biblical standard that we've seen used many times ... Anytime you have a complaint, having two people come forward who could corroborate what happened is important," said Rep. Matthew Hill, a Republican from Jonesborough. "You can't just make up accusations. We need a better system."

Hill and other supporters say the change is needed to prevent unnecessary complaints. However, critics say they fear such a reporting system would raise more barriers to making complaints in a system that has handled few complaints in recent years.

Previously, any lawmaker could file a complaint to the House Ethics Committee against another House member without needing a second witness or evidence. The new change requires at least two lawmakers to file a complaint, but only one person needs to have direct knowledge or evidence of the violation.

The new requirement doesn't apply to the General Assembly's sexual harassment policy — which allows any person to report an incident.

In the Tennessee Senate, the process is remaining the same: members of the public may file a complaint against a lawmaker to the Senate Ethics Committee. In the House, only lawmakers may file complaints. Neither committee, however, is known for meeting often or taking up that many possible violations.

Separately, the Tennessee Ethics Commission also handles ethics complaints submitted by the public, but only on issues related to lobbying or statements of economic interest.

Hill didn't cite a specific passage from the Bible and the rule itself doesn't mention religion. Furthermore, Hill only mentioned the change was based on the bible while explaining the various rule changes proposed for this legislative session at a House GOP caucus meeting where The Associated Press and other reporters were in attendance.

House GOP leaders have declared all caucus meetings closed to the media this year unless they agree in advance to open the meeting to reporters. For Thursday's meeting, reporters were invited to attend.

Once the caucus meeting concluded, lawmakers were asked to approve the rules — which ranged from ethics complaints to how many bills a lawmaker can introduce in a year — on the House floor. Hill didn't mention the "biblical standard" while debating the rule change on the House floor where both Republicans and Democrats were in attendance.

"I'm fearful that we won't know the full impact until we have a problem," said Rep. Ryan Williams, a Republican from Cookeville. "The intent of it is good and I'm going to reluctantly support it today knowing that it'll take two-third majority to reverse if we don't like it."

Williams also questioned the need for the change by pointing out there's only been a handful of ethics complaint filed over the past 10 years.

Democratic Rep. Michael Stewart of Nashville said he was worried the House was making it harder, not easier, to file an ethics complaint.

"My concern is requiring to get a second member potentially creates another barrier," he said. "That's a real concern of mine."

The rules were approved 80-16. The House then underwent a 30-minute training session on preventing workplace discrimination.

That same biblical standard surfaced during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign when a campaign adviser for now Gov.-elect Bill Lee raised eyebrows when footage of a sermon surfaced of him saying the Bible requires victims of sexual misconduct and other offenses to have at least two or three witnesses.

Lee's team said the biblical requirement would not become the state standard as governor.

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