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VOL. 39 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 13, 2015

Tennessee House speaker calls for 'pre-meeting' transparency

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NASHVILLE (AP) - House Speaker Beth Harwell on Wednesday called for transparency in legislative "pre-meetings," a day after the state's four largest newspapers and The Associated Press reported about the growing trend of secret committee discussions about pending legislation.

The Nashville Republican urged committee chairs to establish an "open door policy" for the meetings about pending legislation held by at least 10 of 15 House committees and their subcommittees, according to a memo obtained by the AP.

"I would like to ensure the process is open and accessible," Harwell said in the memo. "I believe these are two things the public expects and deserves, and we always want the citizens of Tennessee to have faith in this process."

Supporters of pre-meetings argued they allowed for free-flowing discussion about bills without lobbyists, the media or parliamentary procedure. But without public access, it was impossible to verify whether lawmakers were keeping promises that they are not predetermining the outcome of later votes before bills formally came before committees.

When reporters confronted Harwell about the pre-meetings on Monday, she said she left it to her committee chairs to decide whether or when to hold them. She also stressed that she never held pre-meetings when she was a committee chairwoman prior to becoming speaker.

After being pressed for more information about a pre-meeting being held by the House Civil Justice Committee in her conference room, Harwell persuaded Chairman Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, to admit the media.

Harwell on Wednesday asked her committee and subcommittee chairs announce the time and location of any pre-meeting and permit the public to attend.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam earlier declined to weigh in on whether it was proper for House committees to meet in private.

The governor told reporters after an economic development announcement Tuesday that he will let the GOP-controlled House and Senate "decide how they do business themselves."

"I don't know how prevalent they are, or what happens in those meetings, so I'm just probably not the right person to comment," Haslam said.

The Tennessee Constitution guarantees the right of the public to attend proceedings of the Legislature.

But the General Assembly is exempt from open meetings and open records laws.

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