By Kent Flanagan, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government
Secrecy seemed to be a common thread running through the session of the Tennessee Legislature that ended May 1. The latest “secret” revealed is that key members of the Legislature met on April 23 at a Nashville restaurant of the session to work out deals on amendments to the governor’s $34.1 billion state budget proposal.
The secret session was revealed in an Associated Press story filed the following day. No one in the Legislature or the governor’s office seemed upset that the meeting was held or revealed in news stories. But a representative of Gov. Bill Haslam did take care to note that no one from the governor’s office participated in the weekend meeting.
Tennessee political reporters and observer s know that this happens near the end of every legislative session in Tennessee. And it’s the reason the State Integrity Investigation, a national project to determine the potential for corruption in all 50 states, gave Tennessee a score of 0 out of a possible 100 on whether the "state budgetary process is conducted in a transparent manner."
"There have been secret meetings, I'm not going to deny," House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told the AP. "There's been a lot of secrecy for 200 years. I don't think it's any worse than it's always been."
Despite a flare-up between Senate and House members over so-called pork barrel projects and efforts by the minority Democrats, the budget passed largely as hammered out during that weekend meeting.
Over all, State Integrity gave Tennessee a C+ for receiving 79 points out of 100 for the transparency of its budgeting process even with that big fat 0.
Secrecy was the major sticking point in another bill presented by Gov. Haslam’s Department of Economic and Community Development, which wants to give incentive grants to private companies to bring jobs to the state. In order to perform the department’s due diligence in checking out privately held companies, the state wanted to keep confidential the companies’ identity and all proprietary information. The administration and legislators were unable to reach agreement on confidentiality and the measure did not pass.
On the other hand, public teacher evaluation scores, under a new system developed last year, will remain confidential under legislation negotiated between the governor and Legislature with the Tennessee Education Association.
The bill to amend the public records act was passed quickly and with little fanfare through the use of a “caption” bill, which was passed largely unnoticed in a Senate committee before open government activists had a chance to oppose it. The only relevant element on the caption bill was the reference to “public records” before the rest of the caption was rewritten to keep teacher evaluation scores secret.
Still another bill brought by the administration would keep secret the names of all applicants for the top job at Tennessee’s universities and colleges except for the finalists. The amended bill called for finalists' names to be announced at least 15 days before the appointment is made and required that officials publicly name at least three finalists for each post.
To find out more about issues of transparency in Tennessee, visit the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.