There seems to be little doubt that when the next session of the Tennessee General Assembly convenes in January, it will begin a process of fundamentally altering the basic means by which it has operated for most of its history. By all accounts -- that of Governor Phil Bredesen as well as those of the leaderships of both houses and of both parties of the legislature -- there will be significant and far-reaching ethics legislation. As we have pointed out before, public demand will insist on it.
Unfortunately, that's the point at which agreement ceases. Partisan differences persist on the shape of things to come, and prominent individuals have their disagreements as well.
One of the points at issue is the nature of the proposed state Ethics Commission. The legislation which will be presented to the legislature refers to that body as "independent," but Memphian Mike Cody, one of the co-chairs of an advisory ethics panel appointed earlier by the governor, said last month he thought that its composition -- three Democrats, three Republicans; two members each appointed by the governor and the two legislative chambers -- played too much to the status quo. Cody suggested an appointment procedure wholly outside existing government councils.
Another disagreement revolves around the nature of proposed constraints against contributions by lobbyists to legislators. One weakness was recently acknowledged by state senator Jim Kyle of Memphis, the senate Democratic leader and one of the six-member bipartisan leadership group that will submit the proposed ethics bill. Though certain limits will also be imposed on political action committees (PACs), no restriction would be placed on "the number of PACs you can create or contribute to." Clearly, lobbyists could use that or some other mode of indirection to get around the suggested prohibitions. As state senator Steve Cohen has pointed out, the proposed bill would leave lobbyists free to contribute to the two-party caucuses, which could then allocate to individual members at the party leaderships' discretion.
These are legitimate points worthy of discussion, debate, and potential compromise. Not so good is another kind of objection that has lately reared itself. As one objector, state representative Henri Brooks of Memphis, put it, "If the proposed legislation passes the way it is, you are definitely going to minimize and marginalize the pool of potential people that serve up here." Brooks went on to suggest that the bill's various safeguards against undue financial influence on the part of lobbyists and others would render only "the wealthy" able to hold public office in Tennessee.
We hope that Brooks means something other than what her words might be taken to mean -- that a little money under the table might be a necessary supplement to struggling legislators' income. She'd be on more solid ground arguing for an increase in legislative salaries and perks -- or even a break from what Kyle described as the "Southern" model of part-time citizen legislatures.
Still, something good is almost certain to occur next year, no matter what the shape of the final ethics bill. In the aftermath of the Tennnessee Waltz, almost anything would be better than nothing.