Senator Mark Norris
9A Legislative Plaza,
Nashville, Tennessee 37243-0232
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By Tom Humphrey, KnoxNews.com
January 9, 2013
NASHVILLE — While leaders of the House Republican Caucus contend the group can continue holding meetings behind closed doors, Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris said Wednesday that he believes the Senate Republican Caucus is obliged to meet in public.
Norris said he would be willing to support an amendment to Senate rules that would “clarify” that GOP caucus meetings are open, though he believes they already are. His comments came during debate before the Senate Rules Committee on a proposal by Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, to make the Senate subject to the state’s open meetings law, which now exempts the Legislature while applying to city and county government meetings.
Norris said the Senate in May of 2011 voted unanimously to incorporate a 2006 statute that says meetings of a quorum of the House and Senate must be open to the public except when considering impeachments or matters of state and national security. And to close meetings in such cases, there must be a two-thirds vote of the House or Senate, the statute says.
A quorum of the Senate is 22 members. This year there are 26 Republicans in the Senate Republican Caucus. That, said Norris, means the Senate Republican Caucus must follow the rules and have open meetings.
House rules, on the other hand, do not incorporate a reference to the 2006 statute and, therefore, the old statute does not apply. The law itself, enacted as part of a special session on ethics in 2006, says that it cannot impact future legislative session but declares future sessions are “strongly encouraged” to bind themselves by incorporating the statue.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada said the issue of opening caucus meetings has been discussed and there was a general agreement that this year the meetings would be open when legislative matters were discussed but closed when “personal matters” are discussed. He conceded that what is covered by personal matters can be “deep and wide.”
In the last legislative session, House Republican Caucus meetings were regularly closed to the media and public.
Last session, the House Republican Caucus had 64 members, two shy of a quorum of the full House. This year, the Caucus has 70 members, well over a quorum.
Casada said he had not considered the suggestion made by Norris that, since the Republican caucuses now constitute a quorum of the full Legislature, they should have open meetings. He said the issue would be discussed in future House Republican Caucus meetings, including the possibility of incorporating the 2006 statute into House rules.
Norris suggested that Kyle’s push for a floor debate on adopting the open meetings law “would be a show” and that open meetings are already assured in the Senate. Kyle said he believes the current setup is not working and openness and transparency would be enhanced with legislators following the same law that applies to cities and counties.
Kyle put off a vote of the Rules Committee on his proposal.
The panel did approve six minor changes to Senate rules. One of them would change the titles of committee officers from chairman, vice chairman and secretary to chairman, first vice chairman and second vice chairman. The panel was told that Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey believes the term “secretary” is “antiquated.”