Making the ‘Legislative Train’ Run on Time

We have discussed before the merits of whether cities and counties should be allowed to create new protected classes of citizens, beyond those recognized in state and federal law, and then mandate to private businesses that they “adopt” those new classifications as part of their employment policies. But the debate today in the full House Commerce Committee is the real story.

Today, the state’s capital city squared off with state legislators at our state capitol over House Bill 600. And the House Commerce Committee rightly stepped in to curb the lust for power that would exalt local government over its creator. But the hearing was the story.

We have discussed before the merits of whether cities and counties should be allowed to create new protected classes of citizens, beyond those recognized in state and federal law, and then mandate to private businesses that they “adopt” those new classifications as part of their employment policies. But the debate today in the full House Commerce Committee is the real story.

With Nashville Metro Council having adopted an ordinance last week creating a new protected class of citizens and mandating it on private employers, the issues raised by House Bill 600 were no longer theoretical. The legislature was either going to allow Metro’s ordinance to stand (and allow other local governments to come up with their own new protected classes too), or it was going to tell them they were “out of line.”

With the future power of local governments to assert their autonomy on the line, it really wasn’t too surprising that Metro Councilwoman Erika Gilmore and Councilman Jamie Hollin showed up for the debate in the House Commerce Committee. These Council members were sponsors of Metro’s recently adopted “gay rights” ordinance.

But it became clear early on that a number of the state legislators saw the merits of House Bill 600. Sound comments and arguments in support of the Bill were made by Representatives Curry Todd, Jimmy Matlock, Kent Williams, Phillip Johnson, and Don Miller.

Nevertheless, in the face of a stiff political wind, Councilwoman Gilmore was recognized by Committee Chairman, Steve McManus (R-Cordova), to voice her opposition to House Bill 600. And voice her opposition she did, quite loudly actually. Even Nashville Mayor Karl Dean made an “appearance” via a letter read by Councilwoman Gilmore.

Then, at the conclusion of her remarks, Representative Gilmore (D-Nashville), mother of Councilwoman Gilmore, tried to make a motion to amend House Bill 600 and a motion to move the Bill to a later calendar. Apparently someone was requesting an opinion from the Attorney General about the “lawfulness” of the state stopping Metro’s ordinance.

But Chairman McManus quickly pointed out that she couldn’t make two motions at the same time. So Rep. Gilmore proceeded to offer her amendment that would have exempted Metro from the state law. Rep. Kent Williams (I-Elizabethton) asked to be recognized, and everyone in the room knew he was probably going to offer a motion to table the amendment. The dye seemed to be cast. But, in deference to his colleague, Rep. Williams allowed Rep. Gilmore an opportunity to argue for her amendment.

However, this is where the “fun” began. Rather than arguing for her amendment, Rep. Gilmore kept lapsing into an argument for Metro’s ordinance, repeating much of what her daughter had just said. Three times Chairman McManus warned her to keep her argument directed to the amendment.

But when Rep. Gilmore for a fourth time slipped into a debate over the Metro ordinance itself, an exasperated Chairman McManus slammed down the gavel and ruled her out of order amid Rep. Gilmore’s protestation that this time she really would stick to the merits of her amendment.

But it was too late. Her protest fell on deaf ears, and Chairman McManus recognized Rep. Williams who, true to expectation, moved to lay the amendment on the table. It was time to move. The voice vote on the tabling motion was clearly in support of tabling, but someone asked for a roll call vote. And consistent with the voice vote, the amendment was tabled by a vote of 20 in favor of tabling and 7 against tabling.

As soon as the vote on the tabling motion was announced, someone on the committee called for the previous question. The majority of the Committee had been polite long enough; it was time to move on to other bills. And apparently Chairman McManus agreed.

Moving quickly to bring to an end what appeared to be a foregone conclusion, the Chair asked if there was objection to the question. Then he quickly added, “Hearing no objection, all those in favor say ‘aye.’ Any opposed a like sign.”

Now, if you weren’t used to watching things “go down” in the House, you would have blinked and missed it. The “train” was pulling out of the station, and those not ready and onboard were about to be left behind.

A chorus of “ayes” quickly rose in response to the Chair’s call for the “ayes” and “nays.” Almost simultaneous with Chairman McManus slamming down the gavel and announcing that the “ayes had it,” a lone voice on the committee again called out, “Roll call vote.” But Chairman McManus was not going to prolong the committee’s misery. As if almost completing the rest of the sentence for the person who asked for a roll call, the Chairman noted that there was only one such request to his knowledge (two being required under the rules to “force” a roll call) and the vote had already been taken and announced. And with that Chairman McManus called the next Bill up for consideration.

House Bill 600 thus advanced to this Thursday’s Calendar Committee, at which time the Calendar Committee members will decide whether to send the Bill to the House Floor and, if so, when. So, stay tuned.