Who’s torpedoing whom?

Johnson City Press • Feb 2, 2019 at 7:30 AM

Without a paper trail, it may be impossible to definitively know whether anyone in Tennessee government has been actively inflating cost estimates on pending legislation.

State Rep. Micah Van Huss recently penned a letter to his fellow members of the Tennessee House of Representatives accusing an unnamed state judicial branch employee of offering to help kill “bad” bills by inflating the cost estimates for implementation sent to the Fiscal Review Committee. A fiscal note is a committee statement that determines the financial effect of a bill, resolution or amendment.

As Staff Writer Zach Vance reported in Friday’s edition, Van Huss said he met with a “department director” on Tuesday to discuss how that government official could be of service to the Constitutional Protections and Sentencing Subcommittee this session.

“One of the very first things this person said to me was that, if there is a bad bill, they would be able to put a big fiscal note on it,” Van Huss wrote in the letter. “A similar statement was made a second time during the course of the meeting.”

The accusation is alarming, especially if such a shell game is standard practice among state officials and not just an isolated comment by an aggressive employee. Van Huss is correct in saying it is not a bureaucrat’s job to try to kill legislation that someone deems bad.

Government employees never should attempt to influence legislative action with misleading or false information. Politicians do that quite well enough on their own.

Fiscal notes should be prepared with due diligence and as much accuracy as possible. They should also be comprehensive.

Among the complaints legislators have levied about fiscal notes are the estimates for court costs associated with defending controversial laws, particularly those that undoubtedly will be challenged from the left. It’s especially costly to defend laws that would test court decisions already in place, including those of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Take for example Van Huss’ fetal heartbeat bill, which would significantly limit abortions performed in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Lee has announced his support. Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas and Minnesota have similar bills pending.

Just last week, Iowa’s heartbeat law, which was signed in May, was struck down by an Iowa judge. Federal courts also have struck down heartbeat laws in North Dakota and Arkansas. The North Dakota decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

Any merits or flaws to the bill itself aside — that debate will play out on its own — Tennessee and other states would be in for a whale of a fight in the courts. The fiscal note undoubtedly will be huge — again — much to Van Huss and other backers’ chagrin.

Regardless of whether state employees are regularly trying to torpedo bills, the mere suggestion of inflation makes for a preemptive strike.

We certainly hope any note on any bill will truly represent the state’s best guess on costs — with the documentation to back it up.

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