NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — In politics, those who have the power make the rules.
In the Tennessee House of Representatives, an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered they also ignore the rules they don't like.
Those questionable practices allow the state's Republican supermajority to introduce dramatic changes in legislation with no public notice. They can also kill bills they don't like without anyone knowing who did it.
A couple of recent examples: a bill to require high schools to tell seniors how they can register to vote, another just to study whether college student IDs can be used for voting — both killed this past session in committee on unrecorded voice votes.
"What we're experiencing now is an abuse of power," said House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville.
"They have so much power, and they don't know how to wield it."
In committee on the Senate side, also controlled by a GOP supermajority, committee members themselves decide whether bills live or die with recorded roll-call votes.
On the House side, that power is wielded almost exclusively by the people who chair the committees and who rule based on what they think they hear on voice votes.
"Democracy is dead here in Tennessee as it stands right now," Dixie said.
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, agreed.
"This is not democracy as far as I'm concerned," she said.
Their concerns are shared by people on the other end of the spectrum, including the head of the libertarian Americans for Prosperity of Tennessee.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Tori Venable, "The amendment system, absolutely. This is where we need transparency."
It was a process we saw play out in real time this session as we watched seemingly innocuous bills being amended in committee to make dramatic changes.
"This voice vote thing," Venable continued, "we've seen plenty of committees — I'm sure you did a piece on that Airbnb one — where it sounded one way and it went another way."
NewsChannel 5 asked House Speaker Cameron Sexton about those complaints.
We noted, "You have committee chairs single-handedly deciding whether bills live or die. Is that democracy?"
"I don't think they single-handedly do that," the Crossville Republican answered.
But, in the case of a bill to require state election officials to simply study the possible use of student IDs by college students to vote, it was gaveled dead by Murfreesboro Republican Tim Rudd before the voice vote was even finished.
Activists later confronted him about the vote.
"I think we had five," student activist Justin Jones told Rudd, referring to the number of votes.
"No," the chairman insisted.
"How many did we have?" Jones followed up.
Rudd's response: "I go with the voice level."
We wanted to give Rudd a chance to explain as he entered the House chambers before a recent session.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "You gaveled a bill dead before you even heard the votes. Can you explain that?"
"I don't know what you are talking about," he answered, continuing to walk away.
"Can you stop?" we asked.
"No," Rudd replied, "I don't know what you're talking about."
In fact, the House committee rules say: "All votes constituting final action on any bill or resolution shall be by roll call vote."
But with Republicans holding an absolute supermajority, there's no one to force them to follow their own rules.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Dixie, "What I hear you saying is that they're just making these rules up as they go along."
"You heard me correctly," the House Democratic Caucus chair responded.
Our investigation also discovered that when those voice votes occur, legislative cameras focus on the chairperson so the public can't see how the members vote.
"People are paying more and more attention these days — and they are trying to hide what they are doing up here," Johnson said.
The House Speaker downplayed those concerns.
"I think what you have is you have a process where the sponsor of any legislation in the House when they are standing up there can request a roll-call vote."
Yet, in the House Local Government Committee, Vincent Dixie's request for a roll-call vote was denied because, according to the chair, the committee had already voted to add a technical amendment to the bill.
That bill, drafted by area high school students, would simply have required schools to inform 18-year-olds how they could register to vote.
"I asked for a roll call vote because I wanted people to see the obstacles that we face here on a daily basis," Dixie said.
In fact, the House rules say "a roll call vote shall be taken at the request of the sponsor of the bill or resolution under consideration prior to any vote."
The Republicans re-interpret that as "prior to any votes of any kind being taken."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates told Speaker Sexton, "The rules say you can ask for a roll call before any vote."
"Corr... no, before any vote is taken," Sexton said.
We noted, "That's not what the rules say."
The Speaker's response: "I would have to refer you to the Clerk."
And when it came time to vote, some of the students thought they heard more ayes than nays.
Chairman John Crawford gaveled the bill dead.
"The no's have it," the Kingsport Republican declared.
Sexton also noted that the rules say, if there's a question about a voice vote, three members can raise their hands and demand a roll call.
But in the House subcommittees, there are just one or two Democrats -- and NewsChannel 5 Investigates never saw any sign that Republicans were willing to challenge the calls of their chairs.
We noted to Gloria Johnson, "The situation you're describing means these committee chairs are extremely powerful?"
"And they definitely have a plan of what's going to happen," she said.
Two weeks after Vincent Dixie's bill, we were in that same committee as it considered a campaign finance bill pushed by the Speaker himself, and Chairman John Crawford invited the committee to vote to allow a late-filed amendment most people had never seen.
"If somebody makes a motion again to take it up and it gets a second, then I don't have a choice but to take it to a vote," Crawford explained to NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
But, on Dixie's school voting bill, Crawford ruled that the Nashville Democrat could not present a late-filed amendment meant to clarify his bill.
Crawford was asked specifically, "Do we have an opportunity to vote the untimely amendment up or down. I know in some committees we do that."
The chairman responded, "I know it's been done in other committees, but we've not accepted an untimely filed amendment — and I'm not going to start today."
The Kingsport Republican told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that he did not see any inconsistency.
"Well, I said we don't take up untimely filed amendments. We hadn't taken any up to that point all year long."
Gloria Johnson's reaction: "They absolutely have too much power, change the rules as it suits them."
In fact, we saw some other committees readily accepting late-filed amendments the public has never seen, which is exactly what happened with the Speaker's campaign finance bill.
"How can you expect someone to vote on something when they haven't read it? Vote on it to know what's in it?" Tori Venable asked.
Gloria Johnson complained about other amendments that she never saw until it came time to vote on them.
Even when amendments are filed in advance, they are posted in an obscure place on the House website, often buried with hundreds of pages of amendments for other bills.
Veteran lobbyists privately admit that it can be difficult for them to track, suggesting it can be almost impossible for members of the public.
We asked Johnson, "You think that is deliberate?"
"I absolutely think it's deliberate," she insisted. "It's a way to keep the public from knowing what they're doing until it's been voted on."
SPECIAL SECTION: Revealed
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