Tennessee Republican lawmakers are close to passing two bills that would further decrease government transparency and accountability. We say Republicans because they hold supermajorities in both chambers — 73-26 in the House and 27-6 in the Senate.
Senate Bill 1125/House Bill 235 would change the dollar threshold for local boards of education to make purchases by competitive bids. Instead of being required to solicit bids for anything $10,000 or more, the minimum threshold would be raised to $25,000.
The House version has been placed on that body’s regular calendar for today, April 5, after passing through committee hurdles. The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to hear the bill Wednesday, April 7.
The Senate version is sponsored by Murfreesboro Republican Sen. Dawn White, and the House version by Dickson Republican Rep. Mary Littleton, who the Tennessee Press Association (TPA) says championed this bill at the behest of the Dickson County Board of Education. Problem is, this bill also would impact Blount and Tennessee’s other 93 counties.
It’s a terrible idea and invites corruption through sweetheart, handshake, smoke-filled-back-room deals while excluding small and minority-owned businesses from crucial contracts they need for survival. For those small businesses, $24,999 is a lot of money. If this bill passes, any purchase under $25,000 could go to friends of school board members with no oversight.
We urge the Blount County delegation — Reps. Jerome Moon and Bob Ramsey and Sen. Art Swann, all Republicans — to reject this bill in the name of fairness, accountability and anti-corruption.
Full disclosure here: This bill would cost newspapers like ours revenues because under current law, competitive bids of $10,000 or more must be solicited through advertised public notices in newspapers of general circulation. But we know readers pay attention to those public notices because they want to stay informed: A TPA 2020 readership study found that more than 70% of Tennessee adults read public notices in newspapers.
“Transparency is key for citizens to know what their governing bodies are spending these funds on,” TPA Executive Director Carol Daniels says.
Another bad idea is SB1294/HB573, which would change the notice requirement for meetings conducted under the Tennessee Governmental Entity Review Law, which was passed in 2014 to reduce governmental regulations. SB1294/HB573 would require that notices of government public hearings be placed on the General Assembly website instead of newspapers in Tennessee’s four metropolitan cities plus the Tri-Cities of Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport.
The proposed legislation also would allow governments to wait until seven days before public hearings to notify the public, instead of the current 10 days.
This bill would not impact community newspapers or communities such as ours. But it would decrease transparency for Tennessee’s urban residents and harm their newspapers by forcing those readers to go to the General Assembly website for information, instead of the newspaper they’d already be holding in their hands.
Bill sponsors Rep. John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican, and Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, did not return telephone calls from The Daily Times to talk about the genesis of the legislation.
We also didn’t hear back from Maryville Republican Moon, who sits on the House State Government Committee, the very body that last week recommended the bill’s passage by the full House. Moon’s reluctance to discuss anti-transparency legislation befuddles us, given that he used to be the publisher of this very newspaper.
Moon, Ramsey and Swann soon will have the opportunity to vote against these bills and in favor of transparency and accountability at the local level. We’ll be watching.