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Lawmakers hold closed door meetings on budget cuts, 1st Ld-Writethru, TN

Tue, 06/09/2009 - 8:11am
ERIK SCHELZIG - Associated Press Writer - Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Lawmakers grappling with ways to address Tennessee's worsening budget shortfall have been holding closed-door meetings to discuss their options.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin said the closed GOP meetings are necessary for members to openly voice their concerns — and for party leaders to know where their votes are before they hit the floors.

"People do not speak openly when they're afraid that their concerns and fears may be written as fact," Casada said Monday. "We need people to open up and tell us where they are."

Closed caucus meetings were a rarity in previous sessions, but have now become the norm for both parties. Republicans hold a 50-49 edge in the House.

House Democrats say they're just emulating Republicans in closing their meetings, and leaders make similar arguments about allowing members to speak freely without fear of seeing their comments in print.

State Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz spoke about the budget picture and the administration's proposed cuts at House Democrats' closed meeting on Monday.

Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's chief Cabinet officer said he has no control over whether the public will be allowed access to gatherings he's invited to speak at.

"That's their position — sometimes they don't want me there, either," he said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory has said closed meetings aren't new, but in years past they were held were held across the street in the state Democratic Party headquarters, where they were less likely to be noticed.

Attempts to lock down the caucus meetings aren't always successful. For example, Republican Rep. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville published an account of the discussion at Monday's meeting on his blog.

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate say their meetings aren't closed to the press or public, but neither party announces when or where they will hold caucus meetings so it's unlikely they will be disturbed by outside scrutiny when they meet.

"That may be something we need to look at, but I hadn't noticed," said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. "I just attend when they ask us to attend, and I think the media's welcome any time they want to come."

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