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TN History for Kids

High Eight: I'm just a bill

State Senator Thelma Harper (Nashville) with
Russell Humphrey, Chief Clerk of the Senate

So now you know what a state legislator does, know how a bill becomes law, know what a lobbyist does, and know what reporters are supposed to do. But you may be asking, "what kind of bills are we talking about here?" Here's an easy to understand example that actually happened:

A few years ago the Memphis Police Department became convinced that a lot of stolen goods were making their way into pawn shops. They decided that, to crack down on crime, they should get a law passed requiring everyone who sold an item to a pawn shop to be fingerprinted at the pawn shop as a part of that transaction. That way, if it turned out that the property was stolen, they could track down the person who sold the stolen merchandise to the pawn shop.

The police departments (through their lobbyist) convinced a state senator and state representative to sponsor their bill. The bill was proposed and started to make its way through the house and senate committee system.

A pawn shop in Newport

Who do you think might have been opposed to this bill? Well, for one, the pawn shops, who felt like this would hurt business and harass their customers. So they hired a lobbyist, who met with several state lawmakers to make the argument that this was an improper infringement on peoples' rights. Among their allies in the debate were a private lawyer, who argued that the proposal was unconstitutional, and a Nashville lawyer whose clients were mostly Hispanic, who argued that the proposal would target immigrant families.

The lobbyists argued that the bill, if passed, would "criminalize" everyone who used pawn shops. And they said that the bill shouldn't just apply to pawn shops. It should apply to any type of store that sold second-hand goods, such as old bookstores, jewelry stores, antique stores, and "flea markets."

The pawn shop bill made it into the newspapers, and the debate on the bill climaxed one day in a very crowded house committee meeting. After a two-hour debate, the bill was voted down.

The next year the bill came back. And, after a debate that was far less noticed in the newspapers, another bill passed and became law that allowed local governments in Memphis and Knoxville to pass laws requiring the fingerprinting.

Here are a few points about this real-life example:

Senators Crowe, Summerville, Stevens and Bowling

* Despite the fact that the debate was intense on this bill, the final votes in the house and senate weren't all that close. So this example shows that a bill doesn't have to have a close vote tally on the house or senate floor to be really interesting.

* There were lobbyists on both sides of the matter. The ones on one side represented law enforcement authorities. The ones on the other represented people who own small businesses, and who pay taxes.

* The matter was debated fiercely, and went on for more than a year. And, in the end, a compromise of sorts was worked out, with only the pawn shops in the two big cities being affected.

* As proposals go, the newspapers did a pretty good job covering this one. But in the end, the original bill that didn't pass got far more coverage than the final version of it that did pass. So  people who read newspapers avidly may have gotten the mistaken impression that pawn shops won this battle and that the fingerprinting law did not pass. But it did!

The audience at a Senate committee meeting

* This fingerprinting debate involved only one of the more than 2,000 bills proposed during the  legislative session. Granted, not every bill resulted in this much debate. But it gives you some idea of just how complicated a single bill before the General Assembly can get.

Click here for the next chapter.