Analysis: How to follow the Tennessee General Assembly

By: - March 9, 2021 3:59 am
Tennessee House of Representatives (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee House of Representatives (Photo: John Partipilo)

Democracy can’t exist without an informed public.

Free and independent information makes citizens informed, allowing them to hold governments accountable. You probably don’t have unlimited time to watch General Assembly hearings and press conferences, or to pore over campaign finance reports and ethics filings. That’s why you read the news. 

But the news isn’t perfect. Inevitably, we won’t cover everything that’s important to you. It’s also more than likely that our coverage won’t always satisfy you.

Do we focus too much on extreme, no-chance-at-passing bills that make people look bad, at the expense of writing about boring but productive bills? Do we not write enough about your representative?

Those bills we’re not covering are public, too. You can find them and tell us about them.

So, without further ado, here’s a primer on how the Tennessee General Assembly works.

First: everything is on

The website uses an unfortunate brown-beige color scheme and is filled with images of big, ornate rooms. A lot of the stuff that happens at the Capitol is boring—even for those of us who get paid to be interested in it. But when you get bored and decide to return to Twitter, remember that these folks spend your money.

In this reporter’s opinion, the easiest way to dig into the General Assembly’s work is by searching legislators.

Find yours here. The General Assembly comprises 33 senators and 99 representatives.

You can type in your address or click on one of the maps, which show district boundaries. State senators and representatives do not represent the same districts. You may have the same representative as your neighbor, but a different senator.

Click the various tabs on their profile to learn basic biographical facts and affiliations as well as their committee assignments. On the right side, you’ll see a button that says “Bills Sponsored and Cosponsored.” Click on that to see a list of everything they’re working on. Each entry includes the bill number, a brief summary, its status and the date the last action took place. Click the bill number to see more details.

The primary sponsor is the lawmaker responsible for the bill. Lawmakers co-sponsor bills to indicate their support. Bills carry the weight of law and are more substantive than resolutions, which are more like official statements. (This resolution honors an elementary school’s teacher of the year.)

For a bill to become law, it needs to pass multiple hurdles in both chambers and get signed by the governor. (Or, if the governor vetoes it, the General Assembly can vote to override that veto and make it a law anyway.) Here’s more about how a bill becomes law.

As you can see, Sen. Brenda Gilmore is sponsoring a bill to create polling places in Nashville jails. You can read the text of the bill by clicking where it says “SB 0197” above her name. Just below that, you’ll see the name “Shaw” and the label “HB 0387.” Rep. Johnny Shaw (D-Bolivar) is sponsoring the same bill in the House, where it has a different number. SB stands for Senate Bill; HB stands for House Bill.

The Bill History tab shows you the progress it’s made on the House and Senate sides. The Summary tab includes more information about present law and the requirements of this bill. SB 0197 has been assigned to committees in both chambers, but it hasn’t been scheduled for hearings. The Fiscal Note tab provides information on how much the legislation will cost—this bill doesn’t have one. If and when it’s discussed in committees, you can watch video of the hearings and see how members voted.

You can also search legislation on a certain topic. The place to start is the legislation tab near the top of the screen and the “browse bills by subject” button.

A clunkier way to find legislation by topic is to use the search function. It’s a good idea to search related terms—i.e. “election,” “voting” and “campaign”—to make sure your search is comprehensive.

If you choose to browse bills by index, you’ll see them in the order in which they were filed. There are thousands of bills, so we don’t recommend that. But if you have endless time and energy, this is the best way to do a truly comprehensive review of the legislature’s work. You can keep track of the legislation you’re most interested in with a free MyBills account.

And if you want to find out what’s happening today, check the weekly schedule. Click the calendar icon to see what is on a committee’s agenda; click the camera icon to watch the hearing. Agendas usually include a “consent calendar” and a “regular calendar.” Items on the consent calendar advance without discussion; regular calendar items get discussed.

Go crazy, nerds. Let us know if there’s a big-deal bill we missed. And let your elected officials know you’re watching.


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Ian Round
Ian Round

Ian Round is a freelance reporter in Nashville. He came to Tennessee from Maryland, where he worked for Baltimore Brew. He's also written for Maryland Matters, a sister publication to the Tennessee Lookout. Ian has a Master of Journalism degree from the University of Maryland.