published Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Tennessee state laws supersede local rules

The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

TOP-DOWN GOVERNING

Here are some bills affecting local governance by Republican lawmakers -- and, sometimes, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam -- now pending in the General Assembly:

Statewide charter school "authorizer" would hear automatic appeals if local school boards reject applications to start charter schools.

Haslam has proposed a limited voucher program using tax dollars to send children to private schools. Senate Republicans want to expand it.

Shelby County's Republican lawmakers have proposed statewide legislation that would allow suburban cities to create new school systems. The bill follows a federal judge's ruling barring suburban Shelby County cities from such action.

The House has approved a bill that would bar local governments from setting wage standards and requiring employee insurance. It is now in the Senate.

The Senate passed a bill that would legalize switchblades and other knives with blades over 4 inches and override city ordinances on knives.

Laws passed in the last five years include:

Abolishment of collective bargaining for local school boards

Removal of cities' authority to enact anti-discrimination rules affecting businesses that contract with them. Critics say it was aimed at gays.

Prohibiting local governments from making restaurants list calories on menus

Barring "sanctuary cities" where ordinances protect illegal immigrants. No Tennessee city had such ordinances.

Bipartisan push restricting use of traffic camera enforcement

Source: Tennessee General Assembly

NASHVILLE — While state lawmakers often gripe about federal intrusiveness on state matters, they don't seem to have a problem with telling local governments what — or what not — to do.

From overriding municipal bans on switchblades to overruling local school boards on charter school approvals, GOP supermajorities in Tennessee's House and Senate are pushing a number of measures aimed at restricting city and county actions.

Democrats call Republicans hypocritical for pushing around cities, counties and other local entities while condemning Uncle Sam for the same thing every time a microphone is near.

Republicans counter that the two are not comparable: States created the federal government and also create cities.

The debate, which began after Republicans seized control of the Legislature in 2010 elections, played out yet again last week in the House floor.

This time it was over a U.S. Chamber of Commerce-backed bill that would strip local governments' ability to set wage standards, family leave and insurance requirements for businesses seeking local government contracts.

"This is to dictate to local government once again," Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, complained. "I've said that time and again in legislation that has been introduced. [It's] the same thing we usually tell Washington. Don't come here and tie our hands."

The bill affects Memphis and Shelby County, which have such requirements. Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Knoxville and Knox County, and Metro Nashville don't.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, of College Grove, said it would ensure uniform treatment for businesses.

"I want to remind this body that for 213 years this state has put mandates on local governments," Casada said. "And in this era of macroeconomics on wages, prevailing wages, wage theft, insurance and family leave, these are issues best left up to state government and not local government."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, weighed in with an argument Republicans often use: that the states created the federal government.

"I think they've forgotten that in Washington sometimes," McCormick said.

"But what's less known is the state of Tennessee also created the local governments. And not only did we create them, we're responsible for their performance," he said.

What Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville do affects the rest of the state, McCormick said.

In a later interview, he said it is "proper for the state to get involved in local matters."

"A lot of the time we would rather not, but they're going to have to make reasonable decisions to keep us from doing that," he said.

Specifically, he pointed to the cities as Democrats' "last bastions" for "social experiments" and added, "voters in the state, in the rural areas, suburbs and the small towns have resoundingly ... told the Democratic Party they don't like their philosophy."

When Andy Berke takes office in April, all the major cities will have Democratic mayors, although Chattanooga and Knoxville elections are nonpartisan.

Outgoing Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said bills impacting local governments "come up every year, and there's a big rural/urban divide in the Tennessee Legislature."

He said there's been a "conservative tilt" in recent years, but he's been more frustrated by some lawmakers' lack of knowledge of urban issues.

"I'm always amazed that people elected to the Legislature, many from urban areas, do not understand how urban services are provided and paid for. That's the biggest frustration."

Old tensions, new issues

David Connor, executive director of the Tennessee County Services Association, said there are "quite a few" bills this year where lawmakers are "substituting their judgment" for that of locally elected officials.

A bill to create a charter school "authorizer" could override local opposition to charter schools regardless of budgets or costs. A voucher bill could send local tax money to private schools. Another measure would allow school personnel to get firearms training and go armed in schools regardless of local boards' stance.

"We don't want you authorizing all these additional people" to have guns in the schools, Connor said.

Newly elected Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, has a slew of bills that cities say upset a 1998 compromise that aimed to end annexation battles between municipalities and counties. One of Carter's bills would give residents in areas proposed for annexation a vote.

That's only fair, the lawmaker says, noting Tennessee is one of two or three states in the country where that doesn't happen.

The former executive director of the Tennessee Municipal League, Joe Sweat, agrees that there's always been tension between the state and local governments.

He calls them "dogs scrapping for the same bowl" who have "naturally a built-in adversarial relationship."

If the state wants to assert its authority, the "state dog can run over the local dog," Sweat said.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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