Legality of move to cut Metro Nashville Council called into question
A Davidson County senator is challenging the validity of legislation designed to cut the Metro Nashville Council in half, arguing that the Legislature doesn’t have the authority to encroach on the local government.
“Davidson County is a county government. It’s a metropolitan county government, which is expressly authorized in the Constitution, and what the Constitution says is metropolitan governments will have the powers available to both counties and to cities. So you can’t treat them like a city when you want to and a county when you want to,” says state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville. “Metro has to be treated as having the authority of a county government because it does.”
Yarbro contends that every resident of the state lives in a county jurisdiction, but not all are under the jurisdiction of a city.
“To try to take them out of that status would be a peculiar reading, at best, of the Constitution,” Yarbro adds.
House Bill 48, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth that would reduce metropolitan councils to 20 from 40 members moved through the House Local Government Committee on a party-line vote Tuesday.
Lamberth, a Portland Republican, has argued that the Legislature can tinker with city councils because they are set up statutorily whereas county governments are established constitutionally.
The legislation is ostensibly designed to punish the Metro Nashville Council for refusing a state effort to bring the 2024 Republican National Convention to Nashville. Other pieces of legislation also are in the offing that could be used to give the state more control over Metro Nashville government.
Lamberth’s home county of Sumner recently raised the number of county commissioners to 24, but he insists that county governments fall under a different set of rules than city governments.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton has said repeatedly that some Nashville business owners favor reducing the size of the council.
Sexton, a Crossville Republican, recently noted that the General Assembly is the “overseer” of all local governments in Tennessee. He added that the Legislature wants to make sure cities don’t get too “progressive” and stop businesses from relocating to the state.
Shortly after Tuesday’s vote, state Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, led a press conference in opposition to the spate of bills targeting Metro Nashville government, saying local residents should determine its future. Voters favored keeping the council at 40 members in a ballot question six years ago.
Oliver points out legislators who don’t “represent Nashville want to take over control” of the government.
“This is a targeted attempt to usurp and undermine the will of the people and the voters of Davidson County,” Oliver says.
Columnist knocks revenue bill
Besides the effort to hammer the council, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, is carrying legislation that would prohibit increases in Metro Nashville’s tourist accommodation tax and any previously authorized privilege taxes designed to pay off $560 million in debt on Metro’s convention center.
A municipal market columnist for Bloomberg News criticized the legislation in a recent article, potentially causing lawmakers to slow-walk the bill.
“The municipal bond market is no place for political theater,” wrote Joe Mysak. “That’s because the market can’t discern between tragedy, comedy and farce. To municipal bond buyers, it’s all drama, and one thing they know is, they don’t like it. Once politicians start playing games with credit, the cost of borrowing in the municipal market is going to go higher.”
Mysak predicted “no good is going to come from it.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally initially said if Metro Nashville is uninterested in pursuing convention tourism, then it no longer needs the special tax authority.
He may have tempered his stance somewhat, and according to spokesman Adam Kleinheider is working with the Comptroller Jason Mumpower to make sure the bill doesn’t hurt the state’s bond rating.
“He is in no rush to run the bill at this time,” Kleinheider said Tuesday.
Sexton also says he is working with the Comptroller’s Office before sending the bill through committees.
“Our understanding is the Music City Center is taking in more money than they have to pay out in bonds, which is a wonderful thing,” Sexton says. “But there’s some issue with it not going to pay off bonds and going to the general fund.”
The municipal bond market is no place for political theater. . . To municipal bond buyers, it’s all drama, and one thing they know is, they don’t like it. Once politicians start playing games with credit, the cost of borrowing in the municipal market is going to go higher.
Sexton questions whether those bonds could be paid off quicker to help bring Nashville out of debt.
Two other pieces of legislation would give the Legislature authority over nearly all appointments to the Metro Nashville Airport Authority and the Metro Nashville Sports Authority, which oversee Nashville International Airport and properties such as Bridgestone Arena and Nissan Stadium.
House Bill 1176, sponsored by state Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, would set up an 11-member airport board with four appointments each by the House and Senate speakers and two by the governor, with the Nashville mayor or designee serving as a voting ex-officio member. All would have to live in Davidson County.
House Bill 1197, carried by Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, would give the majority of appointments to the state for Metro Nashville’s sports authority, three each to the Senate and House speakers, four to the governor and three to the mayor.
Sexton contends BNA is a “regional airport now,” and that a “more broad appointed” board could be the “right way to go.” He notes that the state is investing money in the Titans’ stadium, $500 million in bonds for a $2.1 billion facility with a retractable roof, thus “having seats on the sports authority makes sense.”
Metro Nashville Legal Director Wallace Deitz has threatened to file suit over passage of any of the legislation.
But Yarbro on Tuesday urged people to “pump the brakes” on bills targeting Metro Nashville.
“The state and Nashville have a symbiotic relationship,” Yarbro says. “The state needs Nashville to succeed. Nashville needs the state to succeed, and any battles between these two entities can’t be won. Everyone will lose this fight, and that’s not good for any of the people we represent.”