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Three-judge panel rules against the state on Nashville Fairground Speedway voting law

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Three-judge panel rules against the state on Nashville Fairground Speedway voting law

Sep 25, 2023 | 7:02 am ET
By Adam Friedman
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Three-judge panel rules against the state on Nashville Fairground Speedway voting law
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Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee Republican lawmakers lost another legal battle with Metro Nashville’s lawyers.

A three-judge panel ruled that state-forced changes around the votes need to approve renovations at the Nashville Fairground Speedway violated the city’s right to determine its own laws.

“When the state government is guilty of egregious overreach, regrettably our only option is to seek judicial relief,” said Wally Dietz, Metro Nashville’s legal director. “This unanimous opinion is forceful and well reasoned.”

The state law, passed earlier this year, changed a Metro Nashville charter provision requiring two-thirds, or 27 votes, of Metro Council’s 40-member body to approve any changes at the fairgrounds speedway. Instead, the new law lowered the approval threshold to 21 votes.

Lawmakers passed the bill after lobbying from Speedway Motorsports Inc., who wanted to make passing its Nashville racetrack renovation plan easier after several Metro Council members opposed the deal because of the public subsidies involved in it.

State lawmakers and the Nashville Conventions and Vistors Corporations pledged $34 million in public money towards the project. Metro Nashville taxpayers would then back $60-$70 million in bonds issued to cover the rest of the project’s cost.

When the state government is guilty of egregious overreach, regrettably our only option is to seek judicial relief. This unanimous opinion is forceful and well reasoned

– Wally Dietz, Metro Nashville Legal Director

Tennessee Republican lawmakers lost another legal battle with Metro Nashville’s lawyers.

The deal was set to go before the Metro Council in July, where it was unlikely to receive a two-thirds majority. But, it never made it to a vote because of the lawsuit and other maneuvers enacted by opponents of the deal to delay it until the Metro Council term ended in August. A new council term starts in October.

Outgoing Nashville Mayor John Cooper strongly supported the deal, but Nashville Mayor-elect Freddie O’Connell has been more skeptical of it and the public funding of sports facilities.

Cooper led the charge to put $1.26 billion of taxpayer dollars into a new $2.1 billion Tennessee Titans NFL stadium. O’Connell voted against the deal.

Renovations at the fairgrounds are slightly different than a Titans deal because in 2011 Nashville voters approved the two-thirds charter rule in hopes of protecting the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway from demolition.

The short racetrack hasn’t hosted a NASCAR series race since 1984. NASCAR did return the area in 2021 for a race at speedway in nearby Wilson County.

Jamie Hollin, former council member and supporter of the renovation deal, said that the amendment’s intent was not to make it harder to build a new racetrack but to make it more difficult to tear the facility down.

“Any lawyer with a license knows that the reason appellate courts exist is because trial courts, even three-judge trial courts, get it wrong,” Hollin said. “And that’s the case here.”

Another state law goes down

It’s the second time this year that the court has ruled against a state law targeting Nashville.

State Republican lawmakers passed six bills targeting Nashville’s governance, including eliminating its police oversight board, restricting the use of convention center funds, shrinking the size of the Metro Council in half and taking seats on its boards overseeing the airport and sports stadium.

Republican lawmakers pass six bills targeting Nashville during the 2023 legislative session

The Republican-led state and Democratic-led council have been at odds over various laws for years, but the tensions ramped up in 2022 after lawmakers split Nashville’s only U.S. Congressional district, leaving the city without a representative based in it.

The Metro Council then blocked the 2024 Republican National Convention from coming to Nashville, and state lawmakers passed a series of retaliation bills.

The Metro Nashville government has sued over the council size reduction, the state taking majority control of its airport board and the fairground laws.

State lawmakers have set up a system where anytime a state law is challenged it’s required to go before a three-judge panel made up of a rotating cast of judges.

The court already blocked the council reduction law until a final ruling is made on the case, keeping the Metro Council’s current size intact through at least 2027. A hearing in that case is set for March 2024.

For the airport board, a three-judge panel has set a hearing date of Oct. 6, as lawyers with the metro government and state agreed to expedite that case.

The airport lawsuit has left the facility in limbo. The state board is the officially recognized board by state officials, but the Federal Aviation Administration won’t recognize it until the lawsuit has ended.

Last month, the FAA declined Nashville airport official’s request to expand its runway to accommodate direct international flights to Asia, citing environmental concerns and a lack of data supporting demand for the route.

The three-judge panel’s ruling

Speedway MSJ Order