Republican legislative leaders say they see nothing wrong with passing laws to override local government decisions, while Democrats say the stance is both hypocritical and dictatorial.
Senate Republicans voted last week to set up a school voucher system in the state’s four largest counties, including Knox, even though school officials in all four counties oppose the idea.
The move is the latest to override local officials’ preferences in a session in which the first bill passed this year by the Republican super-majority blocked plans by Memphis City Schools to merge into Shelby County’s school system.
Another prominent example is a bill, HB600, poised for final passage as early as this week that overrides a Nashville city ordinance barring companies that contract with city government from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said he would support amending the bill to also block local governments from imposing local minimum-wage requirements on city contractors, as Memphis does now. (A separate bill, HB1498 by House Deputy Speaker Steve McDaniel, would block cities from paying more than the state’s “prevailing wage” on any project where any amount of state money is involved. It passed the House, 67-24.).
There are multiple other measures that have gained less attention, including a bill, SB773, that restricts municipal governments’ authority to enter into cooperative purchasing agreements and another that blocks local ordinances authorizing construction of powder storage facilities, HB371.
Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner say such things are hypocritical for Republicans who also make a theme of denouncing federal laws that are seen as infringing on states’ rights.
“I don’t see that as problematic,” Ramsey told reporters recently. “The federal government exists because of the states,” which remain sovereign under a Constitution the states approved initially.
“In state government, it’s just the opposite: Local governments exist because of the state.”
To ensure statewide uniformity, he said, it is appropriate for the Legislature to be “keeping local governments from passing a hodgepodge of legislation across the state.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell and Gov. Bill Haslam, answering questions about the Nashville sexual orientation ordinance, agreed insofar as providing uniform standards statewide for businesses.
Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor, acknowledged there is “a little bit of conflict” with his past statements declaring that decisions are best made at the local level.
“In my book, I’m not sure cities should be telling businesses what they should do,” Haslam told The Associated Press. “Businesses should be able to decide that.”
Democrats say that, in the case of city contracts with companies, the cities are doing the same thing businesses do among themselves – setting conditions before committing to pay their money. Turner said – certainly in the case of the sexual orientation ordinance and likely in other overrides as well – Republicans are dictating a conservative social-issues agenda to local governments. He noted that Nashville and Memphis, where Democrats still control local governments, have been prime targets of local override bills.
The state constitution does clearly grant state government authority over local governments in most matters, though “home rule” counties such as Knox do have more discretion than others. Most local governments need the Legislature’s approval, for example, to impose a local hotel-motel tax.
And there are some Republican-sponsored bills that would grant local governments more authority.
One of them, HB1470, grants an exception to the longstanding law prohibiting local governments from enacting anti-smoking ordinances that are more strict than state law. It allows cities to pass an ordinance banning smoking on sidewalks and other public areas that adjoin hospital property. SB1165 authorizes stronger fines for “misuse of municipal sidewalks.”