Through much of Tennessee’s history, state legislators have asserted strong control over what city and county government officials can do, though the trend until recently has been toward granting more local control.
Also throughout history, legislators have been somewhat consistent in resenting federal government control over the states — with a few years of intermission for subservience to Washington during Reconstruction.
A couple of decades ago when the Legislature forbade local governments from enacting anti-smoking ordinances, a dissenting lawmaker chided colleagues for a “Nashville-knows-best” attitude. He was referring to legislators in Nashville, of course.
The current move to reassert state rights, as more worthy than local rights, appears dedicated to the proposition that Nashville never knows best. But that is referring to our capital city’s mayor and councilmen, not the wise ones three blocks away at the Legislative Plaza.
(Note: This is a column written for Sundays News Sentinel.)
The reassertion of state rights (over local rights) was exemplified by the Legislature enacting a law earlier this year that declares cities and counties cannot enact local ordinances prohibiting discrimination that go beyond the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
The law was aimed at a Nashville ordinance declaring that companies contracting with city government cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation. State law has no such prohibition, so the Legislature effectively repealed the Nashville ordinance.
There were also lesser-noticed local preemptions, including, for example, a measure that restricts local government regulation of beekeepers.
A lawsuit has been filed challenging the Nashville ordinance override as unconstitutional, but not on grounds unrelated to the Legislature’s authority over local governments. That’s pretty much a given.
The U.S. Constitution, as a general proposition and at least in theory, leaves all powers to the states except for those specifically enumerated as federal responsibilities. Tennessee’s Constitution is basically the opposite, granting all powers to state government and leaving to the Legislature decisions on the extent of local powers — with a few exceptions.
In preparation for the 2012 legislative session beginning next month, some new proposals for usurping local government rights have been proposed.
One declares that cities and counties cannot require that companies provide any benefits to their workers beyond what is already required by state and federal law. This would apply, for example, to local “living wage” ordinances that require companies contracting with the local government to pay a stated wage, which may be more than the federal minimum wage.
(Thus, we would be wisely following the federal government’s lead with enactment of such a law.)
Another bill prohibits local governments from raising property taxes by more than 1 percent per year without approval of voters in a referendum.
(We would wisely be following California’s lead with such a law.)
Yet another bill would require local governments to get state approval for bond issues in some cases.
The underlying theme, of course, is that local governments cannot be trusted. The flip side of that is that we can trust our legislators who, perhaps not coincidentally, are predominately Republican.
Believe it or not, some enclaves within our red state — within the city limits of Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga, for example — still have Democrats in charge.
Thus, while we have Republican legislators regularly declaring that Washington is “out of control,” we also have Republican legislators fearing that cities are out of control.
The suspicion, then, is that the current movement to assert state rights over local rights is anchored in simple partisanship.
The Nashville ordinance override brought some opposition from the local government lobby, but on a fairly modest basis. The politics of the situation, what with gay rights and business rights thrown into the rhetoric — and that just one city’s ordinance was impacted — may have inhibited some of those who voice general support for the principle of giving more authority to the elected officials closest to those who elected them.
It’s a sound principle. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Nashville.