Another Memphis-Shelby Squabble in Legislatorland (and a lesson on caption bills)

The Legislature has stepped into a dispute between Memphis City government and Shelby County government over dividing up money received by the city’s utility. Rick Locker reports on the House vote for the bill — suburban Republicans for it, urban Democrats against — and provides a lesson on “caption bills” in the process.
An 1897 Tennessee law keeping horses off public sidewalks has become a vehicle for the state legislature to settle a current $6 million dispute between Memphis and Shelby County governments.
The House of Representatives approved a bill Monday night — on a mostly party-line 64-29 vote — to settle a long-running squabble over $6 million in payments in lieu of taxes from Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division that Shelby County says the city owes it.
The bill is sought by Shelby County government and opposed by the city, which in November filed a lawsuit saying the city had actually overpaid more than $86 million to the county government between the 1981 and 2000 fiscal years and wants back as much of that amount as possible.
During a 34-minute floor debate on Monday’s bill, Democrats charged that the measure is the latest example of the new Republican majority intervening in a local dispute on the side of GOP-dominated suburbs. They likened it to last year’s passage by suburban Republicans of a slowed-down process for merging the city and county school systems.
Perhaps more important, the way the bill is working its way through the General Assembly raises questions about whether it violates at least the spirit of a state constitutional provision designed to give the public notice about a bill’s subject matter before it passes.
As it was originally filed by Rep. Curry Todd and Sen. Mark Norris, the bill would have raised the penalty for violating a 115-year-old statute regarding horses on public sidewalks. The bill now goes to the Senate for final approval.
HB1376 is what is known in legislative parlance as a “caption bill” — a short, skeletal bill with little more than a caption and brief, innocuous wording filed by sponsors who intend to amend the bill later with whatever substantive legislation they want to become law.
An amendment drafted by Shelby County’s lawyers and presented by Todd, R-Collierville, deleted the bill’s original language and replaced it with the new language, amending a 1987 statute governing payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) by municipal gas systems. It provides that unless the city and county reach an agreement prior to April on the MLGW PILOTs, Shelby County gets what it is entitled to under its existing property tax rates.
Municipal gas systems and horses on sidewalks are both subjects covered by the Tennessee Code’s Title 7 — a broad swath of state law encompassing 59 chapters governing all aspects of local governmental functions and entities.
Only a court could decide if the amended bill violates Article II, Section 17, of the Tennessee Constitution, providing that “No bill shall become a law which embraces more than one subject, that subject to be expressed in the title. All acts which repeal, revive or amend former laws, shall recite in their caption, or otherwise, the title or substance of the law repealed, revived or amended.”

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