Concerned with the prospect of a local government setting up what one leader called a “little people’s republic,” the Legislature’s Republican supermajority is moving on several fronts to assert state authority over cities and counties.
Some Democrats and local government officials decry the trend as an assault on local control and incongruous with Republican criticisms of the federal government for dictating to state governments.
“The level of contempt that this Republican majority has for local governments and working people is simply disgusting,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory.
Turner’s remarks came after House approval Thursday of a bill (HB501) that declares local governments cannot put conditions on their contracts with businesses that require the businesses to pay more than minimum wages set by state or federal law, provide insurance or family leave. It also prohibits local governments from enforcing any ordinance on “wage theft,” wherein a company fails to live up to promises to pay a given wage or provide benefits.
The bill was approved 66-27 on a mostly party-line vote — Republicans for it, Democrats against — after a sometimes heated debate. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, may have best summed up the GOP view of such legislation.
“The state of Tennessee created the local governments,” he said, “and not only did we create them, we’re responsible for their performance,” especially “the big cities” that impact the entire state.
“They are all economic generators for the surrounding counties. That alone is reason enough not to let them set up some little people’s republic in some city in the state of Tennessee,” McCormick said. “It affects everybody in the state, and we have a stake in this.
“Now, the same folks who get up and say, ‘Oh you can’t get involved in local government decisions, you can’t tell the local governments what to do’ are the same people who want the federal government to tell us everything to do. You can’t have it both ways.”
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said that “if you know your civics,” it is reasonable for states to resist federal mandates because the federal government was created by the states in founding father days. Local governments were also created by the state and subject to state oversight.
Memphis is apparently the only city immediately affected by HB501. It has a requirement that contractors with the city pay a local “prevailing wage” — basically the average between the minimum wage paid in the area and the highest wage paid in the area for a given job.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, said the ordinance assures that local resident workers get fair treatment from out-of-state contractors.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, sponsor of the measure, said letting local governments set working conditions as part of a contract could mean higher costs and “drive up taxes in that community.”
“We are striving to stop that,” Casada said, contending there are plenty of precedents for the state’s imposing restrictions on local governments. “I believe that government that interferes with our economic freedom should be stopped whether it’s local government or federal government.”
In his floor speech, Casada said there had been 40 state laws placing mandates on local governments in recent years, though he could not provide a list of them afterward.
He did, however, give some examples, including a law that prohibits Tennessee municipalities from becoming a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants, one that puts restrictions on local government uses of traffic cameras and a measure that says local governments can’t require restaurants to list the calorie count of items on their menus. There’s also a law, enacted two decades ago, that declares a local government cannot adopt anti-smoking ordinances stricter than state law.
Democrats, however, say the Republican supermajority is plowing new ground in the trend to assert state power over local government.
“If I were in local government, I would wonder what my purpose is given the fact that we are mandating time and time again to local government,” Parkinson said.
This year, moves to restrict local control range from a bill (SB1015) declaring local ordinances regulating knives cannot conflict with state law, to a measure (HB702) that sets up a state board that could overrule local school boards when they reject a charter school application. There are also bills to put new restrictions on cities’ annexation authority (HB231), to prevent them from changing the names of city or county parks that involve military events or figures (HB553) and to repeal a current law that allows cities and counties to set more stringent rules for open burning of debris than state law (HB948).
All those have been advancing through the system — the park-naming bill has already been approved — and several others are parked in committees without movement yet.
Bill Lyons, deputy to Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, says the idea of setting wage levels or requiring insurance as a condition in city contracts, as prohibited in HB501, is “not something on the horizon” for Knoxville.
“Still, as a matter of principle we think that can all be dealt with at the local level” without a state mandate, he said in an interview.
Knoxville does have a local knife ordinance that would be overridden by the “knife rights” bill, which has already passed the Senate, and Lyons says it has worked well. City officials are looking at a rewrite and update of the ordinance, in fact, in part to accommodate plans for Civil War re-enactments and a proposed “pirate festival.”
“I’m hard pressed to think what ordinances we have that have ever caused any difficulties,” Lyons said.
The sponsor of the knife bill, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, says it is needed to provide uniformity so a person traveling from one town to another with a knife does not face conflicting rules. Lyons suggests any need for uniformity is surpassed by the need for local flexibility to adapt to situations that vary from community to community.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, a former state senator, says he can see both sides of the local control argument.
“It’s one of those deals where I’ve got friends on both sides of the issue and I’m standing clearly with my friends,” he said in an interview.
Indeed, Burchett said that, if he were still a legislator, he would probably vote for HB501, though today as a county mayor he would “lean against it.”
Gov. Bill Haslam, in an email from spokesman David Smith, also struck a middle-of-the-road position:
“As a former mayor, the governor is a strong proponent of local control. He is deferred to the will of the Legislature on this particular bill (HB501). There is a balance of the state not telling locals what to do and locals not telling businesses what to do.”
Ramsey said Republicans generally favor local control, but there are often exceptions and those should be taken “on a case-by-case basis.”
Democrats say the cases where local government is being bypassed often are motivated by partisan considerations. Within the limits of the state’s four largest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — Democrats still hold majorities and the mayors are all Democrats.
Turner said Nashville “is the last bastion of progressiveness and they want to stomp that out.”
Casada said Republicans are just taking a broader view of the state as a whole and the interests of taxpayers.