Sunday column: Seeking a balance in state vs. local supremacy

Since Republicans gained control of the Tennessee General Assembly, there has been a marked tendency toward assertion of greater state control over local government affairs that, as critics have noted, stands in contrast to a tendency for deploring federal meddling in state affairs.

In the current session, these tendencies continue. But just maybe there are some signs of moderation in the notion of state supremacy, at least insofar as dealings with local governments go. Or maybe a better phrase would be “a re-thinking of relationships,” given that moderation is a word that makes many members of the Republican supermajority cringe.

Consider, for a leading example, that last year the House Local Government Subcommittee summarily killed all bills granting city and county governments the authority to impose or increase local hotel-motel taxes. This year, the subcommittee has been approving such bills, while giving a cold shoulder to a hotel-motel industry proposal imposing new restrictions on such levies.

State law generally requires that a local government get the General Assembly’s permission for imposing such a tax. Once the bill passes, then the local city council or county commission must approve it by a two-thirds majority. So it’s actually decided at the local level.

Such bills have been a point of conflict in the past. Former Gov. Don Sundquist once famously refused to sign such measures, declaring himself “irrelevant to the process,” after it became popular to attack incumbent politicians as supporters of tax increases when they went along with the levies. When Lamar Alexander ran for president, attack ads in the New Hampshire Republican primary declared he had supported sixty-something tax increases as governor — mostly based on his signing of such bills as governor.

Thus, the matter basically pits the idea of local control, which as a principle enjoys widespread popularity, against the fear of political repercussions from being unjustly branded as an advocate for tax increases.

House Speaker Beth Harwell may be credited with the subcommittee’s change of heart. She substantially overhauled the panel for this session, both in membership and leadership. The new sub chairman is Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, a veteran of service in local government. Last year’s chairman was then-Rep. Joe Carr, who subsequently ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Alexander.

On the flip side, a bill to repeal a 2009 law that lets city and county governments decide whether to ban the carrying of guns in their local parks appears headed for approval this year. The Senate voted last year to strip local governments of such authority, but the bill died in the House Budget Subcommittee. This year, the chairman of that sub — Rep. Mike Harrison, R-Rogersville, appointed to the post by Harwell, of course — is sponsor of the bill.

Again, there may be seen here a balancing of the principle of local government control with political considerations. The National Rifle Association, which inspires almost worshipful political respect within Republican ranks, is having its national convention next month in Nashville, where guns are banned in local parks. The NRA strongly backs repeal of local government authority over pistol packing, favoring state supremacy in the matter for sake of uniformity.

So the tilt in this case is toward the political considerations — a notion more or less denounced last week by Gov. Bill Haslam. Passage of the bill will leave Haslam with a decision on whether to try a veto, creating another confrontation with prevailing supermajority sentiments that could be likened to his failure in pushing Insure Tennessee.

Be that as it may, the attempt at a balancing act between political considerations and policy principle is underway this session. There are several other bills where this comes up. For example, a measure (SB412) advancing through committees says counties cannot regulate the weight of trucks traveling county roads if they’re hauling agricultural supplies, but they can continue to do so if the trucks are hauling other stuff.

Overall, there does seem to be more thought toward balance this session. From the local-control perspective then, maybe things are better than they were.

In terms of the general level of respect from Tennessee legislators, locals are at least ahead of the federal government.