Gov voices concern about deannexation; House votes for it

The state House approved a controversial deannexation bill on a 68-25 vote Monday night, a few hours after Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s “concerned” about bill and questioned whether it violates the state Constitution. reports Richard Locker.

The amended House version (of HB779) allows residents of territories annexed into Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Kingsport and tiny Cornersville in Marshall County to petition for referendums to separate themselves from their cities. If a majority of voters approve, the areas are de-annexed.

The House voted to remove Johnson City from the bill because its city council voted last Thursday to de-annex the Gray community, which it had previously annexed over the objections of its residents.

The state constitution generally requires most legislation to impact the entire state without singling out individual places, but lawmakers have often made bills applicable to certain cities on the basis of population or local form of government and the laws stand if the courts find a valid public purpose.

The governor was asked about the bill by a municipal official during the Tennessee Municipal League’s annual spring legislative conference, prior to the amendment removing Johnson City.

…”I’m not a lawyer but I wonder about the constitutionality of something that just applies to those six, but we’ll see,” he said.

“But I have a major concern. What I try to tell people in the Legislature is, you might not be from a city, you might be from a rural area or a suburban area but cities matter to you. The services that happen in cities, if those go away, then you’ve got a problem.”

Haslam, the former mayor of Knoxville, urged the municipal officials from across the state to make their voices heard with their local legislators, including on the deannexation bill even though it may not affect their cities initially.

..After the TML presentation, the governor told reporters (when asked about a veto of the bill)… “Let me just say at this point, I am concerned about it. The constitutionality of it, somebody else will have to rule on that so that’s not for me to say. But I am concerned about the impact.”

…Voting largely along party lines, with Republicans generally in favor of the bill, the House tabled more than a dozen amendments that would have removed the other cities — including Memphis and Knoxville — from the bill or softened its financial impacts on the cities by requiring de-annexed property owners to continue to bear more of the municipal debt on their property tax bills than what the bill already requires.

…The nearly two-hour discussion was at times contentious. Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, called the bill a “dagger into the heart of Memphis,” and that members who voted for it would “have blood on your hands.”

The House sponsor, Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, disputed estimates released last week by Strickland that the city could lose up to $79 million in property and sales tax revenue. Carter said those estimates include the potential loss of commercial and industrial property, but he said that unlike residential property, it is solely up to the cities whether to allow commercial and industrial property to deannex.

But city spokesman Kyle Veazey said the city stands by its estimates: potential total losses of $79 million in a $658 million annual operating budget.

Under the bill, de-annexation referendums would occur in any territory whose annexations to the five named cities became operational after May 1, 1998, if at least 10 percent of the registered voters there sign petitions calling for a de-annexation vote. The area would be de-annexed if a majority of those voting in the referendum — which is limited to the territory — vote for de-annexation.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, asked Carter: “Do you feel you know what’s better for the City of Memphis than the mayor of Memphis?”

“I’m not telling the mayor of Memphis what to do. I’m simply standing up for the rights of the citizens up here,” Carter replied, pointing to the House gallery where several annexation opponents, including from Cordova, watched.

Carter defended the bill’s language describing annexations by the five cities in the bill as being “the most egregious forms of annexation” because he said the average lawsuit challenging the annexations were in the courts for 12 years in Knoxville and seven years in Memphis.