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Tennessee’s General Assembly passes laws for the entire state, but during the most recent session, Republican lawmakers were preoccupied with one city in particular: Nashville. The legislature’s Republican supermajority approved a variety of bills restricting the city’s right to self-governance.
They slashed the size of Metro Council in half, handed over the power of local boards to the state and made it more difficult for Nashville to pay for their convention center — to name a few.
Residents and city councilmembers view this targeted legislation as a form of political retaliation. Republicans were upset last year after the Metro Council rejected a proposal that would have had Nashville host the 2024 Republican National Convention.
“The state is slowly taking over the city of Nashville without saying they are taking over the city of Nashville,” said Councilmember Ginny Welsch during a recent meeting. “And if we don’t put safeguards in to protect ourselves in the way that we have the power to do, we are going to find ourselves having nothing and being even more victimized by the state.”
The city has already sued the state over its plans to downsize its council — currently on hold — and other legal challenges could be in the works for Metro Law.
Metro Council slashed
In March, the legislature successfully passed the Metro Council Reduction Act, capping the size of metropolitan and municipal governments at 20 members. While sponsors of the bill said it was an attempt at streamlining city council business, Nashville was quick to point out that they were one of the few governing bodies in the state impacted by the bill.
Nashville’s 40-member Metro Council is the third largest in the country, trailing behind only New York and Chicago. The size of the council goes back to 1962, when voters merged the city of Nashville with Davidson County to form a single, consolidated Metro government. The large council has been crucial to ensuring adequate representation of Nashville’s Black residents on the council.
The state worked quickly to get the bill through. Gov. Bill Lee signed it into law the same day it passed the Senate — a process that typically takes days or weeks. But the city’s response was also quick. Metro Law filed a lawsuit against the state, questioning the constitutionality of the law and calling it an example of “egregious overreach.”
A three-judge panel eventually granted the city a temporary injunction. That means this summer’s election will proceed as usual, with all 40 members. The state has said they will not appeal.
Airport authority overtaken
The state didn’t stop there. Republicans next set their sights on the Metro Nashville Airport Authority. Currently, the mayor of Nashville appoints all seven seats of the airport board, with Metro Council approval.
The new legislation establishes a new board, complete with eight seats. The mayor retains the power to appoint two of those — with the rest made by the governor and the House and Senate speakers, who are all Republicans.
Republicans justified the move using the airport’s finances. The state funds a large portion of the airport’s upkeep, not Metro. BNA receives state and federal funding, as well as revenue from airlines, ticket fees, parking and other concessions.
The legislation now sits on Gov. Bill Lee’s desk, where he has 10 days to sign the bill.
Metro Law is currently weighing a lawsuit. A former Federal Aviation Administration official has warned the governor that the law, which would take effect in July, could jeopardize key federal funding and bring possible litigation.
Sports authority overhauled
Like the Airport Authority, Republicans also had their eyes on the Sports Authority, a body that oversees Nissan Stadium, Bridgestone Arena and a number of other Nashville sports facilities.
Initially, lawmakers proposed to take over the authority entirely. A scaled-back version of the bill later passed both chambers, allowing the governor to appoint six of the 13-member body. Nashville’s mayor, who previously appointed all members, will only appoint seven seats. Republicans reasoned their investment in a potential new NFL stadium merited a larger voice on the authority.
Last year, state and metro leaders worked together to construct the $2 billion deal, that will see the state contributing $500 million and the city offering $760 million.
When the stadium deal went before the Metro Council for its second reading earlier this month, the Sports Authority legislation proved to be a point of contention.
Councilmember Bob Mendes tried to warn the city that the state won’t stop there.
“When we look at what seems like a very strong protection — it’s intended to be a very strong protection to send a firm message of: ‘Get off our Sports Authority or we’re not going to build $2 billion assets for it,’” Mendes said.
Mendes attempted to add an amendment that would have protected against future changes to the Sports Authority. The amendment ultimately failed.
Community Oversight Board erased
In 2018, Nashville voters approved the Community Oversight Board. The 11-member independent, civilian-led board investigates police misconduct allegations and reviews policing policies.
Now, the state plans to abolish such groups under new legislation passed at the tail-end of the session. Once in effect, the system will revert to its previous setup in which police internal affairs investigate their own officers.
The legislation also eliminates the Memphis Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, a similar, longer-running version of Nashville’s COB. The timing comes not long after the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers. Nichols died three days later. His death spurred nationwide protests and calls for police reform.
Housing codes standardized
As Nashville continues to grow, new buildings and developments are popping up left and right. And because buildings are the fourth-largest source of climate pollution in the U.S., cities are tackling these emissions with better energy codes.
However, Tennessee Republicans sought to block this policy tool, preventing cities like Nashville from requiring developers to construct more energy-efficient buildings. The legislature is setting the standard as the 2018 International Code Council codes. Cities wanting to enact stricter codes than this will be required to secure approval by the state.
Convention center funding controlled
Nashville’s Music City Center — a $623 million project that marks the largest civic project in city history — was nearly defunded by the legislature this session. A bill proposed by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally would have stripped Nashville’s ability to charge a special tourism-related tax that covers the annual debt obligations for the convention center.
While the legislature eventually did dial back the legislation, they ended up enacting restrictions on how the city can spend the excess revenue after paying their debt obligations.
Fairgrounds referendum undone
After the budgeting process for the new Titans stadium concludes this summer, Metro is expected to turn their efforts toward renovating the fairgrounds racetrack. Nashville voters endorsed a charter referendum in 2011 that required at least 27 Metro councilmembers to approve any demolition of buildings at the fairgrounds.
The goal was to better preserve the historic racetrack. But legislation passed this session reverses the voters’ wishes. Now, the 40-member council only needs a simple majority to demolish fairgrounds buildings.
In sum, these measures significantly erode the city’s ability to govern itself and respond to the desires of their constituents.
However, city officials have expressed hope that the city-state relationship can recover. After Nashville was granted the temporary injunction in the Metro Council Reduction Act lawsuit, Metro Law Director Wally Dietz said the ruling could redefine their dynamic.
“In the broader scheme of things, looking at the relationship, it’s really important that the state of Tennessee and Metropolitan Nashville have a good, healthy relationship,” Dietz said. “We actually believe this ruling can help improve that relationship and rebalance the powers.”