Tennessee is one of only three states in America that permits cities to annex property by ordinance, without a vote or any other statutory protection of its citizens.
Our primary opposition to ending forced annexation in Tennessee — thereby giving citizens a right to vote — has been, and continues to be, The Tennessee Municipal League, otherwise known as The Tennessee Mayor’s Union. This powerful lobby is largely to blame for our state’s lack of progress on property rights and protections. You may remember these lobbyists as those who tried to bring you a state income tax in 2000. Do not underestimate their influence over the Tennessee Legislature.
Last year, Rep. Mike Carter proposed a bill in the House that would effectively end annexation by ordinance, also known as forced annexation, by requiring a referendum before cities could annex any residential or farm property.
Mayors who oppose the right to vote on annexation asked for two years to let Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (“TACIR”) study the issue of city growth. Rep. Carter agreed to a one-year moratorium on annexation, but after “studying” the process over the summer, TACIR did not recommend a solution. Instead, they asked for another delay.
Now, a group of Middle Tennessee mayors has weighed in on the proposal. They claim that allowing the people to vote on their form of government would be overly burdensome. I find this ironic given they don’t find it burdensome on ordinary Tennesseans to impose new taxes on those annexed to pay for city budget short-falls, or to add new regulations citizens never had a say in creating. Adding insult to injury, these new taxes and regulations are all issued by fiat from city council members they never elected.
If you have never served in the Legislature you would not realize that “study committees” are often only delaying tactics to enable Legislators to avoid having to vote on complex issues. In this case to get it past the next election cycle. After all, who could justify a vote to deny Tennessee farm and homeowners a voice in actions that could potentially lead to the confiscation of their property? Sound extreme?
This is precisely what can happen when ordinary citizens are unable to shoulder the more than doubling of their tax load. This is what Annexation by Ordinance does. This year, Legislators will have the opportunity to correct the problem, but only if Rep. Carter’s bill is brought to a vote.
For 28 years I served in the Legislature until I retired in 2004. Repeatedly, I sponsored this legislation but was never allowed the privilege of bringing it up for a vote or even have it debated. My experience went something like this:
The Speaker of the House created a special subcommittee to deal specifically with annexation issues before sending the proposed bill to the appropriate State and Local Government Committee. The proponent would go before the subcommittee, explain the bill and ask for a motion to move it to the proper committee. The handpicked members would stare silently, the subcommittee Chairman would say, “I hear no motion to move it out so the bill fails for lack of a motion.”
Repeatedly I followed the process, eventually knowing what would take place. Never once did I have the privilege of serving as a member of the majority party and have the opportunity to determine procedures. The adage, “it matters who governs” holds true in this situation.
Now that a super-majority exists, a freshman Representative has the opportunity to achieve what a 28-year veteran was repeatedly denied. Rep. Carter now has the chance to give the people a vote on annexation.
Tennessee cannot allow the moment to be lost by the influence of a powerful lobbying group or any Legislator being unwilling to face a difficult vote.
Bobby Wood, a resident of Harrison, Tenn., is a former Tennessee lawmaker.