NASHVILLE - Legislation ending Tennessee's 59-year-old "forced annexation" law is heading for Gov. Bill Haslam's desk after overwhelmingly passing the House on Wednesday.
Sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, the bill easily cleared the House on an 85-4 vote after decades of unsuccessful efforts to repeal an unpopular law that cities argue is critical for their continued growth and economic development.
Property rights activists cheered from the galleries.
Under the legislation, Tennessee towns and cities could no longer annex property simply by passing an ordinance.
Instead, the only way cities would be able to annex is through petition brought by property owners wanting to come in or if a majority of voters cast ballots to do so in a public referendum.
Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor, hasn't said what he intends to do when the measure comes to him.
"Through the legislative process he has deferred on it," said David Smith, Haslam's spokesman, in an email. "When it gets to his desk he will review it in its final form before taking action on it."
A freshman lawmaker, yet well versed on local annexation battles as a former top Hamilton County government official, Carter took a no-prisoners approach with cities and the Tennessee Municipal League as the legislation began its journey in 2013.
"This has been a true citizens movement," the attorney and former General Sessions Court judge said as he presented the bill, previously sponsored by Watson in the Senate. "There have been no lobbyists, special interests or big money involved in this movement. The people spoke, and their senators and representatives worked in an unprecedented manner."
Repeal of the 1955 law, he said, should "stand as testimony that government can work ... when the politicians put self aggrandizement and reward to themselves to the side and reflect the will of the people."
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said when Carter brought the bill "a lot of people told him it was laughable and could never be done and hadn't been done in decades and that certain groups wouldn't let it be done. He's proved that things have changed around here."
Republicans gained firm control of the Legislature in 2010, and cities have sometimes found themselves on the defensive as conservative GOP lawmakers advance on a variety of fronts ranging from repealing most local gun ordinances to barring them from requiring local government contractors to pay "living wages."
Following House passage, the Municipal League's executive director, Margaret Mahery, a former Athens mayor, said, "we will work with it and hope that it doesn't harm economic development. That's been my big issue all along -- economic development and to make sure that we don't harm the efforts that the governor is trying to put forth."
The annexation-by-ordinance law had withstood attacks for decades, but the once-mighty Tennessee Municipal League, the cities' lobbying organization, has lost some of its luster.
That began in the late 1990s in the so-called "Tiny Towns" blow-up when a law passed allowing small areas to form cities to fend off annexation efforts from nearby cities. The law -- done as a favor to the then-Senate speaker -- was repealed.
But it led to an overthrow of top TML officials as well as the 1998 statewide urban growth planning act.
Last year, Carter and Watson's efforts to throw a lasso on annexation by ordinance didn't pass but it did result in a one-year moratorium on the practice, as officials with the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations studied the issue and aspects of the urban growth reforms.
The bill passed Wednesday continues the moratorium until May 15, 2015, but exempts property owners, such as business developers, who want to come into a city for services they can't get in unincorporated areas. On May 16, 2015, the annexation by ordinance law will be repealed.
Sen. Watson said he has sponsored various bills attacking annexation by ordinance over the past eight years.
"I've been able to pass it, but I never had a House sponsor who could articulate it until Mike got here," Watson said. "And he got really excited about it because he's been engaged in it for so long. I felt pretty comfortable in the Senate all along."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.