NASHVILLE - The battle over Tennessee's annexation laws now moves to the state Senate after the House this week overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring referendum votes before cities can legally take in new territory.
"It sounds like we just got a good shot in Senate State and Local [Committee]," observed Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, the measure's Senate sponsor, after the House's 87-8 approval Monday night.
But, Crowe said, "I guess it depends on Sen. [Ken] Yager, right? He's chairing the State and Local Committee." He noted Yager, R-Harriman, has been reluctant to embrace the legislation.
Efforts to reach Yager were unsuccessful.
The bill provides that a majority of voters in residential and farm areas in unincorporated areas could ratify or reject cities' and towns' efforts to initiate annexation by ordinance.
It's similar in overall aim to legislation sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. A bill sponsored by both lawmakers last year that would do away with annexation by ordinance ultimately failed. But it resulted in a yearlong freeze on such annexations while a panel of state and local officials studied the issue.
Carter, whose bill is still moving through committee, joined Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, the bill's primary House sponsor, as a co-sponsor of the bill that passed Monday night.
"House Bill 590 ends forced annexation in Tennessee," Van Huss said as he presented the bill to the chamber.
"Annexation by ordinance has caused great conflict and dissension in our state for years. We must follow the path that has been established in 47 other states and grant them a vote in the sequestration of their land and their homes," he said.
The bill also provides that if a majority of citizens in an area petitions a municipality seeking annexation, a referendum won't be required. And the bill would not apply to business and industrial properties where owners want to be annexed to gain city services.
Republican lawmakers have spearheaded an overhaul of Tennessee's decades-old annexation laws over the past year. The last major fight was in 1998 when state lawmakers required cities to establish urban growth boundary plans to provide for more orderly annexation.
Last year, Carter bore much of the criticism from cities and their lobby, the Tennessee Municipal League.
Carter has argued that voters deserve to have a say in annexation decisions. He recently called it "bizarre to think that politicians come to you and ask you to vote [for them], but when you come to them to ask them to be able to vote [whether to be in a city], they say, 'No, we know better.'"
He said Tuesday he has no problem with Van Huss' bill clearing the House first. He said he is holding his bill, co-sponsored in the Senate by Watson, as a backup should it be needed.
During Monday's debate, Van Huss thanked Carter for his work on the issue.
Noting that Watson has signed onto his bill, Crowe said he anticipates a meeting with Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, Watson, Yager and some county mayors interested in aspects of the bill.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org.