Opinion: Tennessee Republicans should beware the sin of hubris

Photo/Mark Zaleski/The Associated Press / Legislators applaud Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee as he delivers his State of the State Address in the house chamber on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. In back at left is Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and at right is Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

Republicans' supermajority in the Tennessee House and Senate limits the Democrats' legislative clout, but it also constitutes a warning for Republicans: Beware hubris, a word derived from Greek that means "exaggerated pride or self-confidence."

Nothing wrong with pride or self-confidence, within reason. But hubris can lead to "short-sighted, irrational or harmful behavior" when a group fails to consider the potential effect of its actions.

Take, for example, the GOP's passage of a bill -- quickly signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee -- that would limit Tennessee cities' governing bodies to no more than 20 members.

Since their Metro Council is the only entity in the state with 40 members, it's easy to see why Nashville citizens believe GOP legislators were getting even with the council for rejecting a proposal to host the Republican National Convention in 2024.

In responding to criticism from Nashville city hall, the bill's two sponsors -- state Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, and state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson -- resorted to platitudes to spin the bill's passage into coherence.

During the debate on the bill, Lamberth tried to justify it by saying it applied to all cities in the state, not just Nashville. They [the Republican legislators] simply wanted to "create a more efficient council." His failure to prove the Metro Council's inefficiency suggests Lamberth's rationale was flawed.

Watson presented what he presumably considered a loftier rationale -- albeit one disguised as a lame civics lesson:

"Local government bodies need to be a size that allows them to function efficiently and effectively without compromising their duty to represent the people."

Fair enough. Who wants inefficient and ineffective state government? Nary a soul.

Instead of the feeble Lamberth/Watson political two-step, the GOP majority could have opted for honesty by acknowledging the real reason for targeting Nashville city government.

The party's retaliation was driven by its supermajority status, a lopsidedness that can result in legislation that creates unintended consequences.

Since Nashville and Davidson County merged into a metro form of government in 1963, the state capital has flourished. It's a destination city for country music fans and is replete with restaurants and other advantages that attract tourists. Like other cities in Tennessee, Nashville has its share of municipal problems.

One problem it doesn't have is citywide dissatisfaction with the number of Metro Council members. In a 2015 referendum, voters were asked whether the council should be reduced to 27 members. It lost by nearly 25,000 votes.

The Metro Council has filed a lawsuit to prevent the law from taking effect, claiming according to one report that the state can't pass legislation to target a single city without its consent.

Since Metro employees strive to provide the best possible service to their fellow citizens, Watson's argument for efficient and effective governance is superfluous.

To further complicate matters, the next city elections are already set for August, and officials say more than 40 candidates have already qualified.

And finally, the suit complains that by imposing council-reduction requirements on Metro Nashville, "the General Assembly undermines the purpose of local government consolidation, ignores other constitutional prohibitions on such a reduction, and creates confusion and chaos among citizens and candidates."

It seems the GOP legislators, seduced by their majorities in both houses, may have asked themselves: What could go wrong? The judge assigned to rule on the Metro Council's lawsuit will likely have the final answer.

Michael Loftin is a former editorial page editor at The Chattanooga Times.