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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / State Sen. Todd Gardenhire speaks to the Hamilton County Republican Women's Club at Mountain Oaks Tea Room on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 in Ooltewah, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — A bill barring Tennessee cities and counties from imposing residency requirements on police and other first responders passed the state Senate by a 29-6 vote on Thursday.

Hamilton County was exempted from the measure at the insistence of Sens. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Bo Watson, R-Hixson. Senate Bill 29, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, then passed.

Gardenhire and Watson earlier pressed Kelsey to exclude Hamilton County due to concerns it would jeopardize the city of Chattanooga's compliance with the 1990 landmark federal Voting Rights Act court order that led to the city's current form of government.

The decades-old order, issued by U.S. District Court Judge R. Allan Edgar, stated that all Chattanooga government personnel must reside in Tennessee, excluding nearby Georgia and Alabama. Kelsey's bill would allow local governments in border areas to hire emergency personnel outside Tennessee except for top officials.

During floor debate, Kelsey initially refused to budge on his earlier insistence that all 95 counties in Tennessee come under provisions of the bill, which has yet to start moving in the House.

"I certainly appreciate the gentleman's opposition to the bill in general, but I would respectfully request a no vote on the amendment," said Kelsey, an attorney.

Gardenhire said the court order "affects no one else in this state, but it does affect the city of Chattanooga. We're not trying to tell Memphis what to do, but we need to exclude Hamilton County, because that's what the court order says — you can't live outside the state of Tennessee and work for the city of Chattanooga."

Watson, originally a bill co-sponsor of Kelsey's bill, told Kelsey he was trying "to find a path where I can be supportive of the legislation. For me and my colleague, this is the only path we have."

In response to Kelsey's assertion that Edgar's ruling wouldn't cause problems for Chattanooga if it were brought under the bill's provisions, Watson said that "while it may be true ... we have not been given that confirmation back home. So we have to be where we are. And I would hope that our colleagues on the floor would understand."

Gardenhire said he had spoken with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, City Attorney Phil Noblett and Edgar himself.

"We have a legitimate reason, a legitimate government interest reason to exclude Hamilton County from this bill," Gardenhire said, later adding that if city officials "want to go back to federal court to say we want to exclude this part from the lawsuit then they can do that and that takes care of us in Hamilton County."

He noted the city's charter requires municipal workers to live within Tennessee and excludes Georgia with the issue being "withholding and accounting issues on Georgia's income tax."

Kelsey acceded to the amendment, which passed 30-2.

Both Watson and Gardenhire voted in favor of the amended bill. All six Senate Democrats, who live in Shelby and Davidson counties, voted against the bill.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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