Since the passage of Public Chapter 98, the so-called “toy towns” law, the Tennessee Municipal League has been in a tail-spin. Here, for the first time ever, is the complete story of why this implosion has occurred – and what it may mean for the future.
The rapid decent of the Tennessee Municipal League (TML) from one of Tennessee’s most feared lobbying groups to virtual leperdom at the State Capitol has provided a textbook example of what can happen to a lobbying group when its arrogance leads it afoul of the interests of its clients and legislators alike.
Even before its current problems, the TML had been criticized by several legislators for misleading them about the true effects of laws or spreading disinformation about their proposals. While many of these legislators had been traditional opponents of the TML’s agenda, this continuing practice would come back to haunt the TML.
The story of TML’s collapse starts with a tiny community in western Fayette County, the now-infamous town of Hickory Withe. One of the rules of effective lobbying is that whatever else one does, it’s generally not a good idea to run afoul of the leaders of the legislature. So when State Sen. John Wilder, the lieutenant governor of Tennessee, decided in 1995 that he wanted Hickory Withe to be able to incorporate as its own community to avoid annexation by another city, the TML put aside its traditional pro-annexation policies to help him out. The TML crafted a law that would, in theory, allow Hickory Withe to incorporate.
The problem with theory is that it rarely succeeds in practice. The courts ruled that the law was unconstitutional under the state constitution, because it was a public chapter (a general law) that does not have statewide applicability. The state constitution requires all laws that apply to just one area (laws of local applicability, which are called private chapters) have the approval of the governmental entity that they affect.
This left the TML and Wilder with two options in the 1997 legislative session: to pass a law that would specifically charter the town of Hickory Withe, or to pass a generally applicable law. They chose the latter course: Wilder introduced an innocuous bill (SB1191) that would shift the dates of revenue shifts after the successful incorporation of a new city, and the process was started.
What has only recently become clear is the extent of the TML’s involvement in this process. The TML, far from being “blindsided” by the law as they would later claim under questioning from their own board members, from the accounts of several legislators, including the sponsor of the House’s companion bill, orchestrated the entire process, including the floor amendment that turned Wilder’s revenue shifting bill into Public Chapter 98, the so-called “tiny towns” law.
While the rest of the story of Public Chapter 98 is history (and has been recounted elsewhere), there remains the fallout which has affected the TML in its wake. TML created numerous new enemies in the legislature when it placed the “blame” for the law on the shoulders of the legislators it had worked with to pass the law in the first place.
Nowhere has the fallout been more obvious than in the 1998 debate over the future of urban growth in Tennessee. TML’s so-called “compromise” bill was rejected out of hand by committees in the Senate and House; the once-powerful lobbying group has been reduced to begging for concessions from county and suburban lobbyists. Meanwhile, TML’s taxpayer-funded operations are likely to be opened up to full public scrutiny, its lobbyists have been told to look for new jobs, and its executive director has been pushed out the door (albeit with a hefty severence package).
And, of course, State Sen. Tom Leatherwood is holding the lottery constitutional convention hostage to wholesale annexation reform. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.