State Senator Johnson on Local Government: ‘When They Are Dysfunctional and Ineffective, It Is Our Responsibility as a State to Step in and Take Action’

Feb 8, 2023

Live from Music Row, Wednesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Tennessee State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) in studio to discuss the relation between state and local governments. Johnson called to decrease the number of Metro Nashville city council members.

Leahy: In studio right now, a very good friend, State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. Jack, once again, thank you. You’re in the middle of a session, and you’re spending, you know, an hour and a half with us this morning. Thanks for spending the time here.

Johnson: I’m happy to. There’s a lot going on, a lot we need to talk about.

Leahy: Let’s talk about how the state government basically authorizes all local governments, and there’s a bill that would reduce the number of council members for certain kinds of government. I think it’s sort of the combined Metro city-county governments like we have in Nashville, Trousdale, and what is the third?

Johnson: I think it was Moore.

Leahy: Okay, so this would be relevant for those three kinds of entities. And right now, Metro Nashville Council has an unmanageable 40-member Metro Council. Tell us what this bill would do.

And it sounds like a good government bill to me, but some are saying this is punishment doled out to Nashville by the mean Tennessee General Assembly because of the Republican National Convention. They rejected it here in 2024. Tell us about the bill.

Johnson: Sure. The bill is sponsored by, again, my friend and colleague, House Majority Leader William Lamberth. And on the Senate side, Senator Bo Watson, chairman of our Finance Ways and Means Committee from Hamilton County, has the bill in the Senate, and it does exactly what you said it would.

It would put a cap on the number of council members that can be elected to a metropolitan form of government. Nashville has a city council now that is grossly dysfunctional and has been at odds with the General Assembly on numerous issues.

And you touched on something that is very important for people to understand. You may agree or disagree with the effort to do this, but understand that all political subdivisions, cities, counties, school boards, and utility districts, are things that are created by and are accountable to the General Assembly and to the state.

Leahy: To the state.

Johnson: Exactly. Our constitution gives us that sovereign power to create political subdivisions as we deem necessary. And let me be very clear. I believe in local governments. I’m glad we have a city of Franklin and a city of Hendersonville. I’m glad we have Wilson County and Rutherford County.

I think local governments play a very, very important role in government. But when they are dysfunctional and ineffective, it is our responsibility as a state to step in and take action. And that’s what we’re contemplating with regard to the city of Nashville.

I remind your listeners that on at least two different occasions, the comptroller has been within inches of having to step in and take over their budget because they were unable to put together a balanced budget as they are required to do under Tennessee law and under the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office.

Leahy: And the city of Nashville and Davidson County is a fiscal disaster because there are huge unfunded liabilities for health care retirees who work for the Metro Nashville government. Huge.

Johnson: They’ve taken on an enormous amount of debt over the years. And so I think it’s reasonable, and by the way, we would do this with any other local government if we thought it was necessary as well. People like to draw attention, and it’s reasonable and understandable about the decision relative to the Republican National Convention.

Now, keep in mind that’s a decision to turn that down and the ability to host that convention, which would have been a multi-hundred million dollar economic impact, not just to Nashville, but the state of Tennessee. Every hotel room in Williamson County that I represent would have been full.

Every hotel room in Rutherford County and in Wilson County. People coming to attend that convention would be spending money all over Tennessee. How many people would come to that convention from somewhere or maybe another country?

And while they’re here going to the convention, they decide to drive to Memphis and go to Beale Street or Graceland or drive to Pigeon Forge and go to Dollywood or come down to Franklin and visit Carnton Plantation.

They decided to not pursue that convention for petty partisan reasons. And it was a horrible decision. That’s not why we’re looking at restructuring the council, but it certainly is an example of why we need to do so. It’s one of many, many examples.

Leahy: Will this bill pass through the legislature, and will the governor sign it?

Johnson: I think the bill has tremendous momentum and is making progress. And my sense is right now that it will pass the General Assembly. And again, I never speak for the governor, but he’s not vetoed a single bill yet that has been passed by the General Assembly.

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Jack Johnson” by Jack Johnson. Background Photo “Metro City Hall” by Michael Rivera. CC BY-SA 4.0.