Shrinking the Nashville council vs. cutting convention center funding? Or could it be both?

Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton await Gov. Bill Lee’s arrival for his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Nashville is in the crosshairs of state lawmakers for refusing to authorize an agreement to host the Republican presidential convention in 2024. But the House and Senate appear to be taking different tacks toward meting out revenge.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) earlier this month filed a bill to slash the size of the Metro Nashville Council from 40 members to 20. Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) late last week filed legislation to repeal Nashville’s authority to impose extra sales taxes in its tourist zone, use privilege tax funds to pay off convention center bonds, or charge a $2 tax on vehicles hired at the airport.

Here’s what Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) had to say about the Johnson bill:

Nashville has been afforded certain tools for the express purpose of encouraging convention tourism to the city. Over the last year, Metro has made it clear they are no longer interested in aggressively recruiting top-tier conventions to Nashville. That message has been received loud and clear by the General Assembly. If Nashville wants to prioritize political posturing over prosperity for its people, that’s their prerogative. But the state does not have to participate. If Metro has no interest in properly promoting convention tourism, they no longer require the special tax authority granted to them for that purpose.

McNally didn’t note that the Music City Center in Nashville has been host to the National Rifle Association’s annual convention, plus several Statesmen’s Dinners, the state GOP’s annual fundraiser — including as recently as last July.

Some political observers see the competing plans to punish Nashville as similar to GOP lawmakers’ efforts to target then-Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle for her rulings expanding access to absentee balloting during the COVID-19 pandemic. The House first introduced a resolution calling for Lyle’s ouster. While the measure at first had the support of a supermajority in the lower chamber, several members got skittish about heading down the road of removing a sitting judge for the first time since 1993. The Senate, meanwhile, introduced a bill to create a “super chancery court” to handle legal challenges to state laws, executive orders, and rules. Under the original proposal, a panel of three such judges would have been elected in statewide elections.

When everything shook loose, the ouster resolution was killed in committee and the chancery court bill was amended to remove the statewide election of judges. Under the version that was eventually enacted, the Supreme Court appoints three-member special panels comprised of one sitting judge from each grand division to preside over cases.

So where does that leave the current bills taking shots at Nashville? Lamberth’s cosponsor on shrinking the Metro Council is Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga), who is a close McNally ally and roommate in Nashville. But McNally’s full-throated support of Johnson’s bill clearly shows where his preferences lie. Meanwhile, House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) has voiced strong backing for the effort to cut the size of the Council, even though he acknowledges it won’t necessarily make it any easier for Republicans to gain seats.

The question now is whether GOP lawmakers coalesce behind one proposal or the other. Or could it be both?


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