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Catch-22

New merger bills encounter snags in a reluctant General Assembly.

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There was a time, back during the heyday of Boss E.H. Crump in Memphis, when A) Shelby County's various political arms observed an imposed unity that was virtually complete; B) the county itself was indisputably the most populous and influential in Tennessee; and C) as a result, Shelby County could and did exercise a power over state government that was nigh onto total.

Historians can argue over the ebbs and flows of this power and the exact dates of its prevalenc e, but arguably it lasted, to one degree or another, from early in the 20th century, when Crump, who served as mayor and congressman and, finally and most memorably, as puppet-master, began hitting his stride, until 1954, when the Great Man died.

In those years, laws were passed or repealed, legislators came and went, and U.S. senators and Tennessee governors were established or dispatched, more or less according to Boss Crump's dictates.

The effect of all this on the political health of Shelby County itself, for better or for worse, can be debated, but there was no doubting the county's influence in, and power over, the rest of the state.

Well, things have changed. None of the conditions enumerated in the first paragraph pertain any longer: Rather than being unified, Shelby County is schismatically divided along several lines, most notably those of city vs. county (or, strictly speaking, Memphis vs. its suburbs); the county has not kept pace with such relatively more prosperous and booming parts of Tennessee as Greater Nashville; it has lost population and seats in the legislature, and it has seen power in the General Assembly shift ever eastward.

As things now stand, Shelby County is still large and weighty enough to count for something in the affairs of state government. It just can no longer dominate. Its legislators must bargain for what they get, and its citizens notoriously feel that the quid pro quo on this end of the stick is continually shrinking.

A corollary is that representatives of other Tennessee localities can get downright annoyed with Shelby County.                

All of that has been on display on Capitol Hill in Nashville for weeks now, as Memphis and Shelby County move ever further into the morass of city/county school consolidation.

In one sense, the Norris-Todd bill of February 2011, fast-tracked under the co-sponsorship of two Colliervillians, state Senate majority leader Mark Norris and state representative Curry Todd, may have marked the high-water mark of recent Shelby County legislative influence.

To be sure, Norris and Todd, who had to acquiesce in what was by then the fait accompli of school merger, represented mainly the interests of the county's suburbs, not the whole of Shelby County, but their bill, which spread out the merger process and maximized the suburbs' options — most notably by providing for the ultimate creation of new special or municipal school districts in Shelby County — accorded well with the sentiments of the newly elected Republican majorities in the General Assembly.

And Norris-Todd was timed perfectly to be a demonstration of GOP solidarity. The bill's chief opponents were urban Democrats, and the legislation was carefully written to limit its application to Shelby County, after all. So there seemed to be no downside to Republican legislators elsewhere.

That was then. This is now, as events last week expressly demonstrated in the legislative reception given two new initiatives from Norris.

Ironically, these initiatives from the Senate majority leader arose as a response of sorts to some of the unintended consequences of the original Norris-Todd. The bill had, among other things, created an advisory Transition Planning Commission (TPC), whose 21 members were appointed by a formula which was seen by most observers as suburb-friendly and was suspected in some circles of being a cover for potential action to thwart the merger process overall. But, once the group began to meet, the TPC developed into an exceptionally harmonious and conscientious body that took its nominal mission — to "facilitate" the merger, as Norris had declared for the record — with utmost seriousness.

As the commission moved toward a consensus, finally approving a loose mode of unity called the Multiple Achievement Paths model, the mayors of Shelby County's suburban communities, including Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald, a TPC member himself and increasingly a de facto spokesman for the suburbs at large, began to get restless and pressed hard to accelerate their options, under Norris-Todd, to create new municipal school districts.

Norris introduced one measure, Senate Bill 2908/House Bill 3234, that would advance the eligibility period of new municipal school districts from August 2013, as his original bill had provided, to January 1, 2013. And his other initiative was in direct response to an opinion by state attorney general Robert Cooper that the suburbs could neither hold referenda on their proposed districts nor proceed to appoint school boards until the target date for the merger itself, August 2013.

Accordingly, Norris attached an amendment allowing immediate referenda and school-board creation to an existing bill, HB 1105/SB 1923, that had been designed by its principal sponsor, House Education Committee chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville, to provide guidelines for the evaluation of school directors in Tennessee.

There was a kicker in both bills, however: Norris had suffered some discomfiture early in the session when he and Todd — presumably prompted by constituents — had co-sponsored a pair of bills altering existing annexation agreements in Shelby County to the aggrandizement of the suburbs and the detriment of the city of Memphis. Cooper had pronounced both bills unconstitutional, because they were put forth as private bills (i.e., affecting Shelby County only) but lacked the local legislative unanimity required for such bills and could therefore only be written so as to apply statewide.

Norris was forced to withdraw the annexation bills, and to safeguard his new education initiatives he wrote them both so as to have statewide application. As it turned out, that may have created the basis for their undoing and for the revelation — surprise! — that other parts of Tennessee, GOP solidarity or no GOP solidarity, were not inclined to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of what amounts to a quarrel in Shelby County.

Though both of Norris' initiatives sailed through the Senate, where he holds sway, they both ran into bipartisan resistance in the House.

After weeks of stalling in the House Education Committee, where Republican members were as apt as Democrats to offer objections, SB 2908/HB 3234 was grudgingly passed on to the House Finance Ways and Means Committee, only after amended by state representative Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) to apply only to Shelby County.

Dunn made it clear he had no wish to see new municipal school districts legalized everywhere and lectured the bill's proponents, "Why don't y'all just come up with cooperative agreements, rather than all this other stuff?"

With no clear prognosis, the amended bill awaited action in Finance Ways and Means on Wednesday of this week.

Meanwhile, Norris saw his amendment to HB 1105/SB 1923 rejected in the House after perfunctory debate, during which Representative Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), the House majority leader no less, warned that the Norris amendment as written might unsettle school districts everywhere in Tennessee and "may not make your superintendents happy with you."

When the bill returned to the Senate on Monday of this week, Norris was of a mind to "non-concur" in the House's act of "non-concurrence," sending it back to the other chamber for another review there. But Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the Senate's Democratic leader, suggested that the Shelby County delegation mull over the matter at its weekly delegation lunch on Wednesday, and Lt. Governor/Speaker Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) seemed all too happy to accept that suggestion, rescheduling Senate consideration of the bill for Thursday of this week.

If both Norris measures applied only to Shelby County, both might somehow pass but would be vulnerable to being adjudged unconstitutional. If structured so as to apply statewide, however, they seemed unlikely to be approved by legislators increasingly disinclined to get involved in Shelby County's affairs at the expense of their own.

A classic Catch-22. Or make that either a Catch-21 or a Catch-23, since the initiative on merger matters will likely now pass to the 21 members of the TPC or the 23 members of the interim Unified School Board. Or to supervising federal judge Hardy Mays.

What would Mr. Crump think?

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