Thursday morning’s nibble came in the form of a segue to a request made by state Senator Charlotte Burks (D-Monterey), who told the Chair of the day that she wanted to withdraw her sponsorship of Senate Bill 3059, which, as captioned, would seem to prohibit various county officials in Tennessee from getting paid for assorted “special services. “
Said Burks, smiling self-effacingly, “This is a bad bill that I accepted and didn’t look at real well. So I would like to withdraw it.”
That was followed by Norris, who donned a sheep-eating grin of his own as he referenced the jam he’d gotten himself into with Senate Bills 3702 and 3703, measures that would disrupt the delicate equilibrium created by Public Chapter 1101 of 1998. That peacemaking bill had been passed to provide a modus vivendi on urban annexations statewide, and especially for Shelby County, which had just gone through the “Toy Towns” scare of 1997
The two proposed new bills — which he’d co-sponsored with a pair of fellow Shelby County Republicans, state Representatives Curry Todd and Ron Lollar — would abruptly remove the Gray’s Creek/Fisherville area in eastern Shelby County from Memphis’ annexation reserve and make the City’s annexations anywhere else subject to referenda of the affected populations.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and the City Council had reacted angrily by setting in motion an ordinance for the immediate annexation of Gray’s Creek/Fisherville. At the moment both the bills and the ordinance were in a state of mutual suspended animation — loaded pistols aimed and cocked as a showdown loomed.
“Senator Burks, I empathize with you,” said Norris now. And he tilted his eyes upward to take in the Senate galleries as well as the cameras which, as he knew, were transmitting live images to such interested onlookers in Tennessee as might be looking in online. “Those tuning in to Civics 101 today,” he said, by way of acknowledging the audience.
And then he addressed himself to the current status of SBs 3702 and 3703. Quoting a headline in “today’s publication down in West Tennessee” (i.e., The Commercial Appeal) as saying the bills “remain alive,” Norris demurred. “I don’t think I said that. I think I said they’re on life support.” Alluding to the fact that he had requested a ruling on the two bills’ constitutionality from state Attorney General Robert Cooper, Norris said, “They need to stay on the desk until the Pony Express from the A.G.’s office gets here. So, Charlotte, I understand how you feel.”
Whereupon he moved that the Senate adjourn for the weekend.
Meanwhile, various state government notables were in attendance at the annual meeting of the Tennessee Press Association, which is where Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, the Senate Speaker and Norris’ immediate superior, served him his second course in absentia.
In a Q-and-A session, Ramsey was asked about the ongoing standoff between Norris and his two House confederates, on one hand, and Memphis city government, on the other, regarding the two annexation bills.
Ramsey, who rarely minces his words when he differs from Governor Bill Haslam, his superior, declined to do so now in relation to Norris, his lieutenant: “I think Public Chapter 1101 is working well as it is right now. I know that Sen. Norris has pressures — I understand very well — from constituents that want to amend that. But I saw the annexation wars up front and first-hand in the early and mid-‘90s, and most of that’s stopped, not only in my area but all across the state after that because they put some reasonable restrictions on annexation and I think we’re all reluctant to revisit that any more.”
A gentle rebuff from the Majority Leader, but a rebuff all the same. Ramsey would continue: “He’s had a lot of petitions from that area. But I don’t think he’s moving forward with it. He’s not moving forward with it. He introduced the bill because he thought it was the right thing to do at the time, but I’m sure that he’s not going to move it now.”
Ouch! A veritable cease-and-desist order from the Speaker. That was closely followed by the long-awaited opinion from Attorney General Cooper, which pronounced the bills “constitutionally suspect” because of their limited ad hoc application to a single county and municipality.
In other words: Dinner is served!
And that in turn was followed up by Norris, who’d finally had enough crow and, seemingly reluctantly, pushed himself away from a table which he himself had laid. He withdrew the two bills, but not without one last attempt at self-extenuation.
“Citizens in these communities want their voices to be heard, which was the impetus for filing the legislation,” he said in a written statement. “Although we felt this would likely be the outcome, it was important enough to our constituents to file the bills and get the Attorney General’s opinion.”
There’s a curious footnote to that claim, made by Norris regarding the alleged importuning of himself, Todd, and Lollar by Fisherville citizens demanding the passage of the controversial and now defunct legislation.
On Tuesday, as the Memphis City Council readied to pass what would be the first reading of three required ones of the annexation ordinance regarding Gray’s Creek, a delegation of citizens from the Fisherville community had pleaded with Council members to desist. Sympathetically but firmly, various Council members pointed out that they had not wanted to annex Gray’s Creek but that the state had forced their hand.
In the course of what, all things considered, was a good-natured colloquy, Councilman Bill Boyd addressed John Bogan, president of the Fisherville Civic Club and the man widely regarded as the source of agitation for Fisherville’s protection from annexation, asking Bogan point blank if he had urged Norris, Todd, and Lollar to sponsor the two annexation bills.
Bogan was unequivocal. He had not. He had not spoken to the legislators about any such thing and had known nothing about the bills. But he would try to find out what had happened, he promised the councilman.
Nor did anybody else from the Fisherville delegation that day own up to any pressure on behalf of the two bills.
Which is to say, an already muddled scenario becomes curiouser and curiouser. Presumably, truth will eventually out, and, in the meanwhile the Council is expected to follow through on a pledge made Tuesday to withdraw the Gray’s Creek annexation ordinance as soon as Messrs. Norris, Todd, and Lollar stood down on their bills.
Unaffected by all this is a parallel effort by Norris — his continued resolve to pass legislation affecting the potential transfer of school buildings from the authority of the Uniform Shelby County School Board to that of the several breakaway municipal school districts that are in the process of being formed in the suburbs.
But that, as they say, is another story.