Consolidation faces high hurdles

On January 4, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

By Richard Locker, Commercial Appeal
January 4, 2008

NASHVILLE — Stripped of his volatile rhetoric about the suburbs, Mayor Willie Herenton’s proposal for a simple countywide referendum on consolidating city and county governments has long been discussed among policymakers.

But it would still require the long process of a state constitutional amendment as well as a longshot political battle in the state legislature to launch the amendment process, legislative leaders agreed Thursday.

None would say the mayor’s plan would be dead on arrival in the Capitol. But some did say his attack on Memphis’ suburban communities — combined with his initial vagueness on the issue in a speech Wednesday — makes it more politically difficult, if not impossible, to pass.

“As a practical matter, it’s not likely to get through this (2008 legislative) session. But it’s never going to get anywhere if he doesn’t talk to us and tell us what he wants to do,” said Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis more or less agreed, saying he looks forward to hearing more from the mayor. “Until then I don’t think I need to be commenting. But what he is attempting to do would be problematic in that it would impact local governments across the state.”

At issue is the “dual-majority” provision in the Tennessee Constitution allowing city and county governments to consolidate — but only if a majority of voters both inside Memphis and county voters outside the city approve it.

Herenton wants to repeal the dual-majority requirement so that only a simple majority of voters countywide is required to approve Memphis and Shelby consolidation.

He said he intends to “hit hard” for consolidation and the current method is unfair: “It’s not democratic. I’ve always believed in majority rule. The majority of citizens in Shelby County live in the city of Memphis …”

Herenton’s spokeswoman, Toni Holmon-Turner, confirmed that the mayor wants to eliminate the requirement for the separate majorities. “What they are doing is exploring what it will take to do that,” she said, adding that city officials are trying to determine if a constitutional amendment is necessary.

But that point is clear.

Article 11, Section 9 of the state constitution says, “…such consolidations shall not become effective until submitted to the qualified voters residing within the municipal corporation and in the county outside thereof, and approved by a majority of those voting within the municipal corporation and by a majority of those voting in the county outside the municipal corporation.”

A constitutional amendment couldn’t be ratified until at least November 2010 and would require statewide approval. If it fails this year, the earliest a constitutional referendum could be held is 2014.

House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, declined to comment on the mayor’s proposal. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said passing such an plan would be difficult and “you would almost be asking for more problems.”

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