In a wide-ranging chat with editors and reporters from The City Paper and the Scene, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean made his case for his proposed tax hike and shared his thoughts on everything from film incentives to charter schools.
He also answered questions about the at-times strained relationship between the state and local governments based just blocks from each other in Nashville.
Republicans, who now enjoy overwhelming control of Tennessee's state government, are often seen making the argument for local control when their relationship with the federal government is concerned. But while they generally give lip-service to the idea that government closest to the people governs best, questions about their respect for local autonomy have abounded ever since the legislature passed, and Gov. Bill Haslam signed, a bill that nullified an anti-discrimination ordinance passed by Nashville's Metro Council. (An effort to repeal that bill failed earlier this year.)
Presented with the apparent contradiction as bills challenging local authority popped up throughout the legislative session, some Republican lawmakers disagreed with the premise. The difference, they argue, is that while the Tenth Amendment reserves for the states any power not expressly granted to the federal government, local governments only have the power given to them by the state. As a result, they say, it's only proper for state lawmakers to deliberate over what kind of decisions metro governments like Nashville's can make for themselves.
Excerpts from the Dean interview — on newsstands now — after the jump:
You mentioned fielding calls from other cities and people checking out Nashville and how hot it is. When you're fielding those calls, do you ever hear, "Gee, we'd love to come down, all this social agenda legislation is worrying us." Do they ever say, "What the hell is going on with the legislature in Tennessee?"
I won’t mention names, I’m not really at liberty to mention it, but there have been companies who have actually come here who have heard about some of the social legislation and expressed concern. My position has always been, particularly in the area of nondiscrimination, that that absolutely shoots us in the foot. Particularly if you’re a cultural city and an artistic city and a university city. I think Nashville stands on its own. I think people look at Nashville and know that it’s different. Cities have to be friendly, which we are. Cities have to be inclusive, which I think we are, and we try to get more and more inclusive. That’s the way government in cities should operate. But I have heard it. The business [in question] came.
Some of the items in the legislature that were sponsored by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce would have essentially gutted some of the city’s zoning abilities. Before the city gives the chamber a $300,000 subsidy in the next budget, have you gotten assurances from them that they won’t put those forward again next year?
I think they would view that [amount] as payment for services rendered. I think I made my displeasure with the chamber’s position pretty well-known. We’ve had some pretty frank discussions about that, and I’ve been assured that I or a representative from my office could be present to talk whenever there’s any sort of legislation that they’re taking a position on that affects Nashville. I don’t think they deliberately set out to ... I think it somehow fell into a crack, and then it kept going, and then it got a momentum of its own. And it was really problematic. It would have been devastating to local governments all over. The opposition to it was total from every major city in Tennessee and the Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus. We did a very strong letter saying, “Stop.” I think the chamber’s aware that if we’re going to be partners, we’ve got to be on the same page on a lot of these things. Or at least we’ve got to have a discussion before they go off and do it.
I will say that I support the chamber getting the $300,000. It’s in the budget. It really is to pay for the work Janet Miller and the economic development folks do in bringing us prospects and to give the message of Nashville. They do a good job at it. Part of the reason I was as outspoken as I was about this is that my track record with the chamber has been … that I think, in general, they have been fairly progressive. I don’t agree with them on everything, and there’s certain things I’ve done that they don’t agree with, but I think there are very few chambers of commerce that make their No. 1 priority public education. They haven’t just talked it, they put money into it. They’ve put work into it. They’ve rallied other sources of money in the private sector to help. They’ve been a good ally in all that. I think they’ve been very thoughtful about issues around transportation, too. Their vision of Nashville, I thought, has been far different from the vision that was articulated by the bills that were filed. And it’s not just big cities, it would have been small towns that would have been adversely affected.
I’m sure you saw the state bill that would allow the state to have an entity that would oversee the state fair.
I think the issue is, and what we’re agreeable to and what the [Metro] council did, is to have this planning done that we’re in the process of doing. And I think that should occur. My point is that the state fair is great, but you’ve gotta have a way to pay for it. This is the first year where we’re at where we thought we’d be. At some point, we’ve gone through all of the reserves. Over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve spent every bit of the reserves. It’s all gone. So now there’s a supplement in the budget this year. We’ve fully funded what the fair board wants. I’m not hostile to the fair. But the reserves are gone, and the money that will now supplement that will come from the general fund. One of the issues is that if there’s going to be a true state fair, maybe there should be some help to pay for it to turn it into a true state fair and not have something that’s not a state fair. But that bill is totally separate from me. I’ve kept totally separate from that.
The governor just vetoed the Vanderbilt “all-comers” bill.
I thought that Gov. Haslam, the opinion he expressed I share with him. I couldn’t express it any better than him. The legislature shouldn’t be telling Vanderbilt what to do. Vanderbilt can figure out if what they did was right. It’s a private institution. I think he was correct to veto it.