NASHVILLE — Mark Norris, the Collierville Republican who is majority leader of the Tennessee state Senate, is aware that in certain quarters he is developing a reputation as some sort of éminence grise, a hardball-playing legislator intent upon enforcing his will, or that of the Shelby County suburbs vis-à-vis the city of Memphis, come what may.
And he is aware that Norris-Todd, the 2011 legislation that largely governs the terms of city/county school merger — while explicitly giving the suburbs an out from the process — is a major part of his legacy. But he protests that he is incompletely defined by that measure, or by his co-sponsorship of several newly introduced bills curtailing Memphis' annexation rights, or by his rapidly approaching deadline for pushing legislation on the transfer of school properties to Shelby County's outer municipalities.
"There's so much more that I do," he says, naming issues like "my ongoing efforts to help save the Church Health Center," along with his current responsibilities for bringing Governor Bill Haslam's legislative package: "And the budget. I'm carrying that."
And Norris is no ogre. He is famous, among those who deal with him, for his disarming manner and gracious ways — attributes which, in tandem with his unrelenting determination to see his purposes through to conclusion, make him an uncommonly effective politician. For opponents, he has the undertaker's way of coating the inevitable with calm reasonableness.
As for those annexation bills — one of which would remove the Gray's Creek/Fisherville area in east Shelby County from Memphis' annexation reserve, while another would give residents of unincorporated areas the right to avoid annexation via the referendum process — why, those concerned "lingering issues that need to be discussed." And the bills, whose House of Representatives sponsors were Curry Todd and Ron Lollar, both involved in the passage of Norris-Todd? Just means of "facilitating the discussion."
Actually, they became the tinder for a firestorm when they were introduced, week before last, on the last day for filing legislation in the General Assembly. Memphis mayor A C Wharton and the Memphis City Council convened an extraordinary emergency session to prepare an annexation ordinance for Gray's Creek, just in case.
Norris, meanwhile, has backed off somewhat, contending that he had signed on to the annexation bills, "which I didn't write," merely as a courtesy to constituents and as an aid to the aforesaid discussion. And, as a seasoned attorney himself, he had his own doubts. "I said from the beginning I thought the bills were constitutionally suspect," at least partly because they were, in essence, private acts that lacked the requisite unanimous support locally. His co-sponsorship, he says, had been "on condition we get an attorney general's opinion."
At this writing, that opinion is still pending, but both sides to the dispute seem to have agreed on at least a temporary stand-down on their respective measures. And Norris says, "I don't think it will go much further if at all."
Quite another matter is the question of the school buildings sought by the municipal school districts now being formed in Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, and elsewhere in the outer county. Norris prefers the term "practical time frame" to the word "ultimatum," but the effect is the same. Some two weeks ago, he said he would introduce legislation to resolve the matter within 30 days, and that clock is ticking.
"In the fullness of time, it will not be construed as aggressive if it gets the appropriate parties talking together," Norris says.
As for where this talk and/or his bill should lead, he is explicit. Pooh-poohing the notion that the suburbs want the buildings "scot-free," Norris says, "From the municipalities' point of view, they're already paid for." There are niceties to be resolved about the buildings' initial cost and the ongoing debt, but: "The common law says the buildings aren't owned by anybody, they're just owned in trust. ... It is their perspective that they have paid for those facilities, that they're held in trust for educational purposes. If they have a municipal district, they should be used for those purposes."
That formulation would seem to suggest that Norris himself is amenable to such a view, but he stresses that so far he hasn't written anything at all into his pending bill. He sees himself, again, as a facilitator, an agent for expediting the matter of the school buildings in the general interest, and refers to what he sees as unnecessary delays in complying with the provisions of Norris-Todd: "Given the initial August 2013 deadline, how many months were lost by the federal litigation? Nothing was done, the transition team wasn't properly appointed, everybody just frittered away that time in court.
"Now, you're looking at a similar crossroad. Now, we have a year and a half left. Some people in Memphis say they're prepared to file suit. So you have a choice: You can either sit back and suffer another lawsuit and then the delay, and who knows how long that takes. What if that takes a year? Well then, when they emerge with an answer, they have six months left.
"The rhetorical question is perhaps, would it not be better ... you can do it judicially or you can do it legislatively and remove that roadblock with that obstacle, clarify the situation. If, as is proffered by many, the common law says the buildings are held in trust for public education ... doesn't it make sense to codify that situation, to clear it up?"
• Norris' weight is felt in virtually every governmental quarter. After his speech last week at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Memphis, Governor Haslam was asked about Norris' input on the annexation and school-building matters.
On the former, the governor seemed fairly confident in his answer: "My understanding is that Senator Norris has held it up in the Senate. I would be really surprised if it went any further." But Haslam was more ambivalent when asked if Norris' promise (or threat) of legislation on the school buildings was consistent with his request that the legislature not interfere with the ongoing merger process.
"I think so," Haslam said. "Mark and I haven't had much of a chance to talk about it. But my feeling is that committee [the Transition Planning Commission] is working hard. Let them finish their work, and then parents, municipalities, and everybody else can decide how they feel about the finished product before we make a lot of decisions in the mid-term."
Norris figured directly as a specter, too, in Monday's deliberations of the Shelby County Commission.
Commissioner Walter Bailey introduced a surprise add-on resolution intended to provide the Shelby County Unified School Board with several bargaining points regarding the school-building matter. His resolution would have tied any transfer of school property to considerations of "fair market value" or other compensation to offset any potential increase in the county's bonded indebtedness should the building of substitute school facilities be required. Bailey referred to "an imminent threat" resulting from "the whimsical and capricious notions and behavior of Senator Norris and Representative Todd." He said, "We are not their subjects. We are a sovereign local community with duties and responsibilities. We've got to fight for the taxpayers."
Wyatt Bunker, a suburban commissioner opposed to the resolution, objected that 44 schools had in the past been transferred from the county school system to Memphis City Schools without cost, setting a precedent.
Warning against passage of the resolution, Bunker said, "I think Norris-Todd can undo any of this. You're going to make a foe of him [Norris]."
In the end, thanks to some artful filibustering from Chris Thomas, another opponent of the resolution, the commission deadlocked 6-6 on a reconsideration of the measure sought by proponent James Harvey. Harvey had to leave to catch a plane and was not able to cast his vote.
• Meanwhile, momentum is gathering for the March 6th primaries for county offices. Look for reports in the Flyer and in "Political Beat" at memphisflyer.com.