Comptroller in Charge? 

Justin Wilson discusses state intervention in local governmental matters.

Casual followers of the news might deduce from what has transpired over the last week or so that state comptroller Justin Wilson is part and parcel of a tendency in state government these days to overpower local governments in matters where, by rights, there should be some degree of local option — or at least some latitude.

After all, it was Wilson who, after surveying the untidy sausage factory that is Memphis city government at budget time, issued last week what was widely viewed as a threat to intervene directly in the preparation of our city’s budget, trumping the efforts of the 13 elected men and women of the city council as well as the administration of Mayor A C Wharton.

The comptroller followed through this week [“Politics,” p. 12] by citing state law as his authority to take such a step, should he choose to exercise it. As he said, among other things, “There’s no question I can raise taxes.” And Wilson toils for the same new-look Republican state government, whose General Assembly arm has yielded bill after bill in the last two legislative sessions that have appropriated authority over matters heretofore regarded as within the purview of the state’s local governments. And a compliant Governor Bill Haslam has, in case after case, blithely turned them into law.

There was the bill in 2012 that struck down an already enacted Nashville/Davidson County equal rights ordinance that provided workplace protection for members of the LGBT community and further prohibited any other local jurisdiction — including the governments of Memphis and Shelby County, both actively proceeding with such ordinances — from enacting anything similar. There was the bill in the 2013 session that imposed the same kind of thou-shalt-not ban on local living-wage or wage-theft ordinances, specimens of which were, again, under active consideration locally. There was also the bill to overrule the authority of local school boards to rule on local applications for charter schools. That bill was held off for another year only because it got caught in a power struggle between the two GOP speakers of the two legislative chambers. Once the speakers kiss and make up, as they are likely to in the next session, the bill is sure to resurface and pass.

And there were any number of other education bills enacted to short-circuit the private-act traditions that historically had endowed local county commissions — the one in Shelby County, in particular — with veto power over significant local-only changes.

Wilson, a seemingly non-ideological fellow, appears not to be an over-reacher of that sort. He claims only to stand for the established principle, enshrined in the Tennessee Annotated Code, that only the state — and the comptroller’s office, in particular — can guarantee the common metrics and level of standardized solvency that allows the separate governmental units of Tennessee to effectively interact with each other and with state and federal governments on financial and regulatory matters. It’s the same principle, he says, as the parts of a nation needing to have a common currency.

At this juncture, it would be rash to lump Wilson, who professes to being genuinely reluctant to act, with those other Nashville usurpers. Time will tell, of course, whether the city will be allowed to set its own budgetary course — or have it set by the state comptroller.


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