State Rep. Matthew “Boss” Hill seemed to be trying out a new nickname, “King of the Hill,” last week when he single-handily derailed a bill to allow voters in cities and towns with package stores to decide for themselves if wine should be sold in their local grocery stores. Hill voted “no” on the bill in the House Local Government Committee he chairs, despite supporting the measure in a subcommittee the week before.
Some political observers said Hill acted in spite — his vote representing payback for a perceived slight he believes the wine bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, showed to him and one of his minions in another committee a week before. In a “Pith in the Wind” post on the NashvilleScene.com, Jeff Woods speculated Lundberg’s successful motion in the House Calendar and Rules Committee to ground a “Black Helicopter” bill sponsored by freshman Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, was the real reason for Hill’s about-face.
In a meandering statement issued after the wine bill debacle Tuesday, Hill said he voted the way he did because supporters moved for a vote on the legislation before amendments could be heard. (It’s important at this point to note that it is often the strategy of a savvy bill sponsor to avoid hearing amendments that might gut or outright kill his legislation.)
In the Calendar and Rules Committee the week before, Lundberg suggested a bill by Van Huss — a fairly ridiculous measure to bar representatives from the United Nations from observing elections in Tennessee — needed to be examined by the House Civil Justice Committee, which he serves as chairman.
Hill — who has been credited with helping Van Huss behind the scenes — was perturbed that Lundberg would openly disrespect the work of his Local Government Committee, which he said had already evaluated the legality of the bill.
While no one said it out loud, many thought the move was just another attempt by the House leadership, along with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, to keep a check on crazy within the GOP super-majority. Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell have this silly notion that the Tennessee General Assembly need not always be the punchline for jokes told by late-night TV comedians.
Meanwhile, one Republican insider told me last week that I should knock it off with the satirical Boss Hill references because, as he said, “it is going to Matthew’s head.”
Certainly, talk has swirled in the past few months of political deals being made by Hill and his lieutenants. One rumor has it that Hill and some big-time tea party financiers in Middle Tennessee have targeted Lundberg and a few other moderate Republicans for defeat in next year’s state GOP primaries.
Political intrigue aside, Johnson City officials are probably more worried about how some of the bills Hill and his lieutenants are carrying this year will negatively impact local government. Hill’s brother, freshman Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, is sponsoring a bill to prohibit Johnson City from charging higher water rates in its regional system inside Sullivan County than it charges municipal customers. There are a number of problems with that bill, one being that it doesn’t take into account that the city’s regional water system must be operated based on the true costs to render those services. Those rates are signed off by the state and are based on an evaluation of those costs.
Meanwhile, Van Huss is carrying a bill that would require a majority of residents who live inside a city’s urban growth boundaries vote to be taken in by that city before an annexation could proceed. This bill is clearly in response to the city’s designs on Gray, and its passage would represent a major revision to the state’s annexation law.
Johnson City Mayor Jeff Banyas told me last week both bills will “absolutely kill economic development” in the area. What city would want to spend money on extending water and sewer services if it could not recoup those costs in the future? Certainly, both bills would have a chilling effect on infrastructure expansion in rural and under-served areas of Washington and Sullivan counties.
More importantly, passage of these bills could ultimately result in either higher property taxes, or cuts to vital services (or both) for residents of Johnson City. Limiting the city’s ability to annex inside its natural growth boundaries would strangle its ability to spread the property tax burden out over a wider area and hinder its efforts to extend vital city services (water, fire and police protection) to citizens who need them.
Both bills are scheduled to be heard in Boss Hill’s Local Government Committee, which does give city officials (who, in the past, have never taken Hill all that seriously) reason to worry. Hill’s public smackdown of Lundberg last week shows he is intent on settling old scores.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.