By Scott Robertson
Tennessee’s legislative body in Nashville gets little love from the media in this end of the state. There are good reasons for that. Much of what the Tennessee State House and Senate have spent their time doing over the last couple of years has accomplished little more than provide grist for the FoxNews/MSNBC headline mill. Naming an official state gun, battling over whether the Bible should be the official State Book of Tennessee and the like are great issues for riling up the conservative and liberal bases, but do little to make the lives of average Tennesseans in any way better. As I have written in this space before, the “august body” has too many showponies and too few workhorses.
But all that having been said, I must be as profuse with my praise for what the state legislature does accomplish as I am with criticism for what it does not. So here’s to the Tennessee General Assembly for two items handled in its halls this year that will benefit the taxpayers of Washington County.
The first – passage of Senate Bill 1180, brought by Rusty Crowe – ends the county’s 25 years of wandering the wilderness of budgetary bureaucracy. The explanation of what the state has accomplished in this regard begins back in 1957, when the General Assembly passed a law requiring action by a full county commission to approve budget changes during the fiscal year. That law was put in place to ensure counties did not submit budgets they had no intent of following.
It only took 34 years, however, for the General Assembly to realize it had created a bureaucratic morass. Counties were being forced to waste time and money getting full commission approval for very minor changes. Government was supposed to be run like a business, the legislators said, but what business would make the Board of Directors vote every time a secretary needed to buy an unbudgeted $3 pack of Flair pens?
So in 1991, the General Assembly adopted new provisions for the amendment of county operating budgets. The state allowed county mayors to amend line items within a major category. Further, the state allowed budget committees to approve line item amendments.
This was all well and good, except for one thing. For reasons no one wants to talk about for fear of needlessly opening old political wounds, the 1991 provisions applied to all but one of the counties operating under the old law. Washington County, up until now, has been required to operate under the original 1957 statute.
Seeking to rectify this, the Washington County Commission had passed, without dissent, a resolution in October 2014 (Resolution 14-10-12) asking the legislature to bring the county in line with the 1991 provisions, but in April 2015, Representative Micah Van Huss pulled that bill, demanding the commission’s voice vote be replaced with a roll call vote. That couldn’t happen in time for the changes to go into effect in 2015.
So for 2016, the commission acceded and provided the legislature with its roll call vote (Resolution 14-10-12-A1). Passing by a tally of 20-5 at the December meeting, the resolution asked the state to treat Washington County like every other county. The state legislature got out of the way this year, so Washington County government will now be able to operate as efficiently as other counties. No longer will department heads have to ask the permission of the full commission to move $20 from the cleaning supplies budget to the mail budget in order to buy stamps.
The second matter is less about action of the legislature and more about the actions of one legislator. Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, at the last minute, stepped in and ended an effort by the Office of the Comptroller of the Secretary of State to take over the annual audit process for Washington County (SB2653).
In one way, the situation is precisely the opposite of the previously mentioned kerfuffle. Currently, Washington County is one of very few counties engaging independent auditors rather than letting Nashville handle its audit. The county has used local accounting firm Blackburn, Childers and Steagall (BCS) to conduct its annual audits, literally for decades.
It might seem incongruous for the county to want to be treated like every other county on one issue, but be allowed to maintain its outlier status regarding another – until one sees what the county’s positions on the two issues have in common. The county wants to do its business in the most efficient way possible.
Were Washington County forced to take its audits to Nashville, the county would lose the consultations provided by BCS as part of its service package, as well as the benefit of years of institutional memory. Surprising as it may be, the comptroller’s office charges county governments for advice on how not to run afoul of the state’s own audit procedures. There’s a word that springs to mind to describe the state’s policy on this, and you play tennis with it.
Ramsey, in one of his final acts as Lt. Governor, got the comptroller’s office to back down. The end result is that the state will take less of Washington Countians’ money.
Ramsey has always said the best government is that which is smallest and closest to the people it represents. In taking this stand on the audit issue, the retiring Ramsey is departing office in the same way he governed – true to his principles and true to the citizens he serves. His service will be missed.