Judge says tax referendum can’t go on ballot

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle on Tuesday ruled that a proposed charter revision that city officials contend is illegal cannot go before county voters.

The citizen group 4GoodGovernment collected the necessary signatures to put the revision before Nashville voters, but the Davidson County Election Commission asked the court to rule on whether it actually had to hold the election.

The charter revision would have rolled back a 34-percent property tax rate increase passed earlier this year and limited Metro Council authority to raise taxes and issue bonds. Charter experts called it both illegal and impractical — the former because it applies retroactively and because it limits city government’s constitutionally guaranteed taxation powers, and the latter because of its form, which lacks specific citations to the Metro Charter which it purports to revise.

Lyle wrote that the proposed law change violates state law in “clear and obvious ways” and ordered the election commission not to put it on the ballot.

Organizers had eyed a December vote for the measure.

“I don't think there's any of the various four or five provisions in it that at the end of the day will pass constitutional muster or state law,” Dewey Branstetter, chair of the Charter Review Commission, told the Post earlier this year. “And if that is the case, then I believe there is a very strong and valid argument for this charter provision not to be placed on the ballot.”

Additionally, city officials including Mayor John Cooper said the proposal would decimate city services by forcing city leaders to cut spending on law enforcement, infrastructure and other priorities.

Cooper called the decision "great news."

"Thankfully, the city does not have to spend between $800,000 and $1 million on something that would later be overturned," he said. "Instead, we can focus on the work Metro Council and I were hired to do.”

But attorney Jim Roberts, one of the actors behind the proposal, warned the election commission against “shenanigans” when making his case before the body.

“The people of Davidson County want this on the ballot,” he told the election commission in September. “Every word was chosen intentionally. I have no idea whether it will pass or not. It’s an opportunity for the people of this community to express their desires at the ballot box.”

Roberts told The Tennessean he may appeal the decision.

Tori Venable, state director for pro-referendum Americans for Prosperity, said they "aren't done yet."

“Refusal to let the people have a voice and a vote is a disservice to our city and democracy," she added.

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