House passes Nashville-only Airbnb bill

After almost two hours of debate Monday night, the Tennessee House passed legislation to regulate short-term rental properties that, as amended, would only affect Davidson County.

The bill, as originally introduced at the beginning of the session, would have affected Airbnb and similar rentals throughout the entire state. But as it moved through committees during the preceding month, the bill was watered down to only deal with collecting hotel taxes from short-term rentals.

That all changed last week after Metro Council took up a proposal to halt issuing permits to non-owner-occupied Airbnbs in certain residentially zoned neighborhoods. Although nothing has passed one way or another, conservative legislators from rural counties immediately introduced an amendment to prevent Metro from banning or limiting Airbnbs for a two-year period.

The Nashville delegation was fuming both on and off the floor Tuesday at the blatant attempt to strip local control from just one county when other nearby cities in heavily Republican counties like Brentwood and Hendersonville have outright bans on Airbnbs. The sponsor of the amendment, Rep. Tim Wirgau (R-Buchanan), kept saying Nashville was trying to ban all Airbnbs, which members kept trying to correct, unsuccessfully.

The Nashville-only amendment passed 50 to 35, and the legislation itself passed 53 to 35, despite many complaints over its possible lack of constitutionality. Rep. Jason Powell was present, not voting on both. The rest of the Nashville delegation, including House Speaker Beth Harwell, voted in opposition to both.

In other action Monday:
— The Senate passed the governor’s $37.1 billion budget with plenty of debate but far less drama than the House. Sponsor Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) introduced the budget with a speech that sounded a lot like a test run for a campaign. Norris is widely thought to be considering a run for governor. After the budget’s passage, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called it “a tremendous achievement by every member of each body of the General Assembly.”

— The House stripped an online sales tax collection mechanism from the omnibus rules bill, sending it back to committee. Gov Bill Haslam’s administration has already been collecting sales tax from online retailers who do not have a physical presence in the state, and the retailers have already sued over it, which is what the administration wanted, hoping to challenge what they say is an out-of-date U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But the prospect of passing anything possibly related to raising taxes was too much for a House still skittish after the wearying battle over the IMPROVE Act and its gas tax hike.

— The House passed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment “recognizing that our liberties do not come from governments, but from Almighty God” after only about five minutes of debate. Responding to a member’s question about the separation of church and state, sponsor Rep. Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) said: “I’m not really worried whether this would be constitutional or not.” Nashville Democrat Mike Stewart had harsh words for the chamber cutting off his party’s attempt to question the resolution, saying that ministers with their own churches didn’t even get to opine on it. But the resolution passed overwhelmingly, 69 to 17. The Senate will now have to adopt it next year, and then both chambers will have to move it forward with a two-thirds majority two years in a row before it can go on the ballot for voters to adopt.

— The House refused to pass a pro forma resolution honoring longtime Nashville journalist Kay West, a former fixture at the Post’s sister publication Nashville Scene. Last year a similar resolution to honor Renata Soto also failed. Rep. John Ray Clemmons had introduced both resolutions, and he and House Majority Leader Glen Casada sniped at each other briefly on the floor before the vote.