‘Copeland Cap’ May Get Makeover

An easily circumvented Tennessee constitutional provision aimed at compelling state government to live within its means is drawing renewed attention from lawmakers who say it hasn’t had its intended effect.

The so-called “Copeland Cap,” a spending limit Tennessee voters approved for addition to the state constitution in 1978, requires the Legislature to restrict year-to-year government-expenditure growth to no more than growth in the state’s economy.

However, according to figures compiled by veteran low-tax activist Ben Cunningham, the cap has been disregarded more than a dozen times since its sponsor, former state Rep. David Copeland R-Ooltewah, guided it to passage. Currently, the General Assembly can bust the cap by a simple majority vote.

“David Copeland got concerned and worried about the fact that we might spend more than we had, which is a bad thing to do — and we’ve done that, too,” said Nashville Democrat Douglas Henry. He is sponsoring the measure meant to start a discussion about adding more heft to the government-budgeting lid so it will “do what it was designed to do.”

Under Senate Bill 1235, approved by the Senate Government Operations Committee on Wednesday, a task force would take up the matter and report back possible solutions to the General Assembly next year.

“This is the first step in a long process,” Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson, who would serve on the panel, told lawmakers during the committee hearing. The bill calls on the task force to make recommendations by Feb. 1.

Amending the state constitution takes years, including passage in two successive Legislatures — the second by a two-thirds majority — after which the people of Tennessee must approve it on a ballot that includes a gubernatorial election.

Committee chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he believes adding a two-thirds House and Senate floor-vote requirement to override the cap would be a good place to start. That’s also an idea pushed by the free-market Beacon Center of Tennessee, which identified the “runaway spending” permitted under the Copeland Cap as an issue for lawmakers in its policy guide.

“(A supermajority requirement) would allow lawmakers to curb spending, while still preserving their ability to raise needed funds in times of emergency or disaster,” the Center says in its guide. (See page 13.)

The Beacon Center also supports tying the cap to population growth plus inflation, rather than personal income growth.

Senate Bill 1235 moves next to the Finance, Ways and Means Committee. The House version of the legislation, HB1154, by Sumner County Republican Courtney Rogers, has already moved through the committee system and is awaiting scheduling for a lower-chamber floor vote.