Civics 101: Private acts under Tennessee law

J. H. Osborne • Sep 23, 2019 at 5:30 PM

What is a "private act" when it comes to local government? It is a state law, approved by the Tennessee General Assembly, and likely requested and subsequently approved by a local government.

Among laws passed by the General Assembly, public acts are applicable to all jurisdictions. Private acts generally have local application only.

The last private act approved by the General Assembly at Sullivan County's request repealed a requirement that satellite offices for the register of deeds be maintained outside the county seat (for example, in Bristol and Kingsport). The act was approved by the 107th General Assembly (2011-2012). It repealed a private act approved in 1899.

Private Acts Facts

• Private acts of the General Assembly are a source of authority for counties in areas not covered by the general law.

• Examples of private acts include those levying hotel/motel taxes and development taxes as there is no general law authority for counties to levy these particular taxes.

• Under Article XI, Section 9, of the Tennessee Constitution, private acts are not effective until approved locally by the county (or city) to which they apply by the terms of the private act.

• Local approval of a private act for a particular county can occur by a majority vote in a referendum by the qualified voters of the county who vote in the referendum, or by a two-thirds majority vote of the county legislative body.

• The method of local approval must be specified in the private act. Sometimes private acts provide that they must be approved by a certain date or they will not become effective. However, if there is not a deadline for local approval in the private act, general law requires that approval take place by December 1 in the year that the private act passed the General Assembly. The approval or rejection of a private act that requires approval by two-thirds vote of the county legislative body is certified by the chair of the county legislative body to the secretary of state of Tennessee.

• The county legislative body may request by resolution that members of the General Assembly representing the people of the county introduce and work for the passage of a particular private act.

• Such a resolution has no legal effect, but members of the General Assembly prefer to see such a resolution, particularly if passed by the number of votes that will be necessary to approve the private act, before they introduce the private act bill.

• Members of the General Assembly are under no legal obligation to introduce the requested private act bill. Further, although this rarely occurs, they may introduce and work for the passage of a private act bill that provides for referendum approval against the wishes of the county legislative body.

Sources: The University of Tennessee's County Technical Asssistance Service, Institute for Public Service; Tennessee General Assembly; Tennessee Secretary of State.