Utility sale bill fails by 1 vote with two Memphis senators gone

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A bill that would have required voter approval of the sale of the Memphis area's major utility company failed in the Senate by one vote.

Sponsors of the bill to require a referendum over the sale of Memphis Light, Gas and Water said the bill likely would have passed if a senator for Shelby County's District 29 had been present to vote. The Senate voted 26-6 last week to oust Sen. Ophelia Ford after finding too many voting irregularities in her 13-vote victory in a special election last fall.

Memphis Democratic Sen. Jim Kyle also was not present for the vote.

The Shelby County Commission has delayed naming an interim successor for the district until May 22.

"District 29 was not represented in the Senate to vote on this issue," said Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, a House sponsor of the bill. "This is a very important issue for the constituents of Memphis and part of them had no representation on this vote, and the bill failed."

District 29 covers more than one-sixth of Shelby's population, stretching from south Memphis, through downtown, to the north Shelby County suburb of Millington.

The bill would have forced a referendum before at least 10 percent of the assets of any municipal-owned public utility in Tennessee could be sold. Twelve Memphis lawmakers filed the bill last year after talk of a possible sale of Memphis Light, Gas and Water.

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton first raised the idea of a sale in 1997, in an effort to raise funds for the financially strapped city. A poll by The Commercial Appeal at the time found 74 percent of Memphis residents opposed a sale.

Sen. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat who sponsored the bill, also blamed Memphis officials who lobbied against the bill for its failure.

"The City of Memphis is not interested in selling MLGW. That's not the issue," he said. "The issue is about municipalities and utilities managing their own affairs."

City officials also lobbied against the bill in 2005 when it failed by nine votes.

"It limits the municipality's and the utility's authority to manage their affairs and that's why other municipalities and utilities across the state opposed the bill, too," Memphis City Attorney Sara L. Hall said.

Cohen said the utility is owned by the people and called a sale of Memphis Light, Gas and Water a "stopgap" solution to Memphis' money troubles.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)