State Rep. Bill Sanderson, chairman of the House State Government Subcommittee passionately opposed a 2013 bill intended to quantify how much state revenue was forcibly being diverted by the federal government to pay for its refugee resettlement program.
First elected to the General Assembly in 2011, Sanderson voted for the gas tax this year. Last week, gubernatorial candidate Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) announced that she is supporting Sanderson’s bid to continue representing voters in his district at an event held in Kenton, Tennessee.
After Governor Bredesen, a Democrat, had withdrawn Tennessee from the federal program in 2008, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement chose Catholic Charities of Tennessee (CCTN) to continue the resettlement program for the state. The federal government also continued to rely on state revenue to support refugees resettled by the federal contractors in Tennessee.
Testimony provided during debate on the 2013 bill cited a seventy-five percent increase in refugee arriving to Tennessee since CCTN took over the program even though the number of refugees arriving to the U.S. were declining.
The bill still received enough votes to go to the full committee even with Sanderson abstaining from voting. In the full committee Sanderson spoke extensively against the bill after addressing Rep. Rick Womick, the bill sponsor personally, saying that he used to “see eye to eye” with him on this issue, “but no more”:
This past week I watched “60 Minutes” and it had a story on it about refugee resettlement and I thought it was very timely. And it broke my heart to see some of the conditions these folks in Africa and in other countries that were being resettled in the United States. I contend members, that this bill is smoke and mirrors. It’s no more than an opportunity to stop refugee resettlement. They are putting on us that collection of data is being the problem. The data is there, you merely have to ask for it. Again, this bill is smoke and mirrors. We’re punishing the people who are doing the refugee resettlement because there are certain people who do not want the refugees here. If you had seen the show last week you’d have changed your opinion about it and the bill has got to go away.
Sanderson also accused supporters of the bill of “going on a witch hunt” after Catholic Charities.
Fast forward to 2016, when Sanderson along with all but three Republicans, voted in support of SJR467, the joint resolution which led to the State of Tennessee and the General Assembly suing the federal government over the refugee resettlement program based on a Tenth Amendment claim. The Thomas More Law Center, a public interest firm, is representing the state and the legislature pro bono.
The lawsuit claims that the state is being compelled to pay for a federal program which the state withdrew from, that state revenue is being unconstitutionally diverted to pay for the federal program, and that under these circumstances, continued resettlement of refugees in Tennessee, violates state sovereignty.
The cost issue at the heart of Tennessee’s lawsuit is the same cost issue that the 2013 bill in Sanderson’s committee was intended to address. Since January 1, 2013, over seven thousand refugees have been brought to Tennessee.
Prior to the start of the 2013 legislative session, Speaker Harwell acknowledged that state revenues were down and balancing the state’s budget would be “tough.” Nonetheless, she was confident that the House would “stick to the principles of fiscal responsibility and balance it [the budget], responsibly.”
Federal reports starting in 1990, have documented that the costs of the refugee resettlement program are being passed onto the states. But, as stated in the lawsuit’s complaint filed in federal district court Tennessee is pushing back:
The federal government therefore carries out its refugee resettlement program through economic dragooning of state funds and instrumentalities, which is impermissible under the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and in excess of the federal government’s powers under the Constitution’s Spending Clause.