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Capitol View commentary: April 19, 2019

Posted: 1:06 PM, Apr 19, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-19 18:06:30Z
Capitol View

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

April 19, 2019

NEW MAYORAL CANDIDATE JOHN COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS; IMPLICATIONS OF A JOHN COOPER MAYORAL CANDIDACY; NASHVILLE PUBLICITY CONTINUES TO RISE; BRILEY TEASES MORE ABOUT SCHOOL PLANS; A SUSPENDED METRO COUNCIL MEETING; LEGISLATIVE UPDATE; THE 2020 TENNESSEE U.S. SENATE RACE; MUELLER;

NEW MAYORAL CANDIDATE JOHN COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS

This week Nashville got its fourth major candidate seeking to be our next mayor.

Metro Councilman At Large John Cooper, brother of Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper, has changed his mind. He will now be a candidate on the August 1st ballot.

Cooper is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

This will be Cooper’s first in-depth television interview since entering the race.

So many issues and topics to discuss, tune us in!

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include:

7:00 p.m. Friday; 5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday;1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.

This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also posted on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website for your viewing under the NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS section. A link to the show is posted as well on the Facebook page of NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Each new show and link are posted the week after the program airs.

Because of some requests, I will also start posting a link to the show each week on my Facebook page as soon as it is available.

IMPLICATIONS OF A JOHN COOPER MAYORAL CANDIDACY

By his own admission, Metro Councilman At Large John Cooper is late getting into the Nashville’s mayoral race. Election Day is less than 4 months away.

That’s not much time to gather staff, consultants, build community support and raise money. Cooper can address that last challenge (money). He is wealthy enough to self-finance and at least kick-start his campaign. He’s told me he expects to be his largest campaign contributor.

Therefore, here’s one take away from the Cooper mayoral entry. It will cost more for all the candidates to run. Cooper will self -finance and hope to raise enough additional money to be competitive with incumbent Mayor David Briley. Will the other two major candidates, State Representative John Ray Clemmons and former Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain be able to keep up? They are already behind the hundreds of thousand of dollars Briley has raised.

Here’s another takeaway. It’s now a three- way race to gather enough votes to keep Briley below a majority (garnering 50% plus one vote) on August 1st and create a runoff election in September between the top two candidates. Is the anti-incumbent vote large enough overall to deny Briley a majority? It wasn’t last May in the special mayoral race. That’s when, in a 13-candidate field, Briley pulled close to a 55% majority.

There is plenty of speculation that the controversies surrounding the Briley administration since last year’s race leave him in a weakened position. Those challenges include any remaining fallout from the transit referendum defeat, the aborted 3% cost of living pay raise for city workers and the still controversial multi-million $$ job incentives being given to Amazon and AllianceBernstein to bring jobs to Nashville. More recently, there’s the cherry tree/ NFL draft controversy and the mayor’s recent proposal to privatize the city’s parking meter system, a move that will also decrease free times for parking and increase fines for violations. There is also the looming controversy building over negotiations to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville and renovate and expand the Fairgrounds Speedway.

But if these controversies collectively have weakened Briley, did some anti-Briley folks think it’s still not been enough for either Clemmons and Swain to win or force a runoff? Is that why some folks kept encouraging Cooper to enter the race? Remember before she got in, Swain said she would support Cooper if he ran. What does she say now? Will there be pressure for either her or Clemmons to drop out to consolidate the anti-incumbent vote against Briley?

Based on the fund- raising reports issued by the mayoral candidates last week, the Broadway honky- tonk owners, who have been feuding with Briley, are supporting Swain. Would they have placed their money differently if Cooper had been in the race? Will they hedge their bets now and support Cooper too?

Bottom line: Math alone makes a runoff somewhat more likely with Cooper in the race, but his late entry into the contest is among several things stirring up the political waters. It’s hard to render a prediction. I still see Briley as the favorite, due to his incumbency and funding advantage, but if controversies continue or increase for his administration, and/or his opponents decide to consolidate their support (somebody drops out?), things could change.

Here’s how some other local reporters and pundits saw things this week as the Cooper candidacy unfolded.

NASHVILLE PUBLICITY CONTINUES TO RISE

Aside from our politics, Nashville is continuing to get a lot of out of town media publicity. In fact, here are links to several stories THE GUARDIAN from Great Britain has been posting. All of them have been published since last Sunday. Is it part of their NFL Draft pre-game coverage for any Brits headed our way?

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/apr/17/even-the-royal-family-enjoys-it-how-the-nashville-hot-chicken-trend-began-princes

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/apr/15/nashville-amazon-deal-sparks-backlash-from-both-left-and-right

Even the WALL STREET JOURNAL is chiming in with stories about Nashville’s success which the publication claims are is due, in part, to being in a no income tax state. You’ll need to be an on-line WSJ subscriber to read the full article.

So how fast is the Nashville region still “a city on the rise?” Some new figures see a slowdown in one key growth area, but it might be hard to tell.

By the way, the stir created last week from a Graceland official telling the WSJ that Elvis’ home might move to Nashville, was just so much hot air. I guess it was a rather unintelligent effort to get officials in the Bluff City to give more financial support to that major Memphis tourist attraction. Graceland in Nashville would be like moving the Ryman Auditorium to Beale Street or the Parthenon to Overton Park or conversely the Peabody Ducks to the Hermitage Hotel (thank you, thank you very much…but no).

BRILEY TEASES MORE ABOUT SCHOOL PLANS

A couple of weeks ago, Mayor David Briley said he planned to get tough on Metro schools. Frustrated by the School Board’s divisions, he said if the school system wants more money in the future there would have to be a memorandum of understanding in place spelling out what schools would do and how it would spend its extra funds.

Under the Metro Charter, the School Board has complete autonomy on how it spends its money. All the Mayor and Council can do is allocate the overall amount of money to be spent. Can the Mayor and the School Board (with the Metro Council concurring) enter into some kind of agreement that spells out how future education funds are spent?

The Mayor must think its legal and at a budget hearing this week, he hinted at what he will propose in his school budget later this month. He says this year’s total school budget will exceed a record $1 billion, 70% of which is local funds (another record). The Mayor expressed support long term for pay raises even larger than the 10% increase proposed by schools this year, along with other improvements. Read more in this TENNESSEAN article.

It may not be in direct response to Councilman John Cooper who says his mayoral campaign will focus less on downtown and more on improving the quality of life in our neighborhoods, but the latest digital newsletter published this week by Mayor Briley’s office is interesting in that regard. It has story topics about Metro increasing its recycling collections; planting more trees in our city; opening new or renovated parks; Mayor Briley’s $1 billion budget request for Metro schools; and the city’s new Emergency Alert & Notification System (MEANS). The only mention of downtown in the newsletter is an article promoting what a great weekend lies ahead with the NFL Draft, the St. Jude Rock & Roll Marathon and maybe even an NHL playoff game in town (if the Predators win their current playoff series against Dallas). Coincidence? I doubt it.

A SUSPENDED METRO COUNCIL MEETING

During its meeting Tuesday night, the Metro Council lost its both its sound system and the ability to take roll call votes on its voting machine. To make sure their business was accessible and transparent to the public, Council members suspended the meeting. They will finish their agenda next Tuesday night.

In the 46 years I have covered and monitored the Council’s activities, I have never seen anything like this occur. I have seen the chambers cleared and the meeting suspended because of bomb scares. I can even remember years ago when some Council members just didn’t like to use their individual microphones. Even after being prompted to use their mic, they would pick it up, but hold it facing the floor so it didn’t pick up what they said.

The Council meeting was suspended during a critical debate over what, if any, Metro charter amendments ought to be placed on the August ballot. One that had already received preliminary approval (27 votes or 2/3 approval) would set up a weighed voting system to elect the mayor, vice mayor and members of the Council beginning in 2023 (if approved).

Supporters say it will save money by not having runoff elections. But its not clear if such ranked voting is even legal under Tennessee law (you would select your first, second, third choice and so on). Looking back at previous Metro history, voters have changed their minds about who to elect in a runoff contest. That means the candidate finishing second (or even further back in the at-large race) prevailing with voters after a few more weeks of campaigning.

Voting is the heart of our democracy. Election costs are not so great that they should be a reason to limit our opportunities to go the polls and select our leaders. This idea that there is “voter fatigue” in Nashville because we have too many elections is baloney. 2018 was a highly unusual year and hopefully not likely to be repeated. How are voters fatigued when usually just a little over 100,000 turn out for local elections, while over 400,000 registered voters are on the rolls? Here’s how THE TENNESSEAN reported the Council meeting and the Charter amendment.

LEGISLATIVE UPDATE

The pace on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill continues to quicken as lawmakers see the end of this year’s session coming into view within the next couple of weeks. Another sign of that the end of session is not far away can be seen in the release this week of Governor Lee’s supplemental budget, while committee action on the full budget itself is likely to begin soon.

Here’s a brief update on the most controversial and important bills still being considered by lawmakers.

Education Savings Account/ Vouchers: The Lee Administration’s Number One legislative priority continues to work its way through committees in both houses but not without differing amendments and even some Republican opposition. The House bill is likely to be voted on by all 99 members of the lower chamber next week. The House version has been sweetened to gain support from rural areas by giving school districts in those parts of the state more money even if their students are not eligible for vouchers.

For years, the House has been the stumbling block to approval of school choice legislation. The extra money to rural schools could therefore be key to House passage. At the same time, the Senate version of the school savings account plan is different from the House in several ways in terms of size of the program, who can qualify (home school students?) and verification of legal status (a matter that will likely have any approved school choice plan challenged in the federal courts). There is also a new amendment pending in the Senate (with leadership backing?) to make the educational savings account program available only in Memphis and Nashville, even though ironically, those are areas with perhaps the strongest opposition to vouchers. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/19/school-vouchers-tennessee-senate-could-limit-bill-nashville-shelby-county/3510064002/

With potentially very different bills coming out of each house of the General Assembly, it appears the strategy of the Lee Administration is to get something passed in both houses, then work out a compromise in a joint conference committee for final lawmaker approval in the final hectic, hot-house days of the session. But will there be enough common ground between the two houses to pass this first major legislative priority of the Lee Administration?

Here are more details and background from THE TENNESSEAN about the revised House voucher bill.

This article from THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS gives some insights into difficulties in the Senate to pass ESA legislation (Educational Savings Accounts). This was posted before the amendment to limit to the program to Nashville and Memphis became public.

Meanwhile, intense opposition from Democrats and other education related groups continues. The Governor himself apparently got an earful about it this week.

Lee administration official deny it’s a signal they are hedging their bets on school choice legislation, but the Governor’s supplemental budget unveiled this week does move $25 million in funding for Educational Savings Accounts to spend instead to fight the Hep C epidemic raging in Tennessee prisons. The Governor’s finance people say they don’t need the $25 million for vouchers this coming fiscal year.

Expanding Tennessee’s Charter School program: This legislation is another priority element of the Lee Administration’s school choice program. It too has had to be tweaked to gain the support needed for approval. Late this week both Houses have given their OK. The bill is headed to Governor Lee for signature. The revised bill sets up a new separate nine-member commission that will oversee charters. It can also override a local school board’s decision not to approve a new charter school. Some process requirements have been added to the approved measure to require local community hearings and input in that appeal process.

https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/19/tennessee-charter-school-authorizer-bill-heads-gov-bill-lees-desk/3507968002/ https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/tn/2019/04/17/tennessee-house-approves-governors-call-for-a-statewide-charter-school-commission/

Community Oversight Boards: After stalling for a couple of weeks because of a significant disagreement between the House & Senate, legislation has now passed both houses to regulate local community review boards (COBs). Such bodies have been set up in cities such as Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis to investigate complaints against local police.

The compromise bill will likely be signed by Governor. The compromise reached to pass the legislation concerns giving these COBs subpoena power. The compromise allows such power for COBs if granted by

the local legislative body. The revised bill, which still needs expected final approval in both Houses, also removes any demographic or geographic requirements in the membership of such boards. The regulation of COBs only became a state issue this year after Nashville voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of such a body last November over the objections of the city’s police union.

In a somewhat related development, Metro Police report the number of traffic stops being made by officers has declined significantly. The stops were seen a way to deter crime particularly in high crime areas, although recent studies have cast doubt about that. The stops were also the source of irritation by activists who pushed for voter approval of the Nashville COB. They said the traffic stops by Metro police unfairly singled out African-Americans who were pulled for “driving while black.” Police disagree.

New Voter Registration Requirements: A bill to more strictly regulate voter registration drives by local groups continues to steamroll its way through the General Assembly. It comes despite complaints by opponents that the measure in effect criminalizes the registration process by local groups and amounts to voter suppression. The measure, back by state election officials easily, passed the House this week along largely along party lines. That means it passed overwhelmingly thanks to the Republican Super Majority on the Hill. Prospects for Senate passage as early as Monday look favorable too. https://www.nashvillepost.com/politics/state-government/article/21065093/voter-registration-restrictions-make-way-to-senate-floor

The Tennessee voter bill is getting national attention. Some say the measure may be part of a national effort underway particularly in red states.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/16/us/politics/tennessee-voter-registration.html

https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/13/politics/tennessee-voter-registration-drive-bill-trnd/index.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/04/17/republicans-boldly-explore-new-frontiers-voter-suppression/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6c8bf2091522

Opponents to the voter registration bill continue to register their opposition although it does not appear on-site protestors or newspaper op-eds are making any difference. https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/columnists/2019/04/17/voter-registration-tennessee-proposal-wrong/3496304002/

The status of embattled state lawmaker David Byrd: Throughout the session there have been recurring protests to force State Representative David Byrd to step down from his seat because of sexual assault charges leveled against him by former students (players). They say Byrd assaulted them decades ago in high school. The effort did gain some success when Byrd stepped down from his sub-committee leadership post at the request of House Speaker Glen Casada. But that occurred after Byrd voted against school voucher legislation in committee making his leadership demotion perhaps more retaliation for that vote not the sexual assault allegations.

With the end of the session approaching, this week protestors picked up their activities, aimed now at Governor Bill Lee. They conducted a sit-in at Governor’s office in the Capitol. There was an initial overaction, with threats being made to even arrest reporters covering the incident. Read more and see video of efforts to remove the protestors at the link below.
https://www.newschannel5.com/news/activists-hold-sit-in-demand-rep-david-byrds-resignation

The sit-in continued for 30 hours. Then five of the protesters were arrested and removed from the Capitol. Governor Lee has no legal power to remove or request Representative Byrd step down. But he injected himself into the controversy by meeting with one of the women involved. He said he admires her courage as a victim to step forward and speak out. But Mr. Lee has declined any further comment on the matter. It would appear the sit-ins along with a Nashville billboard campaign calling out the Governor to act to remove Representative Byrd, are efforts to get him to further engage.

Dueling abortion bills: The battle over which anti-abortion bill will pass this session continues to rage, although the “trigger” bill backed by Lt. Governor and Senate Speaker Randy McNally seems to have the advantage. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2019/04/16/tennessee-gop-refocuses-abortion-trigger-law-after-bill-fails/3433909002/

But supporters of the rival ‘heartbeat” bill aren’t giving up, even invoking a little used parliamentary maneuver to keep their bill from being sent to a summer study committee. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/15/tennessee-heartbeat-bill-gop-senator-mark-pody/3478202002/

Health care change challenges: You just can’t blame it on Obamacare anymore. The Lee administration and the Republican Super Majority in the General Assembly are continuing to learn that health care is complicated when you seek to expand or even maintain access to care for some citizens.

For example, there are middle class parents whose children face significant health challenges requiring round the clock care. The only way they can get help through TennCare (because of their incomes) is to quit their jobs, and/or go bankrupt . Even with employer insurance, just the out of pocket expenses are often too much. There is a federal Medicaid waiver program that dates back to the Ronald Reagan-era that addresses the issue.

Some of these impacted parents have told their heart-wrenching stories to GOP lawmakers. They in turn have pledged their support to find state dollars to help using the federal waiver program. But it’s a big ticket item costing into the millions and millions of dollars. It is apparently so much the Lee administration has not included it for funding in its supplemental state budget request. Will these state lawmakers now seek to include the funds on their own? Stay tuned. https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2019/04/18/waiver-program-needed-families-children-severe-disabilities-katie-becker-tefra/3497931002/

And then there is the controversy over how and why the state has disenrolled over 100,000 children from the TennCare program, with some parents not learning of the problem until they took their kids to a doctor for care. When THE TENNESSEAN brought the situation to light, Governor Lee expressed his concern. Now changes are occurring. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/health/2019/04/17/tenncare-under-fire-dropping-children-gains-24-k-kids-two-months/3492289002/

THE 2020 TENNESSEE U.S. SENATE RACE

The contest to succeed Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander is heating up.

The arch-conservative TENNESSEE STAR has conducted a statewide poll on the still developing race. The poll projects a potential crowded primary field. You can read the results at the link below. http://tennesseestar.com/2019/04/18/tennessee-star-poll-haslam-faces-difficult-challenge-if-he-seeks-gop-nomination-for-u-s-senate/

Among Democrats, the leading candidate is Nashville attorney and veteran James Mackler. This week he disclosed his latest quarterly fund -raising numbers.

MUELLER

With all that’s been happening this week on the Hill and in Nashville politics, I haven’t had the chance to focus or even read the redacted Mueller Report released on Thursday. I will hold my thoughts until my next column.