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Capitol View Commentary - February 12th, 2021

Capitol View
Posted at 12:09 PM, Feb 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-12 13:09:58-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — THE LATEST COVID-19 NUMBERS CONTINUE TO DECLINE WHILE SLOW VACCINATION RATES PERSIST AND MUTANT VIRUS STRAINS LOOM; METRO & STATE NEWS BRIEFS; INSIDE POLITICS ANALYZES THE SECOND TRUMP IMPEACHMENT TRIAL WITH MTSU’S DR. JOHN VILE; STATE AND METRO REVENUES BETTER THAN EXPECTED AND THAT IS CAUSING SOME BUDGET FIGHTS.

THE LATEST COVID-19 NUMBERS CONTINUE TO DECLINE WHILE SLOW VACCINATION RATES PERSIST AND MUTANT VIRUS STRAINS LOOM

According to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (February 10), the third, and most severe surge of COVID-19 in this country, has declined significantly in recent weeks.

Cases numbers are down 56% over the past month with hospitalizations declining 38% since January 6. At the same time, the seven- day positive case average has dipped to 6.93%, the lowest since the end of October.

Despite the steep decline, cases and hospitalizations remain at higher levels than during the previous surges and deaths remain near record highs.

The virus numbers in Tennessee and in Nashville mirror what is happening across the country. Metro’s new cases number Wednesday was down to just 57 with a positivity rate at 6%. Both numbers are among the lowest in some time. A tweet from the Vanderbilt Microbiome this week says its virus tracker for the seven- day virus average is 4.6%, the lowest it has been in 113 days or just over 16 weeks. Adds the tweet: “The decline continues to be rapid.”

However, on Thursday, Metro was back up to 444 new cases.

As for the state, after the number of deaths was down in the single digits one day over the weekend, it was back to 100 by Wednesday. The virus positivity rate has gone back into double digits on some days recently. But it has been back in the single digits late in the week.

Meanwhile, threats for yet another surge loom ahead from more contagious mutants of the virus (particularly from South Africa and the United Kingdom) that are beginning to be diagnosed across the nation.

There also remain fears of smaller spikes coming due to Super Bowl from last weekend, although not from the Republican Governor of Florida.

The Valentine’s Day holiday this coming weekend is also seen as a possible super spreader event although some believe (hope?) folks are adjusting to the situation.

Even Ash Wednesday may be different this year (February 17) due to the ongoing virus.

If these mutants begin to spread, more testing will be critical to identifying and containing it. There are new efforts from the Biden White House to get the nation’s testing effort back in gear using rapid tests, but doubts arise if that will be enough.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) this week issued new guidance about wearing masks to protect yourself and stop the spread of the disease to others. Double up.

The effort to get the two approved vaccines into arms is bound to help towards finally getting to the light at the end of this dark public health tunnel, which is now almost a year old. But while progress continues, there is a lot to do to catch up and still not enough vaccine supply.

To further jumpstart the supply of vaccine, President Joe Biden announced late Thursday his administration has purchased and negotiated delivery of 200 million more doses. That should provide enough serum to vaccinate 300 million Americans by the end of July. That is about two months earlier than previously projected which was by the end of the summer.

In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s top advisor on the virus says he now believes it will be “open season for any adult to get a COVID-19 vaccination by April.

The Biden Administration this week also continued to try to address the inequities in vaccine availabilities for people of color, immigrants and the poor by changing how the federal government is sending out its vaccine supply, sending more to health clinics in underserved areas.

Here is the latest from the Bloomberg vaccine tracker (linked as of late Thursday afternoon). It shows “more Americans have now received at least one dose than have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. So far, 46 million doses have been given, according to a state-by-state tally. In the last week, an average of 1.57 million doses per day were administered.

“Across the U.S., 14.0 doses have been administered for every 100 people, and 70% of the shots delivered to states have been administered. The latest vaccination rate is 1,573,075 doses per day, on average. At this rate, it will take an estimated 9 months to cover 75% of the population with a two-dose vaccine.”

Read more here.

In terms of public opinion, the latest national polls show one out of every three respondents say they remain skeptical of the vaccine, while two-thirds remain dissatisfied with its rollout.

Both the State of Tennessee and the City of Nashville are receiving more supply and are getting the serums out to make them more accessible. In some cases, there are significant barriers to overcome.

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Thursday morning Mayor John Cooper announced an additional effort to get more vaccine shots into the communities and arms of people of color in the city.

After weeks of begging to get the shots, Metro says it will soon have enough vaccine to prioritize Metro teachers and staff and day care workers to begin to get their vaccinations beginning February 20. Sign up are already underway. This push to vaccinate starts as Nashville schools this week, began phasing back in, just over half its students to in-person classes.

With more vaccine coming, Metro is starting today (Friday) to book vaccination appointments for those over 70. The age limit had been 75 and above. Across the state, a lot of counties are already giving shots to younger seniors. It is a move which has been causing several residents between 70-75 in Davidson County to become “vaccine tourists” and travel across county lines to get their shots.

The nation will now benefit from one of our city’s leaders in fighting COVID-19. That would be Dr. James Hildreth, the President & CEO of Meharry Medical College who is joining President Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. Another Nashville area health care expert from Goodlettsville has also been named to the White House Task Force. Bobby Watts is the CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

Finally with the virus spread waning in recent weeks, enforcement efforts have decreased as well, although, since COVID restrictions began in Nashville over 500 tickets and citations have been issued.

METRO & STATE NEWS BRIEFSJust when it appeared Metro Parks workers would have to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars in hazardous duty pay, given to them erroneously due to a clerical error, Mayor John Cooper has suggested the Metro Council appropriate the funds. At a quick glance, such a resolution is not on the Council’s agenda for Tuesday night (February 16). Maybe it will be a late resolution.

The money paid out was federal CARE Act funds and had to be accounted for under the law. The hazard payment was not due to any fault of the employees and many had already spent the funds (which were gjven to them around Christmas time last year).

This seems to be the best alternative, although leaving local taxpayers on the hook is not likely to leave a good taste in the mouths of some due to a clerical error by someone in the Parks Department that nobody caught until it was too late.

In terms of taxpayers’ unhappiness with Metro government, attorney Jim Roberts, one of the leaders of last year’s failed effort to roll back the recent 34% property tax hike and make other changes to the city’s charter, is at it again.

Another déjà vu issue coming back to the Metro Council next week (a first reading bill) is modernizing the city’s street parking system. A similar proposal two years ago, by then Mayor David Briley sparked lots of opposition, including from Councilman At Large John Cooper. He used it as one of several issues he utilized to defeat Briley’s re-election effort. You can be sure the Cooper parking plan is different. But it will be interesting to watch to see how this issue plays the second time around.

Up on the Hill, some current and former Tennessee lawmakers continue to face campaign finance issues. One current member of the General Assembly who has become embroiled in the ongoing FBI probe of campaign finance, says he can’t file his required report to the state on campaign activities, because investigators took all his records. But, perhaps somewhat like the teacher being told by a student that “the dog ate his homework,” the state officials aren’t buying that excuse.

Another former State Senator, and the current Rutherford County Mayor, Bill Ketron is once again under scrutiny because of another, newly released audit of his campaign finances.

The Tennessee General Assembly got back to work this week for its regular winter-spring session. When I was asked this week, what would be the first big bills to start moving on the Hill, I wasn’t really sure. Turns out it is a measure that some believe is an attack on transgendered students, and it’s a proposal which Governor Bill Lee says he is fully behind. Despite the Governor’s strong support, Lt Governor and Speaker of the Senate, Randy McNally appears lukewarm on the measure. He is urging caution. Other GOP Senate leaders seem to be leaning towards McNally’s position.

Showing he is in full re-election mode for 2022, Governor Lee announced during his State of the State address on Monday, that he is again in support of a gun bill that allows “constitutional carry” of a firearm without a state permit.

One piece of legislation Governor Lee won’t push this year (as he did in 2000) is more paid family leave for state employees. It got a tepid response from lawmakers. The plan would also add more ongoing costs to the state at a time when the growth in revenues remains uncertain as the virus lingers on. It is something we will discuss further later in this week’s column.

One note about economic development, this week saw Middle Tennessee continue to show its ability to attract auto related industries to the area as the region seems well positioned for the future as the industry looks to transition to electric cars possibly sooner than later.

Finally, as someone who loves history, and as the State of Tennessee begins to open a new Library & Archives on the Bicentennial Mall downtown, I just love this story.

INSIDE POLITICS ANALYZES THE SECOND TRUMP IMPEACHMENT TRIAL WITH MTSU’S DR. JOHN VILE

For only the fourth time in American history, a President is on trial in the U.S. Senate after being impeached by the House.

This is a record second time for now former President Donald Trump. This time he faces possible conviction for inciting an insurrection, after encouraging an angry mob of his supporters to march on and sack the U.S. Capitol, in a deadly assault to try and stop the certification of the 2020 election, which Mr. Trump lost.

How has the trial gone so far? With no impeached president having ever been convicted by the Senate, what is the likely verdict this time and what will that mean for our two political parties and the polarization that deeply divides the nation?

To gain some insights and wisdom, seeking answers to those questions, we welcome back Dr. John Vile of Middle Tennessee State University, where is a long- time professor of political science and the Dean of the Honors College.

It is always wonderful to have Dr. Vile join us on the program. Watch us!

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STATE AND METRO REVENUES BETTER THAN EXPECTED AND THAT IS CAUSING SOME BUDGET FIGHTS

When the pandemic hit about a year ago, and the economy tanked, there was great fear that tax revenues would dry up and create real problems for state and local governments. But the economy proved much more resilient than expected, especially thanks to the rise in on- line sales and a surge in other parts of the economy.

In his annual State of the State address this week, Governor Bill Lee took time to pat his administration on the back for how state government has survived the pandemic, being one of only a handful of states (7) that have actually shown economic growth since last spring. He also pointed out how, despite the sharp rise in unemployment, the state, using federal monies, has kept its unemployment trust fund, that pays benefits, fully solvent, while many states are facing difficulties.

But the Governor said nothing about fixing the state’s overwhelmed unemployment benefit system that still has up to 80,000 applicants still having difficulties receiving the assistance they so badly need.

The problems also include what appears to be on going potential fraud and scammers stealing the money intended for the unemployed.

While the Lee administration is recommending 4% pay raises for teachers and state employees, it is holding off making many other ongoing financial commitments in next year’s budget., Instead, the Governor is suggesting a record $900 million dollar to fund the largest capital maintenance expenditure in state history to repair and improve state buildings. This type of deferred maintenance work includes $30 million for the state parks system alone. In another capital related expense, the Governor is also backing another $200 million to help every Tennessean have access to high speed broadband service.

While keeping up with deferred maintenance is considered a smart business practice, spending this much in a time of a pandemic led Democrats to say the Lee budget “values buildings over people.” They also object to the state adding still more money to the state’s Rainy Day and TennCare reserve funds to total a new record of $2 billion.

Speaking of TennCare, Governor Lee warned the Biden administration in Washington that if the President decides to cancel a new block grant funding plan, it will be his fault that potential savings and improvements to the program to help vulnerable Tennesseans won’t occur. Perhaps anticipating a cancellation, the Lee budget does not yet add any new funding to that end.

The Governor did say he will soon be making recommendations on how to finally use the hundreds of millions of federal funds left unspent for years to assist Tennessee’s needy families. He gave few details on his plan, so it is hard to say how it compares to legislation being proposed by two Republican lawmakers to spend the surplus in the TANF fund (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). The Governor’s new DHS Commissioner admits the $740 million surplus would have done more for needy families had it not been all stashed away for some future rainy day.

Finally, the Governor also said he will be proposing throughout year, new initiatives that will make the state a national leader in foster care and adoption. Again, he gave no details.

Down the street from Tennessee’s Capitol Hill, Nashville Mayor John Cooper this week announced his latest Capital Spending. Again, like the state, the economic outlook (and interest rates) looks much better than last year, so this spending plan, totaling nearly a half a billion dollars ($475 million), is much more robust with a record amount of capital spending for schools, along with transportation, a new police precinct, building and maintenance updates, affordable housing and other areas.

The Capital Plan is before the Metro Council next Tuesday for approval, but don’t be surprised to see it deferred for more review and study. Already one Council member and the Metro Fair Board are not happy.