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Capitol View Commentary: Fri., April 13, 2019

Posted: 5:11 PM, Apr 12, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-12 18:18:21-04
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NewsChannel5 Political Analyst

April 12, 2019

THE JOSEPH ERA ENDS WITH A BUY-OUT NOT A FIRING; EDUCATION SAVINGS ACCOUNT BILL SEES SEVERAL CHANGES IN THE SENATE; CHERRY TREE POLITICS WEEK II; MAYORAL RACE FUNDRAISING STILL BIG FOR BRILEY: KUDOS TO BEN HALL; A NATIONAL COUNTERATTACK; THE SENATE HAS SPOKEN; MEDICAL MARIJUANA DEAD AGAIN; SPORTS GAMBLING STILL ALIVE BUT STILL NOT A GOOD BET FOR APPROVAL; OPPOSITION MOUNTS TO VOTER REGISTRATION BILL THAT OPPONENTS SEE AS VOTER SUPRESSION; KNOXVILLE DEMOCRAT FACES RESULTS OF ETHICS INQUIRY; INSIDE POLITICS DEBATES THE FATE OF THE MUELLER REPORT;

THE JOSEPH ERA ENDS WITH A BUY-OUT NOT A FIRING

After months of investigations, audits, sexual harassment lawsuits and all the other surrounding controversies over the tenure of Dr. Shawn Joseph as Director of Nashville’s public schools, and after almost two weeks of community debate about whether to fire him, Dr. Joseph is gone. Today (April 12) was his last day on the job.

He wasn’t dismissed by this city’s notoriously dysfunctional School Board. Instead, to the tune of over $260,000 (plus some expected legal expenses), the Board voted 5-3 with one member absent to buy out Dr. Joseph’s remaining contract which runs through 2020. Both sides have agreed to part as amicably as possible, and not to bad mouth each other in the media anymore.

In that regard, Dr. Joseph has sent out a good-bye letter to parents extolling his achievements and outlining what still needs to be done to improve Metro schools. Dr. Joseph has also set up a new Twitter account with an interesting handle that includes the word “Unchained.” https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2019/04/11/mnps-director-shawn-joseph-departure-twitter/3434853002/

Politically, the key vote to buy out Dr. Joseph’s contract appeared to be Will Pinkston. A long-time supporter of Dr. Joseph, he announced he was resigning from the board this week. But in order to avoid a special election to fill his seat, Pinkston now says he may stay on until June. The Pinkston vote on the buyout was crucial because it he gave the Board the 5- vote majority it needed to take for any action. Pinkston indicated while he wasn’t ready to dismiss the Director, he was ready to approve a buyout because Dr. Joseph was now in “a hostile work environment.”

What’s left after all this is a lot of civic and educational wreckage to pick through, trying to salvage something worthwhile. This renewed search for a new schools director comes after still more years have been lost for the tens of thousands of young people and their parents seeking a quality public school education in Nashville. The goal is to provide that to every child regardless of their zip code or economic status. The legacy to achieve that under Dr. Joseph was at best mixed. I also pray the complaints that Dr. Joseph was treated unfairly because of his color (he was the first African American to be Metro’s Schools Director) were more political rhetoric than fact.

There seems to be plenty of blame to go around for what has gone wrong. What it clear is our inability to move our schools ahead is the biggest challenge we face to build the kind of bright future Nashville wants and needs.

The first person being asked to step into the breech is Adrienne Battle, who has been named Interim Superintendent. She has 20 years of experience in Metro Schools including being community superintendent under Dr. Joseph. In that position, Battle oversaw every school located within the Antioch, Cane Ridge and Glencliff cluster of schools. She was appointed to the role by Joseph in 2017 under a revamp of how the district governed its schools.

Now it will be her job to at least keep the ship afloat, to keep our school system from continuing to run off the road into another ditch if school board members squabble among themselves. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. When Dr. Joseph came on board three years ago, he was selected unanimously. Hopes were high he would be successful. Interim Superintendent Battle was not chosen by acclamation. School Board Chair Sharon Gentry said Battle doesn’t need the overconfidence a unanimous selection might inspire.

Fair enough. I have no idea if Adrienne Battle wants the job of Metro Schools Director permanently. What she needs more than anything right away from Chairperson Gentry and the rest of the School Board is a unity of purpose and action that has been completely absent in recent months. She needs that kind of support from Mayor David Briley and the Metro Council as well. Being an interim leader of anything is difficult. She and our elected leaders will be tested soon in what appears to be a potentially contentious year in deciding a budget to fund our schools. The School Board is requesting $70 million in new money including a 10% pay raise for employees. That 8%-plus increase is a figure that likely twice the amount Metro can afford given existing revenues. Is there common ground? Or will this be another bone of contention even before the search for a new schools director begins? Mayor Briley says he is committed to keeping the search process from going off the rails. But exactly will that mean?

Dr. Battle’s appointment is historic. She is the first woman and first African American female to be the leader of our public schools. Let’s hope after our nationwide search (aren’t they all) for next schools director, Nashville makes still more history. Maybe we all come together to make our public schools the best they can be. That will be very difficult. As you read further on in this column, challenges remain especially on Capitol Hill here in Nashville.

EDUCATION SAVINGS ACCOUNT BILL SEES SEVERAL CHANGES IN THE SENATE

As we indicated last week, the State Senate has some very different thoughts and ideas about the education savings account/ school voucher plan being pushed by Governor Bill Lee. The Governor’s team seems on board with the Senate changes and the Senate Education Committee approved it as well 6-3 but only after two hours of debate Wednesday afternoon.

Will the House be ok on the key issues and changes the Senate wants? The changes include significantly increasing the size of the program, allowing home school students to participate, as well as changing the testing required for students to be involved. There are also differences between the Senate and House versions in how the program would verify the citizenship status of students and parents, a process that may also be subject to challenge in the federal courts if the program becomes law. https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/tn/2019/04/09/tennessee-voucher-program-would-double-in-size-add-homeschoolers-under-latest-proposal/

Assuming these differences can be worked out between the two houses, the odds look good Governor Lee will be successful in getting his top legislative priority approved in his first year in office. Or we could see the voucher/ education savings account proposal go to a conference committee for lawmakers from both houses seeking to work out a final compromise in the hot-house atmosphere of the final days of a legislative session. Regardless, opposition to the plan remains vocal with teachers across the state coming to the Hill this week to protest the voucher plan. https://www.newschannel5.com/news/teachers-speak-out-against-tennessee-voucher-bill https://www.localmemphis.com/news/local-in-tn/teachers-speak-out-against-tennessee-voucher-bill/1911809573

There is also an op-ed piece in the MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL sharply criticizing the voucher/ education savings account bill as a government giveaway to the rich. https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/opinion/2019/04/09/tennessee-education-savings-account-bill-lee/3412416002/

CHERRY TREE POLITICS WEEK II

I told you Nashville’s NFL Draft/ Cherry Tree debacle wasn’t going to be a one-day story or a local one.

As city officials scrambled to build the more than 400-foot-long temporary stage NFL Draft organizers insist they needed to host this city’s largest outdoor event ever, there is a scathing op-ed piece about it running on line at the NEW YORK TIMES website.

As a part of Nashville’s rise to be the “IT City” no national publication has given our town more favorable coverage. I think the “IT City” nickname even came from a NYT article. But the brain-dead, clueless way city leaders were ready to cut down or move 21 cherry trees to accommodate a temporary stage has brought about a huge amount of mostly well-deserved criticism. The author of the TIMES piece seems to be very familiar with our local and state politics and offers comments on a lot of other issues bedeviling Tennessee, Nashville, and other American cities. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/opinion/nfl-nashville-cherry-trees.html

And then this happened says THE NASHVILLE SCENE in how the Mayor’s office briefly dealt with the cherry tree media coverage. https://www.nashvillescene.com/news/pith-in-the-wind/article/21063712/mayors-flack-ices-out-reporter-who-exposed-dumb-cherry-tree-removal-plan

But even as we complain about all the problems we are dealing with in Nashville, this week U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT says we are among the best cities in the nation to live, ranking 15th for our quality of life and the best in Tennessee. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2019/04/10/nashville-us-news-world-report-ranking-top-15-nation-tennessee-best-place-to-live-quality-of-life/3418654002/

One announcement this week should give you some feel for the expected impact of the tens of thousands of visitors who are coming to Nashville for the NFL Draft and the Rock & Roll Marathon (which is also set for that same end of April weekend). Mayor Briley says Metro offices downtown will close early both Thursday and Friday so city workers can be at home. I suspect state workers will be allowed to do the same thing, and other downtown employers will likely to follow suit.

That means the NFL Draft weekend will be similar to what happens when snow is predicted for Nashville and everyone hurries home and/or to the grocery store to get the necessities (bread, milk and toilet paper) so they can hibernate until the snow melts or we learn the bad weather isn’t coming after all. But the Draft and the Marathon are coming. You have been warned.

One final note: While folks think our city is changing too much and too quickly, we learned this week that one of Nashville’s most iconic symbols is being recycled. Old Greer Stadium is being demolished but its legendary guitar-shaped scoreboard is being purchased from the city for use in a new mixed- use development nearby. https://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/news/2019/04/08/intriguing-buyer-wont-move-greer-stadium.html

MAYORAL FUND RAISING STILL BIG FOR BRILEY

New quarterly fund- raising numbers are out for the Metro mayoral candidates.

Incumbent Mayor David Briley still holds a commanding lead in overall funds raised, spent and money still in the bank.

Among his competition, Carol Swain has raised over $100,000 which is an impressive number since she didn’t file her treasurer to begin to raise funds until the current quarter was already underway. No wonder she seemed pleased when we discussed her fundraising on INSIDE POLITICS last week. The question is can she keep it up?

The third major candidate in the mayoral race, State Representative John Ray Clemmons probably is not as pleased with his fundraising tally so far. He is hampered because as a state lawmaker he is barred from raising funds (at least outside Davidson County) while the General Assembly is in session. That is a situation that may not change until May when legislators adjourn for the year. The NASHVILLE SCENE article headlines Clemmons “lags behind.” https://www.nashvillescene.com/news/pith-in-the-wind/article/21063982/briley-again-leads-in-fundraising https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2019/04/12/nashville-mayor-race-david-briley-carol-swain-john-clemmons-finances-support-fundraising/3436874002/

At the end of this week Clemmons may think he’s found an issue that can energize his campaign. For the last few years, the city has been looking to privatize its on-street public parking program. It appears the Briley Administration is ready to move ahead with such an effort. Here are link to a memo and power point presentation on the issue put together by the Briley Administration outlining the advantages of privatization. https://www.nashville.gov/document/ID/d93c669c-a587-4935-80a4-7ec1dce3b3d1/2019-Meeting-March-11-Parking-System-Modernization-Presentation

Clemmons is opposed to the proposal. In a news release he claims the Briley plan would include “extending (parking meter) enforcement to 10 P.M., ending free Sunday parking, and increasing fines.” He adds the proposal would amount to selling “public property for a one-time budgetary gain.”

Quoting the candidate: “Copying failed policies from Chicago is not the way to run our city. Signing on the dotted line to outsource the only affordable parking options in this town would be a raw deal for Nashville residents. We cannot allow this mayor to create a private parking monopoly, take pennies on the dollar for expected parking revenue, and hinder our city’s urban planning options for three decades.”

“Agreeing to accept $30 million in exchange for an estimated $350 million- dollar enterprise would amount to a breach of this mayor’s fiscal duty to taxpayers. We need a 21st-century transportation infrastructure system that works for all of our residents. Any such parking privatization proposal would not only allow a private company to control vital parts of our roadways, but it could also effectively limit our ability to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, enact short-term traffic solutions, protect our environment, and build a forward-thinking mass transit system.”

KUDOS TO BEN HALL

Kudos to Ben Hall’s continuing coverage of Metro government’s fiscal issues. I have made it a habit not to discuss clients in this column. But now that I am retired from public relations work, and no longer represent the city’s 9-1-1 Board, I want to say, Ben, in his latest reporting, has identified a long -time issue that needs to be addressed.

9-1-1 call takers have perhaps one of the most difficult and stressful jobs in the city. No wonder they are and stay short-staffed. They should be paid like their public safety colleagues who are EMTs, firemen and police officers. And they certainly should be paid at least as much, if not more, than the city’s 3-1-1 operators who handle non-emergency inquiries about city services. Metro HR has been asleep at the switch for years not doing a reclassification study to correct this problem. https://www.newschannel5.com/news/newschannel-5-investigates/metros-911-operators-face-high-turnover-and-growing-vacancies

Here is one kudo to Metro in the area of emergency communications. This week Mayor David Briley announced new technology that will allow Metro’s public safety agencies to directly communicate to the people of Nashville in times of emergency. It’s the Metro Emergency Alert & Notification System (MEANS).

MEANS will be Metro’s official “call to action” mechanism – delivering safety instructions via cellphone, landline, text/SMS, or text telephone (TTY) – for localized emergencies such as flooding, public health emergencies or active shooter situations.

You can learn more about the program and how to sign up for it by going to: https://www.nashville.gov/News-Media/News-Article/ID/8468/Mayor-Briley-Announces-New-Service-to-Alert-Nashville-During-Emergencies.aspx http://MEANS.nashville.gov

A NATIONAL COUNTERATTACK

Just as so many hot-button topic bills being offered by Tennessee Republican Super Majority lawmakers originate from conservative groups who offer cookie-cutter versions to be introduced in state legislatures across the country, now there is a pushback gaining traction in the national media. This link concerns what is being called the “Slate of Hate” anti- LGBTQ legislation now up for consideration on the Hill here in Nashville. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/slate-hate-advocates-decry-anti-lgbtq-bills-introduced-tennessee-n979116?fbclid=IwAR29dyQXvghYo7CZCw5ZlNVMAwrB5nTcmgS82FREEkIUt43nz7CSIOXeOOYk

Both the revised “bathroom bill,’ and legislation that would allow adoption agencies to refuse to serve LGBTQ couples and others based on religious convictions, have handily passed the State House and are headed to the State Senate. That’s where there is concern about the legislation creating a national blowback of boycotts if they pass. That would be much like what happened in North Carolina a few years ago. https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/breakingnews/story/2019/apr/08/tennessee-house-approves-watered-down-restroom-bill-amid-criticism/492212/

Even superstar singer Taylor Swift is getting involved in politics again over this issue. This week she sent the state’s leading LGBTQ advocacy group a donation to support its efforts. https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/09/entertainment/taylor-swift-lgbtq-donation/index.html

THE SENATE HAS SPOKEN

On another hot-button issue, abortion, it appears Tennessee will not approve a “heart beat” bill this year. That measure, which would ban an abortion as soon as heart beat has been detected has been approved in the House. But the measure was sent to a summer study committee in the Senate this week, effectively killing it until next year.

Senate leaders such as Lt. Governor Randy McNally have been cool to the heartbeat bill. Similar laws in other states have been struck down in the courts as unconstitutional because they don’t meet the standards set out for a legal abortion in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Tennessee would lose any lawsuit brought against a Tennessee “heartbeat” statute they fear, and the state would wind up having to pay hefty legal fees to those who would brought the successful litigation, such as Planned Parenthood.

Lt. Governor McNally and others prefer passing a bill this year that would outlaw abortion as soon as the Supreme Court changes or repeals Roe v. Wade. Some lawmakers in the House were not happy with just doing that and momentarily killed this “trigger” bill in sub-committee. Now that bill has been revived in the House and is now facing a crucial full committee vote soon. http://onthehill.tnjournal.net/bill-to-trigger-abortion-ban-revived-in-house/

This session’s long impasse over abortion has raised the specter than despite the huge Republican Super Majority in both houses of the 111th General Assembly, nothing would pass this year on this critical issue for conservatives. But maybe the trigger bill will make to Governor Lee’s desk for approval. If so, the Senate prevails.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA DEAD AGAIN

Abortion is perhaps not only hot button topic not moving ahead this year on Capitol Hill. Medical marijuana appears dead again despite a multitude of bills on the topic, a development some had hoped meant rising support. Nope, at least not enough to get something passed. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/health/2019/04/10/tennessee-medical-marijuana-bills-dead-until-2020/3410759002/

Not surprisingly as lawmakers begin to sprint towards the end of this year’s session, Democrats are conceding they once again don’t have the votes to pass legislation to expand Medicaid health care coverage in the state. https://www.nashvillepost.com/politics/state-government/article/21063853/dems-medicaid-expansion-plays-done-for-the-year

Republicans in the House this week have finally approved their own health care plan to restructure the Tenncare program. They want Tennessee to be the first state in the nation to receive their health care monies from Washington through a block grant. If the Trump administration goes along, state officials say they could make better decisions on how to spend those monies. But so far, the State Senate has been slow to move along with the bill. Critics say a fixed block grant will mean cuts in service and fewer people receiving benefits. They maintain the current Tenncare structure works better because funding is flexible based on how many eligible Tennesseans seek assistance.

SPORTS GAMBLING STILL ALIVE BUT STILL NOT A GOOD BET FOR APPROVAL

A bill to legalize (on-line only) sports gambling in Tennessee is still alive, passing out of a House committee this week. But the proposal still faces long odds to become a reality, not the least of which is opposition from Governor Bill Lee who opposes any more gambling in the state. https://www.bettingus.com/news/tennessee-sports-betting-bill-passes-committee/

OPPOSITION MOUNTS TO VOTER REGISTRATION BILL THAT OPPONENTS SEE AS VOTER SUPRESSION

Is it a legitimate way to regulate voter registration efforts or an effort to suppress the vote particularly of Democratic- voting groups?

The bill in question, HB1079/SB0971 is backed by Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett. It would require individuals and organizations registering 100 or more people to vote to follow new guidelines or face prosecution. There are significant penalties involved if these groups are found in violation. The

measure is moving quickly through both houses. The House version passed the Local Government Committee last week and has been referred to the Calendar and Rules Committee. The Senate version, passed Tuesday in the State and Local Government Committee, is expected to move to the Senate floor for a vote in the next couple of weeks.

Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper has been leading the opposition against the measure. He issued another broadside against the bill this week trying to build opposition.

“This bill would have a chilling effect on voter registration in Tennessee. It punishes Good Samaritans. Would you want to help people register to vote if you could face nearly a year in prison or a $10,000 fine? The idea of punishing this virtuous behavior is absurd,” Rep. Cooper said.

“If this bill passes, Tennessee will be the only state in the country to subject its residents to civil or criminal penalties for what are often minor defects in voter registration forms, such as a missing salutation. It’s wrong to threaten Boy Scouts and the League of Women Voters with jail time if they don’t get their voter registration forms filled out correctly. Tennessee should be in the national spotlight for improving voting, not voter suppression. The big question is, with over a million eligible, unregistered voters in Tennessee, and a state often ranking 50th in voter participation, why is the legislature making it harder to get more people to vote?”

Congressman Cooper is now joined by a coalition of state and national groups who say the measure is a just a flat out voter suppression effort. https://lawyerscommittee.org/coalition-of-national-and-state-organizations-condemns-proposed-voter-suppression-measure-in-tennessee/

This week the voter bill also received strong opposition in an op-ed published in the CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE-PRESS. https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/opinion/times/story/2019/apr/09/sohn-voter-suppression/492200/

There was a similar op-ed penned by different author in Nashville and editorials in opposition to the bill published both in Memphis (MEMPHIS FLYER) and Nashville (THE TENNESSEE TRIBUNE). https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2019/04/05/punitive-registration-drive-reform-bill-voter-suppression-opinion/3369240002/ https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/tn-gop-legistlators-propose-another-voter-suppression-measure/Content?oid=20082071 https://tntribune.com/community/tennessee/hargett-pushing-a-bad-voter-registration-bill/

But will this wave of opposition be anything strong enough to stop or even slow the bill? Or will this new law cause yet another lawsuit to be filed to challenge the legality of this part of the agenda being implemented by the Republican legislative Super Majority in Tennessee?

KNOXVILLE DEMOCRAT FACES RESULTS OF ETHICS INQUIRY

A legislative panel has found Knoxville Representative Rick Staples in violation of the General Assembly’s sexual harassment rules. Staples has been told he must take “preventative actions” and take “remedial actions” while also reporting back to the ethics group. It is not exactly clear what all that means.

Staples has previously apologized to those who he said had erroneously interpreted his actions. He denied he was being investigated and said he was the victim of “political character assassination.” He is fourth state lawmaker in as many years to run into ethics problems on the Hill. https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Ethics-panel-House-Democrat-violated-sexual-13756573.php https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Ethics-panel-House-Democrat-violated-sexual-13756573.php

Late in the week Representative Staples resigned his leadership post in the House Democratic Caucus. His action comes as Democratic House leaders deny they were slow in reporting the accusations against Staples. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/11/tennessee-rep-rick-staples-resigns-democratic-leadership/3435335002/

INSIDE POLITICS DEBATES THE FATE OF THE MUELLER REPORT

It’s been two weeks since the final report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election was filed with the U.S. Attorney General Bob Barr. But we still know very little of what the full 400-page report says, except for a 4-page memo from the Attorney General. The Barr memo says the Mueller report found no collusion between the Russians and President Donald Trump or his campaign. The Barr memo also says the Mueller report did not reach any conclusion about whether there was any obstruction of justice involved.

By no later than next week, a more complete, but redacted Muller report will be released.

Not surprisingly all this is creating still more controversy and questions about a matter than has been under investigation for almost 2 years. On INSIDE POLITICS this week we bring in two of our expert political analysts to give their insights, thoughts and maybe best guesses on where we are, where we are headed, and what we will ultimately learn from the Mueller probe. Our guests are Republican consultant and commentator Steve Gill and Democratic strategist and attorney Larry Woods. We also discuss 2020 politics including the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee.

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