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Capitol View Commentary: Fri., Feb. 14, 2020

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Posted at 4:20 PM, Feb 14, 2020
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL 5 Political Analyst

February 14, 2020

MAYOR JOHN COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS; THE FAIRGROUNDS MLS/ NASCAR CONTROVERSY RAGED ON ALL WEEK; A NEW NASHVILLE TRANSPORTATION PRIORITY?; THE NEW METRO BUDGET LOOMS AS CITY DEPARTMENTS AND SCHOOLS PLEA FOR MORE FUNDS; YET ANOTHER GOP ARGUMENT TO KEEP THE TAMPON TAX; A BOOK REVIEW EQUALS FAKE NEWS; BETTER LATE THAN NEVER; REBUKING GOVERNOR LEE; CANDIDATE ACTIVITY INCREASES AS EARLY VOTING BEGINS FOR TENNESSEE’S MARCH 3 PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY;

MAYOR JOHN COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS

Mayor John Cooper is in his fifth month in office, confronting perhaps the most difficult budget and funding issues in the nearly 57- year history of Metropolitan government.

He is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

He joins me just a day after resolving perhaps his most difficult challenge so far.

Hopefully, our conversation will shed more light on how he has resolved the months- long controversy at the Historic Fairgrounds, where he held up construction and re-negotiated an approved deal to build a new $350 million, 30,000 seat MLS soccer stadium, the largest such facility in the nation.

The impasse had continued all week before the revised deal was announced Thursday morning. The thrust of the changes seem quite favorable to what Mayor Cooper has been pushing to get done in the MLS stadium deal. In other words, both sides will say Nashville won with this agreement.

In terms of politics, it looks like Mayor Cooper came out on top.

From a joint news release issued by the Mayor’s office and the Nashville MLS team ownership:

“The revised deal eliminates taxpayer and budget burden for stadium construction while keeping in place the first Community Benefits Agreement in Tennessee.

“We are very happy to be moving forward with the stadium construction,” said John Ingram. “The

investment we are making is not just for our soccer team, it is an investment in the future of Nashville and the Fairgrounds.”

“I’m so glad we’ve reached a better deal for Nashville. I’m grateful to Nashville Soccer Holdings and John Ingram for understanding our city’s financial realities and agreeing to pay up to $54 million in additional costs,” said Mayor Cooper. “This deal saves the taxpayers money and provides

a better site plan for the Fairgrounds. Today is an exciting step forward for sports in Nashville and I’m ready for the first Nashville SC game on February 29th.”

The revised stadium deal consists of the following elements:

  • The Team will pay for infrastructure in the immediate vicinity of the stadium estimated to be $19 million.
  • The team will assume metro’s obligation to pay up to $35 Million toward lease payments.
  • The Team has agreed to a general statement of principles for parcel 8C in the 10 acre mixed-use development to account for an open plaza that can serve the operational needs of multiple Fairgrounds uses. (Note: the MLS owners said they couldn’t do this and make their project work, especially the Community Benefits Agreement).
  • Metro has authorized initiation of the demolition contract and will proceed with the demolition process immediately.

Getting the demolition process started seems to be the only victory for the MLS team owners, but it was a critical one to keep the franchise alive. But a potential fly remains in the ointment. It is a lawsuit still pending in the courts seeking to stop the stadium. Those pushing the lawsuit say they will now seek an injunction to stop the site demolition from occurring.

Earlier in the week, bringing NASCAR racing back to the Fairgrounds (next door to the MLS facility) got added back into the conversation and to the controversy. How that will now proceed, will also be part of my interview with the Mayor as well as all the other challenges the city still faces in terms of budget, taxes, the city’s attitude about businesses growing and new ones coming to town, as the list goes on.

This is an interview you don’t want to miss! Tune in!

INSIDE POLITICS airs this week on the main channel of the NEWSCHANNEL5 Network (WTVF-TV Channel 5) at 6:30 p.m. Friday night.

INSIDE POLITICS also airs several times over the 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.

Finally, I am now posting a link to the show each week on my Facebook page as soon as it is available, usually on Monday or Tuesday.

THE FAIRGROUNDS MLS/ NASCAR CONTROVERSY RAGED ON ALL WEEK

MLS stadium controversy has been a multi-faceted issue that remained on the front burner at the Metro Courthouse all week. There still seems to some unhappiness remaining about the way Mayor Cooper handled the issue and how that could impact Nashville’s development in the future. THE TENNESSEAN (editorial)

The re-emergence of the NASCAR return to Nashville effort dominated the developments this week prior to the new agreement. While no detailed plans for the Speedway rebirth have ever been disclosed to the public, on Tuesday Mayor Cooper took the developers from the Bristol Motor Speedway to see Governor Bill Lee, seeking an undisclosed amount of state dollars to support the racing project.

Even Mayor Cooper admitted his timing was perhaps not the best since the Governor has already submitted his budget to the General Assembly. Another piece of curious, if not bad timing: the meeting with the Governor came within just a few hours after the city’s Fair Board, the group in charge of the Fairgrounds, voted unanimously to ask the Mayor “to decouple” the still-developing Speedway project from the MLS stadium, a project which has been vetted and approved by city leaders after several years of debate. At the time it appeared from Mayor Cooper’s perspective, “de-coupling” was not even on his radar screen. The controversy was also starting to receive national coverage from media outlets such as Sports Illustrated, and it was not all positive.

On a more uniting note, the MLS owners did join the city in opposing the lawsuit that seeks to stop the MLS stadium because it allegedly violates an amendment to the Metro Charter. The ballot measure was overwhelmingly adopted by voters a few years back. The amendment limits and protects what facilities are allowed at the Fairgrounds. The lawsuit had been dismissed, but upon appeal was reinstated with a possible trial set for either this spring or summer.

As mentioned earlier, the MLS owners and Metro may have to go to court soon to defend their newly negotiated deal to allow stadium construction. The Save Our Fairgrounds group say it will seek an injunction to stop any work until their lawsuit is decided. The group maintains other activities at the Fairgrounds such as the monthly Flea Market, the Speedway and the annual State Fair in the fall will be adversely impacted by the MLS facility. But undercutting that argument, this week State Fair officials announced they will remain at the Fairgrounds and will hold the Fair this September as usual.

Throughout the week, building the MLS stadium at the Fairgrounds was a controversy being played out including op-ed pieces in the local editorial pages. Major League Soccer is squeezing out Nashville Fairgrounds events that voters supported Stop stalling and bring Major League Soccer to Fairgrounds in Nashville The city’s largest African American newspaper weighed in on the subject. What about the neighborhood surrounding the Fairgrounds with both the MLS and now possibly NASCAR coming?

It appears one job Raceway officials and NASCAR have in their future, if they want to revitalize the Fairgrounds racetrack, is to fully explain what they want to do, who will pay for it, and what will be done to help the neighborhood and protect it. That is the same process the MLS has had to do. Assuming Mayor Cooper supports the NASCAR plan, he should be an integral part of that same process.

Spoiler alert: In my INSIDE POLITICS interview, Mayor Cooper is now a very strong supporter of the NASCAR project including the Nashville Speedway renovation. He doesn’t give any more details on what it might cost Metro or the State but he does say the racing developers will need to get their plans publicly vetted, including with the surrounding Fairgrounds neighborhood. He also expect the racing developers to negotiate a community benefits agreement similar to what the MLS team has done. With this new MLS deal announced, where does effort to bring NASCAR back to Nashville stand? Here’s one analysis from THE TENNESSEAN.

It was quite a week concerning this MLS controversy. After weeks of silence, both the MLS team and the Mayo geared up their public campaigns to build support The MLS team put up a website, sent out an e-mail urging their supporters to sign a petition, call, e-mail, text (maybe even troll the Mayor on social media?) urging him to move ahead with the stadium. The MLS team web site also included a now familiar clip from INSIDE POLITICS to galvanize fan support to get after the Mayor. But, changing on a dime with the new agreement announced, on Thursday night, the Nashville MLS team brought in the MLS League Commissioner to meet with fans and urge them to celebrate and support the revised deal.

Early in the week, in response to the MLS team’s initial campaign to put the heat on Mayor Cooper, his office responded with a seeming “what me worry?” statement.

“Considering the positive progress of the negotiations with Nashville Soccer Holdings, we’re unsure of the purpose of the petition and surrounding campaign other than to unnecessarily confuse Nashville residents. To reiterate, Metro’s commitment to the stadium deal has never been in question. Mayor Cooper remains committed to soccer’s success in Nashville. We look forward to announcing an agreement with Nashville Soccer Holdings.”

It turns out the Mayor was right about the agreement but not before the controversy raged in the Metro Council as well. Fairgrounds area Councilman Colby Sledge got a response this week on his request for a

legal opinion about whether Mayor Cooper has the power to continue to block the MLS construction by continuing to refuse sign the needed papers to begin site demolition.

Reported THE TENNESSEAN: “Metro Law Director Bob Cooper said the mayor's executive authority gives him the discretion to "determine the appropriate time to proceed with procurement contracts," including the demolition contract at the fairgrounds. While discretion is not "unlimited," he said the mayor has not "abused" this authority at this time…. Law Director Cooper declined to comment on Metro's legal liability, citing attorney-client privilege and not providing the team any "confidential and valuable" information.”

Councilman Sledge also submitted legislation that would have limited the mayor’s power to hold up demolition orders. The bill is listed as an ordinance up for a first reading vote this coming Tuesday night. It will now likely be withdrawn, but even before the new MLS deal was announced, Sledge’s bill was already getting pushback from fellow councilmembers.

Reported USA TODAY: “While At-large Council member Bob Mendes said he appreciates Sledge's motivation to push toward a resolution to the ongoing deal, he is concerned changing the city's procurement code to get a "tactical advantage" in this negotiation.

"It’s important to go slow in figuring out whether this is possible, legal or a good idea," Mendes posted on Twitter.

Council member Sandra Sepulveda called the legislation "unprecedented" and said that she is doing further research on how it would impact the city. But the city should move forward with the stadium deal and start demolition, she said.

"I don't think we should be holding this up," Sepulveda told The Tennessean, adding she is concerned on how this process will affect future projects the city will take on.

At-large Council member Steve Glover called the legislation a "bad move and a slippery slope."

"It is literally bypassing the mayor and department heads," he said. "It's scary to me that the legislative body can go ahead and not rework how deals are done."

Glover said he opposed moving forward with demolition until all legal questions play out.”

There was also another petition campaign underway regarding the MLS stadium. It opposes any taxpayer dollars being used to build the MLS stadium. It’s coming from the conservative Americans For Prosperity group. Metro Councilman At Large Steve Glover is promoting the petition on his Facebook page.

I asked the Mayor to see exactly how many taxpayers’ dollars will remain as a part of this deal. He didn’t say none, but it appears it’s a lot less than before this deal was renegotiated. But if this a better deal for taxpayers now, how will it look years in future as the city has to deal with other projects and developers as it continues to develop and grow?

According to the Mayor it doesn’t appear the bulk of the changes to the MLS deal will need further Council approval. However, an amendment added to the original agreement will need to be removed to help the MLS owners get financing for the project.

A NEW NASHVILLE TRANSPORTATION PRIORITY?

Throughout the months of January and February, Mayor Cooper has been holding a series of listening sessions, 11 in all, across the county, to give the public an opportunity to voice ideas, priorities and concerns regarding transit and transportation in Nashville.

Have the sessions already given the Mayor a priority area on which he wants to move forward? On Wednesday Mayor Cooper’s office announced, that along with Metro Public Works, he is kicking off “a comprehensive evaluation of traffic management operations throughout Metro Nashville. An assessment of Metro’s traffic and signal management system, a modern traffic control center, and staffing required to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and safety for all traffic will be performed.”

““Nashville’s traffic problems need smart, 21st-century solutions, and smarter traffic management is low-hanging fruit to improve congestion on our roadways,” said Mayor John Cooper. “There’s no good reason that our drivers should be spending 20 percent more than the national average commuting.”

The study will also look at nine peer cities and states (?)including;

• Georgia DOT, GA
• Cobb County, GA
• Los Angeles, CA
• Anaheim, CA
• Orlando, FL
• Utah DOT, UT
• Charlotte, NC
• Denver, CO
• DC DOT

Better traffic management and flow is far from a new effort for Nashville. Mayors as far back as Mayor Richard Fulton, and as recently in office as Mayor Megan Barry, have led efforts to better coordinate traffic signals and relieve congestion with not that much change. How will this effort be different? The list of peer cities is interesting with everything from Disney cities to L.A., Utah, Charlotte, Denver, even D.C. And of course, there’s Atlanta, the city Nashville has sworn for years it never wants to emulate. Maybe the study is looking for examples of not just what Nashville should do, but what we shouldn’t do as well.

THE NEW METRO BUDGET LOOMS AS CITY DEPARTMENTS AND SCHOOLS PLEA FOR MORE FUNDS

This week the Cooper administration hosted an informational briefing session on the Mayor’s FY21 budget process and procedures for members of the local media and Metro Council. It was for background purposes only. No audio/video capture, streaming, or broadcast were allowed.

All this seemed a little strange to me. Yes, the budget process is being moved up a month, being submitted by March 31 instead of May 1, and approved by the Council by May 31 instead of the end of July, so the final sending plan can be reviewed by the state.

But why that requires an embargoed briefing, with no audio, video, streaming or broadcast coverage allowed, 6 weeks in advance of the budget being filed, seems like a major overkill. I’ve covered many Metro budget approval processes in the last 40-plus years, and I have never seen anything like this.

What is becoming apparent is that since Mayor Cooper has allowed departments to request (and justify) why they need more money, many have stepped to do so. Good reporting work by WPLN shows Metro agencies say, after several years of cutbacks, they need $140 million more to maintain the status quo. That increase doesn’t include Metro schools.

YET ANOTHER GOP ARGUMENT TO KEEP THE TAMPON TAX

For the past several years there have been efforts to remove the state sales tax off feminine hygiene products. Too expensive says the GOP Super Majority. To limit the costs, a bill has been introduced to remove the so-called ‘’tampon tax’ only during Tennessee’s annual tax-free weekend held every July.

Still too expensive say Republican lawmakers. They fear women might stock up for the entire year if the tax holiday is granted. They make that claim even though legislative staff estimates women spend approximately $120 a year on feminine hygiene products. Given Tennessee's current sales tax at 7%, that means the tax holiday proposal would cost the state approximately $132,700 annually. This cost compares to over three -quarters of a billion dollars in federal funds the state has been sitting on for years that is supposed to be spent to help the needy families and provide day care services. If GOP lawmakers are concerned the tax holiday on feminine hygiene products will lead hoarding, what about those $1500 computers that can be brought in unlimited quantities under the current sales tax holiday rules? Or clothing of up to $100 in value for each item?

Ten states across the country have eliminated their tampon tax and have somehow managed not to go broke. Tennessee is such a fiscally well-run state (which Governor Bill Lee and lawmakers are always bragging about) I suspect this tax- free weekend change can be handled with very little difficulty. Get a better argument, GOP lawmakers, if you plan to continue to stand against this proposal.

A BOOK REVIEW EQUALS FAKE NEWS

One effort Tennessee lawmakers are wasting the public’s time and money on this session is a resolution declaring the WASHINGTON POST as “fake news.” Why? Well, apparently one of the bill sponsors didn’t like a book review he read in the paper. The legislation also labels CNN as “fake news” and for being a part of the Democratic party. The bill is getting some national attention. ESQUIRE If you need any further indication that the main goal of lawmakers this session is to get re-elected, read this story.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Ever since I was a child (and that was many years ago), I have known that Tennessee is the “Volunteer State. It is a nickname of long -standing dating back to the War of 1812 and the Mexican War of 1846 when an overwhelmingly number of this state’s citizens volunteered to fight.

I sang a song about this (“We Volunteer”) during my days in Sing Out South/Up With People while I was in high school. The University of Tennessee calls its athletic teams the Volunteers (Lady Vols for its women teams).

But apparently the State of Tennessee never got the memo. There has never been anything in state law recognizing Tennessee as “The Volunteer State.” How in the name of Davy Crockett that slipped by we may never know? But this week, the General Assembly finally took action.

REBUKING GOVERNOR LEE

Two efforts are underway in the General Assembly to override Governor Lee on two major policy issues. One seeks to repel the education savings account program, set to begin as a pilot program in Memphis and Nashville this fall, before it ever gets started.

The move to stop the pilot voucher plan picked up even more steam this week with a major GOP leader in the House expressing regret he voted for the program last year. Jeremy Faison also says efforts to start the plan year early need to be stopped.

Meanwhile the Governor is striking back at the voucher critics and defending his program. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2020/02/13/tennessee-school-vouchers-gov-bill-lee-vows-push-ahead/4748775002/

Given the fact that the education savings account plan passed by just one vote in the House last spring it would not be impossible to see a repeal pass in the House. But Lt. Governor Randy McNally told me on INSIDE POLITICS he doesn’t believe the State Senate is on board to follow suit. GOP House Speaker

Cameron Sexton, an opponent of this voucher-like program, also does not appear to be behind the repeal effort, being quoted in one media interview as saying repeal is “dead on arrival.”

In another voucher related development, the increasingly active Beacon Center is seeking to intervene in the lawsuit announced last week by Nashville school and government officials to stop the education savings account effort. Beacon wants to support the Lee Administration, state education officials and parents in defending the legality of the pilot program.

Another effort to rebuke Governor Lee in the General Assembly, one supported by House Speaker Sexton, and which is building a GOP-led head of steam to pass both Houses, is a bill to override the Governor’s decision to allow refugees to continue to settle in Tennessee.

There remain several sub-committee, committee and floor votes to pass these anti-refugee bills in both Houses. Does Governor Lee feel strong enough about his decision to allow refugees to settle here, that he would veto these measures if they come to his desk? Since it takes just a constitutional majority of 50 votes in the House and 17 in the Senate, would a veto be overridden? If it comes to all that, it could be the most dramatic moment of this session.

CANDIDATE ACTIVITY INCREASES AS EARLY VOTING BEGINS FOR TENNESSEE’S MARCH 3 PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY

The deadline to register to vote was Monday of this past week and Early Voting began Wednesday for Tennessee’s March 3 Presidential Primary.

With President Donald Trump facing less than nominal opposition for re-election on the Republican side, it’s the Democratic presidential candidates who are picking up the pace in the state. Candidates such as Democratic front runners in the first caucus (Iowa) and primary (New Hampshire), Senator Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, are trying to create a larger presence in Tennessee. That includes Mayor Pete doing live interviews on the morning TV news shows. You can read the story and his full interview with NEWSCHANNEL5 here.

I don’t remember Senator Sanders running many TV ads when he lost the 2016 Tennessee presidential primary to Hillary Clinton. But I see him on the air here now. Since he is the current co-front runner (he has garnered the most votes) I guess he has to have a presence in all the Super Tuesday primary states. Will Buttigieg, who has the most delegates, have to do the same thing? And what about Senator Amy Klobuchar? Will she bring the momentum from a surprising third place finish in the Granite State to make a splash in the Volunteer State? And what about two former Democratic front runners, Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden? Can they overcome their disappointing showings so far? Can Biden stay viable long enough to do better in next week’s Nevada caucuses and then hold his fire wall state and win outright in the South Carolina primary the following week? While Warren has garnered some delegates, can she overcome her fourth- place finish in her neighboring state of New Hampshire which gets all its TV from Boston, MA? If both Warren and Biden survive the next two weeks, will they put any time or resources in Tennessee, with more than a dozen other state voting on Super Tuesday March 3rd?

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has been running his campaign on the very scenario that the Democratic presidential race would be a muddled mess leading into Super Tuesday. With his own unlimited personal resources, he has put lots of TV ads on the air here. He has hired a pretty good

staff team in the state. I have not seen any polling on what all that has done to make Bloomberg competitive in the state, but I wonder if he is doing as well as here as he is in national polls where he has gone from zero support to low double digits in about eleven weeks?

One sign that Bloomberg is gaining support are the renewed attacks he is getting following more damning information surfacing about his past support for his “stop and frisk” law enforcement policy in NYC, as well as old comments when he seems to support red lining against minorities seeking to buy homes. You don’t get attacked in a presidential race, unless you are seen as a viable threat to win the nomination.

Bloomberg is trying to make his Tennessee campaign something more than multiple TV ads, holding two rallies in the state (Chattanooga & Nashville) on Wednesday. He reportedly attracted more than a thousand voters combined. Here’s a sample of news coverage. WPLN Chattanooga

But at least on Days 1 & 2 of early voting, Tennesseans seem to be yawning…or voting for Trump.

Nashville, a blue city which is well known for its voter apathy, except in presidential races, saw just over 300 folks show up each day at the Davidson County Election Commission office to cast early ballots.

The turnout will get better…but…yawn.

On the state level the early vote totals the first two days (through Thursday) are just over 28,000. And get this: More folks have voted in all but uncontested GOP primary featuring President Donald Trump (17,435) compared to multi-candidate, hotly contested Democratic primary (10,674) Read it here.