By: Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst
April 26, 2019
EDUCATION SAVING ACCOUNT BILLS PASS BOTH STATE HOUSE & SENATE; DIFFERENT VERSIONS AND NARROW VOTE MARGINS LEAVE FUTURE UNCLEAR; CONTROVERSIAL VOTER REGISTRATION RESTRICTIONS GAIN LEGISLATIVE APPROVAL; CHANCES FOR SPORTS GAMBLING IN TENNESSEE IMPROVE WITH FULL HOUSE APPROVAL; GENERAL ASSEMBLY PASSES ANTI-ABORTION TRIGGER BILL; DOES ANYBODY REALLY KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?; PAIN MANAGEMENT LAWSUIT BY FEDS INVOLVES NASHVILLE STATE SENATOR; THE END DAYS APPROACH; ANOTHER METRO ASSET PROPOSED TO BE SOLD; THE METRO BLUE- RIBBON PANEL REPORTS; ERICA GILMORE IS RUNNING FOR VICE MAYOR; NASHVILLE’S BIGGEST AND BUSIEST WEEKEND EVER; MTSU PROFESSOR DR. JOHN VILE ON INSIDE POLITICS;
EDUCATION SAVING ACCOUNT BILLS PASS BOTH STATE HOUSE & SENATE; DIFFERENT VERSIONS AND NARROW VOTE MARGINS LEAVE FUTURE UNCLEAR
Creating more parental choice for education has been the number one legislative priority for the new administration of Governor Bill Lee. It would happen through creating Education Saving Accounts. Those would be annual vouchers of $7,300 per qualifying child. The program would begin as a pilot project with the funds going to parents to educate their children in private schools or for other educational expenses.
ESAs bills passed in both houses this week, which is a major, perhaps historic achievement for the first-year governor. But the approvals came by narrow margins and for significantly different bills.
In fac, Tuesday morning the House version of the ESA bill almost died on the House floor. It also just squeaked through the Senate Finance Committee that same day by one vote. On Thursday the Senate version of the bill passed in the full body 20-13. Since legislation requires 17 votes to pass that’s only a three -vote margin.
The House bill passed only after Republican leaders left the voting machine open for an extended period of time (40 minutes). It was a parliamentary move similar to what House Democrats did in 2002 in an unsuccessful attempt to get the votes needed to pass a state income tax. Back then, Republicans made a big issue out of the procedure. Democrats and other ESA opponents are doing that now. They say vouchers will ultimately destroy public schools by taking away its funding.
In the case of House school vouchers bill, a Knoxville representative (Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville) changed his vote from no to yes. That broke a 49-49 tie and gave the measure the 50 votes needed for approval in the lower chamber.
Education saving account supporters admit they knew they were missing one likely yes vote (Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington). She was absent because of a death in her family. Did floor leaders realize they were cutting things so close, that with Moody not available, they would need to find a vote to flip for passage?
The initial 49-49 vote would seem to indicate that close to 25 members of the House Republican super majority have rebelled against the school voucher plan. Even adding more money in the budget to help rural districts not included in the ESA plan (and take money away from urban school districts), did not generate the support expected.
Still, the House vote is historic. While the Senate has passed several different versions of a voucher bill in previous years, this is the first such measure to make it to the House floor and pass…if barely.
What happens now? Rep. Zachary told reporters he changed his vote to yes because he has been promised by both Governor Lee and House leaders that Knox County will be ultimately amended out of the bill.
The size and scope of the education saving account bill (what counties and school districts are involved), along with student testing requirements are among several major differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Whether to allow home school students and parents to receive ESAs is another difference, as is how much and what kind of parental identification is needed to make sure those using the ESAs are Tennessee citizens and meet the income requirements.
That last issue could also wind up in the courts given past federal judicial decisions on the access of immigrant children to public education. In that case, a way to save the overall ESA plan might be to include a severability clause in the bill to keep the program intact even if identification requirements are struck down. But will that be enough for House and Senate members being pushed by anti-immigration groups who don’t want ESA funds going to “illegals?”
Here’s a link to a TENNESSEAN article that outlines all the differences in the House and Senate ESA bills.
Here are two other stories outlining the full Senate vote on Thursday.
It appears the ESA bill is headed to a conference committee of both houses to work out a compromise. Whatever comes out of that group up must pass both houses unchanged before it goes to Governor Lee for his signature.
Given all these differences in the bills, the Lee administration wanted some kind of ESA legislation to pass in both houses, so things could get compromised out in the final days of this legislative session. But is there enough support and give and take to build a consensus between the House and Senate, especially given the very close full House and Senate votes this week?
By the way, what will ESAs mean for Nashville parents and students if they qualify for the program? Nashville/ Davidson County is bound to be included if a voucher program is approved. If so, parents may have to dig deeper to pay tuition and other costs at most local private schools.
With votes still ahead in both Houses, the push to put the heat on Republican lawmakers to vote for ESAs is coming from Governor Lee and his administration as well as from House and Senate leaders. Some lawmakers claim they are being offered incentives to help their districts if they vote for vouchers.
Political heat on GOP lawmakers is also coming from Washington. President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are weighing in via Twitter.
Finally, THE TENNESSEE JOURNAL ON THE HILL blog reports this about the Senate vote: “The Senate vote came after the chamber rushed to swear in new Republican member Bill Powers (R-Clarksville). Powers voted for the bill despite declaring during the campaign that he opposed vouchers.”
CONTROVERSIAL VOTER REGISTRATION RESTRICTIONS GAIN LEGISLATIVE APPROVAL
When the Republican super majority on the Hill is united, there is no stopping them in passing legislation. And so, a bill that sets up stringent new regulations regarding voter registration gained final approval25-6 in the Senate Thursday. The House gave its approval last week.
The passage of the bill comes despite strong opposition from groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Tennessee ACLU. They say the bill amounts to criminalizing the voter registration process, and they add it is an attempt to suppress the vote among groups such as African Americans and other people of color. It’s a bill getting national media attention and comment too.
There was an apparently minor amendment made to the bill in the Senate so that could momentarily delay the measure going to Governor Bill Lee for his consideration. It likely a long shot but THE TENNESEAN is asking him to veto the measure. The paper has also posted a pros and cons story about the issue.
While a gubernatorial veto seems a remote possibility, a lawsuit by the ACLU, the League of Women Voters and other groups seem likely, along with continued national publicity about this first-of- its-kind in the nation voter legislation.
CHANCES FOR SPORTS GAMBLING IN TENNESSEE IMPROVE WITH FULL HOUSE APPROVAL
A late-session issue to watch is whether to legalize sports gambling in Tennessee. In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing such wagering, several surrounding states are doing so. Supporters say Tennessee needs to act or lose out on revenues that go to help local communities and schools.
Opponents say approving such a sport gambling program will just increase the problems of gambling addiction in the state, even if the program, operated by the Tennessee Lottery corporation, is limited to on-line wagering and available only to residents of Tennessee. Despite the opposition, the full House approved the sports gambling measure handily this week (58-37) this week with some bi-partisan support. The bill appears headed to a Senate vote soon.
However, there remains potential opposition to sports gambling that lawmakers may not be able to overcome. Governor Bill Lee has said he opposes gambling on religious and moral grounds. Would he cast his first veto to stop a sports gambling bill if it reaches his desk? Would lawmakers seek to override the veto which only takes a simple majority in both houses (50 votes in the House, 17 votes in the Senate)?
GENERAL ASSEMBLY PASSES ANTI-ABORTION TRIGGER BILL
Tennessee Republican lawmakers have been intent all session to pass anti-abortion legislation. The question that has divided them is which bill to pass?
This week that question was decided. Both Houses have now approved a “trigger” bill. The measure would only go into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down or greatly modifies the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion and which has set the standards for how abortions can occur for the past 45+ years.
If Roe is rescinded or significantly modified (and Republican lawmakers are hopeful it will be soon with two new conservative justices on the High Court bench), Tennessee would revert to its pre-Roe law. That would ban abortion in almost all cases except to protect the life of the mother. The new trigger law would not make exceptions for rape or incest. The bill does say a doctor accused of performing an abortion would face felony charges.
It is expected Governor Bill Lee will sign the measure into law, a move which seems to be a part of a nationwide effort. Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota have similar trigger laws on the books while Kentucky and Missouri are considering enacting such bills this year.
The other anti-abortion legislation Tennessee lawmakers considered this year is called a “heartbeat” bill. It would ban abortion as soon as a fetus’ heartbeat can be detected. That can be as early as two months into a pregnancy. That is much more restrictive than what is allowed by Roe. Tennessee lawmakers, particularly in the Senate have been reluctant to approve this bill because similar laws in other states have been invalidated by the federal courts.
Nevertheless, the full state House approved the “heart beat” bill before it was tabled and sent for summer study by a Senate committee. A rare parliamentary effort, to bring the bill to the full Senate floor for a vote, failed this week. That means the “heartbeat” measure is likely stopped for this year. However, it seems likely to come back next session. With its House approval still in effect, passing the “heartbeat’ bill next year would require only a Senate OK to overcome the final hurdle to passage.
DOES ANYBODY REALLY KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?
If you like Daylight Saving Time, the Tennessee House thinks you ought to be able to enjoy it all year long. This week, by a vote 86-5, legislation was approved that would scrap the twice-annual time shift — but only if Congress first passes a federal law allowing states to observe daylight saving year-round and that proposal is later adopted again by the Tennessee General Assembly. This first bill must still pass the State Senate.
Given those requirements and timetables, don’t plan on skipping the annual turning back your clocks an hour in the fall and turning them back up an hour in the spring just yet. It is interesting to note that, on this issue, the Republican General Assembly and the Nashville Metro Council agree. The council went on record to keep DST full time a few weeks ago.
In a relatively rare move, this week the Legislature approved a bill to allow local governments to do something, rather than constantly restricting local prerogatives. The measure headed to Governor Lee’s desk for his consideration, would allow local officials to ban smoking on the playgrounds they own or operate.
Bravo! What’s next---Home Rule for local governments? Don’t count on it especially for blue Memphis and Nashville.
PAIN MANAGEMENT LAWSUIT BY FEDS INVOLVES NASHVILLE STATE SENATOR
Late in the week, a potential scandal broke on the Hill. THE TENNESSEAN reports federal and state prosecutors have filed civil lawsuits accusing Tennessee Sen. Steve Dickerson and other owners of a massive pain management company of defrauding the government with years of unjustified tests, dishonest billing and forged documents.
So far Senator Dickerson has offered no comment concerning the lawsuit which had been under seal in the federal courts for several weeks until now.
THE END DAYS APPROACH
When the General Assembly begins to approve the annual operating budget for the state, it is a clear sign that members are close to adjourning for the year. This year, the House acted first to approve a spending plan. That’s unusual. The Senate usually does that.
It seems likely the lower chamber wanted to act first to put the heat on the upper chamber to go along with a proposal that GOP House leaders have added to budget. The proposal would seek a federal Medicaid waiver known the Katie Beckett waiver. It covers medical treatment for children with disabilities and severe illnesses whose families wouldn't otherwise qualify for TennCare, the state's Medicaid program.
The estimated waiver cost for one year is not cheap at $27 million. House supporters say there is extra money to fund the waiver from higher than estimated taxes collected from on-line sales. But the Lee administration did not fund the waiver in its original budget proposal or in its supplemental spending plan proposed last week. Republican Senate leaders still seem reluctant to go ahead with the extra funding. An impasse could mean the whole state budget would to go to a conference committee to work out the matter.
Senate leaders are now saying they’d rather cut taxes than fund the Beckett waiver.
This Katie Beckett waiver effort is the first time Republicans in the General Assembly have shown any inclination to expand Medicaid or TennCare coverage in the state. Certainly, the waiver they’ve chosen is a most commendable way to respond with compassion to help parents whose children suffer with severe disabilities and illnesses. But should such compassion be limited just to children? Do we “age out” of providing assistance to those in need, even with billions of federal dollars still available to pay for the lion’s share of expanding the state’s entire Medicaid plan?
The GOP’s answer to that is to seek a first in the nation waiver from Washington to fund our TennCare program through a block grant. They say the state can do a more efficient job in providing care. Maybe so. But will it mean more people in of care will receive it or will others “not of age” either no longer be covered or still not receive the type of compassionate response now proposed to be given to children with severe disabilities and illnesses?
ANOTHER METRO ASSET PROPOSED TO BE SOLD
Less than a week before Mayor David Briley’s annual State of Metro and Budget Address, there are reports another major city asset will be sold.
Two weeks ago, it was the city’s parking meter system going to a private owner for an initial payment of $30 million. Now it’s the city’s energy system that heats and cools more than 40 buildings downtown — including the Tennessee state Capitol. That would be sold for $60 million.
Are both sales efforts to modernize and get the city out of providing money-losing services? Or, will this be similar to last year’s efforts to sell “surplus” city properties to balance another tight city budget? In doing that, will Metro use one- time monies to fund ongoing city operations? Already questions are arising, and controversy is building.
One thing to watch as Metro budget discussions unfold. After last year’s largely unsuccessful effort to balance Metro’s budget by selling surplus city property, the Council passed a law that any city property sold in the future cannot be used in the city’s general fund. It can only be used to pay down the city’s debt. Are the city’s parking meters and its downtown energy system forms of surplus property as well? Therefore, will the funds from selling these assets also be restricted in how they can be used in the city’s budget?
The move to sell the city’s energy system has some historical irony. It was Mayor David Briley’s grandfather, Mayor Beverly Briley who first championed the system. It was then called the Thermal Transfer Plant and it was used to burn a large amount of the city’s garbage beginning in the 1970s. The elder Briley saw through construction of the plant and its underground pipe system (to deliver its energy) which began in 1974. The Thermal Plant was located along the downtown riverfront (now the site of the Ascend Amphitheatre). Over the years, the plant ran into numerous environmental problems and suffered a devastating fire in 2002. The city then converted the system to using natural gas for fuel which officials now say is not cost effective.
That is also one reason, say city officials, they have not sought to expand the system despite all the new buildings downtown. The sale of the energy system will need to be approved not just by the Metro Council, but also by its customers who own and operate the buildings on the system. With that including a large number of state government facilities downtown, it would seem to mean the Lee administration and state legislative leaders will also need to approve the plan. Stay tuned.
The State of Metro speech is set for Tuesday, April 30 at the Grand Reading Room of the Downtown Public Library. It is an annual address given by Nashville’s mayor. It marks Metro’s birthday…the founding of consolidated government for Nashville/ Davidson County 56 years ago on April 1, 1963.
The speech has also become the annual unveiling of the city’s proposed operating budget which will be reviewed and debated by the Metro Council in the following weeks. A balanced budget must be approved by June 30. The budget year runs from July 1-June 30 each year.
Usually an election-year Metro budget is as status-quo and non-controversial as possible. But even before this year’s budget is filed, opposition to the parking privatization effort is already mounting from Briley’s mayoral opponents and even from one surprising source normally in favor of privatization.
The new parking plan took another step forward this week as Metro selected the firm which will take over and operate the city’s parking meter system. The Briley administration touts the plan saying it will generate $30 million up front for the city and $300 million in revenue for Metro over the next 30 years.
I suspect the sale of the city’s energy system will also become another hot topic of controversy during this year’s budget process. That includes exactly how many new parking meters will be added and in what neighborhoods outside downtown.
THE METRO BLUE- RIBBON PANEL REPORTS
When Metro was in a budget hole last spring, the Mayor and the Council agreed to appoint a blue-ribbon panel to seek out ways the city can save money and generate more income. The group’s goal was $20 million.
The report is out. I am not sure what all the suggestions will amount to in new revenue and savings, or whether any of recommendations can be implemented by the time the new fiscal year budget takes effect July 1st. As you can see if you click on the link below, several of the suggestions would increase or create new fees for taxpayers to pay. Ironically, one of the suggestions to generate revenue is raising parking fines. That’s part of Mayor Briley’s parking privatization plan which is sparking growing controversy especially with the parking tickets being given out by the private firm operating the system.
ERICA GILMORE IS RUNNING FOR VICE MAYOR
With the Metro elections for Mayor, Vice Mayor and all 40 members of the Metro Council set for August 1, the qualifying deadlines for candidates is less than 3 weeks away. It’s comes on Thursday, May 16.
One at-large councilmember, Erica Gilmore, is giving up the chance to seek re-election. She announced this week she will oppose Vice Mayor Jim Schulman instead.
NASHVILLE’S BIGGEST AND BUSIEST WEEKEND EVER
With the NFL Draft, the St. Jude Rock & Roll Marathon, numerous concerts (Jimmy Buffett among others), and who knows what else going on downtown and across the city, this weekend seems to be Nashville’s biggest and busiest ever.
Even before the first pick was announced on Thursday, superstar Taylor Swift made a surprise appearance in the Gulch before joining Dolly Parton and former Nashville TV broadcaster Robin Roberts on the official Draft broadcast.
Based on the first night of the Draft, Nashville is showing how well we can host the largest sporting event in Tennessee history and maybe the largest multi-day event ever in our town. Hundreds of thousands of visitors are coming, lots of money is being spent, and Nashville is making a strong statement on how it can host other huge events. Like maybe a Super Bowl (might need a new domed or retractable roof stadium for that)? In fact, one ESPN analyst says: “There never has been a scene like this for any draft in any sport, ever. Nashville’s insane.”
Even before the weekend started, it was already another bonanza of largely positive publicity for our community, coming from numerous national and other media outlets. That includes several articles from FORBES and even from media where you wouldn’t expect to see stories about Nashville.
Of course, not all our visitors are happy about the NFL Draft being in town.
Next week we’ll see what other media reviews are posted on how the city has handled turn our busiest and biggest weekend ever.
Of course, all this has implications for the city’s mayoral race, at least say some of the candidates. Metro Councilman At Large and mayoral hopeful John Cooper sees the large influx of visitors this weekend and beyond meaning a bonanza in the city’s hotel-motel tax collections. He wants that extra money spent on supporting the local arts.
From a campaign release: “We should provide increased funding to revered institutions such as the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and the Frist Art Museum that are enjoyed by residents and tourists alike. The Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation contract negotiation is approaching; Nashville should use this opportunity to allocate a portion of the CCVB’s increased hotel tax proceeds to supporting the cultural furniture that is integral to the heart and soul of Nashville.”
Meanwhile state representative and mayoral candidate John Ray Clemmons is continuing to hold community “listening sessions.” This week such a session focused on “the Bordeaux and North Nashville communities have not benefited from the unprecedented prosperity we see in other parts of the county.”
MTSU PROFESSOR DR. JOHN VILE ON INSIDE POLITICS
It’s been over a month since the final report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller was completed and almost a week since a redacted version was released to the public.
But rather than bringing clarity and a resolution to the controversy over Russian involvement in the 2016 election and President Trump’s involvement in obstruction of justice in the probe, the matter continues to divide the nation.
To bring some insight into the controversy and what happens next, our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week is MTSU professor Dr. John Vile. He is one of our best guests to analyze this topic. We are happy to have him back with us again.
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, usually on Monday or Tuesday).