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Capitol View commentary: Friday, April 30, 2021

Capitol View
Posted at 12:01 PM, Apr 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-30 13:01:10-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

April 30, 2021

INSIDE POLITICS ANALYZES PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN’s FIRST 100 DAYS IN OFFICE; THE STATE AND METRO TO REMOVE MOST REMAINING COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS EVEN AS CASES REMAIN ELEVATED AND VACCINATIONS LEVELS STALL; WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES; SENATOR HARPER; THE FUTURE AND WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN ON SECOND AVENUE;

INSIDE POLITICS ANALYZES PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN’s FIRST 100 DAYS IN OFFICE

Since the first term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the spring of 1933, almost 90 years ago, all American Presidents have been judged on their performance and results in their first 100 days in office.

President Joe Biden reached his 100 days this week (Thursday).

How has he done?

What remains to be attempted and accomplished?

What has failed or looks stalled?

We have two distinguished guests on INSIDE POLITICS this week to answer those questions and share their own insights and wisdom.

Linda Peek Schact of Lipscomb University played a major role in President Jimmy Carter’s first 100 days in 1977.

Linda is a long time political communicator in both the White House and the U.S. Senate.

Joey Garrison is the White House correspondent for USA TODAY. Everyone here in Nashville knows him from his excellent work covering Metro government for THE TENNESSEAN a few years ago.

We thank you both for joining us and welcome them back to the program!

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. on 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. We are also back on DISH TV with the rest of the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK.

One option for those who cannot 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 early in the week after the program airs.

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

THE STATE AND METRO TO REMOVE MOST REMAINING COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS EVEN AS CASES REMAIN ELEVATED AND VACCINATIONS LEVELS STALL

Even with just 25% of the state fully vaccinated (among the lowest rates in the nation), Tennessee Governor Bill Lee says “COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency,

He is ending all his remaining emergency orders, including the option of local officials to impose mask mandates.

The Governor is also urging those not under his direct control, including Metro Nashville to end its mask mandate no later than mid-May.

Metro is not going that far just yet. The Mayor told me he is waiting for science to dictate when to do that. But the city is removing many of its capacity and other COVID-19 restrictions by May 14.

As for the capacity and other restrictions being lifted, I asked what that meant about social distancing. He told since the city no longer will have any restrictions on businesses, there will no longer be any social distancing requirements by Metro, although businesses or teams are free to set their own or follow the rules set down by their national owners or leagues.

The city does have a higher vaccination rate than the state overall. Metro has over 40% of its adult population having received at least one shot.

As it has been from the start, the state and Metro have rarely been in sync about how to combat the virus throughout this pandemic. So, I guess marching to slightly different drummers as COVID-19 eases should not be surprising.

However, vaccination rates across the state, and even here in Nashville, have flattened in recent weeks. A new study indicates what I have mentioned for weeks in this column. That is the vaccine hesitancy has a decided political bend.

Local leaders continue to urge everyone to get vaccinated, so the city can more easily and quickly return to normal. By the way, I believe the 41% vaccination rate number in this story is for Nashville. the state rate is lower.

State officials continue to say they are putting together a statewide public service campaign urging people to get their shots. But with a Governor who would not even get his picture taken when he got his first shot, you wonder if its’ now too little too late, especially as our state’s chief executive now says “COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency.”

To further complicate the issue of increasing vacations, the Tennessee General Assembly this week gave final approval to legislation that would allow religious convictions or matters of conscience to allow people to decline getting vaccinated.

As for the leveling off of vaccinations in Davidson County, city officials hope the restoration of the one- shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine will increase numbers, along with targeted outreach efforts to hard to reach populations. They also hope the J&J shot will encourage the 7% of Metro adults who have taken their first, but not their second Pfizer or Moderna dabs.

But given the slowdown in vaccinations, the Music City Center mass inoculation site will close next month.

COVID-19 cases nationwide have dropped more than 20% in the last two weeks, but remain somewhat elevated with hot spots continuing in some states.

Let’s hope our luck holds here in Nashville and Tennessee.

The end of vaccination efforts at the Music City Center, will allow that facility to return in earnest to its primary purpose, hosting Nashville’s conventions and large meetings.

We’ve learned again this week, from a report by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, how vital our conventions and visitors coming to the greater Nashville area are to our local economy, after a devastating 2020, which severely damaged the rest of our economy as well.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES

The later part of April always brings the annual State of Metro and Budget Address by our city’s mayor.

For the 58th time overall, and the second since he took office in 2019, Mayor John Cooper gave the speech.

It was remarkable and very different event, both in terms of optics and content, compared to 2020.

Last year the speech was done completely virtually with no audience. In 2021, a small in person audience returned, while socially distanced at the Music City Center. The message from the Mayor was also in contrast with 2020.

Last April, with the onset of the pandemic, and a sharp economic downturn, Mayor Cooper said he had no choice but to propose a “crisis budget” including a record 34% property tax increase, which the Council slightly increased, and approved.

This year, having apparently weathered the COVID storm, Mayor Cooper is proposing an “investment budget” with record increases in funding in a number of areas.

To deliver still more welcome news, at least perhaps for some local taxpayers, in the wake of a state mandated countywide property reassessment, the property tax rate will go down to $3.288, the lowest of any major city in the state and the third lowest tax rate in Metro history.

One word of caution, while state law requires the rate be lowered, so as not to create a general property tax hike, if your property increased in value more than the 34% average countywide, you still might pay more. During his speech Mayor Cooper adlibbed from his prepared remarks to say the higher taxes will impact 20 of the city’s council districts with the other 15 seeing roughly the same or lower property taxes compared to last year.

This article contains a map that shows how that breaks out geographically.

The Council has the right to change the mayor’s proposed tax rate. Right now, they want to see his exact, recommended budget (to be filed today, Friday). Based on past experiences from reappraisals, they also want their questions answered.

The Mayor’s State of Metro and Budget Address came about a day after this scathing opinion piece about Nashville and its financial stewardship (or lack thereof) was posted on THE WALL STREET JOURNAL website. I am pretty sure not all the information the article contains is factually or chronologically accurate, but enough of it is, to likely create some ongoing controversy. It also appears to involve the Metro Charter amendment campaign led by local attorney Jim Roberts.

With so much being announced, this item didn’t get any coverage. But Mayor Cooper announced a proposal that will speak (but probably not solve) the financial challenges facing the city to provide health care for retirees. The Mayor said: “We are…. taking steps to control costs. Next week, the Employee Benefits Board will vote on a platinum Medicare Advantage solution that will deliver excellent retiree care at reduced costs. A win, win, win for everyone.”

One other thing I noticed in the Mayor’s remarks is how frequently he thanked councilmembers, individually, and collectively in small groups, for their help and leadership on city issues. I don’t remember him doing that or previous mayors doing it that frequently. The Mayor’s relationship with the Council has had its moments of strain over the past year, might this help?

The Mayor did make a major pitch to the Council to approve, at its meeting next Tuesday night, the proposal from the Oracle technology company which will, at over a $1.1 billion, make the largest single private investment in Nashville history, bringing 8,500 high paying jobs. The mayor said in his speech the Oracle vote is “one of the most important votes in the 21st century … a vote to enable Nashville’s prosperity beyond COVID and ensure our city succeeds in the new economy. This vote enables the greatest jobs creation in our city’s history.”

The proposal is catching some static from union and progressive groups. They say the Oracle proposal does not offer enough answers or benefits for average citizens.

I am told the Oracle resolution has 26 co-sponsors, more than enough for approval. Resolutions also don’t require a 21-vote majority for passage. A deferral might still create an obstacle to a final vote.

Mayor Cooper’s recommendation to fully fund the budget request for Metro Schools, he says for the first time in years, got the biggest response, and the only standing ovation, from the crowd during his speech. The Mayor says the city is on the verge of a ‘golden age” for our public schools. The $80 million in new funding is a single year record and will make Metro teachers the best paid in the state, receiving significant pay raises.

Mayor Cooper took the opportunity during his address to once again criticize how poorly and unfairly the state funds urban school systems such as Nashville. Metro has joined with other large school systems in Tennessee to challenge the matter in courts.

That has angered state lawmakers who have filed legislation to ban local officials from using tax dollars to challenge their actions in court. They claim it is an unfair use of tax dollars for the one level of government to sue another. But I really think they just do not like being second guessed. And this week it appears the State Senate has wisely put the brakes on such efforts.

THE END OF THIS SESSION IS NIGH FOR THE TENNESSEE GENERAL ASSEMBLY

Before our state lawmakers went home for the weekend, they passed a new fiscal year 2022 operating budget for Tennessee.

Governor Lee’s office released this news release, pointing out what he sees as the highlights in this 42.6 billion spending plan.

Here’s the way at least one local media outlet (THE TENNESSEAN) outlines the importance of the new budget.

The fight we talked about earlier about the state underfunding education flared up again in the final budget deliberations, but the GOP Super Majority, as always, had the votes to prevail.

It appears the Legislature will return for at least one more week. Usually, once the budget is approved (which is the only annual constitutional duty lawmakers have) it is generally best they end their session. They often get into difficulties with last minute laws being passed if they stick around.

Besides, they are likely to have to come back later this summer to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional district lines.

That would have been done earlier this year, but the 2020 U.S. Census data has been delayed. That information became available earlier this week, but I don’t think lawmakers want to stick around for the week or two or more it might take to do the redistricting, which will likely include splitting into multiple pieces the forever Democratic congressional seat in Nashville/ Davidson County among all the GOP congressional districts that surround the Capitol city. But I could be wrong about them staying around.

Even before they leave, state lawmakers have left a legacy of passing hateful legislation, all but declaring war on Tennessee’s transgendered community. That includes the most recent bathroom bill legislation that gained final approval on Thursday.

A number of prominent businesses with ties to the state have deplored the bills passed by the General Assembly. The latest is Oracle who may soon make a billion- dollar investment in Nashville. But the GOP Super Majority pushing these bills remain undeterred.

The Metro School Board unanimously passed a resolution in support of their LGBTQ students and staff, but again with no response or impact from the Hill.

Even as the pandemic fades, state lawmakers have approved continuing the sales of alcoholic beverages to go. That comes as the state agency overseeing alcohol admits problems with a significant increase in under-age sales over the past year.

It would not be a session of the General Assembly in recent years without legislators debating and approving constitutional amendments to submit to the voters for consideration. For the November 2022 election next year, one amendment that will be on the ballot is one to enshrine the state’s “right to work” into the Tennessee Constitution.

State lawmakers have long been tough on crime, but this week they were poised to change Tennessee’s life sentence law as well as finally recognizing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that it is unconstitutional to execute a developmentally disabled person. This new bill at least recognizes the opportunity to make such an appeal in existing cases.

Finally, the effort to get Tennessee to join almost every state in the nation in legalizing the use of medical marijuana, failed again. It was defeated by only one vote in a House committee. It is the closest any such legislation has ever come in the General Assembly. The idea of legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes continues to slowly gain support primarily because lawmakers (most recently House Speaker Cameron Sexton) have seen the beneficial results of such treatments for their family members. Sponsors say they may try and bring back the bill this year. But with committees closed, that seems like a very long putt.

Here’s another story about why it has been such a long, hard struggle to get medical marijuana approved in Tennessee despite growing support.

SENATOR HARPER

It is with great sorrow I learned of the passing of Thelma Harper, a legendary long time Metro Councilmember and State Senator.

I first got to know her when she was elected to the Council in 1983. An outspoken rookie councilmember (who was always “good copy” to interview), she wasn’t afraid to voice her opposition to the Bordeaux landfill, even being arrested and taken to jail during an on-site protest, trying to close the facility, by blocking its entrance in 1990.

Harper won the war in the end, and was present when the landfill was finally closed, much to her delight.

By then, she was State Senator Thelma Harper, the first African American woman elected to that body. During her thirty- year career on the Hill she remained a trailblazing lawmaker not afraid to speak her mind, and renowned for the many stylish hats she always wore in public.

When I worked in Mayor Fulton’s office, I was more than once the person representing the Mayor’s office, at some community meeting she organized in her district over some hot issue. I knew my role was to be the foil for the Senator, acting as the main dish at the barbeque, twisting slowly on the political spit, under her questioning. But she was never mean or personal about it.

We developed a good friendship over the years. I particularly remember working with her when she was co-chair of the city’s 50th anniversary of the founding of Metro government in 2012.

No one deserves more the honors she is now receiving for her legendary career, from an obituary in THE NEW YORK TIMES to laying in state at both the Metro Courthouse and the State Capitol. She is again the first woman of color to do so in both public buildings, and I can’t remember anyone who has been so honored laying in state in both buildings.

Here is the schedule for all the ceremonies for the Senator next week.

RIP, Senator. Well done!

THE FUTURE AND WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN ON SECOND AVENUE

While several groups continue to study the recovery and future of Historic second Avenue downtown after the Christmas Day bombing, at the request of Mayor John Cooper, one distinguished national group, the Urban Land Institute, has offered its thoughts and suggestions.

Meanwhile, more details about how the bombing might have been stopped, continue to become known.

Part II of Ben Hall’s story airs Friday night on NEWSCHANNEL 5.