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Capitol View commentary: Friday, December 18, 2020

Capitol View
Posted at 12:59 PM, Dec 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-18 13:59:52-05

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

December 18, 2020

METRO POLICE CHIEF JOHN DRAKE ON INSIDE POLITICS; ANOTHER VACCINE TO BE APPROVED AS THE VIRUS GETS WORSE; WILL CONGRESS ACTUALLY PASS A NEW VIRUS RELIEF BILL?; METRO COUNCIL GRAPPLES WITH A NEW TRANSPORTATION PLAN ALONG WITH THE FINAL CARES ACT FUNDS DISTRBUTION; METRO REFINANCING ITS DEBT…AGAIN; SUDDENLY TENNESSEE NEEDS A NEW COMPTROLLER; SOME GOOD NEWS; LIVING IN DIFFERENT UNIVERSES; THE NEXT TWO WEEKS

METRO POLICE CHIEF JOHN DRAKE ON INSIDE POLITICS

2020 has been a year of controversy, not only in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, but also multiple incidents involving African Americans and people of color being shot, killed or dying while in the custody of law enforcement.

All over the country, those incidents have led to calls for change, for protests to end to racial injustice, police brutality and to “defund police.” There have even been riots.

All that happened here in Nashville, with Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson stepping down under fire, after ten years as the city’s top cop.

After a months-long nationwide search, we have a new Chief.

He is John Drake, a thirty- year-plus veteran officer of the Nashville Police Department, and the acting chief the last few months.

Chief Drake is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

We welcome the Chief to the program and thank him for joining us.

This may be the Chief’s first extended television interview since being named to his post permanently, so we are honored to have him.

It is a good conversation. Watch us, especially the last few minutes of the final segment!

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 Facebook page as soon as it is available, usually on Monday or Tuesday.

ANOTHER VACCINE TO BE APPROVED AS THE VIRUS GETS WORSE

For the second consecutive week, national health officials are poised to approve a vaccine that promises to fight COVID-19 effectively, if 1) we can enough doses out, and 2) if public confidence is high enough for most people to take the shots.

In terms of public support, a new poll indicates a growing willingness to take the serum overall But that the increased support is still not so high among people of color, rural residents and Republicans.

With approval last week of the Pfizer vaccine, and now, the Moderna serum this week (mabe today), the early supply of the shot dosages is trinkling out. It comes as officials realize the Trump administration missed a big opportunity when it failed to buy more early on, when Pfizer officials tried to sell it to them, although nobody knew then whether it would be this highly effective. If it gets final approval, the Moderna serum is expected to be in Tennessee by next week.

Regardless, one report says, worldwide, it will be 2022 before the vast majority of the world’s population will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine.

There is also this emerging controversy surrounding the current Pfizer vaccine rollout.

The first vaccinations this week across the country of front-line health care workers did engender feelings of hope, if only in small doses. The efforts to inoculate critical, at-risk populations, such as front-line health care workers came even as the virus surpassed 17 million infections and topped over 300,000 deaths in this country. Records are being set nationally, and in many states, almost every day for deaths and hospitalizations, with areas also reporting there are no ICU beds and/or staff to deal with what appears to be a still increasing onslaught of illness.

Here in Tennessee, the first COVID-19 shots to front line health care workers were not given out until Thursday which was something of a surprise. The decision disappointed hospital officials who were ready to start inoculating their staffs at the beginning of the week. State officials said the first batch it received was so small, they decided to hold it “in reserve” for an emergency. A bigger emergency than the pandemic? Whatever might that be?

Governor Bill Lee said it was more “equitable” to wait until more serum arrived, but that didn’t stop criticism that the distribution still does not seem fair.

Even before the planned shots finally began Thursday, the day before on Wednesday, it is believed the first person in Tennessee to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, took it here in Nashville at a local firm involved with the Pfizer vaccine study. It was given to a local surgeon who participated in the vaccine trial but got the placebo. Now he is on the way to being protected.

One piece of good news as the vaccine is distributed nationally, the first shipments appears to have more dosages than expected, so more front- line workers can get their first shots.

Besides the delay of the vaccine shots starting this week, the Lee administration again is attracting criticism for its “no bid policy” for COVID-19 expenditures, a move which continues to cost taxpayers millions of dollars with little in return.

And there are still more revelations.

These latest reports have spurred calls on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill for an investigation.

Thursday afternoon members of the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee grilled Tennessee Health Committee Lisa Piercy about the no-bid contract arrangement.

With the Thanksgiving virus spike continuing, and with the holiday season far from over, this week saw new records set almost daily, including for most deaths (177) in a single day on Thursday. At the same time the state is cutting back on offering tests, (while offering home test kits instead). All this in order to focus resources on getting out the vaccine.

All these developments are leading a major health professional in the state to plead with Governor Lee to “stop ignoring health care professionals” and end “the fend for yourself approach to the COVID-19 crisis.”

In the wake of the Thanksgiving holiday, the surge in virus cases continues. In fact, Tennessee is now among the national leaders on lists compiled by the CDC and others. These are rankings we don’t want to be on especially ranking near the top in the nation, if not the world.

There is one survey that has Tennessee having the worst virus numbers in the nation by population.

This TENNESSESAN op-ed by David Plaza sums up the growing challenges facing our state.

Late in the week saw this impassioned plea for action in asocial media posting from former Tennessee U.S. Senator and Majority Leader Bill Frist.

At the same time, while even the organizers don’t think their effort will succeed, there is an “emergency recall” petition to oust Governor Lee posted on Change.org. By Thursday evening it had gathered just over 2,500 signatures.

The criticism of the Governor grows, including this blistering commentary from the upstart weekly TENNESSEE LOOKOUT publication.

The virus numbers in Nashville remain about the worst ever. Here’s the latest report issued Friday morning. The key indictors dashboard remains quite a mixture of red, yellow and green, not to be in the holiday spirit, but to warn us what a major public health crisis we are experiencing.

Mayor John Cooper is urging the public to use caution in their holiday gatherings, even with family members. He also is pleading with Governor Lee to at least implement a regional mask mandate for Middle Tennessee.

WILL CONGRESS ACTUALLY PASS A NEW VIRUS RELIEF BILL?

After it appeared last week, there was little hope the lame duck Congress would approve a new COVID-19 relief bill, it may do just that in the final hours before lawmakers go home for the holidays.

In fact, the leadership in both parties (who have now gotten personally involved in the negotiations) say they won’t go home until they pass a bill.

We will see about that.

Meantime, the economy is flashing more warnings of trouble ahead if Congress does not act. For example, 5 million Americans have been forced into poverty in the last few months, and retail sales have fallen more than expected.

New unemployment assistance applications are up more than expected, in fact this week saw the largest increase since September.

I guess it has finally dawned on our elected leaders, they stand to be the biggest Scrooges in American history if they do not make something happen to provide more virus relief.

So how did we get to a point where the impasse might finally end? Well, it appears our leaders plan to approve money (just under $1 trillion) for items on which they can agree (such as, more enhanced unemployment aid, rental and food assistance, vaccine distribution funds, even direct checks to almost everyone, although not as large as the $1200 last spring). As for the areas where they can’t agree (aid to state & local governments and legal protections for businesses and other groups from COVID-related lawsuits), they will leave all that to the New Congress that takes office in January.

So it was that easy to solve the impasse after months and months of gridlock? Maybe Congress ought to always be on a short time frame to adjourn and want to leave town?

By the way without more federal aid, it appears Nashville may run of out funds to continue to COVID-19 education outreach efforts aimed at the Hispanic community just when it appeared progress was being made.

Keep in mind, the final deal in Congress is still not done, and it faces final speed bumps to make it across the finish line.

Late in the week, it appears Congress may have to go into the weekend or even next week to get a deal approved. They want to attach whatever they agree on to a new spending bill that will run until October.

With the government set to run out of money and shut down at midnight Friday night, lawmakers may have pass a days-long stop-gap spending plan to keep things going until the virus relief plan is ready for go. Or maybe they will just let the government go broke and shut down tonight at midnight.

In the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century, how 2020 would that be!

Stay tuned!

METRO COUNCIL GRAPPLES WITH A NEW TRANSPORTATION PLAN ALONG WITH THE FINAL CARES ACT FUNDS DISTRBUTION

Due to the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and health orders restricting the size of meetings, the Metro Council went back to holding its session virtually this week.

It is a format the Council struggled with all last spring and summer. Reverting back saw a relapse of issues that prolonged the meeting. That includes a provision in Governor Bill Lee’s emergency order to allow local government bodies to meet, that requires roll call votes on all Council actions, including just calling the question to have a vote.

All this easily made the nearly 5- hour gathering at least an hour longer than it should have been.

With the likelihood of no additional federal virus relief money on the way anytime soon, one of major focuses of the evening was how to spend, by the end of the month, the remaining $30 million in CARES Act funds Metro has (out of $121 million). It voted to do so by employing a tactic other states and cities are doing to stretch the impact of the funds to fight COVID-19 into next year.

The Council also allocated another $3.8 million for rent, mortgage and utility assistance as well as $1 million more for small business relief grants.

In other action, after grousing and complaining about it during committee sessions, the Council voted overwhelmingly in favor of Mayor John Cooper $1.6 billion, 10- year transportation plan.

The endorsement is non-binding and didn’t spend a dime or raise taxes.

The Cooper proposal is much less expansive or expensive than the one voters rejected in May 2018. It focuses more on bus, roads, and sidewalk improvements, even pothole repairs. It would be funded out of the city’s annual operating budget or those capital bond funding, all of which the Council will have to approve before any projects begin.

The need for a plan is to attract federal, state and other funds which Nashville might not get, if we don’t have a plan. So now we do, and that could be important says the Mayor, if the new Biden administration in Washington convinces Congress to spend more money on infrastructure nationally.

The Council also again debated a bill that would allow local law enforcement to use license plate scanners to help identify and prosecute persons involved in illegal drag racing. Metro Police are currently cracking down on such activities and other surrounding cities such as Belle Meade and Mt. Juliet use scanners for various reasons as well.

But the use of scanners raises privacy and other concerns and some councilmembers sought to kill the bill but failed. When it came to a second reading vote, the bill survived by just one vote, cast by Vice Mayor Jim Schulman, who broke a tie.

This sets up even more debate on the issue when the Council meets again in the new year on January 5. The bill now on third reading did not gather the required 21 votes to pass when it comes up for final approval. Meanwhile, the bill’s opponents will have their own, and they say better, more comprehensive legislation involving the use of scanners, for the Council to consider on the January agenda.

Even the state is getting involved, as the drag racing issue is apparently growing statewide. There is legislation filed for the new General Assembly to consider to tougher penalties.

METRO REFINANCING ITS DEBT…AGAIN

Not for the first time, Metro government is looking to refinance its bond debt. It is an area that the city has gotten a lot of criticism, as the overall amount of debt has skyrocketed.

Now with interest rates at, and likely to stay, near their lowest levels in years, Mayor John Cooper is presenting a package of legislation to be considered at the next meeting of the Metro Council in January.

The legislation would approve refinancing the city’s existing debt, so like many homeowners, taxpayers can save some money in interest. The Mayor is also asking Council approval for other changes that will allow the city to move ahead with already approved projects under better terms utilizing long term, low interest general obligation bonds, rather than use of commercial paper, which the city has maxed out.

As for the savings, Mayor Cooper estimates it could be more than $44.5 million over the next two decades. A mayoral news release adds; “The savings generated by this refinancing will allow Metro Government to prioritize other city needs, such as schools and emergency response, and create opportunity for neighborhood infrastructure investment.”

That is all true. But refinanced debt does not mean it goes away. The debt costs for interest are lower but the overall debt still needs to be paid. One of the earlier efforts when Metro refinanced, it avoided a property tax increase in the wake of the 2010 flood. But over time, the city didn’t prepare for the future, and with more projects needed and approved, the city got into a big problem with its finances, and with the state officials.

The good news for now is that Mayor Cooper says the proposed refinancing and other changes has led the national “independent ratings agencies Moody’s and S&P to improve Metro’s financial outlook from negative to stable.”

Along with getting its financial house more in order through the re-financing, the Cooper administration has been dealing with some sports related issues. Even as the facility begins to rise out of the grounds at the Fairgrounds, the revenue bonds were finally sold this week for the new MLS soccer stadium.

Getting the privately financed project finally underway in terms of funding, opens the way for Mayor Cooper to move to the Tennessee Titans and the future for that franchise, as well as Nissan Stadium and the area of the East Bank surrounding it.

After months of negotiations, the mayoral administration is soon going public to get its input on what is under consideration, including a privately funded redevelopment of the area around the stadium to make the East Bank more of a destination. Exactly what Metro’s financial commitment will be remains undisclosed, although at a minimum, the city will likely be funding infrastructure improvements.

The state legislature will need to be involved, possibly to extend or modify the use of the local sales tax dollars generated by the Titans development to help fund some of the improvements, including upgrades to the existing stadium.

SUDDENLY TENNESSEE NEEDS A NEW COMPTROLLER

If there is one top official in Tennessee state government whose department has built a national reputation for integrity and tough oversight of the finances of Tennessee’s local and state governments, it is the Office of the Comptroller, first under the leadership of Bill Snodgrass, and in recent years, Justin Wilson.

With the General Assembly about to come back to Nashville within weeks to begin a new session, Wilson has decided to retire and not seek a seventh term in office.

That leaves some big shoes for lawmakers to fill. Wilson thinks his deputy and former state lawmaker, Jason Mumpower, is the best person to succeed him. With the late word of Wilson’s departure, Mumpower clearly has an early leg up to win the post.

There has been some behind the scenes grumbling among GOP legislators and from the Lee administration that Wilson was not tough enough on Nashville during the city’s recent round of financial issues. But it is unclear what role that played in Wilson’s decision to step down. He has reportedly had some health issues and after a number of terms in office, he says this is the best time to transition from the office.

Even as he prepares to retire, the importance of Justin Wilson’s work can be seen in an audit report the Comptroller’s office released this week regarding the lack of required oversight of juveniles by the state Department of Children’ Services (DCS).

Justin Wilson didn’t do everything to help make Tennessee the most fiscally stable state in the nation, as reported by U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT. But he’s played a big part.

His leadership will be missed.

SOME GOOD NEWS

Despite all the challenges the state of Tennessee and Nashville continue to face, our ability to recruit corporate headquarters, especially from California, continues. Here is information announced this week about a biotechnology company coming to Nashville from Silicon Valley, making a $10 million investment and creating 150 jobs in the next 5 years.

In fact, it seems Nashville, in the wake of the pandemic, is among the top cities getting the largest number of relocations among folks looking to live in an area with a lower cost of living and a better quality of life.

LIVING IN DIFFERENT UNIVERSES

Our political polarization continues to the point where finding common ground on the facts concerning some issues is getting harder.

Here are a couple of examples.

This week, Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper joined with several environmental groups to release a congressional study that says that “over the next five decades nearly 80,000 premature deaths and almost 70,000 visits to the emergency room could be prevented in Tennessee” if President Donald Trump had not removed the United States from the Paris Climate agreement.

That is disputed by Republicans and others who say global climate change is a hoax and/or is not caused by humans. President-elect Joe Biden says he plans to re-enter the U.S. into the accord when he takes office next year.

This week another area of sharp opposition continued to emerge concerning the recent November election. A new poll conducted by Vanderbilt University found just 15% of Republicans in Tennessee believe Democrat Joe Biden won the U.S. Presidency legitimately. This comes despite the nation’s Electoral College voting in Biden’s favor this week, and numerous state and federal courts refusing to change the outcome of the election.

It seems, politically, we do live in different worlds, if not universes.

THE NEXT TWO WEEKS

This is my last column for 2020.

Look for my next Capitol View on Friday, January 8, 2021.

I have been doing this column since 2002.

Given the intensity and the relentless nature of the news this year, and the unprecedented historical significance of what has been happening, this has been the most difficult year I have experienced producing this weekly epistle.

I hope what I have written has been helpful. That it has not bored you to death, or made you feel like it was just too much, given the grim nature of a lot of it.

Best wishes to all for a great holiday season and for a blessed New Year in 2021!

We certainly need it.