A HISTORIC WEEK IN WASHINGTON AS THE DO-LIST FOR CONGRESS GROWS AND THE CONGRESSIONAL LAME DUCK SESSION LIMPS INTO DECEMBER; GOVERNOR BILL LEE AND TDOT OUTLINES A NEW TRANSPORTATION FUNDING PLAN; THE NEW TITAN DOMED STADIUM PROPOSAL APPROACHES A POTENTIALLY FATEFUL MONTH; A NEW NASHVILLE NINE IS ISSUED EVEN AS SOME HISTORIC BUILDINGS IN NASHVILLE ARE FINDING NEW LIFE; RALPH SCHULZ OF THE NASHVILLE CHAMBER JOINS INSIDE POLITICS TO LOOK AT THE AREA’S ECONOMY IN 2022 AND FORWARD TO 2023
A HISTORIC WEEK IN WASHINGTON AS THE DO-LIST FOR CONGRESS GROWS AND THE CONGRESSIONAL LAME DUCK SESSION LIMPS INTO DECEMBER
With bi-partisan support, the U.S. Senate voted 61-36 this week to give its final approval to the RESPECT FOR MARRIAGE ACT. The measure would enshrine same-sex and interracial marriage into federal law.
The vote is historic as a sign of how public opinion and political support have changed in recent years on the issue, especially after a Supreme Court ruling, which is much of what is now soon to be included in the federal code.
The measure had been expected to pass before Thanksgiving, but to ensure the 12 votes from Republican Senators, a religious freedom amendment was added. The bill still needs to go back to the House for its final OK, which is expected sometime in December.
Both of Tennessee Senators, Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, voted against the bill. They, along with some religious leaders don’t feel the religious freedom protections are strong enough.
A somewhat late, but not unexpected, item was added to Congress’ lame duck agenda. After the Biden administration brokered a deal back in the fall to avoid a nationwide rail strike, the agreement fell apart when 4 of the 12 rail unions rejected the contract.
A potential rail strike is now possible as early as next Friday (December 9). Such a strike would cripple the American economy and the supply chain. Invoking powers the federal government has used multiple times over the years, President Biden this week asked Congress to pass legislation to impose the earlier settlement. The House did so on Tuesday by a narrow, but a bi-partisan vote of 221-207.
The lower chamber also passed a second bill adding to the agreement six more days of mandatory sick leave. This has been the biggest bone of contention in the rail labor dispute.
For most of Thursday, what would happen to stop the strike was totally up to Senate, where it seemed unclear which bill(s) would pass. Late Thursday, the Senate defeated the sick leave by voting to use the filibuster. Then the bill to impose the original rail settlement passed by the Senate overwhelmingly.
The bill now goes to President Biden for his signature. This action by the Democratically-controlled Congress and the Biden administration is bound to strain the usually warm relations with organized labor, and in particular the rail unions. But I guess just as there are companies and industries “too big to be allowed to fail,” I guess that also applies to being too large to strike. However, the draconian sick leave policies of today’s railroad barons seem out of step with the rest of American industries and seem like the 19th rather than the 21st Century.
Speaking to the overall American economy, the November jobs report is due out today (Friday). But it won’t be available until after this column is published. Even though sometimes the speculation about what the job report will say turns out to be wrong, the current morning line says job growth will show more signs of slowing, which could be good news to lessen future interest rate hikes.
Meanwhile, in a welcome relief, gas prices are declining just in time for holiday travel. The cost at the pump is now lower than it was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Back in Washington this week both parties in the House continued to put together their leadership teams for the new session, set to begin in January under Republican control. With Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first and only woman to serve in her post, stepping down from leadership after nearly 20 years, the rest of her leadership stepped aside with her. That opened the door for another historic choice by the Democratic Caucus, to select the first African American to lead his party in Congress, Representative Hakeem Jefferies.
On the Republican side, with a much smaller majority than expected, the GOP House Caucus nominee to be the next Speaker of the House, Representative Kevin McCarthy, continues to struggle finding the votes he will need on the floor of the full House in January to win the top role in the lower chamber.
Meanwhile, in the final days of Democratic control, the House Ways & Means Committee has finally prevailed in a three-year-long legal battle to obtain the tax returns of former President Donald Trump. These are documents that sought after and highly speculated about since Mr. Trump began his first race for the White House over seven years ago.
So what will the committee do with documents and the information the group gleans from them in the next few weeks, especially since some claim releasing an individual taxpayer’s return may be illegal?
Late Thursday, President Trump suffered another legal blow when an appeals court ruled that the appointment of a special master after the search of former President Donald Trump’s Florida home was improper. The judges also determined that a lower court could not block the Justice Department’s investigation into the mishandling of records at Mar-a-Lago.
GOVERNOR BILL LEE AND TDOT OUTLINES A NEW TRANSPORTATION FUNDING PLAN
After making solving the state’s growing traffic congestion and infrastructure issues one of his top priorities in his re-election victory speech on Election Night November 8, details of what his administration will propose to the new General Assembly, were announced this week.
The Governor made it clear he would try to fund his roads and infrastructure program without raising taxes or having the state issue bonds and go into long term debt.
One of his proposals would be public-private partnerships or privatizing at least the construction and operation of new “choice lanes” to be built around areas of traffic congestion. Drivers would pay to drive in these choice lanes with the fee varying according to time of day and level of road congestion. An appointed state commission would set those fees. The Lee administration says these types of “choice” or toll lanes exist around the nation in cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
But don’t be surprised if some don’t label the Governor’s proposal as a kind of a new tax on motorists with the choice lanes really being toll roads, which the state has resisted for years after allowing controversial privately owned ones in the late 19th Century.
There are indications there are other details to come about the plan. Good. There is so far no mention of mass transit in addressing traffic congestion. That’s an oversight that is bound to be questioned if transit continues to be missing in action in this proposal.
The privatization issue may also come under increased scrutiny as Deputy Governor Butch Eley founded Nashville-based Infrastructure Corporation of America in 1998 and was CEO of the company for nearly two decades.
As the point person on this plan, Eley will need to be mindful of potential conflict of interest concerns if he still has any financial holdings in his former company or the firm seeks to become a major player in these public-private partnerships.
Finding ways to charge all types of vehicles equally in paying for our roads is also part of the plan. Electric vehicles currently pay a $100 annual fee to drive on Tennessee roads while officials estimate gas-powered vehicles pay an average of about $300 in combined state and federal fuel taxes.
This is going to be an ongoing source of concern and controversy in the next few years as the major automotive companies are quickly moving away from gas-operated vehicles to electric cars and trucks. That is good for Tennessee as the state is attracting plants and new jobs to build these new electric vehicles in our state as well as manufacture the batteries and other items needed for this new technology.
When this massive transportation transition happens, Tennessee won’t be able to fund roads and bridges with a gas tax anymore. Obviously, Governor Lee sees the future of road infrastructure as public-private partnerships and “choice lanes.” If you think you have heard this before in the Governor’s strong support for charter schools and education scholarships and vouchers, well, the language being used is sure the same.
What will state lawmakers think when they receive the Governor’s plan after they come to Nashville for the new legislative session in January?
Speaking of education and the General Assembly Governor Lee got some more good news over Thanksgiving when a three-judge Appeals Court moved to dismiss a lawsuit from Memphis and Nashville officials, seeking to have the pilot program of school vouchers, now underway in Memphis and Nashville, declared unconstitutional.
There is no word if the verdict will be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court but those justices have already upheld the program’s constitutionality on different grounds.
Given these successes, how long will it be before the Lee administration seeks to expand the voucher program? Will they go statewide at once? Or slowly phase the program in the next 2-3 years?
THE NEW TITAN DOMED STADIUM PROPOSAL APPROACHES A POTENTIALLY FATEFUL MONTH
While the Metro Council is still holding public hearings throughout the community gauging support (or lack thereof) for the new $2.1 billion roofed stadium for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, there is a persistent, and perhaps effective (?), endorsement campaign from various segments of the community and others who support the idea.
Among the most recent signs of this is a letter of support sent to Metro Council members from legendary musical superstar Garth Brooks.
Others adding their support in recent weeks include the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the owners of the WWE’s Wrestlemania. They say they will bring their mega event to Nashville almost as soon as it opens in 2027.
There are also indications that if the new stadium is built, the Titans want to host the annual Tennessee high school football championship games each year. What high school player in our state wouldn’t dream of playing in a pro football facility?
Mayor John Cooper and the Titans have already announced providing $15 million in funds to help Nashville’s local high schools upgrade their athletic facilities IF the new stadium becomes a reality.
Another sharp observer points out to me that the Titans, on their own, have reached out to help and support influential nonprofits and other groups throughout the area.
But some Councilmembers still want to know what the city is obligated to do to keep the current Nissan Stadium in top condition. An outside study the Council approved last summer did not provide answers they say. Now the Metro Finance Department has issued another report about what the city can do with its current resources (not including the $500 million from the state for the stadium roof or the 1% increase in the hotel-motel tax to help fund construction) to renovate the current facility.
The report has a lot of numbers and it seems a bit wonky. The problem is will Titan agree to just the renovations or would that proposal endanger the city’s relationship with the club? Remember the then Houston Oilers came to Nashville in the 1990s after becoming unhappy with conditions in the Astrodome, the facility where it played in that Texas city.
The Finance department report also mentions issuing a new general obligation bond for the renovation, which could be subject to a public referendum. That also occurred when the NFL team moved here in the late 1990s. The current new stadium plans use revenue bonds which are not subject to referendum efforts.
December seems to be shaping up as a potentially critical month for the project. One needed city approval, came as expected, on Thursday from the Metro Sports Authority.
We may get a temperature check on where the Council is at its next meeting Tuesday night (December 6). That’s when the ordinance to increase the room tax is up on second reading after being deferred for study a few weeks ago. There is also a resolution, requiring just a single vote for approval. The resolution would approve a non-binding a term sheet describing the terms and conditions of the agreements and transactions required to finance, construct, and operate the new, enclosed multi-purpose stadium on the East Bank. This is what the Sports Authority just approved. The Council has deferred this bill before, being uncomfortable approving even a non-binding resolution on this topic. An amendment has been drafted to make the non-binding nature of this term sheet even more clear. But is the Council now ready to approve it now?
A NEW NASHVILLE NINE IS ISSUED EVEN AS SOME HISTORIC BUILDINGS IN NASHVILLE ARE FINDING NEW LIFE
Historic Nashville is a non-profit organization that has done a lot to raise awareness about the challenges we face in losing our historic buildings.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I was a member of and chairman of the board of the group way back in the mid- 1980s.
One ongoing effort Historic Nashville has done for many years is to publish annually a list of the Nashville Nine: a group of buildings in danger of being lost unless something happens to preserve them.
Here is the latest list for 2022 that came out this week.
I wrote at length in my last column about the changing nature of the built environment on Elliston Place where I have spent so many years of my life. The intense redevelopment pressures are not just on Nashville’s Rock Block but throughout our neighborhoods and downtown.
That includes the old YWCA building on 7th Avenue North. Again, I have a personal involvement here as well. It is where I spent well over a decade there in the 1990s and 2000s when my employer Dye, Man Vol & Lawrence Public Relations had its offices in the building.
In recent years, the building has been mostly vacant, and, surrounded by parking lot and garages, it looked like a possible candidate for demolition. But now it appears it has been remodeled into a multi-family apartment complex.
There is also new life for the historic Neuhoff packing plant complex along the Cumberland River near Germantown. Again, this warms my heart, as a previous owner was Steve McRedmond, a classmate of mine at Father Ryan High School. Steve had the foresight to use his will to protect the property before his tragic and untimely death.
RALPH SCHULZ OF THE NASHVILLE CHAMBER JOINS INSIDE POLITICS TO LOOK AT THE AREA’S ECONOMY IN 2022 AND FORWARD TO 2023
As we approach the end of every year, we try to devote one of our INSIDE POLITICS programs to look back at the local economy…how we did in Nashville and the surrounding area in 2022….and what the outlook is for 2023?
Nobody can speak to that better than Ralph Schulz, the President & CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
We thank Ralph for joining us again.
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