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Capitol View commentary: Friday, February 19, 2021

Capitol View
Posted at 11:07 AM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-19 12:07:39-05

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

February 19, 2021

ANOTHER VIRUS RERUN WEEK: COVID-19 DECLINES AGAIN, VACCINE SHOTS AND DOSAGES SLOWLY INCREASE, WHILE MORE VARIANTS LOOM; COVID RELIEF BILL EFFORTS REFOCUS; THE BATTLE OVER THE FUTURE OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY; TENNESSEE LT. GOVERNOR RANDY MCNALLY ON INSIDE POLITICS; VOTING CHANGE EFFORTS IN TENNESSEE; DOLLY SAYS NOT NOW; SPORTS BETTING ON BORROWED MONEY; DIVERSITY AND WATER ISSUES AT THE METRO COURTHOUSE

ANOTHER VIRUS RERUN WEEK: COVID-19 DECLINES AGAIN, VACCINE SHOTS AND DOSAGES SLOWLY INCREASE, WHILE MORE VARIANTS LOOM

Maybe that light at the end of our long dark pandemic tunnel is getting closer and a little brighter. Or maybe not.

This week again, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, even deaths are continuing to decline. It appears to be happening for several reasons.

Across Tennessee and here in Nashville, the number of active and new virus cases continues to decline. In Metro, active cases on Thursday was the lowest since November and the new case numbers have been down below 100 in recent days. Deaths also seem to be declining. But with testing sites closed or having limited hours due to the bad weather, it is not clear how accurate the virus numbers are until we see what happens when the weather improves.

Remember the nation is about to pass another grim milestone of half a million deaths in the next week or so and officials at the Centers for Disease Control project the death toll could be up to 540,000 by March 6. Tennessee passed the 11,000 mark for deaths this week.

In some good news, virus vaccinations continue to rise while the supply of the vaccines remains scarce if slowly improving. But major inequities remain.

Mother Nature is playing a part in slowing down the vaccine rollout due to the major winter storms sweeping the nation. The delays include here in Nashville. In fact, faced with 400 doses about to go bad without immediate use, despite the bad weather, Metro Health officials organized pop up clinics to use the serum to give shots to the homeless at the Nashville Rescue Mission, the Room in the Inn and to some on the city’s stand-by list for shots.

The big cloud still looming about the future of the virus is the number of variants cropping up including a number now showing up in the U.S. to join those already spreading here from overseas.

The overall impact of COVID-19 continues to be assessed. That includes this latest study that finds just the first wave of the disease last spring has led to cutting a full year off the life expectancy of Americans.

In Tennessee (outside the major cities such as Nashville and Memphis or those with their own health departments) the state will soon be lowering the vaccine eligibility age to those over 65 along with teachers and child care workers and others. Nashville is still giving shots to those over 70 as well as teachers and day care employees.

The state now says it has given at least one vaccine shot to over 10% of the state’s population. It appears 5% are fully vaccinated. Here’s an NPR vaccine tracker to see how we are doing based on the percentage of population vaccinated (middle of the pack) as well as how efficient the state is in using its dosages (88%).

In the area of education, just as Nashville public schools began to continue its return to in person classes, the back to back ice/snow storms that hit the city this week has delayed that effort.

The return to in person classes remains a hot button topic across the country. It led the new Biden administration this week to make a major shift on how it defines success in that effort.

Republicans see an issue and opportunity they can exploit here.

COVID RELIEF BILL EFFORTS REFOCUS

Even last week when Washington and the nation was engrossed in the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, committee work continued in committees in the U.S. House on President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

Here is where things stand with the final bill likely on the House floor for a vote next week. The goal is to get the legislation passed in both houses within the next two weeks.

Raising the minimum wage to $15 dollars per hour is perhaps the most controversial piece of the virus relief bill. The projected loss of jobs and what the increase will add to the budget deficit are particular issues, although an announcement this week by a major employer (Walmart) could be a boost for the Biden team.

Trying to move forward on several policy fronts in his first 100 days in office, the Biden administration on Thursday outlined the President’s plan to address the nation’s broken immigration system. This will be harder to pass in Congress than the virus relief bill. That is because the measure will need 60 votes in the Senate (at least 10 Republicans) to overcome the filibuster rules. Already some GOP Senators, who championed the last major effort to address immigration issues back in 2013, are not on board this time.

In another policy move that is not directly tied to the virus relief effort and could possibly be done by executive order, Mr. Biden and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party seem to be increasingly at odds over how much should be done to forgive student loan debt. It’s an impediment that restricts many young people trying to start their professional lives.

THE BATTLE OVER THE FUTURE OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY

The outcome that former President Donald Trump would be acquitted a second time in his Senate impeachment trial is no surprise, but the verdict seems to have only increased the intra-party rancor among Republicans, particularly between the GOP’s two major leaders, Mr. Trump and now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

First, McConnell sought to explain his vote to acquit the former President but attacked him sharply at the same time.

While he still cannot use his Twitter account, Mr. Trump came back hard against the Kentucky lawmaker.

Late in the week on Thursday, Utah Republican Senator and former GOP Presidential nominee (2012), Mitt Romney jumped into the fray.

The attacks are not just between top party leaders. Many of those GOP House and Senate members who voted in favor of the President’s impeachment or for his conviction are now being sharply criticized, even censured, by their home state Republican parties.

To further outline the rift in the party, some Senators are criticizing the censure moves against their congressional colleagues.

It is just one poll. but among voters this survey shows Senator McConnell may not be approaching his fight with the former President with a strong base at home.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham seems to be trying to play mediator with former President Trump to help begin to bridge the schism.

There also appear to be potential downsides as well for former President Trump in picking this fight with McConnell and others.

The former President also appears to be facing a slew of potential legal issues now that he is out of office.

But there are those who still believe Mr. Trump will be back as President by March, and he will be followed into the Oval Office by two future Presidents named Trump.

There are also Democrats and a few Republicans who are still looking for way to ban the former President from seeking office in the future.

It seems fair to say, that the outlook looks rocky and somewhat uncertain as Republicans seek to find their political path going forward.

Here in Tennessee, the GOP seems to remain solidly behind former President Trump although there is now an effort (that already seems unsuccessful) to get the state’s congressional delegation to repudiate Mr. Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election.

TENNESSEE LT. GOVERNOR RANDY MCNALLY ON INSIDE POLITICS

The winter weather made it difficult this past week, but the 112th Tennessee General Assembly is trying to get down to its work for the year.

Along with its annual duty to pass a new budget for the state, there are always plenty of issues to sort through.

A key player in all this on the Hill, is the Speaker of the State Senate, Lt. Governor Randy McNally.

He is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

We welcome back to the program and appreciate him joining us!

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.

NOTE: The program will look a bit different this week. I have not had a in-studio guest on INSIDE POLITICS since the pandemic began last spring. This week I join my guest, Lt. Governor McNally, with both of us appearing by remote.

Through the wonders of TV and technology it worked. Watch us!

VOTING CHANGE EFFORTS IN TENNESSEE

As far as I can tell, there were no issues with the way Tennessee conducted its elections in 2020.

Regardless, as a part of an apparent nationwide Republican effort to “reform” our voting system to guard against fraud, there are some bills being filed in the Tennessee General Assembly that are borderline crazy.

Fingerprint voters? Eliminate all Early Voting? Really??!! How about voter suppression as the real motivation behind these stupid and unnecessary bills.

DOLLY SAYS NOT NOW

The growing push in the Tennessee Legislature, and across the state, to erect a statue of music superstar and philanthropist Dolly Parton on Capitol Hill here in Nashville, has been stopped in its tracks, by Parton herself. She says it is not “appropriate at this time.”

But she did not rule it out it in the future. Given how controversial statues have become, Parton may be wise. The controversy over moving the bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest out of the Tennessee State Capitol was postponed this week, because weather issues delayed a meeting of the Tennessee Historical Commission. Ms. Parton has also declined, more than once, accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in part because of her concern about becoming involved in politics.

SPORTS BETTING ON BORROWED MONEY

Tennessee’s new on- line sports gambling program has been acclaimed as a great success due to the record amount of money it is generating. But this article seems to indicate there is at least one part of the sports gambling enabling legislation that may need a second look by lawmakers.

DIVERSITY AND WATER ISSUES AT THE METRO COURTHOUSE

It is an issue that has been simmering for months at the Metro Courthouse.

The Metro Council’s Black Caucus has been pushing Mayor John Cooper to appoint more diversity to the multitude of volunteer boards and commissions the city has.

Now a year plus on the job, the Mayor’s office thinks they have been doing a good job on that compared to previous administrations. The minority members in the Council are not convinced.

On a very cold Tuesday night in Nashville this week, when the Council was meeting virtually, not only due to the virus, but also the snow- covered streets in our city, the issue boiled over on- line during a nearly three- hour plus floor debate.

There have been two recent appointment opportunities for the Mayor to the city’s five- member Fair Board. It is pa group that is presently all-white. When Mayor Cooper recommended Dr. Sheri Weiner be reappointed to a new 5 -year term on the board, Caucus members sought the floor to try and defer, then indefinitely defer, her confirmation.

No one spoke against Sheri Weiner. As a Fair Board member over recent months, all who spoke said she has done a good job. Dr. Weiner indeed has had a distinguished career in Metro government, serving as a district councilmember from Bellevue and briefly as Vice Mayor.

The efforts to delay her confirmation was about sending a message some Councilmembers are tired of being told to wait until next time for their diversity suggestions for city board members are nominated.

It happened again Tuesday night. Following Dr. Wiener’s ultimate confirmation by a 31-9 vote by the Council, the next board appointment on the agenda was for St. Thomas hospital Executive Michelle Robertson to serve on the city’s Hospital Authority.

That would be a blatant conflict of interest said Council Black Caucus members and others, as another hour’s debate ensured. Again, no one spoke against Ms. Robertson’s appointment or her qualifications. Some just felt her serving on a board overseeing the city’s General Hospital, while working for a competing health care facility was a conflict. Officials from the Mayor’s office said it was not a conflict with similar private health care officials performing the same service in other communities.

This time the vote to confirm was much closer (21-19), with some Council members again unhappy a nomination they sent to the Mayor was ignored. The Mayor’s staff says the recommendation came a week late, after the deadline to send the appointment to the Council had passed.

I mentioned another pending appointment to the Fair Board. Apparently behind the scenes conversations have gone on so long about the post, the Mayor’s power to make a nomination under the Metro Charter has expired. It is now up to Vice Mayor Jim Schulman to make the pick. He told the Council he will soon announce his choice, to be considered at the next Council meeting on March 2. Schulman says he will nominate a diverse candidate for the post.

This kind of conflict over appointments is rare in Metro. The question is: Is it about to be over, or has it only just begun?

There is another issue looming in the Council over water rates. Those were raised substantially in 2019 after pressure from the state which said the city’s water sewer system was so broke the state was about to take it over. As a part of the new rate structure, an annual PILOT payment from the Water Department to Metro was instituted.

A PILOT stands for “payment in lieu of taxes”. Many utilities such as NES pay a PILOT based on the value of their properties and equipment. Some Councilmembers felt the water PILOT was snuck into the rate bill and, despite questions being asked, it was not explained.

When customers began to complain about the higher rates (which will continue into future years) some Councilmembers were also irked that Water officials sent out notices that the rate hikes were mandated by the Council.

That led to a bill being introduced to cut the PILOT by $10 million which would reduce customers’ monthly bills by about 5 cents off the base water rate. In an unusual move, the PILOT reduction bill was deferred before it even passed first reading. That move is supposedly to work out details and questions with city finance officials. Stay tuned. Watch this space and story.