By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst
February 4, 2022
$1 BILLION IN NEW SCHOOL FUNDS AND MORE BUT NOT A WORD ON COVID; MORE SCHOOL BOOK ISSUES LIE AHEAD?; TENNESSEE STATE BEGINS TO GET ITS FINANCIAL DUE?; FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY THE TENNESSEE STATE SENATE EXPELS A MEMBER; A NIGHT OF TENSION AND CONTROVERSY IN THE METRO COUNCIL OVER POLICE RELATED ISSUES; A BUSY WEEK IN MAYOR JOHN COOPER’S OFFICE; MORE ON TENNESSEE’S DEVELOPING 5th DISTRICT CONGRESSIONAL RACE; THE ONE THING SOME REPUBLICANS FEAR COULD KEEP THEM FROM RETAKING CONGRESS; WHEN A SENATE MAJORITY IS NO LONGER A MAJORITY; THE LATEST ON THE VIRUS; NO NEW INSIDE POLITICS SHOW THIS WEEK; NASHVILLE HISTORIAN DAVID EWING APPEARS NEXT WEEK
$1 BILLION IN NEW SCHOOL FUNDS AND MORE BUT NOT A WORD ON COVID
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee gave his annual State of the State Address to the Republican-dominated General Assembly and a statewide TV audience Monday night.
It was his fourth such address since taking office in 2019. Looking to be re-elected this November to give four more such annual speeches, the Governor filled his latest speech with what he and his administration believe are winning ideas and results to keep the Governor in office.
The two loudest and longest applause lines (with standing ovations) during the speech promised $1 billion dollars in new funding for K-12 public schools along with $125 million more for teacher pay raises. The Governor says he can do that with a budget that does not “cost one more penny in taxes.”
But the question remains: Where will all that new school money go and who will get it? After spending several months in a statewide effort to seek public input on how to change a three-decades-old school funding formula (which the state has been defending in the courts about that long), the details of the new plan remained a mystery until late Thursday as the administration continues to put the final touches on whatever it plans to send to the Legislature to approve. The critical details already released of the new formula are still being digested.
We do know the name of the new formula. It is called the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement with the final legislation to be sent to the General Assembly by the middle of this month.
In his speech, the Governor did say the new formula would “prioritize the needs of students above all else and…(would) pay particular attention to students with disabilities, rural students, low-income students and students with priority needs.” Note he makes no specific mention of the needs of urban students or those who are English Language learners. But the administration says those special factors are part of the formula but the details of how remain unclear. The Governor also said the money would be set aside “for each student based on their individual needs” and would be “used in whatever public school they attend.”
Does that mean no vouchers, even if the new money follows the individual needs of each student? The Governor on Thursday said vouchers will not be involved.
Perhaps hoping, but maybe not expecting quick approval by lawmakers, the Governor does not plan to put the new formula into place until fiscal year 2024 (which begins July 1, 2023). In the meantime, the Governor is recommending $750,000 of the state’s new education funds be used in this coming year for one-time projects. That includes $200 million “to ensure no student in Tennessee attends a public school in a flood zone.”
The terrible recent flood in Waverly that destroyed three schools drove this decision. It will be impacting 14 schools statewide. Fortunately, the flood in Humphreys County happened on a Saturday when schools were closed and there was no loss of life. But you would think state and local school officials would have long ago addressed this kind of serious safety issue or never built or operated a school in a flood zone in the first place. Better late than never, I guess. However, there are already concerns the $250 million is not enough to do the job.
Like any “State of” Address, the Governor mentioned a laundry of things his administration has accomplished and plans to do this year. But in the area of infrastructure, which was one of his major focuses in the address, the projects and funding he mentioned all seem to come from the state gas tax increase approved during the Haslam administration. I did not see or hear any mention of the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds coming to Tennessee out of the recently passed bi-partisan infrastructure law approved by Congress at the request of the Biden administration. I also did not see or hear any mention of how the state is spending the billions of dollars Tennessee has received from the American Rescue Act approved by the Democrats in Congress as proposed by President Biden
Maybe for some reason, that didn’t fit well into the overall theme of the Governor’s speech. That comes from a resolution passed by the Legislature way back in 1965. The resolution adopted as the state’s slogan: “Tennessee---America at Its Best.”
Another rather surprising, and I think, rather glaring omission from the Governor’s speech…there was not a single word about the pandemic still raging across the state for now nearly two years. COVID-19 is the worst public health crisis this state and nation has endured in over a century, yet not a word about from the state’s top elected leader concerning the jobs lost, the lives disrupted, the health care system stretched beyond the breaking point, those who spent days and months in the hospital and the many thousands of Tennesseans who have died.
"There are over 22,000 people who have lost their lives to this pandemic, to this particular disease, to this virus," House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie said. "We talked about a lot of government overreach and civil liberties, but the most important thing he needed to talk about today is our COVID response and how we keep each and every one of us safe."
Yes, the Governor did thank “nurses and other health care workers who have cared for the sick” and praised the Tennessee National Guard for meeting and doing their job “under worst circumstances.” But those are words of well-deserved praise for these hard-working folks that are true every year and to be so non-specific about it seems like a clear evasion of the topic of the virus. If Governor wanted to say as little as possible or nearly nothing, a moment of silence to honor those Tennesseans who have died during the pandemic and the families they left behind might have been a good idea.
By his actions, Governor Lee has been showing for months he is done with the virus. Now his words (or lack thereof) show he is completely AWOL in terms of ongoing leadership on this issue.
MORE SCHOOL BOOK ISSUES LIE AHEAD?
Across the country, Republican governors have been pushing a new war on behalf of some parents and conservative groups about what they consider inappropriate library materials and school textbooks. The new GOP governor of Virginia has set up a hotline for parents to call and complain.
In Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State remarks, he added some potential fuel to the fire in the Volunteer State.
He indicated that in his legislative package this year, he will ask the General Assembly to pass “a new law that will ensure parents know what materials are available to students in their libraries. This law will also create greater accountability at the local level, so parents are empowered to make sure content is age-appropriate.”
With the school board in McMinn County already removing a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Holocaust from one of its reading lists, are more controversies just ahead across the state, including in Williamson County?
By the way, the controversy in McMinn County continues to generate news stories across the country and it has put the book in question, “MAUS,” back on the bestseller lists.
TENNESSEE STATE BEGINS TO GET ITS FINANCIAL DUE?
Governor did not mention this in his speech when he announced $250 million in new capital funds for improvements on the campus of Tennessee State University here in Nashville.
You might remember it was disclosed a few months ago, that for decades, TSU had not been receiving the federal funds it should have received for being a land grant university. The state did pass those funds through to the University of Tennessee, but not to Tennessee State.
Are these new, long overdue capital funds a way to begin to give TSU what it should have already received over the years?
As for K-12 education in the Legislature this week, wiser and calmer heads prevailed to help lawmakers resist their ongoing temptation for the General Assembly to become a giant school board for the entire state. In a bipartisan vote, a major committee in the House rejected a potentially “draconian” measure. The bill, which some labeled ‘the nuclear option” would have approved a complete takeover of entire school systems based on the performance of just a few of its schools.
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY THE TENNESSEE STATE SENATE EXPELS A MEMBER
The Tennessee State Constitution makes it clear the Tennessee State Senate is the sole judge of who should be its members. On Wednesday of this week, the current State Senate exercised that power for what appears to be the first time in state history (or at least since the Civil War).
On a party-line vote, 27 Republicans and 5 Democrats in the Senate expelled Katrina Robinson, an African American woman representing Memphis. The ouster followed her recent conviction on federal wire fraud charges. Robinson says she is innocent, and she should not be removed while she is continuing to appeal her felony conviction.
Her pleas fell on deaf ears even as she charged her ouster as racist and misogynistic and called the expulsion a "procedural lynching." Republican leaders say the Memphis Senator has been given due process including some time to appeal. By the way, there was a move on the Senate floor to postpone action during the Senator’s appeals, but according to the MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL, the effort failed in a tie vote. Nashville State Senator Brenda Gilmore was not present to vote due to illness.
As for reaction in Memphis, the COMMERCIAL APPEAL reports: “Some Memphis elected officials expressed dismay at the vote and attributed her expulsion to the double-standard that exists for Black politicians in Tennessee, particularly women.
"Often in all different levels of [government] — city, state, federal — Black women are treated with a different level of respect; a different level of disrespect; a different level of decorum; a different level of standards than white males are … There are too many examples for us to point to. Sadly, this is another one," said Michalyn Easter-Thomas, a Memphis City Councilwoman and member of the Shelby County Democratic Party.”
It will be up to the Shelby County Commission to appoint a replacement to Robinson's seat, although some officials want that move to be postponed until Senator Robinson’s appeals are complete. Others say the seat should be filled to make sure Shelby County residents are fully represented in the General Assembly.
A NIGHT OF TENSION AND CONTROVERSY IN THE METRO COUNCIL OVER POLICE-RELATED ISSUES
You could feel the tension in the air even before the Metro Council meeting began Tuesday night.
For well over a year, the 40-member body has been deadlocked over whether Nashville should allow its police department to use license plate readers (LPRs) as a crime-fighting tool. Some said it would help recover stolen cars, a major issue in Nashville, and help find missing persons, especially children. Lots of surrounding towns and cities already use this technology.
Opponents raised privacy and racial profiling issues. They are also concerned that facial recognition data could be captured by ICE and other government agencies. Several bills had failed to pass. Tuesday night the latest measure with 13 co-sponsors was pending third and final reading. It had received 22 votes for its second reading approval. That number is critical because the measure needed at least 21 votes for its third and final approval.
After an hour’s debate, the votes for passage were held as the LPR bill was approved 22-14-1. Even though no amendments are allowed on third reading, the debate was prolonged. Four times there were efforts to end debate to hold a final vote, but the efforts failed as more Council members wanted to speak and state their position on the bill. Finally, the previous question did prevail, and the final vote was cast.
The measure which sets up a six-month pilot program (using rental LPR equipment), is likely to begin later in the spring, although opponents say they still want to stop it. It would seem hard for that to happen since Mayor John Cooper supports the measure and is likely to sign the bill, not veto it. An effort could be mounted to repeal or significantly amend the measure, but that would take at least 6 weeks to work its way through the Council.
Still, the division over this measure has been remarkable both inside Metro government and in the community. In addition to Mayor Cooper, supporters include Police Chief John Drake and the Director of Metro’s new Transportation Department. Opponents include Metro’s Public Defender, the city’s Community Oversight Review Board and a slew of national (ACLU, NAACP) and local community groups (Asian and Pacific Islanders of Middle Tennessee, Black Lives Matter Nashville, the Black Nashville Assembly, Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, Workers’ Dignity, the American Muslim Advisory Council and Walk Bike Nashville among others.)
The six-month pilot program use of LPRs is bound to generate lots of data. By the way, Metro Police say they won’t use it to enforce traffic laws. But I doubt the outcome of the test period will end the controversy. This issue looks to have a long politically radioactive half-life with the Metro Council and mayoral elections set for August of next year.
Another police-related issue also roiled the Council Tuesday. The issue was the latest in a rash of officer-related shootings that occurred last week. That’s when 37-year-old Landon Estep was killed after nine law enforcement officers (including six Metro police) shot him during a standoff on I-65 that closed at least part of the interstate for a time. Estep was not armed with a gun but was shot after pulling out a metal object which has still not been identified, except to say I was not a gun.
This incident has many of the earmarks of a situation where the assistance of a mental health professional might have avoided a tragedy. The Council last year approved a pilot program to do that. But that assistance is available only in a few precincts and was not utilized in this I-65 situation, leading to frustration from Mayor Cooper and council members.
That frustration came to the fore Tuesday night when the Council considered a contract with a firm to provide equipment and supplies for taser guns. Those weapons are also seen as a way to de-escalate tense police situations without the use of firearms. Tasers were apparently available, but not used in the I-65 shooting. There are those who are not supportive of tasers and there was a motion to delay approval of the taser contract for two meetings until the TBI concludes its investigation of the shooting and Metro Police review its use of lethal force. That effort was quickly tabled, a parliamentary move used only rarely. Similar efforts to delay the vote for one meeting or indefinitely were either disallowed under the rules or tabled. The contract was ultimately approved 24-3-9. The nine abstentions and three no votes seem to send a signal a significant part of the Council has issues with Metro Police.
In the meantime, even as the shooting investigation continues, at least one Metro officer has been stripped of his police powers and the resting place on routine administrative leave.
A BUSY WEEK IN MAYOR JOHN COOPER’S OFFICE
This week Mayor John Cooper took action on a couple of key issues, climate change and homelessness while trying to slowly piece back together Metro’s broken solid waste and recycling collection program.
Within hours after the Council approved a resolution requesting action, Mayor Cooper announced the city will seek to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the year 2050. The reductions are based on Metro’s emission level in 2014.
In terms of homelessness, Mayor Cooper announced a new landlord incentive program. Participating landlords and property owners are encouraged to lower or relax their housing qualifications that often prevent those experiencing homelessness from finding stable housing. Those barriers include but are not limited to criminal history, previous evictions and low-income status.
The new initiative being announced is called the Low Barrier Housing Collective. It offers a monetary incentive for Nashville landlords and property owners so more doors can be opened to those unsheltered. Additionally, this program offers financial insurance for participants.
The program has already had a soft launch. The effort has already seen some success. In recent months, the number of participating landlords and property owners has jumped from 70 to a little more than 100. In that same time frame, the owners of 2,045 units have agreed to relax their qualification criteria.
In terms of solid waste and recycling collections, the Urban Service District program to pick up recyclables once a month restarted February 1 after a 6-week hiatus to deal with staffing and equipment issues. My recyclables got picked up on schedule…and just in time. We were running out of creative places to store them.
As for my weekly trash pickup, it was after dark before that happened which may be a sign that problems remain for Metro Water Services officials after the collection services were transferred to them from Public Works when the new Metro Department of Transportation was created a few months ago.
Mayor Cooper has said he hopes to soon implement twice-a-month recycling pickups, a service improvement the Metro Council funded in the budget last June. But with trash collection issues still not resolved, you have to wonder when that increased recycling effort will get started.
MORE ON TENNESSEE’S DEVELOPING 5th DISTRICT CONGRESSIONAL RACE
As far as I can tell, no new candidates have jumped into the new 5th District congressional race and those already in the contest seemed to have been quiet in the media this week. The same seems to be true in the new 6th and 7th District races which also include Davidson County, and where GOP incumbents John Rose and Mark Green appear to be heavy favorites to win.
There has been an article in ROLLING STONE about Kid Rock being urged to get into the 5thDistrict GOP primary. That might even further enliven a contest that already is enflamed by a continuing revolt in MAGA world opposing former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of a candidate who still hasn’t indicated she plans to run.
Some candidates may be waiting for Governor Bill Lee to sign the bill his Republican legislative colleagues rammed through the General Assembly without even a public hearing on the final plan. But the Governor’s signature is just a legal formality.
There is still a lot being written in the media about the new Tennessee congressional redistricting plan including a critical op-ed article in NEW YORK MAGAZINE focusing on the developing “carpetbagger” image of the GOP primary contest.
Because the new redistricting plan has led long-time Nashville Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper to retire and drop his re-election plans, some of the local and national coverage has had a funereal tone to it. Take this op-ed in THE NEW YORK TIMES.
Even Congressman Cooper himself has written an obituary about, it. He says it is not about him but the death of Nashville’s political life.
I certainly understand and sympathize with those unhappy that Congressman Cooper’s political career is being ended by gerrymandering, not by the voters. But the real thing Democrats ought to mourn is the ongoing failure of its state party and its candidates to win enough legislative seats to protect Congressman Cooper from being retired by the GOP through how it has now drawn (gerrymandered) the state’s congressional districts.
THE ONE THING SOME REPUBLICANS FEAR COULD KEEP THEM FROM RETAKING CONGRESS
Former President Donald Trump is back out on the campaign trail planning to hold a couple of rallies a month. He is teasing, but not declaring his candidacy to run again. But he is saying some things out loud about the January 6, 2020 insurrection at the Capitol and the role of his former Vice President Mike Pence that has other Republican leaders concerned and not supporting Mr. Trump's comments.
There is also a GOP concern that former President Trump’s continuing comments will give further momentum and publicity to the select congressional committee investigating the January 6th matter as well as the other probes into Mr. Trump’s 2020 election activities and business affairs, with all this occurring at a time when voters are tuning into the mid-term elections.
WHEN A SENATE MAJORITY IS NO LONGER A MAJORITY
It has been a deep dark fear of Democrats ever since the party “won” a 50-50 majority in the U.S. Senate thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris being able to cast tie-breaking votes in their favor.
That “majority’” has already looked very shaky when all 50 Democratic senators couldn’t agree on the Build Back Better bill or change the filibuster rules to pass voting rights legislation.
Now the majority has temporarily vanished with New Mexico Senator Ben Ray Luján suffering a stroke that will have him not available to cast votes in the Senate for at least 4 to 6 weeks. That puts a lot of Democratic efforts in the Senate on hold including a quick confirmation of whoever President Joe Biden selects to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
THE LATEST ON THE VIRUS
As it has been for so many weeks in the past two years, the news on the COVID-19 pandemic in this country is a mixed bag.
Cases continue to track down now in the majority of the 50 states as the omicron surge continues to wane. Hospitalizations are trending down too. Deaths are still increasing. They have been a lagging factor throughout the pandemic and that continues.
It also appears the official death toll in the U.S. from COVID-19 will exceed 1 million by sometime in March. The actual total of excess deaths seen in this nation already indicates the toll is above that grim milestone.
In Tennessee, we too are finally seeing a decline in cases for the first time since the omicron spike began late last year. The positivity rate is also down, but these numbers may be higher because of the increasing amount of home testing being done, of which results are not reported.
In other virus numbers, the CDC says Tennessee averaged nearly 3,400 hospitalized COVID-19 patients last week, which is higher than the first winter surge and nearly 90% of the peak of the delta surge.
Tennessee also reported an average of 61 virus deaths per day last week.
In terms of vaccinations, as of February 1st, 76% of the population has received at least one dose and 65% of the population is fully vaccinated. However, in terms of receiving booster shots, only 40% of those eligible adults have done so and the rates of participation are even lower among children ages 12-17 and those ages 5-11.
There is good news this week that the largest age group left unprotected without a vaccine, ages 6 months through 4 years may have a vaccine approved for them within a few weeks. But it appears it will follow a somewhat different approval process.
The White House is on board to get started helping the 18 million eligible young children and their parents to get their shots.
Here in Tennessee, we have edged up to 52% of adults fully vaccinated.
There still remain lots of wild cards. It appears things could be closer to normal maybe… if another unknown variant does not emerge. With much of the world and parts of this country unprotected that remains a possibility, even as scientists are still studying the impact of yet another omicron variant.
Many economic experts feared the current omicron variant while beginning to fade, would have a major negative impact on jobs and the U.S. economy. But based a government report released today (Friday), the nation added almost a half-million new jobs in January.
Nashville continues to see its economy improve and will see even more of the same says a new report from the University of Tennessee's Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research. That will be true. if the city is successful in being named as one of the hosts for the 2026 World Cup competition. An announcement seems still a few months away, but if Nashville is chosen, it will be the latest and the most conclusive signal yet, that Nashville is indeed becoming a world-class city, especially in the world of sports.
In terms of tourism and hosting meetings, 2020 and 2021 have been difficult years for the city’s Music City Center. But officials at the center are now seeing a rebound on the way.
NO NEW INSIDE POLITICS SHOW THIS WEEK; NASHVILLE HISTORIAN DAVID EWING APPEARS NEXT WEEK
Because of NEWSCHANNEL5’s gavel to gavel coverage of the high-profile Travis Reinking Waffle House mass murder trial, we are not able to produce a new INSIDE POLITICS show this week.
The murders in 2018 shocked Nashville to its core. The daily stories coming out of the trial have been compelling, and make it more than worth watching the trial on the various outlets of the NEWSCHANNEL5 Network.
This weekend we will present an encore presentation of a previous IP show regarding “Restoring Second Avenue” which aired in March of last year. Our guests are Metro Historian Dr. Carole Bucy and Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell.
Next week our guest will be Nashville historian David Ewing to look back on the history of February being Black History and Nashville’s unique role in the Civil Rights movement.