By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst
February 7, 2020
NOW THAT SILENCE IS NO LONGER GOLDEN; THE MAYOR’S INVOLVEMENTS GO WELL BEYOND JUST MLS AND THE FAIRGROUNDS; THE REVOLVING LEADERSHIP DOOR AT THE METRO HEALTH DEPARTMENT CONTINUES; SHORT TERM RENTALS CONTINUE TO CREATE LONG TERM HEADACHES FOR METRO COUNCIL; ON THE HORIZON; THE STATE OF…. THE STATE; THE STATE OF…THE NATION; THE IOWA DEBACLE; THE TENNESSEE U.S. SENATE RACE CONTRAST; BRADLEY JACKSON OF STATE CHAMBER ON INSIDE POLITICS; LEGISLATIVE BRIEFS;
NOW THAT SILENCE IS NO LONGER GOLDEN
Last week I noted the relative secrecy that has surrounded the months-long stalled construction of the new MLS stadium at the Fairgrounds. Well it’s not quiet anymore. Not long after I published last week’s column, both sides began issuing statements and sending out letters, negotiating the matter in the media. The MLS team owners are offering to put up another $59 million to cover infrastructure costs and some other potential debt the city was supposed to cover.
But that still hasn’t satisfied Mayor John Cooper. He is insisting that the team owners give back a portion of 10 acres, designated under the already-approved deal with Metro, for a mixed -use development. The team owners say they can’t do what the Mayor wants and still make their project work.
The 10 acres have been a point of controversy from the beginning when Mayor Cooper opposed the plan as a Councilman at Large. While running for mayor last summer, Mr. Cooper told me on “Inside Politics” that he considered the MLS stadium construction ‘’a settled matter.” However, since taking office in October, he has stopped the project so he could identify the “true costs” of the plan. He has also refused to sign the papers needed to complete site demolition.
Since this matter has gone public, lots of other groups are speaking out with several critical of Mayor Cooper.
THE MAYOR’S INVOLVEMENTS GO WELL BEYOND JUST MLS AND THE FAIRGROUNDS
It is not just the MLS stadium construction Mayor Cooper is getting involved in that is ruffling feathers. He doesn’t like the on-site signage for the new mega Nashville Yards development which is slowing progress on that project which is the largest in city history.
Mayor Cooper has also reportedly told a major Nashville company (Asurion), which is building a new building in the Gulch, that he will not honor an understanding it had with previous mayors for the city to provide $3.5 million for infrastructure improvements.
There is another major project involving a large West Coast firm that Mayor is allegedly causing delays. The company is set to make a major investment in East Nashville near the Top Golf development. All that remains for the deal to move ahead is for the city to sign a document for a land swap to help an existing business on the site move. Mayor Cooper has not signed.
That’s occurring even as both he and Governor Lee recently went to the West Coast to meet with company officials. This is a project involving hundreds of jobs and which I hear the Governor is particularly eager to see happen in Tennessee. Is Mayor Cooper eager that it happen?
An update on the MLS situation was expected Thursday. Despite media reports, the team owners did not set a deadline, but I am told that could happen soon if the impasse persists. It is not clear what a deadline might portend. Will the team cancel the stadium project? Look for other locations in the area? The new Nashville team is set to begin play in the next few weeks with its home opener at Nissan Stadium set for February 29. It has a deal to play there for the next two years.,
Officials of the MLS league are also expressing concerns. They’ve made it clear Nashville would not have been given a franchise without the agreement to build the new stadium. Will the MLS or the Nashville team sue Metro if the Fairgrounds plan falls apart? Will league officials pull the franchise in the near future if a stadium deal isn’t done. What will this MLS impasse, and Mayor Cooper’s involvement in all these other new or proposed projects, inflict any lasting harm to the Metro’s reputation as a good, welcoming city to do business, especially one that keeps its previous commitments? The Nashville business community is abuzz about it, and is not happy about what’s happening.
There are other issues looming. Another potential MLS stadium complication came back into the news this week. A judge has ruled a lawsuit to block the new sports facility from being built at the Fairgrounds should go to trial.
At least one potential challenge facing Nashville’ s new MLS team was overcome late this week. On Thursday, the MLS league reached a labor agreement with its players. Without that pact, a potential player walkout or lockout by management could have shut down the soon- to -begin MLS season.
THE REVOLVING LEADERSHIP DOOR AT THE METRO HEALTH DEPARTMENT CONTINUES
The Directorship of the Metro Health Department used to be a post, when held by folks such as Dr. John Lentz and Dr. Joseph Bistowish, that stayed filled for decades. Not anymore, as now even the current interim director is giving notice. This will be a job to be filled by the Metro Board of Health, with its choice along with his or her contract, subject to approval by the full Metro Council. This position is only Metro department head post subject to that requirement.
In another, more bizarre development involving Metro, Sheriff Daron Hall says there is a conspiracy afoot to discredit the city’s new jail even before it officially opens.
SHORT TERM RENTALS CONTINUE TO CREATE LONG TERM HEADACHES FOR METRO COUNCIL
Much like their predecessors in the last Metro Council, our 40 city lawmakers in the new Council that took office in October, are once again wading into controversy over what are the best ways to regulate short term rental properties.
A proposed ordinance that passed second reading Tuesday night on voice vote. The measure would establish a new NS zoning designation. NS would stand for new no short- term rentals of any kind. This ordinance would not rezone anyone’s property and would not restrict anyone’s use of their property currently. The bill just provides alternative zoning districts that could be used for future re-zonings, which brought more folks out to speak against the idea, rather than for it, during a public hearing before the Council.
This ordinance would not rezone anyone’s property and would not restrict anyone’s use of their property currently. The bill just provides alternative zoning districts that could be used for future re-zonings, which brought more folks out to speak against the idea, rather than for it, during a public hearing before the Council.
This regulatory process regarding short term rentals has likely led some in the Council to think about having a drink, as has regulating scooters. But instead this week’s Council action has set up the issue for yet another round for voting to try and get Metro’s oversight right (if that’s possible). Third & final reading on establishing an NS zoning district is set for the next Council meeting on February 18.
ON THE HORIZON
As if the city needs any more potential budget or legal headaches, there is a new lawsuit filed this week that says the city is in violation of the U.S. Constitution in how it operates parts of its bail bond system. If the courts find that’s true, it would have both legal and potential budgetary issues.
THE STATE OF….
This week saw “State of” speeches delivered on both the state and federal levels. They could have not occurred in more vastly different political atmospheres.
Monday night’s address by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee was his second since taking office in January 2019. His focus is clearly on education, with almost all of the first half of his 16-page address concentrated on that topic. With Tennessee’s economy (and therefore its tax collections) continuing to roar ahead, the Lee Administration is allocating what he says is a record amount of money ($117 million) to boost teachers’ salaries in the state. That amounts to a 4% raise this year, with a two- year goal of raising minimum teacher pay in the state from $36,000 to $40,000 annually.
Overall, the proposed state budget is a record $40.8 billion. Total new dollars for education include $250 million to establish a trust fund to boost mental health support services for students and $70 million more to boost literacy rates (only a third of the state’s third graders read at grade level). Add it up and it means new dollars allocated for education total $600 million plus. Says the Governor:
“ Fully funding BEP growth, 4% teacher raises, the Tennessee Teacher and Leader Institute, record investments in teacher recruitment, professional development, literacy training, and the K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund, our total new dollars invested in the future of public education in the coming fiscal year will equal more than $600 million.
So, when you’re back home in your districts this year, if someone tells you we’re not supporting public education, they’re not telling the truth.”
But in response Democrats say the Governor’s educational moves are at best incremental and will leave Tennessee in the bottom ten of the 50 states for school-related spending. The Democrats (who are in a super-minority in the Legislature) say Tennessee needs well over $1 billion in new state funding for education. The teacher’s union, the Tennessee Education Association pointed out in its response that the 4% pay raise:
“The governor has proposed $117 million for increased teacher salaries. While that is a large yearly increase, it breaks down to about $1,450 per teacher, or approximately $28 a week. The governor said he wants Tennessee to be the best state in the nation to teach, and we agree. The state increased its cash reserves by more than $1 billion last year. Clearly the governor and General Assembly can and should do more to make teaching a professionally paid career.”
In his speech, Governor Lee also addressed two of his other priorities. For rural parts of the state he is recommending another $25 million to expand broadband access, $2.4 million to promote rural tourism, as well as $3.4 million to promote rural economic development, more funds to expand payments to rural health care clinics and access to dental care, along with more assistance to farmers in distressed rural counties.
As for criminal justice reform, Governor Lee is proposing tougher penalties for the theft of a firearm and the reckless endangerment of a police officer or a first responder. He also wants to continue efforts to help those coming out of prison to renter society successfully. That includes improving the state’s probation and parole system. The changes would be based on 23 recommendations made by a recent gubernatorial task force. However, the details of that legislation remain to be spelled out.
The Governor also wants to cut taxes and pass down funds to city and county governments. The tax cut would a 50% reduction in the state’s professional privilege tax returning $40 million to individuals and small business owners from a tax Governor Lee calls “arbitrary and unfair.” The extra money for state and local government is $100 million in grants for one- time projects such as roads, capital maintenance, I.T. upgrades, utility improvements, and public safety projects. The Governor ad-lipped the money might keep local governments from raising taxes.
The Governor outlined several efforts in his speech to increase access to health care in the state
There were issues Governor Lee gave scant or no attention to in his speech. He said nothing about his growing disagreement with lawmakers of his own party about his plans to continue to allow refugee resettlement in Tennessee. He also made no mention of plans to spend the huge surplus (over $750,000 dollars) that the state has amassed in federal funds to assist needy families and provide badly needed childcare opportunities in the state. He also said nothing about a controversial adoption bill he recently signed into law. Opponents say the new measure legalizes discrimination against LGBTQ couples, while supporters maintain it protects religious liberty.
The Governor did give an impassioned appeal for passage of anti-abortion legislation that is listed first in priority in his legislative package. He did not elaborate how the “heartbeat” abortion ban in the measure (that is still being drafted) would pass judicial review where it has been struck down by courts in laws passed in other states.
Governor Lee did again express optimism the state’s efforts to change the funding of the TennCare program to a block grant would get federal OK, adding “Tennessee runs the most efficient Medicaid system in the country, and the result is that we are one of only a few states who underspend the federal government’s estimate for what it should cost to cover our population.
Our proposal to the federal government is that we get to share those savings and spend them to cover more services and more people.
While we do not yet know whether this proposal will be accepted, I am confident that what we’ve proposed would be a good deal for Tennesseans and that no Tennessean would be worse off if it is approved.”
The Governor outlined several efforts in his speech to increase access to health care in the state, including cutting down the wait list for the disabled to get help from TennCare. He also plans to start a three-year pilot program to extend postpartum coverage to 12 months for mothers covered by TennCare as well as also expanding preventive dental services to mothers on TennCare.
But despite all that, this week two Republican lawmakers broke precedent by submitting a bill to have the state expand its TennCare/ Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The move is not expected to create a major shift among GOP lawmakers who have strongly opposed going to Obamacare despite the hundreds of millions of extra federal dollars it would have brought to the state over the last several years.
Governor Lee in his speech also defended his number one legislative accomplishment from last year, the approval of a pilot school voucher program in Nashville and Memphis. The money to start the controversial Education Saving Accounts program, a year early, is in the budget which the Governor Lee did not mention in his address. He did say this:
“We created the Tennessee Education Savings Account Program, which will serve low-income students in districts with the highest number of low-performing schools.
Disruption is hard and sometimes controversial.
But we cannot expect extraordinarily different outcomes without extraordinarily different inputs, so I’m proud of these initiatives, and I look forward to their success.
That said, the vast majority of our students are educated in traditional public schools, and the majority of our efforts must remain focused there.”
But while the Governor presses ahead with his Education Savings Accounts plan, officials in both Nashville and Memphis announced this week they are going to court to stop the program because it is illegal and unconstitutional.
Finally, to deal with another on-going controversy during his first year in office, Governor Lee in his State of the State speech offered a solution to the issue of continued long lines at the DVM.
“For many Tennesseans, the only interaction they have with their government is the Driver Services Division at the Department of Safety.
Tennesseans deserve to have great interactions with our state government, and I have asked our Department of Safety to take steps to improve experiences at our Drivers Service Centers.
I am proposing 80 additional positions and funding to assist in decreasing wait times for our customers as they answer the federal mandate to obtain a REAL ID.”
Those comments drew one of several standing ovations from lawmakers and perhaps the loudest cheers of the night, second only to his teacher pay comments.
Here’s an overview of the Governor’s second budget from the Associated Press. It includes some additional items I haven’t mentioned.
THE STATE OF…THE NATION
Tuesday night the annual State of the Union address was given for the third time by President Donald Trump. Tennessee and Washington are different in their politics in several regards. One difference began quite clear when President Trump entered the well of the House of Representatives to give his remarks. He did not shake the extended hand of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Madame Speaker later returned the snub by ripping up a copy of the President’s speech in plain view of the cameras at the end of Mr. Trump’s remarks.
Both seem to lack civility. Yes, they strongly disagree on many topics, but they should act like adults and respect the office the other holds.
In contrast in Tennessee, Governor Bill Lee in the opening moments of his State of State address recognized and congratulated new House Speaker Cameron Sexton. Unlike President Trump and Speaker Pelosi who are of different parties, Governor Lee and Speaker Sexton are Republicans. Yet they have already taken sharply opposing positions on major issues such a refugee resettlement and school vouchers. But unlike their Washington counterparts are civil to one another and say they plan work together. Even the Democrats in responding to Governor Lee speech struck a tone to work with the Governor even if they think what he is proposing is something they oppose or don’t think goes far enough to address the issues Tennessee is facing.
As for President Trump’s speech, despite being the very chambers where he was impeached late last year, he refrained from mentioning the topic or to take an early victory lap on the eve of the Senate vote that found him, as expected, not guilty of the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress . I am sure the victory laps by the President will be coming again and again in the days to come and all the way up to the November elections. Clearly for his State of the Union address it was an evening and speech heard and perceived very differently based on your politics.
THE IOWA DEBACLE
I can’t decide what to make of the debacle Democrats experienced this week when their “first in the nation” Iowa Caucuses resulted in those “last in the nation” results that weren’t available until several days later.
Is this yet another sign of what humorist Will Rogers said years ago that Democrats don’t belong to an organized political party? Or is what happened another example of modern technology where to err is human, but to really fowl things up it takes a computer or an app?
While the Iowa results will always be suspect despite how hard all the candidates worked, it makes little sense to recanvas it unless Democrats want to dwell on their embarrassment. For the next few days whatever bounce out comes from what happened will benefit Senator Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who led the Iowa Caucus voting. Will we a repeat for Sanders and Mayor Pete next week in the next round of voting in the New Hampshire primary. For the Mayor that would continue to show strength. For Sanders he should and better win, after all, N.H. is something of a home game for the Vermont Senator. Biden by how admission took a gut punch finishing a poor fourth in Iowa. Now the former Vice President must win big in South Carolina or he could be out. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren need to pull a surprise soon in New Hampshire or Nevada or somewhere to be seen as viable.
With no consensus Democratic candidate emerging so far, the decision by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to sit out the early votes and concentrate on the multiple Super Tuesday March 3 primaries, including Tennessee, looks promising for him, although I saw one poll this week that favors Sanders to win here March 3.
It appears no matter who is the Democratic nominee is, he or she will face a difficult fight in Tennessee against President Donald Trump in November. In fact, a Mason Dixon poll released Thursday says the President will win with landslide majorities.
From the Mason-Dixon poll: “Trump leads Joe Biden 55%-39%, Bernie Sanders 57%-37%, Elizabeth Warren 57%-36%, Pete Buttigieg 55%-38% and Michael Bloomberg 54%-39%. Tennessee has voted Republican in every presidential race since 2000 and there is no evidence that will change in 2020.”
These survey results also mirror another poll taken in Tennessee recently. It shows up to 59% of those surveyed did not believe President Trump should be impeached or removed from office. They, like retiring Senator Lamar Alexander, did not believe Mr. Trump committed an impeachable offense. Maybe that’ s why Senator Alexander, who took a lot of criticism nationally for his votes to acquit the President and not to call anymore witnesses or seek more evidence during the Senate trial, will find his actions are much more well received in his home state.
I just wish Mason Dixon had asked who Tennessee voters favor among the Democrats to win our March 3rd Presidential Preference primary?
THE TENNESSEE U.S. SENATE RACE CONTRAST
What’s the best way to win the seat of retiring Tennessee U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander?
The two chief rivals to win the Republican nomination are displaying an interesting contrast. They both strongly pro-Donald Trump.
But for Bill Hagerty, former Ambassador to Japan and state Economic Development it’s bringing an all-star cast from the Trump administration.
BRADLEY JACKSON OF STATE CHAMBER ON INSIDE POLITICS
To gauge the business community’s reaction to the State of the State of the State address, Bradley Jackson, President & CEO of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.
Is the business climate in Tennessee as good as it seems? What could make it better? Is the state legislature spending too much time on hot-button issues and not enough on bread and butter topics such as education and health care?
We also discuss with Bradley Jackson the issues confronting his members concerning the opioid crisis and what his group is doing to help. And we will talk about this story concerning major business efforts urging the state to quit passing any more anti-LGBTQ legislation.
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It wouldn’t be a legislative session without bills impacting the state’s gun laws. That includes a measure to allow students on Tennessee college campuses to be packing pretty much anywhere, concealed or otherwise, if they have a gun permit.
Another controversial measure, stopped by a veto by then-Governor Bill Haslam four years ago, is back in the bill hopper. The measure would seek to designate the Holy Bible as the official state book.
Another re-runback on the Hill is a measure to kick out Representative David Byrd over accusations he sexually assaulted members of the high school basketball team some years ago. Past moves have failed, although there was enough commotion about it last year (the lawmaker has never denied the accusations) that Representative Byrd has announced he won’t seek re-election. That likely means this latest ouster push won’t go anywhere again.
The state’s use (or lack thereof) of its Families First or TANF monies, continues to be baffling. Why would state use over $200 million of its own funds rather the federal monies sent to the state for the very purpose to help needy families?
Finally this week, disgraced former House Speaker Glen Casada has decided he will seek re-election to his Williamson County seat. Right now, with only an Independent to oppose him in November, his re-election chances look favorable. The qualifying deadline for an August primary challenger is not until April but Casada’s campaign bank account looks formable.