By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst
January 13, 2023
IT COMES TO POLITICAL WAR AS THE STATE LEGISLATURE SEEKS TO CUT THE METRO COUNCIL IN HALF; AND IT BEGINS; MORE PUSHBACKS ON STATE POLICIES, PROCEDURES AND LAWS; CONGRESS SEEKS TO FIND ITS WAY DURING THE FIRST WEEK OF HOUSE SPEAKER KEVIN MCCARTHY; SOME GOOD NEWS AND NOT SO GOOD; KEEL HUNT ON INSIDE POLITICS
IT COMES TO POLITICAL WAR AS THE STATE LEGISLATURE SEEKS TO CUT THE METRO COUNCIL IN HALF
After months, growing into years, members of the Tennessee General Assembly and the Nashville Metro Council have been at odds, even filing lawsuits in some cases, over education funding, vouchers, reproductive rights and the city hosting the 2024 and 2028 Republican National Convention, the disagreements have led to an all- out political war.
Leaders in both houses of the Legislature have filed a bill that would neuter the Council, by cutting it in half from 40 to 20 members. The purpose is strictly political revenge or payback, despite the bill sponsors claiming the reduction in Council size is good government. It’s not.
Here is what one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Jack Johnson of Franklin says: “When government grows beyond a certain size, it hinders economic growth, taxes are inevitably raised, and the standard of living for the average citizen is diminished. Government functions best closer to the people," he says.
Claims that a large Council has caused higher than needed taxes, that the Council’s size is hindering economic growth, and are lowering the standard of living for locals, are flat wrong. The property tax rates in Nashville/Davidson County are, and have long been, significantly lower than the same combined tax rates in Memphis/ Knoxville/ Chattanooga and their surrounding counties. If things are so messed up, why is Nashville the engine of the state’s economy?
Nashville Mayor John Cooper has it right:
“Contrary to claims by our state colleagues, this Metro Council has successfully facilitated historic accomplishments for our city – including record investments in education, enhanced support for our first responders and major economic development agreements that will directly benefit the state’s economy. Nashville is the engine of the state’s economy and the envy of cities across the country, and that success has been built with Metro’s 60 years of good governing by our 40-person Council.”
The Council has been 40 members in size since April 1963 when the city’s voter-approved consolidated government came into being. There was an effort in 2015 to reduce the local legislative body in size to 27 members. Voters rejected the idea by a 62% landslide margin. So, the GOP Super Majority is smarter than the voters? And if things are so bad, why have state lawmakers waited 6 decades before taking action? Their rationale for this bill, while it meets the letter of the law (all the other metro governments in Tennessee have 20 members or less on their councils), it remains a bad idea, but one very likely to pass given the GOP’s super-control of both houses of the Legislature.
I got a taste of the confidence (bordering on smugness) of GOP leaders on last week’s INSIDE POLITICS program. After endorsing the Council reduction legislation, House Speaker Cameron Sexton dismissed any problem for local planning and election officials redrawing the Council lines (by March!) in time for candidates to qualify and for the election to be held this August. Has he forgotten the mess last year in getting the precinct lines right in Davidson County after statewide redistricting?
Apparently, those drafting this ill-conceived bill realize they need a plan B to implement it. The pending legislation allows all current Metro Council members to have their terms extended by one year, until August 2024. In the interim, the city would be reapportioned into new areas roughly double the size of current Council districts. That is likely to increase costs as councilmembers, who presently have no personal staff, will rightly demand some help with their constituents, who are doubling in number.
The first election of the 20-member Council would be in August 2024 to serve a three- year term with the body getting back on its regular election schedule, and four- year terms, in 2027.
The bill does not specify whether the 20 seats would all be all district seats or if at-large seats would be part of this plan (that would be up to the Council it appears). It is not stated in the bill, but it does appear the Mayor’s seat will be up for election as scheduled in August 2023.
What about the Vice Mayor’s position? That person is critical, but it is not even mentioned in the legislation. The Vice Mayor presides over Council meetings and appoints committees. That seat now is filled by a separate countywide vote. Unlike some other legislative bodies, the Council does not appoint, or elect one of its own, to be Vice Mayor, except when the Chair Pro-Temp takes over in the temporary absence of the Vice Mayor, during a meeting, or if the position is vacant.
Is this bill so poorly drafted, these Republican legislative know-it-alls left the Vice Mayor’s position out? Council members, not surprisingly, are not happy and say the bill is poorly drafted. Some are even mulling over resigning. But for district representatives that will cause special elections costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.
I am told the current interpretation is there will be a countywide vote for Vice Mayor, along with the Mayor. If so, why is the bill so sloppy and not say that?
By the way, if this bill goes into law, creating this strange one year longer term for the present Council, followed by another one just three years long, is not completely unprecedented in Nashville history.
The first two Metro Councils were elected in 1962 and 1966. But city officials didn’t like getting lumped into the same crowded election cycle along with elections for Governor, U.S. Senate, Congress, and the Legislature. After the 1966 election, it was decided that Council and the other Metro leaders would serve a 5 year term, with the next election held in 1971. Every Council election since then, along with the ones for Mayor and Vice Mayor have been held on an odd numbered year every four years. I guess until now.
Vengeance is mine, saith the Republican Super Majority. You know, GOP lawmakers sometimes should just ask themselves. Even though they have near unlimited power in Tennessee politics, would they, and everybody else better off not using their power so vindictively? But then, I remember that after World War II, a previous Legislature banned daylight savings time, throughout Tennessee, even though the voters in Nashville and other cities in the state had approved staying on daylight time as they had through been most of the war.
If a Legislature can dictate the time of day, with a Super Majority, what can they not mandate, regardless of what the voters or any about else thinks or does?
Interestingly, the GOP Supermajority want to make their own debates “more efficient” by limiting the time individual members can debate legislation on the floor. Interestingly, the Metro Council already has such a limit and enforce it, if gently.
AND IT BEGINS
The 113th Tennessee General Assembly convened for the first time Tuesday.
It’s an organizational session to elect leadership, appoint committees, make office assignments.
While what happened in Nashville had none of the drama seen in Washington last week, two things were already on display. Protesters seeking get exceptions added to the state’s abortion ban law could clearly be heard inside the Capitol.
And until the gavel fell at high noon Tuesday, the annual flurry of last-minute fundraising, not allowed by lawmakers during session, could be with big dollar fundraising events all around town.
The pace of moving legislation probably won’t start until next month. But soon hundreds of bills will be filed and then come amendments. Keeping up with it all can be difficult. But Speaker Sexton has worked with legislative staff to launch a new on-line portal to make things easier.
MORE PUSHBACKS ON STATE POLICIES, PROCEDURES AND LAWS
There has been a move in recent years across the country to remove Confederate symbols and other vestiges of the Civil War from public places. Tennessee’s lawmakers have gone, more or less, in the opposite direction, by creating a commission that, for the most part, has rejected efforts to remove such racist symbols.
Making such changes even more impossible, is a requirement for a two- thirds vote of the commission that handles these matters, to take action. The group has also expanded its oversight, ruling that streets named for Southern generals in the Forest Hill satellite city of Nashville, are Confederate monuments and can’t be changed without their permission.
Forrest Hils officials disagree and have taken the matter to Chancery Court.
Is the GOP Super Majority concerned about the mess their laws are creating? Heck, no. They are on to their next order of business, whatever that is.
One other recent bill passed back the Legislature is getting growing pushback from educators and concern from parents. Almost 65% of Tennessee third graders didn’t read at a proficiency level in last year’s statewide round of testing.
Under a bill the Legislature approved in 2021, which takes effect this school year, if third graders don’t meet the standards, they face going to summer school or being retained.
The purpose of the law is to fight the learning loss schools are still dealing with due to the pandemic. But in their know-it-all arrogance, our elected leaders didn’t even take testimony from teachers on what to do about this bill.
There are now calls to repeal this legislation. Tuesday night, the Metro Nashville School Board voted unanimously to urge repeal of the measure. And while I am sure the GOP Super Majority will quickly ignore that, there is opposition also coming from across the state.
On an individual level, here’s how this law likely has a negative impact on a student’s life.
As they begin their term, our legislative leaders are seeking to provide some relief to teachers about a long vexing problem. A bill has been drafted to more than double the annual amount Tennessee teachers are given to provide classroom supplies.
Finally, this week saw another revelation that shows how completely broken our Tennessee foster care system is. THE TENNESSEAN reports the Tennessee Commission on Children & Youth unveiled the additional grim news about some of our state's most vulnerable residents in a new report.
It claims since 2016, Tennessee has recorded the highest rates of foster care instability in the country. Instability is defined as three or more home placements for a foster youth within their first year in the system.
Nearly 34% of foster cases meet that definition in Tennessee, according to the report, more than double the overall U.S. national average of 14.9%!
Some want the state to provide immediate funds to address the issue while lawmakers seem wiling to wait to go through the annual budget process.
CONGRESS SEEKS TO FIND ITS WAY DURING THE FIRST WEEK OF HOUSE SPEAKER KEVIN MCCARTHY
When a battle goes 15 rounds, it is usually a boxing match, and whoever the victor is, looks as bruised and battered, as those who lost the fight.
So it is for Representative Kevin McCarthy, who finally prevailed in to achieve his long- sought goal to be Speaker of the House of Representatives. He lost 14 rounds before he prevailed, even as he continued to negotiate and make concessions to the 20 or so arch conservative lawmakers who refused to support him until they finally got what they wanted.
Can McCarthy be effective as Speaker or has he already damaged goods as a leader on the Hill? The new Speaker did get his rules package approved without a major fight. But concerns are already building about the next debt level ceiling bill Congress must deal with in just a few months.
But the new Speaker got some pieces of political good news this week. First, in an overwhelming bi-partisan vote, the House established a new select committee to focus on threats from China . This is a move that could compete, even challenge the Biden administration on how it acts about China, so the bi-partisan nature of how the committee was created is something to keep in mind.
On the other hand, another new committee was approved this week on a strict party-line vote. It will investigate government investigations including those by the FBI involving former President Trump.
House Republicans have been promising, even before the November election, to be tough in their oversight of the Biden administration. In that regard, they got a major and unexpected new opportunity this week. CBS News reports that just before the November election, a small cache of 10 classified documents, some of them top secret, were found in a private office in D.C. once used by President Biden in the years right after he was Vice President.
The White House and other Democrats see no wrongdoing. The President says he is surprised to learn of the documents and doesn’t know what they are. He also says the materials were immediately returned to the National Archives and given to the Justice Department which is now starting a probe. Republicans, and former President Donald Trump, are already pouncing.
Republicans were given more political red meat on Thursday when it was announced still more classified documents have been found at another location, Biden’s residence (garage) in Delaware! Some GOP leaders demanded a special prosecutor be appointed to handle the case. The DOJ has agreed to appoint a special counsel.
Back on the Hill, committee assignments are being announced. One Tennessee lawmaker, 7th District and Nashville area Congressman Mark Green, who was loyal to Speaker McCarthy, voting for him for Speaker in all 15 rounds, has now been named Chairman of the high-profile House Homeland Security Committee. Green is a border hawk so you can expect him to bring tough oversight as he assumes his new post.
As for the other Nashville area Republican congressmen, John Rose, another strong supporter of Speaker Kevin McCarthy on all 15 ballots, has been reappointed to the House Financial Services Committee. His office calls the committee “ one of the four top-tier or “A” committees in the House.”
It has jurisdiction over banking, insurance, financial markets, securities, housing, international trade and finance, and monetary policy.
The third Nashville area congressman is first term Representative Andy Ogles. He voted against McCarthy until the 12th round of balloting. As for his committee assignments, he did perhaps much better than expected, being among a handful of McCarthy detractors to get choice committee appointments. Ogles has also been named to the House Financial Services Committee.
Republicans in the House are also moved quickly this week to pass bills that back up their campaign promises. That includes cutting t new funding for the IRS and to take new steps to strengthen immigration and abortion laws. The GOP vote on the abortion bill was unanimous, even though some GOP House members had reservations. That’s in part because, even if the House passes these bills, they will never pass in the Democratic Senate or reach President’s Biden desk to become law.
Finally, Republicans still have a major ethics issue to deal with one of their new members. New York Congressman George Santos basically lied about just about everything in his resume trying to get elected. But Santos was a key vote to get Kevin McCarthy elected Speaker. His continued presence in the House will help keep McCarthy in power.
Therefore, it is not surprising GOP House leaders say they talking to Santos and plan to handle the matter internally. Having none of that, two Democratic members of Santos’ New York have now filed formal complaints with the House Ethics Committee.
On Wednesday, there were even more calls for Santos to resign, this time from top GOP leaders in his district. So far, Speaker McCarthy is not calling for Santos to resign, but he says he won’t appoint Santos to key House committees because he is a potential national security risk.
So one week in, will the divided government in Washington go beyond that, and also be a non-functioning one? And how long will Congressman Santos be able to hold his seat?
SOME GOOD NEWS AND SOME NOT SO GOOD
According to the latest government figures on consumer prices, released on Thursday, the annual rate of inflation nationwide continues to decline. In December it was 6.5% after being at 7.1% in November. That is still much higher than the 2%-3% annual increase the Federal Reserve is seeking, but it is the lowest increase in 14 months and perhaps a sign that the near record increases in inflation the economy has been dealing with, are behind us?
Here in Nashville, residents learned, after months and months of speculation, the city’s recycling pickups will double from once a month to every other week effective in February. Solid waste and trash collection issues have been a problem for Mayor John Cooper. The increase in recycling collections seem to be a sign those issues are behind him, and just in time for his re-election campaign this summer. But in the next mayoral term, it appears Metro will be following many cities across the country and going to a “pay as you throw” system for trash collections. Good luck convincing residents the wisdom of paying a separate fee for a service they think they already pay for in their property taxes?
Here in Nashville, those new high tech parking meters are being installed. They will provide the convenience of being able to pay from your smart phone using debit and credit cards. But the number of meters in service is being expanded to formerly free parking areas, and the amount of free time, when you don’t to pay the meter, is over. It will be 24/7, and after a brief adjustment period of giving out warnings, enforcement will be strict.
On the state level even though state lawmakers and Governor Lee think Nashville has a too large city council that is bad for economic growth, another high profile California company is making its first major expansion east of Texas to be in the Nashville area.
I have never eaten at an In-N-Out restaurant but lots of folks love their burgers and other food. The firm is making an investment of $125 million with hundreds of jobs. That also includes a regional corporate HQ in Franklin and stores in Nashville/ Davidson County and the surrounding area. One company official said they have fallen in love with Nashville, adding: There was one other state definitely interested and wanting us there, but we chose Nashville."
You guess Governor Lee and legislative leaders forgot to tell them how bad the future is going to be because the Metro Council is too big? NES and TVA officials are trying to mend some fences
Here is one final piece of potential good and bad news. NES and TVA officials were trying to mend some fences by holding a community meeting this week in the Antioch and Cane Ridge area. They came to tell residents how they plan to enhance electric service so there won’t be repeat of the rolling blackouts (and the loss of power in some areas for almost a week) that bedeviled those communities, during the near and below zero weather around Christmas.
I doubt the residents are still not happy or satisfied with what they heard, but at least NES and TVA know they have problems to fix.
KEEL HUNT ON INSIDE POLITICS
The new year of 2023 has not started slowly in terms of politics.
In fact, two weeks in, we have seen blockbuster developments and breaking news on the federal, state and local levels.
This week on INSIDE POLITICS to put it all together and in perspective, we welcome as our guest, Keel Hunt, noted TENNESSEAN columnist, reporter, gubernatorial aide, and author.
We have much to discuss. Watch us!
INSIDE POLITICS can be seen on its regular weekly schedule on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS.
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