By Pat Nolan, NEWCHANNEL 5 Political Analyst
January 31, 2020
TENNESSEE HOUSE SPEAKER CAMERON SEXTON ON INSIDE POLITICS; CONTROVERSIES RENEWED; MEDICAID BLOCK GRANTS GO BACK TO THE FRONT BURNER NATIONALLY EVEN IF BY ANOTHER NAME; TENNESSEE DEATH PENALTY DEVELOPMENTS; BOTH SIDES BREAK SILENCE BUT STILL NO PLAN TO MOVE AHEAD ON NASHVILLE MLS STADIUM; MAYOR JOHN COOPER SAYS PROPERTY TAX INCREASE OPTION “LEFT OPEN”; NASHVILLE TOURISM OFFICIALS SAY THEIR INDUSTRY KEEPS TAXES LOWER; THE TRUMP FACTOR; FORMER MADAME SPEAKER BETH HARWELL NOMINATED TO THE TVA BOARD; IMPEACHMENT TRIAL NEARS CRITICAL VOTE AND CONCLUSION;
TENNESSEE HOUSE SPEAKER CAMERON SEXTON ON INSIDE POLITICS
With the beginning of February, the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will enter the fourth week of its second session. Already we’ve seen new bills filed and old ones debated again. We’ve already seen a controversial measure on adoption and religious freedom passed and quickly signed into law by the Governor Lee. We’ve seen other long -standing controversies over issues such as abortion renewed, and new debates begin. We’re also seeing a growing dispute between Governor Bill Lee and the Republican Super Majority over allowing more refugees to enter the state.
To give his thoughts about the session so far and what lies ahead as Governor Bill Lee prepares to give his annual State of the State Address to lawmakers and the public next Monday, we welcome House Speaker Cameron Sexton back to INSIDE POLITICS this week.
INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include:
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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.
Three long standing issues we discuss with Speaker Sexton boiled over again on the Hill this week.
While lawmakers in committee reviewed, and ultimately approved, the proposed rules from the State Department of Education that will govern the new pilot school voucher program, scheduled to begin this fall in Memphis and in Nashville, the anger over how the new law passed last year flared up once more.
The seemingly never- ending controversy over the future of the bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, which is located just outside the legislative chambers caused a tense exchange of words in another committee.
There could soon be a new controversy arising about the placement of statutes on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers want to place an authorized (but still not designed) statute of Tennessee pioneer hero and lawmaker Davy Crockett right in front of the Capitol. That would mean moving the current statue of former U.S. Senator and TENNESSEAN publisher Edward Ward Carmack. Carmack was an ardent prohibitionist and became a martyr to the dry cause when he was gunned down close to the Capitol in the early 1900s because of his newspaper’s coverage. Interestingly, some seem to support moving the Carmack statute because he held racists views.
Finally, regarding a matter that seems to represent the biggest rift between Governor and members of his party in the Legislature, Mr. Lee’s decision to continue to allow refugees to come to Tennessee under a federal program has received continued pushback from some GOP lawmakers.
The bills already proposed look too complicated and seem unlikely to pass. But this week a new bill introduced by a member of the State House leadership is simple and direct in its language to stop Governor Lee’s decision. Supporters say its time to hit the pause button and include the General Assembly in any refugee decisions. That means the Legislature would need to approve any plan to allow refugees to enter. The House leadership bill has more than a majority (50+) of members signed on as co-sponsors. Lt Governor Randy McNally is not co-sponsoring the measure which may complicate the chances for passage in the Senate.
Governor Lee has steadfastly reiterated his support for allowing more refugees. He acted in response to a request by President Donald Trump (a move which is also being challenged in the courts). Will Governor Lee veto these pending refugee bills, if any pass? Will Republicans be able to hold their majorities in both houses to override a veto? Tennessee lawmakers also have a longstanding pro-bono lawsuit to challenge Tennessee accepting refugees, but they have lost their challenge on both the district and appellate levels, leaving just a long shot chance to get the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case to keep their effort alive.
With Governor Lee making his State of the State address on Monday, its usually the state’s Chief Executive who recommends to the Legislature new spending. But acting in advance, it is the minority Democrats who are demanding the state spend an extra $1.5 billion to fully fund the state’s public schools and rescued a broken system as well as reform the state funding formula known as the BEP.
MEDICAID BLOCK GRANTS GO BACK TO THE FRONT BURNER NATIONALLY EVEN IF BY ANOTHER NAME
Another topic which we discuss with Speaker Cameron Sexton is news this week that the Trump administration is once again offering states the opportunity to change their Medicaid funding to a block grant.
Some might think this move could put Tennessee first in line to change to a block grant since the state already has such a plan pending in Washington. But THE TENNESSEAN says Trump officials say what Tennessee wants is different (broader in scope) than what they are proposing.
Regardless, Congress rejected the block grant concept two years ago and now 34 members of Congress including Nashville’s Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper are speaking out again on the issue. “States may be enticed by the ‘flexibility’ of block grant waivers, but in reality, it just means less federal funding and less accountability for states to do their constitutional duties,” said Congressman Cooper. “They are threatening health care for millions of Americans who need it most. The Trump administration should stop experimenting on people and start extending health care to everyone.”
Anticipating opposition including lawsuits, that may be one reason the Trump administration is rebranding and renaming its block grant proposal.
Another potential challenge for the state in getting its block grant proposal approved is the loss of Tenncare’s director, who is leaving for a job in the private sector. The departing state official was the lead negotiator with the feds, so filling his post quickly now becomes even more critical.
In spite of all these recent developments state officials remain optimistic they will prevail in getting Tenncare converted to a block grant.
TENNESSEE DEATH PENALTY DEVELOPMENTS
Two news stories this week reported by THE TENNESSEAN could have an impact on Tennessee’s effort to move ahead with more executions under the state’s death penalty laws.
Another story that broke this week indicates that if there are more executions, the use of the electric chair may be the only way for that to happen because of continuing issues with lethal injections.
BOTH SIDES BREAK SILENCE BUT STILL NO PLAN TO MOVE AHEAD ON NASHVILLE MLS STADIUM
After months of almost complete silence, Nashville Mayor John Cooper, officials of the MLS soccer league and the owners of Nashville’s new expansion team finally spoke to the media this week regarding the future of the city’s stalled construction of the MLS Soccer Stadium at the Historic Fairgrounds in North Nashville.
But after all was said and done, there appears to still be no solution at hand to move the project forward. Mayor Cooper has stalled the MLS stadium construction since taking office last fall, by refusing to sign the required demolition documents. The Mayor seems to want to renegotiate the stadium deal saying the infrastructure costs for the project have already “doubled” from what the city had approved.
If that’s accurate, this would mark yet another Metro capital project in recent months that was approved with faulty cost estimates.
The Mayor did not say exactly who or how the increased stadium costs would be covered. He said he did not plan to try and move the stadium to another location. He does seem to indicate the MLS Stadium and its surrounding development can and should be built to accommodate an expanded and renovated Nashville Speedway which is right next door at the Fairgrounds.
The Mayor’s comments then led to a statement from MLS league officials and team representatives expressing their frustration and “deep disappointment” about the continued delay. The statement also stated (warned the city?) that the reason Nashville was awarded the franchise was because it committed to building the stadium.
Others in the community are speaking out and urging the Mayor to move forward. Reports THE TENNESSEAN: “At-large Metro Council member Bob Mendes told The Tennessean that while he appreciates Cooper "installing new discipline" in how Nashville handles development, it is time for renegotiations on the stadium deal to end.
"For the Office of the Mayor to have credibility in the future, there has to be some level of continuity between administrations," Mendes said in a statement. "Fish or cut bait. Finish the new deal or tell us why it fell apart."
Council member Colby Sledge, whose district includes the fairgrounds, said there is no reason to delay the project "one day longer."
"The Nashville SC stadium will bring with it a new community gathering place, hundreds of jobs and homes, and a Community Benefits Agreement that ensures this project works for Nashvillians at risk of being left behind," Sledge said in a statement.
At the same time members of the group that negotiated the Community Benefits Agreement are expressing their unhappiness. Again, quoting from TENNESSEAN:
“Stand Up Nashville is calling on both parties to broker a deal with transparency and with community input.
"I've got Nashville Soccer Holdings and I've got the mayor's office riding around in cars, talking about how the development looks and not even once did they ask me," Stand Up Nashville Executive Director Odessa Kelly said Wednesday at a community meeting.
In December, Cooper and Ingram toured the Nashville fairgrounds site in the mayor's Prius.
"Did they ask you?" Kelly asked the group of residents that filled the pews at Watson Grove Missionary Baptist Church. "But that's what (Cooper) ran on saying (he) would. Took office saying they'll keep you in those decision makings."
MLS and Nashville team officials say they hope to have an update on the end of the next week (February 6). But if this matter needs to go back to the Metro Council, a final resolution might be weeks away. And more delay could cause multiple issues for the new team which is set to host its first home game in its temporary home stadium, Nissan Stadium on February 28.
MAYOR JOHN COOPER SAYS PROPERTY TAX INCREASE OPTION “LEFT OPEN”
Mayor John Cooper has opposed raising Nashville’s property taxes while serving as a Metro Councilman At Large and as a candidate for Mayor last summer. Even after coming into office and having to fix a myriad of Metro budget and revenue issues, he has never wavered on the topic. That is…until this week when he says he has ‘left open,” for now, the possibility of raising property taxes in the budget he plans to present to the Metro Council by March 30.
Mayor Cooper this week did come out in opposition to a bill being proposed in the General Assembly that would limit property tax hikes by city and county governments to no more than 5% each year without approval by the voters. The Mayor says such a move by the state is intrusive and it appears other mayors across the state agree.
To further underscore the tension in Metro government between its needs for revenue and its lack of funds, the Metro School Board this week passed and sent to the Mayor and Council a capital funds request of $328 million, an unusually large amount but one school officials say is needed and overdue.
As reported last week in this column, my sources at the Metro Courthouse indicate to me the Cooper administration does plan to recommend for Council approval, a “small” package of capital projects. That should occur between now and submittal of the new operating budget the end of March. I do no know how to define in $$ the size of a small capital package. But since other city departments have capital needs as well, it seems unlikely the full schools request will be recommended and that’s true for other departments’ capital needs.
NASHVILLE TOURISM OFFICIALS SAY THEIR INDUSTRY KEEPS TAXES LOWER
In announcing yet another record- breaking year for tourists coming to Nashville, the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Corp included this bit of information I’ve never seen them report before. Says their report on 2019: “Without the income from tourism, each Nashville household would see a nearly $2,000 increase in their tax bills.”
Wow! I am not sure how that figure is calculated, but it is an impressive and very interesting one for sure.
With all the debate and controversy over tourism and visitors during last year’s city election, look for this little factoid to play a major role in the continuing debate over how visitors’ taxes should be divided up and spent in Nashville.
No matter how you figure it or divide it up 2019 was a great year for Nashville,
THE TRUMP FACTOR
Tennessee’s Senate race continues to come to life.
This week the likely Republican front runner to succeed the retiring Lamar Alexander, Bill Hagerty played what seems to be his trump card. Literally. The former Ambassador to Japan and state Economic Development Commissioner had been endorsed by President Donald Trump, who likely remains the most popular political figure in Tennessee.
On Tuesday of this week the President’s son came to the Nashville area (Gallatin) to campaign for Hagerty.
The Hagerty campaign also released its first TV ad this week. The spot is not your usual introductory spot about “who I am” and “what I have done in life.” Instead it seeks to position the candidate as a very strong supporter of the President and an opponent of attempts to impeach and remove him from office. The spot will reportedly air on the FOX News channel and CNBC.
While there have been media reports the TV ad campaigns for this year’s major Senate candidates are starting earlier than the last race in 2016, that is a bit misleading. Both major candidates, Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Marsha Blackburn did not face serious opposition in their primaries. In fact, Blackburn did not even start her TV until after August. With this year’s GOP Senate primary race more closely contested than two years ago, the major candidates are beginning their TV ad campaigns much closer to their critical election day, than in 2016 when the November election was the defining contest.
Elsewhere in the Senate race this week, one of Hagerty’s opponent Dr. Manny Sethi has released his fund- raising numbers which show $2 million in the bank but only a half-million dollars raised in the last quarter.
There are other candidates in this 2020 Senate race. Democrats include Nashville attorney and Iraq War veteran James Mackler, Memphis environmental activist Marquita Bradshaw, Nashville professor Diana Onyejiaka and Gary Davis, who unsuccessfully ran in 2018. Other Republicans are East Tennessee physician Josh Gapp Byron Bush, who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994, and Memphis millionaire George Flinn who has been a frequent candidate for federal office.
FORMER MADAME SPEAKER BETH HARWELL NOMINATED TO THE TVA BOARD
President Donald Trump has nominated former Tennessee House Speaker and longtime Nashville state representative Beth Harwell to the Board of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Former East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland has also been tabbed by the President to fill vacancy on the same board. Both nominations are subject to Senate confirmation to serve 5 -year terms.
IMPEACHMENT TRIAL NEARS CRITICAL VOTE AND CONCLUSION
It’s been an historic, if topsy-turvy week in Washington as the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump moves towards the end of its second week and perhaps toward a conclusion with an expected acquittal of the President by late today (Friday) or Saturday.
However the trial could enter into another phase, and be extended into next week or beyond, depending on whether 4 Republicans join with Senate Democrats to seek witnesses to testify or obtain more documents to review.
Senator Lamar Alexander was among the Senators who said he would wait until both sides presented their cases, and Senators asked questions, before deciding if he would vote for witnesses and/or more documents.
His decision, announced Thursday night, seems to deliver a death knell to the Democrat’s efforts to extend the impeachment trial. Tennessee Senior Senator’s position on the one hand both concedes to House Democrats that they have proven their case but holds the line with other Senate Republicans that what the President did regarding Ukraine was not an impeachable offense. From his post on Twitter:
“ I worked with other senators to make sure that we have the right to ask for more documents and witnesses, but there is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the U.S. Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense.”
From his statement Senator Alexander further parsed his position saying that it is “inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation”, but adding : “The Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate.”
Not surprisingly Senator Alexander’s decision has been sharply criticized, in the mainstream media, by some of his colleagues, and especially on social media.
NEWSWEEK—Lamar Alexander Has 'Forever Shamed the United States Senate,' Former Bill Clinton Press Secretary Says
ESQUIRE--Lamar Alexander Has Ushered in the Age of Fearful Men
CNN--- Senator: This is a tragedy in every possible way
Of course, GOP leaders and other conservatives will seek to defend Senator Alexander. Some are already proclaiming a long list of reasons why the impeachment effort will end in failure.