By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst
July 23, 2021
AS VIRUS CASES RISE TENNESSEE’S POLITICAL SILLINESS OVER VACCINES CONTINUES; HOW THE VIRUS HAS CHANGED US AND THE CHALLENGES AHEAD; DAMAGE CONTROL ON FREE AIRLINE VOUCHERS AND AN EMPLOYEE BUYOUT TO INCREASE THE STATE’S EFFICIENCY; NATHAN BEFORD FORREST BUST TO FINALLY LEAVE THE STATE CAPITOL; NASHVILLE GETS A NEW CITY DEPARTMENT; A DELAY IN THE DEMOLITION DECISION ON HISTORIC 2ND AVENUE; IT CAN BE SOMETIMES EASIER TO PROMISE THAN TO DELIVER; SCHOOLS LOOK TOWARD OPENING ADMIDST RENEWED CONTROVERSY OVER MASK WEARING AND A CHANGE IN THE SCHOOL FUNDING LAWSUIT; CONGRESSIONAL EXPERT DR. BRUCE OPPENHEIMER ON INSIDE POLITICS
AS VIRUS CASES RISE TENNESSEE’S POLITICAL SILLINESS OVER VACCINES CONTINUES
It’s been a week when the highly contagious Delta variant had Tennessee’s positivity rate for COVID-19 go back above 10% on Wednesday.
Nashville is experiencing similar increases in its virus numbers.
Regardless, the political silliness among our elected Republican legislators and the administration of Governor Bill Lee continues.
The Legislature’s Joint Government Operations Committee met. This is the group that threatened to abolish the state’s Department of Health, unless it did as lawmakers demanded, and stop vaccinating teens without clear consent from parents.
The uproar led to the state firing its top vaccination person, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who said she was following state law and court rulings in her work. Not good enough for state officials, who then released a memo claiming the Doctor was fired because she wasn’t a team player and did not provide strong leadership. The memo ignored Dr. Fiscus’s stellar job performance reviews in recent years, which suddenly seemed to change, or were forgotten, after she got cross ways with the Republican Super Majority.
The COVID-19 vaccines are our best and most effective line of defense against the virus. But this week, the issue of how Tennessee is handling its vaccination efforts got even more curious. With August set to be National Vaccination Awareness Month, a statewide conference was planned to promote vaccine use for all communicable diseases. It was an event which was well received last year even when the session was held on line. But the event was suddenly postponed this year, with no rescheduling date announced and all information about the event pulled from the Health Department’s web site. Health officials later said the delay was because it is reviewing marketing materials for the conference.
Even more alarming are news reports that the state Health Department has “gaps” in its vaccination leadership team beyond the departure of Dr. Fiscus All this is occurring at a time when the public health challenges facing Tennessee are quite significant.
So what did the Legislature’s Government Operations Committee do this week? Some read statements again defending their desire for parental control of vaccinations. But with Dr. Fiscus gone, so too was the threat to defund the Health Department. However, there were hints that if the other counties in the state that have independent health departments (such as Nashville and Memphis) did not follow the state’s example, lawmakers may come after them.
Despite those potential threats the Health Department in Nashville is continuing its vaccine outreach to teens going into local schools.
There is unrest on the Government Operations committee, especially from Democrats who say they have been left out of private meetings between GOP lawmakers, health officials and Governor Lee’s staff.
In his first public statement since the state’s vaccination controversy began over a week ago, Governor Lee on Thursday defended the actions of health officials in firing Dr. Fiscus, although he added Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey did not share with him the reasons for the firing. He also support the department’s pull back in marketing vaccinations to teens.
Mr. Lee did encourage Tennesseans to get vaccinated, calling it the "most effective tool" to manage COVID-19. He also encouraged Tennesseans to talk to their doctors or clergy if they have vaccine hesitancy. But then he added it is a personal decision for individuals to make about the vaccine not the government.
Not all Tennessee Republicans are being coy or silly and playing politics with the vaccine. Former U.S. Majority Leader and Tennessee Senator Dr. Bill Frist clearly understands what is at stake. Here are some of his tweets in recent days:
“Tennessee ranks 44th in the percentage of population fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That’s discouraging and deadly.”
“Tennessee can stand by science and save lives, or we can further a dangerous trend that is eroding public health and trust in government.’
“… it is the responsibility of our state leaders to take sometimes uncomfortable, even unpopular positions when the health and lives of our people are at stake.”
On the national level, there was something of an unexpected development in this area. President Joe Biden even compared it to “an altar call.” Several FOX NEWS hosts spoke out in favor of the covid vaccines and urged their viewers to get their shots!
This uptick among GOP leaders speaking out in favor of the Covid vaccine is getting praise from the nation’s top infectious disease doctor after Dr. Fauci went face to face this week in the latest round of arguments between him and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul about the origins of the virus.
HOW THE VIRUS HAS CHANGED US AND THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
The COVID-19 pandemic is now its fourth wave in all 50 states and worldwide. The Delta variant of the virus now makes up 83% of all new cases nationwide. has left marks on this country that will take years to recover.
For one thing, we may not live as long as we expected to before the virus. In the largest single year- decline since World War II (1943), the nation’s life expectance fell by 1.5 years. Like so many impacts from COVID-19, the change in mortality is even more severe among persons of color.
More government studies released this week, this time from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, found crime was down significantly in the state during 2020. Some of the decline seems not surprising given the economic shutdown during some months last year. Still, it is a welcome, if likely only a temporary, development.
We already know that the drug overdose epidemic, largely fueled by opioids, has continued to rage throughout the pandemic, setting another record for deaths in Tennessee in 2020. Now a federal court settlement, negotiated in part by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery, could bring $26 billion dollars nationwide to help cities and state combat the issue, educate the public, and provide badly needed rehab treatment.
Tennessee’s share of the settlement could be as much as $600 million.
Some cities and states may not participate. They say the money should not be allocated by population, but instead by the impact the epidemic has had in individual states and communities. It is a fair point to make.
Let’s just hope the money is better and more effectively spent than the even larger amount of funds received in a national tobacco lawsuit settlement some years ago which seemed to have little impact on that public health challenge.
DAMAGE CONTROL ON FREE AIRLINE VOUCHERS AND AN EMPLOYEE BUYOUT TO INCREASE THE STATE’S EFFICIENCY
The teen vaccination controversy is not the only one enveloping the Lee administration in recent weeks.
When the Governor announced 4th of July weekend that the state was offering free $250 airline vouchers for out of state tourists to come to Nashville and several other cities to enjoy themselves, all heck broke loose on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers were upset especially when they realized they had approved the $2.5 million program in the latest state budget (although its description in the budget was quite vague). Lawmakers also said the plane vouchers were not needed because Tennessee’s tourism economy has already reopened. Meanwhile, officials in other cities and areas of the state were unhappy they were left out of the program.
To do some badly needed damage control and try and soothe the political waters, this week the state’s Tourism Commissioner apologized.
In the latest development of another state government controversy that began some months ago, the state is offering “buyouts” to some state employees as a part of a $20 million program to save money and bring more “organizational efficiency.” The buyout plan, approved by the Legislature, came from a study done by the internationally known consulting firm, McKinsey & Company. However, Governor Lee has refused to release the report which cost taxpayers $1.5 million. The reductions will all be in the executive departments of state government.
NATHAN BEFORD FORREST BUST TO FINALLY LEAVE THE STATE CAPITOL
Bringing an end to a decades- long controversy at the State Capitol, the bust of Confederate General, slave dealer, and early Klu Klux Klan leader Nathan Beford Forrest, has finally been moved from the State Capitol to the Tennessee State Museum.
The move was given final approval Thursday on a 5-2 vote by the State Building Commission. The vote was requested by Lt. Governor Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron, who felt state law required it. Both lawmakers voted against the move which also includes two other busts of Tennessee military figures, Admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves being taken to the Museum.
The Forrest bust was approved by lawmakers in the early 1970s and placed just outside the Senate and House chambers in 1978. It was championed by the late Nashville Democratic State Senator Douglas Henry. The artwork has always been controversial, but it became even more in so recent years during the Black Lives Matter movement, and a nationwide effort to remove Confederate symbols from public property. Removing any historical item in Tennessee is quite difficult under state law.
It is to Governor Bill Lee’s credit that the move is occurring, following his change of heart and position on the issue, going from opposition to removal while running for Governor, then ultimately to support for the move just over a year ago. Our Governors are members of the Capitol Commission, but they rarely attend its meetings. This week he did and voted in favor of removing the Forrest bust.
Preparations to begin the move of the Forrest and other busts began within hours of the Building Commission decision. The work to transport them to the State Museum was completed fairly quickly today (Friday) but the move left behind a long and controversial legacy.
NASHVILLE GETS A NEW CITY DEPARTMENT
We have talked about it before, but this week it became official. Metro government has a new city department, the Nashville Department of Transportation and Intermodal Infrastructure. That’s quite a mouthful. No wonder the agency is being called NDOT for short.
NDOT is the brainchild of Nashville Mayor John Cooper. He believes we need a city department that focuses on transportation. It does appear the new configuration has already helped the city be able to better compete and receive federal transportation grants and other funds.
Until now, most local transportation issues have been handled by Metro Public Works, which has often been overwhelmed by trash and other solid waste issues. So, under a memorandum of understanding approved by the Metro Council, solid waste will now be handled by Metro Water Services.
Some councilmembers remain skeptical. The memorandum of understanding is only for a couple of years, and it is thought voters will ultimately have to approve a change to the city’s Charter to make this departmental change legally complete.
Based on the longer part of NDOT’s name, “Intermodal Infrastructure”, I am beginning to wonder if this agency might also take over the city’s transit services which are now handled by a separate city board and agency known as WEGO? That too, might require a change in the Charter by voters.
A DELAY IN THE DEMOLITION DECISION ON HISTORIC 2ND AVENUE
It had been expected the Metro Historic Zoning Commission would vote this week on requests by 2nd Avenue property owners to demolish four buildings badly damaged in the Christmas Day bombing.
But in order to give everyone involved, more time to study the issues involved, the vote has been postponed until at least August. This is a delicate situation and tough decisions lie ahead. So far there has been a lot of unity in how to approach rebuilding 2nd Avenue back even better. Hopefully that will continue.
IT CAN BE SOMETIMES EASIER TO PROMISE THAN TO DELIVER
When Mayor John Cooper ran for office, along with the current Metro Council, almost all of them promised to create a Nashville that represents and works for all of us.
But in terms of the representation on at least one Metro agency, the Fair Board, that is turning out to be difficult to do.
Normally nominations to the many volunteer boards and commissions Metro has, are approved routinely and unanimously by Metro Council.
However, for the second time in recent weeks, the Council Tuesday night rejected a highly qualified African American businesswoman to serve on the Fair Board. That’s because a number of councilmembers prefer the seat to go to a Hispanic. The vote was close. In fact, the nomination got just 20 votes for confirmation, one short of the 21 votes needed.
The sharp and continuing split in the Council includes the body’s Minority Caucus, although all sides say they are united in seeking more diversity on city boards and commissions. But those councilmembers championing a Hispanic appointment say they are tired of being ignored or told to wait for the next board vacancy. There was even talk of an amendment to the Metro Charter that would change the board appointment process although no details were mentioned.
Normally, nominations to city boards and commissions come from the mayor. But Mayor Cooper had his own difficulties with this Fair Board post. His first nominee, a white businessman did not get approved. Then before the Mayor could find a more agreeable appointee, he ran out of time under the Charter to make the choice. That threw the matter to Vice Mayor Jim Schulman. He promised his choice would bring diversity to the Fair Board. But so far, neither of his nominees have met the diversity criteria a 21- vote majority in the Council will support.
The Vice Mayor still has the responsibility to appoint another nominee.
SCHOOLS LOOK TOWARD OPENING ADMIDST RENEWED CONTROVERSY OVER MASK WEARING AND A CHANGE IN THE SCHOOL FUNDING LAWSUIT
With the beginning of the new school term less than a couple of weeks away, the new increase in COVID-19 cases is again raising concerns about who should wear masks in the classroom.
This week the national association of pediatricians recommended both students and even fully vaccinated staff wear masks as protection, even though the CDC had earlier said those fully vaccinated did not need to do so.
Governor Lee this week says he hopes and expects schools in Tennessee will operate without masks even though Memphis City schools are requiring it and Metro Nashville schools, while strongly recommending it, are not mandating masks.
Here we go again?
Another longstanding controversy in Tennessee’s public education saw a major development late this week. Nate Rau of THE TENNESSEE OUTLOOK reported on Twitter Friday that, invoking a new law, the State Supreme Court has approved a three- judge panel to hear the long-running education funding lawsuit involving Shelby County, Nashville Public Schools, and the school systems in 84 of the state’s 95 counties.
CONGRESSIONAL EXPERT DR. BRUCE OPPENHEIMER ON INSIDE POLITICS
As President Joe Biden marks six months in the White House, his administration faces more pivotal weeks in Congress, with both houses negotiating different kinds of infrastructure bills that total $4.7 trillion.
Where does the President stand with his legislative agenda?
Can Congress, especially the Democrats, be united enough to pass any significant legislation or to limit or abolish the filibuster in the Senate?
With new political fights breaking out on the Hill, what will be the outcome of the new House Select Committee to probe the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol?
And will the politics and positioning by both parties, for the midterm elections in 2022, soon end any chance our lawmakers can come together?
Nobody knows the Congress better than Vanderbilt political science professor emeritus, Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer.
He is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.
We welcome Dr. Oppenheimer back to the program.
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