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Capitol View commentary: Friday, June 11, 2021

Capitol View
Posted at 10:20 AM, Jun 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-11 11:20:11-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

June 8, 2021

EVEN AS TV ADS BEGIN, A COURT BATTLE CONTINUES OVER A JULY 27 METRO CHARTER REFERENDUM; A NEW AFFORDABLE HOUSING PLAN; YOUR EYES DID NOT DECEIVE YOU; PRESIDENT BIDEN; NASHVILLE GOES A DIFFERENT WAY FROM THE STATE AND OFFERS VACCINE INCENTIVES; POLL FINDS TENNESSEANS BOTH ON BOARD AND AT ODDS WITH GOVERNOR BILL LEE AND STATE GOP LEADERS; IMMIGRATION RE-EMEGES AS AN ISSUE IN TENNESSEE; INSIDE POLITICS; POTENTIAL CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING ATTRACTS HARWELL’S INTEREST

EVEN AS TV ADS BEGIN, A COURT BATTLE CONTINUES OVER A JULY 27 METRO CHARTER REFERENDUM

At least two to three weeks after the pleadings were filed, it was just in the last few days that a Chancery Court hearing was finally held about a proposed July 27 Metro Charter referendum.

The city has filed suit against the Republican majority Davidson County Election Commission, saying the citizens’ petition effort to rollback and limit property tax increases, and make other significant changes in the city’s constitution, are illegal. The Nashville Business Coalition has also gone to court with a separate lawsuit, seeking to stop the special election (which will cost taxpayers close to $1 million).

The Metro Council has also gotten involved with litigation. That happened after, for the first time in Metro’s 58- year history, a majority of Election Commissioners, refused to add to the July 27 ballot, some competing charter amendments which the 40-member Council approved without dissent. That suit had a court hearing this week as well.

The attorneys representing the Election Commission in all its lawsuits say the group is just doing its job and is acting within the law. The court debate has gotten a little wonky, but the outcome could be quite significant to the city’s future.

A court ruling is not expected to be rendered in any of the cases until at least next Friday, July 18. Appeals could lengthen the process of getting to a final decision about the election, with early voting set to start July 7.

Given the coming time crunch if the referendum is held, those opposing the Charter changes are already taking to the airwaves with two TV ads this week. The ad buys reportedly total at least $125,000-plus on four local stations and on cable, with $67,000 of that on one station alone. The ads are likely to continue to run for a couple of weeks, or perhaps, at least until a court decision is known. Late word indicates the TV buys will continue through June 20 and have been increased by at least $18K at one station.

Save Nashville Now, a coalition of business groups, grassroots organizations, and labor unions, says the charter changes will negatively affect the city and pave the way for major budget and service cuts.

One ad highlights the negative impact on schools.

The other ad targets the cutbacks among Nashville’s first responders.

The effort to label the Charter changes as radical, and funded by dark money, are an effort to give voters reasons to quickly oppose the effort. It remains unclear what the pro-charter change petition group will do to fund its campaign. So far, 4GoodGovernment has even refused to disclose how it has paid for its efforts to get voters to sign its petitions.

In an earlier failed effort to call such a vote, the national conservative Americans for Prosperity group was involved. This week AFP announced they will be involved again, although exactly what that means financially or in terms of political organization, remains unclear.

As for political consultants getting involved, as I speculated in my last Capitol View column, Save Nashville Now has hired former top Clinton presidential aide and local TV reporter Jeff Eller to assist them. Eller helped mastermind the defeat of the Metro Transit Referendum in May 2018. The pro-transit forces thought about hiring Eller then. Now they have done so, a move which appears to be a plus based on his local track record.

More details here.

A NEW AFFORDABLE HOUSING PLAN

If you watched or listened to any of the 3-hour public hearing held last week (June 1) by the Metro Council regarding the city’s proposed 2022 operating budget, it was clear that almost all of the nearly 90 people who spoke, want more money spent on affordable housing.

Nashville has been facing this issue for more than a few years, with results to address the crisis being limited. Meantime, matters have probably gotten worse during the pandemic. It is estimated by the Mayor’s Office that 65,000 households – just less than half of Davidson County’s renters-- needed help pre-pandemic.

Again, according to the Mayor’s Office: “An economically secure resident will spend no more than 30 percent of their annual income on rent or a mortgage, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That number in distress likely has risen as pandemic relocations has brought more people to Nashville and supply-chain bottlenecks are choking off building material supplies and driving up construction costs.”

Prior to this budget season, Mayor John Cooper appointed a blue- ribbon task force to study the affordable housing problem and make recommendations. The group broke down by sub-committees and has met frequently over the last several months.

The Mayor received an early report on the group’s findings, and included them in his annual State of Metro address in late April. But much of that got a bit lost in media reports, including the funds he later added in the new operating budget that the Council seems poised to approve as early as next Tuesday (June 15).

When the Affordable Housing Task Force officially released its recommendations this week, Mayor Cooper was quick to point out how many of the 9 major suggestions from the group he is acting on in his budget.

Those include:

• $22.5 million for the city’s Barnes Fund, which includes both recurring city and one-time federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) dollars. This would triple the city’s financial commitment through Barnes.

• $3 million to encourage private-sector participation in affordable housing development with a payment in lieu of taxes program

• $10 million (ARP dollars) to create a Catalyst Fund so Nashville can quickly preserve at-risk units and proactively create affordable housing near proposed public projects (bus stops, parks, community centers and libraries)

• A plan to partner with a private or nonprofit developer to build affordable housing on nearly three acres of Metro-owned property at 2119 24th Ave. N.

• $500,000 to create a long-term Metro Nashville housing plan

• Resources to bring two full-time housing experts to Metro Planning

Additionally, Mayor Cooper included $2 million in his February 2021 capital spending plan to leverage participation agreements with developers to preserve and create more affordable housing.

Here is an overview of the other recommendations from the blue-ribbon task force.

Will all this be enough to solve the problem? Absolutely not. But it is at least a long overdue start to address an issue that has been building for years, is now getting worse, and will take several more years to get on top of to address.

In the months and years to come, here is a way to measure our progress. The numbers are challenging to say the least: Again, according to Mayor Cooper’s office:

Nashville’s public and private housing providers create and preserve access to an estimated 1,350 affordable housing units a year. To avoid a potential 50,000-unit shortage by 2030, annual production should increase by as much as fourfold, to 5,250 units.

Good luck to us. Even with the new budget, we will sure need it.

You can read the Affordable Housing Task Force report in full here.

YOUR EYES DID NOT DECEIVE YOU

If you have seen any of the video of the January 6 takeover of the U.S. Capitol by those seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and thought you were witnessing an insurrection, a bi-partisan report by two U.S. Senate committees released this week says you are right.

If you thought the Capitol Police and others guarding the Capitol were surprisingly disorganized and not ready to defend one of the nation’s key symbols of our democracy, the report says you are right again.

But if you wondered what role former President Donald Trump played in inciting what happened, and if he should be further investigated, you won’t find much on that in this report.

GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell wins again.

The former President also got off perhaps lighter than some expected, regarding an earlier event during his administration, the clearing of peaceful protestors in Lafayette Park last summer so he could do a photo op holding a Bible at a nearby church. While Mr. Trump was cleared, law enforcement agencies were faulted by a government watch dog agency for not doing things properly.

The former President is still pushing the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him and that he will soon be restored to the White House in the next few months.

These statements are still getting political traction from his base of supporters.

PRESIDENT BIDEN

As we focused on during last week’s INSIDE POLITICS program with Vanderbilt History and Political Science Professor, Dr. Thomas Schwartz, President Joe Biden is now turning his attention to foreign policy, making his first overseas trip as President for the G-7 meeting of world leaders in Europe, along with a gathering of NATO leaders, and perhaps most significantly, a summit with Russian President Valdimir Putin.

This first overseas trip comes at a somewhat precarious time for the President as his domestic programs pending before Congress had another difficult week. He is finding neither the bi-partisan support (at least 60 votes) needed in the Senate, or even the full support the President needs from Democrats for moving ahead.

There were some hopeful developments Thursday about a congressional infrastructure deal. That’s when a bi-partisan group of 10 Senators (5 Republicans and 5 Democrats) said they had agreed on a nearly $1 trillion dollar plan. But the White House says it still has “questions” about the plan, particularly how it will be funded. The Republican and Democratic Senate leadership have not yet commented. Plus, the 10 Senators are not enough to make 60 votes in the upper chamber given how much both parties are split. However, this latest bi-partisan agreement is the closest all the parties have been to a deal.

The President’s trip comes as his Vice President, Kamala Harris, finished her first foreign travel to Central America seeking to find a way to stop the continuing flow of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border seeking asylum. By most media accounts, her trip did not go well.

The Biden administration got more unsettling news this week about the economy. The latest Consumer Price Index numbers for May found (compared to May 2020) the biggest surge in 13 years (5%) raising new fears about continuing inflation.

The President’s team believes the price hikes are temporary and take heart that unemployment claims reached a another new pandemic low this week, while the number of new jobs available are at a record high, but more people are quitting their jobs too.

While the Biden administration is struggling in some areas, there does seem to be one issue that can generate bi-partisan support in the U.S. Senate---the growing competition we are facing from an aggressive China.

But a political nirvana has not yet been found in Washington. This bill, unlike so many others, has not yet passed the House, where passage remains at least as uncertain there, as the struggle it took to get Senate approval.

President Biden, as he arrives in Europe, did announce the U.S. will make a half a billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine available to help poorer countries in desperate need of assistance. The move by the President comes after months of criticism the U.S. is not doing enough to help the world get vaccinated. The gift by America is by far the largest made by any country. Already the other G-7 nations are pledging to match the U.S. donation, making a billion vaccine doses available.

The gift of new vaccines come at a critical time. COVID-19 continues to rage in many countries, while the latest, highly contagious Delta virus variant from India is already spreading worldwide, as scientists try to figure out if the current vaccines are effective against this new virus bug.

Frankly, the rate of those getting the vaccine in this country has now begun to lag so significantly, as the virus continues to wane, it appears the nation might not meet the President’s goal of having 70% of Americans receiving their first dose by July 4. There was even concern this week about a large number of vaccine dosages expiring in June, and potentially going to waste. Late word from federal officials on Thursday indicates they are moving to extend vaccine expiration dates.

NASHVILLE GOES A DIFFERENT WAY FROM THE STATE AND OFFERS VACCINE INCENTIVES

Here in Nashville to keep the city’s COVID-19 vaccination rate moving further forward, Mayor John Cooper and city hospitality leaders are going the opposite way from Tennessee Governor Bill Lee.

The “Shots on Goal” program will offer incentives to those who get shots. Recipients of the vaccine at five pop-up vaccine clinics in June will receive a coupon booklet with 11 different incentives with a total face value of $100. Twenty local businesses and Nashville Soccer Club are participating in the “Shots on Goal” campaign.

The pop-up vaccine clinics will be:

Saturday, June 12th at Von Elrod’s before Nashville Sounds game 3 p.m. – 7 p.m.

Saturday, June 19th at Plaza Mariachi. 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Sunday, June 20th at Tennessee Brew Works: 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Saturday, June 26th at Nissan Stadium before/during Nashville SC match: 5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Sunday, June 27th at 12 South Taproom 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.

The incentives being offered include:

• One free Bavarian pretzel at Von Elrod’s Beer Hall and Kitchen

• $5 in value to spend at Barista Parlor

• One free slice of cake at the Café at Thistle Farms

• QR code for a discounted ticket to a Nashville Soccer Club match in June or July

• $5 in free play at Tito’s Playland at Plaza Mariachi

• One free Nashville Style Sandwich at Edley’s Bar-B-Que

• One free workout class at one of the following gyms: 80/20 Fitness, Booth Camp, QNTM Fit Life

• $10 in value to spend at either 8th & Roast or Gram’s Coffee

• One free beer at one of the following: Tennessee Brew Works, The Listening Room Café, Rudy’s Jazz Room, Third Coast Comedy Club

• One free beer at one of the following: Fleet Street Pub, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, Sinema

As for the cost of offering these incentives: Participating businesses will receive a partial reimbursement to cover costs for redeemed vouchers. If a vaccine recipient redeems every offer in the booklet, the total cost to Metro would be $36. Music City, Inc. will collect redeemed vouchers from businesses and process reimbursement. Funds for the vaccination incentive program will be drawn from the COVID reserve of Metro’s CARES Act allocation.

By the way, Metro’s vaccine numbers, as of Thursday, are 48.2% of the population (16 & above) have one shot, 42.5% are fully vaccinated. The state’s numbers are considerably lower, with just 40.86% having received one shot and only 33.41% fully vaccinated.

Finally, the amount of money coming from Washington to fight the disparities caused by the pandemic continues to grow. Health officials in Nashville and Memphis are set to receive a combined $50 million.

POLL FINDS TENNESSEANS BOTH ON BOARD AND AT ODDS WITH GOVERNOR BILL LEE AND STATE GOP LEADERS

The latest Vanderbilt University poll was released this week. It covered multiple topics, and while it found the 1,000 Tennessee registered voters surveyed agree with several parts of the agenda Governor Bill Lee and the Republican Super Majority pushed through in the last session of the General Assembly, there was at least one noteworthy exception.

59% said they oppose the latest guns rights law (effective July 1) that allows Tennesseans over 21 to carry a handgun (open or concealed) without any training or a permit from the state. A majority of those responding to the poll do support efforts to ban transgendered middle and high school students from playing on the sports teams of the sex they identify with. They also support cutting unemployment assistance in the state as one means to make people go back to work after the pandemic.

While a question regarding racism did not mention the Tennessee Legislature joining other GOP states in banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools, the answers did find in terms of perceptions about racial inequality, 90 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Republicans agree with the statement that the legacy of slavery affects the position of Black people in American society today a great deal or a fair amount.

Elsewhere, the Vanderbilt Poll results show a large majority of Republicans surveyed (74%) believe the pandemic is over. Only 14% of Democrats think so. That same partisan split can be seen (as it is in other polls across the country) concerning the COVID-19 vaccines. More than a third of Republicans (37 percent) and 30 percent of Independents said they do not plan to get the shots. Sixty percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats reported they have already been vaccinated or that they plan to be.

Perhaps the most ominous finding is that a large majority of Republican respondents (71 percent) and 30 percent of Independents continued to agree with the statement that “Joe Biden stole the 2020 Presidential election.”

Curiously, regarding President Biden’s American Jobs Plan to upgrade the country’s infrastructure over the next 10 years, including improving roads and bridges, electric grids, drinking water and access to broadband internet, only 29 percent of Republicans approved, and 96 percent of Democrats approved. But when the question was posed without naming the plan or President Biden, Republican approval for infrastructure doubled to 59 percent, while the same percentage of Democrats approved (96 percent).

IMMIGRATION RE-EMEGES AS AN ISSUE IN TENNESSEE

The Vanderbilt poll found a re-emergence of immigration as an issue of priority for Tennessee state government. 17 percent of Republicans and 2 percent of Democrats in this latest poll feel that immigration is a top priority. Those numbers are up from 2 percent and zero percent in the last Vanderbilt poll. Furthermore, 60 percent of Republicans and 9 percent of Democrats agree that “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”

Maybe one thing fueling those concerns is the ongoing influx of children and other immigrants trying to cross the southern border. Governor Bill Lee has been expressing his concerns, in particular that the Biden administration has been transporting young, unaccompanied migrants through the state without alerting or informing state officials about what is going on.

Curiously, the transporting of migrants through Tennessee apparently began during the Republican Trump administration, but the Governor said little about it then. Why is he speaking out now? The Governor says the new Democratic administration is being less transparent about the matter. He also says he was unaware of the young migrants being brought here during the Trump administration.

On Thursday, Governor Lee increased his criticism, joining with the Governor of Iowa in sending a joint letter calling for a congressional hearing on the controversy.

Tennessee’s two U.S. Senators and a GOP congressman are getting involved, as are state legislative leaders.

However, in the part of the state, Chattanooga, where the migrants have recently been transported, the reaction is actually much less hostile to what is happening.

Chattanooga Senator Todd Gardenhire has even written his own op-ed piece on the matter.

Also, interestingly, Governor Lee, a few months back during the Trump administration, refused an offer to block any further legal immigrants from coming to Tennessee. The move angered some GOP state lawmakers and hurt him with conservatives. With his re-election year now less than 6 months away, Governor Lee seems intent on not being on the wrong side of this latest issue. His run to the right strategy may be working. The latest Vanderbilt poll found support for the Governor has reached its highest level since he took office in January 2019, Vanderbilt found. Lee's favorability rating registered at 65%, up from 57% in December.

Finally, one result from the Vanderbilt poll shows how little many people keep up with politics, or even basic civics.

43% of respondents could not identify former governor Bill Haslam as the state's most recent chief executive. With the options listed as Haslam, Senator Bill Hagerty, Phil Bredesen, John J. Hooker or "not sure," 27% said they were unsure, 5% said Hagerty and 11% said Bredesen. Sigh.

INSIDE POLITICS

This weekend on INSIDE POLITICS, we will air an encore presentation of my recent interview with former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, discussing his recent book: FAITHFUL PRESENCE: THE PROMISE AND THE PERIL OF FAITH IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE.

It is a good book on a very timely subject. If you did not catch our conversation the first time, you can do so now.

Watch us!

POTENTIAL CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING ATTRACTS HARWELL’S INTEREST

It is a story that continues to crop up in the political rumor mill, and now it is in the news.

Former Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell (now serving on the TVA Board) says she might be interested in running for office again if the Tennessee Legislature redraws the state’s congressional districts to be more favorable to a Republican running in Davidson County.

This remains the biggest question surrounding redistricting in Tennessee.

We might already know the answer if the U.S. Census wasn’t running late.

Now it will be this fall before the neighborhood level numbers from the Census are ready to be crunched.

A decade ago, several state GOP lawmakers already had maps drawn to cut the Democratic 5th District into political Swiss cheese, all this, in an effort to add another Republican seat in Congress. Ironically, it was then Speaker Harwell who reportedly did not strongly support that move.

Will the final 2020 Census numbers be much different from what they were a decade ago?

Republican legislative leaders seem to act like they may be. Or maybe they just haven’t figured out how to cut the deal with the multiple GOP congressmen whose districts surround Nashville.

After all, if Davidson County is divided up, a whole lot of Democrats have to go somewhere in these newly drawn districts. Add too many, and it could create re-election problems for Republican incumbents down the road, if…and it remains a BIG IF, the Tennessee Democratic Party and its candidates get stronger.

Stay tuned, although it appears Republican Super Majority will not come back to Nashville later this fall to decide what to do.

That means this every-decade task to redraw our legislative lines (including the State House & Senate) won’t happen until 2022, just months before the election season, in particular the August primaries.

That means this Census delay raises the political stakes as incumbents and challengers want to know what kind of district (congressional or state legislative) they will (or might) be running in….and the sooner they know that, the better it will be for them to make decisions about what to do.