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Capitol View commentary: Friday, June 26, 2020

Capitol View
Posted at 12:55 PM, Jun 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-26 13:55:11-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

June 26, 2020

A CRITICAL TWO WEEKS FOR THE VIRUS; METRO SCHOOLS STRUGGLE ON REOPENING; THE SLOW ECONOMIC RECOVERY; JUST WHEN WE NEEDED IT MOST; BACK LIVE AND IN PERSON; WHAT THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY LEFT WHEN IT ENDED; SUPREME COURT ANALYST KENNETH YOST ON INSIDE POLITICS; INTERESTING TENNESSEE ELECTION DEVELOPMENTS; CANCELLATIONS, RE-OPENINGS AND PLAY BALL, MAYBE EVEN IN NASHVILLE; IT’S GREAT TO BE EIGHT;

A CRITICAL TWO WEEKS FOR THE VIRUS

It’s not clear if the recent sharp rise in coronavirus cases in many states across the country, especially in the South and Southwest marks the early beginning of a second wave, or a resurgence of the first virus outbreak. But whatever is happening it set a national record for new cases on Wednesday. And it happened again on Thursday.

There was also this announcement from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday. It says that the actual number of COVID-19 cases could be ten times more than what has been counted, because so many virus victims do not display symptoms.

The nation’s most trusted infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci told Congress, the next two weeks will be critical.

The virus increase in several states is so high it has led to a stunning turnaround involving three northeastern states (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) who were once among the hardest hit earlier this spring.

The virus is apparently so bad in this country, that with Europe recovering from the virus and now reopening, it may ban Americans from coming over there this summer, much as the U.S. did in the spring to residents of many hard hit European countries.

Tennessee is not among the states targeted by New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. But it does now have more active cases and hospitalizations than ever during this pandemic. On Wednesday the case increase was over 900 in just the past 24 hours. On Thursday, the state’s new virus case number was 799. Friday’s will be released here at 2:00 P.M. central daylight time.

You can see the world and national virus-related numbers here and Nashville’s here.

Nashville’s virus number remain elevated 232 on Friday after being up 239 on Thursday. Friday numbers also show a capacity of only 18% in regular hospital beds with more capacity in ICU beds at 23%.

Nationally on Friday, both Texas and Florida are walking back some of their reopenings. Both have closed bars again and Texas is back to limiting restaurant capacity. It is leading Dr. Fauci to say on Friday there may need to be a new testing strategy. Stay tuned.

Getting back to Tennessee, former Tennessee U.S. Senator and Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist posted his concerns on Facebook Thursday morning about the virus situation, especially in Middle Tennessee.

“In middle Tennessee our rolling 14- day daily average is increasing. We are averaging 133.5 new cases daily from 109.5 2 weeks ago. Hospitalizations have not yet increased but let’s see what they do over next two weeks. As individuals we need to be more diligent. Our leaders must.”

Yet this week, the administration of Governor Bill Lee continues to move ahead without a pause in reopening the state.

Metro Nashville continues to open up as well, moving to a revamped Phase III of its roadmap to reopen the city. The changes include keeping the largest crowd size to just 25 people, after an earlier Phase III plan had it going to 100. Local health officials believe the major reason virus cases are rising is that friends and families are letting down their guards and not wearing masks or social distancing while in larger groups of friends and family. Ironically, the state its current rise in cases is coming from “community spread.” Why the difference? One Metro Coronavirus Task Force member, Dr. James Hildreth says it is because the state reopened much more quickly than Nashville.

Metro officials also say they believe contact tracing efforts in southeast Nashville, along with working with community groups, are the best ways to address the spread of the virus in that part of town, although some in the Metro Council aren’t buying it.

The city is enforcing its requirements that all employees wear masks while working and all employers post signs recommending customers wear a mask as well. The city has received hundreds more complaints (largely about employees not wearing masks) and Metro has issued citations to 8 other businesses for not following the rules. That brings the total of businesses issued citations to 14.

Other Tennessee cities, such as Memphis are taking action to require everyone to wear a mask while out in public, although there is pushback about it.

Up to now, Nashville officials seem to want to stay with recommending, not requiring, everyone wear masks when out in public. Health Director Dr. Michael Caldwell has said he thinks requiring masks be worn will prove to be unenforceable.

Further increasing the pressure on Nashville regarding the mask issue came Wednesday, when it was reported the Mayor of nearby Wilson County was mandating everyone wear masks. But that was later clarified to say everyone is “strongly encouraged” to wear masks.

Add it all up on masks, it appears to be a split decision. Governor Lee will not mandate masks in the state, while in Nashville, THE TENNESSEAN reports there’s a “difference of opinion” on the Metro Coronavirus Task Force, leaving the decision on mandating masks or pursuing other unnamed options squarely up to Mayor John Cooper.

Metro Council members seem ready to file legislation to mandate mask wearing, but passage of a ordinance like that could take up to 6 weeks without the Council or the Mayor calling special meetings. If this virus surge continues, waiting weeks may be considered too long for mask advocates.

Elsewhere in Metro, there is another COVID-19 outbreak in one of the Davidson County Sherriff Department’s facilities with 48 new cases.

The Metro Fire Department has 5 COVID cases as well with two having recovered. The Firefighters union President says it is time to test everyone on the front line in the department.

One major set of figures keeping the state and Nashville away from a virus takeover are a continued “adequate” number of regular and ICU hospital beds being available. But that could change somewhat quickly with some health care experts says, as unpopular as they seem to be, wearing masks could be the state’s last best chance to “re-flatten the curve” especially since no one wants to go back to a “stay at home” shutdown order.

There were two other late week headaches that developed for Mayor Cooper. One is from a project that just can’t seem to stay out of controversy. It’s the construction of the new MLS stadium. A court ruling on Thursday says the stadium construction contract was not properly approved by the Sports Authority.

The solution to this Sunshine Law deficiency could be a simple as a revote by the Board which would highly likely to approve it. But this court order came out a lawsuit to stop the MLS stadium by the Save Our Fairgrounds group. Several times it has appeared their lawsuit was over, but it is still and set for a new hearing in court sometime soon.

The other late week controversy for Mayor Cooper came from charges made by the city’s Finance Director, Kevin Crumbo. He claims that during the recent budget making process, officials at Nashville General Hospital deliberately concealed it had some $9.4 million in federal CARES funds. The disclosure is bound to concern not just the Mayor but members of the Metro Council, who due to lack of revenues cut city programs and raised property taxes 34%. Those CARES funds would not have made much of a dent in solving Metro’s budget issues, but the lack of transparency could be an ongoing issue for hospital officials.

The Metro Hospital Authority, which oversees General, is dismissing the charges from the Finance Director. One board member even gave his response some racial overtones.

METRO SCHOOLS STRUGGLE ON REOPENING

Metro school officials continue to work hard to pull together their plans to reopen schools in August. But there remain challenges. Despite being given tens of millions of dollars of the city’s federal COVFID relief funds, so every student can have a lap top computer and access to an internet hot spot for on-line learning, it appears not all that equipment will be available by the time school starts.

The laptop provider is Dell Computers which this city has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring jobs here over the years. When the Metro Council approved the COVID money for schools, some members asked if Dell might be expediting the equipment due to the company’s long time involvement with Nashville. I guess the answer is no.

It appears Metro Schools will give parents and their students a choice of attending classes in person or on- line. Already there are those who are unhappy with what they’ve already seen of the outline of Metro Schools reopening plan which is set to be fully unveiled on July 6.

This week Mayor John Cooper added a new top- level aide to advise him on education issues. Robert Fisher comes from Memphis and appears to be highly qualified and experienced for his new post. Fisher’s appointment likely has deeper political implications. Members of the Metro Council’s Black Caucus have been concerned about the lack of people of color in the top levels of the Mayor’s staff. This appointment would appear to begin to address that matter, with some other new high- level positions to promote diversity, which were just created in the new Metro budget, about to be filled.

Meanwhile, as Mayor Cooper is conducting a study about the policies surrounding the use of force by Metro Police in the wake of the growing nationwide movement for police reform, the city’s Community Oversight Board is already sending the Mayor their own recommendations.

As I thought would happen, the groups who sought, largely unsuccessfully, to defund police during the recent Metro budget process are not giving up their fight, aiming now towards next year.

NASHVILLE SCENE

THE SLOW ECONOMIC RECOVERY

New unemployment claims nationally were higher than expected this week, remaining well above 1 million for the 14th week in a row, and well above any record pre-virus jobless levels.

The number of new unemployment claims in Tennessee ticked up this week while General Motors announced all its third shift employees, just recalled to GM’s plant in Spring Hill, are being laid off.

Everyone thought the additional $600 a week in unemployment payments approved by Congress and signed into law by President Trump, would not expire until the end of July. But now it seems the benefit will end somewhat earlier than that, while Congress and the Trump administration don’t have new any new virus relief plans under active legislative discussion.

There is also discussion about another round of stimulus checks being approved. That discussion comes as it was revealed this week the first stimulus check effort saw over a billion dollars (that’s with a B) sent to dead people.

Another issue that has arisen to the forefront nationally in the wake of the pandemic is police reform. It seemed a couple of weeks ago, both parties seemed poised to come together to pass bi-partisan legislation. But Congress has reverted to form with Democrats blocking a Republican bill in the Senate for being too weak, while Democrats in the House have passed a bill in the lower chamber that Senate Republicans say is too strong and “dead on arrival.’’

Therefore, the chances for anything happening nationally on this issue before the November elections seem to be slim.

A related issue that has re-emerged during the police reform debate is the future of civil war or slavery related statues across the country. This week protestors sought to tear down an equestrian statue of former President Andrew Jackson. Jackson, from Tennessee, did own slaves and played a major role in their forced removal of Native Americans known as “the Trail of Tears.” President Trump reacted strongly to the attempt to tear down the Jackson statute.

Retiring Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, speaking on the Senate floor, said it would be a “terrible misunderstanding” of history and human nature to tear it down. The Senator’s comments come just days after he seemed to support other Congressional leaders who want to change the names of U.S. military bases that honor Confederate leaders, a move President Trump also opposes.

Tennessee’s ongoing controversy regarding the bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest on display in the State Capitol showed renewed activity this week. Governor Bill Lee announced his appointment to the Capitol Commission, one of the groups that must approve removing or changing the state monument. The Governor says he plans to convene the Capitol Commission soon to take up the issue.

JUST WHEN WE NEEDED IT MOST

If there was ever a time to have faith and confidence in our local media, that time would be now.

But unfortunately, the TENNESSESAN, as a corporate entity and especially its advertising department, let us down over the weekend.

While the paper’s owners are trying to recover from the damage done by thoughtlessly running an anti-Muslim full page ad in the SUNDAY print edition of the newspaper, this gaffe may take a while to get over.

What a shame for the editorial side of the paper, which had nothing to do with this mess, but must live with, and try to report the news, among the community wreckage this has caused.

BACK LIVE AND IN PERSON

This past Tuesday evening was the first Tuesday in a month that I was home relaxing, and not doing my job as the announcer for the live TV coverage of the Metro Council meetings.

I like being back doing this job, which I resumed last August. I first covered the Council on TV in July, 1974. I knew June would be a tough month since its budget time, and this year, the largest property tax increase ever was on the table.

Add in the pandemic, an economic shutdown, a devastating tornado, the Council having to meet virtually , along with the city’s largest power outage in years, (all of which happened even before June began), and I knew it would be the worst June and probably the worst month ever for the Council. It was!

I don’t know if anyone in our 40- member legislative body runs marathons. But they sure know all about marathon meetings that run well into the wee hours of the morning.

The times for the last three Council meetings, held on consecutive Tuesdays in June, were:

June 2 starting at 6:30 P.M, ending around 5:25 A.M. on June 3 (a record-long meeting of just less than 11 hours, concluding just as the sun rose!).

June 9 from 6:00 P.M. until 1:15 AM (just over 7 hours, a whole four hours less than the week before)

June 16 from 6:30 P.M. until 4:15 AM (nearly 10 hours, maybe the second longest Council meeting ever). It took until nearly 1:30 AM to approve the budget and tax increase. Then the Council spent another 3 hours on other business, only to adjourn at 4:30 A.M. leaving several pages of bills unconsidered and deferred until the body reconvenes on Tuesday July 7. Everyone was just too exhausted to continue.

When the Council comes back next month, all 40 members will all be there, live and in person for the first time since mid-March! Governor Bill Lee’s executive order that allowed local government bodies to meet on- line during the pandemic expires June 30. It will not be renewed. Good riddance!

Yes, the Council handled a lot of routine business that needed to be done. But the support systems the Council has to conduct its business on- line, are woefully inadequate, and often, just flat didn’t function. In particular, the voting system in never seemed to work. On the night of the final vote on the budget and taxes, the Council twice took a recess to make sure the voting system would work. It still didn’t. When roll call votes were needed, the only way to do it was to literally call the roll every time of all 40 members.

It was time consuming, and I think over time, the Council got a little bored and quite frustrated. If it wasn’t for the herculean efforts of Vice Mayor Jim Schulman, I am not sure any of the meetings would have ever ended. By his own admission, even the Vice Mayor lost his cool during the marathon budget public hearing on June 2, for which he has apologized.

It will be a struggle abiding by the health department’s coronavirus meeting limitations on July 7. But coming back together, like in the old days such as January and February, has to be better for this group. Yes, the body will face lots of rezoning bills which always slow the meetings down. The Council in recent years has been known for burning the midnight oil; for asking more points of information or points of order than I can ever remember. And they may do it again on July 7. But this time, they will all be together in the same room to work it out together, not floating out in cyberspace wondering who forgot to unmute themselves this time or left up their virtual hand even though they just spoke. Fortunately, this Council does have more than one member who is ready to call the previous question when a floor debate drags on. Otherwise, we might still be meeting.

This Council may be going through the toughest first year ever for a Nashville governing body. Remember 18 of them are still in their first 12 months in office. Yes, if they didn’t want to do the work, they shouldn’t have sought to be elected. But cut them at least a little slack, and let’s hope things get better, and maybe even the meetings will be shorter in the months ahead.

WHAT THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY LEFT WHEN IT ENDED

It wasn’t just the Metro Council keeping late hours downtown last week. The Tennessee General Assembly early last Friday fixed the state’s budget shortfall caused by the pandemic. When all the last minute horse trading between the House and Senate ended here is an overview of what got approved in the revised spending plan, including some new sales tax holidays.

The Legislature thought it adjourned sine die (for good) last week, but they could be back later this summer. That’s because the two houses failed to agree on virus liability protection for businesses who might be sued even while following government health mandates. The fight between the legislative houses is over whether such protections should be back dated into last spring. Lawmakers, even the leadership of both chambers, often get cross with each other in the waning hours of any session, but this year’s level of disagreement was a doozy including what it means when you call someone a “Pinocchio.”

As for whether Governor Lee will call a special session, it seems likely, but not until at least August. Perhaps that is to give lawmakers time to cool off and come to an agreement about whether or how to back date liability protection. Meanwhile another late session controversy, Senate passage of one of the nation’s toughest anti-abortion laws, the “heartbeat” bill, is already headed to court even before Governor Lee signs it.

Several pro-choice advocates are still mad the bill passed the upper chamber in the dead of night, with the Capitol all but on lockdown, and public access, even to the Senate gallery to watch the proceedings denied.

In another ongoing legal fight, Tennesseans’ right to ask for an absentee ballot for this year’s elections without providing an excuse, or because they fear the virus, was upheld at least temporarily by the State Supreme Court.

The Court denied an effort by the state to set aside a Nashville judge’s decision until an appeal is heard. It is the second such setback for the Lee administration in recent weeks. The state’s highest court also declined to stay a lower court decision stopping Tennessee’s new school voucher program.

SUPREME COURT ANALYST KENNETH YOST ON INSIDE POLITICS

As if the year 2020 has not been tumultuous enough, here’s comes the U.S. Supreme Court.

Every year towards the end of June, the nine Justices look to close their annual term by issuing what are usually their most anticipated and controversial decisions.

To analyze what’s been decided, what decisions are still to come, and where the Court is headed, we welcome back to INSIDE POLITICS, Kenneth Jost, one of the nation’s top analysts of the Supreme Court.

Ken grew up in Nashville and spent many years as a reporter at THE TENNESEEAN. He is the author of the Supreme Court Yearbook, the Supreme Court From A to Z and Trending Toward #Justice. His well- read blog site can be found on -line at http://www.jostonjustice.com/

We appreciate Ken joining us to share his knowledge and insights.

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times over the weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include:

7:00 p.m. Friday;

5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Saturday;

1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.

This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also posted on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website for your viewing under the NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS section. A link to the show is posted as well on the Facebook page of NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Each new show and link are posted the week after the program airs.

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.

INTERESTING TENNESSEE ELECTION DEVELOPMENTS

The race to replace Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander has often faded into the background amid all the virus pandemic news and the resulting economic slowdown.

The three major Republican candidates, Bill Hagerty, Dr. Manny Sethi and George Flinn have been running TV ads with increasing frequency in recent weeks. All tout their conservative credentials and all in one way or the other have run ads making China the nation’s biggest villain.

What most got my attention recently is when the first attack ad started. Ads like these are always aimed at the front runner in the race (Hagerty) and the ads usually are produced and paid by an outside PAC or other group who prefers another candidate (in this case, Dr. Sethi). Here’s a story about the ad which also includes a link to the ad itself.

This Senate race has been one filled with endorsements which seems logical since this is the first statewide race for both Sethi and Hagerty. The two top Republicans in the Senate race are now splitting endorsements from the current and a past congressional representative from the Chattanooga area.

While a new Tennessee congressman will be elected in the First Congressional District in upper East Tennessee, the other eight seats are expected to stay with the same incumbent and party. That’s why this endorsement in Nashville’s Fifth Congressional race is so surprising to me.

CANCELLATIONS, RE-OPENINGS AND PLAY BALL, MAYBE EVEN IN NASHVILLE

It was another week of cancellations for our area.

After earlier postponing dates, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has been canceled for this year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In terms of good news, the Opryland Hotel and its private water park has reopened and the new State Museum will be back in business next week (July 1), of course with all the social distancing and other health requirements (including masks) in place.

Nationally, if you are a baseball fan (like me), the announcement (after months of acrimonious negotiations between players and owners) that Major League is returning for an abbreviated season beginning in late July, is wonderful news. That’s true even if the MLB games are played without fans and some strange new rules will be in place regarding the designated hitter and extra- inning games.

Even though our local team, the Nashville Sounds AAA franchise, won’t be playing this season, the city may get to host some games under the resumption of MLB. There may even be a few fans allowed to watch if Nashville finds its way to get to Phase IV of its reopening. That could be tough timing, since Phase III is set to last at least four weeks, meaning the city, at the earliest, would go into Phase IV just a few days before these MLB baseball free agent games are set to begin.

Play ball!

However, I am confident my quarantine warden and the others on my “health committee’ would never let me go to any games until there is a vaccine in use. Oh well, at the least MLB games will be on TV!

IT’S GREAT TO BE EIGHT

Eight years ago, Sunday (June 28, 2012) I suffered a serious stroke.

I have had an amazing recovery through the love and assistance of my family and friends. I now consider my stroke anniversary to be my second birthday, as it changed my lifestyle in so many ways.

It continues to do so, even during this pandemic. Faced with my age and pre-existing health conditions, I faced being cooped up at home, with not enough to do, but slowly add on 15-20 pounds.

Keeping my weight down has been a real achievement for me since my stroke. To keep the pounds off, I did something drastic. I began a daily exercise program. Even during my physical therapy to recover from the stroke I exercised only two or three days a week, never every day.

I started and stayed simple. I walk twice a day around my neighborhood. I can already tell it is keeping my blood pressure well under control, and while I don’t know if I am losing any weight, I am positive I am not adding any, while my muscle tone and energy level seem much better and I am sleeping very well each night. Being a child of the 1960s, I love walking while listening to my favorite tunes on my XM Radio app. I get hot and sweaty, but I am not bored.

In the last couple of months, I have worked up my walk total to now over 4 miles daily on my Fit Bit, a Father Day’s present I received from my family last weekend. I know of some of you reading this, who are much more long term, dedicated exercisers, are chuckling at my “achievement.”

But for me I am both thrilled and a little amazed at what I am doing ,after almost a lifetime of being a non-exerciser. I plan to keep on keeping on even after this pandemic is over finally over (God willing).

I still feel spared by the Good Lord for not taking me that day eight years ago. I still owe a debt of gratitude to Tam Gordon and Janie Conyers, who worked in Mayor Karl Deans office at the time, They talked me into giving them permission to call 9-1-1 to get help that day. It saved my life.

Eight years later, I am still a lucky guy.