By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst
March 22, 2019
IT WAS QUITE A WEEK IN METRO; MORE ON THE HORIZON; ON THE HILL; UPDATES ON CONTROVERSIAL LEGISLATION ON THE HILL; HAPPY 40 TO C-SPAN; CONGRESSMAN MARK GREEN ON INSIDE POLITICS; SMEARING HASLAM;
IT WAS QUITE A WEEK IN METRO
It was a week of new promises from Mayor David Briley. He is planning to revive a 3% Metro employee cost of living pay raise beginning in July. Such move was squashed last year due to lack of funds.
The announcement by the Mayor was followed by another job incentives commitment approved overwhelmingly (30-3) by the Metro Council. It’s $17.5 million to Amazon which will bring 5,000 new high-paying jobs to Nashville in the next few years.
At its last meeting the Council approved a similar but smaller job incentive for the New York finance firm of AllianceBernstein to come to Music City. The incentives and the city worker pay raise are connected because the Council insisted employee pay raises be approved before incentives would be paid out.
The vote for both incentive packages was perhaps much larger than expected given all the questioning in the Council about it (including a 90-minute debate on the Council floor). There were also some community- based efforts to slow down if not stop what opponent see as corporate welfare. But in the end, even frequent Council critic John Cooper voted for the Amazon deal saying it is a good deal for the city.
It was also a bit surprising how quickly the pay raises were proposed. As mentioned, a similar pay hike was cancelled by the Mayor and Council last year because of a lack of funds. There had been little indication city tax collections had improved all that much. But Mayor Briley, in early March when he appeared on my INSIDE POLITICS show, seemed optimistic and said that there might be some major announcements coming before he gave his annual State of Metro address in late April. And so there has been.
There have also been recent efforts by the Mayor to bolster local affordable housing efforts, first by providing capital funding to renovate the city’s existing public housing. The Mayor is also seeking to save an historic building downtown that holds great significance to the African American community. The building might be used for additional affordable housing or to provide housing/ homeless services.
The lack of progress in affordable housing and homeless services, corporate incentives and the scuttling of last year’s pay raise have been the major issues raised against the Mayor as he seeks re-election in August. It is unlikely these recent efforts by Mr. Briley will end the controversies. But because the Mayor is being pro-active on these issues it might make the criticism less effective for now.
That could be important because the race for mayor got a new candidate this week. Former Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain had earlier submitted paperwork to raise money, but she declined to announce her official candidacy to see if she could raise enough funds to run. I guess she feels good about it and will run for a second time for the city’s highest office. She finished a distant second (just over 20%) in the
special mayoral election last May that Mayor Briley won without a runoff. Where will Swain get her money? Nashvillians? Conservative businessman Lee Beaman who strongly backed before? What about support and funding again from out of state conservative groups?
It could well be the field for mayor is now set, even though the qualifying deadline is not until mid-May. Progressive West Nashville state legislator John Ray Clemmons has been in the race for several weeks, while businessmen and media mogul Bill Freeman, who finished third in the 2015 mayoral race, has announced after weeks of speculation, that he won’t run again, apparently for personal and family reasons.
MORE ON THE HORIZON
Other potential mayoral issues continue to fester. One is the future of the Tennessee State Fair, which has been hosted in Nashville for over a century. The State Fair Board, a creation of the State of Tennessee, operates the Fair each September. That group now says it may be leaving Nashville this fall to an unknown site outside Davidson County.
How the group will identify a suitable site to move the Fair in less than six months’ time remains a mystery. Earlier the organization, chaired by new U.S. Congressman John Rose, filed suit against Metro claiming that because of the construction at the current Fairgrounds to build a new expo center and the new MLS soccer stadium, there is not enough room to hold the Fair.
But the lawsuit was later withdrawn in order to pursue further negotiations with the city. In that light the move to seek a new Fair site outside Nashville may be a more negotiating tactic than a necessity. Metro claims the new expo center will be done in time and there is plenty of room to host the Fair in Nashville as is required under the Metro Charter.
But size and construction issues seem likely to continue. Nashville’s new MLS pro soccer team announced late this week it won’t move in to its new Fairgrounds stadium (reportedly it will be the largest soccer stadium in the nation) until 2022. That is a least a year or so later than early predictions with groundbreaking ceremonies still to be held.
The future of the State Fair and the Fairgrounds have been political footballs for years. It looks like it will be again for this year’s mayoral race. Remember protecting the Fairgrounds was a strong enough issue a few years ago that Nashville voters passed an amendment to the Metro Charter to protect that area and make redevelopment quite difficult.
Another looming mayoral issue is public safety. As a part of the pay raise fight with the Mayor, the Fraternal Order of Police has repeatedly stated Nashville has too few police officers and many are leaving the force due to low morale. Events of this past weekend seem to give the FOP even more ammunition. In fact, I have seen the FOP President on TV talking about this matter more the police chief, the mayor or any other elected official.
The latest controversy surfaced last Saturday when the city seemed to be invaded by out of town gangs of off-road and ATV vehicles. They terrorized motorists, pedestrians and others in the area, descending in masse downtown and in other parts of the city. A police officer was struck and slightly injured by one of the vehicles after being dragged for more than a block. Another police van was also hit and damaged. The events present a strong visual argument about whether Metro has enough police officers and if our growing reputation as a party city is getting out of hand. You can see the rather shocking video here. It has gained news coverage as far away as Arizona and went viral on- line last weekend.
On Wednesday, the ATV rider who hit and dragged the police officer was apprehended by federal agents in Springfield. The person arrested is facing three felony and three misdemeanors counts. Is this perhaps an effort to come down hard to discourage any future such ATV and 4-wheel invasions?
Based on this article below it appears the person accused has a lengthy police record, has other pending charges and he has created issues when officers tried to apprehend him in the past. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/crime/2019/03/21/nashville-atv-drag-police-suspect-hurt-officers-past-affidavits/3232978002/
Finally, it was also a week that saw more signs of continued strong economic growth in Nashville and that our community is becoming a top tier city nationally. For the first time in Tennessee, a 5-star Four Seasons Hotel will be built in a new high rise downtown, while the popular Trader Joe’s grocery chain says it is looking for a second location on White Bridge Road in West Nashville.
And not all the growth is coming from large out of town companies The start-up firm SmileDirect Club moved to Nashville in 2016. It announced this week it is adding over 2,000 jobs and making a new investment of $217 million here, largely in the Antioch area There’s no word concerning what kind or the amount of local or state financial incentives that are being offered in this matter. https://www.tennessean.com/story/money/2019/03/20/nashville-based-smiledirectclub-announces-2-000-jobs-217-m-investment/3217572002/
But on the less positive side, a Wallet Hub survey found the Nashville-area among the Top 20 fattest cities in the nation (18th). For our sister cities it’s just as bad, if not worse, with Memphis (3rd), Knoxville (7th) and Chattanooga (16th) in the Top 20 in the survey.
Reportedly trying to speak to this issue, House lawmakers in Nashville this week unanimously passed a bill to repeal the state’s “gym tax.” This nearly 10% levy has been on the books since the 1980s. It only raises $10 million a year largely because large-chain fitness centers, health clubs and gyms have already been exempted from paying. The repeal measure must still pass the Senate, but Governor Lee supports the measure and has built the lost revenue into his state budget. Supporters say the tax repeal should lower gym fees, but apparently that isn’t mandated. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2019/03/21/tennessee-gym-tax-repeal-receives-bipartisan-approval-house/3238499002/
ON THE HILL
Do the deep-red politics practiced by the GOP Super Majority in the Tennessee pose a risk to Nashville’s business growth despite the city’s deep-blue progressive reputation?
Remember the hit Charlotte took in the national backlash that occurred after the passage of a controversial anti-LGBT “bathroom bill” by the North Carolina legislature?
In the same vein, the NEW YORK TIMES has an opinion piece this week quite critical of our General Assembly, not that many members of the Legislature pay much attention politically to the NEW YORK TIMES.
UPDATES ON CONTROVERSIAL LEGISLATION ON THE HILL
While it has yet to completely derail Governor Lee’s charter school expansion legislation, the bill is undergoing more and more tough questioning and already some changes have been made from its original language.
After a tough session of questioning in a House committee this week, the governor’s proposal was significantly scaled back in an important way and passed by a somewhat narrow margin.
As amended the bill no longer gives a new state board the power to approve new charters. Instead that power would still be in the control of local school boards with appeals of any new charter rejections and th overall oversight of charter schools going to the new board which will be appointed by the governor. The change came from the Lee legislative team but it is not stopping more questions and concerns from lawmakers.
Governor Lee’s proposal to create a school voucher or education savings account program (ESA) is also getting pushback and questions.
It began when the full numbers to fund the program were released. The price tag in three years when the program would begin in the 2020-2021 school year (even serving a limited number of counties) would be $125 million dollars. Those counties and schools eligible would be Shelby County Schools, Knox County Schools, Jackson-Madison County School District, Metro Nashville Public Schools and Hamilton County Schools –all those are districts in the state with at least three schools in the bottom 10 percent for achievement statewide.
The eligibility of families to receive ESAs is open to all in the district, not just those with students in low achieving schools. The income levels to qualify might also seem high to some. For example, a family of four would qualify for the annual $7,500 voucher from the state (to spend for each student on private school expenses) even with an income of just over $90,000. That income limit to be eligible for a voucher goes up to almost $109,000 for a family of five.
Such figures and other issues have even Republican lawmakers interviewed by Sam Stockard in an article in the DAILY MEMPHIAN not so sure about this legislation.
I think that one’s still going to have a lot of work going through the committees with that amount of cost,” said Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the House Education Committee and who supports the concept of “school choice” as long as accountability is part of the plan. Students who take the alternative funds will be required to take the TNReady test at the end of the year or one similar to it.
State Rep. Kevin Vaughan, a Collierville Republican who also serves on the House Education panel, said he is waiting for more information before he takes a stand.
“I’m under the impression that it’s a very fluid situation and changing by the day,” Vaughan said.
But in the same article, Governor Lee, as he is about charter schools, remains upbeat on his school education saving account plan.
““I’m meeting with a lot of folks and making certain that we realize that this is part of a focus and a push that I have that every kid has access to a quality education. So, we’re increasing funding and fully funding public schools, increasing funding for charter schools and proposing the ESA program,” Lee said.
So far, the Governor still seems more or less on track with the ESA bill even if the charter bill has been scaled back in committee. There do remain more committee votes to come and lot of questions and concerns about Mr. Lee’s number one item in his first legislative package.
Elsewhere on the Hill, the bill to restrict the power and makeup of Community Oversight Board, such as the one just overwhelmingly approved by Nashville voters, has been passed in both houses. There is one big remaining difference that must be resolved in a conference committee of both houses. Will the panel side with the House version of the bill and ban local boards from having subpoena powers, or will
the Senate version with some limited subpoena powers, prevail? Or will the conference committee come up with its own plan? Stay tuned.
Meanwhile THE TENNSSEAN reports despite Mayor Briley’s strong opposition to the COB legislation, it doesn’t seem to be a big topic for discussion for Metro lobbyists when they talk with lawmakers on the Hill.
One resolution that’s not going anywhere is one abolish birth right citizenship. A majority of the Republican controlled committee that considered the legislation this week decided it’s a federal matter and Congress and the courts should decide it, not the Tennessee General Assembly.
HAPPY 40 TO C-SPAN
This week cable television’s C-SPAN Network marks four decades of broadcasting the proceedings of the U.S. House and Senate live. The NEW YORK TIMES has an interesting article about it. It includes some brief comments made by of one of the lawmakers who spoke that first day, then Tennessee Congressman Al Gore. anniversary.
I must say this C-SPAN anniversary reminds me of being the original on-air anchor in 1975 when Nashville Public Television, then WDCN-TV, began live gavel to gavel coverage of meetings of the Metro Council. That has continued ever since for now almost 44 years. It now airs on Metro 3, one of the city’s government access cable channels.
I remember when we began the broadcasts, some councilmembers did not much like the meeting being televised. But after they were recognized favorably by someone in the grocery or at church who watched them, or someone remarked how good the new necktie they got for Christmas looks on the air the grousing faded. Democracy in action, I guess.
CONGRESSMAN MARK GREEN ON INSIDE POLITICS
One of Tennessee’s three new Republican congressmen is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week. Dr. Mark Green represents the 7th District and is a former State Senator and Representative from Clarksville.
We discuss how he is adjusting to Washington, amid speculation he might seek the U.S. Senate seat of Lamar Alexander who is retiring next year. Green admits he is interested and says he is receiving “100 calls a day” urging him to run. But he adds he has not decided or set a timeline to make decision about a Senate campaign. Green says he is focusing on being the best congressman he can be for his constituents.
We also discuss some of the Congressman’s new legislation to address the growing student loan debt crisis and to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit the number of Supreme Court justices to nine. We also ask him to further clarify his position on the safety of vaccinations.
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One of the groups pushing for Congressman Green to run for the Senate is the Club for Growth PAC. In addition to wanting Green to run (as it did new Senator Marsha Blackburn last year), the Club has also produced an attack video against former Governor Bill Haslam who is also deciding this spring whether to run for the Senate. It’s one of the most vicious political videos I’ve seen in my years of covering Tennessee elections and politics.
On INSIDE POLITICS this week, I asked Congressman Green about the Club for Growth video. He said he did not support or believe the charges and insinuations made in the video against former Governor Haslam. When I asked if he felt strongly enough about it, he would ask the Club for Growth to take down the video, he responded he hadn’t thought about that, but he might. Stay tuned!
Is the real purpose of this video from the Club for Growth to send Governor Haslam a message that there’s even more of these kinds of videos coming out against him if he decides to enter the U.S. Senate Republican primary next year? How low politics is going.
Former Governor Haslam is continuing his process to make a decision about a Senate race. This week he went to Washington.
Meanwhile, there was another sign this week of how completely uncivil and disfunctional our politics has become. It occurred when newly re-elected Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini apologized for saying in some recent party gatherings that Tennessee is “a racist state.” Unfortunately, her excuse of her racist state comment (blaming frustration and Republicans) doesn’t sound much like “I’m sorry.”