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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, March 23, 2018

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Posted at 4:49 PM, Mar 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-23 17:49:47-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Seigenthaler, a Finn Partners Company

March 23, 2018

THE SPECIAL MAYORAL ELECTION REMAINS IN FLUX; THE MLS STADIUM AND THE FAIRGROUNDS; ANOTHER HOLDOVER FROM THE BARRY AFFAIR; THE MORE THINGS CHANGE THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME; THE LATEST TV ADS; INSIDE POLITICS LOOKS AT FOREIGN AFFAIRS; THE STATUS QUO ISSUE FOR METRO’S BUDGET; YET ANOTHER BUDGET AND SPENDING FIGHT IN WASHINGTON; TRANSIT FIGHT GATHERS SPEED; APPROACHING THE FINAL DAYS ON THE HILL;

THE SPECIAL MAYORAL ELECTION REMAINS IN FLUX

It remains unclear just when a special election will be held to pick a new mayor to fill out the remaining months of Mayor Megan Barry’s term (until August 2019). The need for an election arose when she resigned from office after agreeing to charges of felony theft growing out her admitted nearly two- year- long extra marital affair with her security chief.

The Metro Election Commission upon, legal advice, picked the August 2 election scheduled for later this summer for the special mayoral vote. But current local NAACP President and former Metro Council member Ludye Wallace filed a lawsuit claiming the Metro Charter mandates the correct date to hold the special mayoral election is in May.

Wallace sought to boost his standing for the lawsuit by qualifying to run for mayor himself. But his suit was rejected by the local Chancery court and now Wallace has sought to have the State Supreme Court to take the case directly on appeal. Time is drawing very short, especially if the election date picked is May 1, which would make it part of the ballot for the county primary election and the transit plan referendum also set for that date.

A majority of Metro councilmembers this week asked the state’s high court to decide as quickly as possible whether to take up the case.

Meanwhile, the city’s Legal Department took a different legal tack. It asked that the state’s High Court to refuse to take the case, arguing the matter has been previously settled by an earlier ruling of the Court.

But on Thursday the Tennessee Supreme Court did decide to take the case and set oral arguments for April 9. That’s interesting since that's four days after the qualifying deadline (April 5) for candidates running in the August 2 elections and several weeks after that same deadline for the May 1 election. That April 9 date is also just a couple of days ahead of the start of early voting for the May 1st election. Read more here.

On Wednesday of this week, a significant announcement was made concerning one potential mayoral candidate who many have speculated would run in the special election. Nashville businessman and 2015 mayoral candidate Bill Freeman says he will NOT run. Quoting from his news release, Freeman says his decision was personal and would not discourage anyone else from running:

“It is certainly within the capability of Nashvillians to determine what’s best for Nashville. To discourage anyone from running for office is downright un-American,” stated Freeman. “I simply feel that Mayor Briley is the right person for Nashville right now. I’ve weighed the options, and I feel that my continued role with Freeman Webb will serve Nashville well, with our strong initiatives to meet Nashville’s needs for affordable housing.”

In his release, Freeman (as he did in his 2015 campaign) was sharply critical of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce: “While Mayor Briley must be inundated right now with appeals from all sides, it is vital that our mayor remain balanced in his approach,” commented Freeman. “Seeing the undue influence that our Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has attempted to create is worrisome. Our chamber actively discouraged anyone to run in this election practically the minute we heard of Barry’s resignation, and that is concerning. The influence of any outside entity, be they a quasi-governmental agency or “big business” interests or a combination of both factors, is concerning. Our chamber does not have the best track record in representing the will of all Nashville, simply put. You only have to look across the county line to see how many corporations have chosen to put roots down in other counties to see that, or to see their failures in redeveloping the fairgrounds or the failed AMP project or their heavy-handed approach to influencing our public schools. I hope that Mayor Briley sees that what’s best for Nashville may not line up with what the chamber thinks is best for Nashville.”

Perhaps significantly Freeman did not rule out running in the future, including in 2019, when the Mayor’s seat (and a full, four- year term) will be on the ballot. While praising Mayor Briley’s initial decisions regarding General Hospital and the future of the Ft. Negley/ Greer Stadium parks property, Freeman was not positive about the transit plan before voters on the May 1st ballot:

“It is absolutely imperative that we address our pressing need for solutions to our traffic problems. However, I’m not convinced that the plan we have in front of us is the right plan,” stated Freeman. “We need to have a plan that gives more attention to a truly regional approach to mass transit and a plan that addresses current traffic congestion more than this plan does. With the attached price tag, we can’t afford to get this wrong. Even though Mayor Briley and I agree that we need a plan, we disagree on what that plan should be. It seems to me that this plan may cause more problems that it appears to solve.”

While Freeman may sound like a future candidate, his decision not to run this year would seem to lessen the chances of a large field getting in to oppose Mayor Briley in August (or whenever the special election is held).

There are others reportedly looking at running in the special mayor’s race. THE TENNESSEEAN lists this way.

“Potential other contenders include businessman David Fox, who like Freeman also lost to Barry in the 2015 mayor's race, At-large Councilwoman Erica Gilmore, At-large Councilman John Cooper, and state Rep. Harold Love Jr., D-Nashville. Former Councilman Roy Dale and jeff obafemi carr, a spiritual activist who is working for a group fighting Nashville's May 1 transit referendum, have each picked up qualifying papers.”

One other potential candidate who has now announced he is not running is Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall, who is already on the May 1st ballot seeking re-election. Sheriff Hall explained his decision this way to THE TENNESSEAN:

"I've had a better relationship with the current mayor over the past two and a half weeks than I did with the previous mayor over two and a half years," Hall said.

"He's really good for this time," he added. "There's some issues that are going to be complicated, but we need some stability. I'm encouraging everybody to support Mayor Briley."

THE MLS STADIUM AND THE FAIRGROUNDS

Bill Freeman this week also expressed concern about whether Mayor Briley would continue to support Mayor Barry’s pledge to enhance and preserve the State Fairgrounds. In that regard, there was an effort this week to rescind the Metro Council’s approval of the new MLS stadium to be built at the Fairgrounds. The stadium bond approval was a major achievement of the Barry administration and was a critical boost for Nashville being awarded a major league soccer expansion franchise.

But some Council members who have opposed the pro soccer effort, and others unhappy that one of the top executives in Mayor’s office (COO Rich Reibeling) tried to use money not yet approved to begin stadium planning work, sought to rescind the Council’s soccer stadium approval.

The opponents wanted to take the vote two weeks from now. But others in the Council managed to get an immediate decision Tuesday night. The vote was 16-8 with several abstentions and absences. Since a two-thirds (27) vote is required to rescind, the move failed and fell well short of passage.

There are more required votes by the Council still to come on the MLS stadium project. That includes one to demolish some buildings at the Fairgrounds that requires a 2/3 approval. So this issue may still not be over.

ANOTHER HOLDOVER FROM THE BARRY AFFAIR

The Metro Council has decided to continue the work of its special committee looking into whether taxpayer money was wrongly used during the two-year, extra marital affair between former Mayor Megan Barry and her security chief, now retired Metro Police Sgt. Rob Forrest.

But the probe’s focus will be a little different going forward. Because of the work done by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, there is no longer the need to spend time proving that taxpayer funds were wrongly spent. The felony theft and repayment agreements entered into by both Mayor Barry and Sgt. Forrest clearly show wrong doing.

Now the Council Special Committee can focus on how the city needs to add or modify its policies and procedures to make sure nothing like this happens again. Any staff or investigative work that still needs to be done can be handled by Metro’s Auditor and the Legal Department. Therefore city leaders have decided they no longer need to hire a law firm out of Memphis to help.

There’s also the question about Sgt. Forrest’s annual city pension of $74,000. Again, clearly because of the felony theft agreement, there is a legal certainty that the former police officer wrongly received overtime pay. Metro calculates pensions by taking an average of the last five years of pay received by an employee.

So the $45,000 in overtime funds he received wrongly will likely be removed from his pension consideration and his monthly and yearly pay outs adjusted accordingly. The Metro Employee Benefit Board discussed the matter this week and us likely to take on how to proceed when it meets again next month.

Speaking of former Mayor Barry, THE TENNESSEAN reports she has sent out an e-mail to supporters offering partial refunds of campaign contributions given towards her re-election campaign in 2019.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME

There’s another Tennessee U.S. Senate poll that shows former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen with a narrow lead (46%-41%) over Republican Congressman Marsha Blackburn.

In fact, the USA TODAY TENNESSEE NETWORK says those numbers are identical to a poll taken by the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee a few months ago before Bredesen decided to enter the race. The new survey was conducted by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling group out of North Carolina. But before you jump to conclusions, the self-identified party mix of the 1,000 voters participating is reportedly just 33% Democrat, 43% Republican and 23% independent or other.

This is a poll that is bound to stir up more angst among GOP leaders who have voiced concerns that Blackburn is not strong enough to hold the seat which is being vacated by retiring Republican Senator Bob Corker.

In fact, in the wake of this new poll, a wealthy Republican businessman from Williamson County says he plans to run against Blackburn to give GOP primary voters a chance to hold the seat against the Democrats this fall. Tom Humphrey has the details.

But there are already questions being raised about how true a Republican Lynn is based on his voting record in party primaries.

Getting back to the Senate poll, it also surveyed some other topics.

Fifty-four percent of respondents say they approve of President Donald Trump’s job performance while 42% disapprove. On the Affordable Care Act, the survey says 49% favor keeping the law with 42% saying it should be repealed.

These two sets of figures would indicate some wisdom in Bredesen’s efforts (including in one of his latest TV ads) to say he is running to represent Tennesseans in the U.S. Senate, not to oppose President Donald Trump. He says if the President presents an idea he likes and that will help Tennesseans, he will support it. If not, he would oppose it. He thinks that is what being a Senator is supposed to be all about.

THE LATEST TV ADS

In the Governor’s race, new TV ads keep rolling out every week for some of the GOP primary candidates.

That includes Congressman Diane Black who continues to push hard with voters to remember the support she has from President Trump and her support of for his agenda. She also points out her opposition to Planned Parenthood and her willingness to take on the mainstream media.

Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd’s new TV spot focuses on the Right to Life issue and adoption. The latter matter is a bit of a personal one for the candidate.

Given the amount of money it takes to produce and air TV and on-line spots, the topics picked by the GOP candidates would seem to their top priority to get out critical messages. But at least for one my Facebook friends who lives in East Tennessee, he’s not seeing it. He wrote on his page:

“I appreciate the strong views on abortion, adoption and sex trafficking, but would like to choose a Governor based more on what they will do for education, economic development and health care. How about discussing those issues, candidates?”

INSIDE POLITICS LOOKS AT FOREIGN AFFAIRS

With all the hoopla surrounding our pending local, state and national elections, it might be easy to forget what is going on worldwide that very much impacts our country and our national security.

That’s why we have invited back Vanderbilt professor Dr. Thomas Schwartz to be our guest this week on INSIDE POLITICS.

He will share his wisdom and insights regarding the recent firings of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster by President Donald Trump as well as looming controversies involving North Korea, Iran, the Middle East and a looming trade war with China among other topics.

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each 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. 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.

THE STATUS QUO ISSUE FOR METRO’S BUDGET

Getting back to Metro Government, if you watched my INSIDE POLITICS interview last week with Nashville’s new Mayor, David Briley, you’d know that, unlike the last few years, Metro’s revenues are not growing at the rate they have been. Successful appeals from last year’s countywide reappraisals also cut down on increased revenues for the city.

In response, Mayor Briley told me he is asking city departments to submit “status quo” spending plans. That means no new programs or services for the next operating budget

But even with that change, achieving “status quo” for the next fiscal year faces at least one major challenge. Last year, then-Mayor Megan Barry and the Metro Council approved a three year pay improvement plan with all city workers receiving a 3% pay boost each year.

That means Metro must find several tens of millions of dollars to pay for the second 3% pay boost this July when the new budget goes into effect.

Keep that in mind as the Mayor continues his budget hearings and when he unveils his first spending recommendations during his first State of Metro address around May 1st.

YET ANOTHER BUDGET AND SPENDING FIGHT IN WASHINGTON

Of course, every couple of weeks we must face a potential government shutdown because Congress and the President have not agreed on a government spending plan.

This week there was another temporary “meeting of the minds” on this matter, and now we have all the way to the end of the federal fiscal year (September 30) before we face this fight again. Oh joy, almost a whole 6 months!

Several in Congress found the $1.3 trillion spending plan a bit hard to support. Even with sharply increased funds for the military and a sizable amount of new money to fight the opioid crisis, the total spending number really skyrockets the national deficit and debt, especially when government revenues are being cut sharply by the recent tax cuts.

It all led to Tennessee’s Washington delegation being split. Tom Humphreys has the breakdown and some insightful details.

Of course, President Trump seemed divided against himself on the spending plan for a while today (Friday). After assuring Congressional leaders he would sign the measure, he tweeted a message Friday morning that he would veto the plan because it did not include enough money for his border wall. But, somehow, the staff talked him down and he will sign the bill averting a shutdown one more time.

By the way, you may be puzzled why Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper, a long-time fiscal hawk on the Hill voted for the latest spending. I asked and through his office here is his response:

“This bill had tons of good things in it and tons of bad. On balance, there was more good than bad and it was vital to prevent a government shutdown. Congress should not roll everything into one huge package. We should vote on individual issues so the public knows where we stand on each issue. I rarely vote for things that aren’t paid for, but shutting the government down only makes our fiscal problems worse, not better.”

TRANSIT FIGHT GATHERS SPEED

The May 1st vote on the proposed transit plan for Metro is stirring up both opposition and support from outside Davidson.

The opposition comes from this FORBES magazine article.

The support for the transit plan is coming from the county mayors and other officials surrounding Nashville. They say if it passes they plan to move ahead with plans to link up with the new Metro light rail system. Quoting from a Facebook posting regarding information sent out to transit supporters by the Nashville Chamber on Thursday, these out of county leaders see this May 1 vote as the “first major step in constructing a regional transit system across Middle Tennessee.”

Here’s the official news release.

The endorsement does speak to a couple of the criticisms of the transit plan. One is that it doesn’t address the transit issue on a regional basis. The other is that residents of other surrounding counties will be happy to use our improved transit system but won’t follow suit to do so themselves.

APPROACHING THE FINAL DAYS ON THE HILL

With a projected final adjournment now less than a month away, there are signs everywhere that lawmakers are looking to wrap up their work. Some legislative committees have already shut down while the others are working through their final agendas getting ready to go home. There is more activity on the floors of both houses regarding legislation. Even preliminary steps are being taken to

start final approval of the state’s new operating budget for the next fiscal year. That is usually among the last tasks legislators take care of before they adjourn.

In that regard, Governor Bill Haslam is doing his part. He sent his supplemental budget requests to the Hill this week. That includes an extra $30 million in funding for school safety. A large percentage of the money ($25 million) is coming from one- time funding, and a special task force recently appointed by the Governor will soon make its recommendations how the state ought to allocate the funds to the counties and school systems across the state. Meanwhile, an effort to increase school safety by arming designated teachers in schools continues to move ahead, passing in still more committees in the legislature.

Also, as a part of its seemingly never-ending role as the largest school board in the state, the state House gave overwhelmingly final legislative approval to a bill that will require every public school in Tennessee to display the national motto “In God we Trust” somewhere in the facility. The measure goes to Governor Haslam for his consideration.

The medical cannabis bill continues to struggle on the Hill. Even after paring down the measure in a House committee this week, the bill was rolled over until next week. An even rockier road seems to lie ahead in the Senate, where the proposal has not even been considered in any committee waiting to see what happens in the House. Reading this article, you can sense the rising frustration of bill sponsors who seem to have quite a bit of support in public polls, but not so much among lawmakers.

Finally, this week it appeared on Thursday that the Republican Super Majority in the Senate was about to follow their GOP House colleagues and approve a requirement that any able-bodied Tenncare recipient with children over age 6 must be employed, in training or engaged in volunteer work (or be cut off from healthcare coverage).

But then the bill was pulled off the Senate agenda. Sponsors said the reason was to make sure the Trump administration, which has to approve the requirement, is ready to negotiate and approve the matter. They also want to work out cost details which have been a source of criticisms from Democrats and other health care advocates who oppose the bill. The fiscal note is in the millions of dollars to enforce the measure, raising the practicality of imposing the new work rule.

But did the bill get pulled for another reason? Was it because of a possibly embarrassing article about the consequences of the legislation? It was published statewide by the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee (above the fold on the front page of THE TENNESSEAN) on the day of the planned Senate vote.

Read the article here and its aftermath on the Hill here.