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Capitol View commentary: Friday, March 26, 2021

Capitol View
Posted at 12:05 PM, Mar 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-26 13:05:54-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

March 26, 2021

MAYOR JOHN COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS; IT IS THE VIRUS VERSUS THE VACCINES; THE RETURN TO NORMAL SEES MASS SHOOTINGS AND RENEWED CALLS FOR NEW GUN LAWS; ON THE HILL; LOCAL NEWS ELECTION BRIEFS

MAYOR JOHN COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS

2020 was clearly the most difficult year in Nashville history with tornadoes, the pandemic, an ongoing economic downturn.

We also saw a large property tax hike and city budget difficulties, along with racial unrest and calls for social change and police reform.

Finally, we saw a Christmas Day bombing downtown on Second Avenue that shook the community to its core.

We are now approaching the end of the first quarter of 2021.

How is Nashville doing in recovering from our 2020 calamities?

What challenges still lie ahead for us in the immediate months to come?

To discuss those questions, and other topics, our guest this week on INSIDE POLITICS is Nashville Mayor John Cooper.

We thank the Mayor, as always, for taking time to be with us.

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. 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. We are also back on DISH TV with the rest of the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK.

One option for those who cannot 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 early in the week after the program airs.

Finally, I am now posting a link to the show each week on my own Facebook page as soon as it is available, usually on Monday or Tuesday.

IT IS THE VIRUS VERSUS THE VACCINES

It is a contest that has been growing in importance the past several weeks.

It’s the virus (and its mutants) versus the vaccines.

At stake is whether the nation and the world turn the corner on ending the year-long corona virus pandemic or fall victim to more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

Right now, the vaccines continue to make process, at least in the U.S., but the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says we have not turned the corner yet.

What concerns health officials is that the virus variants are sparking a rise in cases in over half of the 50 states (although, for now, that does not include Tennessee). Nashville has seen its transmission rate go back over 1, which is concerning. The spike is happening as well around the world.

In terms of the vaccines, supply continue to increase so quickly, that a number of states (including Tennessee) are announcing plans to beat President Joe Biden’s May 1 deadline and begin giving shots to any adult over age 16. The Volunteer State will start doing so no later than April 5, and some counties have been given the latitude to begin even earlier if they think they have the vaccine supply to do so. That is happening across the state, including here in Middle Tennessee.

On Thursday, Nashville said it will open up its vaccine availability to over everyone 16 years and older by April 5 as mandated by Governor Lee. The state may be increasing its vaccine eligibility because in rural counties, vaccination appointments are going unfulfilled due to lack of demand. The hope is with a broadened pool of potential people eager to get shots, more will step up in those areas, so vaccines do not go to waste.

Nashville apparently has plenty of strong demand for shots. Even though local officials say the state is showing some willingness to adjust its vaccine distributions, based on demand, it apparently has not been enough yet for the city to allow everyone 16 and older to get in line right away as some counties are.

By the way, I keep hearing the state’s computer system to schedule vaccine appointments does not work well. That seems to be a persistent problem, with Tennessee state government and its technology systems, across the board.

Nashville city and health officials are still basking in the glow from last weekend’s successful mass drive-through vaccination effort at Nissan Stadium. That effort saw more than 10,000 residents get the one-shot Johnson & Johnson serum. Mayor John Cooper is also bragging on the city. That’s because he says we now have 25% of our population who have received at least one vaccination shot. That is the highest percentage of any of the top 10 cities in the entire Southeastern United States! The Mayor believes we can soon lead the entire nation in giving out shots.

The Mayor is tying vaccination growth to the city relaxing its remaining virus restrictions. Having passed 20% late last week, the Mayor says these changes will go into effect today (March 26).

With Metro now at 25% in terms of folks getting their first shot, more modifications to virus restrictions could be announced when Nashville passes 30%. That ought to be in the not- too- distant future, provided everyone continues to follow health protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing. There is also concern that Nashville may still at risk from a post-spring break virus increase.

The spike in air travel here in Nashville due to spring break certainly caught the on-site valet parking service at the Airport completely unprepared, with customers waiting hours to get their vehicles.

The chances of the nation getting a fourth vaccine to fight the virus took one step forward, then at least a half step backward this week. The AstraZeneca serum was claimed to be 79% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 based on its latest study. But then top health officials took the unusual step of publicly questioning the results, saying the company was using outdated information. AstraZeneca recalculated and now says its latest trials show 76% efficacy. Bottom line: I saw one person say on- line: “Good vaccine, poor communications.”

That is sure the truth. The AstraZeneca vaccine is in use around the world. Yet its studies have been questioned more than once. The vaccine has also been in chronic short supply in Europe, and their shots were even halted temporarily, because of concerns it was causing blood clots (which prove to be unfounded). Even as of late this week, AstraZeneca problems, worldwide, may still not be over.

Full disclosure: I have been part of the AstraZeneca study here in Nashville, and I got the vaccine. I sure hope the company soon gets approval for emergency use in this country. Otherwise, I have the strangest looking vaccination card around. I just hope it doesn’t become an historical keepsake, for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile the Biden administration is announcing a $10 billion effort to expand vaccination access to the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

But resistance to taking the vaccine remains rather strong in some groups.

The President is also updating his vaccination goal for his first 100 days in office. Last week, he exceeded his first goal of 100 million shots administered. He did that in less than 60 days. Now he is doubling the goal to 200 million shots by the end of April.

Meanwhile, a new study indicates we may be closer to herd immunity than thought.

THE RETURN TO NORMAL SEES MASS SHOOTINGS AND RENEWED CALLS FOR NEW GUN LAWS

As the nation continues to move (perhaps slowly) back towards normal, this past week has also seen two mass shootings, with 18 persons killed in separate incidents in Boulder, CO. and Atlanta, GA.

While it might seem these random and senseless acts did not occur very frequently during the pandemic, this USA TODAY article indicates that is not true, comparing 2020 to 2019. And these incidents are spiking even more in the first quarter of 2021.

These latest tragedies have renewed calls for new gun laws on the federal level. That would include changes in background checks as well as a renewed ban on automatic weapons. President Biden is weighing in, not only calling for Congress to act, but indicated he might take executive actions, if lawmakers don’t do so.

Here is an article that outlines what the President might do in terms of executive actions.

Republicans are pushing back in opposing new laws, saying more funds for mental health services might be better. But some are also seeing a new twist in their arguments.

It would seem difficult, at best, to get any gun legislation through the U.S. Senate, where at least 10 GOP members would have to cross over, to get the 60 votes needed for passage. And it may need even more Republican lawmakers than 10 to pass. That is because it is far from clear all 50 Democrats are in support of the gun measures.

For now, Democratic leaders, who control the Senate’s agenda, indicate they will force a vote as early as April on some gun related legislation that seems particularly popular in recent public polling. The votes will also include voting rights legislation. Several of are bills that have already passed the House.

As for the President, he seemed to downplay his gun legislation push during his first presidential news conference on Thursday. He says timing is everything and he plans to push his huge infrastructure plan first. Does that mean he may go the executive action route first, if the planned gun law votes in the Senate fail?

Another issue missing in the Democrat’s legislative push in the Senate is immigration. Reform measures are stuck, amid near unanimous Republican opposition and criticism. And on this issue, the President and Democrats are on the defensive due to the “crisis” created by the renewed surge of migrants, especially unaccompanied minors, at the southern border. Now Vice President Kamala Harris is taking the lead.

Mr. Biden achieved his first major legislative win through the passage of his $1.9 trillion virus relief bill using the budget reconciliation rules which requires only 51 votes to pass the Senate. But it appears passing almost any part of his remaining legislative agenda may take modifying or even abolishing the filibuster rule in the Senate (which requires the 60 -vote margin).

As a former long- time member of the Senate, President Biden has been hesitant to move in that direction. But on Thursday, during his first official news conference as President, he seemed to move in the direction of changing the filibuster.

Interestingly, another media outlet read the President’s filibuster comments differently.

Invoking what is known as “the nuclear option,” the filibuster rules can be changed with only 51 votes. But, again, are all 50 Democratic Senators on board for change, such as going back to one of the old Senate rules on a filibuster? It could impact lots of bills including the Equality Act recently approved by the House.

Senate Republican leaders are threating a “scorched earth policy” if the filibuster is changed, including maybe even not showing up, so the upper chamber can’t act?

ON THE HILL

The renewed debate about gun laws in Washington comes as the Tennessee General Assembly seems ready, as early as next week, to pass Governor Bill Lee’s bill ending the requirement that gun owners take training, and receive a permit, to own a handgun in Tennessee.

The recent mass shootings and the debate in Washington does not seem to have impacted anything about what is occurring on this issue on Capitol Hill in Nashville. Nor is it impacting the Governor’s strong commitment to his legislation, even as some conservatives wish it was broader.

The war on transgenders in Tennessee, especially young people, continued this week. The Tennessee House gave final approval to a bill that would ban Tennessee junior high and high school students from playing sports under a sex other than what their birth certificate says. The bill has been strongly endorsed by Governor Lee. He is expected to sign the measure into law, even though there is no evidence any students are playing, or competing against others, as transgenders.

The final vote in the House on the transgender sports bill found a split among Democrats which is creating some significant party discord. And there is more transgender legislation pending.

Perhaps the most surprising story on the Hill this week was a seeming split among the Republican leadership over health care involving expanding Medicaid in Tennessee under the Affordable Care Act.

So far neither Governor Bill Lee nor House Speaker Cameron Sexton have expressed much interest in exploring the Biden administration’s plan, so it does not appear any change will happen. I think the Governor would prefer continuing to pursue the state’s TennCare program being converted into a block grant, as approved by the previous Trump administration, but which Team Biden has indicated it will not allow.

While other red states seeem to be pursuing this Medicaid expansion opportunity, it appears Tennessee will continue to decline what would has now been billions in federal funds that could have bolstered a state which is among the sickest in the nation, and which has seen a number of rural hospitals close.

In terms of public health, the Republican Super Majority gave final approval this week to a bill that ratifies their belief that the decision to open or close schools during a public health emergency is best left to elected officials such the school board and the Governor, and not to public health experts on local boards of health. So that is following the science?

In other pandemic related legislation, lawmakers had to decide between the state’s reputation for being “pro business” and being supportive of “individual liberty” in terms of the COVID-19 vaccines. Pro-business won.

GOP lawmakers are also giving new life to an oft-considered measure, once approved by the General Assembly, but then vetoed by former governor Bill Haslam. It would make the Holy Bible the official book of Tennessee, with the measure moving towards a vote on the House floor next week.

LOCAL NEWS ELECTION BRIEFS

Former Mayor David Briley may be seeking office again next year.

Briley was the first incumbent mayor in Metro history to be defeated for re-election in 2019, losing to current Mayor John Cooper.

Now Briley is looking at running for a seat on the local bench (Circuit Court).

Another former Mayor, Megan Barry saw a recent development that could open up the way for her legally to run for office again if she desires to do so.

There is even an issue that could be headed back to the ballot. While current Mayor John Cooper is pursuing his own transportation plan, one that is nowhere near as expansive or expensive as the one the voters rejected in 2018, this NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL article indicates the Mayor has for months been pursuing another billion- dollar-plus proposal.

Another matter that could being headed to the voters, and maybe to the courts, is another petition effort by attorney Jim Roberts to make significant changes to the Metro Charter. An earlier effort was struck down in the courts last year.

Among five other amendments, Roberts is again seeking to rescind the 34% property tax increase approved in 2020 and limit any future tax hikes to 3% a year. I suspect that is illegal under state law, and meaningless since the tax rate is re-set every year, and everyone needed to pay their property taxes for this past year by the end of February anyway.

With 14,000 signatures on his petition, does Roberts have enough to call a special election in June at a cost of close to a million dollars? That is still to be determined,. Metro election officials say 14,000 is not enough, and the matter may wind up in the courts again.

Finally, it is with sadness I learned of the death this week of former Tennessee U.S. Senator Bill Brock. As a college student, I followed his victory over incumbent Senator Albert Gore, Sr. in 1970. When I worked at WPLN in 1973, I got to know him and his staff. I then covered his unsuccessful re-election bid in 1976 when he was defeated by Democrat Jim Sasser.

After leaving the Senate, Mr. Brock went on to a long career in national GOP politics. From his time in Tennessee, serving in both the U.S. House and Senate, he was also one of the pioneers in laying the foundation for the Republican Party becoming the dominant political force in Tennessee.

May he rest in peace.