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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, March 29, 2019

Capitol View
Posted at 12:21 PM, Mar 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-29 13:21:31-04


We are honored to have Governor Bill Lee as our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

We spend a good bit of time during our interview discussing his controversial proposals before the Legislature to increase parental choice in public education. That would be by increasing the number of charter schools and by creating a $7,300 annual education savings account (ESA) or vouchers for students in school districts which have at least three schools judged as failing by the state.

Those bills are advancing in committees in both houses but not without lots of questions and opposition, including from Republicans. In his comments to me, Governor Lee appears to be open to changes in his plans, including removing home schooled children from the program and perhaps a modification of what some see as generous income guidelines to participate (a family of four can earn over $90,000 a year).

We also discuss the controversial anti-abortion bills that are making their way through the General Assembly with even pro-life supporters split on the proposals. The Governor’s criminal justice reform measures are making head way as well on the Hill and he talks about why this issue has become so important in Tennessee and across the country.

There’s more, so tune in!

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After months of controversy and weekly protests on the Hill, House Speaker Glen Casada reversed course on Thursday.

He removed controversial Republican State Representative David Byrd from his chairmanship of House Education sub-committee.

Casada had strongly defended the lawmaker despite growing concerns about charges that three decades ago, while Byrd was a coach and teacher, he sexually assaulted three of his players. It even led one of the women involved to meet with Governor Lee recently. It’s a matter which I discuss with the Governor on INSIDE POLITICS. Our interview was conducted before Casada announced his decision which came as a surprise to some observers on the Hill, although reports from THE TENNESSEE JOURNAL ON THE HILL blog reports the move came after Representative Byrd voted against the Lee administration’s school voucher bill, a measure which Speaker Casada strongly supports.

In his successful campaign to be elected Speaker, Representative Casada strongly emphasized to his Republican colleagues that he would always have their backs. But if you don’t vote for the important legislation the Speaker wants passed, all bets are off?


Here’s an update on action regarding legislation we discussed with Governor Lee.

Both anti-abortion bills now face questions about their passage. Even though the House has approved the legislation that would ban abortion as soon as a fetal heart beat is detected, Lt. Governor Randy McNally has concerns that measure would be stuck down in the courts as laws in similar states have been found unconstitutional. Therefore, Senate passage of the heartbeat bill seems in question.

The bill that would make abortion illegal as soon as the Roe v. Wade decision is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court also faces legal questions for being too unclear and uncertain in its timing. This week that argument convinced enough Republican lawmakers on one House sub-committee to kill the bill by a one vote margin. That leaves the measure likely dead for this year.

As for the Governor’s education savings account bill it passed through the House Education Committee. But the matter seemed to be enough in doubt that House Speaker Glen Casada showed up at the committee meeting to cast a yes vote. The Speaker is a voting member of all committees although it is a power rarely exercised. The voucher plan was amended to delete participation by home school students, to limit the number of students participating, and to make sure the State Department of Education verifies the legal status of participating students. Given past court rulings that last amendment could raise legal questions for the ESA programs More committee hearings and votes loom ahead.

Regarding another high- profile bill which we did not discuss with the Governor (although he is opposed to it), legislation that would legalize sports gambling in the state got a negative recommendation from a Senate committee. The bill sponsored by Nashville Senator Steve Dickerson is pending before other committees as well in the upper chamber, so the proposal may still find a way to stay alive for passage.

One bill approved this week by the state House and likely headed soon to the Governor’s desk to be signed would make it illegal for cities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for single use auxiliary devices: i.e., plastic bags, cups, bottles, straws, to-go boxes, delivery packaging and more.

Usually the GOP Super Majority in the General Assembly waits until city and county officials act before invoking their constitutional ability to nullify local actions. While both Nashville and Memphis have considered such measures to protect the environment, no action has been taken.

Nevertheless, at the urging of the state’s Grocers Association, the bill to ban any local action is being quickly passed by the Legislature. In this case, setting a statewide standard on this issue makes some sense. But what does the General Assembly plan to do to deal with this serious environmental issue? One reason the local governments have considered taking some action is because the Legislature has done nothing.

When will see a bill on the Hill setting up these state standards?

There are reasons to have doubts. State environmental groups say local governments ought to be able to do what best for their communities. Then there is the way this bill is being passed. It is not a free- standing measure, but rather an amendment added to an unrelated bill, reports THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS.


For several months, Nashville Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper has worked hard, joined by Republican State Senator Steve Dickerson, to create a program to register more voters. That particularly includes high school and college students as well as getting local businesses to get their employees registered to vote.

Now the Congressman feels voter registration legislation moving through the state House threatens to undermine those efforts by restricting the ability of civic, religious, and campus groups to help Tennesseans register to vote.

Quoting from a news release sent out by his congressional office:

“As a state that has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, we shouldn't make voter registration more complicated. If paper forms are too difficult, we should offer more digital options, such as same-day registration and automatic voter registration. Or we should fix our confusing forms,” Rep. Cooper said.

The bill would subject people involved in voter registration drives to civil or criminal penalties up to $10,000 if they are out of compliance with new voter registration requirements, including a deadline by which applications must be submitted and required training through the coordinator of elections.

"More training is good, but what if the training is only offered in certain areas of the state and only on limited days?”

Cooper noted that punishing people who are trying to help Tennesseans do their civic duty is terrible policy, and Tennessee would be the only state in the nation to subject individuals to civil and criminal penalties.

"It's like a new poll tax. How many jelly beans are in the jar? We have seen this movie before. This is a blatant attempt to suppress the vote further in Tennessee."

Again, according to the Congressman, efforts to pass the new voter bill are well along.

“HB1079/SB0971, sponsored by State Representative Tim Rudd and State Senator Ed Jackson, would require individuals and organizations that are attempting to register 100 people or more to vote to adhere to new guidelines.

The House version passed the Elections and Campaign Finance Subcommittee yesterday and will move on to the Local Committee next week. The Senate version is expected to be heard in the State and Local Government Committee next week as well.”

The furor over voter registration also came in a week when Davidson County election officials announced that when the Metro election is held on August 1, voters will have new machines to cast their ballots. The machine will also generate a paper trail copy of how you voted which you can verify before your ballot is officially cast.


Usually when a board or organization goes on a weekend retreat, the members are seeking to find unity, consensus.

That sure didn’t seem to work last weekend for Metro’s sharply divided School Board.

Now as we approach another weekend, it appears the School Board remains in stalemate, must decide when it wants new leadership and new Director for schools. The Scholl Board also seems to be facing a new confrontation with Mayor David Briley. He says unless board members start doing their jobs, it will have consequences for new monies for schools. He calls it the School Board’s last chance.

Read on concerning this past week’s tumultuous and troubling developments.

Last Monday found increased discord among School Board members and with Schools Director Dr. Shawn Joseph.

Members were already divided about the future of the Director (he is entering the final year of his contract), now the politics of the board has shifted still further.

First, one of Dr. Joseph’s long-time supporters, Anna Shepard requested a Board meeting on April 9 for a vote to consider firing the Director. Shepard has apparently gotten increasingly unhappy with Dr. Joseph as controversies continue to build about his job performance and other issues.

Within hours on Monday another of Dr. Joseph’s Board supporters Will Pinkston announced his resignation, decrying the ongoing gridlock and politics on the Board. Dr. Joseph then delivered his own stunning announcement. He would no longer seek a new contract and would serve out the remaining year on his contract then leave Nashville.

There was yet other major development the next day. That’s when State Board of Education officials announced they would seek a one-year suspension of Dr. Joseph’s teaching license for repeatedly not properly reporting to the State employee misconduct issues that have occurred in the Metro system. That led Dr. Joseph to further alter his position, telling the School Board he is now open to negotiating an early exit from his contract.

What happens now? That’s unknown since it is unclear if there is a majority on the Board (5 out of 9 members) to support any course of action, from firing Joseph to letting him work out his final year or negotiate a settlement to end his contract early.

What a mess! It has led some of Dr. Joseph supporters in the Metro Council to decry the way he is being treated, indicating it has racial overtones. See the story below and watch the attached video for their full comments.

Mayor David Briley says he is working to seek a resolution to the controversy. In fact, he held a news conference Friday morning to outline his plans. His comments seem to lean towards being more on Dr. Joseph’s side rather than with some Board members. But the Mayor does not seem to be seeking to have Dr. Joseph remain in his position.

Here are the Mayor’s complete written remarks delivered during his news conference at Napier Elementary School.

The Mayor’s vow to take more active role in school leadership is problematic. State law and the Metro Charter limit his power and those of the Metro Council. They can’t tell the School Board what to do or how to spend its funds. They do control the overall purse strings in terms of how much overall money Metro schools receives. Is it legal to require some kind of written agreement with the Board about schools’ operations and policies in order to receive more money? I don’t know. No doubt, it will very controversial.

The threat from the Mayor that this is “the last chance” for the Board to get its act together is quite interesting. Does he mean going back to having the School Board appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the Council? That was the way things operated from the beginning of Metro in 1963 until the early 1980s when citizens, unhappy with the closing of neighborhood high schools under a desegregation plan, launched a successful petition drive to amend the Metro Charter to have school board members elected from nine districts across Davidson County.

Changing the School Board back to being appointed would again require approval of a Charter amendment and no doubt would generate even more controversy.

Mayor Briley said “all options are on the table” regarding schools. I will be interested to see what else that means in the days and weeks to come.

Local public education is always a major issue in our Metro elections for Mayor and Council. Now with this week’s developments that matter is bound to be even more on the front burner, especially with the voting just a few months away.

Indeed already, Kara Turrentine, a spokesman for State Representative John Ray Clemmons, one of Briley’s opponents for re-election is blaming the incumbent for Metro Schools’ problems. She says the Mayor has failed to set values for the entire city and she adds his current comments about schools are opportunistic.

"The MNPS Board and the Director of Schools are fighting because they don’t agree on what the values should be, when in fact the Mayor’s office should be setting the values for the entire city and an expectation for every student to succeed.

"This type of opportunistic leadership is bad for Nashville families. Today, the Mayor’s Office has decided that we need a discussion on race in Nashville. It’s long past time for that discussion.

"Let's be clear: The Mayor’s office continues to perpetuate inequity every time it passes a budget that does not fully fund schools. This district is over 70% brown and black students. Every kindergartner who starts school at MNPS starts behind the curve because they come to an educational environment that is not fully funded. This injustice must end and our city needs new leadership committed to not just talking about our values - but funding them. “

TENNESSEAN columnist Keel Hunt has his own suggestion on what to do. He says it is time to clean house on the Board.

At the end of yet another tumultuous week for Metro schools, it does appear certain Dr. Shawn Joseph is on his way out as Schools Director. But when he will depart, and under what terms remain uncertain, as does how all this will impact the tens of thousands of young people and their families who depend on Nashville public schools to be educated. Also unclear is the future growth and development of our entire city which faces a difficult future if we can’t find a way to get our public schools functioning effectively.


The last few weeks we’ve been talking a lot in this column about affordable housing in Nashville. Or make that, how the city should address our growing lack of an affordable place to live. And the issue didn’t surface recently. It was a major issue four years ago in 2015 during the city’s last mayoral race.

Now current Mayor David Briley didn’t take office until last year. But with his re-election looming August 1, He is talking a lot about the issue. It is certainly one of the major policy matters he needs to address if he wants 4 more years in office.

This week the Mayor tried to do that unveiling a decade long proposal called “Under One Roof 2029.” It’s a plan one local media outlet (NASHVILLLE POST) headlined as a “Moon Shot.”

Quoting a release from the Mayor’s office, here are the four key elements of the Briley proposal:

1) $350 million investment of city funds in the Metro Development and Housing Agency to accelerate the Envision process and, in turn, add more than 5,000 new units on MDHA properties. This includes adding approximately 1,000 deeply affordable units (~20% increase). MDHA will also preserve and revitalize its existing 2,800 deeply affordable units, complementing the 5,000 new units.

2) $150 million investment of city funds in the Barnes Fund – representing a 50% increase above current funding levels, which is projected to help fund the creation of at least another 5,000 affordable housing units throughout the city.

3) $250 million challenge to the private sector to step forward with matching dollars. In an effort to better facilitate private investment in affordable housing, the Mayor’s Office is exploring a number of avenues, including the creation of an affordable housing Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT).

4) The already announced 100 units of permanent supportive housing for those experiencing homelessness with chronic barriers to shelter. These units will be built with an attached homeless service center that will serve the entire unhoused population of Nashville with bathrooms, showers, and direct links to housing and other support services and agencies.

The Mayor’s office says the “Under One Roof 2029” plan is unprecedented and marks the largest public investment in housing in Nashville history. It also claims it will create 10,000 new housing units.

Still, despite a total package investing three quarters of a billion dollars in affordable housing (if the private sector involvement actually happens), both of Briley’s mayoral opponents, State Representative John Ray Clemmons and conservative former Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain, say his proposal is not large enough to address the problem. Clemmons also says much of financing monies to MDHA will be used to renovate existing public housing, not building new housing and the plan does nothing to address housing for very low income people.

It should be noted the MDHA financing had already been reported in the media and the new monies for the Barnes Fund work out to be $50 million more in new monies or $5 million more per year for the next decade. That’s on top of the $100 million already committed by Metro. Some of “Under One Roof” proposals will need approval of Metro Council and others will need further annual approval if they are included in the city’s annual operating budget.

There is no doubt the Briley plan is the investment of a significant amount of city money. It is being used in several cases to issue bonds which will add to the city’s capital debt. With Briley’s opponents and others criticizing the city’s growing amount of debt, it is intriguing and rather puzzling to see Briley’s opponents say his plan is too small. If so, what their larger solution and how would they fund it without adding more city debt?


It is Mayor Briley’s first downtown redevelopment project.

He announced it at his State of Metro address last spring.

But the swap of city park property across the street from the downtown library for land elsewhere near the Metro Courthouse, for the city to build and provide new homeless housing and services, never gained much support.

Some complained the developer involved should have gone through a request for proposal (RFP) competition with other developers before being awarded the park land to build a new downtown high rise. Neighbors said the park property could be better utilized and was too valuable to swap.

For months the Mayor’s office held back sending the plan to the Metro Council looking to find support and consensus. But that never worked out. The idea barely gained approval from the city’s Parks & Recreation Board. Now the Briley administration is now going back to the drawing board and issuing an RFP for the future of the park property, which is often a hang-out location for the city’s homeless.

Mayor Briley continued his budget hearings this week where he learned that the costs for two high profile programs continue to rise. Metro had already set aside $500,000 to update the city’s antiquated tornado warning system. But now it appears the cost could more than triple that figure at $1.7 million.

The cost for the city’s police body camera program also continues to increase. It is now estimated to be $40 million with the costs spreading over several Metro agencies.

These budget sessions have long been called “budget hearings” although this year Mayor Briley’s office wants to use the phrase “budget conversations.” Whatever. After all the talking, will Metro find the money it needs?

One place Mayor Briley and the Metro Council are looking for monies (including to fund those economic incentives being given companies creating new jobs here) are the reserve funds generated by the Music City Center. It appears Center officials may have their own plans for some of those monies. The new six-year old convention center is apparently so successful it needs to be expanded to attract still more business.

The push to find money for Metro also extends to both affordable housing and future economic incentive packages. Antioch Councilman Fabian Bedne, along with co-sponsor Councilman Colby Sledge, have filed legislation that would require the city to make contributions to Nashville's affordable housing fund whenever economic development incentives are granted to companies.

As for those already approved to receive economic incentives to come to Nashville, groups are publicly lobbying them to get involved in state-level politics. Specifically that includes some full-page ads in THE TENNESSEAN and a an airplane fly-over with a banner. The message being delivered urges Amazon to join another incoming financial services firm coming to Nashville, AllianceBernstein, to oppose anti- LGBT legislation now being considered by the General Assembly.

At the end of the week, Mayor Briley also gave an update on the very first project he undertook as soon as he took office last March. That would be the future of Ft. Negley and the surrounding the old Greer Stadium, which has been scheduled to be demolished for months.

Ft. Negley is a significant Civil War site built by free blacks and African American Union solders. The nearby Greer Stadium is thought to be where several of those who worked at the Fort are buried and where an African American neighborhood once existed.

The demolition of the stadium will begin soon, at an estimated cost of $1 million. That action will allow archaeologists to excavate the site to determine its historical role. Those findings would be incorporated into a master plan the city is working to create a new larger park there.