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Capitol View commentary: Friday, May 20, 2022

Capitol View
Posted at 10:46 AM, May 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-20 11:46:43-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

May 20, 2022

IT KEEPS HAPPENING; ON THE 2022 PRIMARY CAMPAIGN TRAIL; A SETBACK FOR THE GOP SUPERMAJORITY; THE TENNESSEE SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS THE STATE’S SCHOOL VOUCHER PLAN; WE WERE UNDERCOUNTED; SOME GOOD NEWS FOR METRO SCHOOLS; THE METRO BUDGET SEASON HAS BEGUN IN EARNEST; A DISTURBING STORY ABOUT THE METRO ELECTION COMMISSION; NEXT WEEK

IT KEEPS HAPPENING

Just like in 2021, there have already been more mass shootings in this country in 2022 than there have been days of the year so far.

One thing is a little different. After the Buffalo racial hate crime last weekend that left 10 African Americans dead, there is growing controversy about a crazy white supremacist political concept called the “Great Replacement Theory.” Instead of driving the concept underground in the wake of this unspeakable crime and others in the recent past, the theory keeps going more mainstream, especially among some Republican officials, candidates and FOX News hosts and commentators.

Of course, Republican leaders say it’s all not true.

Democrats have their own divisions about how to respond to the increasing and continuing gun violence in America. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is again a stumbling block.

Democrats in the House this week did pass a bill seeking to fight domestic terrorism. But it cleared the lower chamber on a largely party-line vote, meaning its chances to get the 60 votes needed for consideration in the Senate look questionable.

The unfortunate truth is that it seems, no matter how many mass shootings we have, nothing is likely to happen, except still more mass shootings.

Late this week on Wednesday night, there was another shooting incident very close to home. It is a reminder of how pervasive our culture of gun violence has become. The shooting was on the MTSU campus in Murfreesboro. It happened within a few minutes after a high school graduation ended at the Murphy Center.

The gunshots left one person dead, and another critically injured, but now in stable condition.

Fortunately, this wasn’t a mass shooting, but it did hit close to home for me. My sister was there to see a grandchild get her diploma. She heard the gunshots!! A time for of joy and happiness turned for a moment into stark terror and fear. Unfortunately, these days it can happen anywhere, anytime.

Of course, the Murfreesboro community is in shock and grieving. Police have a 17-year-old in custody. Here is the latest as of Thursday night in another senseless act of gun violence.

Then there was another shooting Thursday night outside a graduation in Hammond, Indiana.

And so it goes.

ON THE 2022 PRIMARY CAMPAIGN TRAIL

This week saw a raft of important primary elections being held across the nation, several in key battleground states.

What are the takeaways?

The candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump are winning some races but losing some as well. It appears Mr. Trump remains enough of a force to place a cloud of doubt about whether Republicans can retake the Senate.

It should be noted that even in races where the former president's candidates lost, the ones who won still pushed their MAGA credentials. It does appear that candidates who said “they were more like Trump than Trump himself” did not win every race. And those with Trump’s support, but also with lots of other political baggage and scandal, did not find voter favor either. The GOP also seems to have a potential nightmare gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania who likely has too much political baggage from his involvement in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and other efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

This ATLANTIC article sets out the situation in the GOP very well.

Getting back to Tennessee and the 5th Congressional race, will Trump endorse someone else in the GOP primary since his first choice (Morgan Ortagus) and another MAGA-leaning candidate (Robby Starbuck) remain off the ballot after state GOP leaders ousted them for not voting in recent party primaries? Who might get the Trump nod?

Awaiting that choice (if it happens), the first candidate to go on TV is former Tennessee National Guard General Kurt Winstead. The ad went up not long at all after his campaign announced hiring a media consultant and a former pollster for President Trump.

Those $1 million fundraising numbers put Winstead in a position to be a contender. That is true for all the GOP 5th District candidates if their money keeps coming in.

The political morning line on the race I hear right now is that Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles is the frontrunner. That’s because he has the largest block of voters in the district with all of Maury County in the 5th.

Former Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell has some of the Davidson County area she represented in the General Assembly in the new congressional district. If she can maximize her Davidson County vote, and hold down Ogles margins in Maury, that could be her path to winning the nomination in August. Of course, Ogles may try to follow the same strategy in reverse to beat Harwell.

I am a little surprised more TV ads haven’t started in this race. After Memorial Day, I think the media onslaught should be well underway.

A SETBACK FOR THE GOP SUPERMAJORITY

The Republican supermajority in the General Assembly is used to always getting its way.

That includes passing a series of bills in recent years that some say are unfair to the transgender community.

One of the laws passed in that regard mandates that restaurants and other business owners post a sign if their public restrooms are open for use for all genders including transgender people.

The Tennessee Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit to stop the law and got an immediate injunction. Now that injunction has been made permanent by the local district federal court.

There has been no announcement, but an appeal by the state would seem likely.

THE TENNESSEE SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS THE STATE’S SCHOOL VOUCHER PLAN

The administration of Gov. Bill Lee got a big, somewhat unexpected victory from the Tennessee Supreme Court on Wednesday. The Justices ruled 3-2 that the pilot school voucher program involving Nashville and Memphis schools is constitutional after both the Chancery Court and the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled otherwise.

Through his spokesman, TJ Ducklo, Chief Communications Officer and Senior Advisor for Mayor John Cooper, said in a statement:

“We’re disappointed by (Wednesday’s) ruling but will continue to vigorously fight this law through all possible avenues. The Mayor strongly believes that diverting scarce state school funds away from our public school system and into the hands of private schools is directly against the interest of Nashville’s children and families. That is especially true when state law arbitrarily and unjustly singles out a few counties, including ours, to effectively receive less money for public schools.”

Based on the mayor’s comment it appears a lawsuit against the voucher plan will continue in the lower courts. The constitutional question was just one issue raised in the suit.

This decision marks the second time in recent months that Tennessee’s highest court rescued the state government from an adverse decision. The justices ruled against a three-judge Appeals Court ruling that negated the redistricting plan for the State Senate.

This is also the second big education victory in recent weeks for Gov. Lee after the General Assembly approved his new K-12 education funding formula in the waning days of their recent session last month.

WE WERE UNDERCOUNTED

U.S. Census officials this week admitted Tennessee is among six states that were “significantly undercounted” in the 2020 Census. The undercount is estimated to be almost 5% (4.78%) or approximately 330,000 people!

What does that mean? It could cost Tennessee and its local governments money from the federal government. That is because Congress, and most federal programs and agencies, often allocate their funds to state and localities based on Census data. It adds up to an estimated $1.5 trillion every year!

I thought there might be a potential remedy. State and local officials can request a special census be taken to get a more accurate count. But that seems to only apply to changes in population numbers after the last census, not caused by an undercount by the census itself.

Since the undercounts across the country are predominately among African Americans and people of color, if special censuses were allowed, I feel confident Nashville Mayor John Cooper would seek a supplemental count as would leaders in other Tennessee communities with significant minority populations. Nashville needs all the resources it is eligible to receive to deal with the infrastructure, affordable housing and other challenges the community faces during this time of continued explosive growth in our area.

The Census numbers have also been used to draw the new district lines for congressional, state and local legislative seats. Will those be changed? I doubt it. Congress isn’t doing it in terms of how it apportions its 435 seats. The undercount did cost such states as Texas and Florida some House seats.

I doubt the Tennessee Legislature will change its redistricting maps either, including how it sliced up Nashville into three different congressional districts. The changes clearly neutered the political power of Nashville’s minority community. But is that reduced strength now underestimated in those districts, narrowing the vote margins that Republican candidates and incumbents were expected to receive this fall?

Of course, not being counted in the Census, and being registered to vote and actually voting, are two very different things.

SOME GOOD NEWS FOR METRO SCHOOLS

It has been a challenging two-plus years for Dr. Adrienne Battle since she became the Director of Metro Public Schools, especially since the pandemic began just after she assumed her duties.

I have asked her to join us on INSIDE POLITICS several times, where she has been very open to talk and answer questions. Now Dr. Battle is being honored for her work as Superintendent of the Year by the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Congratulations!

THE METRO BUDGET SEASON HAS BEGUN IN EARNEST

At its meeting Tuesday night, the Metro Council gave routine first reading approval to Mayor John Cooper’s $2.96 billion operating budget for the city’s next fiscal year which begins July 1. The Council also approved on first reading the property tax rates to help fund the operating budget as well as a 5-year Capital Improvements Budget.

The property tax rates are unchanged from last year. Usually, a no-tax-increase budget keeps the drama level down in the annual spending debate. But there are some things to watch for over the next month that could cause some spikes.

Mayor Cooper is recommending a 4% pay raise for city workers. In most years that would seem generous. But with inflation at a 40-year high, and a report from the city’s Civil Service Commission recommending a 5% pay boost, will the Council seek a bigger pay hike for employees? Will the Mayor’s office agree to add the money? Or will it come from cuts elsewhere in the budget? A 1% extra pay raise will cost millions of dollars.

There is a similar situation arising surrounding the school budget. For the second year in a row, Mayor Cooper is recommending a record increase in education funding of over $91 million. He would like to see some of those funds go for pay raises and paid family medical leave.

But there is still unhappiness that last year bus drivers, sign language interpreters, bookkeepers and cafeteria workers got left out. There is a study underway about what kind of pay hike they ought to get. That study is not finished and with School Board not yet recommending a raise in its budget, the unrest continues and is likely to be heard by the Council when a public hearing on the budget is held on June 7.

Another challenge for the Mayor and Council, is that by law they must approve a school budget every year, but how that money is spent is totally up to the School Board. I suspect this year, there is likely to be enough money available to make everyone more or less happy. But getting there might present some drama.

One other storm cloud on the horizon is a deepening fight between the Council and the Mayor’s office over a $20 million expenditure to buy 3 acres of land from the state (along with a historic structure) to be used as a park.

Normally creating a new park is a love fest in the Council, but not this time. Councilmembers are concerned a previous Council a few years ago rejected the purchase of the land for a school for $11 million, and the Metro Property Assessor’s Office lists the value of the property now at $14 million. There are also concerns that the city has not done its due diligence in several ways on the proposal. All this has led to another two-week deferral of the plan putting the matter up again, right in the midst of the budget considerations.

The operating and capital budget public hearings on June 7 mark the first time the public can talk to the Council about the proposed $2.2 billion retractable-roof NFL stadium for the Tennessee Titans, a facility that may have a variety of other event usages. The Titans are making presentations to city leaders such as the Metro Sports Authority, pointing out that under its current lease, the city, and taxpayers are responsible for, at least, $1.8 billion dollars in needed repairs for the existing Nissan Stadium in the coming years. That makes a new multi-purpose facility a good idea says the Titans, with funding coming from the state, user taxes, a hotel-motel tax increase, and all without any use of general obligations bonds from the city.

A DISTURBING STORY ABOUT THE METRO ELECTION COMMISSION

Everyone who follows politics in Nashville is aware of how the Metro Election Commission has spent almost $800,000 in taxpayers’ money trying to put some ill-conceived amendments to the Metro Charter on the ballot.

Their effort has been defeated in court on both the trial and state appellate levels. Now, they are trying to appeal to the State Supreme Court. Also, perhaps frustrated at their failure, the new NASHVILLE BANNER and THE NASHVILLE SCENE report that with their outside lawyer, Jim Blumstein, the Commission are looking to find a way to get revenge by stopping the four charter amendments the Metro Council wants to put before voters in August.

I suspect what is driving them most is the amendment brought by the Council that would change the way the Metro Charter can be changed by petition. As individuals and voters, the members of the Republican-controlled Commission have a right to hold, express and vote their feelings or opposition. But as appointed public officials I hope they can some real legal grounds to spend yet more taxpayers’ money to stop the August referendum.

I have watched the process used by the Council to bring forth their amendments and place them on the ballot. I am not a lawyer, but from what I know and have seen, the Council has followed the law, the rules and process to the letter.

Again, if the Election Commission has a legitimate legal argument that proves otherwise, I hope we hear it when the group meets Friday afternoon. If not, spending still more tax money, seeking, likely in vain to find an argument, seems a poor use of public funds.

NEXT WEEK

I have a family wedding that will keep me from producing a Capitol View column next week. Look for my next Capitol View on Friday, June 3.

I do have a fresh INSIDE POLITICS program for Memorial Day weekend (May 27-28). Vanderbilt History and Political Science professor Dr. Thomas Schwartz will rejoin us to give his latest analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including the likely expansion of NATO with Finland and Sweden joining the organization, to assist Ukraine in its fight, although Turkey is now raising questions about the move.

This week on INSIDE POLITICS (May 20-21), we have an encore presentation of my recent interview with Steve Cavendish, the editor of the new NASHVILLE BANNER online news service.