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Capitol View commentary: Friday, May 22, 2020

Capitol View
Posted at 11:39 AM, May 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-22 12:39:54-04

CAPITOL VIEW
By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst
May 22, 2020

NASHVILLE MOVES TO PHASE II OF REOPENING AS VANDERBILT POLL SHOWS STRONG SUPPORT FOR MAYOR JOHN COOPER; A BRIEF FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE; THE LONG MONTH AHEAD FOR THE METRO COUNCIL; TAX ALTERNATIVES; TENNESSEE’S REOPENING CONTINUES; RALPH SCHULZ OF THE NASHVILLE CHAMBER ON INSIDE POLITICS; HOT SPOTS STAY HOT; THE JOBLESS NUMBERS KEEP RISING; ANOTHER BONKERS WEEK AT THE WHITE HOUSE; TENNESSEE’S VOUCHER PROGRAM DEALT ANOTHER BLOW; THE COURTS AND THE PUBLIC; TENNESSEE LAWMAKERS RETURN ON JUNE 1; THE NUMBERS GROW WHILE THE KINDNESS ALWAYS CONTINUE

NASHVILLE MOVES TO PHASE II OF REOPENING AS VANDERBILT POLL SHOWS STRONG SUPPORT FOR MAYOR JOHN COOPER

Despite a week when the daily number of COVID-19 cases continued to vary, including two days of significant double digit single day spikes, Metro government and health officials say all the key metrics concerning the containing the disease are satisfactory or green.

Therefore, effective on Memorial Day, May 25, Nashville can move into Phase II of its roadmap to safely reopen the local economy. The need for social distancing and other restrictions remain paramount. You can see here what can now re-open, and what businesses can increase their capacities under Phase II here.

Note that because of what health officials have learned about best practices and the progress Nashville has made in fighting COVID-19, some of the reopening elements of the Metro Roadmap have been moved up from later phases. That includes allowing live music in restaurants and even in bars that serve food, again with restrictions.

The ban of live music until next Monday has been a point of contention, especially given that Nashville has long been known as Music City. Therefore, while allowing live music to begin again will, no doubt, be well received, the new limit of no more than two performers on stage at the same time (for social distancing purposes) will likely still create further pushback. The revised Phase II guidelines remain strict on crowd size. In Phase I the limit had been 10, now it is 25. Phase II also requests people still stay at home whenever possible and wear a mask when going out in public.

Going into Phase II also comes as a poll conducted by Vanderbilt University indicates overwhelming public support (80%) among Nashville voters for how Mayor John Cooper has been handling the virus crisis. That is even stronger support than the landslide 70% vote Mr. Cooper received when he won the office in August of 2019. Support for Mayor Cooper even reaches 90% in terms of public backing of his safer at home order and the closing of non-essential businesses.

The Vanderbilt poll shows stronger support by the Nashvillians for all their local and state leaders. Only the support numbers for President Donald Trump (at 33%) remain well below majority approval.

You can read a summary of the poll results here.

The poll also found strong concerns among those polled about the strength of Nashville’s economy going forward and the impact the virus is having on their personal lives. There was also a question asked about potential options on how to deal with the huge tax revenue losses the city is experiencing due to the virus and economic shutdown. You can read about that in a power point here.

Breaking out the poll responses along party lines about how to deal with the budget crisis, is interesting. But I must add the options listed, especially the size of a possible property tax hike or cuts in services, do not reflect the current tax proposals or debate about what to cut that is going on at the Metro Courthouse.

Here are the all questions and top line results of the poll (including interesting topics I haven’t mentioned) along with some comparisons from previous Vanderbilt polls.

A BRIEF FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

As a difficult budget and property tax increase debate loom at the Metro Courthouse from now through at least the middle of June, council members have been asking Mayor Cooper how he proposes to spend the federal virus relief funds the city has, and will receive ( with $121 million is already in the bank).

Mayor Cooper has been understandably vague in his answer. That is because the feds are still issuing their guidelines on how their money can be spent; Governor Bill Lee and the General Assembly haven’t decided how to allocate and/share the billions Tennessee is receiving, and there may yet be more funds coming down from Washington.

However, a communications issue developed this week when a news story broke that the Mayor was consulting with an unnamed group of community and business leaders about the funds. Council members were ticked off they had not been informed or included in the group, and nobody had told them what the role of this outside group is.

After a few hours of rising tensions Tuesday afternoon, the Mayor’s office released the names of those involved and explained the group’s role is to help the Cooper administration strategize how to maximize the federal money it will receive from the state.

The Mayor also indicated he was fine with creating a separate nine- member group (including councilmembers) to review a plan he will submit late in June about how to allocate all the federal funds. Any federal monies must be appropriated by the Council and spent by December 30.

The Tuesday afternoon moves by the Mayor seemed to smooth some ruffled feathers, and the Council Tuesday night unanimously approved “accepting’’ the federal funds received so far (but not appropriating them). The Mayor already sees priorities for the funds because of COVID-19 related expenses the city has already encumbered or has committed to, such as hazardous duty pay for front line city workers.

Hopefully, with this matter being resolved at least temporarily, the Mayor’s office will keep in mind the value of keeping council members fully informed about what the administration is doing. Having been in a mayor’s office I know how difficult that is with a 40-member body. But with Mayor Cooper needing at least 21 of them to vote his budget and tax hike next month, that is just the way it has to be.

Here is a TENNESSEAN article that outlines what happened and how things have worked out so far in terms of federal funds.

THE LONG MONTH AHEAD FOR THE METRO COUNCIL

It is going to be a long month of June for the Metro Council. The body will meet at least 3 times next month (June 2, 9 and 16) to handle the necessary budget and tax legislation, and to deal with all its other routine business.

The Council had what appeared to be a short 10-page agenda last Tuesday night. It took them 4 ½ hours to wade through it. Despite the continued herculean efforts of Vice Mayor Jim Schulman, the continuing gremlins of meeting virtually and a new on-line voting system that doesn’t seem to work, the usual parliamentary procedure of moving through legislation was often tedious.

The Council also likes to express its opinions on lots of related topics. These memorializing resolutions have no force of law, but they often create debate and led to votes that show divisions in the body.

At the last meeting, the Council urged private employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees and for Governor Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly to repeal statutes that prevent the Metropolitan Government from requiring private employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees. The vote was 25 form 7 against and 7 abstentions. That is a high number of no votes for a non-binding bill like this and 7 abstentions is very rare. Another resolution requesting Congress to provide direct rental housing assistance for individuals impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic passed 34-1 but again with 4 abstentions.

After debate, the Council also defeated two resolutions that might have impacted their own future actions. One declared the Metropolitan Council’s intention not to approve any economic development incentive awards for a period of one year, and not until metrics are established regarding the awarding of such incentives. By a vote of 14-20-4, the Council rejected the bill. Veteran councilmembers say many of the incentives the Council has approved in the past have been good deals for Nashville in terms of creating job, and they were approved based on exactly those kinds of metrics. Some council members also pointed out that, looking to the future, Nashville likely needs such incentives to create jobs in a community with a much higher unemployment rate due to the virus inspired economic downturn.

The Council also rejected 15-18-6 a resolution that give a credit on all property and business taxes paid in advance or coming due for any period that a business or person requiring such is unable to operate or work in their business due to government shut downs caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. Even though supporters said the bill was a sign of support for hard hit businesses and landlords, others questioned the legality of such a move and added Metro just can’t afford to do that.

The next Council meeting is surely going to be a long one on June 2, with the session including the body’s first ever on line public hearing regarding the budget and tax increase (if the phone system can handle all the phone ins from irate taxpayers). The June 9 meeting will include still more virtual public hearings, this time on zoning issues, including the 35 rezoning requests put off last month because council members thought they might be controversial and because the hearings were scheduled while tens of thousands of residents were without power due to recent storms.

The June 16 meeting will be to give final approval to the budget and tax bills (if a consensus has been reached by then about what to do). If not, a fourth council meeting will likely be called on June 23. By law, the Council has to pass a balanced budget and tax levy by June 30. Of course, the previous Council didn’t do that in 2019 beginning a difficult year of trying to fix the city’s fiscal issues, now made infinitely worse by the virus pandemic.

TAX ALTERNATIVES

There are several members of the Council putting together alternatives to Mayor Cooper’s 32% property tax hike. Some details remain vague, but we did learn more this week about an alternative being put together by Councilman Freddie O’Connell.

In an e-mail this week he wrote: “My budget proposal relies on a 37-cent property tax rate increase rather than the $1 increase proposed by the mayor, as well as $230m in short-term (3-year) borrowing to get us through FY21 and to FY22, when we will have a new property assessment in hand and can get back on our regular 4-year budget cycle with structurally appropriate revenues.”

But Metro Finance officials say Metro is not eligible for the federal borrowing effort McConnell wants to employ. He says if that is correct, he will likely support the plan the council’s Budget Chair Bob Mendes is working to pull together. Mendes has not released his plan’s details, but from comments he’s made, his tax increase recommendation could be close to or even higher than the $1 hike in the rate Mayor Cooper is advocating. He say that is to protect non-profits from being cut and perhaps help maintain some city services

At-Large Councilman Steve Glover is looking at a 20% or less property tax hike with metro departments seeing cuts, likely across the board, and either layoffs (or furloughs).

A fourth tax alternative is from Councilmember Emily Bennett. Hers would call for a higher tax hike than the Mayor’s, with the extra funds going pay for what she says are long delayed pay raises for teachers and other school employees.

NASHVILLE POST

Metro Schools faces its own budget challenges. While Mayor Cooper’s education budget leaves the amount for schools more or less status quo, school officials say they need at least $15 million more. In part that is because the Cooper budget did not fund a full year of the extra 3% pay raise approved for teachers last January 1. The raise was funded for only half a year in the current schools budget.

The new Metro Schools Director Dr. Adrienne Battle says the system will see at least $3 million in savings by closing and consolidating four schools. She says such a move has been under consideration for years because the school system has underutilized facilities. The move to make the change was approved unanimously this week by the 9-member Metro School Board, a group not known for its unanimity. The vote is a show of strength for the new Schools Director although some parents of students in the impacted schools remain unhappy.

One of the schools being closed is in Joelton. I would point out that the last time a school in that community was closed (Joelton High School) parents there joined with those at other closed schools to bring a voter referendum that changed the school board from being appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Council to one elected by the voters.

TENNESSEE’S REOPENING CONTINUES

Today (Friday May 22), one of the next big stages of reopening the state’s economy in 89 of its 95 counties began. The Lee administration is allowing, among other changes and re-openings, restaurants and retail store to operate without capacity limitations except for what is needed to maintain social distancing, along with other changes. Indications are new guidelines are coming soon that will allow large gatherings again soon.

Enforcement of these re-openings and other modifications will continue to be on the honor system asking those involved to sign and observe the Tennessee Pledge to follow the rules.

More and more of the state opened up this. Vice President Mike Pence’s came to East Tennessee to celebrate the re-opening of Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, while Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis reopened as well.

Even though museums can begin to re-open, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville is waiting to be ready to do that, while Nashville’s annual 4th of July riverfront concert and celebration has been cancelled, but with the massive fireworks display still to be held and shown live on NEWSCHANNEL5.

RALPH SCHULZ OF THE NASHVILLE CHAMBER ON INSIDE POLITICS

As Nashville and State of Tennessee look to rebound, along with the rest of the nation, from the months long economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a key leadership figure in our area’s comeback is Ralph Schulz, head of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Ralph Schultz is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS.

Watch us!

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times over the 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.

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.

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

HOT SPOTS STAY HOT

The hot spots for the coronavirus continue to stay in the news.

For the state, there is a new large outbreak at one of facilities operated by the Department of Human Services.

For Metro, there is an outbreak at a construction site for a Nashville private school.

Metro is also getting ongoing criticism about how it hosts a temporary homeless shelter at the Fairgrounds for those who test positive for the virus. Mayor Cooper says he is looking to find federal dollars to build a new facility, and let the new facilities at the Fairgrounds be used for what they were constructed to do.

Nursing homes and long- term care facilities remain in the spotlight. Despite the offer by Governor Lee to test all residents and staff across the state, only 29% of the 700 businesses that care for seniors have taken the state up on its offer.

But regardless, Tennessee nursing homes are set to receive additional aid.

But there remain questions about a nursing home facility in Nashville where it appears both the State and Metro were slow to responding to reports of an outbreak.

THE JOBLESS NUMBERS KEEP RISING

Based on applications for unemployment assistance nationwide, over the last 9 weeks, the U.S. has seen 38.6 million people lose their jobs. That includes another 2.4 million reported this week. The weekly numbers are slowly declining, but the overall impact is staggering and unprecedented in such a brief time frame. It is likely the negative impact of the virus is much larger if you factor in those who have seen their pay cut or their hours of work limited as a part of the economic downturn.

Here in Tennessee, the numbers seeking unemployment assistance are up to 532,000 after another 28,000 applied for help this week.

In fact, the actual state unemployment rate shot up to 14.7% in April, an unprecedented number for Tennessee. The unemployment rate was just 3.3% in March.

Even more distressing are the continuing complaints from those who applied weeks ago for help and have not received the first check for unemployment assistance. Some Democratic state lawmakers want immediate action by Governor Bill Lee to deal with this ongoing problem.

On the national level, there is this unbelievable story about how a prominent Nashville businessman was denied a Small Business Administration disaster loan because of a mistake he made some years ago (and for which he served time). For an administration and a President who brags about being committed to criminal justice reform this story is troubling.

What about another relief coming out of Washington? For most of the week, the standoff continued with House Democrats standing behind the $3 trillion bill the House passed last week. The chair of the Federal Reserve seems to agree. But Senate Republicans say wait to see how the relief funds already approved work. So did the White House until Thursday when it appears the Treasury Secretary blinked.

With Congress on recess for Memorial Day nothing will happen until at least sometime in June.

ANOTHER BONKERS WEEK AT THE WHITE HOUSE

President Trump has had quite a week.

He does not like congressional, or any kind of oversight, so he fired yet another Inspector General, this time in the State Department. Members of Congress from both parties are concerned but there doesn’t appear any move underway to stop the firing.

The President does not like arms control treaties so he is opting out of another one.

As Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper is most unhappy about the President’s move. “The Administration’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty is a slap in the face to our allies in Europe, leaves our deployed forces in the region at risk, and is in blatant violation of the law. This decision weakens our national security interests, isolates the United States since the Treaty will continue without us, and abandons a useful tool to hold Russia accountable.

“What’s more, this decision has been made without any consultation with Congress. Not only does the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act require a minimum 120-days’ notification of the withdrawal notice, but also multiple communications from the House Armed Services Committee and other congressional chairmen have gone unanswered.”

Meanwhile, after several days of controversy because the President claimed he has been taking a controversial malaria drug not approved for treatment or prevention of COVID-19, Mr. Trump now says he will soon stop taking the medication. He also says he continues to test negative for the virus, so he is refusing to wear a mask in public places, even though he was urged to do so when he visited a Ford Plant in Michigan this week. The plant has been converted to make ventilators.

While he was at the plant, the President told reporters if there is another wave of the coronavirus this fall, he won’t shut down the country again.

The President also continued to be at odds this week with China, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over various aspects of who is to blame for the pandemic. He also continues to rage against allowing a easier access for voters to cast their ballots by mail or absentee in the November election. The President says doing so will increase voter fraud, even though the U.S. Armed Forces have been doing it that way since the Civil War.

It is not unusual for the President to speak out on multiple topics at a time. This week he even went to Capitol Hill to tell Republican Senators to keep moving ahead on their investigation into “Obamagate” although exactly what that conspiracy theory/scandal is remains unclear.

Throughout the week, you have to wonder if some new presidential polls that show Mr. Trump falling behind his Democratic opponent Joe Biden, are also on his mind, and the President is seeking to play on issues that he thinks will motivate his a base of supporters.

One poll says the President’s support remains steady.

Here in Tennessee, a poll released this week by East Tennessee State University show the President up handily over Joe Biden 53% to 36% while another poll shows Mr. Trump up in Kentucky 55% to 39%.

As for Mr. Biden, he seems to be moving towards putting together a short list of finalists of those he is considering be his vice presidential running mate.

Biden is already getting plenty of advice.

TENNESSEE’S VOUCHER PROGRAM DEALT ANOTHER BLOW

The state’s effort to provide $7000 school vouchers to low-income families with youngsters wanting to attend private schools in Memphis and Nashville looks increasingly unlikely to happen this coming school year.

A Davidson County chancellor ruled the education savings account program is illegal under the Tennessee State Constitution. An effort to get that ruling stayed has been denied by both the chancery and now the appellate court.

The case has been set for oral arguments on the appeal scheduled for August 5. That is almost when classes begin for the fall term. That is, schools reopen on time due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Realizing time to get the voucher program underway will soon be gone, late in the week, the Lee administration sought to take its appeal directly to the Tennessee Supreme Court to make a final decision.

THE COURTS AND THE PUBLIC

Public access to the court system is clearly a basic constitutional right. But in the wake of the virus pandemic, that does not appear to be the case. The fact that public and media access is nothing more than a second thought is a development that is both alarming and deeply dis appointing.

At least the Tennessee Supreme Court took a step forward towards transparency this week holding oral arguments concerning some cases by livestream. What about other courts in Tennessee?

TENNESSEE LAWMAKERS RETURN ON JUNE 1

Members of the Tennessee General Assembly come back to session a week from Monday, which is June 1st.

June 1st is also Statehood Day, Tennessee 224th birthday!

What will lawmakers do? Governor Lee and the State Senate want to focus on fixing the state’s budget which has been devastated by a decline in tax revenues due to the virus. The Senate has already published an agenda of bills it wants to consider.

The House wants a much broader agenda so if desired members can go back to pushing hot button bills on abortion, guns and making the Holy Bible the state’s official book.

Another matter that remains undecided is whether and how much access the public and the media will have monitor and observe the proceedings.

The legislative offices in the Cordell Hull building have undergone some changes to accommodate the lawmakers and social distancing.

THE NUMBERS GROW WHILE THE KINDNESS ALWAYS CONTINUES

THE WEEKLY NUMBERS

As of 10:30 AM CDT Friday May 22, 2020

THE WORLD
ACTIVE CASES: 5,106,686
RECOVERED CASES: 1, 951, 459
DEATHS: 330,001

THE UNITED STATES
ACTIVE CASES: 1,611, 297
RECOVERED CASES: 308, 625
DEATHS; 95,213

THE STATE OF TENNESSEE

The State’s COVID-19 statistics are updated here daily at 2:00 PM CDT

METRO NASHVILLE/DAVIDSON COUNTY

Metro Public Health Department officials announced today (Friday May 22, 2020 a total number of 4,596 confirmed cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Nashville/Davidson County, an increase of 66 in the past 24 hours.
The confirmed cases range in age from 1 month to 100 years.

An additional death was reported in Davidson County, a 50-year-old man who had underlying health conditions.

A total of fifty-two (52) people have died after a confirmed case of COVID-19. 3,330 individuals have recovered from the virus.

The MPHD COVID-19 Hotline received 170 calls on Thursday, May 21, 2020.
Total number of cases: 4,596
Cases reported in the past 24 hours: 66

Cases by sex
Male: 2,440
Female: 1,992
Unknown: 164

Total Cases by age
Unknown 8
0-10 150
11-20 378
21-30 1,146
31-40 955
41-50 751
51-60 587
61-70 371
71-80 168
81+ 82

Total 4,596
Recovered 3,330
Deaths 52

Total active cases 1,214

Total number of tests administered Total positive results Total negative results Positive results as percentage of total
49,285 4,596 44,689 9.3%

THE NEVER- ENDING KINDNESS CONTINUES

OPRAH GIVES BACK TO NASHVILLE TO HELP FIGHT HUNGER
AFTER 57 DAYS IN ISOLATION, A COUPLE REUNITES AFTER BEATING THE VIRUS
AN EMOTIONAL DRIVE THROUGH GRADUATION GOES VIRAL
PREDATORS FOUNDATION SUPPORTS COOKEVILLE TORNADO RELIEF
PUBLIX DELIVERS THE MILK TO HELP THOSE IN NEED
75,000 MORE MASKS DONATED FOR OUR FRONTLINE HEROES

Stay safe!

Stay well!

Happy Memorial Day!

Don’t forget social distancing!