By Pat Nolan NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst
November 12, 2021
GOVERNOR BILL LEE TO SIGN CONTROVERSIAL SPECIAL SESSION COVID BILLS WHILE TENNESEE BUSINESSES TRY TO ADJUST; COVID SHOTS FOR 5-11 YEAR OLDS START STRONG IN SOME PLACES, BUT NOT ALL; CASADA TO RETIRE; HOW TO USE FEDERAL FUNDS FOR THE HOMELESS SPARKS DISCORD BETWEEN MAYOR JOHN COOPER AND THE METRO COUNCIL; METRO’S EMISSIONS TEST COULD BE ENDING IN A DÉJÀ VU-TYPE REVERSAL; NEW BI-PARTISAN INFRASTRUCTURE LAW ALREADY INVOKING PARTISAN DEBATE; JOE ST. GEORGE OF SCRIPPS TELEVISION ON INSIDE POLITICS
GOVERNOR BILL LEE TO SIGN CONTROVERSIAL SPECIAL SESSION COVID BILLS WHILE TENNESEE BUSINESSES TRY TO ADJUST
To the surprise of no one, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee says he plans to sign by today (Friday) the controversial covid protocol bills passed in a recent special legislative session. The measures greatly limits or strips many of the powers of local officials, school boards, health experts, private businesses, even the governor, to respond to the pandemic. It gives those powers more to the General Assembly.
Governor Lee says he has concerns about some items in the bill, but other than allowing family visitation rights only when covid patients are close to death, he did not further elaborate with reporters. He does plan to meet with legislative leaders to ask them to address his concerns when they return to Nashville in January.
Frankly the Governor had little choice but to sign the measure. To have vetoed or allowed the bills to go into effect without his signature would have angered his conservative Republican base as well as many lawmakers, who for only the third time in state history, called the special session on their own to enact these covid protocol changes.
Reaction to the new laws has been negative in many quarters, especially in the business community, which historically has been pro-Republican. Major companies including the Ford Motor Company which is in the process of making the biggest single investment in Tennessee history with its West Tennessee electric car and battery plant, objected to being told by state government how to handle a worldwide health issue like the virus.
Some changes were made in the final bill to try and soften parts of the new law. But uncertainty, questions and opposition has continued. More is coming to light about why the special session was so brief (less than 3 days), and why it came to such an abrupt conclusion in the wee hours of a Saturday morning.
The end came after several measures were quickly combined, then passed after a conference committee of both houses hastily “worked out the details.” I am told by a well-placed source that happened because of a fear among legislative leaders, that if lawmakers went home for the weekend, there was so much statewide opposition building from business and other groups, the special session might have collapsed.
Here is one sign that may be true. After the special session was called, with the unanimous support of all the Republicans in the House (who total over 70 of its 99 members), the final bill passed with only 58 votes.
The new covid law includes an effort to stop vaccine mandates, especially President Joe Biden’s vaccine requirement for businesses that employ more than 100 people. Given the longtime supremacy of federal law over state measures, it is not at all certain that part of the new state law will prevail. But in the interim, it leaves lots of business folks feeling caught in the middle. They just want to run their businesses on their own for what works best for them.
To provide some help, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry held a webinar on- line Tuesday. Normally, sessions like these attract a crowd of 25-30 attendees. During the session on Tuesday, reportedly at one point, it had over 500 business folks asking questions and seeking answers!
Business leaders are particularly concerned about smaller businesses of well less than 100 employees. They are not subject to the federal vaccine mandate, but if they want to handle their own employee situation by requiring vaccinations, will they be fined by the state or sued by their non-vaccinated employees? Will businesses who don’t want mandates, be sued by their employees who do? It’s complicated, and some say the new state law isn’t clear.
I know business leaders wanted to hear Governor Lee say he wanted lawmakers to make further clarifications in the portions of the bills that impact business. The fact that he has not yet said that publicly, is surely another disappointment. Meanwhile Republican leaders in the State House are standing firm behind what they passed.
There is bound to be litigation. Even as mask mandates in some Tennessee schools are being lifted as virus cases have been declining, a complete ban on masks except in dire circumstances may likely be stuck down by the federal courts, much as it has been just this week in Texas because it violates the protections provided to children under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Already in Tennessee, Governor Lee’s executive order requiring parental opt-outs to mask mandates has been found unlawful by multiple federal judges.
Hopefully, COVID-19 will continue to ease in this nation and in Tennessee, even as it is beginning to rage again in Europe with advent of colder weather. My great fear is that, if or when the virus returns, this ill-crafted, revenge- minded, politically motivated omnibus covid law will leave our state with almost no proven public health tools (except the vaccines) to combat it. And it is those folks, who demanded this special legislative session be called to protect their “freedoms”, who also oppose the vaccines.
By the way, the misinformation campaigns against the vaccines continue. That includes an on-line video that claims that for people facing a vaccine mandate, there is a bath they can immerse themselves in to “detox the-vacc”. Really?
COVID SHOTS FOR 5-11 YEAR OLDS START STRONG IN SOME PLACES, BUT NOT ALL
The newly approved Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination shot, for children ages 5-11 years, is getting a strong positive response nationwide according to the White House, with perhaps at least 1 million children in that age group getting their first dabs in just the first few days the shot has been available.
But with a total of 28 million kids now eligible nationwide for the vaccine, there is still a long way to go. Tennessee reportedly is receiving 200,000 doses to start. But the new reports I am seeing indicate county health departments under state control are off to much slower start than the local independent Metro Nashville health department.
Maybe it is just a coincidence, but I think not. You might remember it was the same state lawmakers who pushed through this new covid law, who also tried to stop state health officials from promoting the vaccines. At one point, they even threatened to dismantle the entire state health department unless officials toed the line. They did help fire the state’s top vaccine doctor because they thought she was not doing what she was told.
One note for future concern, under the new covid protocol law passed by the Republican Super Majority in the Legislature, Nashville will lose its independent status from the state.
God help us, with another vaccine rollout, it appears to be second verse, may be same as the first!
The total number of young children in Tennessee receiving their first shot this week is estimated at more than 10,000 according to THE TENNSSEAN.
CASADA TO RETIRE
After two decades on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill, Williamson County lawmaker Glenn Casada is not seeking re-election in 2022.
Casada is among the GOP lawmakers who first came to Nashville as a part of a Republican Party that had long been in the minority in the General Assembly. But in part under his leadership, the Tennessee GOP has built a Super Majority to dominant the legislature and all of state government.
Casada has also been dogged, especially in recent years, by scandal and controversy. Within just a few months after he rose to the top of leadership in the House by being elected Speaker in 2019, he had to resign amid controversies involving his staff, and on-line postings that were sexually explicit and racist. Even as he leaves, a federal investigation reportedly continues looking into his involvement with campaign finance irregularities.
This is the traditional time, in the weeks and months prior to and during the second year of the legislative session, that lawmakers seeking to leave, announce their plans. That period may be elongated this year because the Legislature has still not approved a new redistricting plan for the General Assembly to adjust to the state’s population changes from the 2020 federal census.
Therefore, look for the winds of change to possibly continue to blow for the Legislature in the weeks to come. Casada and Senator Mike Bell are the two biggest names to announce exits so far. Who else might follow?
HOW TO USE FEDERAL FUNDS FOR THE HOMELESS SPARKS DISCORD BETWEEN MAYOR JOHN COOPER AND THE METRO COUNCIL
Across the country, local cities are using their American Rescue Plan virus relief funds to address the problem of homelessness.
There were several such resolutions up for approval at the last Metro Council meeting on November 3 involving millions of dollars. All of them passed unanimously on the body’s consent agenda, except one. That bill would allocate $1.9million to manage local homeless encampments, and the renovation and repair of Brookmeade Park.
The Brookmeade homeless encampment has been an increasing flashpoint of contention in West Nashville where residents want it removed and activists want the city to have a plan on how to provide temporary housing for those living there.
The Brookmeade proposal was deferred by the Council because the resolution also allocates several hundred thousand dollars for surveillance cameras, gates and other equipment to monitor the park and other encampments.
The timing on this aspect of the legislation could not have been worse. This is a Council that has been struggling for months about whether legalizing the use of license plate scanners by Metro Police would violate the privacy of citizens and promote racial profiling. Putting the purchase of cameras and gates in a homeless bill has deeply concerned some Council leaders, some of whom think the money would be better spent by placing it in the city’s Barnes Fund to create more affordable housing.
Further inflaming the situation is an offer by Mayor John Cooper to set up tours of Brookmeade Park and other homeless encampments for Councilmembers. It’s a move Councilmembers say they didn’t request and want no part in participating.
The Brookmeade resolution is the first on the Council agenda next Tuesday night, November 17. Two amendments are pending. One would delete $480,000 intended to purchase the cameras. Another would eliminate $603,000 intended for heavy equipment which some councilmembers fear will be used to demolish the encampments.
As perhaps a further effort at damage control, the Mayor’s office seems to be preparing new legislation that would ask the Council to approve $20 million in American Rescue monies to be given to the Barnes Fund for affordable housing.
METRO’S EMISSIONS TEST COULD BE ENDING IN A DÉJÀ VU-TYPE REVERSAL
There is a resolution pending before the Metro Council Tuesday night that would end the city’s decades long car emissions test that drivers must pass each year to drive their cars.
The Tennessee’s and Nashville’s air quality has improved so much, federal EPA officials say such an annual test is now unnecessary. Every county that has had an inspection program except Nashville/ Davidson County is discontinuing the program effective early next year.
The last Metro Council (2015-2019) declined to do that, although with 23 co-sponsors on the bill this time, it looks like the repeal will happen, even though city health officials are reportedly advising caution.
The repeal would be something of a déjà vu style reversal from what happened when the program was adopted back in the 1985. I covered that story. Here is a summary I have written for my still unpublished book.
“The car emissions inspection program was always controversial. The Environmental Protection Agency demanded the city begin the inspections, but for years the Metro Council did everything it could to defer or delay getting started.
Finally, after the EPA threatened to cut off all the hundreds of millions in federal funds the city receives each year from Washington, the Council begrudgingly approved the program and hired an outside contractor to run it.
A ceremonial opening for the program was held when the various inspection locations were ready to begin operations. The event was held at a site on 4th Avenue North right behind Channel 5. It’s not far from where the Sounds AAA baseball stadium is now located.
I went there to cover the event, which included a ceremonial first car to be inspected. It wasn’t Mayor Richard Fulton’s car. His was a city vehicle. Instead, it was the personal car belonging to Vice Mayor David Scobey.
Ceremonial events like this are usually covered, but due to their ceremonial nature, the coverage is usually confined to just cover video and some brief copy read by the news anchor. But that is not what happened that day.
Vice Mayor Scobey’s car had its emissions checked…and the car FLUNKED! That means he had to get his car checked by a mechanic and fixed (whatever that took) and then re-take the emissions exam to pass.
Wow! Suddenly this was a “man bites dog” story. I gave it the full package treatment on the air that night.
Vice Mayor Scobey continued to have some tough luck with cars. A few years after the inspection event, he and all 40 members of Metro Council were invited to a grand opening party for a new major hotel. It was quite an affair with free valet parking. But when the vice mayor and some other Council members wanted to leave, they couldn’t get their cars back. The valet firm couldn’t find where they parked the vehicles, and they stayed lost for several hours before the matter was resolved.”
NEW BI-PARTISAN INFRASTRUCTURE LAW ALREADY INVOKING PARTISAN DEBATE
It hasn’t even been signed into law by President Joe Biden, but already the bi-partisan trillion -dollar infrastructure bill approved by Congress last Friday, is sparking a partisan debate in Washington. The debate is not over bricks and mortar but culture war issues.
Interestingly, Metro is considering a proposal to mollify the economic damages inflicted on the African American community around Jefferson Street in North Nashville some 50 years ago when I-40 was built.
No firm plans are in place, but some preliminary public meetings have already been held about the concept of what is being called the Jefferson Street Cap project. It would create a land bridge in North Nashville and seek to increase green space and more foot traffic in the area. But now further meetings have been paused after community pushback.
Under the new federal infrastructure law, the state of Tennessee is set to receive almost $6 billion dollars in the next few years. These are funds the state’s Department of Transportation already has plans to use on projects that have previously been prioritized but delayed.
JOE ST. GEORGE OF SCRIPPS TELEVISION ON INSIDE POLITICS
Politics in Washington continues to be jumbled as we head towards mid- November.
No more Infrastructure Week, as Congress has finally approved a trillion- dollar bricks and mortar measure that is poised to make a major difference in all facets of the country’s transportation systems as well as broadband, the power grid, electric cars, climate change and more.
But what about the rest of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda that still appears stuck on the Hill?
And what can Mr. Biden do to resurrect his still plummeting job performance polling numbers which this week sank as low as the mid-30s?
Meanwhile, with even more subpoenas being issued in the investigation of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, where is that probe headed, and will it further stoke the partisan bickering in Washington which reached new heights this week with one congressman posting an animated video showing him killing a colleague and attacking President Biden?
To analyze all these developments and more, we are pleased to welcome back to INSIDE POLITICS this week, Joe St. George, the national political correspondent for Scripps television stations which includes NEWSCHANNEL5.
We welcome Joe back to the program.
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