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Capitol View commentary: Friday, November 22, 2019

Posted: 12:29 PM, Nov 22, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-22 13:29:35-05
Capitol View

CAPITOL VIEW
By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL 5 Political Analyst
November 22, 2019

A STORY THAT WON’T GO AWAY; LAWMAKERS TO BRAINSTORM IDEAS TO SPEND MASSIVE STATE LOW INCOME FUND SURPLUS; CHECKING UP ON THE DMV; NO MORE TAILPIPE EMISSIONS TESTS?; METRO COUNCIL PASSES MULTI-YEAR WATER SEWER RATE HIKE PLAN ON SECOND READING; WHAT ELSE TO DO TO BALANCE METRO’S BOOKS; ONE STEP FORWARD, ONE BACK?; RESHAPING MDHA; NASHVILLE MLS MOVES AHEAD ON FIRST GAME, FILLING ROSTER, BUT NOTHING ON NEW STADIUM; GETTING PAID BACK; CONGRESSIONAL CANIDATE JONES SPEAKS OUT; MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL HITS A NERVE CREATING CONGRESSIONAL AND TENNESSEE BACKLASH ON PROPOSED MINOR LEAGUE CONTRACTION; TENNESSEE SPORTS ON- LINE GAMBLING REMAINS A SLOW START; AL GORE STARTS NEW GLOBAL CLIMATE OUTREACH EFFORT FROM NASHVILLE; CLARKSVILLE MAYOR JOE PITTS ON INSIDE POLITICS; NEXT WEEK;

A STORY THAT WON’T GO AWAY

It’s a $4- million- dollar economic development grant fund that state officials expressed bewilderment about how it got into this year’s state budget. They have now put a freeze on spending it.

But an investigation by THE TENNESSEAN found some e-mails that indicate lots of state lawmakers knew about it, even sent e-mails about it to get projects in their districts approved for funding. The e-mails also indicate the Lee administration had made quite a few (up to 60?) “commitments” to spend the funds before now at least temporarily changing its mind.

If the FBI is still probing the very close House vote to approve a controversial school voucher program last term , are these e-mails something the federal agency is looking at too?
TENNESSEAN

Another report that surfaced this week about the education saving accounts or voucher program is that the feds might tax the income being given out to families .

The news that vouchers might have income tax implications, is creating still more opposition and reluctance to starting the program a year earlier than planned in the fall of 2020.

As the week went on, the Lee administration went into damage control mode to limit the growing controversy. These officials now claim the earlier assertions about federal taxes are wrong. They now say the educational savings funds are scholarships and therefore they believe are not taxable.

The new State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn also seem to get caught in the middle this week over the ongoing, politically thorny issue of arming classroom teachers. Her boss, Governor Lee has said he is not opposed to the idea, but he has not made it a priority. As lawmakers are looking at doling out school security grants from a fund they created at the Governor’s suggestion last session, at least one lawmaker is raising arming teachers again . The Education Commissioner did not take a position.

In another emerging state education issue, a federal lawsuit was filed questioning the religious nature of the operations of a Middle Tennessee public school district.
TENNESSEAN

Back in Nashville, there is this story about an investigation underway concerning the apparent suicide death of a Metro Nashville Public School student due to bullying.

And there is this Metro teacher placed on leave over a high school homework assignment.

LAWMAKERS TO BRAINSTORM IDEAS TO SPEND MASSIVE STATE LOW INCOME FUND SURPLUS

While the Lee administration has been working on a plan to better utilize the over $730 million dollar surplus the state has accumulated in federal Families First funds, Tennessee lawmakers decided to get involved. After holding its first-ever budget hearings before the 2020 legislative session begins, leaders in both houses have also appointed a joint bi-partisan special committee to look into the TANF funding matter and brainstorm ideas.

But before lawmakers could gather together, on Tuesday, the Lee administration announced its own plan to spend down some of the TANF reserve funds. It would spend most of the current $732 million surplus, leaving $342 million or a three-year cushion to be available in case of an economic slowdown.

Will lawmakers buy into the administration’s proposal? Will they substitute some of their own ideas? Well, they sure reacted quite negatively to the Lee administration coming up with its own plan without notifying lawmakers FIRST. Whoops!

State DHS officials also ran into a buzz saw of criticism when they appeared before a legislative committee, filled with unhappy lawmakers.
THE TENNESSEAN

Perhaps even more puzzling is the DHS Commissioner told THE TENNESSEAN that her department had for years been working on plans to use more of the surplus TANF funds . However earlier when asked she had the paper not such plans existed.

While all this discussion about increased spending of TANF funds comes to the fore, economists advising the state, indicate an economic slowdown could be looming ahead. But in the meantime, growing this nearly three-quarters of a billion dollar surplus has created some very difficult human consequences.

THE TENNESSEAN’ s Keel Hunt has a suggestion. Figure out how the surplus got so high and make sure it doesn’t happen again when the need is so great in this state.

This week also saw the announcement of a key communications aide for Governor Lee leaving at the end of the year to re-enter the private sector. In a week when effective communications on the Hill seemed in short supply, the timing was somewhat ironic to say the least.
TENNESSEE JOURNAL

Finally, on the Hill this week, the Lee administration sent to Washington its controversial proposal to convert the state’s TennCare program into a block grant. If approved, Tennessee would be the first state in the nation to operate its Medicaid program in this fashion.

But just as the Tennessee application was being sent in, a new question arose?

What does it mean that the Trump administration has just now pulled back its guidance to states on this topic?

THE TENNESSEAN has an article that raises new concerns the new block grant proposal may make it easier for the state to withdraw funds saved in the program to be used for other things.

WPLN’s Blake Farmer has built a reputation as being perhaps the health care reporter in this media market. His report on the filing of the TennCare block grant seems to indicate the state has tried to address the avalanche of criticism the plan received during a recent round of public hearings held statewide.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

One area the state is continuing to get high marks is our response to the threat of human trafficking, according to the nation's leading experts.

CHECKING UP ON THE DMV

One of my FB friends was so happy this week when she reported she had gone to one of Nashville drivers license centers to get her new federally mandated Real IDs. She got in and out in less a half hour.

A state-wide survey conducted by a team of 10 USA TODAY TENNESEE reporters found some very different results.

NO MORE TAILPIPE EMISSIONS TESTS?

It has been annual ritual every year for Nashville drivers and others in surrounding counties, getting your tailpipe emissions inspected. Now that the air seems to be much cleaner than when the required tailpipe tests first began in Davidson County in 1984 , the state may soon be asking the Trump administration to end the procedure, even though some are pushing back against the change.

I covered the ceremonial first car inspection in Nashville 35 years ago. The vehicle belonging to the city’s vice mayor, David Scobey, was selected. The Metro Council had strongly resisted starting the inspection program. City leaders finally relented only after Washington began to cut some of Nashville’s federal funds

The opening event seemed fairly uneventful until it was announced the car had flunked the test. The Vice Mayor’s car had to be fixed and re-inspected. I know that has happened to more than a few Nashville drivers over the years, as the city has shown it meant business in meeting national clean air standards. But never did a single motorist failure to pass get the kind of publicity that first ceremonial car inspection received.

METRO COUNCIL PASSES MULTI-YEAR WATER SEWER RATE HIKE PLAN ON SECOND READING

The Metro Council got the message from State Comptroller Justin Wilson.

After the top-level state official last week warned city leaders his office would take over the city’s check books if it didn’t get its balance sheet in order, the Metro Council without debate or dissent approved on second reading, a multi-year water/sewer rate increase that will help bring under control a city service that Comptroller Wilson said was “going down the drain” it is awash in so much red ink.

There could be some Council debate on the matter on third and final reading for the measure on December 3. But one of the amendments by Councilman At Large Steve Glover actually wants to increase the first -year rate hike by another 5%. Glover also may offer another amendment to keep some Council approval in the mix for future rate hikes after 2024.

The Council is also in the process of passing legislation to make sure in the future the Council receives regular updates on the water sewer department, its operations and funding status, as well as any communications received from the state that are “critical” of Metro. Several councilmembers feel they have been left in the dark about the city’s financial issues by the past several mayoral administrations. They want to bring more transparency and accountability to the process.

WHAT ELSE TO DO TO BALANCE METRO’S BOOKS

The multi-year water sewer rate hike plan is just part of the fix to balance the city’s books.

There is still the nearly $40 million hole in the current operating budget to close.

City finance officials announced this week they will present their plans to the Metro Council on how to deal with the city’s budget issues on Wednesday, December 11 at 4:00 p.m. in the Metro Council Chambers.

In the interim, the city’s plan for now seems to be cutting back on whatever expenditures the it can, including, again delaying the long awaiting purchase and installation of body cams for the entire police force.

One other area where the city won’t be spending money, according to WPLN, is purchasing the Phillips Metals Property located on the East Bank of the Cumberland River. Citing Mayor John Cooper as its source, the administration of former Mayor David Briley had negotiated a deal to buy the Phillips land, which is a recycling company). The property has been seen for many years as a visual “eyesore” for the community as well as a key for future redevelopment for the East Bank.

WPLN says Mayor Cooper feels right now the city just can’t spend the tens of millions of dollars it would take, to not just purchase the property, but also relocate it. The Phillips operation currently has (and would insist on keeping) road, rail, barge and other access to transportation that would expensive and hard to find.

There is also great concern among Metro teachers they will lose a 3% pay raise promised to them in January 2020 by former Mayor David Briley. The funds were supposed to come from a one-time (?) re-allocation of the city’s tax increment finance funding. On the campaign trail, mayoral candidate John Cooper was a sharp critic of Briley’s pay raise promise. Will Mayor Cooper find a way to save the pay raise now? So far, the Cooper administration is not rushing to give teachers any reassurances.

Late in the week it was reported that the funds for the teacher pay raise have been identified and already sent to Metro and School officials. So is that good news for teachers’ 3% raise in January? Still, no one is saying.

What about all the corporate incentives the city has been passing out to bring and keep businesses and jobs coming to town? THE TENNESSEAN has looked into just how much has been promised. On a multi-year basis, it is a considerable and growing amount. The not so good news is that on an annual basis it is less than the $40 million Metro needs to plug this year’s operating budget deficit.

One person who will play a major role in balancing Metro’s book is Councilman At Large Bob Mendes who chairs the Budget & Finance Committee . He offers these thoughts about where the city is, and how it can recover its financial health.

THE TENNESSEAN’s David Plazas says Metro leaders must take this budget crisis seriously lest Nashville become like Detroit.

ONE STEP FORWARD, ONE BACK?

One of the many issues waiting on Mayor John Cooper’s desk when he took office in late September was the ongoing impasse between the city’s Community Oversight Board and Metro Police. The disagreement is over sharing information the new board says it needs to investigate community complaints about police activities.

This week Mayor Cooper said he would convene discussions to try and mediate the matter. From a mayoral news release:

I’ve been a strong supporter of the COB,” said Mayor Cooper. “Nashvillians want and expect the COB and MNPD to work together to strengthen trust and provide accountability. I commend Chief Steve Anderson and the Community Oversight Board for coming together to develop an agreement that works for Nashville.”

Mayor Cooper says Chief Anderson has designated Deputy Chief Mike Hagar to represent MNPD in this discussion process. COB Chair Ashlee Davis has designated Dr. Phyllis Hildreth as the board’s representative. Metro Legal Director Bob Cooper and the Mayor’s Office will convene and facilitate the discussion. Director Cooper will help address any legal issues that may arise.

Mayor Cooper has asked both parties to make a good faith effort to come to an agreement by the end of the year.

But while that appears to be a hopeful development, on the same day the effort to mediate the COB/ Police matter was announced, it was also reported that the COB Executive Director is resigning as of December 2, after just 8 months on the job.
TENNESSEAN
TENNESSEE TRIBUNE
NASHVILLE SCENE
WPLN

Mayor Cooper’s intervention into this matter seems to be an effort to nudge Police Chief Steve Anderson into entering a written agreement with the COB, something which he has consistently resisted doing. Will it work? Stay tuned.

Late in the week, WPLN aired a story putting a rather different light on the departure of the COB Director. It may be more than just stress. He says he wasn’t given enough autonomy by his board.
While both the COB and MNPD are pledging to try and work out an agreement, what could further hamper finding common ground are some recent personal developments that has led to an ethics complaint.

RESHAPING MDHA

Mayors make dozens of board appointments to the many Metro boards and commissions during their terms. Mayor John Cooper is poised to make an early impact on the board of the Metropolitan Development & Housing Agency.

First, the Metro Council this week confirmed Mayor Cooper’s appointment of Dr. Paulette Coleman to the MDHA Board. She is the founding chair of the Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) group as well as the chair of its affordable housing task force.

This week Mayor Cooper also announced the appointment of former mayor Bill Purcell to the MDHA Board. That nomination should be up for consideration at the next Council meeting on December 3. To my knowledge Mayor Purcell will become the first Metro Mayor to serve on a city board or commission after leaving office.

By the way, these board and commission posts are non-paying and provide a great source of wisdom and expertise for the government. That would certainly be the case with Mayor Purcell.

Exactly what kind of change Mayor Cooper wants at MDHA is clear from the news release that came out of the office when Mayor Purcell’s appointment was announced.

““Bill has long been a champion for real affordable housing solutions in Nashville. I’m confident in Bill’s leadership, and he has the experience to bring much-needed reforms to MDHA,” said Mayor Cooper. “In a time of urgent affordable housing needs in our city, MDHA needs to refocus on the housing part of its mission, rather than the development aspects of it. This appointment will be an important step toward ensuring that affordable housing is at the center of everything we do in Nashville.”

MDHA was a major focus for funding for affordable housing under former Mayor David Briley, who Cooper defeated for re-election. The details of exactly what the new Mayor has in mind for his affordable housing efforts remain unclear.

NASHVILLE MLS MOVES AHEAD ON FIRST GAME, FILLING ROSTER, BUT NOTHING ON NEW STADIUM

It was an historic week for Nashville’s new MLS soccer team. It announced the date of its first game (Leap Day, February 29, 2019 at Nissan Stadium against Atlanta United). The club also filled its roster through the MLS’s player expansion draft and several follow-up player trades.

But there is still no construction underway for the new MLS Stadium that is supposed to be built at the Fairgrounds. Mayor John Cooper has raised questions about the project but so far, exactly what he is concerned about remains unclear nor is there any timetable for when there might be further word on what happens next. There is also a lawsuit pending in the courts seeking to stop the stadium construction.

The MLS team had always planned to play its first year at Nissan Stadium. Now, because of the construction delays that have already occurred, the team will also host its games at Nissan in 2021.
What about 2022 and beyond? Nothing yet.

GETTING PAID BACK

Mayor John Cooper took some political heat last summer for spending $2 million of his own money to get to the runoff against then Mayor David Briley. The funds were reported as both a contribution or a loan. Regardless, it appears the Mayor is now holding fund raisers to get re-paid. By the way, Mayor Cooper is not accepting his mayoral salary of $180,000 per year.

CONGRESSIONAL CANIDATE JONES SPEAKS OUT

He was unavailable for comment last week when word leaked he had qualified to run against long-time incumbent Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper in the Democratic primary next August.

But activist Justin Jones had plenty to say this week when he officially kicked off his campaign. He proclaims his will be a very different political effort.
NEWSCHANNEL 5
TENNESSEAN
WPLN

MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL HITS A NERVE CREATING CONGRESSIONAL AND TENNESSEE BACKLASH ON PROPOSED MINOR LEAGUE CONTRACTION

When I had Nashville baseball historian Skip Nipper on INSIDE POLITICS a couple of week ago, some might have thought it was a bit off topic for the show.

It turns out that is far from the case. The Major League Baseball plan to redo the minor leagues has exploded into a major political controversy, involving Congress and even a member of our Tennessee congressional delegation. Tennessee stands to lose a number of teams in the Class A Appalachian League in upper East Tennessee as well as teams in Jackson and Chattanooga under the MLB plan proposed to take effect after the 2020 season.
THE BRISTOL HERALD-COURIER
CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS
THE BOSTON GLOBE
THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
ASSOCIATED PRESS

TENNESSEE SPORTS ON- LINE GAMBLING REMAINS A SLOW START

Some progress has been made. A Director has been chosen and some rules promulgated for review. But still nobody knows when the state’s on-line only sports gambling effort will accept its first bet.

We are not alone.

AL GORE STARTS NEW GLOBAL CLIMATE OUTREACH EFFORT FROM NASHVILLE

Former Vice President Al Gore has spent much of his adult life as an environmental activist.

That includes a new effort to address global climate change that began this week with a program at Vanderbilt University and around the world.

In talking with the media about this effort the former Tennessee Senator and 2000 Democratic nominee for President also shared some thoughts on the current national political scene .
ASSOCIATED PRESS
THE HILL

While the former VP is looking toward a new generation to take on the fight to deal with climate change , Mr. Gore is not looking for change in Nashville’s congressional seat.

Whether it’s the Al Gore friendship or having primary opposition from a progressive for the first time in years, Congressman Jim Cooper has changed his mind and is now a co-sponsor of both the Green New Deal bill and the 100% Clean Economy Act of 2019.

In a news release he explains his actions this way:

“Al Gore was ahead of his time and has been warning us about climate change for decades. His new presentation is a sobering reality. Our climate is changing faster than anyone expected, and we need bold solutions to help save our planet,” Rep. Cooper said.

“I have always said that the Green New Deal is an important call to action, but it’s not a legislative proposal and our job as legislators is to implement things and make them work. Well today the 100% Clean Economy Act sets forth parameters that help to confront the crisis head-on. The Green New Deal is quite ambitious in that it tries to solve many of society’s problems, including the health care system, housing policy, living wages. But, its bold environmental goals can’t be ignored just because the initiative might be a bit too expansive. So, supporting the combination of both of these measures – bold proposals and legislative text – makes a lot of sense to me,” Rep. Cooper added.

Congratulations are also in order for Congressman Cooper this week. He has become a grandfather for the first time. I know from personal experience, there is nothing better than being a grandparent. From the release announcing the birth of his grandson, the Congressman knows it too.

“Our family is incredibly blessed and utterly delighted to announce the birth of James “Jay” Gallisdorfer….“Martha and I are grateful that our daughter, Mary Cooper Gallisdorfer, and her husband Scott have made us grandparents for the first time. Thank you to the wonderful doctors, nurses and staff at St. Thomas Midtown.

“Mother and son are doing well, and this will be our most wonderful Thanksgiving ever!”

Amen and enjoy, Congressman!

CLARKSVILLE MAYOR JOE PITTS ON INSIDE POLITICS

Nashville is frequently described in the news as a city on the rise. But that includes not just the immediate Nashville area. To the northwest about an hour away, there is the city of Clarksville, which has become the fifth largest city in Tennessee, and which now has the state’s 4th largest per capita income.

The mayor of Clarksville is Joe Pitts and he is our guest this week on INSIDE POLITICS.

Clarksville is experiencing both the benefits and the controversies of a growing urban center. We talk about that in our conversation.

Watch us!

Our INSIDE POLITICS broadcast schedule on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS includes:

7:00 p.m. Friday;
5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. 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.
NEXT WEEK

Because it’s a short work week there will be no Capitol View column on Black Friday (November 28). Happy Thanksgiving to all! The next Capitol View will be out on Friday, December 6.

On INSIDE POLITICS next week (airing November 29-December 1), our guest will be MTSU professor Dr. John Vile. We will discuss the recent encyclopedia he has compiled on the American Flag. As our nation’s preeminent symbol, the Flag has a rich and deep history. It has engendered both undying love and some controversies, along with more than a few lawsuits, congressional acts and even a myth or two.

So after you’ve consumed your Thanksgiving feast, including our preeminent Thanksgiving symbol, the turkey, tune to learn more about the history of our American Flag.