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Capitol View commentary: Friday, November 8, 2019

Posted: 12:54 PM, Nov 08, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-08 13:54:02-05
Capitol View

CAPITOL VIEW
By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL 5 Political Analyst
November 8, 2019

STATE FEDERAL SURPLUS FUNDS NOW TOTAL OVER $1 BILLION; DON’T MISS NEWSCHANNEL 5 MONTH-LONG SERIES ON THE STATE’S BROKEN JUNVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM; CAMPAIGN FINANCE ISSUES LOOM AGAIN OVER THE HILL; MAYBE THE LINES WILL BE SHORTER; VOCATIONAL EDUCATION GRANTS; TENNCARE; ALLEDGED ICE VISIT TO A METRO SCHOOL SEEMS EVEN MORE UNLIKELY; A NIGHT FOR PARKING TICKETS AND APPOINTMENTS; THE STAFF ROSTER, DUTIES AND SALARIES OF WHO IS IN MAYOR COOPER’S OFFICE; JUST IN TIME; THE IMPACT OF THE OFF- YEAR ELECTIONS IN TENNESSEE; SKIP NIPPER ON INSIDE POLITICS;

STATE FEDERAL SURPLUS FUNDS NOW TOTAL OVER $1 BILLION

It was budget week at the State Capitol as Governor Bill Lee held his annual departmental budget hearings. Despite a still roaring state economy, the Governor has advised his commissioners to factor in potential budget cuts of 1% (2% was suggested last year). He also advised they move cautiously on proposing new capital projects for buildings and other facilities.

The real revelations about issues surrounding state finances continued to be led by almost daily stories from THE TENNESSEAN. That includes reporter Anita Wadhwani and others, such as Natalie Allison and Mike Reicher.

The newspaper took a report by the fiscally conservative Beacon Center which found that the state, over the past several years, has sat on what is now over $730 million in federal block grant funds to aid the poor. It’s from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. The money is intended to help lift parents out of poverty.

The stories they’ve written found no other states have surpluses anywhere near that large and that other states have been much more creative in spending the funds to help those in need.

At first, Governor Lee resisted spending more of the federal surplus, saying it might be needed in case the state’s economy tanked. He said that, even though the federal block grant surplus is almost as large as the state’s overall “rainy day fund”, (over a $1 billion). That fund is specifically set up to be prepared for tough economic times in Tennessee.

After a couple of weeks of controversy, Governor Lee has now changed his mind and says he is enthusiastic about putting some of the federal TANF block grant reserve monies to use.

But even with the Governor now wanting to spend up to $70 million in the TANF surplus to give it to non-profits to provide more assistance to the poor, Memphis congressman Steve Cohen is outraged over what he sees as “gross mismanagement’” by the state. He is giving the Governor a week to respond to his sharply critical letter on the issue.

While the Governor’s budget hearings continued this week, there came new information that the state has not spent as much as $300 million dollars in federal childcare funds. That would bring to over $1 billion dollars in unspent federal funds sent to Tennessee to help the needy. However, unlike the federal block grant funds, THE TENNESSEAN reports “in the case of the childcare monies- they have a "lose it or use it" provision. The childcare dollars revert back to the federal government, which redistributes the money to other states using the funds.

In fact, in 2018, Tennessee was one of only two states required to return unspent funds to the federal childcare fund -- the largest source of federal funding states use to help parents pay for childcare.”
With childcare being such a challenging issue for parents of every economic status, this is truly disturbing information and hopefully will inspire even more “enthusiasm” from Governor Lee and his administration to put these unspent federal dollars to work before they are lost back to the federal government.

Congratulations to THE TENNESSEAN and its reporters for some excellent reporting!

DON’T MISS NEWSCHANNEL 5 MONTH-LONG SERIES ON THE STATE’S BROKEN JUNVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM

Speaking of terrific reporting, don’t miss NEWSCHANNEL5’s month-long series on the state’s broken juvenile justice system. Led by the station’s Chief Investigative Reporter Phil Williams, it may be his best work yet. And that is saying a lot!

Can’t commit to a whole month to watch it?

Well, there is this half hour special that should give you an overview. This is an issue some say should be declared a public health crisis in Tennessee.

BROKEN is very well done!

Here is another link to the NEWCHANNEL5 stories already aired on this topic.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE ISSUES LOOM AGAIN OVER THE HILL

It was another week where campaign finance questions loomed on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill.

There is this report of a complicated federal probe of Memphis Senator Brian Kelsey .

At the same time this week there was a ruling by an administrative law judge that reduced, by 75%, the record campaign finance penalties levied against former state representative Jeremy Durham.

At the same time this Durham ruling was announced, the new Executive Director of the state’s Ethics Commission and the Registry of Election Finance outlined a more aggressive approach to gain public support and understanding of what his groups are trying to d o.

By the way, for those who have forgotten or were not around, one of the state’s biggest political scandals, the federal Rocky Top probe just marked its 40th anniversary. Its impacts of the scandal remain to this day.

Getting back to 2019, there are renewed questions about the role of current Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. He has become his employer’s TV pitch man after already supporting controversial legislation on the Hill that would aid his bosses.

All these developments have GOP leaders on the Hill open to considering changes in the state’s campaign finance laws.

Finally, there is more this week about another potential scandal. It is somewhat related to Capitol Hill and Republican politics. It involves the daughter of former state senator and now Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron. This week a 70-plus count felony indictment was handed down against her. The charges largely involve insurance fraud.

The charges also include the theft of tens of thousand dollars from Bill Ketron’s political campaign funds.

Kelsey Ketron was held at the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center until she bonded out Thursday. She's scheduled to appear before an out-of-county Circuit Court judge Nov. 25. All the Rutherford county judges have recused themselves from the case,

MAYBE THE LINES WILL BE SHORTER

After a couple of weeks of concern about long lines and long waits at Tennessee Drivers License stations across the state, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security is proposing to hire 80 more workers to deal with the issue which seems to have been driven by computer programming issues, and the conversion to the new nationally mandated REAL IDs driver license. Expanded hours of operations ,even outsourcing, may also be considered.

It is unclear whether these new hires will happen quickly or will have to wait until Governor Bill Lee proposes his budget and the General Assembly approves it, which would not be until next spring.

This is not the first time the lines and waits have been long. I remember a few years back when I went to get my own license renewed. People were complaining among themselves and speculating who they should call to get it fixed. I was surprised to learn their consensus to call was the Mayor of Nashville. The license station where I heard this conversation, was located in the Cockrill Bend area of Davidson County.

I spoke up and pointed to the portrait of the Governor on the wall. I suggested his office was who they needed to call. Maybe that is part of how this current proposed solution to the long lines and waits came about or why it is finally getting implemented

Democracy in action… once you know which level and branch of government you need to contact.

VOCATIONAL EDUCATION GRANTS

When he ran and was elected governor, Bill Lee made it clear vocational education would be one of his top priorities, focusing in particular in the rural areas of Tennesee This week he backed up that comittment, announcing the recipients of $25 million dollars in grants allocated in this year’s state budget.

TENNCARE

TennCare is such a major program in state government it paid for over half the live birth deliveries in Tennessee last year. A problem has arisen. TennCare pays for only two months of post- partum care. For the mothers, there has been a spike of 52 deaths in recent months because the care did not continue. Now state health officials want to address the issue by extending care to a year after birth. The extra cost will be $19 million with a similar match from the federal government . Governor Lee will decide whether to include the funds in the TennCare budget.

There was another strong sign this week Governor Lee has work to do to build public understanding and support for the Republican effort to convert the TennCare program into a federal block grant. A draft block grant proposal was sent out across the state for reactions and written comments. The public hearings saw very little support. Governor said that was because those opposed to the idea “are misinformed.” Now it appears the written comments received are equally non-supportive (or misinformed according to Governor Lee?).

The state is due to submit its block grant proposal to federal officials later this month. If approved, Tennessee would be the first state in the nation to operate its Medicaid program under a block grant.

ALLEDGED ICE VISIT TO A METRO SCHOOL SEEMS EVEN MORE UNLIKELY

Did ICE agents come to a Metro school and seek information about students?

Such reports sparked a community-wide furor.

ICE denies it happened, even though, at first, Metro school officials say it did occur.

But as the days have passed, Metro’s further explanations seem more and more unclear and it appears unlikely it was ICE who came to the school.

A NIGHT FOR PARKING TICKETS AND APPOINTMENTS

It may be the one positive idea that came out of former Mayor David Briley’s ill-fated effort to privatize Nashville’s parking meter system. By a unanimous voice vote, the Metro Council gave final approval to an ordinance Tuesday night that would double the fine to $25 for staying too long on the street without paying. The higher fines go into effect December 1. Until then, it will still be cheaper to pay multiple daily parking tickets than pay to park in a local downtown garage. The parking bill was the first ordinance passed by the new Metro Council.

Elsewhere, Tuesday night was a time for the Council to fill vacancies and approve appointments. That includes unanimously confirming Mayor John Cooper’s choice of former Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper to be Metro’s Legal Director. That position is one of two in Mayor Cooper’s cabinet for which Council approval is required. Metro Finance Director is the other post. Kevin Crumbo was unanimously confirmed for that job at the last Council meeting in mid-October.

The Council also filled a vacancy on the Metro School Board. Labor activist and former mayoral aide Freda Player-Peters will take over the seat of District 7 School Board member Will Pinkston who resigned.

The Council voted to fill three vacancies on the city’s Community Education Commission and on the Metro Industrial Development Board. It also approved two memorializing resolutions, one showing its support for a path to citizenship to resolve the nation’s and Nashville’ immigration challenges and a separate resolution to recognize November 20 as Transgender Day of Remembrance in Nashville. It was the third time the Council has voted to give this recognition. While there was no dissent, a few more conservative members of the Council did abstain on both resolutions as a sign of their feelings on the topics.

With the new Council now in full swing, considering its first ordinances on third and final reading this week, that inevitably means more development pressures as rezoning bills are being filed for Council consideration. Those may well involve historic structures which Historic Nashville is once again spotlighting with their annually updated Nashville Nine list of endangered properties.

THE STAFF ROSTER, DUTIES AND SALARIES OF WHO IS IN MAYOR COOPER’S OFFICE

When there is a change in the mayor’s office there are changes in personnel and duties. All that impacts salaries.

On a personal level, I know when in Mayor Fulton’s office I was not thrilled to see my level of compensation printed in the paper. But it is public record, so it comes with the territory if you want to work for the taxpayers.

So here it is so far for Mayor Cooper’s office, even if it did take a public records request for THE TENNESSEAN to obtain it.

THE NASHVILLE SCENE asked for even more records to be released.

JUST IN TIME

With another pre-winter cold snap about to hit Nashville, sending temperatures well below freezing by Friday night, Mayor John Cooper’s office has finally announced a cold weather plan and warming shelter to keep the homeless off the streets, so they can be safe when temperatures go at or below 28 degrees.

Many in the city were caught off guard three weeks ago when news came that the city has not identified the money or a plan to open and host an overflow shelter this year. After some finger pointing about how this could happen, Mayor John Cooper vowed both the money and the plan would in place and the shelter would be available. It went into effect for the first time Thursday (last) night and tonight (Friday) when temperatures were forecast to dip down to 24-25 degrees.

Mayor Cooper praised the effort as “the result of an intensive multi-agency effort including Metro Social Services, the Office of Emergency Management, Metro Public Works, and the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office to pull together the plan.

Says Mayor Cooper in a news release: “From guest transportation and meal service to pet sheltering and facility safety, this season’s Metro Cold Weather Overflow Sheltering Plan has been carefully thought out to ensure that Metro helps unhoused and unsheltered individuals and families off the streets when outdoor temperatures become unsafe while, first and foremost, providing the support that our community partners need in fulfilling their missions.” Metro’s overflow shelter site has a maximum capacity of 150 guests

Transportation to the Metro overflow shelter will run from a heated staging area from 7:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. The Metro Cold Weather Overflow Sheltering Plan staging area will be at Riverfront Station, 101 1st Avenue South, although another site was previously announced earlier in the day Friday. This staging area site was determined in cooperation with homeless advocacy partners. Law enforcement partners will be available to transport individuals requiring overflow shelter services beyond normal transportation hours of operation. Community partners will also receive instructions on after-hours overflow shelter drop-off procedures.

Metro’s overflow shelter is located at a vacant DCSO dormitory at 5131 Harding Place, Nashville, TN 37211. Standard hours of operation upon activation are 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. The overflow shelter site will include:

• Beds, blankets, and pillows
• Dinnertime meal service
• Shower facilities
• Boarding kennels and dog food
• Fenced-in yard for guests’ pets
• Facility security provided by local law enforcement agencies

It looks like a good plan. I have not seen any estimates for what it will cost. I guess that will depend on many cold nights we have. I am sure glad it was put in place literally just a few hours before it was needed.

THE IMPACT OF THE OFF- YEAR ELECTIONS IN TENNESSEE

Two years ago, Virginia, just like Tennessee, was an all-red state in terms of its legislature and governor. In fact, like Tennessee, the Virginia House of Burgesses was controlled by a Republican super majority.

Now after elections in 2017 and this past Tuesday, Democrats control both houses of the Virginia legislature and the governor’s chair. Can that happen in Tennessee?

I have my doubts, but I am sure Tennessee Democratic leaders will see the Virginia election results as a positive sign their party can find its way of the political wilderness it has been mired in now for almost a decade. It’s been over two decades since Virginia Democrats controlled their state’s government. Talking about it and making comparisons are one thing, doing something to change it, that is something all together different. Is there a Virginia plan or any plan that will work in Tennessee? Our political players, history and traditions are certainly different. Is there enough commonality to share to make that kind of political change happen in the Volunteer State?

What about the impact in Tennessee of another off-year election with Kentucky apparently narrowly defeating a Republican governor for re-election (subject to a request for recanvassing of the vote)? The potential defeat of a GOP governor came despite strong support for the incumbent from President Donald Trump. He carried the Bluegrass State by almost 30 points in 2016 (an even larger majority than Mr. Trump received in Tennessee). Tennessee Governor Bill Lee endorsed his GOP gubernatorial colleague and went up north across the border to campaign for him.

Based on what happened in both Virginia and Kentucky, is there is renewed hope Tennessee next year might elect more Democrats to the Legislature, to Congress, even to Tennessee’s open U.S. Senate seat? Again, I have doubts that will happen in any significant numbers, but I am sure hope springs eternal among Democratic leaders.

Even nationally, the impact of these November off-year election seem positive for the Democrats on the surface, but there are many cross currents at work that make any definitive conclusions difficult, especially with the continuing impeachment developments in Washington.
WASHINGTON POST
MARKETWATCH
NPR

And there is this new national poll to ponder about the 2020 presidential race.

As partisanship continues to divide the nation and stall actions to solve our pressing issues, two former Tennessee governors came together this week to remind us how things ought to work.

SKIP NIPPER ON INSIDE POLITICS

If I told you we are going to discuss baseball this week on INSIDE POLITICS, you might think we are having an off-topic show. But maybe not.

As it pertains to Nashville, there likely will be a lot of news and politics involved in the future of the National Pastime in this city with maybe a MLB team coming to Nashville. And there’s lot of history in baseball both in this city and nationally which we also discuss on this program.

We also seem to be in a time when the sport of baseball may be on the brink of some significant chances, especially for a sport that has always been slow to change and often jealously guards its traditions and records.

To discuss all this, our guest on INSIDE POLITICS is Nashville’s pre-eminent baseball historian, Skip Nipper. Watch us!
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