By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL 5 Political Analyst
October 22, 2021
WHEN SPECIAL MAYBE NOT BE SO SPECIAL; BACK IN THE COURTS; WHY DOES TENNESSEE NEED A NEW SCHOOL FUNDING FORMULA?; A NEW TENNCARE CONTROVERSY; NASHVILLE STILL STRUGGLES TO FIND THE SWEET SPOT FOR ITS TOURISM INDUSTRY; ACCESS JUSTICE FOR RESIDENTS OF THE SADLER STREET NEIGHBORHOOD MAY BE A POSSIBILITY; THE LATEST ON BOOSTERS AND VACCINE SHOTS FOR CHILDREN; ANOTHER TUMULTOUS WEEK IN WASHINGTON; THE VANDERBILT UNITY PROJECT ON INSIDE POLITICS;
WHEN SPECIAL MAYBE NOT BE SO SPECIAL
For most of my career reporting on and observing the Tennessee General Assembly, a special session for lawmakers has been a rare occurrence.
Now we will have three in 2021, two of them in the month of October alone. This special session starting next week marks only the third time in Tennessee history lawmakers have called themselves back into session.
The special session for education earlier this year made sense in the wake of the severe learning loss experienced by students during the pandemic.
The second special session that occurred this week also makes sense. It finalized a record (almost $900 million) state incentive package to bring the Ford Motor Company to Tennessee with its Blue Oval City electric car and battery plant manufacturing project. That decision will bring 6 thousand badly needed jobs and other development to West Tennessee, especially to the state’s long vacant mega-industrial site there. The move will also cement Tennessee’s national leadership status in the car manufacturing industry, especially in the burgeoning electric vehicle business.
Not even concerns about government transparency created a speed bump on approval of the Blue Oval support plan. The concerns are about the vast power the appointed Oval overview board will have including eminent domain and how the oversight board can keep secret almost everything it does about the project, a government open records loophole that is ripe for scandal and controversy one day, maybe not too far down the road.
Then we come to the third special session set to begin next week on October 27. In fact, some House lawmakers wanted to include it in this week’s special session even though it was clearly outside the call for the meeting. Fortunately, Senate leaders put a stop to that.
The third special session is to address a laundry list of COVID-19 protocols Republican lawmakers have been itching to get involved in ever since the pandemic got political not long after it began in the spring of last year. That means this third special session will see bills to ban mask and vaccine mandates (from the federal government and even those from the private sector). It also means efforts to limit and narrow the long- held power of the governor to order a state of emergency or make it more subject to legislative review and approval. It will mean as well efforts to abolish or greatly restrict the powers of independent boards of health in counties like Davidson (Nashville) and Shelby (Memphis) which have had the courage to follow the science, even as state Republican lawmakers sought to play to their political base which believes in long debunked conspiracies and misinformation about the virus and the vaccines.
In short, it is the Republican supermajority making its own version of “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Special sessions cost money, tens of thousands of dollars even for just a few days. This third such session (which could last a week or more) is a complete waste of money being held for political reasons (re-election), not for the good the people of Tennessee.
Governor Bill Lee in particular seems keen “to nullify” what he says is federal overreach on a vaccine mandate. He seems intent even though modern American history shows the federal government’s supremacy over the states being able to “nullify” federal actions (see President Andrew Jackson versus John C. Calhoun in the 1830s over tariffs and the North versus the South in the American Civil War 1861-1865). Already the state Labor Department is warning both lawmakers and the Governor about problems ahead.
BACK IN THE COURTS
It seems likely that if almost any of the controversial legislation being proposed for the special session passes., it will come under legal challenge.
Already Governor Bill Lee’s executive order requires mask mandates in Tennessee schools allow an opt-out for Tennessee parents to exempt their children. But that effort has been stalled by multiple federal judges in the state.
With the state appealing the matter, their court pleadings include more than just parental rights. There is also testimony from a professor at Stanford University Medical School claiming masks don’t work to keep children safe. Say what?
It is a claim that a broad majority of scientists and health officials have debunked, but which now Tennesseans are seeing their tax dollars being used to promote.
WHY DOES TENNESSEE NEED A NEW SCHOOL FUNDING FORMULA?
Even before Tennessee’s Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula for public schools came into being back in the 1980s, there have been complaints and lawsuits over whether the state does it fairly.
Small rural systems have complained, as well the big county systems. In fact, a lawsuit filed by Nashville and Memphis school officials is about to go to trial shortly.
Of course, the state has always defended its formula saying it’s a fair allocation
Then suddenly in recent days, Governor Bill Lee and his education commissioner Penny Schwinn announced a review of the state’s education funding to recommend changes to the Legislature in January. The review will include getting input from all constituents of the schools, including parents.
So why make this review now? Is it a legal tactic to muddy up the lawsuit about to go to trial? Or is it, as TENNESSEAN columnist Keel Hunt wonders, connected to Governor Lee’s so far unsuccessful efforts to create a private school voucher program in Tennessee?
Already the 12 member steering committee appointed by the Tennessee Department of Education to oversee the funding review is creating controversy. It contains all Republican elected officials or top members of the Lee administration.
Democratic State Senate leader Jeff Yarbro is not all happy about the completely partisan makeup of the steering committee.
The committee makeup is hard to understand. With the Tennessee House and Senate seeking to redistrict all the state’s legislative and congressional seats, you know that is likely to be a partisan issue. But at least House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Governor Randy McNally appointed Democrats to their committees overseeing the redistricting process.
Starting out with an all-one- party steering committee to direct this education funding review seems to belie claims education funding is a bi-partisan matter. To the state’s credit the Education Department is hoilding public meetings across the state to gather input from parents about schools should be funded.
A NEW TENNCARE CONTROVERSY
There is another area where the state this week is getting push back on its spending, this time from the federal government. In this case, it is the Tenncare health care program where an audit has found program officials should repay Washington at least $397 million and perhaps as much as $676 million for overbilling and other issues.
The critical audit comes as Tennessee officials continue to insist they can save the government and the taxpayers money, while also providing better health care, by converting Tenncare into a block grant program. The former Trump administration gave a tentative OK to the program while the Biden administration now says no.
This audit is not likely to help the cause for a block grant conversion.
NASHVILLE STILL STRUGGLES TO FIND THE SWEET SPOT FOR ITS TOURISM INDUSTRY
Whether it’s short- term rentals, scooters or party buses, Nashville, in particular its 40-member Metro Council, continues to struggle to find the sweet spot for its tourism industry.
Don’t misunderstand, tourism continues to grow and prosper here, even as the pandemic lingers.
But the issue of regulating tourism related activities such as short-term rentals, scooters, and most recently, party buses and other tourist vehicles continues to be an issue.
The latest chapter in all this came Tuesday night when the Council voted 33-3 to impose strict new rules and regulations, including at least a short- term ban (beginning December 1) on alcohol sales, possession and consumption on the unenclosed tourist vehicles.
Councilmembers say they are acting because as tourism has returned to the downtown area with the virus easing, the problems of noise and public safety issues have gotten out of hand. Some council members are even complaining about party vehicles showing up illegally in their suburban districts.
But even as the Council acted to send the new measure to Mayor John Cooper for his signature, some other council representatives (even some who had co-sponsored the bill) voiced concerns the new law is too harsh, that it will prove to be “a punch in the nose” that could well drive some small companies out of business. Others blame the city’s Convention and Visitors Corporation for whipping up opposition to the party buses even though opposition also came from downtown activists and students at Hume Fogg Magnet High School downtown.
One thing remains certain. This week’s Council action will not be its last on this issue, just as has happened in the Council’s efforts in recent years to regulate scooters and short- term rentals where many tourists stay when they come to Nashville.
In terms of party buses, still to come are potential efforts in the Council to soften the blow of the new law by seeking to approve additional rules and permits to allow alcohol on the tourist vehicles through a BYOB program or to allow a catering service to allow alcohol sales.
There is little chance these changes will occur before the ban on alcohol takes effect December 1. There are also concerns being voiced about whether city officials can get all the other required new rules and regulations in place for the party vehicles by the time they are set to go into effect April 1, 2022.
But perhaps the biggest uncertainty is whether state lawmakers will allow the Metro law to stay on the books. Previous efforts by Metro to regulate tourist entertainment vehicles in the city have been nullified by the state, much as the legislature has passed laws that limit what Metro can do in regulating short term rentals.
ACCESS JUSTICE FOR RESIDENTS OF THE SADLER STREET NEIGHBORHOOD MAY BE A POSSIBILITY
For years, residents of the Sadler Street neighborhood in Nashville have complained, without getting much help, about a very significant issue for their area.
Persistent train blockages on Sadler Street (the only road access to the neighborhood) have prevented neighbors from getting in or out. The area is close to Radnor Yard while increasing freight movement has made the problem more acute for residents in recent years. Some residents have been unable to get to work or get their children to school on time. There is also concern about emergency access in case of a fire or a medical issue.
Finally, through the help of Mayor John Cooper and his office, a funding partnership between TDOT, CSX and Metro will result in a grade-separated railroad bridge being constructed on Sadler Avenue.
Plans and costs are still be unveiled but a news release from the mayor’s office says local taxpayers will only have to about 10% of the cost. The next step will be taking the proposal to the Metro Council, “in the next few weeks.” If the agreement is approved, the bridge project can move forward through the design and construction process.
Says Mayor Cooper: “The solution Metro has achieved for the residents of the Sadler Village neighborhood is an example of the creative problem solving that can happen when government and institutions work together.” “
Says CSX Railroad that owns the rail line that goes through the Sadler Avenue neighborhood: ““CSX strives to be a good neighbor in the communities where we operate,” said Bryan Tucker, vice president of corporate communications at CSX. “We appreciate the collaboration with Mayor Cooper, the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Nashville Department of Transportation & Multimodal Infrastructure to find a solution for this unique situation in Nashville.”
This is particularly good news. Based on the years I have observed efforts for Metro and CSX to work together on projects, progress has been slow at best, sometimes seemingly becoming a career-long process to get things done.
THE LATEST ON BOOSTERS AND VACCINE SHOTS FOR CHILDREN
There are more COVID-19 vaccine booster shots available with the FDA on Wednesday approving both Moderna’s and Johnson & Johnson’s boosters for use to those who qualify.
The FDA also now says those getting the boosters can now “mix and match” what type of shot they receive and not have to get the booster from the same source (Pfizer, Moderna and J&J) they got their previous shots. Late Thursday, the CDC gave its final approval to these changes. So let the additional boosters soon begin.
These developments come as the Biden administration also outlined its plans this week to provide COVID-19 vaccination shots to children ages 5-11 as soon as the serum for youngsters is approved by the FDA and the CDC, possibly as soon as the next two weeks with those vaccinations to begin in early November.
I hope I am proven wrong in saying this, but as much as adults have been reluctant, uncertain or just downright opposed to getting the vaccine for themselves, how will they react to their children getting the dabs? More controversy coming in 3-2-1.
As for the virus itself, the 7-day average for cases is down 12.5% nationally compared to a week ago. Over 68.1% of Americans 12 and older are now fully vaccinated and over 76.8% have received at least one shot. In Tennessee, we continue to lag behind, with about only 47% of our citizens being fully vaccinated. It could be worse as those rates in Alabama and Mississippi are in the mid-40s.
As usual, there remain concerns about a new Delta variant that could see an even more contagious virus spreading out of the United Kingdom. There is also word about two factors that seem to be driving ‘break through” cases of COVID-19 among the fully vaccinated: age and pre-existing conditions.
ANOTHER TUMULTOUS WEEK IN WASHINGTON
The House investigation of the January 6 attempted insurrection at the Capitol took a significant turn this week. A special House committee voted to seek criminal contempt of Congress charges against Steve Bannon, a former top aide to President Donald Trump, for refusing to comply with a subpoena to provide documents and testify.
Bannon claims executive privilege and indicates he may go to court. Bannon’s role in what happened January 6 is reportedly vital to the House investigation.
The criminal contempt of Congress charges against Bannon went to the House floor Thursday for a vote. It passed om a mostly party line vote 229-202. Every Democrat voted in favor joined by 9 Republican house member. As for how all this will work out going forward? That remains based on past history, murky at best.
As for continuing efforts to rescue the two Biden “infrastructure” bills on Capitol Hill, which contain much of his presidential legacy, the outlook remains murky as well, although late in the week, there was optimism that progressive and moderate Democrats might still strike a deal to pass the measure after cutting the size and length of the larger social services and climate change infrastructure measure from $3.5 to $2 trillion.
As the week ended both President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed optimism a deal is near.
While the hope is to come to agreement soon, will that be actual bills to be voted on (and in what order)? Or will it be yet another “framework’’ on what the bills will contain (with no real numbers or text for the bills) and no firm timetable on how it will be voted on? One late complication is how to fund the bills. Repealing the Trump tax cuts no longer seems an option. Stay tuned. This is a developing (if very slowly) story.
THE VANDERBILT UNITY PROJECT ON INSIDE POLITICS
As our politics on the national, state and local levels continue to grow more polarized and divided, there are concerns about maintaining the foundations of a civil society in our American democracy.
One group interested in those issues is the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and Democracy.
Nashville attorney Gray Sasser is the Executive Director of that organization.
He is also our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.
We welcome Gray to the program.
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