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Capitol View commentary: Friday, September 18, 2020

Capitol View
Posted at 1:23 PM, Sep 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-18 14:23:43-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

September 18, 2020

A POLITICAL WAR OVER NASHVILLE’S METRO CHARTER BREAKS OUT ON MULTIPLE FRONTS AND SEEMS HEADED TO THE COURTS; METRO & STATE COVID PROGRESS; STATE AND METRO LOOSEN COVID RESTRICTIONS; SCHOOLS REMAIN PROBLEMATIC WITH COVID; COVID ECONOMIC RECOVERY REMAINS SLOW WHILE ADDITIONAL RELIEF EFFORTS IN WASHINGTON REMAIN STALEMATED; IS PRESIDENT TRUMP RUNNING AGAINST JOE BIDEN OR AGAINST SCIENCE AND HIS OWN HEALTH EXPERTS? ONE MORE STEP OR IS IT A ROADBLOCK TO MOVING THE FORREST BUST FROM THE STATE CAPITOL? NASHVILLE BASEBALL HISTORIAN SKIP NIPPER ON INSIDE POLITICS

A POLITICAL WAR OVER NASHVILLE’S METRO CHARTER BREAKS OUT ON MULTIPLE FRONTS AND SEEMS HEADED TO THE COURTS

This has been brewing for weeks in Nashville’s summer of discontent.

Finally, an all-out war over the city’s Metro Charter (and Nashville’s future) has broken out on several fronts.

Voter anger over a recent 34% property tax increase has fueled a petition campaign to call a December 5 special election for voters to approve draconian changes in the city’s constitution. Metro officials admit there are enough valid voter signatures on the petitions to call an election.

But depending on a decision Tuesday by the Metro Election Commission on whether the amendments are legal under state law and whether the special election should proceed, the matter seems likely to wind up in the courts. The Commission is meeting behind closed doors with Metro lawyers today (Friday).

The petition drive amendment would repeal the 34% tax hike and greatly restrict the size and frequency of future property tax increases. It would also limit the Metro Council’s power to sell city property, enter into leases or approve bond issues without approval by a public referendum. Metro’s Legal Department will tell election officials the petition amendments are poorly written, violate state law and therefore should be kept off the ballot.

Proponents, backed by the Koch Brothers’ conservative Americans for Prosperity group, claim it is time for Nashville voters to take back their government. Mayor John Cooper, after saying very little about the petition effort, except to call it a “poison pill,” this week joined with other government, business and labor leaders to attack the petition amendment effort, particularly repealing the property tax hike, which the Mayor says would “cripple” the city and “gut” almost every vital city service including a revenue loss of over $350 million.

Critics will say the cuts the Mayor is predicting are just scare tactics. But Tennessee’s Comptroller Justin Wilson, who spoke to the Metro Council Tuesday night, seemed to back up the Mayor’s prediction of significant cuts in city services if the petition amendment known as the Nashville Taxpayers Protection Act is approved by voters.

THE TENNESSEAN

This is not the first time in recent months the Comptroller has come to Council to warn them the city finances are headed out of control. The problems from last fall have been resolved now. But he adds he will take over the city’s finances as “a last resort” if the petition charter changes are approved and Metro winds up with an unbalanced budget, something which would violate state law.

To counter the Americans for Prosperity amendment, the Metro Council Tuesday night voted overwhelmingly 33-4 to place its own charter amendment on the ballot. The Council proposal would negate the proposed petition charter changes and keep the status quo in place, thus giving voters a choice of charter amendments at the polls on December 5, if the election occurs.

By the way, the Americans for Prosperity group is the same one that defeated the city’s transit plan at the polls in May 2018. Can Metro return the favor by stopping the vote or defeating the petition amendment? FYI, if Metro voters approve the Council’s “status quo” charter amendment, it would legally prevail if petition amendment passes too.

Heeding a warning from Comptroller Wilson, Metro Finance officials are coming up with a plan to save as much of the city’s cash reserves as they can before any December referendum. They say that is so they are prepared, as much as they can be to keep Metro’s financial ship afloat should the petition charter changes be approved by voters.

That surely means all discretionary spending, hiring and purchasing is likely to be scrapped for now, But might it also mean employee furloughs or “temporary” service reductions in the next few weeks, done to save cash but also as a warning to voters of what’s to come if the petition amendment passes? Will such moves be greeted by more calls of “scare tactics” by Mayor Cooper?

In their efforts to defeat the proposed changes in the Metro Charter, the Council may not have helped themselves with voters who are also upset about city’s growing problem with an unfunded pension and health insurance liability.

For the fourth time in the last eight years the Council is refusing to move ahead with a plan that would modify, and eventually end, health insurance coverage for former Council members. This time the 40-member body voted 20-18 to defer consideration of any change until at least March 2021 so there can be more study and allow any change to track with the new city budget. The Council debate was so intense that one member used an expletive over a live, on- line microphone to express displeasure at what a fellow council member said. Vice Mayor Jim Schulman admonished the Council to refrain from such behavior.

Some Council members seemed to see this debate as an opening to discuss their overall compensation package. Clearly, they are underpaid, and have always been. They are public employees with full time-plus responsibilities, while receiving even well less than part time pay.

But after raising property taxes 34%, and after a summer where the city has been experiencing trash collection issues along with complaints the recent Metro water rate increase has resulted in much higher bills than expected (an issue now under audited by the city), this might not be the best time for have the Council to be hinting around for a raise, as deserved as it might be.

METRO & STATE COVID PROGRESS

Like several parts of the country, Nashville and the State of Tennessee continue to show ongoing progress against COVID-19. However, the state did record its 2,000th death from the virus late last week. It took over 4 months for Tennessee to reach 1,000 fatalities but just a few weeks to get to 2,000 victims. There have lots of problems at all levels of government in keeping all the virus figures straight and accurate. This week the State had to deal with that kind of problem.

It is still unknown, for both Tennessee and Nashville, how well we did (or didn’t do) in practicing social distancing and wearing masks over the Labor Day holiday. Nationally, a grim milestone was passed on Thursday night- Friday morning as the country suffered its 200,000th coronavirus death.

All this comes as cases in Tennessee have been trending down, but also while COVID-19 deaths have been up as much as 55%.

As a reward for the progress Nashville has made in fighting the virus, Mayor Cooper allowed bars and restaurants to stay open past a 10:30 p.m. curfew, until a half hour after the Titans season-opening Monday Night football game ended. That turned out to be close to 1:00 a.m. Tuesday morning Even better for football fans, the Titans managed to win despite missing multiple field goals and even an extra point attempt.

The reason question is: How well did the bars and restaurants, along with their patrons do with following COVID-19 protocol? If it was not so good, that reward from Mayor Cooper for progress we’ve made, may have potentially instead created several “super-spreader” events for COVID-19. We won’t know the answer until another couple of weeks.

Restaurant owners in Nashville, and across the country, remain upset about a new CDC study released late last week, and which Vanderbilt medical experts were involved in conducting. The study says those who have gotten the virus have a high correlation of visiting a restaurant in the two weeks before they tested positive.

At the Mayor’s media briefing on Thursday there was suddenly a raft of good news about the virus as Nashville, after ranking as the worst or second worst county in the state, is now 82 out of the 95 counties, and is approaching a virus level that the state would allow nursing home visits again. But ,in fact on Thursday, the state announced it us already tweaking its nursing home visit rules.

STATE AND METRO LOOSEN COVID RESTRICTIONS

To further mark Nashville’s COVID progress, effective today (Friday), Mayor Cooper announced Nashville is allowing bars and limited service restaurants to go to 50% capacity and stay open until 11:00 p.m. each night. Effective October 1, the city is finally moving out of the modified Phase II of its Reopening Road Map for the city and moving to Phase III.

Besides the curfew and bar capacity changes and the crowd size changes to permit fans to attend the Titan games, the other elements of Metro’s Phase III include an expansion for ``transportainment’’ of up to 15 patrons if they are members of the same party (capacity remains at 50 percent if the patrons are not members of the same party). There will also be an increase in the allowable capacity for larger `transportainment’’ vehicles to 15 patrons if not seated (the number remains 25, if seated). Finally, Alcohol consumption by seated patrons only is allowed on all such ``transportainment’’ vehicles.

Another piece of good news for Nashville restaurants, the Metro Council gave final approval Tuesday night to an ordinance that will help restaurants, impacted by social distancing and the virus, to temporarily operate sidewalk café dining facilities within the public right-of-way throughout Metro, not just downtown. The proposal would also allow beer permit holders, who operate a sidewalk café, to sell beer on the sidewalk, parking area, or other rights-of-way adjacent to the property, or as otherwise authorized by the Metro Beer Board.

The city’s Convention and Visitors Corp. is also trying to help out, launching a city-wide campaign this week to “Love Thy Neighborhoods,” by shopping and eating locally.

But frankly, despite the latest easing of restrictions, local bar and limited service restaurant owners remain angry. They feel their industry has been unfairly singled out and targeted by city officials. They are particularly upset about recent e-mails that have surfaced which indicate city officials did not disclose the correct information. That is, that bars and limited service restaurants did not generate a large number of COVID-19 cases. Mayor Cooper claims, taken in full context, the city did do the right thing in closing the bars and limited service restaurants for several weeks, and the city did so at the urging of the federal CDC.

By the way this story has gone viral, generating stories in NEWSWEEK, on the Tucker Carlson Show on the FOX NEWS NETWORK and in THE DAILY MAIL in the U.K.

There is one new local media outlet defending Mayor Cooper. The TENNESSEE LOOKOUT says it did this same story back in June, got cooperation from the Mayor’s office ,and that the most current news report going viral is wrong.

Mayor Cooper has seen another controversy burst into the open late this week. It began with a letter he sent to Governor Bill Lee last week seeking $82 million more in CARES aid funding from the state to help a wide variety of Nashville businesses who are still hurting.

But based on Governor Lee’s reaction on Thursday, Mayor Cooper’s request will not be approved.

Throughout the pandemic, there has always been some tension beneath the surface, between the State and Metro over how the two have dealt with the virus. That tension bubbled to the top Thursday, when the Governor said he believes government should make cuts to deal with its financial challenges, not raise taxes. He also criticized city officials for not opening up the local economy more quickly. If any of this criticism from the Governor mirrors the fight surrounding the potential Metro Charter referendum, you are hearing things correctly.

In terms of spending taxpayer’s money, NEWSCHANNEL5 INVESTIGATES has raised some questions about the Governor’s use of public dollars on a Bristol NASCAR race earlier this year.

As it regards Metro’s response to COVID-19, it has been repeated over and over during this pandemic, that people of color are being adversely impacted by COVID-19. A study done by a local community group, hired by the city, confirms this is true in Nashville. The study adds the people in those communities don’t feel they are getting the information and help they need.

There are several pieces of positive news for Nashville sports fans about the virus recovery. On Thursday, Mayor Cooper and Tennessee Titans officials announced a plan for a limited number of fans to attend the team’s home games in October.

The Titans have three home games in October. Fans have already been banned from the home opener at Nissan Stadium versus Jacksonville this Sunday.

Vanderbilt officials have already announced they will have no fans at their October home games. All the games are against SEC opponents. Vanderbilt is the only SEC school to ban fans from home games.

In a related college football development, which may have presidential campaign repercussions, the Big 10 football conference is reversing its earlier cancellation of the season and will begin a shortened schedule in late October.

Back in Nashville, another piece of good news, not just for sports fans, but also for the city’s struggling tourism and hospitality industries, was the official announcement on Wednesday that a Grand Prix race is coming to the city for the next several years, beginning in 2021. This is more than just a race and could be a very big deal for our city.

The massive Music City Center has sat empty for months during the pandemic. But while this has been a tough economic time for the facility, losing over 100 conventions and $425 million in expected revenue, convention officials feel good that the groups that have cancelled have already rebooked, or are in the process of doing so, even if some of them now won’t be here until the end of the decade.

SCHOOLS REMAIN PROBLEMATIC WITH COVID

Metro Nashville Schools had some good news to announce on Thursday.

After being on pause, fall sports, including football, will begin competitions. The first football games are set for next Friday September 25. Of course, virus health restrictions will be in place.

The decision to begin fall sports is likely to be well received, although some may remember Schools Director Dr. Adrienne Battle saying earlier that as long as it is not safe for in- person classes to be held, sports contests should not be allowed either. Dr. Battle explains the difference now is that the city has made progress against COVID 19 even though in person classes have not resumed. At the same time this week, officials in the city of Memphis, which is also conducting its classes virtually announced its fall sports are postponed “until further notice.”

Back in Nashville, to continue to try and move forward with a return to in-person classroom instruction, a plan unveiled late last weekend show the transition will continue after fall break in October with Pre-K, Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades, etc. transitioning back the rest of the fall, but high school students not getting into class until January.

Not surprisingly there are those are unhappy about that, particularly with the plan leaking out just a couple of days before parents were asked to make a decision, for the rest of the year, about their children staying in virtual learning or doing the transition back to the classroom. School officials have now given parents a few more days to decide which option to choose, with the deadline now Friday midnight (today).

With all this good news announced this week, loosening controversial virus restrictions, I am sure city officials will say they are all based on science and data. So, the close timing of the changes to the possible pending Metro Charter special election is just a coincidence, right? I bet not everybody sees it that way.

Things remain bumpy on the Metro School Board as one member continues to face a potential voter recall, while another member says the school system has ‘failed the city’s kids” in dealing with COVID-19.

It is rather ancient history now, but a Nashville judge has ruled “unconstitutional and unenforceable” part of the severance agreement Metro Schools agreed to with its former director of schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph. The section of the agreement thrown out prohibited board members from saying anything derogatory about Dr. Joseph. Now I guess they can, if anyone cares anymore, given all the other challenges the school system faces.

Elsewhere in the greater Nashville area, Fairview High School in Williamson County will be closed for the next two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak. There has been parent pushback on the move, including protest demonstrations and a threat of legal action.

Harpeth High School in Cheatham County will also be closed for two weeks due to COVID-19 outbreak.

In terms of higher education, the spike in COVID-19 cases at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville seems to be easing.

COVID ECONOMIC RECOVERY REMAINS SLOW WHILE ADDITIONAL RELIEF EFFORTS IN WASHINGTON REMAIN STALEMATED

While the American economy had added back millions of jobs in recent months, the number of people just now, or still unemployed, and needing help, remain at historic highs.

In Tennessee, new unemployment claims fell this week, but requests for continuing aid rose back up slightly to almost 164,000.

It was announced this week that Tennessee has been approved to receive another round of federal FEMA money. That will provide $300 a week in additional unemployment help. But there are only enough funds for a few weeks of payments and those are retroactive to the first week of September. After that, the FEMA funds are gone, even if the need for help is not.

Up in Washington, efforts to provide more virus relief assistance remains deadlocked, with all parties still blaming each other.

THE HILL had a series of stories this week outlining the political silliness going on.

Early in the week, President Trump seemed to break ranks and said he prefers a larger aid package than what Republicans want. But then one of President’s top aides blamed Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the deadlock.

This happened while the Speaker said she is willing for the House to stay in session through October and up until the election to get a deal done.

But then Speaker Pelosi said she thought her Democratic members wouldn’t settle for anything less than a $2 trillion-plus virus package. The GOP Senate was well less than half that amount.

The GOP Senate seems ready to head home after next week.

Interestingly also this week, there are some GOP Senators looking to open up lines of communications in case Democrat Joe Biden becomes President next year and Republicans still manage to control the Senate.

Finally, the Senate leadership in both parties are quashing any back-bench members putting together a COVID-19 relief package.

But breaking on Friday morning, this development may force all parties in Washington to do something about another virus aid package.

IS PRESIDENT TRUMP RUNNING AGAINST JOE BIDEN OR AGAINST SCIENCE AND HIS OWN HEALTH EXPERTS?

One again this week, President Donald Trump seemed at times to be running, not against his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, but rather against science and his own health and medical experts.

That was true early this week when the subject was global warming and the devastating wildfires in California and Washington.

Later in the week on Thursday, the timing of when a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready for public use also divided the President from the head of his own top medical agency, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The two also disagreed publicly about the effectiveness of wearing masks to fight COVID-19.

The President has had these fights time and again with his own experts and lining up against science.

Such efforts have not helped him in the public opinion polls or on the campaign trail as another week until the November election passes by with little sign this President has a winning campaign issue to build momentum to be re-elected a second term.

The President’s continued efforts to fight with his own experts and joust against science also keep giving his opponent more prime opportunities to attack him.

There are also the collateral damage stories that come out of the President’s battles. That includes a top official in the Department of Health & Human Services taking a leave of absence after a video rant that went viral. There is also a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence, who assisted the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She is now endorsing Joe Biden.

But the presidential race is far from over, especially with three nationally televised debates coming up, including the final one here in Nashville at Belmont University the latter part of October.

For now (Friday AM), the 538 website, updated at least daily, projects a 77% chance Biden wins, compared to Trump’s 23%, with the Electoral Votes being Biden 331to 227 Trump (no tossup states).

Real Clear Politics (RCP) shows the average of national polls (popular vote) Biden 49.7%, Trump 43.1%.

The RCP website shows the Electoral College at 353-185 in Biden’s favor with no toss up states, but it’s much closer if toss up states are counted separately, at Biden 222, Trump 125 and Toss- Up states 191.

The bookie odds on the RCP website show it 52.9% Biden and 46.3% Trump.

Six weeks out, it could still go either way. Biden has about the same size popular vote margin (5-7%) he has had held for months. He still leads in most of the battleground states. But with some questions continuing about the strength and size of Democratic nominee’s support among Latinos, African Americans and progressives, there are concerns, including about the ongoing vigor of the Biden campaign. That may explain what this story is really about.

Despite President Trump’s continued insistence, without offering any clear evidence, that voting by mail will lead to massive voter fraud, over 17,000 Nashvillians have requested an absentee ballot. Election officials are preparing for as many as a 100,000 to do so. That would be a record number and the requests are already keeping election workers hopping.

Interestingly with the absentee voting forms now being sent out, Nashville Public Radio reports one item on the state’s form might seem to be trying to help provide evidence for President Trump about voter fraud.

ONE MORE STEP OR IS IT A ROADBLOCK TO MOVING THE FORREST BUST FROM THE STATE CAPITOL?

The efforts to move the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the controversial Confederate General and founding leader of the Klu Klux Klan, from the Tennessee State Capitol, have certainly been long and arduous.

This week those efforts seem destined to get even longer when the Republican leaders of both Houses of Tennessee General Assembly sent out a letter to the State Architect claiming state law requires, not just approval of the State Capitol Commission (which was given earlier this year), but also from the Tennessee Historical Commission as well as the State Building Commission.

It seems possible the Historical Commission was positioned to act on the removal as early as next year, although since no state monument or statue has ever been removed under state law, the process is not completely clear. It is known the removal of the Forrest bust to the State Museum takes a 2/3 vote of the Historical Commission.

Now we’ve learned the State Building Commission must act before the Historical Commission. Curiously, the two top lawmakers who signed this latest letter about the Forrest bust, House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Governor Randy McNally are both members of the Building Commission. But neither is offering any clue about when the Forrest bust issue might appear on the Building Commission’s agenda.

Now I am sure both distinguished leaders would swear on a stack of Bibles that all they want to do with their letter is to state what the law requires to move the Forrest bust. They would add the members of their respective caucuses want this letter written to be clear about the law. They would deny their efforts have anything to do with delaying the move of the bust, or that their actions are any kind of sign of systematic racism.

But I’ll bet those who spent weeks protesting at the Capitol to get the bust removed, see things differently. They are likely disappointed, but not surprised. These are the same folks that Governor Bill Lee, who now supports removing the bust, refused to meet with, because he didn’t think such a meeting would be “productive.”

What is not productive is to think removing the Forrest bust will ever happen, as long as legally well-structured and strongly protective state laws remain in place. It seems pretty clear, these laws were put on the books to make sure such symbols of the past are difficult (if not impossible) to remove. So they will never be moved, even from what is supposed to be the “People’s House’ in our state.

NASHVILLE BASEBALL HISTORIAN SKIP NIPPER ON INSIDE POLITICS

At first glance, you might think this week’s INSIDE POLITICS show is a little off topic.

But with a group still pushing hard to bring Major League Baseball to Nashville, that effort is likely to remain the news, while MLB approaches the end of its most unusual season ever.

And as sports itself continues to figure out how it can fit in and survive, during a pandemic.

Our guest to discuss those topics this week is Nashville baseball historian Skip Nipper.

It is always a pleasure to have Skip on the program and talk baseball!

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each 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. We are also back on DISH TV with the rest of the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK.

One option for those who cannot 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 early in 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

2020 has been that kind of year.

I have not taken much time off, but next week I am doing that.

There will be no Capitol View column next week.

Look for my next column on Friday, October 2.

There will be a fresh INSIDE POLITICS program.

Dr. Thomas Schwartz, Distinguished Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, will be my guest.

We will be discussing Dr. Schwartz’s new book: HENRY KISSINGER AND AMERICAN POWER.

Dr. Kissinger’s name and face may have faded from the newspaper headlines and the network evening news broadcasts, so he may not be as well known in his 97th year by the younger generation of Americans.

But he was perhaps the most consequential Presidential National Security Advisor and Secretary of State in the second half of the 20th Century.

Even today his work impacts our nation’s relationships with much of the world, including China, Russia, the Middle East, as well as Southeast Asia, through his negotiations to end American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Dr. Schwartz is a frequent guest on INSIDE POLITICS, and we are always happy to have him join us.