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Capitol View commentary: Friday, September 4, 2020

Capitol View
Posted at 12:36 PM, Sep 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-04 13:36:35-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL5 Political Analyst

September 4, 2020

THE THIRD TIME AROUND; HOT SPOT PRISON SPIKE MASKS STATE VIRUS PROGRESS AS OTHER ISSUES CONTINUE; THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES; NATIONAL VIRUS STATUS SEES RISE IN CASES IN SEVERAL STATES AS QUESTIONS CONTINUE ABOUT THE POLITIZATION OF THE VACCINE PROCESS; STILL NO PLAN OR STRATEGY IN WASHINGTON, JUST MORE POLITICS ON VIRUS RELIEF; ANOTHER NIGHT FOR THE MIDNIGHT OIL AT THE METRO COUNCIL; KEEL HUNT ON INSIDE POLTICS;

THE THIRD TIME AROUND

During the six months of this pandemic, twice we in Nashville as well as across the state of Tennessee and the country, we have seen signs that progress has been made in corralling the COVID-19.

Then came Memorial Day in late May followed by the 4th of July holiday. In both cases, people reverted back to not social distancing or wearing a mask.

The result was a new spike in virus cases, leading to more hospitalizations and deaths.

The final holiday weekend of the summer, Labor Day, is with us now.

Will things be different? Have we learned anything about how to stop the virus? For what it is worth national health officials are warning and pleading with us to do the right thing unless we want Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays to face the same virus challenges, especially with the seasonal flu season getting underway by then.

But in a year of never- ending mixed messages indications from South America (where it is already winter) indicate that our flu season may be a mild one.

Back in Nashville, Mayor John Cooper reports continued progress against COVID-19. In fact, some our key metric numbers are the best since early June (just after Memorial Day). Other numbers are the best we’ve ever seen since the pandemic struck.

Still, other than the additional tweaks to increase bar capacity and to some crowd size restrictions for selected businesses, the city’s reopening of the economy remains in a multi-times modified Phase 2 status. City officials are also again making pleas to everyone not to ease up on wearing masks or practicing social distancing over the Labor Day holiday weekend.

But our late summer of discontent continues over the COVID-19 restrictions especially the continuing closure of Metro public schools from holding in person classes until at least fall break in October. Parents showed up to protest at the last School Board meeting saying virtual learning efforts are just not working. There is talk of parents taking legal action.

There are reports that Metro Schools sports coaches may be looking at legal action too. They feel they can come up with a plan to play safely, just like Nashville private schools, who are holding in person classes and plan to start fall sports next weekend.

One local poll shows a partisan divide in Nashville over the high school sports issue.

Despite the controversies, enrollment for Metro schools is down only slightly.

Metro schools also continues to a do quite a job providing breakfast and lunch each day for its students. But to keep going they need more volunteer help as do those organizing ongoing clean-up assistance for those still recovering from the deadly March 3 tornado, now six months ago. Meanwhile, the problem in parts of North Nashville and other communities hard hit by the tornado is that, the recovery has been frustrating slow, even more so after the pandemic struck, and now continues to linger.

HOT SPOT PRISON SPIKE MASKS STATE VIRUS PROGRESS AS ISSUES CONTINUE

Just looking at the raw new cases numbers, it appears the state is seeing a slight spike in its virus numbers. But in some ways, the increase appears to be because of a renewed hot spot outbreak in Tennessee’s prisons, especially the one run by a privately held for- profit company.

In terms of hospitalizations due to the virus, the latest study from Vanderbilt shows its down in the urban areas of Tennessee but headed back up in some rural parts of the state.

Beginning Thursday both the State’s and Metro’s active case virus numbers looked lower. That’s because both are now following new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) which reduce the threshold from 21 to 14 days when a virus patient can automatically be reclassified as recovered if contact tracers have not been able to reach them.

To avoid an embarrassing failure to use tens of millions in federal monies allocated to Tennessee to aid hungry children, the state is finally trying a different strategy to get the job done and not lose the funds.

To end a series of flip flops over whether the administration of Governor Bill Lee will report COVID-19 cases in schools across the state, it appears that will begin to happen again next week.

While continuing to urge Tennesseans to wear masks to fight COVID-19 (but not mandating it), Governor Lee was asked during his weekly virus briefing to defend why he did not wear a mask last week while attending President Trump’s GOP nomination acceptance speech during the Republican National Convention, an event held on the White House lawn.

Governor Lee, during his briefing this week, also took the opportunity while responding to a question, to announce he will seek re-election in 2022.

The Governor’s announcement is not a surprise. In fact, since Tennesseans have been able to elect their governors to two 4-year terms, no incumbent has been defeated for re-election. No opponent has even publicly indicated they might oppose Governor Lee. But perhaps because of all the uncertainty arising out the pandemic and the crazy year that has been 2020, I have heard more speculation than usual about whether Bill Lee will be primaried in two years. 2022 is a very long time from now, especially in political terms, but stay tuned.

THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES

Our doctors and healthcare workers are the biggest heroes of this pandemic.

The students training to be physicians at Nashville’s historically black Meharry Medical College got a major reward and incentive for their efforts this week. It resulted from the largest gift ever given to the school. Some say it may be the greatest thing to happen at Meharry since the school was founded in 1866 right after the Civil War.

But for all the good this week, there are the lowlifes who struck this week to vandalize 30 cars of healthcare workers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. It happened overnight, while they on duty treating COVID-19 and other sick patients. It has happened before to healthcare workers at St. Thomas Hospital- Midtown. Those who would commit these crimes are beyond contempt.

NATIONAL VIRUS STATUS SEES RISE IN CASES IN SEVERAL STATES AS QUESTIONS CONTINUE ABOUT THE POLITIZATION OF THE VACCINE PROCESS

Despite the fragile nature of the spread of COVID-19 and pleas from health officials to remain vigilant about social distancing, there are reports tourist related travel is up significantly this Labor Day holiday weekend.

This week also saw the federal Food & Drug Administration telling local and state health officials to be ready to receive an approved COVID-19 vaccine by late October or November 1. That’s just days before the national presidential elections, raising concerns about whether the vaccine approval process is being rushed for political reasons. Of course, the Trump administration denies, even though the President has hinted numerous times in recent days, a vaccine might be available earlier than expected (which until recently has meant the end of 2020 or next year).

Beyond the possible politics of when a vaccine will be available, there are concerns local and state health care systems are not ready to perform adequately to deliver the vaccine.

There are also concerns about the alarmingly high number of Americans who tell pollsters they will not get a COVID-19 vaccination. Other polls show public concerns the vaccine process seems too rushed and is being politicized.

But given the heads up from the CDC, Tennessee is preparing to receive a vaccine whenever it arrives.

At the same time, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee gave a less than rousing vote of confidence about whether he plans to take a COVID-19 vaccine.

To add one more level of government mixed messages about vaccines this week, the top scientific advisor to the federal Warp Speed program to produce a vaccine now says it is “extremely unlikely” an October vaccine will be ready for use. Yeah, I am confused too!

Further complicating the politics of a vaccine worldwide, the Trump Administration is continuing its feud with the World Health Organization (WHO) by deciding not to join a global effort to get the vaccine out.

The decision by the Trump administration to again not work with the WHO comes in the same week of renewed talk inside the White House of support for a policy of creating a “herd immunity” in the U.S. population, which might forgo widespread use of a vaccine, while allowing millions more to be infected with the virus (and some to die) ,ultimately creating a virus immunity for the rest of us.

Nobody knows for sure if herd immunity can be achieved with COVID-19. A plan similar to it was followed in Sweden, with now very controversial results. Of course, the White House denies that any kind of herd immunity policy is being considered for this country, despite reports to the contrary.

Add it all up, all the politics and continued mixed messages from Washington, along with no coherent national plan or strategy to address the pandemic, leaves things muddled at best as we head into the seventh month of this national and worldwide crisis.

STILL NO PLAN OR STRATEGY IN WASHINGTON, JUST MORE POLITICS ON VIRUS RELIEF

Another week of no action by the Trump administration along with both houses and parties in Congress to provide additional aid to the tens of millions of Americans hurting from the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest weekly numbers of those making new requests for unemployment fell below a million, but at almost 900,000, it is still an historically stunning number. In Tennessee, the new weekly number went up slightly with over 800,000 filing for continued benefits .

The lack of action in Washington is building fears of a coming second wave of layoffs nationally.

But today (Friday) the national unemployment numbers for August saw the jobless figure fall below 10% for the first time since April.

There were some efforts to begin talks this week on a new relief bill but it didn’t go anywhere as Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi got caught in her own virus related scandal.

Another sign that there will likely not be any new virus bill passed anytime soon, this week Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated there may be a vote in the Senate soon to pass a GOP relief bill that significantly scaled down from what House Democrats have approved.

Neither proposal will pass in the other house’s chambers but they do give Republican and Democratic lawmakers, especially in tough re-election races, some political cover to say they’ve tried to do something even if nothing has really been done due to partisan gridlock.

While Congress remains at logger heads over new virus spending, it also faces a looming deadline to avoid another government shutdown. Thursday, House Speaker Pelosi and the White House agreed on a clean, continuing resolution that, if the Senate agrees, would keep the government functioning into December.

The more sobering news this week is with all the extra government spending to deal with the pandemic, the country’s national debt will be larger than our entire economy (as measured by the gross domestic product) by sometime in 2021. It is the first time that has happened since the end of World War II 75 years ago.

President Trump, through executive orders, has tried to provide additional assistance for the unemployed who have lost an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits since late July. The money is beginning to flow but not every state is on board (Tennessee is) and the extra $300 a week is not being given to all who have lost their jobs and the how long the program will continue remains unclear.

Creating still more controversy and confusion is President Trump’s payroll tax holiday which may give workers mor take home pay (if their employers are participating which some are not). The relief may be temporary as employees and employers will have to pay back the money by the spring of next year.

Another economic disaster that has been looming over the nation due to virus economic implosion, is a tidal wave of foreclosures forcing the unemployed out into the streets due to non-payment of rent. The problem has been put on hold for months as local courts have been shut down due the virus, creating a moratorium on evictions.

But those delays are beginning to end. This week, the Trump administration, through the sweeping public health powers of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), has issuing a nationwide eviction moratorium until the end of the year. The new eviction ban is already raising legal and political questions.

Others see a ripple effect from the CDC order.

Nashville has set aside a small amount of its federal CARES Act relief monies to help pay rent, but not nearly enough. There is also the issue of past due utility payments which the Nashville Electric Service estimates are three times higher than normal.

These problems won’t really be addressed until the economy is reopened, and that won’t happen until the virus is under control, and consumers and employers feel confident things are safe again.

The bottom line remains this Labor Day holiday weekend and beyond: Wear your mask and social distance. Otherwise this mess will just continue.

ANOTHER NIGHT FOR THE MIDNIGHT OIL AT THE METRO COUNCIL

Tuesday night for the seventh time in its last eight meetings, the Metro Council went well pass midnight to complete its twice a month business session. Even the one time since June the Council got finished “early,” the 40-member body still had a 6 hour plus meeting that concluded between eleven o’clock and midnight.

Meeting virtually under emergency rules is not helping to keep the sessions short, and much of the “essential business” the Council is dealing with, mirrors the frustrations and the issues all of us are being effected by due to the pandemic.

One example: The backlash from the 34% property tax increase approved by the Council in late June continues to haunt Council meetings. There are tens of thousands of signatures on petitions being counted by city election officials. Those signing are seeking to call a December 5 special election to repeal the tax hike, as well as make other changes that would all but neuter the Council’s financial powers and make almost all major city decisions on taxes, capital programs, even leases, subject to voter approval.

Council members say Nashville would become, not consolidated Metropolitan Government, but “government by referendum.” Mayor John Cooper has called the petition drive, backed by the national conservative group Americans for Prosperity, a “poison pill for Metro.

Tuesday night the Council put together a potential counterattack. If things move forward, we could have a special election called on December 5 with a dueling set of charter amendments for voters to choose from on the ballot. Assuming the petitions file by a local group and backed by the Americans for Prosperity has enough signatures to call the December election, Metro Councilmembers seem posed to offer their own set of amendments.

Now there won’t be a final Council vote on this proposal until its next meeting on September 15th and it will take 27 votes to put their rival charter amendment on the ballot.

But there were well over 30 votes early Wednesday morning to gut At-Large Councilman Steve Glover’s set of own Charter amendments, and insert a set of proposal to let voters choose to keep the current Charter language and follow state law concerning tax authority and the other changes in Metro that the rival charter proposal would change.

Here is the ballot language in the Council’s Charter proposal:

FOR THE BALLOT

Amendment No. ___

This amendment would provide that, notwithstanding any other provision of the Charter to the contrary, the Metropolitan Government’s exercise of power pertaining to the acquisition, lease, or disposal of Metropolitan Government-owned property is subject to public referendum to the extent required by state law, that leases of Metropolitan Government-owned property shall be on commercially reasonable terms, and that no such lease shall have a term longer than permitted by state law. This amendment also provides that the Metropolitan Council’s authority to set property tax levieshttps://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2020/09/03/nashville-mayor-john-cooper-wants-deputize-city-workers-enforce-covid-19-orders/5689120002/ and issue bonds shall be subject to a referendum to the extent required by the Charter as of January 1, 2019. Finally, this amendment would provide that the Charter does not create a private right of legal action unless authorized by state law.”

Mayor Cooper has not endorsed the Council amendment. But besides calling the petition drive amendment a ‘poison pill,” what will he do? Will he go to court to stop the petition changes as illegal and contrary to state law? Will State Comptroller Justin Wilson speak out? In the past year, he has opined several times on how Metro government should or shouldn’t conduct its finances. Mr. Comptroller, is the Americans for Prosperity proposal legal under Tennessee law? Can or should it be placed on a referendum ballot?

The result of all this charter activity could well impact the vitality and future of Nashville.

In another action Tuesday night that echoes the issues arising out of the pandemic, the Council, on a voice vote on 2nd reading, approved two bills that will allow Mayor Cooper to significantly increase the number of city departments and city employees who can help enforce emergency health orders. A Cooper administration official told the Council that as the city reopens more (non-essential) businesses, it will need to have more folks to monitor and enforce what they expect could be more health violations.

Here is how Council staff outlines what the two ordinances would do, if passed on final reading September 15.

“Bills BL 2020-421 & 422 expand the Metro departments who can enforce emergency health orders. Under Bill 421 employees of the Fire Marshal’s Office, Metro Public Works, Metro Water Services, and the Department of Codes Administration would be granted the authority to issue stop work orders or suspend a permit, on any work site operating under such permit for a violation of an emergency order. Any violation of the stop work order would be assessed as a civil penalty at the rate of fifty dollars per day. In addition, where a violation exists, the director of the department or the director’s agent may request that utility service be cut off until the violation is corrected or abated.

The other bill, 422, states that after a state of emergency is declared, the Mayor is authorized by written order to appoint the employees of any Metropolitan Government department to assist in the enforcement of orders issued by the Chief Medical Director, including without limitation the issuance of citations for violations of such orders.”

The Council also approved two late filed resolutions to spend some of the city’s CARE Act monies for COVID-19 relief assistance. That includes $3.7 million for grants and technical assistance to help small and micro businesses and $2 million for small performing venues, which gross less than $5 million annually. The performing businesses can receive up to $100,000or two months revenues, whichever is smaller. The money can’t be used for payroll, but for operations only. This is emergency funding to keep the venues open the next couple of months until more state CARES Act money is supposed to be available or federal funds.

Other new federal funds were announced for Nashville later in the week. The monies are targeted for those impacted by homelessness due to the pandemic.

In its final action shortly before 2:00 A.M. Wednesday morning, the Council reversed itself and voted 20-18 to place back on its calendar on September 15, a second reading ordinance that would end lifetime health insurance benefits for future Council members.

Similar legislation was considered by the Council in 2012, 2015, and 2017, but not enacted. The new bill would end health insurance coverage for council members if they serve beginning in the next term of Council in the fall of 2023, while continuing to allow it for previous members, with their premium costs prorated based on their years of service and terms in office.

Some see this change in council benefits as a beginning to address a large unfunded liability Metro faces for all its employee benefits and pensions. One note to keep in mind. The 20 votes to reconsider the bill Tuesday night is not enough for final Council approval. That will take 21 votes on third reading if the measure gets that far.

Finally, the Council took a major step towards resolving a long dispute between residents in the Edgehill community and Belmont University. The school wants to build and lease a new batting and locker room facility to complement an existing baseball stadium the university already has in Rose Park. Some residents have been opposed. The measure was substituted and amended even before the second reading vote on the measure Tuesday night. That includes creating a community oversight committee to monitor the project.

Some no votes to the development remain, but it appears, after several long and often difficult years, the process has worked, finally created what seems to be a consensus over a thorny neighborhood issue.

In all, it was another long night for our city leaders, and such sessions ending in the early morning hours, are not likely to be behind us any time soon, as long as the pandemic is still with us.

KEEL HUNT ON INSIDE POLTICS

When we put this program together each week, we seek to invite guests who can bring wisdom, experience, insight, and perspective to the issues of the day.

That is certainly true with this week’s guest on INSIDE POLITICS.

He is a former journalist, now a blogger and a columnist for THE TENNESSEAN, as well as a top aide to former Governor Lamar Alexander. He was once head of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce; a public and government relations guru and he is the author of two insightful books on Tennessee politics.

Our guest is Keel Hunt.

We are so happy to have Keel join us again.

INSIDE POLITICS will air several times over the 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.

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.