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Capitol View Commentary: October 4, 2019

Posted: 12:34 PM, Oct 04, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-04 13:34:31-04
Capitol View

IT WAS QUITE A FIRST WEEK; METRO FINANCES ARE IN EVEN WORSE SHAPE THAN THOUGHT; NEW TENNESSEE HOUSE SPEAKER CAMERON SEXTON ON INSIDE POLITICS; GOVERNOR LEE APPOINTMENTS COULD REKINDLE NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST BUST CONTROVERSY; TENNCARE BLOCK GRANT EFFORT FINDS OPPOSITION NOT SUPPORT AT STATEWIDE PUBLIC HEARINGS; NASHVILLE’S MLB GROUP MAKES ANOTHER PITCH; SENATOR ALEXANDER AND OTHERS ARE IN THE IMPEACHMENT CROSSHAIRS;

IT WAS QUITE A FIRST WEEK

It was quite a first week in office for new Nashville Mayor John Cooper.

It began last Saturday with the Mayor-elect having to privately retake his oath of office after inadvertently leaving out a new part of the oath’s verbiage, added by voters last year, to uphold the Metro Charter. Undaunted, Nashville’s new leader gave his inaugural speech reiterating his campaign theme to work together with the new Metro Council and the entire community to build a better Nashville for all us.

Courtesy of THE NASHVILLE SCENE, here is the text of his full speech.

On his first day at work on Monday, the mayor raised some eyebrows by raising the possibility he was looking at changes in the city’s new MLS soccer stadium. As a Metro Councilman at Large, Cooper unsuccessfully opposed authorizing construction of the new sports facility at the Fairgrounds. During the mayor’s race he said several times (including with me on INSIDE POLITICS) that he considered the stadium matter “finished business” and gave no indication he might stop construction which was set to move ahead this week with site demolition. Nor did he say he would seek to change the deal with MLS team owners. He did tell me on INSIDE POLTICS he thought the MLS stadium ought to be located downtown to take advantage of existing infrastructure.

In his first media availability on Monday morning, Mayor Cooper said he now wants more information about the financing and legal status of the MLS project. According to WPLN, the Mayor said he'll hold "lengthy" briefings, adding: “ … I am going to ask for several prominent private-sector advisers to come in and listen to a briefing… and as they say, the 'true facts' (about the stadium).

He said nothing more about what he has in mind or why the MLS stadium for him is no longer “finished business.” And while rumors flew all week something would soon be announced, nothing further has happened as of Friday afternoon. Stay tuned.

Mayor Cooper also raised eyebrows on his first day by seeming to resurrect a plan to sell the city’s downtown energy system. It’s a plan promoted by the former administration of David Briley who Cooper decisively defeated to be mayor in the runoff election September 12. During the campaign Cooper opposed selling city assets such as the energy system as well as a Briley plan to privatize and modernize the city’s parking meter system.

Now Mayor Cooper wants to take a look at a competing bid to buy the energy system to see if it offers the city a good deal . The rival company has been contesting Metro’s rejection of its bid, receiving legal advice from former Mayor Bill Purcell.

It appears Mayor Cooper is still opposed to the parking meter privatization plan although there is a bill on second reading in the Council October 15 that would double parking meters fines. That was one criticism of the current downtown meter system. It is cheaper to pay multiple daily parking tickets than it is to park in a garage downtown.

Getting back to his first day at the courthouse on Monday, Mayor Cooper also announced some key staff additions including his choice to be Metro Finance Director.

The Mayor’s Finance Director nomination is subject to confirmation by the new Metro Council. Historically these nominees have been quickly and easily confirmed. That is expected to be the case with Kevin Crumbo, although some members of the Council’s Black Caucus and community activists are confessing concerns.

That’ s because of Crumbo’s pro-bono work for former Mayor Megan Barry concerning the city’s General Hospital. During that time the Mayor first advocated closing the full-service safety net hospital,
converting it into a clinic. She quickly abandoned that idea after a major public pushback arose, especially from the minority community. Concerns about General’s future under Crumbo as city Finance
Director are now re-awakened.

Further clouding the matter, Crumbo’s previous work for the city was…and remains… hidden in secrecy.

On Tuesday, Mayor Cooper continued his push for a positive start to his administration by hosting a reception for the new Metro Council and other city leaders just before the Council’s first business meeting.

He also made a rare mayoral appearance and speech to the Council, again urging the need to work together, even though he began his talk with surprising news that the Council’s staff director, Mike Jamison is leaving to join the mayor’s staff as his Council liaison.

Along with being Council Liaison for Mayor Cooper, Mike Jamison will also advise with him on environmental issues. Those topics came to the forefront on Day One for Mr. Cooper as activists staged a day-long sit-in at the mayor’s office.

Mike Jamison’s job change marks the second time in four years that the Council’ s staff director has left for another top city post. This second such change left some Council members a little concerned at the trend. They are happy to welcome back outgoing Metro Legal Director Jon Cooper. He ably served as Council staff director for several years before being named Legal Director in 2015 by then Mayor Megan Barry.

Mayor Cooper has yet to name his Legal Director. It’s a nomination which also must be confirmed by the Council. The city’s need for its top attorney to assist the mayor is clear, especially with city’s Community Review Board and Metro Police still at odds over sharing information to allow the Board’s to conduct its investigations into public complaints about alleged police misconduct .
At its special meeting Wednesday night, the Oversight Board unanimously approved a proposed contract with Metro Police. While that would seem to be a positive sign, it remains unclear if Metro Police will agree to the contract being presented.

METRO FINANCES ARE IN EVEN WORSE SHAPE THAN THOUGHT

As his tumultuous first week continued, Mayor Cooper met Thursday afternoon with State Comptroller Justin Wilson and other officials in his office They gave Metro officials a warning: either immediately (by December?) raise water sewer rates (which haven’t been increased for perhaps a decade) or the state will do itself for Metro. Without the increase, the city won’t be able to comply with an agreed court order the city has entered into with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to meet clean water standards and make other improvements.

The amount of the rate hike is unknown. A recent rate study by Metro Water Services recommended an increase of just over a $9 dollar a month increase in the bill for the average Metro water services user. But will that be a $9 increase overall or $9 increase for both water and sewer service making the increase $18 dollars per month?

Any water service rate hike will require approval by the new Metro Council.

The state comptroller’s office previously raised questions about the city’s bond financing practices and whether the city’s operating budget is balanced as required by law. That concern remains. The state believes the city has the ability to deal with its financial problems but they want to make a presentation to the new Metro Council soon (November?) to present what the Comptroller’s office has learned about how Metro has gotten into these serious financial challenges over the past several years.

Outside of the water services rate hike, the state is not setting deadlines to resolve these financial issues, but they want to see progress made and a plan in place to get things back in order over time.
In another controversy between Metro and the state, Mayor Cooper announced he will spend the next 90 days reviewing executive orders issued by Mayor Briley. In Metro history, all previous mayoral executive orders have been reaffirmed by succeeding mayors. But Mr. Cooper’s comments indicate that may not continue especially one issued by his predecessor that calls for the repeal of Tennessee’s sanctuary city law. The order also seeks to limit assistance from city employees in efforts by federal ICE officials to enforce immigration laws.

Briley’s order has enraged state Republican lawmakers who have threatened to cut off funds to Nashville. Mayor Cooper says Nashville is not, and will not be, a sanctuary city. But Cooper’s actions on the Briley executive order could well influence whether the GOP Super Majority in the Tennessee General Assembly will help the Mayor change the law to allow the city to have a greater share of local tourism taxes. Its money Cooper desperately needs to provide more monies to schools, neighborhood projects and to fund larger pay raises for teachers, first responders and other city workers.
To top off a first week in office for the new mayor, why not a way, way too early look at the 2023 mayoral election…really?

NEW TENNESSEE HOUSE SPEAKER CAMERON SEXTON ON INSIDE POLITICS

The Tennessee House of Representatives has a new leader.

He is Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton from Crossville.

The Republican leader was elected to his post just a few weeks ago replacing Representative Glen Casada of Williamson County who resigned from leadership amidst numerous scandals.
Speaker Sexton is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

Tune us in as we discuss how he is seeking to renew public faith and confidence in lawmakers and trust among themselves. And we will ask him about the Metro immigration executive order controversy and what he hopes and expects new Mayor Cooper to do about it.

We will also talk about the state’s proposal to change the TennCare health care program into a first in the nation federal block grant program, along with what appear to be new efforts to remove or add context to the controversial Nathan Bedford Forrest bust at the State Capitol. And what’s happened to the alleged FBI probe of the controversial school voucher law that passed the House by one vote last spring under unusual circumstances?

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.

GOVERNOR LEE APPOINTMENTS COULD REKINDLE NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST BUST CONTROVERSY

This week Governor Bill Lee appointed two prominent African Americans to serve on the Tennessee Capitol Commission. That’s the group that has voted down past efforts to remove the controversial Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the halls of the State Capitol.

Will these new members change such a vote in the future or even aid an effort to add context to the bust display area as Governor Lee has advocated, even though he has not outlined any details?

That would appear to be the case as Thursday afternoon the Governor asked the newly reconfigured Capitol Commission to meet and take up the Forrest matter.

TENNCARE BLOCK GRANT EFFORT FINDS OPPOSITION NOT SUPPORT AT STATEWIDE PUBLIC HEARINGS

Efforts by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and State Republican legislative leaders to convert the state’s TennCare health- care program into a first in the nation federal block grant seemed to find more opposition than support when public hearings on the plan were held across the state this week.

After complaints, the state did add additional hearings in both Memphis and Chattanooga. Why they weren’t on the list in the first place is hard to understand given the importance of TennCare to hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans all over the state.

It’s really not all that surprising that opposition surged at the hearings. Many healthcare advocates have long preferred expanding the state’s health care efforts by accepting hundreds of millions of federal dollars under the Affordable Care.

Among those testifying in Nashville was Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper who said:

“This is a completely unnecessary waiver request. We could have already expanded Medicaid as the healthier states have already done, including majority-Republican states. But Tennessee has refused since 2010 to expand Medicaid for ideological reasons, thereby rejecting almost a billion dollars a year in health assistance. Think of how we could have improved—and lengthened—the lives of Tennesseans with the $9 billion we have already turned down.”

Here's how THE TENNESSEAN covered the local public hearing.

The TennCare/ Medicaid expansion fight in Tennessee is part of a nationwide healthcare “haves versus have nots” division splitting the country.
Late in the week , Governor Lee spoke out to defend the block grant plan saying opponents have not taken the time to understand the proposal.

NASHVILLE’S MLB GROUP MAKES ANOTHER PITCH

The Major League Baseball playoffs are underway, so fan interest is high nationwide.

That’s probably also true here in Nashville as a local group continues its efforts to bring a major league baseball team to the city sometime in the future.

This past week the group released color renderings of what a retractable-roof baseball playing facility might look like on the East Bank of the Cumberland River, next to the Nissan Stadium where the NFL Tennessee Titans play.

There’s a major mixed -use development planned to go with the MLB stadium, all of which is likely to be privately funded. NewsChannel 5 has an in-depth look at this far-sighted if long term effort to bring another major professional sport to Nashville .

SENATOR ALEXANDER AND OTHERS ARE IN THE IMPEACHMENT CROSSHAIRS

As the battle rages daily in Washington, and across the country, about impeaching and removing President Donald Trump from office, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander may play a critical role.
If the House of Representatives votes to impeach Mr. Trump, it will be up to the 100 members of the U.S. Senate to conduct a trial and then decide whether he should be removed from office. It takes a 2/3 vote for that to happen. It has never happened in U.S. history.

There is a group called “Republicans for the Rule of Law.” They seem to believe Senator Alexander is one of up to 20 Republican members, among the GOP majority in the Senate, who might be persuadable to support impeachment and removal of the President. The group has begun a $1 million TV ad campaign to build public support and pressure on the Republican Senators .

A colleague of Senator Alexander in the Tennessee congressional delegation was former Senator Bob Corker. The Chattanooga Republican was often critical of President Trump prior to Corker retiring from the Senate early this year. As for the current impeachment situation, Corker told reporters on Thursday he has “nothing” to say. He adds, given the role Senators to have to play in the impeachment process, acting as judges to decide by a 2/3 vote if the president should be removed from office, he thinks his former Senate colleagues should say ‘nothing” as well.

Vice President Mike Pence is increasingly being pulled into the impeachment debate. He will be in Nashville this coming week to raise campaign funds and to host an event with Governor Bill Lee and the Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

In the race to succeed Senator Alexander in the 2020, Tennessee Democrats this week got a second candidate announcing she will run in the party’s August primary.

On the Republican side, one candidate, Nashville physician Dr. Manny Sethi announced a list of his top supporters across the state.

On another Senate-related matter, it was an issue former Tennessee Governor and Democrat Phil Bredesen tried to capitalize on when he ran for the Senate last year. His efforts got run over by the conservative Supreme Court nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the alleged invasion of our country by caravans of Central Americans coming across the southern border. Now Senator Alexander is taking up the Bredesen issue, seeking to protect our state from the takeover of the Asian Carp fish. invasion.