Roy Exum: Nashville's Big Day

Friday, September 25, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The Nashville Election Commission will meet this afternoon to vote on whether to conduct a city-wide special election on Dec. 5. A grass roots group says they have enough signatures to bring a controversial 34 percent tax increase to the voters. Oh, the increase has already been approved, alright, but Nashville is the state’s Waterloo argue others, and if the city government goes belly up, it’s a cinch the rest of the state “will get wet” in what is believed to have become a tragic case of mismanagement.

The state capital is run by Democrat Mayor John Cooper, who has come under scathing criticism for his weak leadership in the COVID pandemic and other areas in his first year in office. He is the brother of U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D), whose 5th Congressional District includes Nashville, and the city’s finances are in such a terrible blight it appears there is a $322 million budget shortfall for the fiscal midterm (without the 34-percent tax increase.)

Further, Cooper’s limp-wristed response to the summer riots incensed Nashvillians, but his latest failure came last week when he asked Tennessee Governor Bill Lee for an additional $82.6 million in COVID relief (forget the fiscal suffering in Tennessee’s other 94 counties). And the angered Governor Lee sent the Harvard-educated Shelbyville native reeling.

"I must share my deep concern that, of the $93 million in Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars spent to date by your administration, only $5.7 million has been budgeted for relief to businesses," Lee wrote. "This concern is heightened by the ongoing challenges ahead for Nashville business owners who have already endured some of the most restrictive limitations on commercial activity, as well as a recently enacted property tax increase."

But Lee was just getting wound up: "That's something that, for me to consider, I have to believe that the strategy that I'm investing in is consistent and aligned with the state’s strategy, and Metro Nashville is not.” Short answer: Absolutely no.

How bad is it? In August of 2019, the State of Tennessee's debt was about $2 billion (with a ‘b’). At the same time, Metro Nashville’s dept was $4.5 billion (with a ‘b’). Yes, it is twice as big as the entire state where over 6.7 million people live.

Rumors have it the State Legislature has been greatly concerned about Nashville since the first day Cooper took office. A stern warning was issued to the Metro Council last fall but now the pressure has gotten worse, much worse. Just last week Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson made a personal visit to warn that if the city fails to maintain a balanced budget in light of a referendum, the state could step in to make financial decisions for Nashville very soon and very quickly.

Wilson said finance decisions would be submitted by the city, reviewed, and approved based on availability of funds on a week-by-week basis, and “I’ll guarantee you that you won’t like that. It would be like a teenager coming to their parent asking for $20 to go to the movies,” Wilson said. “You do not want that, and I can guarantee you that I don’t, nor does anyone in my office.”

The December vote apparently means little to the comptroller. He demanded the Council begin making severe cuts immediately. "In order to be prepared for the possibility of this referendum becoming effective, you must begin taking action as soon as possible – as soon as tonight,” Wilson said. “Each day you wait, the cuts become deeper. Action is urgently needed now.”

Believe it or not, the story gets even better. With the Democratic Party being roundly chastised for its party’s stand in the $2 billion (with a “b”) damage to America in this summer’s riots, the Nashville mayor is part of the scorn wrought by leaders in this predominantly Republican state. The 5-person Nashville Election Commission includes three Republicans and two Democrats who consistently vote along party lines.

If that alone is not enough to entice a favorable vote for the special December election, Glenn Funk, the Davidson County (Nashville) District Attorney, announced yesterday that, no, he will not enforce Tennessee’s new abortion laws. This shocker sent Governor Lee, the State Legislature, and most particularly the ragtag state Republican Party into near apoplexy.

DA Funk couldn’t have timed his announcement at a worst time with today’s election poised to determine a Dec. 5 referendum. The State Legislature – with a Senate that is 85 percent Republican and a House that is almost 75 percent “Red” -- is totally livid following Funk’s snub. The DA says the “heartbeat” rule – the strictest anti-abortion law in all the United States -- is unconstitutional in his view. Only now Governor Lee and the state’s lawmakers are furious and have another collective reason to believe Nashville is a bigger problem than the pandemic. Lord have mercy, how did we ever get this far?

If I’m any part prognosticator, here’s what I think will happen:

* -- Late today the Nashville Election Commission will approve the Dec. 5 referendum.

* -- Next week there will be a legal challenge by “A-list” lawyers that will throw the city in a very expensive twist. Since the 34 percent tax increase had already been approved, what gives the grassroots crowd the authority to spin it away from those chosen by the people? Does the Dec. 5 vote include the heads of the politicians most responsible?

* -- During the month of October, state officials will wrestle away all financial duties from the city because the government is, for all practical purposes, insolvent and is therefore a burden on every state taxpayer. There is absolutely no way the Metro Council can maintain a balanced budget with a $322 million shortfall.

* -- Mayor Cooper, who will soon be unable to sign a check for as much as pizza, will be forced to admit his demise by his own hand and will resign next month. Some on the Metro Council will also likely most likely bale. There will never be a statue for Mayor Cooper. The pigeons alone would dump it into the Cumberland River.

* -- The outcome of the November Trump-Biden election will reverberate in Nashville, as well as all Democratic-controlled cities, but no matter the winner, the events surrounding both before and after the presidential election will greatly influence how Nashvillians approach the December referendum.

* -- No matter how hard you try nor how restless you sleep, you can’t make up a plot as rich as this mess.

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