Capitol View Commentary: April 1, 2010
By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
April 1, 2010
RACE TO THE TOP; THE METRO BUDGET; THE GOVERNOR'S RACE; INSIDE POLITICS; FINDING COMMON GROUND
When Tennessee won the "Race To The Top" funding battle a few days ago (along with over $500 million dollars from the federal government), I had a thought.
Not to sound like your 1st grade teacher, but the thought goes like this. "See what happens when everyone gets along and works together."
Sure enough, if you read the comments from those in Washington who decided which states got the funding, it was clear that the main reason Tennessee got just about everything we asked for was because of the nearly unprecedented support our education reform plan had from our political leadership (in both parties) as well as from education leaders across the state and from the education unions (this was the last and most critical group to win over).
Wow! What a concept! Everyone working together for a common goal and a common good! That's why Governor Phil Bredesen in particular deserves major kudos for putting this education reform program together and working along with former Senator Bill Frist and his SCORE group to build the political and public support needed to achieve success.
But, so far, that success is just on paper (and in terms of funding, soon to be in the bank). Now we have to make it happen for real. The Governor spoke for many Tennesseans when he said he is tired of our state always been listed as 40-something in education comparisons among the 50 states. Now comes the challenge to make the plan our new reality in education.
Already I can see some problems ahead. I don't think any of the "Race To The Top" funds can be spent on general operating items. So Metro Nashville schools, which recently went through the budget agony of cutting $11 million out of its upcoming budget by laying off workers, privatizing custodial jobs and cutting back hours for bus drivers, can't use any of the federal funds it receives to solve that problem, and they likely can't move money around in their budget to do that either. As usual, the federal funds are pretty tightly targeted on what and where they can be spent.
And here's another looming challenge. It won't be too many months before the new No Child Left Behind test results are reported. Because new, much tougher standards have gone into effect this school year, there is a very good chance the failure rate of our local schools will be up this time. In fact, the failure rate may skyrocket. Not great news to hear just a few months after getting this hard-earned financial windfall from Washington.
But that's why we all need to remember that what this $500 million is supposed to do is to help bring about long-term and hopefully lasting school reforms that will move us up the national rankings.
While more money alone is surely not the answer, we also need to understand the federal funds are not a license to slack back on local education funding. In fact, Metro Schools is facing a $25 million deficit in its "status quo" budget for next year even after making all the cutbacks we discussed.
So let's put it this way. We've been given a great opportunity with these federal funds. It won't bring success overnight. But I suspect if we continue all work together towards this common cause, we will see our state rising in the education rankings. If not, in a few years, there is likely be real hell to pay.
THE METRO BUDGET
The Mayor's Budget Hearings have been an annual spring tradition in Metro Nashville for many years. They even date back to the days when I was a full-time reporter for Channel 5 back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. (And we all know that really was a long, long time ago. J)
While the hearings can be, and usually are, informative, they are really kind of a show for the public and the media. It gives the Mayor, his finance officials, and city department heads the opportunity to outline and articulate what the city's needs are, although in recent years, the conversation has been more about how to deal with further cuts in Metro's budget.
And so it is again this year, with department heads asked to report how a 7.5% cut would impact their ability to deliver city services.
While it is rare that departments have had to cut as much as 7.5% in a given year, the combined impact of several years of budget cutbacks does have its impact. And while it is easy to dismiss the "gloom and doom" of what could happen if funds are cut or reallocated (layoffs, no more chipper pickup, more libraries and community centers closed), you know things are perhaps reaching a critical point when Mayor Karl Dean told public safety officials (who have been almost completely spared any cutbacks in the past) that that is not likely to happen this coming summer.
"Zero is not an option," the Mayor reportedly told them. With another priority of the Mayor's, Metro Schools, facing at least a $25 million deficit in their "status quo" spending plan, it looks like it is really going to be very, very tight, difficult year for budget making at the Courthouse come May and June. And with next year being a Metro election year, look for the long-range budget forecast to be for more of the same (any property tax hike seems off the board both this year and next).
By the way, don't be fooled. This coming year's budget will include more police officers for the city. But those are funded by a federal grant for the next three years. What happens when the grant is over? Well, that is for another budget hearing show down the road in a few years, I guess.
THE GOVERNOR'S RACE
As we move past the April qualifying deadline, usually the field swells in terms of the numbers of candidates running for office. But for Tennessee Democrats, the field is getting still smaller. In fact, among major candidates for the Democratic nomination for Governor, it is down to just one, Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman and son of the former governor, Ned Ray McWherter.
The latest to withdraw from the race is former State House Majority Leader Kim McMillan who has decided to run instead for Mayor of Clarksville, after the current incumbent, Johnny Piper, made a surprise announcement that he has decided not to seek another term.
It was just a few weeks ago that McMillan came on INSIDE POLITICS and told us that she was not being pressured to drop out and that she planned to stay in the Democratic race all the way. But that's the way politics goes. It's all about timing and opportunity. Clearly, Kim McMillan has a better chance to be elected Mayor of Clarksville than Governor (especially given her lackluster statewide fund raising totals). So l understand what can happen when a new opportunity presents itself, and I don't think she was fibbing when she came on the show.
Meanwhile Mike McWherter, with the field cleared of major opposition on the Democratic side, seems to be trying to push things into a higher gear. He is loaning his campaign a million dollars (doubling his overall fund raising efforts) and holding an official launch to his campaign here in Nashville on Legislative Plaza. Things didn't get off to a great start however. The campaign sent out an e-mail advisory that gave the time, place and reason for the event, but no date. That was quickly corrected within about 20 minutes and clearly McWherter hopes he can take advantage of the open field he now faces and use the time to build his image and his campaign finances for the fall campaign ahead against the Republicans. If McWherter can unite and energize his party behind him, raising a lot more money and building a positive image for himself with some good TV (while the Republicans cut themselves up in their primary), that could result in the Democrats' best scenario (and maybe only scenario) to win this fall.
McWherter has his work cut out for him. Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam is back with a second round of TV ads. This one is a 30 second spot with lots of warm and fuzzies about what a great person and family man Haslam is. It looks a lot like the first ad in terms of its feel and its video. There's the mayor walking door-to-door again, campaigning on a rainy day, along with lots of his pictures of him and his wife ( college sweethearts) and then, his children, who the spot claims "he's raised them right."
It's a very folksy spot and stays away from repeating a lot of claims about Haslam's success as a job creator, business recruiter and other matters that brought him some criticism in the media and from his opponents about his first ad. By the way, the red umbrellas that so many folks made a big deal about in the first ad are not be found in this one, although, as I mentioned, it is clearly raining in the part of the ad where Mayor Haslam was campaigning door-to-door.
If you need any convincing that Democrats view Haslam as the man to beat on the GOP side, Mike McWherter went after him during his campaign launch event at the State Capitol, referring to Haslam's first campaign ads and saying" "If he's willing to stretch the truth on jobs, how can we trust him with the economy?"
Another GOP gubernatorial candidate who may be positioning himself for future TV ads is Congressman Zach Wamp who has already announced that his campaign has gone over the $3 million mark in overall fundraising. Wamp had a few weeks before he had to reveal his latest money numbers. Why do it now? Well, two reasons maybe. One, it will look good next his opponent, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who hasn't been able to raise any money this calendar year while the General Assembly has been in session. Two, when Haslam announces his haul, Wamp's may not look quite so great, so get it out early and try and get whatever mileage you can out of it, before the Haslam haul is announced.
On this weekend's show (April 2-4), our guests are two of our Tennessee Democratic Congressmen, Jim Cooper of Nashville (5th District) and Lincoln Davis of Pall Mall, Tennessee in the 4th District.
One voted for the highly controversial health care bill (Cooper). The other (Davis) voted against it. During the show we talked to both of them about how and why they made up their minds to vote the way they did. We sought out a local Republican congressman, Marsha Blackburn, to join us as well, but schedules did not permit her joining us, unfortunately.
Nevertheless, as representatives of the party in power, it is interesting to talk with these two congressmen (Davis & Cooper) and see how differently they view this matter (even though they are members of the same political party). For example, Congressman Davis says he voted no because the overwhelming majority of his constituents are against the health care plan. Congressman Cooper says he voted for it in part because of the strong support of the Nashville health care community for the measure.
Congressman Davis says he does not believe it is possible to repeal the new health care law because the GOP won't get a large enough majority in the next Congress to do so or to override a presidential veto. Even Republicans like Tennessee Senator Bob Corker agree about that (although I doubt the Tea Party folks will like hearing it). In fact, 8th District GOP congressional candidate Stephen Fincher has already begun his TV ad campaign, spotlighting as one his key campaign promises to "take the country back" and "repeal ObamaCare."
Meanwhile, Congressman Davis says he would support amending the new health care law to make it work better. And he indicates that if he were a member of the Tennessee General Assembly (which he used to be), he would vote in favor of a bill (which lawmakers appear ready to do) to challenge the constitutionality of the bill in mandating everyone has to purchase health insurance.
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FINDING COMMON GROUND
First it was supporting the construction of more nuclear plants. Now President Barack Obama is endorsing the expansion of off-shore oil drilling. Wow! Remember how John McCain and the Republican tried to beat up then candidate Obama and the Democrats on this issue during the 2008 campaign (Drill, Baby, drill!)
So why is the President now supporting Republican positions in these matters related to energy? Is he perhaps laying the groundwork for compromise, comprehensive energy (cap & trade) legislation? After all the partisanship and hard feelings from the health care debate is that possible?
Senator Lamar Alexander seems pleased with the President's new positions, but as Chair of the Republican Conference in the Senate, which sets the talking points for the party on these matters, don't expect too much too soon, or maybe at all. Says our Senior Senator: "As we learned in the health care debate, it's important to read the fine print before signing up." So don't hold your breath (or your drill bit). :)