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Capitol View Commentary: April 16, 2010

Capitol View Commentary: April 16, 2010

CREATED Apr 16, 2010

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

April 16, 2010

HEAT RISES ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL; MCWHERTER ON INSIDE POLITICS; STATE SALARY CUTS OR CUT THE CAP; TO EARMARK OR NOT TO EARMARK; LET THE I.R.S. DO IT; YARBO VS. HENRY; GUNS AGAIN; METRO BONDS SOLD AS BUDGET LOOMS; DR. BEN HOOKS; CONNECTIONS

It's not just the temperatures that are rising with the coming of spring.

So too are the harsh words on the Tennessee gubernatorial campaign trail.

It begins with Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey's first TV ad which started airing in the Memphis, Nashville, Jackson and Tri-Cities markets a couple of days ago. The reported $119,000 buy is not all that large and it will only purchase about a week's schedule of time.  But the war of words it is invoking between Ramsey and one of his opponents, Congressman Zach Wamp, could be a sign of things to come.

In the TV ad, as Ramsey ascends the large interior marble staircase inside the State Capitol, he talks about two ways to govern, "the Washington way or the Tennessee way." Ramsey continues: "The Washington way says more spending, more taxes, more debt. The Tennessee way says tighten your belt, be conservative, live within your means." The Lt. Governor then pledges to continue to run the state "the Tennessee way" and urges voters to hang tough with him. "And if those in Washington don't like it," asks Ramsey as the spot concludes?  "Well, we'll just give them the boot!" (More on that later)

If a lot of what the spot says sounds like a direct appeal to the conservative Tea Party vote in the state you are right. If it sounds like an attack on the policies of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress, you are right again. But it also an attack on any federal incumbent, including his opponent Congressman Zach Wamp who has been in Washington since 1994, including several years when Republicans controlled both the Presidency and the Congress (and federal spending and the debt went up).

So no wonder, Wamp's campaign reacted so quickly and vehemently! Before the Ramsey spot had hardly aired, the Congressman's campaign was denouncing it, and going right after Ramsey's record: "Ron Ramsey obviously is trying to rewrite history. The ad fails to mention that state spending has nearly tripled since he joined the Legislature,… and state government has added more than 10,00 workers…on his watch. Let's be clear. When Senator Ramsey had a chance to slow the runway growth of state government, he voted to pass the largest tax increase in Tennessee history (the 2002 sales tax hike), and even flirted with a new state income tax along the way."

Ouch! 

By the way, Wamp's team might also be ticked because the Congressman had just announced he would be starting his own TV ads very shortly, and then got a bit preempted by these Ramsey spots. 

 Not to be outdone in this ongoing battle to appear to be the most conservative, anti-tax, anti-government candidate to GOP voters, Ramsey's camp struck back as well, saying Wamp's charges are "ridiculous" and that "Ramsey helped drive a stake through the heart of the income tax back in 2002 and Zach Wamp knows it. He's (Ramsey) is not going to take any lectures from a serial (Congressional) earmarker like Wamp."

OK, well so much for Ronald Reagan's old 11th commandment of never speaking ill of another Republican. Is that Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam I hear chuckling as his two opponents duke it out? J

But Haslam is not getting off without any criticism. His idea of doing a "top-to-bottom" review of state government spending (which he mentioned on my INSIDE POLITICS show last week) is being panned by a Ramsey spokesperson (CITY PAPER, April 15) calling it "…passing the buck the Washington way, just look at Obama's debt commission. Tennessee doesn't need a commission or task force to reduce the size of government, we need a governor who has experience in state government, knows the budget and can do the job on his very first day." Not surprisingly, the spokesperson says that the Lt. Governor is the man for that job.

While I am sure this was not timed or coordinated, Haslam did his own push back to Ramsey with a new TV spot just coming out which again touts his record as mayor of Knoxville to show he has what it takes to handle the state's ongoing budget crunch (more on that crunch later too).    

Getting back to Ramsey's first TV ad, with apologies to Nancy Sinatra, it could be entitled "These Boots." Several times in the :30 second spot, the picture focuses on the dark boots Ramsey is wearing while he walks up the stairs at the State Capitol. And, of course, his "we'll boot them out" comment at the end of the ad reinforces this symbol. Could boots become for the Ramsey campaign what some thought red umbrellas might be for Mayor Bill Haslam?

It's probably too early to tell, and Haslam has not used any red umbrellas in his recent TV spots. I suspect Ramsey's boots may return. Even if they don't, what about the use at the end of his ad of his official state seal as Lt. Governor (which looks a lot like the official Great Seal of the State of Tennessee)  Will anyone raise an issue about that?

Who knows? One thing is for sure, what Ramsey had to say in his first ad and the war of words that developed from it between the Lt. Governor and the Congressman are a clear harbinger of what kind of hot political summer it is going to be in Tennessee. 

 

INSIDE POLITICS

Another very interested observer as the Republicans fight it out for their gubernatorial nomination is Jackson businessman Mike McWherter. He is the lone major Democrat left to take on the GOP this fall. McWherter is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend.

The son of a legendary two-term Governor and long-time Speaker of the House, this is Mike McWherter's first time as a candidate. He admits his biggest challenge for now will be staying in public view and not becoming irrelevant or forgotten as the Republicans battle away. He says he think the GOP candidates will come out broke in August after spending at least $13 million in their primary. He may be right, but given his personal wealth, I would never call Bill Haslam broke. J As for his own campaign funds, McWherter says he will have what he needs, although he sure didn't raise much money this last quarter except for the $1 million he gave his own campaign.

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. We air on the Comcast and Charter cable systems, channels 250 and on Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2

Friday, April 16……7 p.m.

Saturday, April 17….5 a.m. & 5:30 p.m.

Sunday, April 18……..5 a.m. & 12:30 p.m.

There are also excerpts of previous INSIDE POLITICS shows available here on the NewsChannel5 website (www.newschannel5.com). That includes our interviews with all the other gubernatorial candidates, except Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who is scheduled to be our guest next weekend.

 

STATE SALARY CUTS OR CUT THE CAP

As the state records yet another month of unprecedented negative tax collections (closing in now on two full years of red ink), the administration of Governor Phil Bredesen says some further major adjustments will have to be made to the state's budget for next year to the tune of $80 million!

The Governor is suggesting extending the state's sales tax to cover the purchase of some large ticket items which are now exempt (if they cost more than $3,200). Not surprisingly, lawmakers, especially Republicans in the General Assembly are balking at that suggestion, in particular Lt. Governor Ramsey and others running for office or re-election this fall.

At first when meeting with legislative leaders, the Bredesen administration explained that it was making the sales tax extension recommendation because further cuts to the budget would be bad for the state. But then the Governor put his cards on the table!

He is telling legislators they can remove the sales tax cap (although it would stay on vehicles, boats and manufactured homes) or they can cut the salary of every state employee by 5%.

Ouch! State workers haven't had a raise in three years and now their pay would be cut 5%. That is likely to be as popular as an outbreak of the swine flu on Capitol Hill. But the Governor says if Republicans lawmakers (who hold the majority in both Houses) don't like it, they can come up with their own proposal. To quote him as the Associated Press did on April 15: "You can't just say no to everything."  

Wow! Did we all just get transported to Washington?

As the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, Lt. Governor Ramsey says he plans to come up with a budget plan in the next few days to deal with the state's deficit without raising taxes. THE CITY PAPER (April 16) reports Ramsey said he "wouldn't rule out an across the board cut in state employee pay." Ramsey and other Republican lawmakers feel blindsided by the Governor's proposal. They add they think this is worse possible time to raise any taxes, especially since removing this sales tax cap will hurt many small businesses, which are the groups most likely to create new jobs in a state still suffering with 10.6% unemployment.

But frankly, the Republicans just don't like the word "tax," period. Even the new tax on hospitals making its way through the General Assembly (with full industry support) is being called "a fee adjustment." Lawmakers also don't like the Governor's earlier proposals to taxes levied on cable bills to make those taxes the same as those for satellite TV users. Finally, they don't support raising drivers' license fees, even though they haven't been raised in years, and really no longer cover the cost to provide this state service.  

On lifting the sales tax cap, the Governor points out many other states surrounding Tennessee have long since done this without hurting their economy. But this is an election year, and nobody, especially Republican lawmakers want their names anywhere near something that can be called a "tax."         

Regardless of those feelings, it does appear this worsening financial situation for the state could be yet another reason why lawmakers will be staying late in Nashville this spring wrangling over what to do with the possibility of state worker pay cut just upping the political ante this election year.

 

TO EARMARK OR NOT TO EARMARK

Money issues also dominate the news coming out of Congress. Efforts to come up with a new financial reform package to prevent another Great Recession from occurring seem to be foundering along partisan lines just like the health care bill.

Congress did finally approve an extension of unemployment benefits after leaving town on recess and leaving thousands of unemployed in the lurch. I can understand the concern of some congressional leaders to want to pay for any continued benefits and not increase the budget deficit. But after all the bills and all the years of spending like drunken sailors, why should these guys suddenly get religion on this matter and try and "balance the budget" on the backs of these poor unfortunate folks who are out of work (and who were put there at least in part because of the way the federal government has spent its money and not minded the nation's financial store)?

And there are these earmarks. It used to be that lawmakers bragged about all the "bacon" (extra federal dollars) they brought home to their districts and states. Now it's like bragging about having some social disease. In recent years, some of our local congressmen (Jim Cooper & Marsha Blackburn) have gone cold turkey and completely sworn off inserting into the federal budget any earmarks for pork project spending in their districts.

The latest to join the ranks is Senator Bob Corker, who has announced he is withdrawing his requested earmarks because, "I could not in good conscience keep my name next to any…requests this year. It is not necessarily the overall cost of federal earmarks, which represent a very small portion of the overall budget that poses a problem; it's the process, which is fundamentally flawed and lack oversight."

A recent study finds that Tennessee lawmakers rank near the bottom in terms of making pork requests and that Senator Lamar Alexander makes more than any in our delegation. In a somewhat rare public disagreement with Senator Corker (no names are called but the statement from Alexander's office came within hours after Corker's), Alexander said when Tennesseans come to see him about public projects that need to be done: "…my job is not to give them President Obama's telephone number. I have a constitutional responsibility to try and amend the president's budget. Some members of Congress have abused the appropriation process. But if you have a couple of bad acts on the Grand Ole Opry, you don't cancel the Opry---you cancel the acts. "

Alexander says he has supported a one-year moratorium on earmarks and other reforms and he is ready to support more changes, but he adds: "Removing earmarks doesn't reduce the federal debt by one penny, since they are paid by reducing spending for lower priority items. The way to reduce the debt is to slow down automatic increases in entitlement spending and to limit discretionary spending…"

Senator Alexander is correct, but given the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington and all the ruckus being raised about spending by Tea Party members and others, he may have a hard time being heard or understood. Earmarks can be an important way for Tennesseans to get their fair share of federal dollars for needed projects. Sure, it can be abused and reforms and constant oversight are important. But just giving up all earmarks seems to me to be more for show given the relatively minor impact they have on the overall budget and deficit. Besides, it leaves Tennesseans at the back of the line in getting federal funds. It is interesting to note that at the front of that line is the state of Alaska. Didn't they used to have a governor up there who's been raising all kind of fuss about runaway government spending? Just saying 

 

LET THE I.R.S. DO IT

As many of us grumbled on April 15 and paid our federal income taxes, Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper had an interesting (if a little scary) idea.

He has introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to get the Internal Revenue Service to do your taxes for you. It's called the Simple Return Act and the Congressman says it could save the government and taxpayers up to $44 billion over 10 years.

Sounds good, but the IRS doing my taxes for me?

I don't know about you, but, at first blush, that's an idea that gives me a lot of pause, if not downright terror. Here's how Congressman Cooper sees it working according to a news release from his office.

"The Simple Return would allow the IRS to fill out a basic tax return for every American with the financial information it already receives from each taxpayer's employer and financial institutions (your W-2 and 1099). Every American would have the opportunity to review and sign the government return, or simply throw it away and fill out their return on their own."

Cooper estimates around 40 million Americans would be able to use this service saving them $2 billion in preparation fees and many, many hours of preparation time. They would probably also get their refunds more quickly he thinks. The Congressman said this idea was originally proposed 25 years ago by President Ronald Reagan, but computer technology was not far enough along for the I.R.S. to do it back then. Now he says they can. He also says the state of California tested something like this a few years ago and it was very popular.

Maybe so, but I think this will need a lot of selling, especially to folks who view the IRS the way they do a poisonous snake. The Tea Party folks come to mind. Remember all the fuss about the IRS being in charge of making sure everyone buys health care insurance?  Now they'd do your taxes? And what about those who think the Census questions are too nosy? You think they'll want the I.R.S. to handle their tax preparation?

To be sure those who are in business to help you fill out your tax returns will likely be opposed to this proposal. And there will be others who will be well less than pleased to learn that the government already knows more about their on-going finances (maybe more they do), and at least enough to do their taxes.  Yikes! As Congressman Cooper asks in his news release: "Should Congress try it or not? Would you trust the IRS to do your paperwork for you?"

Good luck selling this in the current political atmosphere, even though Congressman Cooper at the close of his release seems to be reaching out to feel the taxpayer's pain: "Even dentists have figured out a way to make drilling painless. It's time the government did the same thing."

Yeah, but this may turn out be more like that Coke Zero TV commercial saying it's the 21 century, so why haven't scientists found a way for us to clone ourselves? It's an interesting idea, but lots and lots of issues remain to be resolved.          

 YARBRO VS HENRY

  It could be the race of the summer in Nashville.

Long-time State Senator Doug Henry versus young lawyer Jeff Yarbro in the August Democratic primary.

Straw polls usually don't mean much, but Yarbro's campaign is crowing about the support and organization they displayed to easily win (190-101) a mock balloting held by the Davidson County Democratic Party.

Combine this with Yarbro's latest fund raising numbers ($204,000 plus with over 800 contributors) and the challenger's team claims they have raised more money than any other legislative candidate in Tennessee this year, along with the most raised on line.

Yarbro says he is running to provide "a new direction" for the General Assembly. Note that he is running against the institution (which is likely very unpopular), not against Senator Henry, who remains very popular even after representing this part of the state in General Assembly since 1970 (40 years).

Senator Henry's supporters are not just sitting back. They are touting the Senator's role in bringing a new French consulate to Nashville, as well as his being selected as "Legislator of the Year by (fill in name of the group). Senator Henry's campaign is also showcasing its support among a group that he has sometimes struggled with in the past.

Nearly 400 women community leaders plan to attend an event April 22 to show they back the Senator. The effort is being led by former Metro Councilmember, mayoral candidate and Vanderbilt vice-chancellor Betty Nixon and by the past president of the Davidson County Democratic Party Krissa Barclay. I have received a direct mail piece featuring a list of the women sponsors for the event and it is very impressive. But for some of them have sometimes not been in harmony with Senator Henry on some issues, particularly related to abortion and reproductive rights. But according to a news release from the Henry campaign, the women supporting Senator Henry are doing so because of his past work to protect Radnor Lake, help the state secure the "Race To The Top" funds and for being "a tireless champion for working families and seniors."

Add it all up from both camps, and I think we are in for a very interesting race in the 21st Senatorial District between now and August.    

GUNS AGAIN

Now you really didn't think we'd go the entire legislative session on Capitol Hill without the guns issue re-emerging, did you?

Sure enough, the matter of guns in bars and restaurants has risen again to the top of the legislative agenda in the waning days of this session.

You'll remember last year, a bill was passed (over a gubernatorial veto) that would allow those with state gun permits to bring their weapons into restaurants that serve alcohol (with owner permission). Because it is all but impossible to really tell the difference between a bar and a restaurant in this state, a Nashville Chancery Court threw out the measure saying it was unconstitutionally vague.

OK, said gun rights supporters. Now they plan to pass a measure that allows guns anywhere alcohol is served, whether it is beer, wine or hard liquor. That means gun permit holders can, again with owner approval, bring their weapons into both restaurants and bars, no distinction.

Opposition is again quite vocal and comes this year from the hotel, motel, tourism industry, and all four major chambers of commerce in the state, all of them afraid of the image this projects of the state. But in this election year, it looks like votes are likely there again to pass this bill, even though a number of statewide polls have shown more public opposition than support for the idea.

METRO BONDS SOLD AS BUDGET LOOMS

Congratulations to Mayor Karl Dean and Metro Finance Director Rich Rebieling for the job they did in getting the city's convention center bonds sold. Their determined hard work and the "dog-and-pony show" they put together and took to New York City and other places was so successful the $623 million bond issue for the Music City Center (the largest in the history of Nashville) was oversubscribed by investors by more than 2.5 times what was needed, driving overall interest rates on the project down.

The use of Build America bonds (backed by federal stimulus funds) also helped keep interest costs down, which will be very helpful as the city will be making payments of $40 million annually for the next 30 years on the center's debt.

Given some of the criticism leveled at the project, even in the final hours of the bond sale, by one member of the Metro Council (Emily Evans) and one major bond rating agency (Fitch) attracting more than 50 investors (including insurance companies and fund managers) to purchase the bonds, must be very gratifying for Mayor Dean and his team.  

But there is no rest for the weary. Now looms the perhaps even more difficult task of putting together a Metro operating budget to submit to the Council by May 1. Actually, you can likely look for the Mayor to outline his spending recommendations during his annual State of Metro address to be given to members of the city council and civic leaders on Thursday, April 29. The speech will be held at the Court of Flags at Riverfront Park downtown.

How difficult the budget will be was underscored again during the Mayor's last budget hearing a few days ago involving Metro Schools. Even after making $11 million in cuts including privatization custodial services and cutting back school bus drivers' hours, a "status quo" budget for schools is $25 million short. School officials say they don't want to cut back in the classroom and they can't tapped their reserve funds anymore without reaching dangerous levels.

At the budget hearing, Mayor Dean expressed his support for the way school leaders have tried to put together their spending plan and he indicated he would do what he could to help fully fund it. Wow! But where can an extra $25 million be found? Does this mean the Mayor might look at a property tax hike, something which has seemed to have been all but ruled out to this point? Does it mean those 7.5% cuts to other Metro departments are much more of a likelihood to happen given the priorities of the Mayor's budget?

Stay tuned. Selling the next operating budget could well be an even bigger challenge for the Mayor and his administration than those convention center bonds ever were.

 DR. BEN HOOKS

I didn't know Dr. Benjamin Hooks personally.

Despite his long career in advancing civil rights, especially here in Tennessee and through his work with NAACP, I can't recall ever having the privilege of meeting or interviewing him.

My loss

And his passing is a great loss for the nation.

As people such as Dr. Hooks pass away, we see even more clearly how he was part of a unique and special generation that did so much to make America better. He was a leader that challenged us not just to talk the talk of liberty and justice for all, but to make it the law of the land and to live by it every day.

Hopefully, what he stood for, and what he lived for, has now been passed to us and to future generations. May he rest in peace. 

CONNECTIONS

What a week to reflect on how connected we are all these days, not just across town or across the country, but around the world.

Whether it's an act of God through a volcanic eruption that snarls travel and stymies business and commerce throughout Europe and the world, or the thoughtless actions of a Tennessee "mother" who placed her adopted 7-year old Russian son, unaccompanied, on an airplane back to his homeland, just because she didn't like dealing with some of his issues.

These are incredible and inexcusable actions that no one should inflict on any child. Now because of what she did, the legitimate efforts of hundreds of American couples to adopt Russian children into loving homes in this country, may be dashed forever.   

No man or woman is an island, especially in these days of world transportation and 24-hour news cycles. Actions can have major consequences, from acts of God, which no can really help, to the decision of a single person which, under the wrong circumstances, can mess up thousands of lives.