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Capitol View Commentary: April 30, 2010

Capitol View Commentary: April 30, 2010

CREATED Apr 30, 2010

CAPITOL VIEW

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

April 30, 2010

MONEY-METRO; INSIDE POLITICS; MONEY-STATE; MONEY-WASHINGTON; SERPAS; THE MAY ELECTION; GUNS

Whether it's the Metro Courthouse, the State House on Capitol Hill in Nashville, or the U.S. Capitol in Washington, it's been all about the money lately. Let us count some of the ways…..

MONEY-METRO

For the third time in three years, Mayor Karl Dean has recommended a new operating budget for the city with no property tax increase. That, in and of itself, is not a big surprise. He's been hinting in that direction for months.

What is a surprise is how the Mayor plans to avoid another year of cut backs, layoffs and service reductions. He proposes to restructure some of the city's existing capital debt and use the money ($60 million in each of the next two years) to keep the city in the black with only fairly minimal cuts (about 1% to 3% across the board, although a few agencies could still get cut up to 5%).

The bottom line will be a city budget that is about $18 million dollars smaller than it is this year (which is very unusual). However, this proposal from the Mayor must have looked like manna from heaven or the answer to a prayer to Metro Council members when heard what the Mayor had to say during his annual "State of Metro" address. Whereas before there had been talk of cuts up to 7.5% to individual city department budgets, now the Mayor is talking about restoring longevity pay to Metro workers and giving them a one-time 2% bonus, along with unveiling a new capital plan that will fund projects across the city (new roads, schools, community centers, sidewalks) that Council members just love to see get started a little over a year before they run for re-election. The employee pay improvements are also likely good news for the Mayor who has struggled to stay on the good side of the Metro employee unions.

What happens in two years after re-election? No one is predicting, but by that time (2012) Metro will have gone seven years without a property tax hike. Maybe by that time the economy and the public might be more accommodating about an increase, or maybe not. And what if the amount needed for tax hike then is so great, voters might have to approve it in a referendum. Or is that charter provision even legal?

For now, the Mayor says more taxes for the next two years are a bad idea, especially when restructuring the city's debt can help keep Metro in the black. The Mayor says in these unprecedented times of the Great Recession, we need to find a third way (between tax increases and budget cuts) to make things work. The bond rating agencies willing (and apparently they were prepped to expect this while Metro sold its convention center bonds), that seems exactly what the Mayor and the Council are ready to do (although I hear the Fitch rating agency may not be even asked for an opinion this time after their negative take on the convention center bonds). The other rating agencies Standard & Poors and Moodys are expected to be more positive (and the state's controller's office also gets a chance to weigh in on the matter) although no can say for sure until the opinions area issued. This restructuring idea may also take more explaining to the public because a division of Goldman Sachs is handling this matter. While this is not the same part of Goldman Sachs that's in such hot water on Wall Street and in Washington right now, there still may be some concerns and questions to be asked.      

There is one area of budget concern that remains for some Council members. While the Mayor is again fully funding the budget request of Metro Schools (including an extra $25 million), he did not include another $11 million the School Board cut that resulted in layoffs at the Central Office, privatizing janitorial duties and cutting back hours of bus drivers. While some Council members want to try and help, the Mayor says he didn't fund because the school system didn't ask for it, and besides, Metro can only give the School Board a lump sum to spend each year. It is totally up to the Board on how they spend it. That's probably where the full Council will leave it as well.  

INSIDE POLITICS

Mayor Dean and three Metro Council leaders (Ronnie Steine, Jerry Maynard and Emily Evans) are my guests on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend. We will further delve into all the matters outlined above. It is a very interesting discussion.

This week INSIDE POLITICS returns to the main channel, WTVF-TV, Channel 5, with our show airing at 6:30 p.m. Friday (April 30) as well as 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning (May 2).

We are also on at our usual times on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast and Charter Channels 250 and Channel 5's over-the-air digital 5.2 channel. That's at 7:00 p.m. Friday (April 30), Saturday (May 1) at 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. as well as Sunday (May 2) at 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

Watch us!

MONEY-STATE   

Let's move now to money and the state.

All this past week, everyone was getting set for big budget battle between Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and Governor Phil Bredesen over how to make up an $80 to $100 million budget gap the state has.

No new taxes says Ramsey. That includes the Governor's proposal to take the sales tax cap off big ticket luxury items. The Lt. Governor says bad idea, that the cap really helps protect small businesses making purchases like back hoes and, besides he says, it is small businesses who create the most jobs and we need those right now.

When he was on INSIDE POLITICS last week, Ramsey indicated he was sure he and Senate Republicans would have their own plan about what to cut to make the state budget balance and he was sure he had the votes. But does he? The days have gone by and there is no GOP plan. Republican Senate and House leaders say they are waiting to get an official proposal from the Governor about what to do. Maybe, but that wasn't stopping the Lt. Governor (in his second TV ad in his quest to be the GOP candidate for Governor) to tell voters that the state government could easily function without a third of its 22 current departments. Of course, Lt. Governor failed to mention in his TV spot just which departments he would eliminate. But it is clear that Governor Bredesen's request that Ramsey act more like a Lt. Governor and less like a candidate for governor has fallen on deaf ears. In fact, Ramsey seems to be making Governor Bredesen and his previous proposals one of the main issues in the race. 

But what will the Republicans propose? No one knows and there are reports it could be as long as the week after next before they have a plan ready to present. In fact right now, we know about what the Republicans say they won't cut to balance the budget than what they will. That includes (after some confusion in the GOP leadership ranks) leaving Pre-K untouched as well as no cuts in state salaries.

Watch this space. Something's got to be decided soon. And the stakes keep getting higher for Lt. Governor Ramsey. He has to come out a winner (no taxes) in this budget fight or undermine the whole theme of his gubernatorial campaign. Some Republicans in the State Senate are so hyper about taxes they won't even vote for them if those being taxed ask for and support the extra levy. That's apparently  why Ramsey and two State Senators running for Congress (Diane Black & Jim Tracy) both red-lighted their votes on the new hospital tax which operators support in order to avoid more TennCare cuts.

As for Governor Bredesen, he seems willing to work out a compromise, once everyone puts their card (proposals) on the table. Meantime, he is enjoying achieving a major goal before he leaves office, having Tennessee's bond rating returned to the highest level. In the years before he took office, Tennessee's credit status slipped and the Governor has wanted to make it right ever since he came on board in 2003. And while some of the bond rating upgrade was for technical reasons, the Governor (and the General Assembly) can take some justifiable pride in getting this part of Tennessee's fiscal house back in good order.  

Now let's turn to those who would be the next governor, where money always plays a big role. Congressman and GOP candidate Zach Wamp has sent out an e-mail asking for money "to help Zach stay on TV," telling supporters how donations of a certain size can buy "an ad on the TONIGHT SHOW in Memphis or…. even on  American Idol in Nashville" as well as other TV shows and day-parts.

After complaining last week that the campaign of Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam was engaging in "push-polling," Wamp is also turning up the heat on his opponents in another way. Joining with Democratic candidate Mike McWherter (along I am sure they didn't really coordinate their efforts) both candidates wound up releasing their 2009 federal income tax returns, using the occasion to also criticize their opponents (Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Lt. Governor Ramsey) for not making full disclosures. Good try, but so far, I've seen no indication that Haslam or Ramsey plan to change their minds.

Finally, in the area of endorsements, former Democratic candidate Kim McMillan has endorsed McWherter, who is the lone major Democrat remaining in the primary field, while Lt. Governor Ramsey has followed behind Wamp and gone to Memphis to try and woo former GOP candidate and Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons to his side. Gibbons has given no indication just who he will support, although several of his key campaign aides have recently joined Wamp. The McMillan endorsement will likely help McWherter to some extent, at least to show that more "liberal" wing of the state Democratic Party is showing signs of uniting behind the party's gubernatorial candidate for the fall campaign.            

MONEY-WASHINGTON

For a while U.S. Senate Democrats seemed to be following the perfect definition for political insanity: Keep doing the same thing you've always done in the same way (try to pass major legislation without any GOP support) while still expecting to get a different result.

But this time on imposing new rules on Wall Street, it seems to have worked. Three times Republicans defeated efforts to start debate on the reform bill, but then they relented. Why? Was it because the deep seated anger in this country for the role Wall Street played in bringing on the Great Recession was so strong they had to give in and take their chances to amend the bill on the floor of Senate? Was it the latest Wall Street scandal involving Goldman Sachs, a controversy so hot members of both parties were denouncing the firm during recent Capitol Hill hearings? Or was it the prospect of having to spend the night in the Capitol on cots because the Senate Democratic leadership was planning an all-nighter to get Republicans to give it up?

Whatever it was, it worked, although it may be a few weeks yet before a final bill passes the Senate (with more filibuster efforts possible on some amendments). Then, don't forget the legislation has to be reconciled with what the House of Representatives has already passed.

The apparent end to the financial reform impasse also opens the door for Congress to consider still more massive, broad-ranging legislation on issues such as immigration, campaign finance reform and energy. Already Democrats are making proposals on these matters and finding no Republican support (sound familiar?).

And there are fights being waged over which issues will come to the floor first. I'd say given the recent immigration bill that passed in Arizona (and the controversy it is causing) that will be next up. But the increasing concern over the recent massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could attract Congressional attention as well with the slogan of the day going now from "drill, baby, drill" to "clean up the spill, baby, the spill." This Gulf of Mexico eco-disaster once again raises the issue of why the government always seems to respond so slowly and poorly to a major crisis (remember Katrina) in that part of the country.

Meanwhile, for Congress, there appears to be no rest for the weary, not even from the threat of all night floor sessions and sleeping on a cot. J         

SERPAS

I heard several weeks ago from a very good source that Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas was being wooed back to New Orleans to be the Chief there. At the time, his office said there was nothing to it. Obviously, that's changed and Serpas all but has his bags packed if the job offer comes (he is now one of three finalists for the post).

There is no question that in his six years here, Chief Serpas has done a lot to improve the police department and lower the crime rate in our community. He is very popular with most of the public, perhaps most so than any chief since the days of "Hang ‘Em High" Joe Casey. But some within his department and within the local business and political community have just never warmed to him. 

Who will take his place? It's Mayor Dean's call and when I asked him about it on INSIDE POLITICS, he covered all his bases. He (like Chief Serpas) praised the current leadership team in the Police Department saying there were several who could step up and serve in the top job. But the Mayor added he does not want to rule out looking outside to see what candidates are there (much as his predecessor Bill Purcell always did in selecting Metro department heads). 

THE MAY ELECTION

Yes, there is an election Tuesday (May 4), even though from the turnout for early voting in most of the counties around here you could hardly tell it.

Nevertheless, the candidates for the two hotly contests offices here in Nashville (Juvenile & Criminal Court Clerks) are quite busy raising and loaning money to themselves for last minute TV ads (incumbent Vic Lineweaver & court clerk David Smith in the Juvenile race) along with sending out direct mail pieces (Karen Johnson in that same race). In the Criminal Court Clerk's race, it appears only incumbent David Torrence has had the money for some TV, while challenger Metro Councilman Michael Craddock has relied more on direct mail and robo-calls to voters.

Whether it will get anybody to vote on Tuesday remains to be seen.

If you want to know the results, join us on OPEN LINE on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS on Tuesday evening from 7-8 p.m. Channel 5 will be out at the polls gathering and phoning in the votes to our studios, so we should get a pretty good idea pretty early how the races are going. Then join me the following morning on MORNING LINE on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS from 8-9 a.m. to get the final vote numbers and some analysis about what happened. and what lies ahead with Metro Councilman Eric Crafton who is likely to be the GOP candidate for Juvenile Court Clerk in August, after winning a very rare Republican local primary in this county.       

You see, there's always something interesting to watch in every election. We will also be monitoring the contested races in both Sumner and Williamson Counties. 

GUNS

After weeks of trying to finding some kind of compromise legislation about guns in bars and restaurants, the Tennessee State Senate seems to have given up. The upper chamber has passed legislation that simply says state gun permits owners are allowed to take their weapons into any establishment (bar or restaurant) that sells alcohol.

The only prohibition would be signs placed by the restaurant and/or bar owners that specifically prohibit firearms in their establishments. Lawmakers even took pains in the bill they passed to outline what the signs need to say and look like. They also strengthened penalties for both gun permit holders and for bar and restaurant owners who allow those with firearms to drink. Fair enough, but I guess that means only designated drivers packing heat are in the clear. Who else goes to a bar with a gun but doesn't drink? I fear enforcement of this bill, if it becomes law, won't be easy to do.

It is not clear what the House will do about this measure, but those who want the right to bear arms wherever alcohol is served (even if they can't drink) seem intent on having something back on the law books before this session of the General Assembly ends.