Capitol View Commentary: Aug. 22, 2008
By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
August 22, 2008
It's not often you find Democratic State House Majority Leader Gary Odom and Republican House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower in agreement on anything.
So when they are, and it's an important, even controversial issue, and powerful House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh is also on their side, everyone should pay very close attention, particularly Governor Phil Bredesen.
Odom, Mumpower, and now, Speaker Naifeh want an outside investigation of the latest Troopergate scandal to rock Capitol Hill. Once again it's Lt. Ronnie Shirley of the Tennessee Highway Patrol (the same officer who once helped fix a ticket for Bredesen's then-Deputy Governor) who's back under the investigative microscope. He is being investigated for possibly abusing his authority by doing unauthorized background checks. How many folks are involved? At one time officials said as many as 300, now they say 182 have had their privacy compromised without authorization.
Odom, Mumpower and Naifeh want those who've been damaged, both private citizens and state employees, notified and their names made public. They also want to know more about the motivation for these actions. Was it politics? Revenge? Intimidation? Mumpower says he is particularly concerned because of a mysterious set of THP arrest records that suddenly appeared in his office a few weeks back. Mumpower says the records concern DUI arrests years ago (that did not result in a conviction and have now been expunged) of a current GOP State House candidate, A.J. McCall. (The Associated Press is now reporting on August 20 that a Democratic activist, not anyone in the THP, has stepped forward to claim responsibility for that action, claiming the records were still public record when he obtained them).
Despite all the concerns expressed by legislative leaders of both parties, the Governor remains satisfied to let this matter be investigated by the Highway Patrol's criminal investigations division. But clearly, given past scandals, the resulting investigations and some of the non-punishments meted out (including in Lt. Shirley's earlier scandal), that no longer seems to have much credibility with legislative leaders. Compounding that lack of trust is the fact that only in recent days has Lt. Shirley been taken off active duty, while the investigation has gone on for several weeks.
Governor Bredesen says he has been assured by his Safety Commissioner (who oversees the Highway Patrol) that he is "treating it seriously" and that whatever the results of the investigation are, they will turned over to the district attorney to determine if any further action is required. The Safety Commissioner, Dave Mitchell, says this investigation is a point of pride for his department. He is also refusing to release the names of those involved, except to characterize them as a couple of journalists, someone prominent in the country music business and a number of state employees. He says there are no elected officials or candidates on the list.
As for the Governor, he seems to be downplaying the matter, almost making excuses by saying this seems to be a case of "someone with too much time on their hands" and who is just being "nosey," not someone intent on political mischief or doing harm to anyone. So much for employing PR 101, Governor. The correct response should be: "Regardless of the motivation, we take matters like this very seriously and will investigate it thoroughly."
But should the Governor go even further? With all these legislative leaders speaking out, can he afford to stay on the sidelines and not take a larger role in this matter by calling in outside help for this investigation? Right now, his answer is definitely no. He doesn't seem ready to do anything else on the matter at least until the internal THP investigation is done.
The Governor sure isn't shy on continuing to express his thoughts and opinions on the national political scene. His latest comments in a NEW YORK TIMES article (August 17) were particularly biting concerning his party's soon-to-be nominee for President, Senator Barack Obama; Says the Governor: "Instead of giving big speeches at big stadiums, he needs to give straight-up 10-word answers to people at Wal-Mart about how he would improve their lives."
Ouch! And this is someone who political pundits once had on Obama's list of VP choices and on the short lists for future cabinet posts?
I guess the Obama people are taking all this in stride. They've asked the Governor to come to the key battleground state of Ohio (August 21 & 22) to campaign for the presumptive Democratic nominee. Too bad Obama wasn't with him. The Governor could take the candidate to some local Wal-Mart stores and show him some more "tough love" as he calls it? I also wonder if Obama will ever be back in Tennessee so the Governor can show him the campaign ropes here first hand? J
By the way, I am told by one source that that Obama fund raising trip to Nashville, rumored to be tentatively scheduled for earlier this month (when Obama instead went on vacation with his family to Hawaii) may be back on after the convention, with the most likely time in and around the presidential debate set to be held at Belmont University in early October.
Another area where the Bredesen administration is raising some eyebrows and risking its credibility concerns the unexpected layoff of a dozen employees in the state Department of Human Services.
Now everyone knows the state is having a hard time balancing its budget, and layoffs were certainly in the offing when not enough state workers took the buyout incentive package to leave their government jobs. But up until now Governor Bredesen and Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz had promised (as lawmakers requested last spring) to hold off on any layoffs until the General Assembly returns in January.
But it appears there was a major caveat in that promise: as regards executive service workers (those without civil service protection) layoffs are fair game right now. A spokesperson for DHS told THE TENNESSEAN (August 19), "The governor asked us to look at how we do business, streamline our operations where we can, and not impact customer service. We looked very hard and feel we have fulfilled that mission."
OK, but THE TENNESSEAN also reports that spokespersons in both the Governor's and the Finance Commissioner's office said they were unaware of the layoffs.
And so there appears to be more explaining for the Governor to do to legislators and more anxiety for state workers about who might be the next to go. According to THE TENNESSEAN, only one of the employees being laid off was offered the buyout package and turned it down. The others apparently were not eligible, although they are receiving a more modest severance package. Nevertheless, the bottom line appears to be, whether or not you were identified as a state worker who was offered a buyout package, you could still wind up heading out the door when layoffs come....and some departments are not waiting until January to make that decision, despite the promises of the Bredesen administration.
GORE FOR TUKE
Unlike Governor Bredesen, who has already all but conceded the Tennessee U.S. Senate race to incumbent Republican Lamar Alexander, one prominent national and Tennessee Democrat, former Senator and Vice President Al Gore, is publicly endorsing Democrat Bob Tuke in his November race.
Gore likes Tuke's position on issues surrounding energy and the environment, and Gore's involvement could well help Tuke in his efforts to reach out to find the support and the millions of dollars he will need to mount a credible campaign against Alexander, just like Gore will likely be a help to Obama as his opening act the night of acceptance speech at the Convention (the big speech at Denver's NFL football stadium that the Governor has criticized).
Meantime, the Democrats in Congress are all but conceding defeat on the issue of allowing more off-shore oil drilling. Even though it won't result in any new oil supplies for several years, Republicans have successfully exploited the issue (under the leadership and guidance of Senator Alexander as Chair of the Senate Republican Conference) to the point where Democrats and now soon-to-be Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama (looking at the public opinion polls) are now ready to support their own legislation that would allow more off-shore drilling under some conditions.
Of course, that will be a part of an omnibus energy bill that will contain some many controversial issues it is still very questionable if anything will get passed by both houses of Congress. But it should give almost everyone some positive and negative talking points to use later this fall on the campaign trail (even if it has no impact on gas prices).
With TVA raising electricity rates 20% effective October 1 (the largest hike in nearly 3 decades), you have to wonder if that will become a campaign issue this fall in the state? With so many people already struggling to make ends meet, this large an increase on one of life's necessities is sure stir up some voter anger and candidate response. At least you have wonder if plugging in all those little electric cars Senator Alexander is always talking about, is still such a great idea (to avoid sky-high gas prices), when power go up 20% almost overnight, and who knows what electric rates will be once these electric cars start to come on line in a few years?
WAITING FOR THE E-MAIL OR THE TEXT MESSAGE
As this column is being written on Friday afternoon (August 22), both major party candidates have still not announced their running mates. With Obama promising to tell his supporters first (if they sign up to get an e-mail or text message), the national media has been driven into a frenzy the last few days, following every move of those on the potential "short list" of candidates and breathlessly speculating on the potential meaning every campaign stop along with every action, reaction and comment coming from the candidate, his campaign or anybody else who wants to speculate on the matter. I also sense the national media is getting a little ticked that Obama wants to give the scoop to his supporters and not the media (let's see if it leaks in the final hours).
It's all big-time overkill, but then this is what always happens during this part of the presidential election process right before the nominating conventions. Selecting a running mate is the first major decision a candidate/nominee makes and it's the last great mystery to be revealed about his party's team for national office. So Obama is playing it to the hilt. I suspect McCain will do likewise, although it appears pretty likely he will make his choice known on his birthday on August 29. So as the oldest person to ever be nominated, do you think McCain and his campaign will use that as some kind of hint of who McCain will select? Will it be someone much younger or will it all coming down to something else, like keeping the GOP conservative base mollified?
In the meantime on the campaign trail, it's "Home Sweet Home." Not!
Even the "American Dream" has become a battleground for the candidates to spar over who is an elitist and who is out of touch and not ready to lead the American people. It began when McCain was asked by reporters how many homes he and his wife own? When McCain fumbled the answer (saying he would have to have his staff get back to them), the Obama campaign pounced. With lightening speed (unlike how the campaign reacted to the Russian invasion of Georgia or McCain's original empty celebrity ad) Team Obama had a TV spot up and on the air (and YouTube) within hours saying the comments show how out of touch McCain is, especially since the 7 homes he and his wife own are worth $13 million. McCain responded quickly too with an ad, questioning the manner and the associates involved in Obama's recent purchase of a million dollar home place.
And you can bet, despite the promises of both candidates, the hits (political attack ads) are going to keep on coming.
This week we begin a two-part series on INSIDE POLITICS looking at our national political conventions and talking with Tennesseans who have or are playing a major role in these quadrennial events.
First up are the Democrats, who meet August 25-28 in Denver. One of the leaders of the Tennessee delegation is state party chair Gray Sasser. He will be our guest along with Inez Crutchfield, a long-time Nashville political activist and the dean of the state's delegation (this is her 7th convention). We are also joined by Jennifer Buck Wallace, a Tennessee Young Democrat and Obama organizer who is going to her first convention as a delegate. One thing you'll find interesting about our discussion is the revelation about the pressure super delegates like Crutchfield are still getting from die-hard Hillary Clinton supporters to change her mind about voting for Obama (she won't). You'll also hear Gray Sasser and Jennifer Wallace's thoughts about how critical this convention will be for Obama to unite his party; galvanize young folks to be sure they go to the polls this fall; and successfully introduce himself to undecided voters who still seem quite uncomfortable with him. I think this is Obama's last best chance to do so, he can't wait for the debates, in which he will share the stage with McCain. This is his singular opportunity.
On INSIDE POLITICS this week we will also be talking with Roy Neel, a top aide to former Vice President Al Gore. He knows what it's like to be on the inside of a convention and how hard you have to work to make sure it all comes off successfully. He has some fascinating comments about the role of conventions and the current status of the presidential campaign.
We will be doing a similar show with Republican state party leaders next weekend (August 29-31) on INSIDE POLITICS.
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You are going to be hearing a lot in the next couple of weeks about how unified our political parties are. But when you hear that, keep in mind some recent examples here in Tennessee, where party unity coming out of the August primaries has been under a lot of strain and strain on both sides of the aisle.
For the Democrats, State Senate challenger Tim Barnes of Clarksville, as we predicted, is contesting his 19-vote defeat by incumbent Senator Rosalind Kurita, despite the vote being certified by local election officials. Barnes is now taking his case to the Democratic State Executive Committee, complaining about voting irregularities (not just cross-over voting) and offering some seemingly hard evidence of voters being misled by election workers. The choices before the Democratic Executive Committee: declare Kurita their nominee, throw out the election and hold another one, or declare Barnes the winner.
I have no idea what will happen, although with election officials certifying the primary vote, it would seem party officials are in a tough position to throw out the election or reverse the decision. But this must be making Kurita a bit nervous. It is pretty clear there are still a lot of Democrats in her district and all across the state who are angry at her because she voted to unseat incumbent Democratic Lt. Governor John Wilder almost two years ago. Do they make up enough members of the Party's State Executive Committee and does Barnes have enough evidence to change the election?
It does remind me, in a way, of what happened way back in 1962, when then-Congressional candidate Richard Fulton challenged incumbent Carlton Loser. Fulton was winning the primary until they counted the absentee votes, and then it became apparent, through a series of investigative stories done by THE TENNESSEAN, that the absentee ballots were not done properly. Faced with choices that seem very similar to this situation, the State Democratic Executive Committee decided to place both candidates on the November ballot as independents, in effect having a do-over, which Fulton won handily. By the way, I don't think there was a Republican on the ballot that year, and there's no GOP opposition for this Senate seat this fall either. Stay tuned.
On the GOP side, incumbent 1st District Congressman David Davis lost his first re-election bid to Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe on August 7, becoming the first Tennessee Congressman to fail in an attempt to stay in office since 1974. The margin was quite narrow, fewer than 500 votes, and for several days after the balloting, Davis refused to concede and claimed voter fraud because Democrats apparently crossed over and voted for Roe. While Tennessee has an open primary law, Davis claims there is language in the statute that talks about declaring loyalty to the party on the day you cast your vote which never happens at the polls.
As a matter of fact, I can't ever remember anyone challenging a voter's right to switch parties on Election Day and doing so days or week after the fact would likely be even harder to do successfully. So GOP party leaders first privately then Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey publicly, urged Davis to give it up and concede the election, which the outgoing Congressman finally did.
But now Ramsey seems to be paying a price for speaking out. According to an Associated Press story (August 19) by Erik Schelzig "a prominent conservative political action committee is shifting its attention and funds away from Speaker Ron Ramsey." This comes at a critical time going into the fall elections when Ramsey is trying to gain support and money for GOP candidates trying to maintain or even increase Republican control of the upper chamber.
But now, the Tennessee Conservative PAC has told the AP that it will give more of its contributions to other conservative groups and not to Ramsey and his efforts this fall.
So much for unity in both parties, huh?
Every day, it is becoming clear why Councilman Eric Crafton has been so reluctant to discuss who is funding his English First Metro Charter amendment efforts. Local media reports are trying to link the out-of- town interest group giving Crafton nearly $20,000 for the petition drive, with a hate group and a white supremacist organization. Word of this link earlier might have made it somewhat harder for Crafton to get the signatures he needs to put the matter on the ballot.
But maybe not, the requirement of needing signatures of just 10% of those who voted in the last general election (just over 2,500 based on the August general election turnout) is a very low standard. It is puzzling to me why the media and the Nashville election officials keep using a higher vote number requirement (over 10,000) to validate Crafton's petitions. Metro Elections Director Ray Barrett told me personally a few weeks ago (after the August 7 election) that the number would now be around 2,500, not over 10,000, but still the media and election officials are reporting otherwise.
Then there's the question of whether the English First proposal can legally be on the November ballot. The Metro Charter allows voter referendums by petition only once every two years. In November, 2006 Nashville voters approved a charter amendment that requires referendums on future property tax rate increases (more on that later). But by accident of the calendar, that November election came a few days later than this year's vote, so the passage of time is not exactly two years. The Metro Legal Department is exploring whether that is a barrier to having the English First matter on the ballot. Councilman Crafton and his supporters say what's important is not when the election is held, but when their petitions were filed (and that clearly was over two years from when the property tax referendum signatures were filed with Metro).
If the English First charter amendment is not approved for the November ballot, it would likely be 2010, at the earliest, before it could be considered by voters, without calling a special election. There are no elections scheduled in 2009. But while those who oppose the English First effort may be thrilled to see it kept off the ballot, in the long term this could be something that backfires on the opposition.
If voters sense that this matter is being kept from their consideration because of an unimportant technicality or a legal trick, this could make them angry and more resolute in their support for Crafton's proposal. Mistrust of government to do its job to protect the borders (especially the federal government) is already fueling this charter push. This legal maneuver could just inflame the matter (and possibly bring on litigation by Crafton and his group to try to get the courts to place the issue on the November ballot anyway).
In the meantime, the Metro Council is not giving Crafton any slack on this matter. Having already gone on record urging voters to reject his English First proposal, the Council threatened to kill on first reading (a rare legislative occurrence) some companion legislation Crafton introduced to require citizens to pay a special fee if they need assistance to get things like a permit from the government in another language. Crafton sensing his measure was about to be trashed, withdrew the proposal and said he will bring it back later in the fall (closer to the election where he can use the publicity to whip up voter support for his amendment?).
But while opposing Crafton's charter efforts, the Metro Council is asking voters in November to consider two other changes to Metro's constitution. One would slightly modify the Council's very strict term limits provisions, allowing those elected to fill a vacancy in the 40-member body to seek two full terms instead being limited to just one re-election. The change would only apply if the new council person serves less than half the term he or she is elected to in filling the vacancy (less than 2 years).
If you have to keep terms limits (which I don't care for) this is a good idea because it allows citizens (if they want to) to keep someone on the job who has gathered valuable experience and not just eliminate them because they served in some cases less than a year of an earlier term.
The other charter change being requested by the Council would once again change the timing of Metro's budget process. Until a couple of years ago, the Charter mandated the Mayor submit an operating budget no later than May 25, with Council having to approve it by the end of June. Council members complained that with the budget getting larger and more complicated, they needed more time, so voters approved moving up the budget filing date to March 25.
That has proven to be rather impractical since revenue estimates and state dollars coming from the General Assembly are very hard to predict that early in the year, so this new charter amendment would compromise with a new budget date of May 1. Again, this is probably a good change, and will give the Council the extra time it needs without gumming up the budget process. But frankly, the Council ought to quit messing with the charter like this, and be a little more sure how these amendments are likely to work out, before submitting them to the voters.
Will they pass? Who knows? Will people even know they are on the ballot with all the presidential hoopla going on? I suspect the budget date change may carry, but voters have been reluctant to make any changes to the term limits requirements, so even a good one like this, may not gain enough votes to pass.
The Metro Council begins its legislative year each September with the appointment of new committee chairs by Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors.
One thing you will notice in looking over this year's committee leadership assignments is how quickly the rookies (just ending their first year on the job) are being placed in positions of responsibility. Of the 13 committee chairs named by Neighbors, a majority are going to first-termers (although a couple of them have served previous terms in the Council before coming back).
With term limits in place (no more than 2-four year terms), that's the way it is: you've got to groom them early.
Speaking of starting early, East Nashville Councilman Jim Forkum, the new chair of the Council's powerful Budget & Finance Committee, raised some eyebrows with his reported comments to THE CITY PAPER (August 21) in which he said he thinks it will be up to the Council, not the voters to decide whether to raise property taxes next summer (although he seems to be backing off saying that in a e-mail he sent to Tax Revolt leader Ben Cunningham, that Cunningham forwarded to me).
You'll remember local voters in 2006, approved by an overwhelming majority, an amendment to the Metro Charter, requiring any increase in the property tax rate to be approved in a referendum. The key word is rate. The property tax rate is likely to be lowered next year after the required countywide property re-appraisal is complete. It has to be lowered by state law, so the reappraisal itself isn't used just to raise taxes. But the Council can increase the rate back to its present level (in effect raising taxes) and that doesn't have to have voter approval. Only if the Council wants to make the rate higher than it is presently, will a referendum be required.
But Councilman Forkum in his interview also seemed to indicate that he believes the charter amendment is illegal and that a court case to litigate the matter might be likely. That certainly could happen. But for right now, the charter amendment is the law, and it's at best premature and unwise I think to be raising the possibility of litigation so early in the process. In his e-mail to Ben Cunnigham, Forkum said: "I understand the process and simply told the reporter the Council has the authority to levy taxes and the charter amendment puts the up and down vote to the people. I just mentioned that at some point it could be challenged. I will not go any further since I have no plans to challenge the amendment and have not heard of any plans to challenge."
All this early talk of a property tax increase and the recent charter amendment probably makes Mayor Dean a little uncomfortable. He was Metro's Legal Director when the charter amendment was before the voters. His legal department wrote and Dean signed a legal opinion that said the charter amendment was unconstitutional. After being hammered on the issue by Bob Clement in last year's mayor's race, Dean made it clear the amendment had been approved by the voters and he now considered it the law. There was no talk of lawsuits from him.
But Forkum's comments certainly get the pot stirred early for Metro's budget process for next year and remember, as Chair of Budget & Finance, it will be Forkum's job to handle Mayor Dean's budget when it hits the Council floor. Here's more background: since the time of Mayor Bredesen, a reappraisal year like this (and it happens every four years) has been the time Metro has raised property taxes.
So what will Mayor Dean do? Given the tight budget Metro is already fighting this year (another 3% budget cut was requested of city agencies just a few weeks ago), no doubt a case can be made to request a property tax hike. But will it be one based on a rate greater than the current property tax level? And if so, do we go to the ballot box or the courts, or both? And under that last scenario, how does this city avoid complete fiscal chaos next spring and summer?
NewsChannel 5 thanks Pat Nolan for providing this column every week. Mr. Nolan's commentary reflects his own opinions, not those of the NewsChannel 5 Network. Comments about Capitol View should be sent to Pat Nolan directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .