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Capitol View Commentary: December 16, 2010

Capitol View Commentary: December 16, 2010

CREATED Dec 16, 2010

CAPITOL VIEW

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

IMMIGRATION DEBATE ON INSIDE POLITICS; THE BRUIN CONTROVERSY WON'T HIBERNATE IN METRO; A TAXING DECISION IN D.C.; A HEALTH CARE PRESENT UNDER THE TREE; WAYS & MEANS; LAMAR SPEAKS OUT; STATE LEGISLATIVE DEMOCRATS REGROUP; A BAD WEEK FOR NASHVILLE

December 16, 2010

This weekend on INSIDE POLITICS (December 17-19) we will focus on the upcoming debate in the General Assembly on legislation to make Tennessee follow the state of Arizona's lead in getting tougher on illegal immigration.

That bill has sparked national controversy as well as a lawsuit by the administration of President Barack Obama to overturn it on constitutional grounds.

You can likely expect similar controversy here in the state, although given the November election results making the Legislature much more conservative and Republican, the chances to pass such a bill look pretty good to me.

Our guests are the two legislative sponsors of the immigration bill, GOP Senator Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro and GOP Representative Joe Carr also from Rutherford County. On the opposing side, Nashville lawyer Gregg Ramos will join us on the set.

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NewsChannel5 Network. That includes Sunday morning (December 19) at 5:00 a.m. on the main channel, WTVF-TV, Channel 5. You can also see us on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast & Charter cable channel 250 and on Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. Our air times on the PLUS are 7:00 p.m. Friday night (December 17); 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday (December 18) and 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Sunday (December 19).

If you don't have cable or are outside the Nashville TV market, a few days from now, excerpts of this show and previous INSIDE POLITICS programs can be seen here at www.newschannel5.com. Just go to the web site and enter the words INSIDE POLITICS into the search engine.

 THE BRUIN WON'T HIBERNATE

Given Nashville's recent very cold and snowy weather, couldn't the whole thing go into hibernation for the winter?

That's probably what officials at Belmont University wish would happen. Like the school's mascot, the Bruin, they likely would prefer the school's ongoing controversy over how it has handled the parting of its former women's soccer coach (who left after announcing she and her same-sex partner were having a baby) just go away.

But no such luck, as the fallout over the matter seems to be particularly creating issues for Metro government.

Last week on my INSIDE POLITICS show, Mayor Karl Dean made it clear he was not in favor of extending the city's recently passed sexual discrimination law to include not just local government, but also private businesses and institutions like Belmont. Councilwoman At-Large Megan Barry indicated she might pursue the matter. But Mayor Dean, while he strongly supported the first discrimination law, said he thought it would be better for Metro "to lead by example."

And indeed, the Mayor is following up by asking all other Metro-related agencies (such as NES, MDHA, the Airport Authority, the Convention Center Authority and The Sport Authority) to update and pass their own personnel policies banning discrimination over sexual preference. But with no good political deed ever going unpunished, Councilman Michael Craddock, a frequent critic of the Dean administration told THE TENNESSEAN (December 15) that the Mayor should have taken such actions months ago right after the discrimination law was passed.

Meantime a statewide, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group has sent a letter to the Metro Council asking it to hold hearings looking into Metro's relationship with Belmont in the wake of this controversy. The Tennessee Equality Project specifically raised questions about Belmont's Board of Trust President also serving in leadership of the city's Convention Center Authority. Officials of the group told THE TENNESSEAN (December 13), the comments made by the Belmont chair supporting the school's actions need to be investigated by the appropriate Council committees "aimed at finding out whether his personal views prevent him from chairing the Authority." The article also raised issues if the Belmont board chair's comments "contradict his role in chairing a board that manages tourism in the city."

Is that another reason why the Mayor asked all Metro boards to make it clear what their discrimination policies are?

But there is also another Metro/Belmont relationship under fire. Back in 2007, after months of controversy and negotiations with the surrounding neighborhood, Belmont won council approval to lease nearby city property at Rose Park, including building facilities there for use by the school's Division I teams. Until this discrimination issue came up, everything seemed to going fine with the construction (with already about $7 million dollars reportedly spent) well underway.

Now two Metro Council members, Jamie Hollin and Mike Jamison want Metro to pull out of the Rose Park agreement unless Belmont adopts a non-discrimination policy that protects employees based on sexual orientation.

Metro parks and legal officials say pulling out of the agreement would mean Metro would have pay Belmont back for the $7 million it has already invested. That's a pretty stiff price to pay for Metro to make a point. It also seems to me to raise questions about Metro retroactively changing outside contracts with groups because they don't like something they do. If the city wants to adopt a new law or policy that all its vendors and others it enters into contracts with must do certain things, such as have a sexual preference non-discriminatory policy, that is its choice to decide (and Councilmen Hollin and Jamison say they plan to introduce such a bill) . But to do that retroactively, and selectively in this case, is pretty questionable to me, and, apparently could be quite expensive if the full Council is foolish enough to go along with the bill.  

As for the Council holding hearings in this matter concerning the Belmont Board President Marty Dickens and his role on the Convention Center Authority, that too seems like a waste of time and an unnecessary thing to do unless there is some hard evidence that there are or have been instances of sexual discrimination concerning that Metro agency.

Finally, perhaps the toughest situation facing a Metro official in the midst of this Belmont controversy has been for Councilmember Kristine La Londe, who not only represents the district around the school, she is also a professor at Belmont.

She has been quiet publicly about the matter until today (December 16) when she issued an e-mail message to constituents and supporters where she outlined her long-time support for "full equality and inclusion of all people, including those in the GLBT community." She denied she has been quiet out of fear for her career or her job at Belmont. Instead she says she has active been scenes (even before this controversy arose) with a low-key, low profile effort  saying: "From my first job interviews at Belmont, I have made clear that my own Christian faith has informed support for equality and justice for all, including the GLBT community, and  I have always felt supported by Belmont in that stance."

 Saying "those dialogues are indeed ongoing, and I will take an active role in helping to shape a Belmont that our neighborhood and city can continue to take pride in."

But as you can tell by how carefully her words seem chosen in her e-mail, this is a very difficult controversy to deal with and what that is likely to simmer and fester in the community and the school for a while yet.    

 A TAXING DECISION IN WASHINGTON

While I write these words on Thursday afternoon (December 16) there are some mixed signals in the national media about whether President Barack Obama can gain House approval of his bi-partisan plan to keep the Bush-era tax cuts for another two years while extending long term unemployment benefits for the next 13 months and cutting Social Security payroll taxes for the next year.

The Senate, which is usually the stumbling block for any controversial legislation (because of the need for 60 votes to cut off debate), this time, passed it overwhelmingly. That includes both of Tennessee's U.S. Senators voting for the plan.

The latest Rasmussen poll shows national support for the tax plan has been dropping in recent days, especially among Republicans, and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL reported a few days ago that several potential GOP Presidential candidates for 2012 are beginning to choose up sides, for and against, on the issue.

So both Tennessee Senators were quick to issue news releases explaining their votes. Senator Lamar Alexander, who doesn't face re-election until 2014, said keeping the Bush tax cuts is key: "stopping a tax hike on nearly every American is the single best thing Congress can do right now to make it easier and cheaper to create private sector jobs."

Senator Bob Corker, who is up for re-election in 2012 and faces increasing indications from Tea Party activists that he needs to be challenged in his party primary,  gave similar reasons for supporting the tax bill although he was quick to also mention the need to establish a cap on federal spending as a percentage of GNP. Said the Senator:  "Allowing these income tax rates to expire would be devastating for our fragile economy…(but) over the long term nothing is more important than acting quickly to get spending under control and reduce our deficit."

Indeed, both Corker and Alexander were co-sponsors of an amendment to the tax bill that would cap federal spending calling it a priority "when the federal government is borrowing 42 cents of every dollar it is spending." The amendment was never voted on.

But here's the kind of dilemma lawmakers face, even without considering the income tax issue, the new tax plan adds another $9 billion to the deficit overall including continuing tax breaks for the solar industry, which is playing an ever larger role in Tennessee's future economic development plans. It creates so very tough choices which are likely to get even more difficult when the new more conservative Congress convenes in January.  

A HEALTH CARE PRESENT UNDER EVERY TREE

The country's new national health care law has been the biggest ongoing political controversy around for the past two years, from the halls of Congress to now federal courtrooms across the country.

A couple of federal judges have ruled the new law constitutional and not an overreach by the federal government. But now a federal judge in Virginia says the measure does go too far by requiring everyone to purchase health insurance. And there are still other cases being brought in other states which could further muddy the legal situation, including one in Florida, which noted Vanderbilt law professor Dr. Jim Blumstein told THE TENNESSEAN (December 14) might also have a chance to prevail because it also challenges the federal government's abilities to change its Medicaid contracts with the states.

However it turns out, it appears quite likely, once some of these cases work their way through the appeals court, that one or several of them will be appealed to the Supreme Court for a final decision. In the meantime the court fights could again embolden state lawmakers to get the State Attorney General to intervene in the case to challenge the health plan. The AG, Bob Cooper, works for the State Supreme Court, and believes the health law is constitutional, so again (as he did last year) he is not likely to go there. In fact, the AG might also get into a new fight with Republicans if they decide to use their large majorities to pass a bill (as other states have done) that renders the health care law null and void in Tennessee.

So what happens when the court fight reaches the Supreme Court? How will that work out? Nobody knows for sure. Given the very conservative bend of the current Court, and its tendency to sometimes in the past promote state's rights on some issues, it might be a hard case for the Obama administration to win. But it could be a couple of years yet before any cases or arguments reach the Court, so who knows what the makeup or status of the High Court might be at that time.

All we do know for sure, is that right now both sides in this controversy can cherish the victories they've already won in this matter, much like a special Christmas present which looks great today under the tree, but down the road when it's time to open it (and the case is decided), who knows what will be inside?

WAYS & MEANS

Congratulations to incoming 6th District Congresswoman Diana Black for her appointment to be a member of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee. That's quite a coup for a rookie, especially to be selected out of the large GOP freshman class coming to Washington.

It appears Congresswoman-elect Black's previous experience in the Tennessee State Senate particularly on fiscal matters was a real plus for her in getting the post.

The Ways & Means Committee is so important because it handles all the money bills and all tax and budget bills originate there too. Historically, it has been a great position from which to "bring home the bacon" by getting those special earmarks and other funding that build buildings or fund projects in a congressional district. But that's very much out of favor these days, so the new Congresswoman may have to work instead on her plans to sponsor legislation to require the federal government have a balanced budget in the future. Given Congress' past effort to trim spending and limit expenditures, good luck with that!

Congressman-elect Black's new prominence has already drawn her some fire from Democrats, who criticize her position on allowing privatization of some parts of Social Security (for younger workers).

LAMAR SPEAKS OUT

When the State GOP Executive Committee first began to debate the concept of changing Tennessee law to close our primary election system and require voters to register by party, I thought it was odd that none of the major leaders in the Party, especially our two U.S. Senators or the Governor-Elect or the Lt. Governor had expressed any opinion on the topic.

Now someone has. Senior Senator Lamar Alexander thinks it is a bad idea and might even lead to Tea Party backers leaving the GOP and starting their own separate party. Much as I said in a recent CAPITOL VIEW column, Senator Alexander wonders why Republicans would to appear to be trying to shut out voters, especially at a time when the Party is doing so well in Tennessee elections.

Good point I think. And hopefully the other major Republican leaders in the state such as Senator Bob Corker, Governor-elect Bill Haslam and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey ought to join in publicly stating similar opinions about this idea. The State GOP Executive Committee has decided to study this closed primary issue for the next two months. Hopefully that is where it will stay on permanent holding being studied.  

STATE LEGISLATIVE DEMOCRATS REGROUP

After suffering their own political "shellacking" in the November 2 election, the depleted numbers of Democrats in the State House and State Senate have selected their leaders for the upcoming legislative term.

Actually, Democrats lost only one seat in the upper chamber, and it was a somewhat surprising race where incumbent Doug Jackson seemed to do little to gain re-election and so a nearly unknown GOP candidate pulled a shocking upset.

Given those circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the Democrats kept their top leadership electing Memphis Senator Jim Kyle to be their (minority) leader, and Senator Lowe Finney of Jacksonm as the Caucus leader. It however doesn't change the declining fortunes of Democrats in the Senate who are now on the short end of a 20-13 split of the seat with Republicans.

In the State House, matters are even more dire for the Democrats. After losing 14 seats to the GOP, Gary Odom of Nashville was denied another term as House Minority Leader. The 34 Democrats remaining in their Caucus chose Representative Craig Fitzhugh from Ripley in West Tennessee. What was even more surprising in the balloting was that black state representative John DeBerry of Memphis was the first candidate to be out of contest, after garnering the fewest votes in the first round of balloting, even though minorities in the Democratic Caucus hold 15 of the 34 Democratic seats, just a couple of votes from what it would to win a majority, given Tennessee it's first minority house elader for either party. But that obviously didn't happen.

Interestingly, another Nashville representative Mike Turner was not bounced out of his chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus. Turner had a reputation in the last campaign of traveling around the rest of the state so much trying to help other Democrats that he neglected his own race and had to come home and stage a late rally to pull out his own re-election to the House.

Maybe they re-elected him in gratitude for trying so hard (he was unopposed), even though the vote numbers across the state resulted in the worst General Assembly election cycle for the Democratic Party in history while Republicans (who lost no incumbents seeking re-election) now hold 64 of the 99 seats.

The newly elected Democratic leader Fitzhugh (while saying he had a fire in the belly to do his new job) admitted how difficult the situation is when he addressed his colleagues. According to comments reported by THE CITY PAPER (December 15) Fitzhugh said, "We cannot let this stand. We have a message. We don't need to change our message. We just need to articulate it better….We've never been this far into the minority before, so we are going to have to work a little different. We can't win all the battles anymore. But we can certainly fight the fight. We don't have to fight every fight. We've got to pick our fights. We've got to be in the room. We've got to be at the table because if you are not at the table, somebody said you're on the menu."

Frankly, the Democrats already got eaten alive in the last election. It will be interesting to see what fights they can pick and what impact, if any, they can have this term. Unless, the GOP is split, about all the Democrats seem poised to do is help fill out the quorum for a roll call vote. 

As for Representative Odom, along with the recent election setbacks, he's also had his ups and downs with some members of his Caucus and as well as with its past leadership. He also didn't always get along well with the Bredesen administration, which sometimes refused to let him carry its bills (a role a house leader almost always performs for a governor of his party).

Odom's leadership demise is another blow to the power of Nashville in state government as with the Bredesen administration and all its Nashville ties leaving the Hill, it appears House Speaker-to-be Representative Beth Harwell is by far going to be the most influential Nashvillian on the Hill starting in January.   

One new appointment by Governor-Elect Bill Haslam that could further mitigate Nashville's oncoming loss of political influence is retired former Bridgestone Americas CEO and President Mark Emkes being named the new Finance & Administration Commissioner. He would be the second straight Nashville person to hold that job following Dave Goetz.

Otherwise, the new Haslam administration continues to slowly take shape. Tom Griscom, a Chattanooga newspaper executive and a former top aide to Senator and Majority Leader Howard Baker, has joined the transition to begin working on putting together the new Governor's communications team. Tom is a good man, but he faces putting together a team with a lot left to communicate about the new governor and new administration and not a lot of time left (January 15) to do it. It's going to be a busy holiday season for those folks.

A BAD WEEK FOR NASHVILLE

It's almost enough to dampen your holiday spirit.

As if the frigid temperatures, the snow and the overall nasty weather we've been battling hasn‘t been bad enough, it appears this December, so far, is the coldest in Nashville since 1942.

Add that to the closing of the revered Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Green Hills and the retirement of Gerry House as the city's long-time favorite morning disc jockey, it's not been a great week in Nashville.

Gerry House and his long-running House Foundation morning show has been the best and funniest thing to experience about this city's morning commute for many years. And with some national surveys now saying we have the worst and longest commute in the country, losing Gerry doesn't sound like good news at all.

As for Davis-Kidd, I went by the closing sale the other night. It was like going to a wake for a good friend, who passed way too soon, only to find you are being given the opportunity to buy his possessions and clothes. They are selling everything, including the stores' fixtures. How sad! But, while things are getting pretty picked over, I did find some bargains there, one last time. 

Even our good news seems to be balanced with the bad. While Mayor Dean and State Economic Development Commissioner Matt Kisber are announcing 500 new jobs for the city over the next five years (with the Asurion Corporation also keeping its global headquarters in town), a new study shows poverty is growing in Nashville. According to a CITY PAPER article (December 12) Nashville now has "a full 16.9%--107,000 people (13,467 families) of its population who are at or below the poverty level. About 111,000 people in Nashville experience at least one period of homelessness each year."

Our students "who participate in the (federal) free or reduced lunch program has grown from 71.9% in 2007 to 75.9% last year." And while new figures show our graduation rates and test scores have been going up, we are all dreading the long-delayed latest round of No Child Left Behind scores because they are graded on higher standards so our test status is likely to decrease significantly and could again put Nashville's public schools in danger of being taken over by the state.

Another indicator of the mood of the city, our sports teams remain a mixed bag at the end of the year. The NHL Predators are playing extremely well despite some key injuries and look well positioned for a strong run to the playoffs in 2011. So did our NFL Tennessee Titans a few weeks back, before the wheels came off completely for the team.

Now many fans seem to welcome this Sunday being the last home of the season and perhaps the last local appearance for long time coach Jeff Fisher. It is unlikely both Fisher and former star quarterback Vince Young will both return, now given the whole team's downward spiral, neither one may be here.

College football has been less than stellar in Tennessee this year, although both MTSU and UT managed to rally their teams to bowl games by season's end. As for Vanderbilt, it is spending the off-season doing what it has done so often over the past 50 years, finding a new head coach. You'd think with so much experience, the school would be able to finally get it right. But, so far, fans do not seem particularly impressed with what the search is identifying as head coaching candidates. And as for the Auburn assistant coach who seemed to display some interest before spurning the Black & Gold, that episode just seemed to add to the Vanderbilt's SEC football image as an institution that can mess up a one float Christmas parade.                    

Having said all that, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a joyous Holiday season and New Year.  Nashville has a lot to be grateful and thankful for this holiday season. And while we have faced many challenges in the last 12 months, especially the devastating floods of last May, the future looks very bright for our city and state. One reason is, in the wake of the flood, we also found a renewed spirit of volunteerism and community pride that if we can continue to tap into can us solve any problem we face, if we work together.

I don't plan to post any more CAPITOL VIEW columns this year. My next commentary will be out Friday, January 7, 2011.