Capitol View Commentary: January 7, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: January 7, 2011

CREATED Jan 7, 2011


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

January 7, 2011


The New Year is here and change is coming for Tennessee state government.

Republicans are in complete control for the first time since the post-Civil War era.

The new 107th General Assembly is convening on Tuesday, January 11 and the Governor-Elect Bill Haslam takes office with his new administration a few days later on Saturday, January 15.(Quick note: Stay tuned to NewsChannel5 for complete live coverage of both events).

The gubernatorial swearing-in ceremony will mark the first time since Reconstruction that all the major political figures involved in the festivities will be members of the GOP (remember, it's is a joint session of the General Assembly). It will also be the first time in 40 years (1971) that the late former Democratic Lt. Governor John Wilder will not be on the podium presiding, truly a sign of how politics is changing in our state, especially for the Democratic Party, which is now in the distinct minority in both the State House and Senate and out of the Governor's office for at least four years.

As for the new Haslam administration, which continues to round into shape, so far it appears if you are a current or former Mayor, if you have previous experience or a relationship with Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander (also a former governor) as well as former Senator Howard Baker and Haslam transition chief Tom Ingram, you might have a leg up to be in the cabinet or on the new Governor's staff. Several appointees certainly already do.   

We talk about all this on INSIDE POLITICS this week with a panel of journalists including the Political Editor of THE TENNESSEAN, Clint Brewer, Andrea Zelinski from TNReport.com and Ken Whitehouse of NashvillePost.com.

You can watch the program several times each weekend on the NewsChannel5 Network. That includes 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning on the main channel, WTVF-TV. You can also watch on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, which can be seen on Comcast and Charter cable channels 250 and Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. The show is on at 7:00 p.m. Friday, 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Saturday and 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

For those outside Nashville, excerpts from the show will also be available in the next few days here on NewsChannel5's website where you can also find excerpts from previous shows too.


Led in part by four new GOP Congressional members from Tennessee, the new Republican-dominated House of Representatives in Washington held a highly symbolic, if not substantive first week in session.

That included reading the Constitution in its entirety on the House Floor, cutting back on Congressional office expenses by about $25 million, and getting ready in the next few days to override the new national health care law. All this is being done say GOP lawmakers to show voters that they heard what was said in the November elections.

But these are mostly symbolic gestures as the House office cutbacks aren't even a drop in the bucket in terms of reducing the budget deficit and the vote to repeal health care has very little chance of approval in the Senate. Even if it did, President Barack Obama would likely veto the measure and neither house of Congress has the votes to override that.

But that doesn't mean a big partisan fight isn't coming….and soon. Legislation to authorize raising the ceiling on the nation's borrowing debt must be considered in February and Republicans are demanding major cutbacks in government spending to accompany that action. We could be headed for a slightly different repeat of what happened in early 1995 between Democratic President Bill Clinton and a GOP controlled Congress over federal government spending. President Clinton won that fight as the Republicans overplayed their hand when they shut down the government. This time the issue is slightly different, but the consequences could be equally telling.

With the President's bi-partisan victories in the lame duck session of the last Congress on taxes, "don't ask, don't tell" repeal and approval of a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, he has shown some ability to make compromises successfully even if it means going against his fellow Democrats. Now he seems to be putting together a new White House staff that in some ways shows more appeal to Republicans than some Democrats. With newly announced unemployment numbers going down more than expected in December (but still at 9.4% nationally) there is growing optimism that the economy is headed up.

More than anything else for this President and this Congress, the unemployment number will be key. While it is unlikely to go back to being at 4% or 5% for several years yet, if ever again, getting unemployment to 7% or 8% might make the difference two years from now for the President's re-election as well as many on Capitol Hill, including Republicans.

But you can already see that our more divided government in this Congress is creating issues, and so far about all they are doing is considering the rules. What's almost funny is to watch both parties just change roles and script lines depending on whether they are in control or out of power in either house.

For the past several years, GOP House leaders constantly complained that they weren't allowed under the rules to offer amendments to major legislation when bills came to floor. They vowed during last year's elections that they would operate a more transparent, open and fair process. But guess what? When it came time to set the rules for how to debate the new health care repeal law, the Republican leadership is blocking any amendment efforts.

You can see another example of role reversal in the Senate where Democrats are thinking about changing the filibuster rules, even though a few years back when they were in the minority, the filibuster technique helped them defeat several major pieces of legislation.

So it clear the fights don't really change in Congress, the members just exchange scripts and read different lines!    


After months of warning everyone that the latest round of No Child Left Behind test scores would be terrible because Tennessee has adopted tougher national standards, it appears that maybe not so much.

According to an on-line TENNESSEAN article (January 7), 89% of Tennessee schools are not in the failing category and the number of individual schools that are failing rose only from 144 to 186.

However, for Metro Schools, after making progress last year, it appears the system has come up short again, primarily because some sub-groups of students (such as English Language learners) are struggling. That could raise the specter of state government taking over a bigger role. But a decision on that will apparently have to wait until Metro and 14 other school districts in the state find out if they win an appeal over their scores and get a wavier because of the disruption of classes due to the major floods last May.

Also interesting to note is the reaction of Nashville Mayor Karl Dean to the test results. Earlier in his term, he appeared ready, willing and able to try and get the state to let his office take over control of local public schools. But in a statement, the Mayor now seems much more upbeat about the current condition of the schools. The statement praises the progress that has been made in increasing  graduation rates and cutting back on the number of dropouts. As for the leadership of the schools the statement says: "Dr. (Jesse) Register (Metro Schools Director) and his team have …embraced reform measures, and they have been good stewards of the additional funds we have made available for our public schools during very difficult budget years."

The Mayor adds in his statement that while there are "plenty of serious challenges that we still must face…we should celebrate these significant milestones (higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates) and acknowledge that we can turn the ship when our entire community rallies behind our public schools."

And for now, it appears the Mayor no longer seems quite as intent on operating control of that "ship of public education" himself through his office.


One issue, especially for Mayor Dean, that did not take some time off over the holidays was the fight over the future of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds.

In anticipation of another emotional night at the Metro Council on January 18 when it considers legislation to tear down the Nashville Raceway located at the Fairgrounds, some Metro council members are coming together over coffee and doughnuts Saturday morning (January 8) to try and facilitate (according to an article in THE CITY PAPER, January 7) "genuine dialogue—producing new ideas or even compromise regarding fairgrounds legislation."

Former Councilman Jim Schulman will act as moderator and good luck to him. He is really going to need it getting into the middle of this political fight. While the Dean administration denied it, racetrack supporters were angered in recent days when a request for proposal from the city surfaced that some say already assumes the Council will approve tearing down the track to build a new park.

The Fairgrounds controversy, pro and con, also seemed to dominant almost all the calls during the Mayor's most recent appearance on Open Line on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS last week.

It even appears to be splitting the Council. One member, Mike Jamison, was quoted in the CITY PAPER story as saying: "I can't say the level of rancor is at an all-time high. Certainly we're not screaming at each other on the floor. But there is a level of contempt between council members that I've not seen before. And there are quite likely individual council members and various factions that simply aren't talking to each other at all."

Ought to a really fun Saturday morning at the meeting held at the Fulton campus on 2nd Avenue South…and it looks like the full Council meeting on January 18, which includes another public hearing, will be another hot evening at City Hall.


When the big recent snowstorm around Christmas time buried New York City and the New Jersey area, all the complaints about slow response to clear streets and pick up garbage reminded me of an important political truism.

When a snowstorm or other natural disaster occurs (such as our floods last May) the response by local government can make you or break you politically if you are an elected official. It is clearly one of the reasons for Mayor Dean's current high approval ratings and winning annual awards such as TENNESSEAN OF THE YEAR.

He and his team at Metro did a great job.  

But that hasn't always happened in Nashville history and one in particular involved the great Blizzard of January, 1951. The storm was so bad the buses didn't run, power went out and the city all but shut down completely. Nashville Mayor Tom Cummings was also out of the city vacationing in of all places…..Florida! Communications and travel time are not what they are today, so the Mayor had difficulty showing leadership so many miles from home.

Public outcry was strong, even THE TENNESSEAN had an editorial cartoon that read "where was Tom when the lights went out? Down in Florida with his shirt tail out."

It also happened that Mayor Cummings was up for re-election the very next year in 1952. He lost to Ben West and the snowstorm response clearly played a role.           

So, like the Boy Scouts, be prepared with those emergency plans and if you go out of town, stay in close touch. Your re-election likely depends on it.