Capitol View Commentary: January 28, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: January 28, 2011

CREATED Jan 28, 2011

CAPITOL VIEW

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

January 28, 2011

TEACHER FIGHTS; LOBBYING; THE HALL INCOME TAX; INSIDE POLITICS; THE POWER OF HUMOR; THE POLICY; A CHANGING POINT; BUDGET SYMBOLISM

It must a somewhat confusing and unsettling time for teachers in Tennessee.

On the one hand, they hear President Barack Obama saying in his State of The Union address how important teachers are to the future of our nation and how Congress ought to "invest" (spend) the money to train 100,000 new science, technology, and math teachers across the country. The President seems to believe this is so important he even made a direct, personal appeal during his remarks urging talented young people to strongly consider entering the education field.

Meanwhile here in Tennessee, some teachers may not be feeling that same kind of love from our new Republican Governor and General Assembly. Governor Bill Haslam says he and GOP lawmakers are not "anti-teacher" (as some charge) because they want to change the rules and make it harder for educators to gain the job security of tenure and to allow more charter schools. On tenure, the Governor reasons other professionals such as doctors and lawyers don't have tenure, so why should teachers? And as for charter schools, he believes choice and competition are good things to improve educational achievement in the state.

Educators have long felt that tenure is a good way to attract and keep good teachers and keep them out of politics and political pressures. They are also not sure that charter schools can maintain the standards needed to provide a good education. They also have concerns about proposals in the General Assembly that would prohibit local governments from going through collective bargaining with teacher associations (unions) to set salaries, benefits, working conditions and job discipline.      

 Supporters of that change don't believe government employees ought to have collective bargaining rights and they think local school boards are best equipped to make decisions about pay and benefits. On the other side, teacher association (union) leaders argue that teacher pay and benefits will drop if collective bargaining is removed, and that will hurt education in the state.

The disagreement you see and hear about collective bargaining and government workers goes beyond the field of education. There is also new legislation being introduced (by GOP Representative Glen Casada and Republican Senator Bill Ketron)that would make it a Class C misdemeanor for any labor organization in Tennessee to contribute to political candidates.

Now I can understand legislation which has been talked about for some years to ban union dues from being used for political contribution, but a criminalizing any candidate contributions? Can this be constitutional, especially in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling that seems to allow unlimited political contributions by both labor and business groups.

Now I have no idea how seriously this proposal will be considered this term. But with two prominent GOP sponsors and Republicans completely controlling the State House, the State Senate and the Governor's office, all these proposals about tenure, more charter schools, collective bargaining and no political contributions have to be considered very seriously given the strong one-party control we now have in Tennessee. That's what elections mean and Tennessee is a very strong Republican state these days and whatever that party decides to do politically, can, and likely will be done.

Teachers' union representatives had their moments of disagreement with Governor Phil Bredesen and Democratically-controlled legislatures in the past. But those will seem like picnics in the park compared to the issues coming to the fore for them now. 

LOBBYING

Lobbyists have quickly figured out how things have changed. That is why you see new public affairs and government affairs groups being formed and existing ones merging together to better represent clients. That is why you will see more lobbyists on the Hill with strong GOP connections. Their political ship has come in, big time!

Box office helps too, especially when you can combine GOP credentials to go with that. But usually lobbyists prefer to be somewhat low profile. They want their work to be to help their clients, not have it get in the way. And that could be an issue perhaps for former U.S. Senator, actor and TV and movie star Fred Thompson who is now going to work to represent the Tennessee Association for Justice.

It is not likely that the former Senator will be able to ease around the Capitol without being seen or attracting attention because nobody knows who he is or what he looks like. But it also likely he won't have trouble getting in to see anyone on Capitol Hill to help make his case for his client. Besides, from his time in Washington, Thompson knows his way around politics more than a little bit. And as good as he has been with a TV or movie script, delivering and selling talking points for a client should be a natural thing for him to do.

THE HALL INCOME TAX

You may have found it a bit strange that with lawmakers returning to the Capitol facing a $1 billion dollar-plus budget deficit that leaders, in both parties, would be talking about cutting and perhaps even eliminating a tax.

It's the Hall Income Tax levied on dividends from stocks and bonds. Of course no elected official in Tennessee is supposed to like any kind of income tax, so why not be for getting rid of it, right? And besides they argue, the Hall Tax is a burden on seniors who often live off the money from stocks and bonds and other investments. And that is also a discouragement for people to come to Tennessee to retire.

All good reasons I suppose to discuss the idea of increasing how much income to the exempt from the tax or to get rid of it all together over time. But here is another reason to think about why state lawmakers don't seem all that much concerned about reducing or eliminating a tax during a budget crisis.

According to a recent Associated Press article by Erik Schelzig the Hall Income Tax generated $172 million last year. But the largest share of it went not to the state, but to local governments ($62 million), particularly those in well-off communities such as Belle Meade here in Nashville and Lookout Mountain in Hamilton County. In his article, Schelzig talked with local officials there who indicated the reduction or elimination of the Hall Tax would be devastating for them and would likely force higher property taxes to compensate for the loss.

I am sure these local officials will make their concerns known to their representatives and then we will see how truly committed they are to making this change to Tennessee's one and only tax on income.

INSIDE POLITICS

To provide some analysis of the President's State of the Union address and other hot political topics both in Washington and Tennessee, we've asked the two state party chairs to join us on INSIDE POLITICS. That would be Chip Forrester the head of the Tennessee Democratic Party and Chris Delany the head of the Republican Party in the state. Both have been recently re-elected to their posts, although it was a much tougher job for Forrester given the major Democratic losses in both the Legislature and the Tennessee congressional delegation.

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes airing at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning (January 30) on the main channel, WTVF-TV, Channel 5.

We are also on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS seen on Comcast and Charter cable channels 250 as well as Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. Our air times on THE PLUS are 7:00 p.m. Friday (January 28), Saturday (January 29) at 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m., and Sunday (January 30) at 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. 

THE POWER OF HUMOR

During his State of the Union speech, President Obama used a little humor to make a point about how the federal government needs to re-organized. He pointed out how many different federal agencies have jurisdiction over salmon.  "The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they are in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in salt water," said the President. "I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked," a remark which brought big laughs from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle (and no matter where they sat).

And it wasn't just lawmakers it made an impression on. National Public Radio asked their listeners to describe his speech in three words. More than 4,000 folks responded. After the words were run through a cloud generator, the largest-size word that emerged: Salmon!

It shows how the carefully-controlled and thought-out use of a story or humor in a speech or presentation can make a lasting impact on everyone who hears it. Even if it is something of a fish story.     

 THE POLICY

After months of public scrutiny and nationwide controversy over the departure of its women's soccer coach, Belmont University officials have announced its Board of Trust has added sexual orientation to the school's nondiscrimination policy.

They say the Christian school is merely putting into writing what Belmont has always practiced. Others have not been so sure about that. And the way the school tried to explain the new policy change is likely add some further doubts for some.

When asked if this means Belmont would employ or hire an openly gay person, a Belmont official said they wouldn't answer "hypothetical questions." Well, if you've changed your policy to add sexual orientation to your school's nondiscrimination policy, I am not so sure the question is hypothetical.

I believe the better answer might be to say: "Sexual orientation is part of our school's nondiscrimination policy. We follow our policies."  After saying that perhaps then you can decline to get into all the different scenarios that might happen. But if you won't say clearly that this is your policy and you follow your policies, you look like you're hedging, which is not a good thing when you have already been in the pr hot seat. 

 As for the coach involved, who left after telling school officials that she and her same sex partner were having a baby, in the light of Belmont's announcement, she says that despite all the hurt and sacrifice required to reach this point, she sees this as "significant change" and that in her opinion, "everyone is a winner today."

With its future abilities in question to attract another presidential debate or future grant funding from some sources, Belmont can only hope that their former coach is right and that this announcement is the beginning of the end of this controversy.

But, of course, for Metro Government, it is not over. In the wake of the Belmont situation, legislation has been filed (and is up for debate at its next meeting in February) to expand the city's nondiscrimination policy to require anyone doing business with the city to adopt a similar stance. It passed on a rare and relatively close on first-reading and more political sparks are likely to fly when it comes up again for debate in a few days.

A CHANGING POINT

As I write these words, Tennessee Titan fans all over Nashville and the entire state of Tennessee are in a state of shock that long-time coach Jeff Fisher won't be returning next season. It was just a few weeks ago, after a disappointing season, that it was announced that Fisher, the dean of National Football League coaches, would be returning for the final season of his current contract.

In doing so, the team also announced that quarterback Vince Young, who has been feuding with Fisher, would not be returning.

So what happened? And what happens now? Everyone is still waiting for some explanations, and to find out if a new league-wide labor agreement will be approved so there will even be a season next fall.

For now all the former Coach will say is that he is "tired and… needs to take a rest." Perhaps he got tired because as possible lame duck with just one season left, he realized he was losing his good assistant coaches to other teams and would struggle to get quality replacements. 

This is the first time since major league pro sports came to Nashville in the late 1990s that one of our head coaches has departed. Both Fisher and Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators NHL hockey team have been remarkable in their abilities to be successful enough to stay in positions where you are always hired to be fired, and many times sooner rather than later.

No doubt as the back story on how all this comes out and the rumor mill goes into overdrive, it will create lots of news and probably more controversy. It is an unfortunate, but inevitable part of Nashville's coming-of-age as a professional sports city.

BUDGET SYMBOLISM

 I mentioned earlier in the column that the President wants the Congress to approve the funds to train thousands of new teachers. "Investments" he called them, and used that phrase in describing several other proposals he recommended during his State of the Union remarks.

Given the big new Republican majorities in the House of Representatives, very little if any of what the President asked for is likely to happen. In fact with the national deficit now predicted to reach a record $1.5 trillion dollars and Social Security going broke even sooner than expected, it appears everyone in Washington may need to pick up their efforts to right our financial ship.

The President has recommended a 5 year freeze on discretionary federal spending, but that seems too little too late to the Republicans. They are pushing a resolution that would cut federal spending back to 2008 levels. But their plan is non-binding and non-specific, meaning exactly what would be cut is not clear and not decided.

Symbolism is the order of the day in Washington, from health care repeal to how representatives of both parties sat together during the State of the Union. But very soon now it is time to move beyond symbols to the real, very hard work of deciding what we are going to cut from the budget both now and in the future, and what we are going to continue to do and at what levels.

It is going to be a very political bloody and messy fight, but it has to be done, and the latest numbers on the deficit and Social Security indicate it must be done now.

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