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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, February 4, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, February 4, 2011

CREATED Feb 4, 2011

CAPITOL VIEW

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

February 4, 2011

BUDGET TIME; HOW LONG?; THE MAYOR'S RACE; COUNCIL TRAINING; HEALTH CARE REDO; PUT A CORKER ON FEDERAL SPENDING; CONGRESSMAN COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS

He's been talking about it for well over a year.

But these past few days new Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has been receiving an up-close and personal view of what it could really mean to cut approximately $1 billion out of the state's operating budget beginning in July.

One of the traditions begun by former Governor Phil Bredesen, which Governor Haslam is keeping, is open budget hearings. That's where state commissioners and their staff come forth publicly to outline how they plan to spend the money they are allocated. For several years they've had to cut back. Even last year with millions in federal stimulus dollars, cuts were made in many areas. But those Washington funds are now just about gone, so it is back to the budget chopping block again.

This year state departments and agencies are being asked to look at cuts of about another 2-3%. This is where the rubber meets the road, and while clearly some of the cuts being outlined during the hearings may be offered more for their political impact than the reality of what would be eliminated, it is pretty clear that some pain, or at least inconvenience, will be involved. That includes still longer lines to get your driver's license, fewer state troopers on the road, health clinics and other programs cut back. And that's not to mention, further cuts in the TennCare health program.

Given all the controversy and push-back that is sure to come (such as what happened to Governor Bredesen when he made similar changes) why cut TennCare more? Well, like the criminal said about why he robs banks, that's where the money is? I doubt the state could get to a billion dollar cutback without further reductions in TennCare services. After all, many of these cuts would have been made last year with additional federal funds making up the difference.

Not surprisingly Governor Haslam is cagey about what exactly he will cut in the budget he submits to the General Assembly. He does say that despite the recent rise in the state's monthly tax revenue collections, he does believe cuts will still be necessary. He also continues to say he does not believe there will be a need for "wholesale" layoffs to balance the budget. But hearing some of the discussions during the budget hearings it is pretty clear that some jobs will have to go.

Normally the Governor makes his State of the State Address and submits his budget in late January or early February. But because of a new administration coming on board state lawmaker usually give the new team more time to get organized. So Governor Haslam will make his address and submit his spending plan in March. By the way, I am told by at least one reliable source that there was a request for still more time before submitting the budget, but legislative leaders said no.

With Governor Haslam still hiring staff and looking to permanently fill some cabinet posts, he will likely need all the time he can find to put together his budget. It won't be easy that's for sure. There are always unexpected consequences which the Governor has already learned when after he announced a 45-day freeze on any new state rules and regulations as a part of his "top-to-bottom" review of state government. Now he's learned, apparently from media reports, that his executive order would stop a proposed environmental rule (regarding double-walled underground fuel tanks) that would potentially impact his family business Pilot Oil.

Apparently, this was something the new Governor didn't see or know would happen, but that's what being the man-in-charge can mean sometimes. And that could be true as well trying to balance a budget that is still over a billion dollars in the hole for next year.

HOW LONG?

There are many in the GOP leadership in the General Assembly (new Speaker Beth Harwell comes to mind) who would like lawmakers to match their rhetoric of making state government smaller and more efficient by making this session of the Legislature shorter and more productive.

They'd like to get done as early as sometime in April if possible, passing the budget (required), a "jobs package,"(with recommendations coming from Governor Haslam, and some other education reform proposals (tenure) and then go home.

Given past history, that could be a tough timetable to meet. With the later start for the State of the State and the budget, in years past that would automatically mean an adjournment date of late May or even early June. Maybe with the Republicans in full control, they can show "they know how to govern" and shorten their time in Nashville. But given some of the controversial bills I've seen filed that could be a problem. And don't forget there's redistricting to get done and that could get sticky trying to keep 64 incumbents happy. Putting the issue off until 2012 is possible I suppose, but it might make things even more problematic and very much in a time crunch for next year's elections.

And then there are other perennial issues that could need further attention this year. Take for example, the "wine in grocery stores" bill. It's been a topic of media and legislative debate for the past five years or so, but hasn't ever gotten serious consideration for final approval. Now supporters are pushing a new study they've commissioned which shows that allowing wine in grocery stores would mean the state's wine market would grow substantially, generating between $19 to $38 million in new taxes and license fees for state and local government and creating up to 3,500 jobs.

Opponents in the liquor industry says that just can't be true, that all wine in grocery stores will do is shift market share and lead them to have lay off their own employees. They also raise the issue of whether the change will increase underage sales to minors. That last point is likely a stretch, but, given strong public opinion numbers supporting the convenience of buying wine at the grocery, this could be the year the bill makes a move. After all, what's left to study for another summer in a special legislative committee?  Also there are now fewer legislative sub-committees to deep six the bill in the House. But the liquor lobby in the state has been a very powerful one for many years on the Hill. Will that change under Republican control? We may be about to find out this session.    

MAYOR'S RACE

Well, so far here in Nashville, with the qualifying deadline and the August election now just a few months away, there isn't much of a race to be Nashville's next mayor.

The incumbent, Karl Dean, despite his recent political difficulties surrounding the State Fairgrounds, appears to be in a very strong position to win a second four-year term. He already has over $400,000 in campaign coffers to support his re-election efforts.. That's in addition to his personal family wealth which he can employ, if needed, as he did four years ago when he was first elected mayor. 

But in the wake of the Fairgrounds issue and lingering unhappiness among some (particularly in the Metro Council) about the Music City Center project, according to THE CITY PAPER (2/2), two council members are assessing whether to take on the incumbent mayor.

Both Eric Crafton and Michael Craddock say they are being urged to run, and are assessing the field. It is likely (and certainly politically prudent) that only one of them will do so (otherwise they would split any anti-Dean vote). Frankly, despite both of them being term-limited in the Council, it is also very possible neither of them will jump into the field. Both will certainly have to do a lot better than their last county wide races when both of them were crushed at the polls in seeking other offices (Craddock for Criminal Court Clerk and Crafton for Juvenile Court Clerk).  Crafton has some other political baggage too after Mayor Dean and other city leaders soundly defeated his "English-Only" referendum back in 2008. 

But even if they don't run, both men seem to want to see the Mayor challenged. Says Crafton: "There may be a candidate that pops up shortly who is well-funded, articulate and able to talk about the issues."

OK, who is that? Does he or she actually exist, or is that just wishful thinking by Councilman Crafton? We've just got a few more weeks to find out before qualifying petitions are available. By the way, you can already name a treasurer and start raising money, which I strongly suggest anyone seeking to take on the Mayor start doing immediately, unless they plan to almost completely self-fund their campaign. And if they do, they need to bring a really big, full wallet.           

COUNCIL TRAINING

While the mayor's race may be a snoozer, several of the races for the 35 district Metro Council seats could be quite active and interesting.

Even though the contests are done on a non-partisan basis (no one runs with a party affiliation) the Davidson County Republican Party is becoming active in this area, sponsoring a "Running for the Metro Council Workshop" this Saturday (February 5) at the Hampton Inn in Green Hills.

Several current council members and other Metro-related officials will be present to give their advice to potential candidates on such topics as: Doing the job of a Council member; Major Issues for the 2011-15 Term; and, What the Metro Council is NOT. There will also be a discussion including a lobbyist and community activist concerning Working with the Council-- from the outside perspective.

These are very important matters that certainly could help potential Council candidates get a better idea of what they are about to get into during their campaign and if they are elected.

I think it's a good program, even though I am sure Democratic activists in Davidson County will see something sinister afoot here as the GOP seeks to broaden its influence in what is a traditionally very strong Democratic part of the state.   

 HEALTH CARE REDO

The new national health care law passed last year by a Democratic Congress continues to be a major focus in Washington and a leading campaign issue in both parties for the 2012 election cycle.

Republicans, who now control the House of Representatives, want to repeal the law in its entirety, but, not surprisingly, that effort fell 13 votes short a few days ago to get the still-Democratically controlled Senate to go along.

Meantime the health care repeal fight is also raging in the federal courts. So far, the decisions rendered in the lower district courts have been split: 2 in favor of the constitutionality of the new law, 2 saying it is unconstitutional, especially the part of the law that mandates individuals buy health insurance (and businesses provide it) or face a fine.

The latest decision, issued in recent days, came down against the new law, giving Republicans renewed energy to fight on, despite the setback in the Senate. That's especially true since the court ruling out of Florida, threw out the entire law as unconstitutional. The reason for that is because lawmakers did not put in a severability clause. That kind of language (which is added to a lot of bills) says that it is the legislative intent that if one part of the law is found invalid, the whole law is not just automatically thrown out.

Some lawmakers would now like to cut to the chase on this matter. There is a resolution now being offered in the Senate asking the U.S. Supreme Court to go ahead and take jurisdiction of these cases and issue its own final decision about the issue. This is a move fraught with political peril for both parties. While some clarity on this matter would seem to be helpful, deciding the issue could well take it off the agenda in many ways for the 2012 elections. Besides, looking back at history, you can never tell for sure what the Supreme Court might rule.

Will it be another 5-4 decision, and who would be the swing vote or votes? Many court observers could possibly see a tilt to nullifying the new law given past court decisions and voting patterns. But then there's the perennial swing vote on the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy. It could also come down to how quickly the Court takes up the case and what the composition of the Court is when it gets there.

 President Barack Obama's two Supreme Court appointments so far have not changed the philosophical balance on the court. The next one could, depending on who might step down or leave. And that might take the health care issue back to the Senate in the debate over the confirmation of a new Justice. Just something to think about as this health care controversy continues to rage.

Also raging back in Congress is criticism by national and state Democrats leveled against some of Tennessee's new GOP House members (Scott Dejarlais and Steven Fincher) for indicating on the campaign trail they would not accept the congressional health insurance plan, but have now signed up for coverage.  

PUT A CORKER ON FEDERAL SPENDING

As he said he would when he was my guest on INSIDE POLITICS a couple of weeks ago, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker has resubmitted legislation (with a Democratic co-sponsor, Missouri's Claire McCaskill) to put a cap on federal spending. The "Commitment to American Prosperity Act" or "The CAP Act" would (according to a news release from Senator Corker's office "put in place a 10-year glide path to cap all spending—discretionary and mandatory—to a declining percentage of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), eventually bringing spending down from the current level, 24.7% of GDP, to the historical level of 20.6%.

The bill does allow for emergency spending under rules spelled out in the proposal. It also allows any spending if a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate OK that. Otherwise under the bill, if Congress exceeds the cap, the Office of Management and Budget would be authorized to make evenly distributed, simultaneous cuts throughout the federal budget.

So far, news coverage and political reaction has been somewhat favorable, Senator Corker's colleague, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander has signed on as a co-sponsor and Nashville's Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper has told reporters (WPLN) that "sounds like a good idea." (more on Cooper later).

But not all the reaction has been positive. The Senate Democratic Majority Leader says he won't support any bill that cuts Social Security. So that seems to make it much more difficult to get the bill through the upper chamber.

All this could be the prelude to a major money battle coming later this spring when there is likely to be a need to raise the country's debt ceiling or borrowing limit. Many Republicans say they will not vote to raise the limits without a real commitment to cutting spending. A failure to raise the debt ceiling could put the nation in default (for the first time in history) and/or shut down the government. So there is potentially a lot at stake with Senator Corker's new bill.  

COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS

Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper is my guest this weekend on INSIDE POLITICS. There's, of course, lots to discuss with so many issues now in prominence including national health care, cutting the deficit, the situation in Egypt and future politics in Tennessee. When you tune in, towards the end of the show, you will also learn there is another Cooper getting into politics campus-style these days over in North Carolina. 

You can see INSIDE POLITCS several times each weekend on THE NEWCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes being on the main channel, WTVF-TV, Channel 5 on Sunday morning (February 6) at 5 a.m. We are also on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS which can be seen on Comcast & Charter cable systems on channel 250 and on Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. Our air times on the PLUS are at 7:00 p.m. Friday (February 4), Saturday (February 5) at 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. and Sunday (February 6) at 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.