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Capitol View Commentary: February 18, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: February 18, 2011

CREATED Feb 18, 2011

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

February 18, 2011

NON-DISCRIMINATION EXTENSION TO WAIT A MONTH; FANTASY POLLING; DISCLOSURE ISSUE HIDES DEEPER FIGHT; HEALTH CARE WARS; TEACHER WARS; REDISTRICT NOW?; THE ENTITLEMENT BUDGET GAME; ROASTING LAMAR; THE EGPYT EFFECT ON INSIDE POLITICS

The Metro Council chambers at the Courthouse were crowded once again last Tuesday evening (February 15) as city leaders continued to handle yet another controversial issue. That's something rare in most election years, but not this time around.

The Council voted 21-16 to make it illegal for companies that do business with the city to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. There is one more vote to come…and that won't be taken until the Ides of March (March 15). That's long time to hold all that support for a final consideration.

Remember, supporters will need to hold all the votes they got Tuesday night. The bill fails on third and final reading if it doesn't get at least 21. So, now that most council members have put their political cards on the table (a couple abstained from voting), you can look for both sides, but particularly the opponents of the bill, to begin to target their efforts intensely to pick off a few of the yes votes. Remember, they may only need one to defect to defeat the measure.

Normally, a third and final vote comes within two weeks of a second reading consideration. But the Council's calendar keeps that from happening this time. For many years, the Council, by rule, has only considered zoning bills on public hearing the first Tuesday night in every odd-numbered month, so the final vote on the non-discrimination bill won't come March 1, but March 15 instead.

The opposition to the non-discrimination bill has come primarily from some in the religious community and from business organizations such as the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.  The Chamber is concerned about the bill being an unneeded interference into the private workplace. It advocated, unsuccessfully, for a deferral of the matter for more study. Some of the Council meanwhile spoke out against the bill because it would be an endorsement of a lifestyle they believe is wrong.

Interestingly, those with religious qualms seemed to get their way because the council amended the bills to exempt religious organizations, something which could strengthen the chances of the bill passing on third reading. However, opponents may still have a trump card on Capitol Hill in Nashville where state lawmakers, such as GOP Representative Glenn Casada, are pushing through legislation that would ban local governments from adopting such laws. And given the large, conservative majority in the General Assembly, I'd say there's a very good chance the ban will pass in the Legislature negating Metro's effort, if it passes March 15 and is signed into law by Mayor Karl Dean.

FANTASY POLLING

When I saw some 2012 election polling regarding Tennessee U.S. Senator Bob Corker the other day, it reminded me of fantasy baseball games that can be played on computers, where say the 1927 Yankees can square off against last year's World Series champion, or some other hypothetical matchups.

OK, I will admit baseball is already on my mind because pitcher and catchers are now reporting to spring training in Florida and Arizona. But here's what I mean.

The pollster (Public Policy Polling) pits the incumbent Senator against former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen. Bredesen comes out on top (46%-41%). It's a very interesting result, right? Yes, but, unless he suddenly changes his mind, Mr. Bredesen has made it clear he is not interested in the running for the Senate.

So it is probable this matchup will remain completely hypothetical for Tennessee Democrats, and that's too bad for them because the other head-to-head matchups the pollster tried were not good ones for their party at all, even though some are even less likely to come to pass than the Corker-Bredesen contest.

How about Bob Corker versus Al Gore? The poll says it would be Corker rather easily, 53% to 38%. What about a re-match with Harold Ford, Jr. (who doesn't even live in Tennessee anymore)? The poll says Corker easily this time 55%-32%.

The poll also matches the junior Senator against Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper (even though Cooper made it very clear to me on INSIDE POLITICS a couple of weeks ago that he is only interested in staying the House). But could he beat Corker? The poll matchup says no, 50%-28%. The same is true for former Congressman Bart Gordon who recently retired from office. The poll came out, 52%-29%, Corker. Even country music superstar, Tim McGraw, who has talked about running statewide some day, shows that, for now, he is not very "country strong" versus Corker, trailing 50%-28%.

Now, before everyone starts saying that if some of these folks got in the field and started campaigning for office, they could narrow the gap against Senator Corker. That could well be true. But it also true that, at least for now, not a one of these guys is showing any interest in making a 2012 race.

What's most interesting about Senator Corker's re-election is what we have discussed before several times in this column. Is he vulnerable to a primary challenge? A second poll released by Public Policy Polling indicates he might be, although again, no candidate seems to be appearing on the horizon to make that a strong possibility.

The Public Policy survey asks the question: "If the Republican primary for Senate next year was between Bob Corker and a more conservative challenger, who would you vote for?" The responses show the unidentified "more conservative challenger" would get the support of 43% of respondents, while Senator Corker gets just 38%.

Wow! So is Corker in trouble? Maybe, but  his overall job approval rating in the poll is 60% with just 19% disapproving, and while 23% say he is too liberal, 55% say he is "about right" in his views.

Also, so far, there doesn't appear to be "a more conservative candidate" emerging to make a primary challenge. The Public Policy Polling group pitted Senator Corker against both Congressman Marsha Blackburn (a plausible, but I think unlikely pairing) along with country music superstar Hank Williams, Jr. Corker easily defeats them both (50%-30% over Blackburn and 66%-13% over Williams, who may be ready for some football, but maybe not for politics).

For now, Senator Corker remains a strong favorite to win re-election, but this is something to watch as several Tea Party activists don't seem to like him and I think are likely to continue to assess the opportunity (if they can find a viable candidate) to take him on in the 2012 GOP primary.

DISCLOSURE ISSUE HIDES DEEPER FIGHT

While many of the recent headlines coming out of the Metro Courthouse revolve around some disclosure issues and potential conflicts of interest charges involving Finance Director Rich Riebeling, there is a deeper conflict going on here as well.

As soon as questions were raised in a TENNESSEAN story (February 14), supporters of the Fairgrounds Raceway (who have been feuding for months with Riebeling and his boss, Mayor Karl Dean) were quick to seize the issue and file a complaint saying (according to a story on WPLN, February 15) that "Riebeling intentionally withheld his involvement with two companies doing business with the city." I will be very interested to see if there is any hard evidence to prove that charge. Nothing concrete has come forth in the media so far. In fact, what has been reported seems to indicate there has been no real conflict or that anything wrong has occurred.  

But those filing this complaint against the Finance Director sure seem to know how to go about it. Normally, the Metro board which received the charges only handles complaints against elected officials or members of the city's many boards and commissions. As a Metro department head, you would not think that would include Riebeling. But because as Finance Director, Riebeling serves on a couple of Metro boards, such as the Employee Benefit Board and the Audit Committee, he is covered.

And you can bet those who have filed these complaints will do what they can to publicly pursue this matter in the weeks to come. It is a something of a puzzle to me that a long-time political and business professional such as Rich Riebeling would get himself in this kind of a predicament over filing proper paperwork. It is to his credit that he has now re-filed his disclosure papers covering the last four years, even though that took several days to do and left him somewhat in limbo during that time.

It left his boss, Mayor Dean, rather uncomfortable, having to tell reporters that he believes Riebeling is the right man for the job of being Finance Director but adding: "I have confidence in him, but he needs to get this right, and he knows my feelings about it."  Riebeling has now done that, but with the complaint still pending before the Metro oversight board, this matter may not go away very quickly.    

The Riebeling issue is the latest of several matters likely irritating the Mayor a bit these days. That includes the imminent entry of outgoing Councilman Mike Craddock, who is running against Dean's re-election effort. It is not expected that Craddock can raise the money and support it would take to beat the Mayor, but you can be sure Craddock will try and take any advantage he can of missteps by the Dean Administration and/or ongoing controversies such as the Fairgrounds.

But none of this seems to have made the Mayor timid in any way. To continue to attract and keep jobs in Nashville/Davidson County, he has convinced the Metro Council to offer financial incentives to the Asurion Corporation (full disclosure: a past DVL client) to create new jobs and keep others in this community rather than them moving elsewhere (such as a surrounding county). These incentives are similar to ones given some years ago by the administration of then-Mayor Phil Bredesen, and they didn't always work out as expected. But Mayor Dean has convinced the Council to try it again, in order to get and keep needed jobs here in Nashville.

The Mayor has also re-energized a plan to work with Hospital Corporation of America to do a land swap near Centennial Park that will also gain Metro a new public health clinic and administrative offices for the Metro Health Department.

In some ways this reminds me of a somewhat similar project in this same part of town during the administration of Mayor Richard Fulton (full disclosure: I worked on this project in the Mayor's office back then) which resulted in another land swap in return for Metro getting the Centennial Sportsplex which has served our city well for nearly 25 years. Now I am sure some in the Council (which must still approve the plan) will raise questions about some of the tax breaks and paybacks to HCA involved with the land swap and the construction of the new Public Health center. But it is a bold plan that, at first blush, appears to maximize the city's assets and offers a major win-win for HCA and the city, both now and in the future.

HEALTH CARE WARS

The battle over the new national health care law continues in Tennessee. Last week, GOP Senate leaders talked about passing legislation to create "a covenant" with other states to ask the federal government to let them run their own health care systems within their borders. That probably has almost no chance of ever happening, but it is another effort by Republican lawmakers to show their supporters they are trying to do something to stop "Obamacare."

Now legislative leaders are going back to another tactic they tried last year, but failed to pass. That would be a law, already adopted in some states, to "opt out" of the new national health care law. Again, the ultimately likelihood or legality of that remains to be seen, but there is a real likelihood this year that both houses of the General Assembly will approve this bill given the large majorities they now hold in both chambers of the Legislature. Frankly it should have passed last year, but two rival GOP lawmakers, running against each other for the State Senate, could not reach compromise wording to amend the measure, and so it died in the final hours of the session.

By the way, the Obama administration has announced that Tennessee is one of only four states it is granting waivers which allow health insurance companies to provide lower benefit plans. But somehow I doubt this is the kind of change in the national health care law the Republicans in the Legislature are really interested in, and of course, other states are now asking for the same treatment.

Most observers believe that our health care war will not be finally settled until law suits challenging the constitutionality of the new act reach the U.S. Supreme Court. In that regard, Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis has joined 84 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives asking conservative Justice Clarence Thomas to recuse himself from the matter.

They claim Justice Thomas has a conflict of interest, particularly because the claim his wife draws a $689,000-plus salary from a group which they call "a prominent opponent of health care reform."

Given how close the decision on this case might be (5-4 or 6-3), what Justice Thomas decides (it would seem highly unlikely to me he would recuse himself), could tilt the case one way or another.

TEACHER WARS

The political war between many of Tennessee's teachers and the Republicans who dominate the General Assembly continues to gain in intensity. This comes as Governor Bill Haslam begins to outline his legislative priorities in the areas of K-12 education.

 The Governor wants to make it harder for teachers to get and keep tenure, requiring the waiting period go from three years to five years of service, and he wants a tougher performance review process before tenure job protection is granted as well as tougher reviews after tenure is granted.  The Governor also wants to remove the current cap on the number of charter schools and open up their enrollments to all students, not just at-risk children.

The governor believes this will continue the state's momentum from the Race-To-The-Top victory it had last year, pumping millions of federal dollars into the state and making Tennessee a leader in education reform. But his tenure and charter school proposals are bound to raise the concern and maybe even the ire of some teachers and their leaders. These new bills will add to the deeper concerns they already have over other legislation now moving quickly through the General Assembly to repeal the right to  collective bargaining for teachers with local school boards.

Like the Governor, those proposing this end to collective bargaining say it will open up and bring needed reform to the state's education system. Leaders of the Tennessee Education Association say the collective bargaining bill is just an effort to put their organization out of business and get political revenge because TEA has not supported Republican candidates.

Nevertheless, elections do have consequences and while teachers filled the Legislative Plaza the other day to oppose the bill, it appears the collective bargaining measure is headed towards easy approval, first in the Senate as well as the House soon after. The Governor's tenure and charter schools are likely headed to easy approval as well.

But here's a question? In other states where legislation to remove collective bargaining rights from public employees is being fiercely debated, the Democratic members (who are also in the minority) are fighting the bill by walking out and keeping the legislature from acting because of a lack of a quorum. Is that under consideration by Democrats here over the ban on teacher collective bargaining? Just asking…

On another legislative topic, it appears that while there won't be a single omnibus immigration bill, there will be at least three major bills that are likely to pass, including one that would be very similar to the very controversial law in Arizona. Republicans meant it where they said they planned to implement their policy agendas in Tennessee once they were elected and took control of the state and the General Assembly.

But why did the omnibus bill idea go away? I am told that business groups are OK on some of the immigration measures, but not so much on others such as the E-Verify program. So putting all the bills together made it harder to get their support, and it was decided that separate bills would be better. 

And so enacting the GOP agenda has begun in earnest and, if the Republicans stay united, it will likely come quite quickly as compared to previous legislative sessions when there was much more politically divided government in Tennessee.           

But that doesn't mean all the GOP leaders are in complete harmony all the time. Governor Haslam's event to unveil his first legislative package was held outside House Speaker Beth Harwell's office. I have never seen a governor come to the Legislative Plaza to do that. Usually such an event is held in his office or one of his executive conference rooms. Does that mean anything, especially that it was held in front of Speaker Harwell's office and not in front of Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey's?

Harwell was a strong supporter of Haslam even during the GOP primary, while Ramsey was one of the new governor's primary opponents. The Governor is not strongly supporting the teacher collective bargaining ban, while the Lt. Governor is pushing it ahead and starting it through the committee system before the governor's education agenda was even unveiled. That has likely muddied up the political waters and perhaps made it more difficult to work with the teachers to get their ultimate support on the tenure and charter school changes Governor Haslam wants. So does that play any role in the somewhat unusual site selection for the announcement of the governor's legislative package? Sticking with his GOP legislators, but making it clear that there is also some political daylight between he and the Lt. Governor? Just wondering….       

REDISTRICT NOW?

When new Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell was my guest on INSIDE POLITICS last week, she made it clear she planned to wait until next year to pass legislation to redistrict the state in line with the results of the recent federal census.

She admits that will make for a very tight timeline next year in order to have everything decided and the new lines drawn in time for the 2012 elections.

But what should be done about redistricting and Metro Nashville?

Our city council elections are this coming August…less than six months away?

If our 35 district lines are not redone until next year (2012) when the state does theirs, you will have some strange situations (such as what happened in the 1991 term of Council), where council members have portions of their districts that they would no longer represent in the future (the election of 2015), while parts of other council members districts would be their voters next time. This is a blueprint for disaster, especially with zoning bills and other controversial matters that cross district lines, making voters feel unrepresented.

But can a redistricting plan based on the new census numbers be pulled together, approved and implemented in time for this year's August elections, especially since the final census numbers won't be available for use until sometime next month? Attorney George Barrett says it can be done because Metro did it before. That was when a similar situation arose in 1971. And it was done without the use of computers and GPS which should expedite the process Barrett says. The prominent Nashville lawyer is threatening a law suit if Metro doesn't comply and already Vice-Mayor Diane Neighbors is calling an informational meeting with planning officials to be held in the Council chambers March 1 to see what is possible expedite the process.

1971 is also the year that Metro moved its elections to this odd-year format rather than holding its city voting with our other elections for state and federal offices. Should Metro move back in order to avoid this issue in the future? After all, this problem is set to reoccur at least every 20 years?

And what about those who are thinking about running for office? Candidate petitions to run for Council are available beginning today (February 18) and many would-be candidates are already out there raising money and support. While they have until May 19 to qualify to run, can we be sure we will know what the new district lines will look like come that date?  

It's a very complicated and very time-sensitive situation for sure….and it could be headed to court.

THE ENTITLEMENT BUDGET GAME      

It is all the rage in Washington…cutting the federal budget to try and decrease the national deficit.

But one important piece is being left out of play so far.

Neither President Barack Obama nor the Republicans in the House of Representatives have come up with a plan to cut the government's entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid). Those programs make up 60% of the federal budget and its cost is growing more and more.

A plan to "cut the budget and decrease the deficit' just won't work if the plan adopted doesn't address this area.

Oh, sure, both parties say they plan to do that very soon. The President says it's part of some bipartisan negotiations he would like to have with the GOP. While the Republicans say they plan to start working their proposals soon in their committees, after they get through hundreds of proposed amendments to cut this year's (non-entitlement) budget by hundreds of billions of dollars to try and get it back to 2008 spending levels. However some of the budget cuts appear more ways to appeal to long time Republican pet peeves about the federal government rather than well-thought out efforts to decrease the deficit.

Why are entitlements being left out?

Plainly, they are way too controversial and both parties are worried if they jump out first, they'll get killed politically….and so both sides wait for longer term budget and deficit debates.

But they can't wait forever as meantime the budget cutting issue is getting tied up with two quickly approaching deadlines. One is in early March when the current budget spending authorizations expire. No action to extend that or pass a final budget for the rest of the fiscal year (until October 1) could mean a government shutdown, which both sides want to talk about (and maybe even threaten a bit) but both sides know that a shutdown would likely be a political disaster for everyone.

Yet, the stakes continue to rise and GOP House Speaker Jon Boehner says he will not accept any stop-gap budget extension until major budget cuts are approved. Democrats are responding with a "where's the jobs?" campaign echoing the words the GOP used last fall to assail President Barack Obama stimulus plan. They say such major cuts being voted on in the House will cause major layoffs to occur and hurt the slowly recovering economy. It is very unlikely the Senate will go along with the House cuts and the President says he will veto them.

Republicans downplay any damage to the economy from their proposed cuts, but this is a difficult situation for the GOP, especially when it own House members don't seem to be completely united about how much and what to cut. Speaker Boehner's comments of "So be it. We're broke" in response to the layoff issue could also make the GOP look insensitive about what would be a real possibilities for thousands of Americans if major cuts occur overnight.     

The other money deadline facing the Congress comes later this spring when the country starts bumping up against its authorized debt limit. Failure to increase it could well mean for the first time in our history, our nation would default on its loans. Ask Ireland or Spain or some other countries in this predicament about what that means and how bad it's been for their nations.

Again both parties are trying to use this deadline to their political advantage, although they both know a default would be a disaster just like a government shutdown. So what's the end game?

I am not sure "there's an app for that' just yet. In fact, as I mentioned before watching the budget cutting fight in the House, the GOP leadership is having some real problems keeping all its members (especially the new ones with Tea Party leanings) together and focused on a strategy of what to cut and what to leave alone. Even Speaker Boehner lost a fight to keep federal funding for a major defense project in his district. 

And, as I mentioned, there's the Senate which must also agree to a budget plan. The House version doesn't seem likely to pass in the upper chamber, leaving a conference committee or the leadership of both Houses to figure out a last minute compromise, but can they sell their members on both sides of the aisle? 

There may be too many variables right now for even one of those new apps to figure this one out.

ROASTING LAMAR

It will come as no surprise to Tennesseans that our senior U.S. Senator (and former governor) Lamar Alexander is quite a piano player. But perhaps the rest of the nation is now getting the word about the Senator's musical (including singing) talents. That is coming after the Senator posted on YOU TUBE, a recent performance he gave to the annual, and usually secret, closed-door gathering of the Washington Alfalfa Club.  

After "nominating" him as their presidential candidate, Senator Alexander went to the piano and gave a Gridiron/Mark Russell-style performance that made fun of just about every major national politician inside or outside the Beltway. It was hilarious. The Alfalfa Club seemed to really love it too, including some remarks in nominating Alexander which came from Senate Minority Leader and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. He told the crowd that Alexander is "not afraid to speak his mind, because he knows nobody is listening", adding that if you enter the word "bland" on Google, a message comes up saying, "Do you mean Lamar Alexander?"

Apparently the Senator was anything but bland at the Alfalfa Club dinner. Someone sent me the YOU TUBE link from THE RELIABLE SOURCE blog site at THE WASHINGTON POST web page. It really made me miss the old Nashville Gridiron Show where for many years we made fun of Mr. Alexander, both as governor and as senator. Giving it back after all these years, must have made him feel pretty good, and he did a great job!   

THE EGYPT EFFECT ON INSIDE POLITICS

What's happened and continues to unfold in Egypt and across the Middle East is politically fascinating and surely historic. While we normally focus on local, state and national politics this weekend on INSIDE POLITICS we bring in Lipscomb University professor Mark Schwerdt to give us his wisdom and insights on this matter.

Will it be historic in the Muslim world on the level of say the French Revolution or the revolutions of 1848 in Europe? What are the ramifications for the United States? For lsrael?  For ongoing terrorist activities? How will the U.S. support efforts to support the creation of democracies, yet see some of its most stalwart allies in the Persia Gulf area possibly ousted from power? And what if those new democracies push for policies that are opposed to us?

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes 5 a.m. Sunday morning on the main channel, WTVF-TV, NEWSCHANNEL5. We are also broadcast several times on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, which can be seen on Comcast & Charter cable channels 250 and on Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel, 5.2. Our air times are 7 p.m. Friday, 5 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 5 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Sunday.