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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 15, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 15, 2011

CREATED Apr 15, 2011

CAPITOL VIEW

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

April 15, 2011

CORKED AGAIN; METH COMPROMISE; ECHOES; PAY, JOBS & THE BUSINESS ATMOSPHERE; INSIDE POLITICS; A VACANCY; A BLOW OUT; OUT OF THE FRYING PAN INTO THE FIRE

If you look at public polls (up to 70% support), it is probably the most popular bill under consideration by the General Assembly this term. The leadership in both houses when they came on my INSIDE POLITICS show seemed rather upbeat about its chances to pass this year.

But instead, for the 5th year in a row, selling wine in grocery stores is a dead issue in Tennessee. A House sub-committee put a cork in it with a voice vote (so you can't really tell who voted yes or no), deferring the measure until July of next year (2012).

A new bill will be re-introduced early next year so the deferral is not particularly meaningful, except to show that the grocers and others trying to pass the bill have yet to come up with a winning argument to carry the day (and the votes needed) to pass the change.

Earlier this year, supporters touted a new study that showed allowing grocery stores to sell wine would create lots of jobs and tax revenues. But the liquor stores owners and their supporters quickly countered that the study's numbers didn't seem to add up. That at best it would result in a swap, with liquor stores sales being down as much as 30% while grocery receipts went up.

Even efforts to allow the public to vote on a county by county basis to allow wine in grocery stores failed to persuade lawmakers on the sub-committee to approve the bill. Earlier efforts to affect some kind of compromise allowing liquor stores to sell items currently prohibited fell flat too.

But the power and allure of consumer convenience and the fact that several other states allow for wine to be sold in grocery stores continues to put lawmakers in a dilemma.. They can read polls. So perhaps that explains the voice vote in committee where the results stand, but nobody really knows who exactly who voted which way.

It is possible for supporters of selling wine in grocery stores to move ahead to try and pass the bill in the Senate to put pressure on the House sub-committee to reconsider. There could even be an effort to pull the bill straight to House floor for a direct vote. But that is very hard to do and I didn't hear anyone talking about that, so clearly the votes to pass this bill, both in the sub-committee and in both Houses, are likely still just not there.

METH COMPROMISE

One compromise that does appear to be working out (as predicted by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey a few weeks ago on INSIDE POLITICS) concerns the next big push to win the meth drug war in Tennessee. Law enforcement officials wanted to require all cold medicines (which contain a key ingredient to make meth) to be sold only under a doctor's prescription.

But lawmakers heard loud and clear from voters that that would be a real pain to deal with every time they got the sniffles and a stuffy head.

So instead a new statewide computer system will be authorized that reportedly will do the job of shutting off sales to those who go shopping around to various drug stores and groceries trying to evade the current per-person limits on the purchases of over-the-counter cold medicines.

But nobody is sure that will work, and I remember Lt. Governor Ramsey telling me on INSIDE POLITICS that if a study of the impact of the new bill (to be done by 2013) shows the problem still exists, the bill to sell cold medicines by prescription will likely be back on the table.

Meanwhile, what remains off the table is a funding source (local, state or federal) to clean up these meth labs sites which are completely uninhabitable once these deadly drugs are brewed there. The feds were funding clean-ups but that's been ended by the budget-slashing in Washington. Local governments say they don't have any money and so far, Governor Bill Haslam and the General Assembly aren't stepping up either. This is a serious public health problem, especially while we are still struggling to get a handle on how to stop meth at its source.

I know politicians these days are politically gun-shy about spending money, cutting budgets is all the rage. But this is an area that demands leadership and action…now!

ECHOES

As this General Assembly grinds on towards a likely conclusion sometime in late May, I am always struck by how the new legislation being debated often echoes arguments from the past.

The House has approved a bill that opens the door for Creationism or Intelligent Design to be taught in the public schools along with opposing arguments about global warming and other controversial topics. The politics are different now, but you have to wonder what John Scopes would think about teaching creation? Didn't he go to jail in order to teach evolution?

And there's the Voter ID bill making its way through the General Assembly. However, there has been a ruling by the State Attorney General Bob Cooper which says the bill is likely unconstitutional because the ID the state offers (if you don't have a driver license as many seniors and others don't) costs $10. That charge constitutes an illegal poll tax says AG Bob Cooper. The poll tax was once was a long time tradition, especially in the South to suppress black voting.

Voter suppression and intimidation is the main reason some lawmakers oppose the bill while those supporting it say it will hold down voter fraud. As for the current bill, apparently making the IDs free (as some states do) would remove the attorney general's objections, although adding that kind of fiscal note would usually bounce the bill to the dreaded "behind the budget" list meaning it was dead. But maybe not this time, since the Senate and now the House (Thursday) have passed different versions of the bill and it would appear very close to going to the Governor's desk for his consideration to make it law.

Some bills don't have echoes from long ago. Like the measure that just got out of a House sub-committee. It brings forward the latest "guns in fill-in-the-blank" proposal, an issue which has dominated recent legislative session. This particular bill would allow faculty and staff members at public universities to bring their weapons on campus. There hasn't been a lot of gun debate this year, but maybe that is about to change a bit as we approach the waning days of the session. A compromise also seems underway to allow workers to bring guns to work and leave them in their cars without any problems if they have a state permit.

Tennessee is always debating something about what we do driving a car or a pickup truck. Open containers of bill or alcohol are usually debated. This time it's whether Fido can ride the front seat without wearing a seat belt. Looks like Fido won again this year, as a bill to impose seat belt regulation on dogs in the front seat failed in sub-committee.

Finally, there are the Arizona-style immigration bills working through the legislature. One of them shows the continued divide among Republican groups, in this case, Tea Party supporters versus the state's general business community.

The bill under strong dispute (even leading to shouting matches after committee hearings between lawmakers and lobbyists) would require businesses to use the federal program called E-Verify to confirm the legal or illegal status of their workers. Way too expensive and intrusive say business representatives who claim many of their small business members don't even have computers and will have to buy them. Supporters say too bad about the cost, the E-Verify system is the best way to cut off illegal aliens from getting hired.

Republican in-fighting has been something of a continuing theme this session, although there have been some indications recently that House Speaker Beth Harwell may now be tilting away from her previous moderate stands (and from Governor Bill Haslam) on teacher collective bargaining and even on nullifying Nashville's new anti-discrimination bill regarding sexual identity and preference.

Meantime if you watch carefully you can see how the Democrats on the Hill can only create diversions to make their point. Recently, Nashville Representative Mike Turner brought up a memorializing resolution honoring the late President Ronald Reagan, a GOP icon. Passed easily? No it failed becsude the resolution pointed out how Mr. Reagan began his work in politics when he was President of the Screen Actors Guild and employed collective bargaining to help his union members. Whoops!

See, if you watch closely, there's rarely a dull week on the Hill especially any time our lawmakers are in session.

PAY, JOBS & THE BUSINESS ATMOSPHERE

Looking back on last year's elections, you would have thought the biggest fight in this year's General Assembly would be about dealing with the $1.5 billion budget deficit that all the candidates constantly talked about.

Well, surprise. So far, there has been little real controversy or debate. Governor Haslam has pretty well adopted most of the suggestions that his predecessor, Phil Bredesen suggested about the cuts, and so far, it appears both Democrats and Republican are inclined to go along (although there seems to be a little fight brewing between Senate Republicans and Democrats about renewing the hospital fee (tax) the industry requested and was put in place last year during the Bredesen administration).

The biggest budget-related issue so far seems to be the negative reaction by some lawmakers and representatives of state workers about the pay raises Governor Haslam is giving to his incoming cabinet members.

"A slap in the face" they say, especially with the Governor giving state workers a very small raise overall (although their first in several years). The Governor says he has nothing to apologize for, that those agreeing to come into the cabinet come at a large pay cut from what they could make staying in the private sector. The Governor is right about that. There was similar controversy a few years ago when Governor Bredesen gave raises to his cabinet, so this kind of dust-up is nothing new or unusual. Look for the raises to stand.

Democrats are also critical of the Governor for not doing more to create jobs. They even held a news conference a few days ago to amplify their criticism after spending a good bit of this session being rather quiet.

Unfortunately, their timing in the news cycle wasn't all that good. Within 24 hours of their meeting with reporters, the Governor was able to be up on the podium at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel helping to announce that 3,000 new jobs are being created with the re-opening of the flooded-out Opry Mills shopping complex here in Nashville. It gave the Governor a platform to say again that the way to create jobs is not for the government to do it, but to develop a pro-business atmosphere that makes the state attractive for new investments and jobs. Respond the Democrats, look at the record of the late Governor Ned McWherter who through his roads program and other efforts managed to decrease the numbers of counties with double digit unemployment down to just two while he was in office.

The Opry Mills' announcement is also great news in terms of future sales tax revenues for both the state and for Metro Nashville. Opry Mills was among the last of the major facilities all but destroyed by last year's terrible May Flood. Having that facility coming back on line is a real boost for our community, not just because it is a regional magnet for shopping, but because it shows that Nashville remains a great and growing city.

Some folks got a little disturbed a few days back (April 11) when Kiplinger.com named Nashville one of 11 "comeback cities" in the U.S. "Comeback," they cried? "Why we never left," they added.

While Nashville has weathered both the Great Recession and the Great Flood remarkably well, the Kiplinger ranking "looked at cities whose unemployment rates have recently exceeded the national average but are showing strong signs of recovery (Nashville Business Journal, April 11). The publication is right about that. Besides any good publicity in a national business outlet such as Kiplinger.com is always a good thing, so why fight it, especially since it predicts job growth of 2.8% in our area with particular growth in accounting and financial services?

Besides it should also be a reminder, especially as we approach the one-year anniversary of the May Flood, that there are still plenty of folks in our city still struggling to recover from the wrath of the waters and the still fragile national economy.

INSIDE POLITICS

The GOP is so dominant these days on Capitol Hill here in Nashville that I have realized we haven't had any state legislative Democrats on my INSIDE POLITICS show lately.

So two Nashville lawmakers Senator Thelma Harper and Representative Mike Stewart are my guests this week to give their thoughts and ideas about the issues swirling in the General Assembly, especially those that seem to have GOP lawmakers wanting to change or override Metro laws about discrimination, elections and tax incentives.

We also discuss how they and the other Democrats are having to adjust to being in the distinct minority in both houses.

You are watch and listen to our discussion several times this weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes on the main channel at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning as well as on NEWSCHANNEL PLUS. Our air times on THE PLUS are 7:00 Friday (tonight), 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m., Sunday. THE PLUS can be seen on Comcast & Charter Cable channels 250 and on Channel 5's 5.2 over-the-air digital channel.

A VACANCY

Congratulations to State Senator Jamie Woodson of Knoxville on her new position as President and CEO of former U.S. Senator Bill Frist's SCORE organization, a group that has been very active in pushing education reform in Tennessee. Senator Woodson has been a leader in that area as well. She is leaving the General Assembly at the end of this session after 11 years in office (including 6 years in the House).

Her departure leaves a vacancy to be filled with a special election. Already there is speculation about what that might mean. Speculation not so much about whether it will be a Republican or a Democrat who will win (likely the GOP will hold the seat). No, the early speculation among conservatives posting on Facebook and elsewhere in the blogosphere is whether the next Senator from Knoxville will be what they call a RHINO (Republican in Name Only) like Governor Haslam (they claim), or someone from the Tea Party movement.

That would make for an interesting primary.

A BLOWOUT

One local election coming up this August, Nashville's mayoral race, still doesn't look too competitive at least in terms of money raised.

As I told you was likely in last week's column, Mayor Karl Dean has disclosed a political war chest of over a half million dollars on hand with less than 4 months to go before Election Day.

That gives him a commanding lead in resources over his main challenger, outgoing Madison Councilman Michael Craddock. Craddock who entered the race in February telling THE CITY PAPER (April 11) that he had commitments of $125,000, has so far submitted reports showing he has raised a little more than $14,000 with about $8,700 still on hand.

Craddock is working hard to make up for his clear financial disadvantage announcing a campaign rally and birthday party for Saturday, April 16 at the Madison Elks Lodge. The star power for the event will clearly come from its host, Sterling Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and a NASCAR legend. Marlin and other Nashville-based racing stars have been feuding with Mayor Dean since he tried to close the Fairgrounds and its historic Speedway facility to make way for unspecified redevelopment efforts.

While the event is free, you can be sure this is an effort to whip up some campaign excitement to give Craddock the funds he still needs to raise in order to be competitive this summer. The Mayor meantime is not resting on his laurels, planning another major ($500 per person) fundraiser for later this month, along with announcing another advisory committee of supporters, this time in Donelson.

Speaking of the Fairgrounds, Mayor Dean has appointed former Nashville Sheriff and State Corrections Commissioner Gayle Ray to a vacant position on the board which oversees that controversial city property. Gayle Ray is used to tough jobs from her time in public service, which also includes being a civic activist and a member of the Metro Council for a time. But she is moving into a real hot seat this time as the Fair Board works to draw up a Council-ordered master plan for the Fairgrounds future. That's likely to be a tough job for a volunteer, non-paying post.

OUT OF THE FRYING PAN INTO THE FIRE

After more than a few tense moments (especially in the House), Congress has given final approval to the budget deal it pulled together last Friday night (April 8) less than an hour before a government shutdown would have begun.

While the deal to cut nearly $40 billion dollars (a record) out of federal spending between now and the end of September, got a lot of general praise at first, lots of buyers' remorse and outright opposition then began surfacing with Tea Party supporters saying the cuts were not deep enough (especially in not cutting funds to implement Ombama care) while some Democrats complained the reductions hurt the poor, the elderly and children too much.

How else can you explain the House vote among the Tennessee delegation with Republicans Marsha Blackburn and John Duncan voting no and being joined by Democrat Steve Cohen? Now that's a group of red lights together on the same bill you don't see often. Interestingly all the other Tennessee Republicans joined Nashville's Jim Cooper in voting yes, votes that might may come back to haunt some of them in their next primary races especially Scott DesJarlais and Steven Fincher, who depended a lot on Tea Party support to win last year.

How tough was the House vote? THE HUFFINGTON POST (April 14) reports on the final 260-167 tally: "…when the time for the vote expired, only 150 yes votes (were tallied) with scores waiting to see where their colleagues would fall before taking the plunge." What really created last minute heartburn were reports from the Congressional Budget Office (Wall Street Journal April 14) that maybe the budget deal would only actually save about $352 million this year. The report also claimed that adding in all the likely emergency spending for the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington would might really spend $3 billion MORE between now and the end of September.

Regardless, now it's out of the frying pan, into the fire. Congress must approve another budget by October 1 for the next fiscal year, and even before then, it must decide what to do about raising the federal debt ceiling.

Congress must do that says President Barack Obama or the United States will go into default for the first time ever and create a possible new financial crisis for the country. Maybe not say the Republicans who are demanding an approved plan for future and even larger spending cuts before they vote for any debt ceiling increase.

The President seems to realize he must do something to move matters along, and now he has unveiled yet another new deficit and spending reduction plan that seems to nearly match the one from the GOP in cutting 4 trillion dollars over the next decade.

It seems everyone in Washington now has his or her own budget cutting plan. That includes Tennessee Senator Bob Corker who actually came up with his CAP Act late last year…and it's beginning to gain support from both parties and in both houses of Congress. It would impose across the board, binding limits (or caps) on all federal spending, resulting in a reduction of $7.6 trillion dollars over the next decade he estimates.

He has now added Senators Lieberman and Johnson to his list of co-sponsors as well as Tennessee congressmen Duncan and Cooper. Democratic support is also coming from Senator McCaskill of Missouri.

While Senator Corker has a long way to go to gain passage of his plan, it will take this kind of bi-partisan support in both houses to work out any viable plan. While battle lines are being drawn on all sides, it is clear that compromise and cooperation need to be the order of the day (I know that sounds so unlikely).

It's pretty clear to me that there is at least rough agreement on the size of the overall reductions that are needed, and that's a positive. There are also strengthens and weaknesses in all the plans. Despite his renewed insistence, repealing the Bush tax cuts will be a long putt for the President, while the GOP plan from Congressman Paul Ryan faces an equally tough mountain to climb (even after passing the House) convincing lawmakers and voters to turn Medicare into a voucher plan. Remember, even during the height of the health care debate in the summer of 2009 during those wild and wooly congressional town hall forums, even the Tea Party folks held up signs telling Washington to keep their hands off "my Medicare."

Meanwhile, to further push the idea of fiscal responsibility (especially here on Tax Day, April 15), Congressman Cooper has submitted a new bill (with both bi-partisan and Senate support). It would provide each taxpayer with an itemized receipt outlining exactly where their tax dollars are going from Social Security to Medicare to education, unemployment benefits, roads, farm subsidies, foreign aid, even our foreign aid. There is even a total on the bottom of the receipt detailing the exact amount of the federal debt (as of January 1, 2011) which was $14,025,215,218,700 and what that amounts to per legal U.S. resident ($45,411) and the amount of additional federal borrowing per legal U.S. resident during 2010 alone ($5,559).

Happy Tax Day!