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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, May 27, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, May 27, 2011

CREATED May 27, 2011

CAPITOL VIEW

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

May 27, 2011

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN; FAIRGROUNDS MEASURE ON BALLOT BUT HEADED TO COURT?; MEDICARE BLOWBACK; THE NOOSE; GOOD TIMING FOR SPECIAL PROJECTS; INSIDE POLITICS

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

The first session of the 107th Tennessee General Assembly is…mercifully…over.

As far as we know, like the rest of us, none of the lawmakers were raptured on their way back to their homes after they adjourned for the year last Saturday.

But they have been both praised and roundly criticized across the state.

This is the first year since post-Civil War Reconstruction times in the late 1860s that Republicans were in complete control of both the Governor's office and both houses of the General Assembly. Not surprisingly, the GOP and its legislative leaders are thrilled with what the session accomplished (with Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey promising even more legislation to come next year). The Lt. Governor is also happy that lawmakers wrapped up their work earlier (before Memorial Day) than at any time in the last 13 years, saving taxpayers close to half-million dollars he claims.

Hmmm..it's been 13 years since the General Assembly left town this early? Wasn't that also the last time we had the 13-year cicada invasion? Is there a connection? Either way, both groups (lawmakers and the bugs) tend to be more than a bit annoying at times. So whenever they leave town (cicadas should disappear back into the ground by the middle of June we're told), many see it as a welcome development.

But in a multi- page e-mail letter from his office, Lt Governor Ramsey, who has perhaps become THE major powerbroker on the Hill this year, expounded on the good things "unified Republican government" has meant to Tennessee including he says a smaller government (budget reductions); cutting taxes (Hall income tax changes); education reform (especially the end of collective bargaining rights for the Tennessee Education Association); an improved environment for business in the state(tort reform); tighter restrictions on illegal immigration (instituting a photo Voter ID for elections and requiring businesses to make sure those they employ are legal, using the federal E-Verify program).

 Governor Bill Haslam is also among those pleased with the recent session especially since his legislative agenda was easily approved by both Houses (teacher tenure changes, tort reform, charter school expansion). He even got his first operating budget ($30.8 bill) done without much fuss, despite having to make some additional cuts in state services. Enjoying a somewhat unexpected increase in state tax revenues helped as well since it allowed the Governor to forgo some cuts in the social service safety net that some lawmakers were uncomfortable making. The final budget even allowed Democrats the opportunity to claim a small victory in getting additional last minute funds added to restore long term unemployment benefits for 28,000 Tennesseans which had been cut out earlier this year.

According to an Associated Press story (May 23), the Governor says he is still "working on understanding the ebb of flow of the process in the Tennessee General Assembly." That included learning how to use the bully pulpit of the Governor's office to warn lawmakers about passing some legislation. By doing that, the Governor helped stop efforts to allow faculty and staff to carry guns on the campuses of public colleges and universities in the state. He also stopped a late effort to make Amazon.com pay sales tax despite a deal cut by the previous Bredesen administration to give the company a tax exemption if the on-line company placed a couple of business locations in Tennessee, creating several hundred, if not thousands of jobs (depending on how many locations Amazon has here).

But mostly whatever the Republican majorities approved, the Governor signed into law. And what was passed did not set well with several of the leading newspapers across the state.

Said THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE-PRESS: "These ill-founded laws may please the Republican lawmakers…But the vast increase of cozy corporate lobbying power, the attacks on teachers' and women's rights and health care for the poor and disabled, and the dizzying dispersal of school money to untested upstart schools, are not likely to benefit the state and Tennessee's citizens."

THE MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL added: "The 2011 session of the 107th Tennessee General Assembly (left) three clear messages. The Republican dominated legislature is definitely pro-business, is not fond of labor unions and is short on tolerance for some minority groups."

And while praising the new leadership of the General Assembly (including the first female House Speaker in Tennessee history, Nashville Representative Beth Harwell) for efficiently managing responsibilities and moving lawmakers along quickly this year, THE JACKSON SUN asked: "But what was really accomplished? We are disappointed that so many high-profile bills were politically motivated or tied to hot-button issues such as immigration, homosexuality, anti-Muslim sentiment and abortion. These are important issues, but ones the General Assembly cannot do much about. They are better handled at the federal level or left to individuals to resolve for themselves."

(Thanks to Ken Whitehouse of NASHVILLE POST.com for compiling this roundup of statewide newspaper opinion).

Of course, Democratic leaders in the General Assembly also had criticism for the recent General Assembly. That includes a watered-down terrorism bill that originally made following some versions of Islam a felony. According to an Associated Press article by Lucas Johnson on May 22, Democratic Senator Andy Burke said: "There are many things we've done this year that are going to hurt Tennessee. And ultimately the people who passed them will pay a cost for that. Tennesseans are moderates. They want to see us working together to make a better state. They don't want to see the radical agenda that is being pushed through."

Even a group normally very supportive of the GOP, Second Amendment gun rights advocates were not happy.  For the last several years a number of gun rights bill have gained approval on the Hill. But in a bit of a "what have you done for me now" complaint, according to an article in THE CITY PAPER (May 22) John Harris, Director of Tennessee Firearms Association of Tennessee says this year some Republicans treated gun right advocates as "the unwanted stepchild" in not passing new legislation to allow guns for staff and faculty on college campuses and to let employees with gun permits to be able to bring their guns to work and keep them in their personal cars and trucks in company parking lots.

Harris has threatened to try and defeat these lawmakers at the polls in 2012 saying: "..next year…it is going to be the job of Tennessee's citizens to have a clear memory of those who were spineless and refused to carry forward the fight to remove infringements on basic constitutional rights."         

 But not everything was criticism at the end. In a remarkable article (May 21) by Jackson Baker of THE MEMPHIS FLYER, Democratic lawmakers found some nice things to say about the Governor and some GOP leaders. Both Mike Turner, the Democratic House Caucus Chair and Craig Fitzhugh, the Minority Leader of the House called Governor Haslam "a good person" with "Turner going so far as saying "Maybe he's above partisan politics a little…..The Governor worked with us. He went out of his way to try and listen to us. He tried to accommodate us on everything we asked. Some things he couldn't get there on, but he bent over backwards."

Both Democratic leaders also said that House Speaker Harwell and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick are "good people" but as for Lt. Governor Ramsey, not so much. Referring back to last year's GOP gubernatorial primary campaign and Ramsey's TV ad ("give them the boot"), Turner called him "the cowboy down the hall". He added, "Ramsey wins. He got most of what he wanted, to the detriment of the state."

But now that the session has ended, there remains both confusion and controversy. The confusion, according to an article by Tom Humphrey of THE KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL (May 25) comes from what appears to be conflicting amendments in the state appropriations bill regarding whether Planned Parenthood will continue to receive state funds. Senate sponsor Stacey Campfield is furious about the matter and wants the Governor to use his line-item veto. At this point the Governor told reporters: "Obviously something went wrong in the legislative process which they need to straighten out themselves," before he considers any action.

The Governor has already stirred up a lot of statewide and even national controversy after signing a bill that would nullify Nashville's recent anti-discrimination law requiring anyone doing business with the city to pledge not to discriminate based on sexual identity or sexual preference. Expect a lawsuit says local attorney Abby Rubenfield, although the law in Tennessee is pretty clear that state government has the right to trump local laws if it so desires.

Those pushing the bill signed by the Governor said it was needed to keep businesses from being confused over having to meet different or even conflicting standards across the state in terms of human resources and other business matters.  In an article in THE CITY PAPER (May 25) the Governor said: "We are not in favor of discrimination. We are in favor of businesses deciding within federal laws what their policy should be. We just don't think local governments should set HR policies for businesses." The Governor added in an Associated Press article (May 25) that he hopes businesses will adopt non-discriminatory policies towards sexual preference and identification, even though it was pointed out in that same article, the Governor's family business, Pilot Oil, does not have such a policy. Nor has there been any vocal complaints heard from businesses about confusing local policies on this matter as of yet.

There was an intense last-minute campaign to persuade the Governor to veto the bill (even an effort on Twitter). But while that failed, the lobbying did succeed in pulling off a lot of whatever business support there had been for the measure. The major state business lobbying group did seem to be at least nominally supporting the measure on the grounds of having consistent rules for business across the state. But the Tennessee State Chamber of Business & Industry publicly pulled off any support for the measure when the conversation became more about gay rights and not about consistency in public policy. Even a number of prominent national and international businesses with major holdings in Tennessee issued statements opposing the bill.

That led former Senator David Fowler, who is the head of the religious Family Action group, to say those businesses were being intimidated and some of them forgot "the ramifications of government mandated personnel policies are far different from voluntary adoption of personnel policies."

In fact, when this matter goes to court, a key factor will be whether the legislative intent of the new law was to prohibit discriminatory practices that are inconsistent with state law or whether this is a more moral or religious based effort against gay rights. That's why state lawmakers tried to be very careful about how they talked about this measure both in debate in the General Assembly and in the media. We will see how that plays in the courts.

In the meantime, both Governor Haslam and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (who supported and signed the now void Nashville law) are hoping this controversy will not lead to a boycott of the city and state by gay rights activists across the country. While nothing is being organized just yet, a similar boycott in Colorado back in the early 1990s was effective after voters outturned a gay rights ordinance.

But there is plenty of national publicity about this new Tennessee law going around nationwide (including an article in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL May 25) and the blogosphere is abuzz about it too according to a CITY PAPER article (May 25): "Time for a gay boycott of Tennessee," one commentator at THE HUFFINGTON POST." Seeming to justify a boycott another commentator on that site said: "Because the state legislature in Tennessee is the most backward, hateful legislature in the county. They are trying to pass laws to take this state back to the 19th century."

Even the local bloggers are getting on the Governor. Aunt B. on her Tiny Cat Pants blog said: "Face it, Governor Baby. You have failed to save these jackass Republicans from themselves, and you've made the state of Tennessee once again synonymous with discrimination codified into law." And it's not over, THE TENNESSEAN's politics blog site (May 27) has a story by Chas Sisk that says Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle has already introduced legislation for next year to repeal the bill lawmakers just passed and the Governor signed. Kyle, a Democrat from Memphis is clear he wants to "keep the pot stirring" according to the article. He says; "It keeps the discussion going. It seems like the business company was late to the party. To me, it merits a second look." 

Like I said, the first session of the 107th General Assembly…it's gone… but surely not forgotten.               

 FAIRGROUNDS MEASURE HEADED TO BALLOT BUT ALSO TO COURT?

The Metro Charter amendment regarding the future of the State Fairgrounds will be on the August 4 ballot says the Metro Election Commission.

The decision comes after a review of whether enough signatures on petitions had been submitted to call for the election. It had been thought it would take up 15,700 signatures to do that (10% of the voters in the last general election held in November, 2010). But further research by Metro legal officials found a 1980s Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that it took only 10% of the last Metro election totals to call for the vote, so just 6,472 signatures were needed for a berth on the August ballot.

There were also questions raised about the different forms in which the petitions were submitted. They came in three different formats (postcards, regular petitions and a newspaper cutout). Some also wondered about the language used in all three versions. Were they all worded the same, and if not, does mean some of those petitions don't count?

The Election Commission said OK and has voted to put the charter change up for voter consideration.

But not so fast say some Fairgrounds neighbors who (like Mayor Karl Dean) want that area to be redeveloped and not continue to be the home of the annual State Fair, the monthly Flea Market and the Nashville Raceway. Nashville attorney George Barrett is representing that group called Neighbors for Progress and he is talking about possible legal action to stop the measure getting on the ballot.

That leaves both those who support the Fairgrounds charter amendment and those who oppose it having to prepare to win both at the polls in August but also getting ready for a court fight beginning more than likely (if it happens) in the next couple of weeks.

The charter amendment would freeze the current uses of the Fairgrounds in place forever without a two-thirds (27) super majority vote of the Metro Council to change it. The clear purpose of the amendment is try and thwart approval of any recommendations from a soon-to-start Council-ordered Master Plan for the Fairgrounds, if that plan recommends changing any of the current Fairgrounds uses.

It had been thought the referendum was also an effort to maximize an anti-Mayor Karl Dean vote as he seeks re-election. That would have been in favor of Metro Councilman Michael Craddock who was the Mayor's chief opposition. But that idea has fizzled as Craddock has now withdrawn from the Mayor's race citing fund-raising issues. Craddock also recently suffered a difficult injury (which limited his mobility) while trying to clean up his yard from storm damage. That likely also didn't help Craddock's efforts, although he pledges to continue to work hard to pass the Fairgrounds charter amendment.    

MEDICARE BLOWBACK

For the last several weeks, the ongoing fight in Washington and the Congress about how to cut the federal budget and our huge deficit has taken something of a backseat in the news.  First it's been the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden and now the seemingly never-ending onslaught of tragic spring weather, with historic floods and killer tornadoes, especially in the Midwest and South.  

 But the angling for political points and positioning is never ending inside the Beltway. Now the Democrats think they have found an advantage. Almost every elected Republican in both houses of the Congress have voted in favor of the GOP's budget plan that not only sharply cuts government spending and the deficit ($6.2 trillion over 10 years), it does so (in part) by converting the popular Medicare  program into a voucher plan offering private insurance policies for those presently under the age of 55.

Polls show this is very unpopular with both the public and voters. In fact, the Democrats just pulled off a major upset in recent days by winning a long-held GOP House seat in up-state New York during a special election. The GOP Medicare plan was a major issue for the Democrats and it seemed to work, although the race also featured a Tea Party candidate which likely divided the overall conservative vote in the district.

 But many national GOP strategists are worried about their unpopular Medicare reform proposal looking forward to the 2012 elections. In voting for the GOP budget in the Senate (which failed, after earlier passing the House), both of Tennessee GOP Senators made it clear they supported the overall budget because (as Senator Lamar Alexander put it) it stops "Washington from spending money it doesn't have." Senator Bob Corker made similar comments remarking the GOP plan would address "out-of-control spending and unsustainable debt."

But both lawmakers made it clear that didn't mean they necessarily support the Medicare changes in the GOP budget. "The budget proposals offered by Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey aren't perfect, but they are serious attempts…and they should be debated and amended," said Senator Corker. Senator Alexander said it this way: "My preferred plan for saving Medicare is the Domenici-Rivlin plan (which reduces federal spending $5.9 trillion), because it would permit seniors to shop for the health insurance they want while allowing them to remain in traditional Medicate if they don't find it."

 Now neither of our Tennessee Senators is likely in any political danger on this issue. Right now, Senator Corker has no opposition for re-election next year and Senator Alexander won't be on the ballot until 2014. But clearly, this is a very touchy subject when the future of Medicare comes up.

The question remains what will the Democrats support and can there be any common ground found to put together a budget-cutting and deficit-cutting plan that can pass Congress any time soon. It still looks pretty doubtful.       

THE NOOSE

The political noose around Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk David Torrence keeps getting tighter.

Now Davidson County District Attorney Torry Johnson says his office is launching an investigation according to an article on THE TENNESSEAN's website (May 27).

 Torrence has been dogged by TV and other news reports that he has failed to work more than 3 days a week; that he has used his government car to buy and transport liquor; that he plays golf and even works in his yard when he is on taxpayer time. He also raised concerns because he has hired his sons to receive salaries well above the starting pay grade.

At first, Torrence was arrogant about it, saying it is what it is, and he didn't plan to seek re-election anyway in 3 years. But the outcry from the community and other public officials has been strong. The Metro Council has unanimously passed a resolution asking for his resignation. Torrence has now apologized to his staff and even hinted to the Council he was willing to make restoration. But the D.A.'s investigation takes the matter to the next level.

Clearly, this probe is looking for grounds to begin ouster procedures under state law. But that could be a problem. There doesn't appear to be any evidence that the Clerk's office is being poorly run. What does appear to be the case is that Clerk is not working the hours or performing the duties that taxpayers expect. Is that enough to remove him from office? That will now be up to the D.A.

But, frankly David Torrence ought to do the taxpayers, himself and his family (which has long been prominent and well respected in local government and politics) a big favor. He ought to end the embarrassment and resign. Now.  

GOOD TIMING FOR SPECIAL PROJECTS

A busy week for Mayor Karl Dean when it comes to major city projects getting underway. In this case, two projects that have special significance in the communities where they are being constructed.

First, the Mayor has announced the name for the new Riverfront Play Park now under construction on the East Bank of the Cumberland River between the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge and the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge. Cumberland Park is a good choice from those submitted in a community-wide competition to name the facility.

But really, for the folks who live in lower East Nashville having a new amenity like this in their part of town means a lot regardless of what it is called. Going back many years (maybe since the East Nashville fire in 1916 or the tornado that struck that community in the 1930s or urban renewal back in the 1950s and 1960s) there has been a feeling that the land across the river on the East Bank was ignored. Sure, L.P. Field began to change that, but this is water park is for everyone, not just those who can afford pricey tickets to an NFL game or a concert.

The folks in largely-black North Nashville know the same feelings of being left out. In their case, residents and businesses in that part of town felt quite isolated as well especially after I-40 split that community in two (especially in the Jefferson Street area) back in the late 1960s.

There have been lots of efforts over the years to revitalize Jefferson Street, and the rest of North Nashville. They have worked to some degree, but there's been a lingering feeling in the black community of still being cut off, especially North Nashville from West Nashville.

Now with groundbreaking ceremonies finally being held this past week for the long-planned and discussed (but until now never funded) construction of the 28th Avenue Connector such a direct tie seems finally about to happen.

While it is a relatively short connector, both in terms of length and the money it will cost, the symbolism of building this road  and the bridge over the railroad tracks to connect North Nashville (with Jefferson Street, Hadley Park and the university community of Fisk, TSU and Meharry) to the rest of Nashville, (especially West End, Centennial Park and the Vanderbilt/Belmont University community) may take us a long way as a city to finally becoming one, much as the Play Park will help with re-uniting lower East Nashville with the rest of downtown and this community.

Kudos go to Mayor Dean and the Metro Council for finally getting both projects funded and underway. And political kudos to them for being smart enough to do these naming and groundbreaking events just as the Metro election season moves into high gear, although for Mayor Dean with his chief re-election opponent, Michael Craddock, now dropping out of the race, this summer has become a political ‘walk in the play park" for His Honor as he will likely receive a truly overwhelming vote and mandate for a second term with the remaining mayoral candidate field all being true unknowns.

The Craddock withdrawal not only gives the Mayor the potential for a truly massive mandate re-election victory, it also gives him the opportunity to concentrate more efforts to defeat the Fairgrounds charter amendment. In fact, it would be a very strange message indeed for voters to return Mayor Dean for a second term but at the same time, pass the charter amendment which would be seen as another rebuke to the Mayor on the Fairgrounds, a redevelopment issue on which he has already lost twice in the current city council. 

INSIDE POLITICS

We have a somewhat different show planned this week on INSIDE POLITICS. Our guest is Dr. Bill McKee of Cumberland University. He will be telling us about "Tennesseans You Should Know About—But Probably Don't."

I must say I thought I knew a lot about Tennessee history, but some of the folks we will talk about, I had never heard of before and they did some pretty remarkable things in their lives.

Watch us! INSIDE POLITICS can been seen several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes  Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. on the main channel, WTVF-TV, NEWSCHANNEL5.

You can also see INSIDE POLITICS on NEWCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast and Charter Cable channels 250 as well as on NEWCHANNEL5's over-the-air digital channel, 5.2. Our air times on THE PLUS are 7:00 p.m. Friday, 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 5:00 a.m. & 12;30 p.m.

Happy Memorial Day, everyone! And never forget those who have served our country and given their lives over the years to keep us strong and free!