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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, September 2, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, September 2, 2011

CREATED Sep 16, 2011

CAPITOL VIEW

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

September 2, 2011

COOPER & DEAN REDISTRICTING FIGHT; PLAY BALL; TENNESSEE‘S WHAT IF FED CUTS; DESJARLAIS; TRAVEL DOWN; WRONG SIGNAGE

COOPER & DEAN REDISTRICTING FIGHT

Ever since Republicans took full control of state government earlier this year, GOP activists have been eagerly waiting for redistricting which must occur by law every ten years following the federal Census. The goal is to keep all the districts roughly the same in population to maintain a "one-man-one vote" standard as required by the federal courts. But some Republicans also see something else. That is an opportunity…after lo' these many years under the political heel of the Democrats…to redraw their way the boundaries of our 99 state House and 33 Senate state legislative seats as well as our nine Tennessee congressional districts.

You might call it (and some of them do) payback time, meaning that within the guidelines set out by the federal courts over the years, district lines will be redrawn to favor GOP candidates and make it difficult, if not impossible for Democrats to win.

Despite already holding an unprecedented 7 of Tennessee's 9 congressional seats, there is a strong desire within party activists to make it 8 to 1, by going after Nashville's incumbent Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper. Given that the 5th District is now surrounded by areas represented by Republicans, it seems much more viable to adjust the district boundaries in this part of the state to accomplish that rather than going after the state's only other remaining Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen in Memphis.

And so in that context, a proposed redistricting map has appeared on line that would carve up Davidson Country into three different congressional districts. It would have Marsha Blackburn's new 7th District taking over all of downtown and most of West and Southwest Nashville, while the northern part of the county would move into Diane Black's new 6th district. The rest of Davidson County (Antioch and areas of southeast Nashville) would go into a new 5th District that would be combined with all of fast-growing and strongly-Republican-leading Rutherford County. It would create a district without an incumbent, clearly designed to make it perfect for Murfreesboro State Senator Bill Ketron to run and win the seat.

If this redistricting plan is adopted, it would give Nashville three different congressmen. But it's likely none of them would actually live inside Davidson County. That would be a radical change from past history. Nashville for many years has been either a congressional district unto itself or the dominant county and political force within its district. So in many eyes (especially Democratic ones) this would mark a sharp reduction in Nashville's political power, with suburban forces outside the city then dominating our representation in Washington.

Now let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. This on-line map appears to have been pieced together by a party activist and may (or may not) have any official status with state legislative leaders who will make the final decisions on how to draw the line. In fact, Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick says no new redistricting maps have been drawn up or circulated around and won't be until December. But GOP leaders were also not quick to dismiss the substance of the plan as it regards Congressman Cooper.

So not surprisingly, Congressman Cooper and newly-re-elected Nashville Mayor Karl Dean joined forces a few days ago and have all but declared war on the plan. They went directly to THE TENNESSEAN newspaper for an on-the-record editorial board meeting where the voiced their concerns. Cooper admitted to the paper: "It's a curious situation because it could be much ado about nothing or it could be the political destruction of Nashville."

Mayor Dean, whose strong involvement in this is raising some eyebrows, has also sent a letter to House Speaker and Nashville Representative Beth Harwell saying the possible redistricting plan could have harmful economic ramifications.

Says the Mayor to Madame Speaker: "Splitting Davidson County would not only divide business interests and industry concerns, but would drive a stake in the heart of a cohesive and diverse (ethnically and politically) social and civic unit. In addition, Davidson County's role as a regional leader could be significantly diminished."

Why go to war now about this? Redistricting is an "inside baseball" political issue and a hard one about which to get voters excited. But it appears to me that this plan is so over-the-top in terms of change that the Mayor and Congressman believe they can stir up some controversy and put the Republicans on the defensive. After all, Nashville's overall population coming out the new Census would allow it to stay pretty much intact as a congressional district, so this kind of radical change would seem hard to justify except for political purposes. After all, you can just imagine how some in the Vanderbilt/ Belmont/ Hillsboro Village areas are reacting to the possibility of having Marsha Blackburn as their representative in Congress.

Clearly, Speaker Harwell is also a key target. Congressman Cooper's office has released a copy of a bill she sponsored back in 2006 (before the GOP state takeover) that would have required more transparency in this redistricting process. Speaker Harwell also said earlier this year (including twice on my INSIDE POLITICS show) that she preferred Davidson County be kept together, including having the 8 precincts now in Congressman Blackburn's district added back into the 5th.

What is she saying now? She told THE TENNESSEAN: "We have to do what's right for the entire state of Tennessee…I know Congressman Cooper is worried about his job. I understand that. But the bottom line is this is a state's responsibility. This is an issue of state's rights." It should be pointed out that in previous redistricting cycles, the Tennessee congressional delegation worked among itself to carve out its new districts. Obviously, that's not happening this time much to Cooper's (and maybe even some GOP congressmen's dismay). For example, if the on-line plan is implemented, long-time Knoxville Congressman John Duncan would see all but one of this counties (Knox) changed, while Congressman Scott DesJarlais (who is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week) might wind up facing Senator Ketron in a primary fight if redistricting places Rutherford County in a new 4th District instead. So you see, redistricting can be a bit like molding Silly Putty.

As usual, Nashville Democratic Representative and Democratic House Caucus Chair Mike Turner has a unique and rather insightful perspective. He told WPLN Nashville Public Radio to "bring it on." By adding many more Democrats into these existing Republican congressional districts around Nashville, it could backfire. And, indeed, there are some within the State Republican Party who are concerned that the GOP needs to be careful to not overreach in their redrawing of these political lines.

A year ago, the Tennessee Grand Ole Party would have been delirious to have the numbers in the General Assembly and in Congress they already have today. In fact, it was their fondest hope that redistricting would take them in numbers to where they already are. Now do they push further to gain more seats or make the safe play and build districts they know they can keep (and keep the Democrats in the distinct minority) for at least the next decade.

PLAY BALL

Appearing before THE TENNESSEAN's editorial board wasn't the only time Mayor Dean has generated some news these days through a local media appearance. This time it even made headlines out of town.

According to THE NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL (August 30) when the Mayor made a first-day on-the-air appearance on the city's latest sports talk radio station (102.5 The Game), the conversation eventually got around to major league baseball and in particular the Tampa Bay Rays (featuring former Vandy star David Price). That franchise has struggled for years with attendance. According to the NBJ article": "During the discussion Dean said he would welcome the team if it wanted to move to Nashville, even suggested a new nickname, the Nashville Catfish."

Later a mayoral spokesperson said of the on-air conversation: "They were joking. It was just typical sports radio talk joking around. There's nothing going on."

That's probably true, but in this on-line, social media age, the Mayor's office had to respond because his radio talk show comments "took off on Twitter' (and even generated a story in THE ST. PETERBURG TIMES). Ultimately one of ESPN's top baseball writers, Buster Olney (a Vandy grad and former BANNER sports reporter), also got in the mix speaking "highly of Nashville's status as a potential major league city."

But that raises another interesting point as the Mayor's comments about Nashville's major league future (even jokingly) came during the final days of the current baseball season for Nashville's AAA franchise, The Sounds. That team has been waiting patiently for the last several years to see if Nashville would replace its current dilapidated playing facility (Greer Stadium) and work together on some kind of public-private partnership to erect a new one somewhere in town. A feasibility study evaluating several locations is now underway.

But it is still not clear how firmly the Mayor is on board about a new baseball stadium. While personally he is among the most rabid Boston Red Sox fans I know (something which my wife certainly appreciates), the Mayor's latest comments about a stadium have been somewhat guarded, including saying things such as "whatever we do it has to make sense for the taxpayers" and reminding everyone what difficult economic times we are presently experiencing (even though the city has remained quite active in its capital budget outlays).

It's doesn't appear the Sounds are demanding a new city-funded ballpark (even though that's what Metro did for both the Titans and the Predators). Exactly what kind of public-private partnership is feasible will likely become clearer after the feasibility study is complete. But make no mistake about it. Major League Baseball has indicated in the past it will not wait forever (or maybe much longer) for some decision to be made about the future of professional baseball here.

A negative response or a failure to come up with a deal between the Sounds and the city could mean the franchise would leave Nashville and relocate elsewhere. And that might be the real Catfish that got away.

TENNESSEE'S WHAT-IF FED CUTS

If 40% of your total annual budget comes from Washington, everyone should have known what to expect when state officials went through the exercise of telling Governor Bill Haslam what reductions in Tennessee's employees and services would be coming if federal dollars are cut 15% to 30% (which is at least within the realm of possibility given the new budget deficit talks about to resume in D.C.)

So what does it add up to? Well, it begins with up to $4.5 billion dollars in less federal revenue coming to the state each year. That means over 5,100 additional state employees would join the unemployment lines, with 3,400 being in current jobs which provide services to children, those with intellectual disabilities and the poor. In other words, those who can least take care of themselves.

TennCare would, of course, take a major hit (estimated at $2.2 billion) sharply reducing benefits. And state officials expect a $578 million reduction in food stamp benefits. That's a program which is already providing services to a record number of Tennesseans these days.

Governor Haslam is quick to point out that these are "worst case" scenarios, and frankly this exercise was really done to show the bond rating agencies that Tennessee is wisely planning ahead "just in case" and therefore deserves to keep its AAA credit rating (even if the feds don't).

By the way, there could be state budget cuts even without federal reductions. Late Friday (September 2) the Haslam administration send word to all state agencies to prepare their operating budget proposals for next year (beginning July 1, 2012) with reductions of 5%. And the Administration any requests for increases would have to be matched by cuts of an equal size elsewhere in a department's budget.

Sounds kind of grim; huh? But it could get even worse down the road. If you think about it, there is another scenario that could put Tennessee under the gun with its future federal funding. Many in the Washington are pushing a constitutional amendment to annually balance the federal budget. Clearly it would be strong medicine to cure what many people think is "Washington's spending problem."

But if that amendment passes Congress and is adopted by the states, what would Congress do to cut or "balance" the budget? I think it makes a lot of sense that the Feds would further cut their annual outlays to the states and municipalities, in effect balancing the national budget on the backs of state and local governments (and probably not getting rid of all those mandates they require their colleagues on the state and local levels to implement and now to fully pay for).

Keep that in mind as the next round of budget debates and fights get underway in Washington soon.

It does appear that there will be more of an emphasis on how to create jobs and get the economy moving when Congress reconvenes. But don't get your hopes up. While President Barack Obama plans to unveil a his new "jobs plan" during a major address to the public and a joint session of Congress, for a while he and GOP leaders couldn't even agree on when he ought to come down Pennsylvania Avenue to present his ideas. Once again, likely much to the chagrin of his Democratic allies, President Obama relented and will make his speech in competition with the pre-game show for the first NFL game of the season rather than overshadowing another TV debate among his GOP 2012 rivals.

How silly. It is perfectly appropriate for Congress to debate whether the President's job plan or the GOP's proposal to cut government red tape and regulation are the best way to improve our economy. But fighting over which TV night is better politically for one side or another is just stupid, especially with no job growth reported in August and unemployment staying at 9.1%.

What is deadly serious are the new fights Congress seems ready to get embroiled in over how to pay for the increasing number of natural disasters the nation is experiencing. While Democrats and Republicans fight over how to pay for the huge damages resulting from Hurricane Irene (more direct emergency appropriations or cuts elsewhere in federal spending) the impasse means some folks here in Nashville trying to sell their homes to Metro to avoid future flooding such as what occurred back in May, 2010 will be left in limbo (again) as FEMA has frozen those funds waiting for Congress to act. That's about $30.4 million and 119 houses left up in the air. That's a real shame. Look for Congress to also get into fights over renewing or extending the federal gas and those aviation taxes they left hanging up the air as they left town on recess back at the end of July.

For many of us, when we had recess at school, that's where we all learned how to play well together and get things accomplished.

Don't look for Congress to have learned that after their most recent recess.

DESJARLAIS

We will talk about a lot of these Washington's issues (including redistricting) this weekend with Tennessee's 4th District Republican Congressman Dr. Scott DesJarlais. He is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS.

This is the first time he has joined us as an elected official. Congressman DeJarlais did come on the show last summer when he just beginning his upset campaign to oust Lincoln Davis from office.

I will be interested to see how he is adapting to being in D.C.

You can see my interview with the Congressman several times this weekend on THE NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes 5 a.m. Sunday morning on the main channel, WTVF-TV, Channel 5 as well as on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. THE PLUS airs on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and on Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. INSIDE POLITICS on THE PLUS is broadcast at 7:00 p.m. Friday, 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

For those outside Nashville or who don't have cable, excerpts of previous INSIDE POLITICS show can be found here on newschannel5.com

TRAVEL DOWN

Here's something to contemplate as you drive down the road this Labor Day weekend.

While we all continue to wait for that latest "drop" in gasoline prices, which never quite seems to be as large as promised (especially for Labor Day when prices always go UP). Americans however are driving a lot fewer miles these days due to high gas prices and the soft economy.

According to an article in THE DETROIT NEWS, the mileage we've driven in this country in the first half of 2011 is down by 15.5 billion miles. Wow!

But to put that number in further perspective, the 1.453 trillion miles driven by American the first six months of 2011 is just 1.1% less than the same period last year. It is however the lowest level since 2004.

By the way, I will be resting from my labors next week. No CAPITOL VIEW column September 9. The next column will be posted Friday, September 16.

INSIDE POLITICS next weekend September 9-11) will be a "Best-Of" show featuring the Chairman of Nashville's Historical Commission and Cumberland University professor, Dr. Bill McKee. He will be telling us about "Tennesseans we know nothing about, but should." Even if you think you know a lot about the history of our state, you still need to watch this show. You will definitely learn something.

WRONG SIGNAGE

Driving home the other night, I saw a sign that caught my attention.

It's one of those government "vanity" signs which tell you your tax dollars are at work on some road or water/sewer project. In this case it appears to be a water line job on Brook Vale Avenue which runs between Kendall Drive and Knob Road in the Brookside subdivision.

These signs always list the name of the Mayor and the district council member. And that's what got my attention. Now this area has been changed a bit by the recent council redistricting. But I am nevertheless positive that the sign is wrong.

It lists Council Lady Emily Evans as the representative for this project. Actually, I am pretty sure it's Jason Holleman in District 24 or perhaps Buddy Baker in District 20. But it's not Emily Evans who is in District 23.

Given the frequent disagreements between the Dean Administration and the Council lady (as well as its disagreements and efforts to defeat Jason Holleman in the August Metro election) this sign mistake is kind of humorous to say the least. I suspect it will soon be changed and that it will ultimately become just more water down the Metro drain.