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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, October 21, 2011

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, October 21, 2011

CREATED Oct 22, 2011

CAPITOL VIEW

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

October 21, 2011

THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES; THE RIGHT DECISION; FOOD STAMPS; INSIDE POLITICS; GRADUATION; BACK TO THE MASTER PLAN

THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES

I've watched several presidential campaign cycles over the years.

Never have I seen one quite like this.

It's not just the volatility in the polls with Republican candidates (even some non-candidates) going up and down in popularity, with several "front runners" being ordained only to fall back into the pack.

It's the "presidential election by national cable TV debate" that is so different. Never have we had so many early face-to-face meetings of all the candidates and never have these sessions seem to shape the race so dramatically even before we get to the early primary and caucus states (where the true race to win the nomination really begins in earning delegates to the 2012 GOP convention).

That brings us to the latest GOP debate held a few days ago in Nevada. With seven candidates on the stage (Jon Huntsman didn't come), it was almost a political food fight with everyone competing for air time (and the best sound bite or comeback). I think former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said it best at the end of the night when he told his fellow candidates: "Maximizing the bickering is not the best road to the White House."

It was a particularly tough night if you were considered in the top tier of candidates. The latest front-runner businessman Herman Cain came under attack early and often by his GOP opponents who zeroed in on his 9-9-9 tax plan, citing a couple of recent independent studies that say it would raise taxes on almost everyone but the very rich. Cain tried to counter punch by saying that was wrong and it was comparing apples to oranges, but short of telling voters to go to his web site to check it out, he offered few details to his defend now highly-controversial tax and jobs plan.

Cain continues to be a real surprise in the race. This was probably not his best debate appearance, but his rise in the polls and in name recognition likely continues after having his face on the cover of NEWSWEEK magazine. He is also now leading some key early primary states according to the latest NBC/Marist polls. That would be in Florida (by one point over Romney) and South Carolina (4 points over Romney). Both surveys are within the margins for error, but for someone polling in the low single digits just a few weeks ago his rise to the top is remarkable indeed.

A native of Tennessee (although he lived here only briefly as a child), Cain is spending a lot of time in the state, even doing a bus tour in recent days. While it is unclear how much this benefits his national campaign (since the Tennessee primary isn't until early March), it's driving up his social media numbers. THE NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL reports (October 19) that Nashville was second in the nation in the highest number of Google searches about Cain. That's behind Atlanta where Cain now lives.

But the real challenge for Cain remains turning his moment in the spotlight into real support and money for his campaign. His latest financial disclosure shows he was raised just $1.5 million. That might be enough to conduct a competitive mayor's race in Nashville, but it is several universes short of what is needed to be competitive nationally. I am told by a GOP source that Cain has raised several times that amount in recent days. He'll need every penny given that two of his major rivals, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and current Texas Governor Rick Perry each have at least $15 million in the bank.

It was the near-shouting matches that Romney and Perry engaged in several times during the recent Nevada debate (over immigration and jobs) that were the most heated and personal of the night. Perry was much more aggressive than in past debates while Romney showed that he would try to strongly defend himself if attacked. However, l am not sure either one came off very presidential. Neither did former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum during the debate. He launched several harsh attacks and had somewhat heated verbal exchanges with Romney.

Maybe it was a night that what was said in Vegas should have stayed in Vegas and certainly the 11th Commandment of Republican icon, the late former President Ronald Reagan ("never speak ill of another Republican") was completely trampled by the candidates. In fact, no less than three times Romney was called a liar by his competitors.

Who is leading this race now? If you take watch the actions of the campaign of current occupant of the White House, it would be Romney as an Obama spokesman went after him following the debate with a critical statement charging Romney with continued inconsistencies on the issues.

Speaking of the incumbent president, Barack Obama, he spent another week out on the road promoting his Jobs Bill, even though it died in the Senate due to a GOP-led filibuster. That included a trip to one of my favorite places to visit while on vacation, the Mast General Store in Boone, North Carolina.

But why is the President seemingly continuing to beat this political dead horse of a jobs bill? That's easy. He wants to keep alive the Republicans refusal to approve any of his jobs proposals as a campaign issue for 2012…a "do nothing Congress" ala Harry Truman in 1948. The President and congressional Democrats will continue that theme by breaking up the President's Jobs Plan and re-submitting them to the House and Senate individually for votes (where many, if not all, will fail again).

Getting back to the GOP field, the Perry campaign is showing some more activity in Tennessee. Named to his leadership team for the state are Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who endorsed Perry as soon as he entered the race, along with former California Lt. Governor Mike Curb, who is now a major music executive here in Nashville. Former GOP state party chair and business leader Tom Beasley is also a part of Team Perry in the Volunteer State.

I suspect a number of our GOP elected officials (including some of the ones elected statewide) are likely to support Romney but so far they remain reluctant to step up and say so. Interesting that they are staying so silent as the pace of the presidential campaign continues to quicken.

THE RIGHT DECISION

It's the right decision.

Memphis GOP State Representative Curry Todd should step down as chairman of the powerful State & Local Government Committee. His recent actions leading to an arrest on DUI charges and for carrying a loaded gun in his SUV show he is unfit for leadership in state government.

Whether he ought to continue in public service probably ought to be left to his constituents to decide next year. But he no longer deserves the privilege of holding a committee chairmanship on the Hill.

He just flat out should have known better than to get behind the wheel of a car and drive when he had had enough to drink he couldn't pass a field sobriety test, much less do that with a loaded gun in his car. First, Todd is a former police officer who was sworn to know and uphold the law, including the DUI statutes. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, he was the main sponsor of the law allowing gun permit holders (such as himself) to bring their weapons into bars and restaurants provided they didn't drink.

Even in committee debates, Representative Todd knew the awesome responsibility that entails, and the arrogance involved to disregard it. He told everyone back then that anyone caught drinking with a loaded gun ought to lose his or her gun privileges forever. I hope he will follow through on that as well, and give up his permit while, as he puts it, "this matter is (being) resolved."

House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville was considerate to allow Todd to announce his own decision about stepping down. But she needs to be a bit clearer about this matter. There seems to be a bit of confusion about the conditions of Todd stepping aside. The Speaker told THE TENNESSEAN (October 18) she will appoint "a permanent replacement" because she can't allow…legal proceedings to "impede the process of the General Assembly." Then she told other media outlets that Todd is "stepping down for a temporary period" until he can deal with this matter.

So is he out of the chairmanship for good (the rest of this upcoming session) or just on leave?

Will Todd decide when he is ready to go back or is that decision, as it rightly should be, something for the Madame Speaker to decide? Speaker Harwell needs to step up and appoint a new permanent chairman for the State & Local Government committee. Then she needs to further show her leadership and make it clear that she will decide if and when Todd returns

Representative Todd has already stepped down for a House task force that was set to study further gun laws needed in Tennessee. Is he off that group or just waiting to see how his legal issues turn out? And while it appear the task force will continue its work, hopefully all its members, and all the members of the General Assembly understand they need to not just make the laws, but to follow them, and not doing so has serious consequences and embarrassment for the individual members and the institution.

FOOD STAMPS

Here's another embarrassing situation for our state government.

NewsChannel5's Tim Wetzel has a story (October 14) that indicates "nearly 1,000 state employees have such low salaries that they must rely on government assistance (food stamps) to put food on their tables."

While the median salary for all state employees according to the story is $31,000 a year, some workers make as little as $14,000 a year.

I guess that's what has happened as state salaries the last several years haven't come close to keeping up with the cost of living. There have very small or no raises or perhaps a one-time bonus or two. According to the state's own figures, 964 of its workers are on assistance, including 129 in the Department of Environment & Conservation, 191 in the Department of Corrections and 228 in the Department of Human Services. DHS, ironically, is the state agency in charge of operating the federal food stamps program in Tennessee.

Not surprisingly, the Tennessee Democratic Party was quick to pounce on this story, sending it out in an e-mail that also included a news story from earlier this year when Governor Bill Haslam gave some of his new cabinet members 11% pay raises, telling reporters: "It is my philosophy that in government we should probably have fewer people ---but people that we pay better."

It makes a good point. It is going to be increasingly hard for the state to recruit and keep good employees if it doesn't offer competitive wages to all. But this issue didn't start under Bill Haslam and it couldn't have gotten in this kind of shape just since he came into office last January or even since the Republicans took over both houses of the General Assembly.

It should be a shared responsibility of both parties to come together and come up with a plan to address this matter.

After reviewing news coverage of Governor Haslam's comments on this matter, I would commend him for indicating that a study might be in order to see how competitive the state's salaries and wages are. But I would urge him to think more broadly about the issue and have some urgency about it, not just talk about it in terms of being prepared to keep and/or hire good people once the economy revives.

Perhaps as a state we ought also look at this issue as paying those who work for us at least something close to a living wage at a time when families and individuals are struggling to keep food on the table to the point of needing federal assistance to do so despite have state employment.

INSIDE POLITICS

This week on INSIDE POLITICS we are focusing on state politics, talking with three of the best reporters in Tennessee. They are Tom Humphrey of the KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL (dean of the Capitol Hill Press Corps); Joe White of Nashville Public Radio and Ken Whitehouse of NashvillePost.com.

With all the matters we've talked about already in this column and with the General Assembly coming back to Nashville in about two months, there is lots to discuss.

You can catch the show several times this weekend. That includes 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning on NewsChannel5, WTVF-TV. You can also watch INSIDE POLITICS on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS beginning 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. THE PLUS airs on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and NEWSCHANNEL5's 5.2 over-the-air digital channel.

GRADUATION

Throughout his first term, Mayor Karl Dean focused quite a bit on raising Nashville's high school graduation rate, and there has been some success.

Now over the next five years, he wants to double the number of college graduates we have coming out of Metro Schools.

That's a very ambitious goal since now less than half of the city's public school students even attend a two-year or four-year college and only about a quarter receive a degree within six years. When the Mayor first proposed this challenge during his second inaugural speech a couple of weeks ago, it left several community leaders scratching their heads on exactly how His Honor planned to do it.

In a speech to the Downtown Rotary Club last Monday (October 17), the Mayor tried to further explain his idea.

First, next summer (2012) he hopes to set up what he calls a SCHoLAR's Academy (It stands for Students Choosing Higher Learning and Achieving Success). The Academy will offer a six-to-eight week intensive academic program aimed at improving students' ACT scores and reducing the number of students who need to take remedial and developmental course in college. It will also provide year-round help for students to apply for college and visit area campuses. It will also assist them (and their parents) in filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Money from the state will play an important role in the Mayor's plans as well. He wants the Tennessee Legislature to pass legislation to remove the financial barrier for students to take dual enrollment courses wherein they receive both high school and college credit.

Right now, Tennessee Lottery funds pay for some, but not all the costs for the dual courses. The Mayor wants the Lottery to pay it all removing what is now an "insurmountable" cost the Mayor says for up to 75% of Metro students who qualify to take the classes but can't do now because of the cost.

It's a great idea, but look for major problems to get state lawmakers to go along since they are already fighting tooth and nail about how to allocate the lottery money they have before this proposal ever came up.

But this is clearly a critical issue for the future of Nashville and communities across the state. Mayor Dean said it this way to the Rotarians. "Education will be the deciding factor between cities that are successful in the 21st Century and those that are not. Our economy is no longer driven by those who can manufacture goods, but instead by those who can generate ideas."

The Mayor believes Nashville is "uniquely positioned to become a national model for how a city can usher an unprecedented number of public high school students into college classrooms."

To put on a more personal level for all of us, the Mayor's office released these figures:

• According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for those ages 25 and older is 7.8%. For those without a high school diploma, the rate almost doubles to 14%. For those with a four-year college degree the rate drops to just 4.2%.

• According to the Center for Regional Economic Competiveness, in Nashville, the average value of a four-year college degree—compared to not having a high school diploma—amounts to nearly $1 million in additional earnings over a 40-year career.

• And for those who say we can't afford to do this, according to the group, CEOs for Cities, if Nashville increases by just 1% the number of adults 18 years or older with a bachelor's degree it will generate an economic return in per capita income of $1.1 billion.

As difficult it will be (and maybe even impossible) to double the number of college graduates coming out of Metro Schools in the next five years, given the impact numbers such as the ones just mentioned, how can we not at least try to accomplish the Mayor's goal for the future growth and prosperity of Nashville?

BACK TO THE MASTER PLAN

Kudos to the new Metro Council for not chasing political rabbits and voting on a plan to require the city's Fair Board to solicit bids to develop a country-music/stock car racing theme park for the State Fairgrounds.

The previous Council decided that before anything happens at the Fairgrounds there ought to be a master plan done of the property. That hasn't been done yet and the Council ought not inject its "wisdom" into the matter until someone with at least some true expertise about what the possible uses of the city-owned property could be, has a chance to look it over and offer recommendations.

Councilman Bruce Stanley is the lawmaker advocating for the new amusement park even though there have been few signs that anyone in the private sector wants to step forward to build and operate such a facility. He knows he doesn't have the vote in the Council to move ahead. So he was wise to withdraw his proposal rather than see it rejected if put to a vote.

He would also be wise to wait on putting up a memorializing resolution on the matter in the Council. I doubt the votes are there for that either. Heck, it doesn't seem to me even those who worked hard to save the Fairgrounds over the past couple of years are all that keen on the theme park proposal.

If Councilman Stanley still wants to advocate for the city to develop an amusement park at the Fairgrounds, that's his right. But let's wait and see what the master plan study says first before we stir this hornet's nest one more time.