Capitol View Commentary: Friday, March 23, 2012
By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
March 23, 2012
Metro's Budget Show; Etch-A-Sketch; Wacky on the Hill; Speaker Harwell on INSIDE POLITICS; Taking A Break
METRO'S BUDGET SHOW
It's an annual rite of spring, dating back at least to the mid-1970s when Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton was in office and I was a very young TV reporter.
I am talking about the annual Metro budget hearings which current Mayor Karl Dean has scheduled for next week (March 26-30). The hearings involve series of public meetings between the Mayor (joined by his Finance Director Rich Riebeling and other key staff such as Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote) and various city department leaders. They'll be discussing their upcoming operating budgets which must be submitted by May 1 to the Metro Council for approval by July 1.
Sometimes these hearings are as boring as any meetings you can attend. But this next week take a watch on Metro Channel 3 (Comcast) and you may get some clues and learn some more details about what is becoming the worst kept secret in town. While the Dean administration has asked all departments to once again submit budgets with cuts of up to 2% (and some departments may receive cuts this coming fiscal year), that's not the full story. The full story is that for the first time since 2005, a property tax increase will likely be recommended by the Mayor for the Council to approve.
This will be the first time Mayor Dean has asked for a tax hike. He never did in his first four-year term and property taxes were not raised in the last two years of Mayor Bill Purcell's second term. Seven years is a long time. The feeling is that a majority of this current Metro Council understands that and they are amenable to raising more revenue (although you can still expect spirited opposition in both the Council and the community to any tax hike).
There is something quite unique about this year's upcoming tax hike battle. This will be the first property tax increase request since voters approved an amendment to the Metro Charter limiting any future tax hikes (beyond what was then the current tax rate) without a public referendum. That tax rate has been lowered a bit by the most recent countywide property reappraisal which is required every five years by state law. So there is now a "spread" (56 cents) between what the rate once was, and what it is now. Those who helped pass the charter amendment say a public referendum will not be required if the new tax rate does not exceed the old one (56 cents or less).
There are those at the Metro Courthouse who believe the Charter amendment is unconstitutional and should be taken to court and thrown out. But the feeling is the Dean administration won't mount that legal challenge and will seek a tax hike of 56 cents or less and leave it up to the Council alone and not the voter to decide.
So what will 56 cents get in extra services for our citizens so the Mayor can sell it? That's a very good question, particularly since some of the hike (a few pennies) may well need to be spent to pay for current debt. Metro has avoided a property tax increase the last few years through the adroit moves of Finance Director Riebeling who re-financed a lot of the city's debt. That has lowered interest rates saving the city money. But the debt has not gone away and we will need to continue to repay it in the future.
Other challenges will be how Mayor Dean funds his priorities, especially Metro schools which have asked for an additional $45 million next year. Actually that's not quite as bad as it sounds. The schools' request assumes the system will receive no new state dollars (but it probably will). Still for a Mayor (and many in the Metro Council) who have prided themselves in always fully-funding the school budget (including this year the money to raise starting teachers' salaries to $40,000) this could be a real stretch.
Metro employees have gone several years without a real pay raise (it's hard to plan a family budget on the small one-time bonuses they have gotten in recent budgets). But a multi-year pay plan (even with small pay hikes of 2%-3% annually) can take up a lot of pennies in a tax hike. I know that first-hand from what I did when I helped Mayor Fulton pass a property tax increase back in 1985.
Add that into whatever new capital improvements plan the Mayor will recommend (the new sidewalks, parks, and other amenities Mayors always spread out across the county to sweeten the pot for Council members to support the tax hike) and getting all that funded with just 56 cents will be a real budgetary feat.
Metro is dealing with another funding issue. When he first came into office five years ago, Mayor Dean had to cut a new deal for the Nashville Predators NHL Hockey team to stay in town. That included an annual subsidy to the team of over $8 million annually. Now things have stabilized for the club (in fact it seems to be having close to its best year ever in terms of both attendance and the upcoming playoffs).
The problem for Metro is that the tourism-related funds it has used to pay the Predators its annual subsidy is gone (along with a lot of other money) to pay for the new convention center now under construction. So the city has been trying to strike another deal with the hockey team even as a deadline approaches (April 30) that renews the current subsidy deal if something different isn't worked out.
Late word (NASHVILLEPOST.com, March 22) is that the Preds and the city are close to a new agreement which will be presented to the city's Sports Authority for approval in the "few days or weeks" before it goes on to the Metro Council for its review and a final up or down vote. Speculation is the new (lower?) subsidy will come from some additional user taxes on those who frequent the downtown Arena. Is it worth it? The Preds sure think so and have unveiled a new study that estimates the team and the Arena (which the team operates and promotes) has an annual economic impact of at least $410 million.
ETCH A SKETCH
In recent days the major story on the GOP presidential campaign trail came down to child's play. More specifically it came down to a child's toy we all remember, an Etch A Sketch.
On a day when Mitt Romney should have been crowing about his lopsided win in the Illinois primary adding momentum to his big victory in Puerto Rico (where one of his chief rivals, Rick Santorum paid for his gaffe in saying the island should never be made a state until it makes English its official language), Team Romney put its foot in its mouth. Also upstaging Romney's key endorsement that same day by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a key aide in the campaign went on CNN and in response to a question of whether the tough primary season might force the "former governor to tack so far to the right" that he would alienate moderates in the general election, said in response: "Well, I think you hit the reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."
For a candidate long accused of flip flopping on the issues and lacking sincerity, I can't think of a worse comment for one of his top aides to make. It just further reinforces all the negative stereotypes Romney's been fighting the entire campaign.
But having said that, Romney continues to make slow, but steady progress towards being the GOP nominee, even through an article in a recent WALL STREET JOURNAL (March 21) estimates at his current "progress" in gathering delegates it could still take him well into June (and the end of the primary season) to clinch the deal. One of his rivals, Newt Gingrich however continues to fade badly. He finished last (4th) in Illinois behind Ron Paul, who hasn't been considered a serious contender for months. Gingrich's Super PAC also seems to be running dry on new funding.
The latest financial disclosures show even Romney is showing some signs of financial distress as he has continued to outspend his opponents as much as 5 or 6 to 1 in winning these primary and caucus battles. Fortunately his Super PAC continues to carry a lot of the financial load. But President Barack Obama, without an opponent until the fall, has already raised more money than all the Republicans combined (and has been able to save a good bit of it for later).
Again, fortunately for the Republicans, the many GOP Super PACs are in a position to make up the money slack for Romney. But what would help him the most would be to end this nomination battle and start focusing all his efforts towards uniting his support for the fall.
But so far neither Santorum or Gingrich are moving towards the exits, even though a WALL STREET JOURNAL analysis (March 21) indicates the upcoming primary and caucus schedule would seem to strongly favor Romney in April before moving into states in May that would seem more favorable ground for Santorum and Gingrich. After Louisiana this weekend (Saturday) where a Rasmussen poll has Santorum up comfortably over the rest of the field (Santorum 43%, Romney 31%, Gingrich 16%, Paul 5%) even Santorum aides admit the other states voting in April do not bode well for their candidate, including Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania (which is Santorum's home state) and Rhode Island. Prospects for Santorum do look better when the calendar turns to March and the contests are back in southern states such as Arkansas, Texas and Kentucky. But can and/or Gingrich hold on that long, especially since there is a continuing pattern in terms of states and voter demographics that has been going on with these candidates for months (particularly that Romney hasn't or can't win in the more conservative South while Santorum/Gingrich struggle in the more moderate parts of the country)?
But even with the Jeb Bush endorsement being obscured a bit by the Etch A Sketch gaffe, there are a number of new conservative voices speaking out that enough is enough. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a major leader in the Tea Party, while not endorsing Romney seems to be indicating in recent comments, that Romney's rivals ought to be rethinking their campaigns going forward. Then there are these comments in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (March 22) from former GOP candidate Michelle Bachmann: "At this point we would be better off if we could unify behind a candidate, whoever that candidate may be…I think it is important for us to unify and unify quickly." And there are these remarks in the same WSJ article from RedState.com blogger Erick Erickson: "Conservatives may not really like Mitt Romney, but they do not want a fractured party too divided to bear Barack Obama. There will be no white knight, no dark horse, and no brokered convention. We have our nominee." And an Etch A Sketch too, I guess.
WACKY ON THE HILL
As the pace continues to pick up on Tennessee's Capitol Hill, moving towards a possible adjournment sometime in April, not everything is hard work and nose to the grindstone.
During the annual Farm Day on the Hill, there was a milking contest between the two Speakers. Now you'd think Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey would win this easily since he is a country boy who claims he grew up on a dairy farm in Upper East Tennessee while Madame Speaker of the House, Beth Harwell, is more a city girl from Nashville (she even reportedly did some of her milking while still wearing her suit jacket).
Well, all those suppositions turned out to be wrong. Harwell won the annual Milk Bucket Award for her efforts in squeezing out more into her pail than the Senate Speaker, although one reporter (Chas Sisk of THE TENNESSEAN) reported on his blog that "an eagle eyed viewer spotted some suspicious activity" at one point in the contest.
This is apparently not the last "contest" scheduled on the Hill. I got a news release this week touting "Fight Night 2012" coming up on April 25 (meaning it may not actually occur until after adjournment). "Fight Night" is "an action packed exhibition of amateur boxing" to be held at the War Memorial Auditorium with "the headline bout featuring boxers sponsored by the Tennessee House Republican Caucus and the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus." And you thought all they had in common was shaking down the lobbyists at their annual fund raisers?
I am not sure these two groups ought to be encouraged to fight each other anymore than they already do on the Hill, but the night seems to be for a good cause. All proceeds raised ‘will go to benefit NOT ALONE, a not-for-profit 501c3 organization" dedicated to getting veterans and their help they need to deal with issues such as combat trauma.
Getting back to the business at hand on the Hill, it appears a lot of it revolves around hot button social issues these days (everything from sex education to abortion, the Ten Commandments, school prayer, guns and creationism). It led to the Democrats House Caucus leader, Mike Turner, to throw a few jabs at the GOP in his weekly meeting with reporters. In an article by Jeff Woods of THE NASHVILLE SCENE (March 22), Turner said: "They're preoccupied with sex up here. They've got a real thing with sex. We're about to put the turbans on, I think, and put the women in burkas here if we keep going at this rate. There are some things coming through that just make you think, good Lord! We've making national news on all these crazy things. It's not good for the state of Tennessee….It's embarrassing, it really is."
Turner also added: "The social conservatives have control of the Republican Party. It seems like they are against everything. When you win elections, no matter what party you're from, you have to stop playing politics….When you actually win elections, at some point you have to try and govern. That's making hard decisions. I don't think they're ready to govern yet, and that's part of the problem."
But Turner may have talked a bit too much. He also was quoted as saying: "When you are in the minority (as the Democrats are these days) you play politics to get into the majority."
OK, Mike, whatever you say.
SPEAKER HARWELL ON INSIDE POLITICS
Fresh from her milking victory on Ag Day, House Speaker Harwell is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend. I guess after "herding cats" all week (as you have to be able to do to be the top leader in either House), milking might actually be a lot easier to do, I guess.
We discuss many of the major issues still pending in the General Assembly including "Guns in Parking Lots" and the effort to keep the results of the new teacher evaluations secret. On the gun bill, she says the situation is a tough one, pitting gun rights versus business owners' and property rights. She feels the proposal is too broad (even if it is "constitutional" according to the Attorney General). The Speaker adds passing the bill would put Tennessee out of step with almost every other state in terms of gun rights. She believes a compromise can be crafted despite the strong opposition to any modifications from the powerful National Rifle Association.
Concerning teacher evaluations, the Speaker indicates that one possible compromise might be to make public the state's Value Added numbers. Those statistics measure the annual progress of every teacher's class from the beginning to the end of each academic year. Meanwhile she suggests the more subjective and personal teacher evaluations be kept secret to protect privacy.
INSIDE POLITICS can be 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. We also air on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS at 7:00 p.m., Friday; 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m., Saturday; and 5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. THE PLUS can be seen on several local cable systems, including Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and on Channel 5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2.
Excerpts of this show and previous INSIDE POLITICS shows can also be found on here on newschannel5.com.
TAKING A BREAK
I am taking some time off, so no column next week. Look for the next CAPITOL VIEW on Friday, April 6. Until then I will be listening for the crack of the bat and celebrating my father-in-law 90th birthday.
There will be an encore presentation of INSIDE POLITICS next weekend, featuring the recent show we did on Nashville and the Civil War. This is a fascinating story that was just beginning to unfold 150 years ago and it still has echoes in our community today. Nashville County Historian Carole Bucy is my guest.