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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, January 18, 2013

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, January 18, 2013

CREATED Jan 18, 2013

CAPITOL VIEW

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

January 18, 2013

 

MORE OF THE SAME; DESJARLAIS ON INSIDE POLITICS; COOPER BRAVES THE STORM; MORE ART THAN SCIENCE; PROBLEMS IN PARADISE; HASLAM ELEVATES VOUCHERS AND HIGHER EDUCATION

MORE OF THE SAME

Despite the beginning of a new presidential term and a new Congress, don't look for the "era of good feelings" to return to our national Capitol anytime soon. For those who don't know or don't remember their history lessons, the "era of good feelings" was a time right after the War of 1812 when historians say partisan political parties faded in importance (briefly) in our national politics

For now partisanship and gridlock could be even more the order of the day in the next few months. Even as President Barack Obama sends his plan to Capitol Hill to address gun violence in our nation, the National Rifle Association is running a TV ad that says Mr. Obama's opposition to armed guards in schools (with his daughters receiving Secret Service protection in their classes) makes the President an "elitist" and "a hypocrite. " The White House responds by calling the NRA ad "repugnant and cowardly."

OK, so much for having an adult conversation on this issue.

Despite a new national poll (Reuters 1/17) that show growing support for banning assault weapons (74%), high-capacity ammunition clips (74%), and expanded background checks on gun buyers including at guns shows and in private party sales (86%), it doesn't appear the President's proposals have much chance of approval in Congress, particularly in the Republican-led House. Some of his executive orders could be challenged as well by legislation or in the courts or maybe by some with threats of impeachment.

The President is hoping strong public pressure will divide and weakened his GOP opposition which worked in the recent fiscal cliff tax battle. Whether it will work this time remains unclear.   

And guns are not the only challenge the President faces ahead with Congress as he takes the oath of office for a second four years. There are three different financial confrontations (raising the debt ceiling, the postponed "fiscal cliff" automatic budget cuts and continued appropriations to keep the government operating) that must be dealt with between now and spring. And don't forget the potential confirmation fights in the Senate over some of his new Cabinet appointments.

If you loved 2012 in Washington, you get a lot more of the same in 2013, even if it's a non-election year. Happy New Year!

 

DESJARLAIS ON INSIDE POLITICS

My guest this weekend on INSIDE POLITICS is one of those folks right in the middle of the fight in Washington, Tennessee Fourth District Republican Congressman Dr. Scott DesJarlais. We talk with him about all the issues we mentioned above from guns to budgets to debt ceilings and appropriations. And, of course, we also discuss in some detail the personal issues/scandals of the past several months that have some calling for his resignation from office now or his defeat in two years.

It's a very interesting conversation I must say.  The Congressman does seem more apologetic about his past actions involving abortion and affairs with his medical patients. But he is still resistant to any indication that he misled or lied to voters when the allegations (later confirmed by court documents) first arose but he said then were false (even called them garbage in a campaign ad).

The Congressman also indicated he is in some kind of ongoing talks or conversations with state medical licensing officials about potential professional charges he might face to have his medical license suspended or revoked. He would not elaborate further.  

INSIDE POLITICS can be seen several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. Our air times include 5:00 a.m. Sunday on the main channel, WTVF-TV NEWSCHANNEL5.  We are also 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., Sunday. THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and NEWSCHANNEL5's over-the-air digital channel. For those outside Nashville or who don't have cable access, portions of INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also posted (later in the week) on the NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS segment of NEWSCHANNEL5.COM.

COOPER BRAVES THE STORM

Another of the policy issues we discuss with Congressman DesJarlais is his vote against the $50 billion relief bill for Hurricane Sandy victims approved by the House a few days ago. Some see it as hypocritical after Tennessee has benefited so frequently (unfortunately) in recent years from federal disaster relief funds approved by Washington in the wake of floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters in our state.

Another member of our delegation catching flack for his no vote is Nashville's Jim Cooper. Cooper, like DesJarlais, explains his position by saying Congress is doing nothing to offset these new disaster relief costs by making cuts in other parts of the federal government. That has been sometimes done in the past.

Cooper has been known to be a fiscal maverick, especially in his party (Democratic) so no one should be all that surprised by his action. But in retrospect the Congressman might have softened the shock impact  among his constituents by issuing a statement explaining his position prior to his vote rather than some hours afterwards, especially since Cooper turned out to be the only Democrat in the entire House of Representatives to vote against the Hurricane Sandy Relief bill. I am not willing to say, as some are, that this act alone might get Cooper primary opposition in 2014 (this is not the Fourth District which is already attracting candidates over 18 months out), but it won't help him, that's for sure.

MORE ART THAN SCIENCE

It sure looked like a good idea at the time.

Back during the Great Recession when unemployment was skyrocketing and nobody seemed to be creating any new jobs, providing state government funds and other incentives to bring the Hemlock Semiconductor Group and other firms in the emerging polysilicon industry to Tennessee, looked like economic and political manna from heaven.

But a few years later with a $1.2 billion plant ready to open in Montgomery County (Clarksville) providing hundreds of jobs, the polysilicon industry is now oversaturated with product and hurt by potential Chinese tariffs. So instead 300 of the 400 workers now on board will be laid off, with the future for the just finished plant unknown.  

There will be some who will use this situation as a poster child for why these kinds of government economic development incentives are a bad idea. But frankly attracting and keeping jobs in any area these days is sometimes more art than science. About the best you can do is to choose your partner firms wisely, put in the best financial protections you can for the taxpayer (which in this case seems to have been done) and hope the investment works out in a global economy that is hard to predict and impossible to control. But this latest development is clearly a big economic "ouch" and a major  disappointment for the state which hoped to be an industry leader in a technology and product that now appears to have an uncertain future.

PROBLEMS IN PARADISE

Nashville may be "Nowville" and the "it" city in the national media, but that doesn't mean we don't face challenges in our local government‘s ongoing funding.

Take the international bond rating house Moody's recent negative outlook for the city as it looks to refinance some previous capital debt from 2005 (to save money through paying lower interest rates). Now overall the bond rating (Aa1) Moody's is assigning is a good one, and Moody's says that "reflects Metro's favorable overall economic factors as a state capital and regional economic center" as well as our "manageable debt levels and the strong fiscal management" Metro has maintained over the years.

But the negative outlook for Metro is given for four reasons:

Modest General Fund reserves

Financial support of Metro General Hospital

Property tax referendum requiring public vote in order to raise the property tax rate above a cap

Above average debt burden

At least one of these issues the city is dealing with to an extent. The Council added some of the property tax increase in 2012 into reserves for the future. Metro can also hold the line on increasing capital debt if needed in the future to keep our burden within manageable levels. The other two items, the property tax cap/referendum and continued financial support for General Hospital (and its Bordeaux nursing home facility) are much more politically complicated and explosive.

With a tax rate increase last year, it is unlikely the administration of Mayor Karl Dean will seek another upward adjustment to that prior to the end of his final term in 2015. Therefore, it is also unlikely the administration would mount a legal challenge to the property tax cap/referendum requirement placed in the city charter by voters a few years ago.

But the General Hospital issue could become a major issue soon. Already Metro Finance officials have made it clear the city can no longer afford the increasing the multi-million dollar annual subsidy it provides the Hospital Authority to keep General as an in-patient facility. The major problem is the hospital is staffed and equipped to be full-service, but it attracts way too few patients.

Better marketing and other efforts have been tried to correct the issue, but the patient census has not improved very much while costs and the annual subsidy continue to rise. The city has a legal obligation to provide health care to the poor, but some think it could done better and more economically by making General an out-patient clinic facility  and/or privatizing in-patient care to other local hospitals (and possibly do the same with the licensed nursing home beds at Bordeaux).   

That could create some political problems on its own, but what makes the General issue so explosive is that closing the in-patient hospital would end the availability of residency positions for Nashville's historic Meharry Medical College to train its physicians.  Meharry has trained a large portion of minority doctors in this nation and an end to the school would create major local and national pr problems which could turn racial.

It has been reported that Mayor Dean has held off acting on the General issue to give Meharry officials time to find another partner to provide residency positions. It is unknown how well that effort is going or how much longer the Mayor will wait. But budget time lies ahead come the spring so that could be a tipping point for additional developments. Stay tuned.

HASLAM ELEVATES VOUCHERS AND HIGHER EDUCATION

The legislative pecking order for some major issues in Tennessee changed this past week even with lawmakers in adjournment. Governor Bill Haslam says he has changed his mind and will offer legislation this year to create a school voucher program for Tennessee.

The only details he offered on his forthcoming bill is that the opportunity scholarships created would be aimed at helping low income families and students in the state's lowest performing schools. More details are likely to come later this month when the Governor presents his State of the State address.

The fact that the Governor is now offering a bill certainly raises the possibility that some kind of voucher program will be approved as it indicates the likelihood of overall unity among the Republicans that dominate the General Assembly and state government. One remaining question may be educating and building support among lawmakers across the state on the issue, particularly in rural areas where the demand for vouchers has not seemed to be as strong as in urban and suburban parts of the state. So approval might take until 2014, or maybe not if Republicans are united.

Governor Haslam also says he will bring back legislation this term to allow local school boards to set up their own pay plans to reward their best teachers. The matter got held up last year in a fight over class sizes. Details of this latest merit pay proposal are also forthcoming soon from the Governor, and so its chances of approval await whatever devil might or might not lurk in those details.

Another issue that got a boost from the Governor in recent days is higher education.  He announced this past week the appointment of a Knoxville businessman, Randy Boyd to join his staff full time as an unpaid special advisor on this issue, particularly "to focus on affordability, access and quality of state programs" according  to a news release from the Governor's office.

It's not exactly clear at this point what this appointment and the charge given to him by the Governor will mean in terms of new policies or change in the state's higher education governance structure or programs. But the Governor is clearly setting out an overall lofty and challenging long term goal for his higher education initiative to meet.

While the news release seemed to downplay it a bit, the Governor said: "Only 32 per cent of our state's adult population has a post-secondary degree, but if we are going to have a workforce that's job ready, we need to be at 55 per cent by 2025."

Wow! That's a 23 per cent in just 12 years. Whatever the Governor has in mind that's a lot of work to get started on and get things going as soon as possible.