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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, February 1, 2013

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, February 1, 2013

CREATED Feb 1, 2013

CAPITOL VIEW

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

February 1, 2013

THE CRAZINESS RESUMES; BUDGET WEEK; THE HARDEST POLITICAL JOB IN TENNESSEE; PULL; MORE PROGRESS

THE CRAZINESS RESUMES

State lawmakers came back to Nashville this past week to begin in earnest their work for the year. And right away, the craziness began. You really didn't think a bill limit on House members would stop Senator Stacy Campfield of Knoxville from finding a House co-sponsor and reintroducing his "Don't Say Gay" bill, did you? Or for that matter adding a new notification provision that made the proposal even more controversial and newsworthy nationwide?

And there's his new bill cutting off welfare assistance to any parents if their children do poorly in school. Are the late night comedy shows thinking of adding a special writer to handle the Tennessee jokes? Will therapists now offer special anger management rates per Campfield's e-mail to a constituent that he needed help because he thought his legislation is "an embarrassment to the state?"

And then there's the "guns in parking lots" bill. It's back in the hopper and while Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey says he can't understand why the matter isn't passed and dealt with quickly, signs are the impasse between gun rights and property rights advocates continues, leaving the Republican super majority potentially divided and reporters still having questions to ask. Like it or not.

BUDGET WEEK

For both the State of Tennessee and Metro Government, it's budget time. The Governor's $32 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year (beginning July 1) more or less dominated his comments during his annual State of the State address to lawmakers.

Most of the state's extra money is going to handle expected increases in the TennCare program to provide health services to the poor, although the Governor indicated he is still undecided about further expanding the program (almost entirely with federal dollars at least to begin with) under the new national health care act. The Governor still says he doesn't like Obamacare, but he also points out how many rural hospitals in the state may not be able to survive without the Medicaid/Tenncare expansion and the extra monies from Washington.

So will that make for a different decision by the Governor than what happened with creating state health care exchanges which he rejected last year? Stay tuned because the Governor seems once again to be publicly debating the pros and cons of both sides of any decision. Meanwhile Republicans in both Houses have filed legislation to block any Medicaid/TennCare expansion, with the Senate measure already showing 16 sponsors and co-sponsors just one less than needed for passage. Just a reminder to the Governor, I guess about where GOP lawmakers are on this subject.

With the rest of increased state revenues, the Governor would like to give state workers another small pay raise (1.5%) as well as provide more funds for staffing and reimbursements for two often controversial agencies, Corrections and Children Services. State dollars are once again approaching the levels of 2008, before the Great Recession. So the Governor sees the possibilities to further reduce the grocery tax (another ¼ of a penny from 5 ¼ to 5%) and further decrease the burden of the Hall Income Tax on dividends. Lawmakers seem likely to approve these cuts although Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey may still want to get rid of the Hall Tax entirely.

Education was another big topic in the Governor's speech. For the first time in several years, he'd like to give more funds to colleges and universities in exchange for holding down tuition increases to between 3% (two year schools) to 6% (four year schools). He also unveiled several programs aimed at increasing Tennessee's college graduation rate from a very low 32% to 55% by 2025. I should have known this would likely be a State of the State theme when this matter was highlighted (but buried) in a recent news release announcing a new special assistant who will advise the Governor on higher education issues.

Going from 32% to 55% in graduations will be quite a feat even in the next 12 years. But it appears two programs outlined by the Governor in his speech could help especially for those who've already made an effort, if unfinished, to get a degree. One is a need-based "last dollar" scholarship and grant program to help students get the money they need to stay in or go back to school to finish their work. The other new program is "an on-line competency-based program geared towards the 80,000 adult Tennesseans with some college credit but no degree." The program would utilize mentors "to guide these students through the academic process."

But the most high profile (and likely most controversial) program the Governor has unveiled is a school voucher effort (although he never uses that word). It could assist between 5,000 students in poor performing public schools (in 2013) up to 20,000 students in 2016 receive the tuition monies they need to attend participating private or Catholic schools instead.

It seems somewhat likely this Republican legislature will eventually approve some kind of voucher plan. But there will be other proposals besides just what the Governor suggests and the debate over the details could further fuel the controversy which could continue perhaps until lawmakers decide on a budget this spring or maybe into next year.

Metro is not nearly as far along as the state in its budget process. But the annual department kickoff for budget planning held this past week made it clear, even a year after a property tax increase, funds remain tight. In fact, Finance Director Rich Riebeling wants all city agencies to submit spending plans with a 2% across the board cuts. Will 2% cuts happen across the board? No, in fact it has become almost annual ritual that department heads are instructed to go through the fiscal exercise of explaining how they would decrease their spending but continue to deliver high-quality services. But don't sell the exercise short. It keeps city agencies focused on doing their best and some departments may still have to make some economies this year. Revenues and projections remain very tight.

But the best Metro budget news that seems to be in the offing (according to rumors at the Metro Courthouse) is that the recently completed countywide property reappraisal (required every four years) has shown enough growth in the city and its real estate market that it won't create a legal tax challenge. Here's what I mean. The law requires the property tax rate be adjusted by the Council to make sure the reappraisal doesn't create a tax increase on its own. There is some room allowed for normal "growth" in tax revenues. But what worried some city leaders privately, especially in 2011 and early in 2012, was that there would not be enough tax base growth or that property values would decline to the point that the Council might be forced to increase the property tax rate after the reappraisal just to keep tax collections at their current level.

To further complicate the matter is the property tax cap in the city's charter adopted by voters a few years ago. Right now the tax rate is just a few pennies below the cap. Could the Council go above that cap if the reappraisal required it? Or would the matter have to go to a public vote or to the courts?

Again that does not appear likely to happen to which the Dean administration and the Metro Council will be most grateful and which will make this year's budget fights (whatever they are) seem minor in comparison.

THE HARDEST POLITICAL JOB IN TENNESSEE

Reviving the Tennessee Democratic Party, it may be the toughest political job in the state these days. Now it belongs to former State Senator Roy Herron who was elected to be Party Chair last weekend. Herron replaces Chip Forrester after four tough years of election losses statewide and in the General Assembly along with a fair amount of party in-fighting.

Roy Herron is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend. We will see what his plan is to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, trying to turn one of the reddest states in the country back to least a bit more purple if not blue again someday. It's gonna take a while I suspect even under the best of political circumstances and good fortune for the Democrats.

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 later posted on NEWSCHANNEL5.com.

PULL

It has to be the wackiest part of the gun violence debate in Washington. That would be Tennessee Congressman Marsha Blackburn (during an interview on CNN) challenging President Barack Obama to a skeet shooting match. The Tennessee representative does not believe the President's recent comments to a reporter that he shoots skeet "all the time" when he visits the presidential retreat at Camp David. Blackburn says she'd win a skeet contest against the President, and says she'd like to see photographic evidence of the President's shooting.

So far that hasn't happened nor has Blackburn produced any evidence of her own skeet shooting prowess (she does say she shoots pretty good for a girl and that she used to raise campaign funds through a skeet event). Maybe (and hopefully) all of this tempest in a teapot will end there. But in a way, it does point out that fund raising remains a dominant ongoing effort in Washington for our elected officials.

The supporters of Senator Lamar Alexander say they hope to raise more than $3 million for his 2014 re-election effort with a series of four fundraisers soon across the state soon. If that happens (and it likely will) that would give the senior senator more than $4 million to spend on his campaign putting him in a nearly unbeatable position even if a challenger wanted to arise but couldn't self- fund his or her own race.

All that money would also give the Senator additional protection from any political blowback from a recent survey that shows him voting with President Obama more than almost any other GOP Senator in the south (up to 62% in some years). Those kinds of vote comparisons can be tricky, especially since they usually include judicial and other confirmations where Alexander says he normally leans towards a yes vote if that is who the President desires (the NRLB appointments obviously not withstanding).

So it appears given his strong endorsements from across the GOP, the continued weakness in viable candidates among Democrats and his likely strong fund raising haul Senator Alexander will have the ammunition he needs to win another 6 years term (whether he's ever shot a round of skeet or not).

MORE PROGRESS

As I enter my eighth month of recovery from a stroke, I can report continued progress. I had my regular every 3-months doctor's appointment Wednesday morning, and after looking at over two months of my twice daily blood pressure readings, he pronounced himself pleased at the range of blood pressures he observed.

Those words made me feel much better. My morning readings have been very good, ranging to the low 100s over 66 to as high as the low 120s over 66 or so (all in the excellent range). Being on my sleep apnea machine makes a big difference for sure. I did have some concern about some of my nighttime readings which ranged as high as the 140s and low 150s (over 88 or even 90) a few nights. The doctor says he is not concerned. He says blood pressures can vary all the time (if I had a tough day, Vandy lost a game or for no particular reason at all). But lookin at my blood pressure readings overall everything is OK he thinks. If he says it's OK, that's good enough for me. For now, I am still taking both blood pressure medications prescribed for me twice a day with the hope and goal that one day in the future I can get off one or both.

One unexpected part of the doctor's exam, I've lost another four pounds. I am down to 174 (the lightest I've been since high school or when I first got married) and about 35 pounds less than my heaviest weight in pre-stroke days. I am happy with it, especially since I got some new suits for Christmas which actually fit me. I thought after the holidays and how I had been eating, I might have actually gained a pound or two. Maybe the weekly Y work out, along with the light exercises I am doing at home helps and doing what I can to limit my sodium intake is a plus too.

I saw another difference in how my eating habits have changed following the doctor's appointment. Since I have blood work done each visit, I fast before I go and eat breakfast afterwards. That usually means going by McDonald's before heading to work and getting the Big Breakfast with hot cakes. But this time when I arrived, I saw the new calorie numbers listed on the menu (kudos to McDonald's for posting) and learned such a meal would be close to 1600 calories! There was (of course) no listing about sodium, but I was sure it was probably not good. So I looked elsewhere on the menu and got a fruit parfait and some apple slices along with a small coffee. It's a meal I would have never considered a year ago but it hit the spot and cost under $3.

I mentioned how much better I am sleeping at night. Maybe it's a bit too good. I heard none of the severe storms that roared through the other night. The only way I knew something happened was waking up after I overslept by about 50 minutes and realizing the alarm clock was flashing so we must have had a power outage. Given that I had no idea we were under a tornado warning during the night, maybe I need to look into getting a weather radio or an app to keep me updated on severe weather. But it is nice to sleep soundly and I do have more energy each day, even if from time to time I do have some sinking spells in terms of energy. They are less much less frequent than in the past.