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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, May 3, 2013

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, May 3, 2013

CREATED May 3, 2013

CAPITOL VIEW

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

May 3, 2013

THE AG-GAG WAIT; PILOT; THE WRECKING BALL; MIXED MESSAGES; CAN WE ALL GET ON THE BUS TOGETHER; GEORGE JONES; CONGRESSMAN BLACKBURN ON INSIDE POLITICS; A GOOD CHECKUP

THE AG-GAG WAIT

The public pressure continues to mount on Governor Bill Haslam concerning what he plans to do about the so-called "Ag-Gag bill." That's the measure passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in the waning days of its recent session that would require any evidence of animal abuse be reported to authorities within 48 hours. Otherwise that failure to report becomes a crime.

Several national celebrities (Carrie Underwood, Ellen DeGeneres and others) have joined with the National Humane Association, along with media and First Amendment organizations in urging the Governor to veto the measure. They say it violates the Constitution regarding freedom of the press and it is actually a law that would enable the continued cover up of animal abuse.

Now the controversy is taking a religious tack with a local group called Clergy for Justice Tennessee presenting a petition to the Governor with over 300 signatures of "clergy members and people of faith from across the state" urging Mr. Haslam to reject the bill. They fear the measure if it becomes law "will shield big agribusiness and abusive horse trainers from whistleblowing exposes that reveal animal abuse and poor food safety practices."

In meeting with reporters earlier this week (April 30), the Governor said he had not made a decision about what to do. According to THE TENNESSEAN, "he understands their argument (against the bill) but also sympathizes with farmers." While not committing one way or another, the Governor may have outlined a reason him to approve the bill or let it go into effect without his signature when he said this: "There's a lot of agriculture people that feel like this isn't about just people that mistreat animals. This is about people who really aren't fans of cattle growers and other agriculture producers. There's a strong feeling from the agriculture community (read: the powerful Tennessee Farm Bureau) that there's some people that don't value what they do."

The Governor has ten days to decide what course to take once the bill reaches his desk which he said had not happened as of last Tuesday (April 30). So it's hard to say exactly when the clock starts ticking or when the rooster will crow and the chickens will come home to roost when the Governor announces his choice (or if you'd like insert your own favorite farm or animal analogy in the sentence above).

PILOT

The other more simmering controversy the Governor is no doubt keeping abreast of (at a distance) is the ongoing federal criminal investigation regarding his family owned business Pilot Flying J. There were more class action lawsuits filed in federal court regarding alleged rebate fraud allegations involving fuel purchases by corporate trucking customers.

Pilot also won a round in court with a federal judge in Knoxville saying it is permissible for the company to continue to contact its customers to clear up any concerns that they may have been shortchanged on rebates. The Judge says such actions do not constitute "witness-tampering" as alleged by lawyers in another suit pending in court.

Pilot also announced further information about its own internal independent probe of the matter. It has hired well known Washington based lawyer Reid Weingarten to head up its investigation. According to news report, Weingarten has represented clients such as film director Roman Polanski, ENRON officials and former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. among others in the past. One report from NASHVILLE POST.com (May 3) says Weingarten was also once involved on the prosecution side of a probe of former Nashville congressman Bill Boner which never resulted in any actions.

Weingarten's report will be submitted to and overseen by a committee of Pilot Flying J's Board headed up by Brad Martin, the retired chairman and CEO of Saks, Inc. Martin is also a former state legislator and once hired Governor Haslam at Saks. However it should continue to be noted that the Governor has not be implicated personally in any way in the probe.

Nevertheless as the investigation grinds on, it will remain as the political elephant in the room in Tennessee. Everybody knows it there, but nobody really knows what to make of it just yet.

THE WRECKING BALL

You can always tell when development forces are strong in Nashville, especially downtown. That's when older (some would say potentially historic) structures come under the shadow of the wrecking ball. But it's not usually the government who is looking to tear things down.

That's could happen soon however to both the Cordell Hull State office complex and the old Ben West Public Library. If Metro does the land swap with the state for the library property (in exchange for state land the city has been leasing for the Schools for the Arts in South Nashville) it will be Metro's duty to tear down the structure and deliver it to the state as a surface parking lot. Oh joy! No matter what the ultimate good is for any swap like this, whenever one of the major results is nothing just another small surface parking lot (next to an already existing larger surface lot), you know there is likely to be less than rapturous support in the populace for the idea.

This would be the second time Metro has had "the honor" to tear down a library on this site. The first time in the early-1960s it was a beautiful, historic (built in 1904) Carnegie Library. It was a building, that as a child, I thought had the longest set of stairs in front of it that I can ever remember. Maybe it's just that my legs were a lot shorter in those days. But I also remember how much I loved the children's area in that building and how much fun it was checking out my first books ever from a library.

The Ben West Library building that replaced it also has sentimental attachment for me. It's where I worked for my first job out of college with WPLN which had its studios on the second floor. I also spent a lot of time there doing research during both high school and college. But frankly, since the wonderful new downtown library opened, the city has not had much use for the Ben West structure, except for the time it served as a temporary Courthouse while the historic one was beautifully renovated during the administration of Mayor Bill Purcell.

So you can see why the city would like to unload the property or find some use for it. Historic preservationists should have known this day was coming and should have been actively pushing the city to find an adaptive use. What could save them is an original deed restriction placed on the property when the first library was built. It says if the property is no longer used for library purposes it reverts back to the heirs of the original owners.

This should absolutely be a surprise to no one. The deed restriction and reversion clause has been openly talked about and mentioned many times in the past. It is why some sort of make-shift library has been kept in the building all these years even when the structure was otherwise more or less vacant.

Now with potential heirs having come forward and making indications they want the property back if its purpose is to park cars not circulate books, Metro realizes it has a real challenge on its hand and so the approval of the land swap has been at least temporarily delayed in the Metro Council.

As for the massive Cordell Hull state office complex nearby the library site, its days seem increasingly numbered. The Haslam administration is convinced (and says it has had studies done to prove it) that the structure is outmoded and beyond renovation or repair. So, despite the huge demolition costs (it is likely loaded with asbestos), the state want to tear the structure down for green space around the Capitol. Now more green space downtown sounds like a good idea, but that property sure seems to slope a lot for a park area (but maybe I am wrong, I'm no landscape architect).

Not all the old government buildings downtown are being eyed for demolition. According to THE NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL (April 29) the vacant Federal Reserve Bank, built in 1958, is being converted into a 61-unit apartment complex. The interior demolition has begun with some "historical elements" of the building, such as its safe, being preserved. The one bedroom units will be from 600 to 900 square feet in size (the larger ones will have studies) and will rent from $1,200 to $1,800 a month. The complex will also have a pool and a workout facility. It will open in 2014. I wonder what will then be on the Ben West property which is located almost right across the road on Union Street?

MIXED MESSAGES

The $1.8 billion dollar city budget proposed this week by Mayor Karl Dean is, like many spending documents, an exercise in mixed messages. While it continues to be true to the Mayor's priorities for public education and public safety, it also shows how tight Metro's revenues are less than a year after a property tax increase.

The budget is a $100 million (5.86%) increase over the present spending level, but it requires using $45 million from the city's reserves to balance it. Even with Metro finance officials pointing out the reserve fund will still be at $110 million (which is more than when Mayor Dean took office six years ago), dipping into the "rainy day fund" may not be an easy sell to Council members (although they may not have much choice unless they want to cut the budget elsewhere).

Many departments are already taking small cuts in the mayor's budget while others who are getting more money (Libraries to finally reopen the main branch downtown on Mondays; the Health Department to hire more animal control workers; MTA to add more bus service to the University area and Murfreesboro Road; and Metro Police to open a new DNA Crime Lab and a Madison precinct), could be even tougher to cut politically.

As for public education, it's not getting the $44 million extra it asked for, the first time public schools haven't been "fully funded" in several years. But it is getting $26 million more and still represents 41% of the total budget which is up 3.6% from the current year. Schools are also getting $95 million in capital dollars to build new schools. That's nearly a third of the total $300 million Capital Improvement Plan the Mayor will unveil soon. By the way, at a public event earlier this week, the Mayor said his capital plan will include funds for a new project along "the west side" of the Cumberland River that will enhance the ongoing revitalization of the waterfront. He wouldn't give any more details but he seemed quite excited about it.

More tradeoffs in operating budget include a small pay raise (less than 2%) for city workers but it won't take effect until January. Also as an incentive to be more creative and become more self-sufficient in revenues, the budget also denies any subsidies for three of Metro's perennial financial "problem children", the State Fair Board, the Farmer's Market, and Municipal Auditorium. But city officials did say this is not a precursor to closing down these agencies, and that likely some subsidies would be coming in the future.

The final mixed message in the budget is the property tax rate. There won't be an increase like last year. In fact, because of state law and the recent countywide property reappraisal, the tax rate will be lowered. That means lower tax bills for property owners whose homes and businesses did not go up by the average 6% growth found in the reappraisal over the last four years. But some did grow by that much or more and they will see their tax bills increase even with the lower rate. (Insert the grinding of teeth by some here).

A future dilemma in the new tax rate ( for the next mayor most likely), is that the spread between the new lower rate and the cap on the property tax rates mandated in the Metro Charter, won't be very large, maybe less than twenty-five cents. That won't generate all that much money in a future property tax hike proposal. But to ask for more will not only mean needing Council approval but getting the OK from voters as well. A future mayor could go to court and argue the cap in the Charter is illegal. But none of these options are politically enticing at all.

As for this budget, I suspect there will some of the usual wailing and grinding of teeth when the Council holds its own budget hearings in a few weeks. But when push comes to shove, I suspect up to99% of the Mayor's spending plan will be adopted by the Council before June 30 deadline. In fact, the Council's own projected agenda for June shows final budget approval as early as June 4 or maybe June 11 or June 17 or 18, all dates well before the final deadline for a budget under the Metro Charter.

But while Metro deals with its tight money issues, there are signs in the news this past week that we may have it better in Nashville than other cities. First, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and highlighted by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce (and reported by THE NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL 5/1), the Nashville area leads the nation in job growth this past year!

Compared to other major cities with more than a million in population, our total number of jobs increased 3.9% in 2012 compared to the prior year. That's more than Houston, Austin, Salt Lake City and San Jose among others.

And there's more!

Based on growth in population and gross domestic product, Bloomberg lists Nashville as one of the top 12 "boomtowns" in the nation over the last several years. Again as reported in the NBJ (April 30) and based on cities with a million plus population, we are eighth on the list overall for the period 2007-2011 with 6.29% in population growth and a 1.37% rise in gross domestic product. What makes that particularly impressive is that this period covers the time frame of the Great Depression nationwide.

CAN WE ALL GET ON THE BUS TOGETHER

I heard Mayor Dean be interviewed by Tom Ingram on the Lipscomb University campus the other night. It was a very good, insightful program. The Mayor said his next major push is likely to be in the area of improving mass transit, more particularly the Bus Rapid Transit project he would like to develop, with a mixture of federal and local monies, running along the West End Corridor from White Bridge Road to downtown and over to East Nashville.

An earlier effort to push this along fizzled and nobody knows for sure where the tens of millions in local match dollars to build the project will come from, or even if we can garner the bigger federal monies needed from Washington. But with a shiny name for the program "Amp," it looks like another public push is coming soon.

The problem now appears to be there is continued organized opposition and even route competition for the proposal. While supporters say the West End route has the population size, density and bus ridership to work best, others say it should run along Charlotte Avenue. The rhetoric even go so heated briefly a few weeks back that the discussion turned a bit racial along with threats of a lawsuit if the route wasn't moved over to Charlotte.

Everybody take a deep breath. Nashville has no chance to see this project happen if we can't find a consensus about why, how and where to build this mass transit improvement. It's already too late for this to be approved and done before Mayor Dean leaves office in the fall of 2015. Continued discord raises the specter this project could become an issue in the 2015 mayor's race. That didn't happen in the last major civic project back in the mayoral contest of 2007, (what has become the soon to opened Music City Center). All the major candidates supported the concept back then and that made building what was ultimately created a lot easier to do politically.

Before everyone gets all "amped up" on both sides about this, I think the project likely needs a better selling job to the public overall on how it will function (using the turn lanes on West End for example) and why it's worth the investment for Nashville's future along with exactly where the local money will come from to help pay for it.

In his appearance at Lipscomb, the Mayor was asked to name his greatest disappointment in office which he said politically was his failure to redevelop the State Fairgrounds. That setback was due in large measure I think because he never try to sell anything more than an overall idea and the Council and the public chose the traditions of the past over a somewhat, unclear future for a property which still remains in limbo. The Mayor and other supporting the BRT need to build a better consensus on mass transit, or the Amp could be short circuited again before it ever gets started.

GEORGE JONES

One of the more unique things I've observed while growing up and living in Nashville is how this city and the music industry honors the passing of our country music legends. Having your wake, funeral or memorial service at the Ryman Auditorium or the Opry House is a pretty unique and special honor that appears to be pretty uniquely Nsashville. Until this week, I thought the biggest events of this kind I'd ever seen here in Music City were for Roy Acuff and/or Minnie Pearl a few years back. But I believe the outpouring of love and affection for George Jones may have outdone them all.

I can't take credit for this next thought. It came from Dana Moore a friend on Facebook. I'll paraphrase it slightly. Just three years after the Opry House was filled with flood waters, it was filled again last Thursday with an outpouring of pure love during the George Jones services there as thousands packed the house.

I didn't really know George Jones. I remember meeting him once. In the late 1970s or early 8os, I was sent out by Channel 5 to do a story at the old PeeWee's Nightclub on Centennial Blvd where he was supposed to perform. I say supposed to because George Jones had a reputation in those days of not showing up. "No Show Jones" was his nickname at the time (he had several during his career).

He did show up this particular night and I remember how devoted and passionate his fans were just to hear him sing. I've also been struck to hear so many other country singers, even before he passed away, say without question George Jones was the greatest country singer ever. Wow, what high praise!

So maybe nobody will fill those shoes as George Jones used to ask in another of his hit songs. It also appears Nashville will never stop loving him…. today or ever.

RIP, Possum.

CONGRESSMAN BLACKBURN ON INSIDE POLITICS

With Congress on recess we thought it was a good time to bring our 6th District representative Marsha Blackburn on INSIDE POLITICS this week to discuss the many issues always swirling around Washington. So we talk about it all from sequestration to guns to immigration reform, and from the EPA and greenhouse gases to the FDA and the morning after birth control pill, along what the President should do in Syria and the ongoing investigation in the Boston terror bombings.

Join us. Congressman Blackburn always has something to say and she keeps things lively.

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 5.2. For those outside Nashville or who don't have cable access, portions of INSIDE POLITICS interviews are later posted on NEWSCHANNEL5.com.

A GOOD CHECKUP

It was back to the doctor last Tuesday for my regular checkup (every 3-4 months).

Good report. He is pleased with my blood pressure levels and how I look. I have even gained 3 pounds! It's the first weight I have put on in some time (since well before the stroke last June). He is not concerned about the extra weight (now at 176). I am still about 33 pounds lighter than my heaviest time in the past.

I asked and he told me I can have an alcoholic drink if I want in the future (in moderation, of course). So I am pleased about that. He also suggested I try an over-the counter allergy medication to see if that helps my seemingly never ending runny nose, nasal congestion and sometimes raspy voice. As for the rest of the check-up, it will take a week or so to get back my usual blood work results (particularly on keeping my cholesterol levels as low as possible).

But, all in all I am very pleased that my recovery continues well as I also to follow the dietary and other lifestyle changes I made. I am so lucky and so blessed.