Capitol View Commentary: Friday, May 31, 2013

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, May 31, 2013

CREATED May 31, 2013

CAPITOL VIEW

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

May 31, 2013

AMP IT UP; THE NEXT STEP FOR PILOT FLYING J; HERE COME THE JUDGES OR MAYBE NOT; BACK TO GUNS; INSIDE POLITICS; LIFESAVERS FOR LUNCH

AMP IT UP

It looks like for the first time the Metro Council will be voting soon on Mayor Karl Dean's Rapid Bus Transit plan to connect West and East Nashville (or AMP as it's nicknamed). The vote will be part of a $300 million capital plan submitted by the Mayor that also includes new schools, sidewalks, greenways, parks, libraries, even money for new riverfront development.

But the biggest spotlight will likely be on the $7.5 million for additional planning and preparation for the bus rapid transit (BRT) project. The Mayor says it will be a good investment for Nashville especially as our city grows. But some on the Council have begun to question the route (they want it on Charlotte Avenue not West End) while others may question whether the federal government will approve the $75 million it must kick in to make the project happen (even local Congressman Jim Cooper says he has his doubts Washington will go along).

But Mayor Dean says West End is by far the best route for this first (of several) BRT routes Nashville will need in the years to come. He's also confident federal funds will be available and promises the local funds he's requesting won't be spent until federal OK is given to the project and the funding. That could make it hard for some council members to vote no. But others may fear that once these initial monies are approved and if federal funds are green-lighted there will be no way to stop the project even though the source for the rest of the needed local funding has still not been identified or approved by the Council.

The Mayor's AMP request also included a new video identifying where the AMP stations on the route would be and what it would be like to ride on one of the BRT buses. It also touts how much quicker riding the AMP would be, compared to sitting in traffic in the years to come. But the video provides no information on how those driving their cars and trucks along the route would access the turn lanes along West End so they can patronize the businesses, homes and other locations along the route. Its information I'd think the public would like to know to build understanding and hopefully support for the project.

On a related Metro Council matter, it appears the Mayor's annual budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year (well over $1.5 billion) is set to be approved by city leaders in record time and with very few changes. The Council is poised to give final approval at its next regular meeting on Tuesday, June 4. Historically the Council holds a special session late in the month to meet the legal deadline to approve the budget by June 30.

But this year, after the Dean administration decided to re-allocate $6 million in the budget to restore step raises for Metro workers in the early years of their city careers, there does not appear to be any major obstacle to final budget approval (apparently that means no subsidies for city agencies such as the Fair Board or the Farmers Market).

The step raise issue could come up again next year after the city finishes a pay study on its employees. But taking away that money again would likely be even harder for the Council the second time around. So for now, it looks like one of the quietest budget making processes ever in Metro is about to wrap up weeks early with a big political yawn.

THE NEXT STEP FOR PILOT FLYING J

Except for still more class-action type lawsuits being filed by trucking company customers of Pilot Flying J there hasn't been that much public activity in recent weeks surrounding the ongoing federal criminal investigation into the Knoxville-based firm owned and operated by Governor Bill Haslam's family. But that changed a few days ago (May 29) with two high level sales executives pleading guilty to charges they engaged in schemes to reduce promised rebates to truckers across the country (TENNESSEEAN, May 29).

Both face lengthy prison sentences although those could be reduced because it is believed they are both now cooperating with authorities as the probe continues.

This is a normal investigative tactic. Investigators "turn" people they believe to be key participants. They get them to plead guilty to charges in return for a lighter sentence, and in return for them cooperating in the probe, particularly what they know about the involvement of others in the alleged wrong doing.

And so it will be fascinating to watch and see what this latest development portends, if anything, in terms of others "making deals" and how far up, if at all, this scandal goes inside the Pilot Flying J company. So far, it should be noted company president Jimmy Haslam, the brother of the governor, denies any knowledge of wrongdoing, and the Governor himself has not been involved directly with the firm's operations in any way for several years and has not been implicated in any way in the probe.

HERE COME THE JUDGES OR MAYBE NOT

The appointment by the Governor of a new state trial, appellate or Supreme Court justice is always news, but after June 30 of this year, doing so legally might be downright impossible for a while.

In their haste to get done and leave town for the year in mid-April, the Tennessee General Assembly finished its business without reauthorizing the process for making judicial appointments. Already that could have created problems with judges retiring before next year's elections and no way to replace them (leaving no one on the ballot to vote yes or no to retain in the judicial post). So the state's Judicial Nominating Commission asked judges statewide if they planned to retire (a couple replied they will) and so the Commission is already at work in the brief time it has left (the end of this month) to review potential candidates and provide Governor Haslam two lists of nominees from which to make his appointments.

But what happens if other judges after June 30 decide to retire or die or become unable to handle their duties? How will they be replaced by the Governor or voted on by the public in the 2014 election? Well, nobody seems to know if there is a legal way to handle that issue, except perhaps when the General Assembly comes back to town next January (or in a specially-called session later this year which appears unlikely right now). When they do return, lawmakers could pass at least stop-gap legislation to handle the matter until voters decide a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November, 2014 to change the judicial appointment system. The new system by the way requires both houses of the General Assembly to ratify any judicial appointments by the Governor.

That could set up a whole new area of state politics and controversy for sure in the coming year as the 2014 election approaches. But for right now, it's just sad that the Republican Super Majority which pledged itself to maintaining good and efficient government in Tennessee has instead left the state with a potential situation where there could be unexpected vacancies in the state judicial system that can't be legally filled for perhaps at a half-year period or longer. That's no good public policy and it's not good government.

BACK TO GUNS

It seems in Tennessee, we can't go more than a few weeks without a discussion about guns, even when the Legislature is not in session.

This time it began with Governor Haslam. Answering questions before the annual Girls State convention (and later speaking to reporters, CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS, May 29) the Governor said that he would like to see the state stick to "the status quo" and not make any additional gun law changes for now. He also said on the federal level, "I do think the idea of more extensive background checks makes sense to me." But he quickly added the issue is how to do that without infringing on the Second Amendment.

But no sooner had the Governor commented, that same day came word (May 29, THE TENNESSEAN) that the State Attorney General had ruled that the new "guns in trunks" law passed by state lawmakers earlier this year did not provide workers protection from being fired from bringing a weapon to work in their cars or trucks. That's because Tennessee is an "at will" employment state, and under state law (not changed by the guns in trunks proposal) employers can fire a worker for any reason or no reason at all. So gun lobby groups such as the Tennessee Firearms Association now say (despite the Governor's wishes) the new law and other gun issues do need to be further addressed by lawmakers. The Firearms group also says it warned lawmakers earlier in the year when the new law passed that it would not protect workers.

So what will the General Assembly do when it reconvenes in January? Given the track record of the National Rifle Association and Tennessee Firearms Association on this issue, I wouldn't bet against them.

As for the Governor's expanded background checks comment, a pro-gun control group took up the issue later in the week (May 29) to urge U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker to drop their opposition and support the expanded background checks turned down by the full Senate a few weeks ago. They cite a couple of statewide polls that show broad voter support for the idea (up to 67% approval in one survey). But given all the heat both Senators took for voting in favor of just allowing the full Senate to debate the background check proposal, I wouldn't look for them to change their minds.

Nevertheless in Tennessee, there always seems to be time to debate the role of guns in our state.

INSIDE POLITICS

While the focus of our news and politics remains on the domestic scene, there are continuing developments in the Syrian civil war that are rather ominous in terms of it becoming a wider, regional conflict that could also directly involve Israel, Russia, Iran, the EU, Turkey, Lebanon and of course, the United States.

So we've asked Vanderbilt professor James Schwartz to join us again to share his wisdom and insights on what is happening and what to expect in the weeks to come in this seemingly always unsettled part of the world.

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.

LIFESAVERS FOR LUNCH

No, that headline doesn't mean I ate candy for my mid-day meal on Wednesday.

It means I treated two people for lunch at the new SOUTHERN Restaurant downtown because they saved my life last June 28 when I suffered a stroke.

If it had not been for mayoral aides, Tam Gordon and Janie Conyers (convincing me we needed to call 9-1-1) I probably would have died that afternoon, especially if I had done as I intended and left the Mayor's Office at the Courthouse to drive back to my office at DVL.

Lunch was just a small way of saying thanks to both of them for giving me the opportunity to still be alive. It was also a chance to get more details about how they realized I was in trouble. I think it dawned on them when I first noticed (and mentioned) I was slurring my speech and experiencing cramps in my left leg. The difference was they knew what it meant. I didn't.

Janie says she also knew I needed help right away when I began leaning further and further to the left while I sat in a chair in a dark, quiet room answering questions from the 9-1-1 dispatchers. I remember that happening. But I didn't recall leaning to the left. In fact, I didn't realize that was an issue until much later in the hospital when I began my rehab. Boy was I out of it! Janie said it was all she could do to hold me up and then my legs collapsed when the EMTs lifted me up to go onto the ambulance gurney. Again, I remember that happening, but not my legs going out.

I also treated my daughter Kelly to lunch for all she did to keep my family and friends up to date last summer (answering e-mails, setting up a special Facebook page, arranging folks to drive me to rehab and provide meals, hosting me at her home during the day so my wife could go back to work, and so much more). I owe the same gratitude (and art least a free lunch) to my wife and other daughter Katie for what they did too.

Kelly wrote a thank-you e-mail to both Tam and Janie after our lunch meeting. She told them: "Again, I can't begin to express how grateful my family and I are for what you did for my Dad on the day of the stroke last year. It was truly lifesaving. "

Of course, that's how I feel too. But it's was Tam's response to Kelly that left me almost without words.

"God saved your dad. Me and Janie are just glad He honored us by using us as his vessels."

Me too

As the final weeks go by leading up to my one year stroke anniversary, I hope to spend more time going back to thank those who helped me survive, recover and change my lifestyle following my illness. And while I was clueless when I had the stroke, I hope I never forget those who helped me survive (including the good Lord himself). As the Irish say, I'll always be grateful to be spared.

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