Capitol View Commentary: Friday, June 7, 2013
By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
June 7, 2013
METRO COUNCIL MOVES; THE AMP; THE FAIRGROUNDS; THE PROPRTY TAX RATE; CENTENNIAL; THE BEAT GOES ON; HOW TO SPEND IT; INSIDE POLITICS
METRO COUNCIL MOVES
As we predicted they would in last week's column, the Metro Council has approved Mayor Karl Dean's $1.8 billion operating budget for the next fiscal year, making few changes and in fact adding about a million bucks to the spending plan. And city leaders have done so with record speed, giving final approval on June 4, nearly four weeks ahead of schedule (budget approval deadline is June 30).
But in passing the budget, the Council also set up some future issues including one for immediate consideration (the AMP). It also resurrected a hot-button issue (the future of the State Fairgrounds) that had kind of been placed on the backburner. And finally, long term the Council set the parameters for any future property tax increases (most likely for the next mayor and council to consider after the 2015 elections).
D-Day for the AMP (the Bus Rapid Transit project linking West Nashville to East Nashville) appears to be next Tuesday, June 11 when the Council holds a special session. On the agenda will be approval of Metro's annual Capital Improvements Budget, something that must be done by law each year prior to June 15.
The Capital Improvements Budget is a planning document only. It does not spend or authorize any monies. However, unless a project is included in the Plan, the city cannot commit or spend any dollars on that capital (bricks and mortar) type development.
Sources tell me you can look for efforts by AMP opponents to delete the project out of the Capital Improvements Budget and perhaps out of the $300 million Capital project plan recommended by the administration of Mayor Karl Dean and which is also on the agenda for Council approval Tuesday night (although there is no deadline for the Council to act on the Capital Plan so a deferral is possible). There is $7.5 million in planning funds in the Capital Plan for the AMP which would only be spent if needed federal funds are given at least preliminary approval by Washington.
Cutting the AMP project out of the Capital Improvements Budget or the $300 million Capital Plan would be a serious setback for the AMP and for the Dean administration. It would be particularly difficult if the AMP is cut out of the Capital Budget because by law amending that plan during the year after it is adopted requires a two-thirds majority in the Council, a number which is always challenging to attain (27 votes) in such a large governing body (The Metro Council has 40 members).
It should also be noted that amending out or killing the AMP project does not require a particular majority in the Council such as 21 (a majority) or 27 (two thirds majority) votes. It would just take more yes votes than nos to kill the plan by amendment. Observers believe the Dean Administration has the votes for AMP funding approval (or it wouldn't be moving this critical project forward). But parliamentary rules make it critical for the Dean Team not only to maximize yes votes for the project but minimize council members abstaining from voting (and therefore in effect more or less voting against the project).
In passing the Mayor's operating budget on June 4, the Council for the first time included a $200,000 subsidy for the State Fairgrounds. But that doesn't mean the money will be quickly forthcoming (the Metro Fair Board actually wanted a lot more).
The budget has language that stipulates the Metro Council must "consider" the master plan the Council authorized and paid for a few months back (and which has been sitting on the political backburner ever since it was completed and presented). The master plan outlines a number of options for the future. They include renovating or improving the Fair facilities on site or moving the Fair and redeveloping the current Fairgrounds property for other uses (perhaps much like what Mayor Dean unsuccessfully advocated a few years back).
So does that mean the Council has to decide and approve what parts of the master plan to forward with and fund? Maybe or maybe not. Council Staff Director Jon Cooper told me all the Council has to do is consider the master plan. It does not have to "approve" or disapprove anything (despite reports in the media). What the Council also must do is, after considering the master plan (in whatever way it does that) is that it must then pass a separate resolution appropriating the $200,000 for use by the Fair Board.
A little confused? Yeah, me too. Does this have the likelihood of reopening a political Pandora's Box on the Fairgrounds issue? Sure looks possible. The next step is for Council leaders (Budget & Finance Chair Lonnell Mathews and Codes, Fair & Farmers Market committee chairman Bill Pridemore are the most likely ones) to decide what kind of legislation needs to be drafted and introduced for the Council to "consider the master plan." Then let's see what happens.
There do seem to me to be some constraints on Council action. I'm not sure the master plan contains real costs estimates for either remodeling the existing Fairgrounds or moving it and redeveloping the site for other uses. Also because of an amendment to the Metro Charter overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2011, any effort to demolish existing buildings on the Fairgrounds property would require a two-thirds approval vote by the Council. What about moving the Fairgrounds someplace else? Jon Cooper says he thinks that might take another Charter change (even though I seem to remember some recent state legislation that might open the door for that to be done). Oh boy, here we go again!
THE PROPERTY TAX RATE
In approving the budget, the Metro Council also set the property tax rate for Nashville as it does every year. This year that rate had to be lowered from last year so that the required recent countywide property reappraisal doesn't cause a tax increase by itself (even though your tax bill could still go up if your property increased in value more than the countywide average of 6%).
The new lower property tax rate (USD/GSD combined) is important to keep in mind politically. It is now $4.51, down from $4.66. It is also 3 cents lower than the Metro Charter imposed cap on property tax rate of $4.69.
That means politically the next time there is an effort to raise property taxes (in all likelihood with a new Mayor and Metro Council in office sometime after the 2015 elections), the "spread" city leaders will have to deal with is less than 20 cents (18 cents more precisely). That's not much really and it is significantly lower that what recent tax increases have totaled. There may however be no other choice unless the Mayor and Council decide to seek a higher tax hike amount through a public referendum or go to court and seek to have the property tax cap in the Charter declared illegal.
Those are tough choices to be sure. But that's the parameters now set for future property tax decisions, and something all those looking to run for Mayor, Vice Mayor and Metro Council in 2015 ought to keep in mind as they make up their minds about running.
It won't be fun.
I guess that includes Nashville business executive and venture capitalist Stuart McWhorter who has told THE TENNESSEEAN's Michael Cass (June 6) that he is considering a mayoral run. McWhorter is the son of prominent health care guru Clayton McWhorter. It's not likely he has much political name recognition countywide. But the younger McWhorter does have the personal financial resources required to mount a campaign, and that alone could make him someone to watch (much like Phil Bredesen and Karl Dean in past mayoral races).
I don't normally get all that excited about a particular Metro capital project. But the $6 million in improvements planned for Centennial Park is different. It's not only Nashville's first public park (marking the site of Tennessee's Centennial Celebration in 1897), it's also the park where I grew up., I even learned to swim in Centennial Park before the city shamefully closed the pool there because it didn't want to integrate it.
Centennial is where I came to feed the ducks at Lake Watauga with my dad (I even once released a duck there I got for Easter because it had grown too large to stay in our house according to my mother). Later, when I went to Father Ryan High School on Elliston Place, all of the students thought the Park belonged to us since it was literally right next door. I also attended and performed concerts (Sing-Out South) at the Bandshell in the park too.
So I am thrilled to hear of the improvements being planned, including revamping Lake Watauga and bringing into the "daylight" a freshwater spring in the park that has been channeled underground for years. According to a TENNESSEEAN article (June 6), there will also be new gardens, groves, a meadow and a permanent outdoor venue (an amphitheater with permanent seating and a picnic lawn) for use by the very successful Musicians Corner program. I can't wait to see it all done by December, 2015 and bring my grandchildren there so they can enjoy this same special place that I did for so many years.
THE BEAT GOES ON
The latest polls (WALL STREET JOURNAL/NBC NEWS June 5) show that despite the ongoing trio of scandals bedeviling the administration of President Barack Obama, his job approval ratings remain steady (48%). The poll data indicates the public is not blaming the President personally for the problems although his standing among independent voters has dipped from 41% in February now down to 28%. That bears watching.
The controversies (the Benghazi attack , the IRS and the Justice Department's media probe) are not ending. In fact, another recent GOA report has given the IRS new problems to deal with besides how it has handled Tea Party Groups. Now it's the tax service's use of government dollars on lavish employee conferences and workshops that are being criticized. And there are concerns about the National Security Agency's collection of U.S. phone records (perhaps dating back seven years) of Verizon's 121 million customers.
As ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker has sent a letter to the White House asking the President for an explanation….and he wants it no later than Monday. Some critics are already saying the reason this kind of phone record snooping has been and is going on (beginning back in the Bush administration), is something Senator Corker should already understand. Such broad data searches are permitted under the Patriot Act to combat potential terror attacks they say.
And now comes some late news that the government has also been taping into the server sites for all the major internet and phone companies for data mining purposes in the name of protecting national security. The President is defending the programs telling reporters: "We have to make choices as a society…..you can't have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience…They (the programs) help us prevent terrorist attacks." The President added he thinks the efforts (which are not listening to phone calls he says) are worth the "modest encroachments on privacy."
Let's see how that plays in the polls.
HOW TO SPEND IT
There's already legislation pending in the Tennessee General Assembly on how to spend any new revenue that results from the passage of the federal Marketplace Fairness Act. The problem is the bill is stuck in the U.S. House of Representatives and may never become law.
But if it does, according to an article by Tom Humphrey of THE KNOXVILLE JOURNAL (June 6), State Representative Frank Niceley wants the money generated by such a sales tax from out-of-state internet retailers to go to lower the current sales tax on groceries. Now it's not clear if whatever monies will result (estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars) will be enough to completely the eliminate the tax on groceries (which has been slightly lowered a couple of times the last few years). But the internet sales tax revenue would likely put a very big dent in the grocery tax if it comes to pass.
Niceley is so far the only state official with a specific plan for what to do with the internet tax money. But others such as Governor Bill Haslam, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell (all of whom support the Marketplace Fairness bill saying it's a tax already owed by out of state business) have indicated general support for using the any new revenue to reduce current state taxes, although Ramsey says he prefers it go to further reduce the state Hall Income tax on stocks and bonds dividends.
Niceley would like to reduce the Hall Tax too if there's enough money to go around. Actually, Niceley says he's really opposed to Congress passing the Marketplace Fairness Act. "I don't want the federal government getting their grubby hands on the sales tax," he told Tom Humphrey. He also wants to make sure any dollar generated by the internet tax is matched dollar for dollar in tax reductions. If the federal act passes, Niceley's bill could be a very popular piece of legislation next year. Just think about it: a major tax reduction in an election year…that sounds like incumbent re-election material to me.
This weekend on INSIDE POLITICS we are offering an encore presentation of my interview with Nashville author and Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham. We focus on his most recent work, the highly acclaimed biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. We also discuss his award winning work on President Andrew Jackson. It was such a great thrill to have him come on the show. I hope you'll watch and listen to what he has to say, especially how our Presidents like Jefferson and Jackson still have still great relevance to our politics and public policy today.
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 posted on NEWSCHANNEL5.com.