Capitol View Commentary: Friday, June 28, 2013
By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
June 28, 2013
SUMMERTIME; CHANGE IN TENNESSEE; EVEN WITH SCHOOL ON VACATION; BRT CONCERNS; IF IT WORKED ONCE; SPEAKER HARWELL ON INSIDE POLITICS; A MOST WELCOME RETURN; A REMINDER A YEAR LATER
As the song goes…summertime and the living is easy.
Well, not this week.
It seems to happen at the end of every June. The Supreme Court ends its term by releasing a number of decisions that rock our world in this country both legally and politically. Last year, it was the ruling on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). This year's its twin decisions on same-sex marriage and three other verdicts on voting rights, voter registration and racial preferences in college admissions.
Strangely, none of them will immediately impact Tennessee, but the decisions are likely to reignite the debate in the Volunteer State (and in Congress and across the country) over what happens next. The Supreme Court did not resolve these matters and left the next steps in the various cases to the lower courts, Congress or federal agencies to resolve how to interpret what was decided, which, of course, could lead to more litigation going back to the High Court to further clarify (or change).
It could be the same-sex marriage decisions will one day be looked back on like Brown v. The Board of Education or Baker v. Carr in terms of their long term impacts on civil rights. But the full extent of gay couples' rights to federal or other benefits (especially in states such as Tennessee which still prohibits gay marriage by law and constitutional amendment) remains unclear. What is clear that the culture wars on all these issues (especially those where Congress is being invited to get involved again such as the Voting Rights Act) will rage even hotter than ever in the months to come.
And already the debate likely begins. THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS (June 27) reports that the small city of Collegedale in Hamilton County "is poised to become the first Tennessee city to extend employee benefits to (same-sex) domestic partners. This effort began before the Supreme Court ruling came down but you can be sure there will other efforts coming in and around the state. You also might wonder if state lawmakers will use the state's powers over local government to prohibit municipalities or counties from being able to grant such benefits. I'd bet money such bills will be in the hopper at the State Capitol soon.
CHANGE IN TENNESSEE
This is a week of change in Tennessee….at least in how the Governor's office is staffed.
Since Governor Lamar Alexander's first term in the late 1970s, the top aide to the Governor has been called the Deputy Governor. Now in an effort to "make Tennessee the best managed state in the nation," current Governor Bill Haslam is discontinuing that position (with the retirement of Claude Ramsey) and naming a former top IBM official, Greg Adams, to be Tennessee's first Chief Operating Officer.
The Governor says this move will help him meet his goal "to serve Tennessee taxpayers in the most efficient and effective way" through the various state agencies. It's not clear exactly how that will mesh with the various state commissioners whose high-paying jobs you'd think would already have that same goal of providing effectiveness and efficiency. But clearly, it's the Governor's prerogative on how to organize and staff his executive office and the departments.
Already it appears the new COO might have a job for himself when he comes on board in July. It's to help out with in the seemingly never-ending legal dispute the Department of Children's Services has with several media organizations about the court-ordered release of records and other information regarding children who died or nearly died (and that number continues to grow) under state supervision.
While providing some information as ordered by Nashville Chancellor Carol McCoy, apparently someone in state government is removing information in other documents that is beyond what the judge ordered. According to an on-line TENNESSEEAN article (June 26), Judge McCoy says her "confidence was shaken" by DCS' actions and "asked specifically for the person responsible for misinterpreting her court order, saying she did not consider contempt of court actions lightly." Quoting the Judge directly: "You find this court a commissioner or assistant commissioner, someone big enough to tell me they are the one who didn't follow the order…I need the name of the person responsible…someone who needs to sit in the pokey." I think that means jail.
According to THE TENNESSEAN article, Judge McCoy says she will not hesitate to hold DCS officials in contempt of court if they don't follow the court order. It sounds to me if the state wants to be most "effective and efficient" in this matter, following what the judge says is the best course of action…and quickly. Oh, and one other suggestion to the new and the state's first COO, it's usually not very effective or efficient to stay in fights with folks (the media) who have unlimited column inches, air time and bytes on-line to do their jobs reporting about state government.
Welcome back to Tennessee and Nashville, Mr. Adams. I think you may find government from time to time has a different way of measuring effectiveness and efficiency than they do in the private sector. Thank you for your willingness to serve the people of Tennessee.
By the way, Governor Haslam and the state did win a round in court this week. Nashville Circuit Judge Amanda McClendon lifted an injunction stopping the layoffs of approximately 200 state workers. According to a TENNESSEEAN on-line article (June 24) she ruled there was "little evidence…the administration broke state law" in how it is handling the matter.
And here's more good news you can bet the Haslam administration will be touting. An analysis by THE NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL (and its sister publication in Memphis, June 28) says based on "seasonally adjusted data" regarding private-sector employment levels compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, Governor Haslam and his administration rank 4th in the nation for job growth (behind North Dakota, Texas and Utah).
EVEN WITH SCHOOL ON VACATION
Even with school out for the summer on vacation, the feud between the Haslam administration and some teachers across the state continues. The latest spat surrounds the State Board of Education approving a new minimum salary schedule that greatly lessens years of experience and advanced degrees in how pay increases are handed out. That includes the annual step raises given educators in their early years on the job.
Those who oppose the plan say step raises will decrease from 21 to 4 and remove incentives for post master's training or doctoral degrees. They fear it will drive good teachers away from Tennessee.
The Governor (CHATTANNOGA TIMES FREE PRESS June 21) says "nobody is going backward (in pay). State law doesn't allow that. What it's trying to do is to let local education authorities make the decision if they want to have a differentiated pay structure." The Governor adds in the past pay increases "have all been "dependent on things statistics (show) don't make much difference (in student achievement)—having graduate degrees and things like that."
For now, the Governor is winning the argument. That will continue despite state legislative Democrats joining teachers in making complaints. It's like the weather. About all they can do is complain. Things will only change if the teachers (TEA) and the Democrats start winning statewide and legislative elections.
But opponents aren't quitting. THE TENNESSEAN reports (June 28) there is a social media on-line effort to mount a public petition drive "asking for the ouster of State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman." The paper says it hasn't been able to learn exactly what group or persons are behind the effort. But the article says two Facebook pages have been created and a Change.org petition posted that had about 700 signatures on mid-Friday afternoon. The Facebook pages had over 300 and 600 likes respectively.
By the way, I suspect all parties are happy to see the state's student test scores continue to rise, if slowly. Everyone knew it would be tough meeting the new higher (national) standards we moved to a couple of years ago. Now there's even a fight about that or at least questions among some GOP lawmakers about our "Common Core" standards. Bickering over schools…I guess it's not just for recess anymore and likely continue even as classes resume across the state in about another month or so.
I am not sure this is completely "new" news, but there is organized opposition forming to the city's proposed AMP project.
BRT Concerns, Inc. is the name of the group with www.StopAMP.org their web site address. The three spokespersons for the group are Vanderbilt professor Malcolm Getz, civic activist Diane Neal and businessman Rick Williams. I am also told to expect yards signs to stop popping up along the planned route most likely I'd guess in West Nashville.
While the focus for MTA and other Metro leaders pushing the AMP project is now to get federal approval (and tens of millions of dollars) to build the project, there continue to be issues raised by those attending public information forums such as the one held last night (June 27) by State Representative Brenda Gilmore. They say they support the AMP but they want the route built along Charlotte Avenue to better serve poor neighborhoods such as North Nashville.
But AMP supporters say West End has the better density to support the route and it might not get federal approval if AMP is placed somewhere else. And without federal approval, AMP will not happen.
IF IT WORKED ONCE
As we speculated it might in last week's column, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker's amendment to the comprehensive immigration bill (to strengthen border security and enforcement) seems to have played a major role in getting that measure passed in the upper chamber. It gained final Senate approval Thursday (June 27) 68-32 with 14 GOP Senators joining all the Democrats in voting yes.
It's a development that would not have seemed possible a few months ago or before last year's elections. Senator Corker is being sharply criticized by some conservative right wing elements of the Republican Party and by Tea Party supporters. That goes for Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander too who also voted for the amendment and the bill.
Supporters of the bill had hoped the significant bi-partisan vote for the measure would spur the House of Representatives to go along. That's not likely at all. Speaker John Boehner says the House will draft its own bill, and I suspect a majority of Tennessee's delegation will not support the Senate bill either. In fact, GOP Congressman Marsha Blackman says the Senate proposal is "dead on arrival" in her view. Given the divisions among House GOP members and its leadership it will be interesting to see just what kind of immigration bill can be pulled together and approved in the lower chamber.
But after his success on immigration, Senator Corker seems to be moving to his next legislative priority introducing a bi-partisan bill to modernize and reform the nation's housing finance system. It's an issue Corker has been working on for several years, much as Senator Alexander has been involved in increased criticism of President Barack Obama's out of session appointments to the National Labor Relations Board along with other federal boards and agencies.
Concerning the NLRB, the senior Senator got some good news a few days ago when the High Court announced it would take up a case challenging the President's powers to make appointments when the Senate is out of session. It's a presidential power used much more frequently by President Obama's predecessors than he has done. But as in all things in Washington these days, the partisan divide has sparked more controversy in recent months about how this power is rightly used, especially since there appear to be two conflicting decisions rendered by different appeals courts. And so the High Court will take up the matter next term.
SPEAKER HARWELL ON INSIDE POLITICS
Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is my INSIDE POLITICS guest this weekend. We'll get her take on the recently concluded session of the General Assembly (April) to compare and contrast with what we heard from her Senate counterpart, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey. He was on the show a couple of weeks ago.
We'll talk about the so-called spat she and the Lt Governor and both houses of the General Assembly had between each other in the final days and hours of the session. We'll also talk with her about the other issues and controversies now rumbling around in state government which we've mentioned earlier in this column and/or in other columns in the last several weeks.
We'll also take a look ahead at what's likely to happen or not happen when lawmakers return to the Hill in January of next year. That includes the recently announced retirement of one of the state's Supreme Court justices at a time (beginning July 1) when there is no legal way for the governor or anyone to fill such vacancies because lawmakers fail to approve a continuation of the current system or a new one before the split town in the spring.
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
A MOST WELCOME RETURN
I admit I am old-fashioned.
Ever since I was a little boy, I have loved to get up each day, fetch the morning paper and read it over my breakfast cereal. In recent years my ritual has also included reading THE WALL STREET JOURNAL where my daughter Kelly's by-line occurs from time to time. Of course, I am thrilled when she has an article in that national publication.
But I must say the return of columnist Gail Kerr to THE TENNESSEAN last Wednesday morning was of particular excitement to me as well. I admire the courage and tenacity she has shown in confronting and defeating her recent health challenges. They have been much more serious than mine and I find the pluck and honesty in her writing inspiring to me in my own challenges as I observe one year today (June 28) from when I suffered my stroke.
Gail has been a dear friend for many years dating from when we competed as reporters at the Metro Courthouse; from when she and I worked together in the annual Gridiron show and; from when I was Mayor Fulton's press secretary and she was a reporter doing her job asking me tough questions.
But as successful as she was as a reporter and later city editor at the paper, Gail was born to be a columnist…and to be a columnist in her hometown of Nashville. As another home grown product, I can appreciate that there is something about being born and raised in this city that gives you insights about what this place is all about from Antioch to Belle Meade, from Joelton toa Goodlettsville, from Donelson to Bellevue. Its' things you can't fully learn when you move here.
I so look forward to reading her column again several times each week. I hope she's back with us for many years to come. It helps my Whole Grain Honey Nut Cheerios go down a little better each morning just knowing she's well and back on the job.
A REMINDER A YEAR LATER
I wrote way too much about my stroke recovery last week, so I won't repeat that in this column. But let me add, I did spend time today on the one-year anniversary of my illness, sending e-mails and Facebook messages thanking my care providers and all my family and friends, telling them how much I still (and will forever) appreciate their love and support these last 12 months. That goes for the readers of this column as well.
Friday afternoon I got a strong reminder of why it is so important I follow the strange and narrow and continue with exercise and the other positive lifestyles I've made. I spent the very hour of my one-year anniversary at a funeral Mass for a former co-worker who died suddenly this week of a massive stroke.
I'll probably have more reflections to share next week.