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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, July 19, 2013

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, July 19, 2013

CREATED Jul 19, 2013

CAPITOL VIEW

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

July 19, 2013

BUS RAPID TRANSIT FOR ALL; IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME; THE CHECK IS IN THE MAIL; MORE DISCLOSURES; INSIDE POLITICS; TAKE THEIR PAY…ONE MORE TIME; THE ALEXANDER AD BACKLASH; ANOTHER ANNIVERSARY

BUS RAPID TRANSIT FOR ALL

It's always been the plan says the Dean administration. In fact, bus rapid transit service could be on its way to becoming a reality along Charlotte Avenue and Nolensville Road as early as July of next year (according to a TENNESSEEAN article, July 12).  The money will be recommended in the next Metro budget.

That means increased transit service (more rubber wheeled buses) could begin running along these roads at least a year or so before the much ballyhooed (and controversial) AMP project get started from East Nashville to the Saint Thomas Hospital area out in West Nashville via downtown. Of course, the bus rapid transit service along Charlotte and Nolensville won't be quite the same (call it AMP lite) in terms of the dollar investment to build the system out West End (particularly the money coming from Washington if the feds approve).

So will this end the controversy about the AMP? No, some neighborhood groups and businesses along West End still won't want it and those along Charlotte still say they want the AMP to have at least one stop in their area. But for some city and state officials who don't have a direct dog in the fight (they represent other parts of town) at least they won't have to feel like BRT and the AMP are either or/ all or nothing propositions. That gives them a little more ammunition and political cover to be supportive.

IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME

No, I am not talking about a new baseball park for Nashville. I am talking about room nights.

Clearly, the new Music City Center has set off a quite a boom in hotels for our city.

According to a recent TENNESSEAN article (July 14), "14 new downtown hotels, six next to the (convention) center, are either under construction, going through the permit process or have been announced, accounting for (potentially) 3,450 new rooms on top of Nashville's 24,828 rooms."

Wow! That's quite an increase.  Metro, with its already huge $$ investment in building the Music City Center is investing in the development of a couple of the hotels too. Mayor Karl Dean has agreed to put in $3 million each (in either tax- increment financing or a property tax discount) for the hotels that are planned to be built either in the Historic Broad area (a Hyatt Regency near 3rd Avenue) and on Demonbreun Street between 7th and 8th Avenues (Marriott).

Of course, it's the financial markets and the banks (lenders) that will ultimately decide which ones of these new developments come to completion (if they're not already under construction). Permitting could also play a role in the historic Broadway development given the difficulties and opposition to past hotel efforts in that part of downtown.

Now where are all those new retail, residential and commercial developments that the Center might bring?

THE CHECK IS IN THE MAIL

Ever since the federal investigation of the Pilot Flying J company (owned by Governor Bill Haslam's family) went public in mid-April, the firm has had to deal with two major areas of legal concern. One, of course, is the ongoing criminal probe itself. The other has been the growing number of civil lawsuits brought by Pilot customers seeking redress for the money they feel they've been shorted by Pilot in the gas rebate program that is the subject of the entire case.

This past week, Pilot Flying J has taken several steps to try and resolve the lawsuits matter, with so far some success but also resistance. First, a federal judge in Arkansas has reportedly approved a class-action settlement that appears to involve 8 trucking firms (and perhaps others could still join in). They would each receive repayment of their losses in the rebate matter with 6% interest tacked on. Pilot would not admit any wrongdoing in the matter, nor pay any punitive damages. There are however many more lawsuits that have been filed (up to around 20 total, I believe), and some the lawyers involved with the other legal actions are being quoted as saying they are advising their clients not to accept this settlement offer (TENNESSEAN, July 17). In fact, a Cleveland television station (WEWS-TV)is reporting on its web site (July 18) that one Georgia lawyer involved in a lawsuit is requesting taped depositions to ask questions of top Pilot Flying J officials and even with Tom Ingram, the company public relations consultant.

The legal move by Pilot to settle what lawsuits it can is being praised by some legal analysts as cases like these tend to drag on and on, running up the costs significantly while awaiting either a trial (and appeals of the verdict) or an out of court settlement. But none of this will be cheap for Pilot. It's reported by one of its lawyers the company has set aside up to $42 million for the Arkansas class action settlement (including Pilot Flying J paying legal fees and court costs). 

In addition, ever since the federal criminal investigation became public, the owners of Pilot Flying J have pledged they would audit the firm's books and send out rebate checks (with 6% interest) to any business shorted on promised reimbursements, even if they haven't filed suit.

In a letter dated July 12 (and released this week) Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam says the company has cut and sent out those checks, including interest, although no names or numbers were disclosed as to how many of the approximately 5,000 diesel customers Pilot has have received money or how much they got.  The company said again it has discontinued the manual calculations of rebates that also came into question in the investigation.

Meantime the federal criminal investigation continues despite all this activity in the civil lawsuits. The letter from Pilot Flying J also disclosed that 9 of its employees have either been suspended, fired or have left the firm in the wake of the scandal. It is also known that 5 employees have pleaded guilty and cut deals with federal investigators to assist in the probe.

MORE DISCLOSURES

I thought the most recent financial disclosures in the 4th District congressional race would help clarify the field…and they really have.  But perhaps that's not in a good way for State Representative Joe Carr. His report shows he collected barely $100,000 over the last three months and has raised just $305,000 since the first of the year with $275,000 left in the bank.

That's way behind what appears to be his strongest competition, State Senator Jim Tracy who's raised over $750,000 total including $303,000 in the last quarter with $656,000 left in the bank. Getting outraised between 2 and 3 to 1 is no way to win a congressional seat, although the election is still over a year away. Meantime, Carr has indicated he is "all in" regardless, saying he will definitely not seek re-election to his House seat.

And what about the incumbent Congressman, Scott DesJarlais? In terms of raising the funds needed to run a re-election campaign, his disclosure report is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. He's pulled in just $39,000 in the last quarter and has just $88,000 in the bank. That's 8 to 1 behind in money compared to Jim Tracy.  Aides say DesJarlais has been busy with his congressional duties not holding fund raisers. They say he has plenty of time to gather the funds he needs before the August 2014 primary, but one prestigious national political publication (ROLL CALL) calls DesJarlais financing "paltry" for an incumbent. No matter how the incumbent tries to spin it, it's clear DesJarlais' lack of funds is another sign that he continues to suffer in the wake of the disclosures of his personal behavior regarding a decade-old divorce case. It's an issue that has dogged him since his first race for office in 2010.

Back in Nashville, all eyes are on the State Senate race next year to fill the post of longtime Democratic incumbent Douglas Henry. Attorney Jeff Yarbro almost defeated Henry in the primary in 2010.  And he's off to a strong start again disclosing fund raising of nearly $95,000 and total funds available of over $100,000.

That's a margin of more than 4 to 1 over his likely primary opponent, Metro Councilman Jason Holleman, who says he's raised $22,000 so far. Holleman is also an attorney and has the endorsement and financial support of former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who is one of Holleman's law partners.

Being behind 4 to 1 in funding is not ideal in a political race, but Holleman has been there before and still managed to prevail in a re-election bid in 2011 against a well-funded candidate supported by current Metro Mayor Karl Dean. This is a different campaign though, especially as the race is much larger geographically than a council district contest and the makeup of the Senate seat has changed a good bit too due to redistricting. Actually the district is reportedly more democratic in its voting record and maybe that's why so far, no Republican has emerged to challenge either Yarbro or Holleman in the November, 2014 general election.

INSIDE POLITICS

Usually in the dead of summer it's such a slow news period, I'd never do a reporter panel for INSIDE POLITICS. But this summer is different, especially with the various challenges and controversies surrounding Governor Bill Haslam (his relationship with Tom Ingram, state contracts, the proposed demolition of the historic Cordell Hull State Office complex and the Pilot Flying J investigation).

My guests are Tom Humphrey of THE KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL and Andrea Selinski of THE NASHVILLE CITY PAPER. They will be joined during the program by NEWSCHANNEL5 INVESTIGATES ‘Ben Hall and Phil Williams. Each will discuss their recent stories involving the Haslam administration.

 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.

I am going to be out of the office several days next week, so I have to forgo a column. Look for my next CAPITOL VIEW on Friday, August 2.

More later on my topic and guest for INSIDE POLITICS next weekend (July 26-28) 

TAKE THEIR PAY…ONE MORE TIME

Congress is politically constipated again.

That's right both Houses can't pass anything of significance and they've been fighting again about the rules, especially the use of the filibuster in the Senate.

While the Right to Fish Act pushed through Congress by Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander has been important for him (just watch his TV re-election ads), it's not a public policy matter that has any impact outside parts of our state and Kentucky. Yet I understand the law is on the short list (very short I'd say) of significant legislation approved by our national lawmakers this term. How sad.

This lack of action by Congress has once again led to calls to cut their pay, particularly since lots of federal employees (including the military) are seeing their wages reduced through the ongoing sequestration of the federal budget. That is resulting in furloughs where workers must take unpaid days off. The legislation, which would make members of Congress take furloughs too, has some bi-partisan support.

It also has an interesting name. It's the Sequestration Tied to Member Pay Act of 2013 (or the STOMP Act). Remember, that's just the name, not what many would like to do to Congress.

Not surprisingly, one of our local lawmakers supporting such a pay cut move for Congress is Nashville Democratic congressman Jim Cooper.  He's proposed and supported similar legislation to cut members' pay if they don't pass a budget or if the nation defaults on paying its bills. One measure even passed the House (no budget, no pay). But like most bills in Washington, it couldn't get through both chambers. And that's what likely will happen with this latest effort to get Congress to do its job. This "put Congress on furlough" effort (who says they are really working anyway?) probably won't go anywhere. But thinking about passing it may make us all feel good politically. You know, like stomping Congress.

By the way, Congressman Cooper is proposing a whole raft of new legislation (9 bills in all with over seventy colleagues supporting) that would "make government more efficient, effective and less wasteful" according to a news release from his office. Many of these proposals look like good ones to me (a two-year budget process, getting rid of duplicate agencies and programs, strategic sourcing, an end to automatic yearly budget increases, greater use of electronic health records, less travel more teleconferencing, and the list goes on. I just doubt a majority of Congress will ever approve them. I hope I'm wrong.

THE ALEXANDER AD BACKLASH

Unless he's purchased more time, Senator Lamar Alexander's re-election "fishing" ad is off the air. But while the spot was clearly an effort to bolster his support from the most conservative, Tea-Party part of the GOP base, his use of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul may have caught the Senator something else and something he doesn't want…a political backlash.

THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES-FREE PRESS has written a critical editorial (July 18) saying the Senator's ad took Senator Paul's comments (quoted in the ad as "Nobody in Washington can say no to Lamar Alexander") out of context. Other leaders in the GOP are privately fuming those comments are portrayed as an endorsement. Said one prominent female leader in the GOP in a broadly-distributed e-mail I saw this week: "Shame on Alexander and his group for misrepresenting Senator Paul…and Alexander himself!"

At this point, it should be pointed out that Senator Paul's office has made it clear he is not endorsing anyone for Senate in Tennessee, but he didn't walk away from his comments or criticize the ad. But some conservative Republicans remain outraged anyway….and looking for a candidate.  The same GOP leader added in her e-mail: "I have been told there will be a very viable candidate running against Alexander. The name is not public knowledge at this time. I don't know who it is either, but I pray that he/she really does exist. My source is very reliable."

I guess the source is just not very talkative huh. Is the source and/or the "viable candidate" well-funded?  They'll need to be to win a year from now. As they say in TV…Stay tuned.  

ANOTHER ANNIVERSARY

Today, Friday July 19 marks the one year anniversary I have been hospital-free.

It was on this day one year ago I was discharged from Vanderbilt's Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital. It marked the end of a three week stint of hospital care following my stroke. That included a week of treatment and stabilization at Saint Thomas, followed by 14 days of in-patient therapy at Stallworth.

And while the care I received at both facilities changed (and saved) my life, I don't ever want to do it again. I have vowed to my wife and family that my goal is to stay out of the hospital for at least the next calendar year of 2013 (and hopefully well beyond).

You see I had an earlier hospitalization in September, 2012, when a flare up of my diverticulitis rushed me to hospital in the North Carolina mountains right after Labor Day. I passed out on vacation, and woke up in the emergency room finding I needed a colonoscopy (yuck!) and a transfusion of four units of whole blood because I was very anemic.

All that led to three days in the hospital, the first time in my life I had ever spent a night there. I've made up for lost time in that department the past 22 months, but it's over now. I don't ever want to be back as a patient in a hospital room again. That's one of the major motivations of my new lifestyle these days, from what I eat, to the pills I take (blood pressure medications, fiber pills, stool softeners), to the sleep apnea machine I wear every night, even why I joined the YMCA and go there twice a week to exercise (one of my daughters want me to go for three times a week soon).    

I do remember a year ago how great it felt to check out of the hospital that day. I insisted my first stop was to go back to my DVL office. It was where I was headed back the day of my stroke and I felt I had to complete the cycle, even if I cried when I came in (rather unexpectedly) to greet my colleagues. Then it was off to one my favorite places, THE PICNIC, for lunch.

At the time, I thought it would be just a couple of weeks of rest at home and out-patient rehab at the Bill Wilkerson Clinic and I would back to work….back to normal. I thought maybe even I'd be back on the air at Channel 5 in time to do the August elections. Wrong. It was all I could do to hold up through a brief on-air phone call with Rhori election night. Rehab was good for me, but I had so many things to work on in my recovery: my posture, my balance, my strength, my stamina, even buttoning my dress shirts. Some days were just discouraging.

It took another two months plus before I could finally get approval to drive again and go back to work part time in September. Then slowly, I have gotten stronger and better. I'm still not perfect or even fully back to what I was before the stroke. But I am so much closer to my old self again, except with a much better lifestyle and a firm resolve that my hospital days are over ….for good if I can help it.