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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, November 15, 2013

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, November 15, 2013

CREATED Nov 15, 2013

CAPITOL VIEW

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

November 15, 2013

AMPED UP OR AMPED OUT; TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME; THE CONTRACT; NOW IT'S THE BEP; WHEN SAYING YOU ARE SORY IS NOT ENOUGH; HERRON ON INSIDE POLITICS

AMPED UP OR AMPED OUT

In the wake of the seeming reluctance (if not opposition) from top leaders (Governor Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Transportation Commissioner John Schroer) to the state funding its share ($35 million) for the new AMP bus rapid transit project for Nashville, is Mayor Karl Dean AMPed up or AMPed out?

On the surface, things do look bleak. But look closely. What all three state officials are saying is that they've really never had a full briefing from the city about the benefits of this project and how it will perhaps not only help Nashville but the whole state. (It's a complaint I've heard more than once about how the AMP has been lobbied by the Mayor's office).But can a case still be made that would persuade the Governor, the Speaker and the TDOT Commissioner that the idea is worthy of making the AMP a priority to allocate the limited state gas tax and (federal) transportation funds and put it in the TDOT budget for legislative approval this spring?

Right now, I would say no. What Mayor Dean says is that it remains "premature" for the state to make its decision. He also told THE NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL (November 11) that the state needs to provide more "leadership" and be more "forward thinking" in supporting "smart" mass transit alternatives.

The Mayor does have to be careful how he responses as he also needs critical state support and approvals (in particular on the land swaps and purchases needed) to make the new Suphur Dell baseball park a reality (more on that later in the column).

But if the state remains reluctant to chip in for the AMP, is it possible Metro might step in and finance that part itself as well as its own share? Would the feds approve that and still provide its lion share of the project's funding? Would the feds be interested in a different or revised AMP route if that brought back state participation or had more community support? Lots of questions, not many apparent answers.

TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME

It looks more and more like Nashville will have a new professional baseball park at the old Sulphur Dell location in North Nashville. The details of the project (unveiled last Friday right after my last column was filed) show the proposed public private partnership (Metro, the State, the Nashville Sounds and a private residential developer) has grown in size ($150 million) from what was originally proposed.

Metro's share is $4.3 million annually (for 30 years) and that could be reduced to less than a half million annually for taxpayers provided all the rent, property and sales taxes as well as all the other funds predicted to come from the surrounding new and existing developments pan out. But that ‘if' could emerge as a concern while the Metro Council debates its approval in the next several weeks. The proposed agreement does not require the Sounds and the other developer to have to definitely build the new private developments envisioned. There could also be questions raised about who should get the naming rights and the other revenue streams (parking, concessions, etc.) that will emerge from the ball park development? And there could other questions about why the Sounds are not putting "any skin" into the actual financing of the ball park beyond their rent?

But assuming the overall financing package pans out (including tax increment funding as a part of the debt service), it appears community and Council support is there for approval and that the state is on board too. The city's cost for this project is much less than the taxpayer's ongoing commitment to both the Titans and the Predators and the development will definitely be a major boost for North Nashville which has not shared all that much in overall boom of downtown and the rest of the city in recent years.

The final hurdle is time. After the city and state give their Oks by the end of year (which is very tight timeframe) there's construction. Doing site prep, excavation, then construction to be open and operating by Opening Day in April, 2015 (the last year of Mayor Dean's term in office) could be quite challenging, especially if our recent rainy weather pattern persists.

THE CONTRACT

It's the state contract controversy that won't go away.

NEWSCHANNEL5's Chief Investigative reporter Phil Williams has done several stories raising questions about a multi-million dollar real estate management contract the state has with the Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) company out of Chicago. In particular concerns have been raised about contract language giving JLL an unfair competitive advantage and a conflict of interest.

This week in a strongly worded audit, State Comptroller Justin Wilson agrees. The audit says: "We believe (the contract language) place(s) JLL in a position to offer the state advice and then reap the benefits of its own recommendations, creating an organizational conflict of interest." The audit report continues saying the contract language "increase(s) the risk that JLL may recommend unnecessary leases so it can profit from them."

State officials including Governor Haslam deny anything wrong is going on. In fact they say while the state can always look to improve its wording in its future contracts, the work with JLL is resulting in Tennessee saving millions of dollars in the future.

And indeed Phil Williams now reports the state may be using some of those future savings by further expanding its work with JLL. Stay tuned.

NOW IT'S THE BEP

Tennessee's "education wars" continue to widen in scope and battlegrounds.

Now as a part of its continuing fight against having to fund new charter schools without additional state monies, the Metro School Board is seeking help from the three other large city school systems in Tennessee (Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga).

According to an article by Andrea Zelinski on the PITH IN THE WIND/ NASHVILLE SCENE blog site (November 11,) Nashville school board member Will Pinkston points out Metro's cost for charter schools has risen "from $4.6 million in 2008 to an estimated $62 million next year." He warns his colleagues on the other major school boards in the state: "Consider this a glimpse of what the future will look like in your budget. Make no mistake they're headed your way if they haven't gotten there already."

To fight back, the goal is challenge the state's education funding policy, the Basic Education Program or BEP. The big city educators would probably like to get the more rural school systems involved as well. But that may be difficult. They've felt cheated by the BEP for different reasons and even won a lawsuit about it some years ago.

Are we headed back to court over this charter school/ now BEP funding fight? Stay tuned. Meantime the Metro School Board knows this issue likely won't be resolved by the next budget time in July, 2014. So it's adopted a plan that it will only accept new charter school applications if the proposals address areas of town with existing school overcrowding (that's largely the Antioch/ South Nashville area) or for students who've been attending schools that have failed state standards for the last two years.

Mayor Karl Dean, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Tennessee charter school advocates are already questioning the legality and/or wisdom of such limitations (NASHVILLE SCENE's PITH IN THE WIND November 15). They also point out some of Nashville's most successful charter schools would not have been created under these standards. According to THE SCENE, Governor Haslam is also expressing concerns saying he wants to sit down with Metro Schools Director Jesse Register so he can better understand why this is being done. That could be a very interesting meeting, indeed.

So will the State Department of Education allow Metro to impose their new charter restrictions? And for that matter will House Speaker Harwell now renew her efforts to pass a bill in the General Assembly next year to give the state, not the school board, the final approval power to create new charters?

And the education war rages on….

Another county teacher group (Williamson County) has issued an expression of no-confidence in State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. They join Nashville's teachers union in expressing the desire that Governor Haslam remove Huffman because he's been pushing controversial changes they don't like such as the new teacher evaluation program, changes in teacher tenure rules and efforts to base pay raises more on "merit" and not so much on experience and advanced education degrees.

Don't look for the Governor to back down at all in backing Huffman, especially after the new national report card found Tennessee's fourth and eighth graders making the greatest academic progress in the nation in both math and reading the past two years, in fact the most progress the bi-annual survey has ever recorded.

But the Governor has an issue of his own. He said just weeks before the report card came out that he wanted to build a reputation for the state as rewarding its teachers with the fastest growing salaries in the nation. But with state revenues now flagging (they are down $100 million from estimates in the past three months), it's unclear where the money for raises of almost any size might come from next year. According to THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS (November 12) in presenting his suggested 5% education budget cut to the governor (as requested of all state agencies), "Huffman put no figure on that (teacher pay raises). I guess we won't know for sure about the Governor's teacher pay goal until he files his budget with lawmakers the end of January.

Because of the decline in state tax collections and in federal funds such as Race to the Top and the stimulus, the governor is already predicting this will be his toughest budget so far. And even though he's still not found a process to get state lawmakers and the feds to find an agreeable way for Tennessee to take extra federal money to broaden the TennCare program under the new national health care law, it's still impacting the program.

It appears people already eligible, but not signed up Tenncare are "coming out of the woodwork" to get assistance, taking up about 70% of any extra dollars the state has to spend next year.

The governor says he won't implement across the board budget cuts, but rather be more surgical and strategic, but again exactly what that means won't likely be known until the governor presents his budget plans to lawmakers at the end of January, 2014.

WHEN SAYING YOU ARE SORRY IS NOT ENOUGH

President Barack Obama continues to take it on the chin politically concerning the implementation of his signature health care legislation. In fact his job approval ratings are at an all-time personal low.

Even the President's latest recommendation of how to (temporarily) resolve part of the problem (millions of folks having the current health care policies they like and want to keep being cancelled) may not work out. In fact, for the President it could result in a case of messing up big time (repeatedly promising people who liked their coverage they could keep it), then trying to resolve the matter, but doing so in a way (granting a one year extension) that only makes things potentially worse or more confusing.

The insurance industry and state regulators say it's not that simple, especially restoring policies for just one year, and it may drive up premiums. Republicans see an opportunity and they are trying to pass legislation that will not only restore these cancelled policies but allow the same kind of coverage (which does meet the new standards in the health care law) to continue to be sold to new customers.

While Democrats are trying to rally behind the President, he is even getting criticism from former President Bill Clinton. Says President Clinton (in an interview reported on the OZT.com website on November 12: "I personally believe, even if it takes a change to the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got."

What a mess and there's more!

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (November 12) reports "less than 50,000 people" have signed up for health care insurance through the new national web site. The projection had been at least 500,000 by now. At least the President has until spring (if the website's problems are fixed) for folks to come on board before the deadline (and possible fines kick in).

But the overall numbers for signups (including those coming on board through those the state insurance exchanges) are pretty lousy too. It about 100,000people total, which Senator Lamar Alexander explains (in simple, easy to understand Tennessee terms) is less than the capacity of the Tennessee Vols football stadium in Knoxville, even without the Pride of the Southland Band.

There are serious longer term problems looming. Those who are the most likely to be having their policies cancelled (and are now likely discouraged to get new coverage through the exchanges) are young and healthy. The old and sick know they need care and a much more likely to hang in there and sign up. But if the younger ones don't (and I'd say it's likely any fines will be waived or delayed because of this mess), the new health care insurance system (for those who don't get the coverage through their workplace) just won't work financially.

It reminds me of that old political saying. "When you're stuck in the ditch, the first thing to do is to quit digging!"

HERRON ON INSIDE POLITICS

Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week. He may have the toughest political job in Tennessee for 2014 in trying to unite the Democrats and make the party relevant again in both statewide and legislative races. We have a very interesting discussion on those topics. In fact, I think many will find several things he has to say on the 2014 races and politics in general in Tennessee more than a bit controversial. Tune in!

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