Capitol View Commentary: Friday, December 13, 2013

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, December 13, 2013

CREATED Dec 13, 2013


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

December 13, 2013



Wednesday, December 11, 2013 was probably not the best of days for Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander. It began with the shocking news (released first to the media through a statement from Alexander's office) that the home of his Washington Chief of Staff was being searched by law enforcement agents (postal inspectors) regarding child pornography allegations. The employee was first placed on administrative leave without pay (then fired) as the Senator said he was "stunned, surprised and disappointed by what I have learned" about this matter. The former Chief of Staff has been arrested after being led out of his home in handcuffs. There are reports his office computer has also been seized. He has now been formally charged and awaits entering a formal plea and possible bail in a hearing on the case next week.

Then, with Senator Alexander headed into 2014 re-election year, came interesting (and conflicting) polling numbers from two different surveys that hit the news last Wednesday. One was a poll commissioned by Democratic Senate candidate Terry Adams (a Knoxville attorney) which claims Alexander holds only a surprisingly small 6% lead (46%-40%) in the August primary over Alexander's Tea Party challenger, State Representative Joe Carr. The poll, done by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling also seems to indicate Democrats might have a shot at Alexander in the November general election. It claims a 45%-22% lead for Alexander until voters are "informed" about "(Terry) Adam's experience as a veteran, small business owner with a middle class background and statewide roots").  Then says the polling firm, Adams seizes a 41% to 37% margin over the two-term incumbent.

Public Policy Polling has been a somewhat controversial firm being labeled as "left leaning" and with methodology issues being raised about how it has done some of its surveys. In this particular case, the primary results its claims for Alexander vs. Carr are directly at odds with another statewide poll released by Vanderbilt University on the same day (it was busy day politically on Wednesday). It shows Alexander with a commanding lead over Carr among self-identified Tea Party supporters (42%-19%) and among Republican voters overall (57% to 15%). But interestingly the Vanderbilt survey also shows Senator Alexander with a 49% approval rating while GOP Governor Bill Haslam, another candidate on the 2014 ballot has a much higher 61% approval rating.

For Joe Carr this Public Policy poll has to be the best news his campaign has heard since he jumped into the race. But how does he tout it without giving credit and publicity to his potential Democratic rival? As for Adams, this poll is likely to generate more publicity for him than even his announcement of making the run. But with unless he has more money, organization and name recognition than most think, where does he go for here?


I think I am beginning to understand why after nearly a year of discussions, Governor Bill Haslam and federal officials haven't made much (read: any) progress towards finding an approved "Tennessee way" to bring (over the next few years) billions of dollars to the state to expand health care opportunities for hundreds of thousands of needy state residents under the new health care law.

Apparently most, if not all these discussions have been oral in nature. Nobody makes a "deal" or decides on a plan of this size and complexity (including politicians and bureaucrats) without putting it down on paper in great detail or in this case making an official request for a waiver from Washington as other states have done).

 Instead Governor Haslam has released to reporters a letter (still well less than two pages) that he has just sent to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. It outlines what items in the federal law and regulations he'd like changed for Tennessee to allow the expanded Medicaid (Tenncare) coverage  to be offered through private carriers and with the state having no additional cost (which seems already assured under the law at least for the first few years anyway).

The letter has a lot of what I am sure is important jargon. But it contains no numbers, no formulas, none of the devil in the details everyone should know it will take to advance these "discussions" toward any possible agreement. Secretary Sebelius has already said her agency has not received "a plan" from Tennessee and I am not sure the Governor's letter fits that bill either. It just seems to be a reiteration of what he's said before, combined with a willingness to have more "discussions." And so it goes with someone saying this is closer to the classic definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result) rather than any sign of a breakthrough.

All this is very disappointing in many ways since the jobs of many health care workers and indeed the very existence of many rural hospitals across Tennessee are in limbo because of a lack of agreement on this issue. That's not to mention the lives of many lower income Tennesseans because their access to health care remains out of reach.  

The Governor says he didn't share his letter with state GOP legislative leaders before he sent it to Washington. Even though the Governor wants buy-in from the General Assembly if he comes to an agreement with the feds, he probably would be wasting his time and the postage to pass the letter on to the folks on the Hill. Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey has already said he thinks the Governor ought to give it up, that these discussions are worthless because of the failure of the implementation nationally of the health care law. 

What he really means is that approving any Medicaid (Tenncare) expansion plan is getting involved with Obamacare and that's a complete no-no for almost every Tennessee GOP lawmaker. They'd rather make a pact with the devil. That's not likely to change at least not until at least April and the qualifying deadline for next August's primary election, lest they receive Tea Party type opposition to challenge their re-election plans. That would be a no-no for them as well.

So Secretary Sebelius, the letter is in the mail for what it's worth, and Happy Holidays too.

Of course this matter is new political fodder for state Democrats, who need all the fodder they can get for 2014. Democratic House Leader Craig Fitzhugh says the Governor's letter is "more of the same hand wringing, ducking and dodging we've come to expect from this administration, all in an attempt to absolve themselves of the worst moral and mathematical failure in a generation--denying health care to 330,000 working Tennesseans." 

There are also some interesting numbers on this issue coming out of the Vanderbilt poll released this week (December 11) that I mentioned earlier in this column. It shows voters statewide by a 63% margin believe Tennessee should expand its Medicaid (Tenncare) program under the new health reform act. That's the finding even though the same poll shows just 15% of respondents support the new law while the majority disapprove of it.  By the way, the 60% support for Tenncare expansion was the same finding as what similar Vanderbilt poll found last May.


Despite his lofty job numbers fellow State Republican leaders are not lining up behind the Governor in his ongoing efforts to expand his administration's work with the Chicago-based real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle. In fact, the State Building Commission headed by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey  declined another increase in the state's contract with LaSalle with Ra,sey telling THE TENNESSEAN (December 13) that for transparency position should a contract change needs to ber put out for bid.

The Building Commission's rebuff also comes after a sharply critical audit by Comptroller Justin Wilson who is also appointed by the Republican super majority on the Hill and who has a long personal and family pedigree in the Tennessee GOP. Wilson's audit said the state's agreements with LaSalle allowed for an institutional conflict of interest whereby the firm could make recommendations to the state by which it could directly profit.

The Governor staunchly maintains the Jones Lang LaSalle relationship is and will save the state millions of dollars, although obviously he's still got some selling to do about that with some fellow party officials. 


With the end of the calendar year come various lists from pundits and news organizations. That includes Stu Rothenberg of ROLL CALL (December 9). Thanks to the NASHVILLE POST political blog for the link.

Rothenberg has a list for "Most Vulnerable Incumbent Up in 2014". The nominees include Senator Mark Pryor from neighboring Arkansas along with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (although Rothenberg then adds he doesn't handicap Canadian races).

The winner is Tennessee's Fourth District Congressman Scott DesJarlais who Rothenberg says is "most likely" to lose in 2014. Happy Holidays and New Year to you too, Congressman!


It's not exactly "The Grand Bargain.": But given how dysfunctional Congress has been in recent years, the budget deal reached by the special committee led by Democratic Senator Patty Murray, Chair of the Senate Budget Committee and Republican Representative Paul Ryan, Chair of the House Budget Committee, ought to be celebrated like a small but unexpected early Christmas present.

At it was suggested both houses would not vote on the plan until after the New Year. Bu as second thoughts began to arise it appeared late late in the week the House was going to it GOP leadership says pass it) on Friday (December 13) before they went home for the holidays. That will leave it to the Senate which is bogged down in seemingly endless debate despite the filibuster rule change concerning presidential appointments.

If the plan passes it will mean budget peace through the 2014 election. It also means there will be some easing of the horrible across the board sequestration budget cuts (particularly for the Pentagon). That is courtesy of some fee increases (don't say tax hikes) in airline travel fees and higher pension contributions by federal employees and others.

It doesn't however deal with the next debt ceiling limit approaching in the spring, nor does it deal with the cut off of unemployment benefits Democrats wanted to extend. Tea Party groups are already complaining about the agreement especially the higher "fees." And there's the farm bill that is stalled over additional cuts in food stamps demanded by House Republicans.

It appears Congress will go home and hope that, with no new Farm policy in place, it won't mean higher milk prices (in fact, reverting back to the old farm rules dating from 1949, some say a gallon of milk could skyrocket to $7 a gallon!). Ladies and gentlemen, you better work this out. Remember that old saying: "If Momma ain't happy (and she really won't be happy at all buying milk for Junior and Susie at $7 a gallon), then ain't nobody gonna be happy."   

Happy New Year indeed, NOT!


BY the way if the Senate ever quits debating presidential appointments maybe it can take up some bi-partisan legislation being offered by Senator Alexander and Democrat Diane Feinstein of California to prohibit cell phone conversations on commercial airline flights. The Federal Communications Commission is considering that idea which Senator Alexander says does not make "common sense." He adds: "This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly 2 million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts" (and seated right next to you!)

The bill does allow the use of cell and smart phones for "texting and other electronic communications" according to a news release from Alexander. It also allows the use the use of Kindles and iPads in flight.

Sounds like a pretty good idea to me.


 My guests this weekend on INSIDE POLITICS are Vanderbilt philosophy professors Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. They have written a book entitled "Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement." No, it's not about your annual family holiday gathering (although for some of us it could be). Instead the book seeks to champion the need for well-reasoned debate in our politics not the "we are right and you are wrong" marginalization and near demonization of one's opponents and their arguments.  

It's a stimulating conversation and may help you deal with and listen more critical to media and cable TV issue political discussions in the future (or least how may they should be).  

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Today is my 62nd birthday.  One of my goals has been to have a full calendar year (2013) without any new (or recurring health) issues. One of the final milestones on that journey is my birthday. So I am just a couple of weeks from achieving it all!

I must say when I attended my college reunion back in October I noted how many of my classmates were getting ready to or talking about retirement. That's not where I am these days mentally (and especially financially). I want to work at least 4 or 5 more years or as far as at least 70 if my health stays good. That includes staying on with NEWSCHANNEL5 at least for what will be a very busy election year in 2014.

I did finally miss doing a second Y workout this past week for the first time since I started going double back in May. So I will need to add one during the holidays. I can tell "the season to be jolly" is going to be full of schedule conflicts and challenges for me (along with resisting eating too much of the wrong kind of food). So I need to get myself ready to do it right.

I do have some vacation this year to use up and to rest up over the holidays. Last year, that was all gone (and then some) after my hospital stays. I do plan one more Capitol View column next week (probably sending it out Thursday, December 19) before knocking off for 2013. And we will have at least one more new INSIDE POLITICS show after this week (and more since the work week right after the New Year is a real short one).