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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, March 7, 2014

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, March 7, 2014

CREATED Mar 7, 2014

CAPITOL VIEW

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

March 7, 2014

AN AMP MILESTONE ALONG WITH A POTENTIAL MILLSTONE; THROUGH A DIFFERENT SET OF EYES;BEGINNING THE FINAL FULL MONTH; TRYING TO WORK IT OUT; MEMO TO CANDIDATES; A TO-GO CUP; DR. JESSE REGISTER ON INSIDE POLITICS; NOT THE FLAVOR OF THE MONTH

AN AMP MILESTONE ALONG WITH A POTENTIAL MILLSTONE

Mayor Karl Dean and the supporters of his AMP bus rapid transit project had a celebration at the Metro Courthouse this week. Why not? Transportation officials in Washington have included $27 million in President Barack Obama's proposed FY2015 federal budget for the controversial East-West connector. It's the largest financial commitment any governmental entity has made so far to the $175 million development.

Sure, it's less than a third of the total ($75 million) Metro requested, but Mayor Dean and the Pro- AMPers are convinced the rest of the money will be coming over the next three years (through FY2017)and that the funds will be approved by Congress, despite the rather difficult and contentious time our national lawmakers have had agreeing on spending plans in recent years.

I would say I am not sure the Mayor and AMP supporters completely prepared public or media expectations in advance for less than full funding (the whole $75 million approved in one year) but one of my informed sources (who is not in the Mayor's office or involved in the Pro-AMP coalition) is impressed by what's happened.

The source said: "The first federal money was key. I know I never expected $75 million in one year. But getting that first chunk means ‘this is happening.' I think only a new Mayor who says 'no' could stop it now, but who would do that given how much will already be invested in the project at that point?"

Indeed, even though it's now perfectly clear the AMP will have to be completed under the new mayor who replaces Karl Dean when he is term limited beginning in October, 2015, can you think of any of the potential candidates mentioned for that office who are even mumbling opposition to the AMP?

But that's not to say the AMP is now a slam dunk for the Dean Team. Far from it. While the need for the  state's $35 million contribution may not be urgent this coming year, high-level opposition on the Hill here in Nashville looks entrenched and growing.

In fact, a whole new level of opposition emerged in recent days with GOP state lawmakers considering legislation in a House sub-committee that would ban any metro government (that would be Nashville) from having (without state approval) a mass transit system on a state highway that has passenger pick up areas in the middle of the right of way or anywhere other than at the curb (that would be the AMP).

This looks like a very serious effort to derail the project. House Speaker Beth Harwell supports it and anti-AMP leaders such as Lee Beaman are clearly pushing it hard. It clearly shows the determined no-AMP mindset Mayor Dean and AMP supporters are dealing with on the Hill to get the project's $35 million in state dollars approved in any upcoming year.

So it may be after AMP supporters passed a milestone in getting federal money, opponents are putting in place a political millstone that will all but block the AMP from happening, at least as it is currently designed and using its selected route.

Meanwhile with all this going on up on the Hill, and with the AMP's federal monies being spread out over at least three years, what kind of doubts will Metro Council members have to step up (perhaps during their own re-election period) to approve the city's share of $65 million in capital funds to fill out the bus rapid transit budget?

And when does all this get put into a definitive agreement someone can take to the financial markets to allow bids be requested and contracts awarded so construction of the AMP can actually start?

For now, the next step for Metro is to also continue final AMP design. Could there be efforts in that to find more community consensus for the project (less dedicated lanes, route changes)? The Mayor told THE TENNESSEAN (March 5) what he said when he was on my INSIDE POLITICS show recently: "Let me be clear. We will get this right." What will that mean? Stay tuned.

In closing on this topic, it is interesting to note a story by WPLN this week (March 6) reporting on how the Anti-AMP coalition is re-branding itself (to still be against the AMP) but more out front in favor of improved mass transit more particularly the bus rapid transit "lite" the city is already using in other parts of town involving more regular rubber wheeled buses and fewer dedicated lanes, especially down the middle of the street. But will they be able to convince the Mayor and AMP supporters that would be a way "to get it right" for Nashville mass transit future?

THROUGH A DIFFERENT SET OF EYES

The NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL (on-line March 5) offers a fascinating story by Scott Harrison. He reports on the assessment released by the Federal Transit Administration in making the AMP award.

First, it gives the city's project overall a medium high rating, second highest on the agency's five-point scale.

Breaking it down, the AMP ranks highest with the feds for its local funding commitment (it seems that's in large part because it needs only 43% of its budget in federal funds). AMP ranks medium high as an economic driver for redevelopment says the FTA; medium for its project justification and congestion relief; and medium low for its environmental benefits and mobility improvements.

The assessment also contains this potential warning about federal funding from Washington which "is only obligated when the grantee (Metro) can assure the FTA that the proposed project scope, cost estimate and budget are firm and reliable, and local funding commitments are in place".

But no pressure I'm sure for the Dean Team and AMP YES supporters.

The FTA report also confirms that other cities (Oakland, CA and Eugene, OR) are set to get their second installments of funding. They got their first last year. Two cities also got everything they asked for in federal funding their first year even though the monies to Ft. Lauderdale FL ($49.7 million) and Vancouver, WA ($38.7 million) are less than what Nashville has asked for overall.

BEGINNING THE FINAL FULL MONTH

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill here in Nashville are now a full week into what will be the last full month of the 108th General Assembly (adjournment sine die likely no later than mid-April). Already it looks like at least a couple of potentially big issues may end with a whimper not a bang.

Lots of folks, including Governor Bill Haslam, were very concerned about efforts to undermine or even repeal the state's Common Core education standards and new achievement tests. But instead after a strong show of support for Common Core, almost all of the threatening bills have been "rolled" in committee (deferred indefinitely) until nearly the end of the session.

That's usually a sign the votes just aren't there for passage. The same may also be true for the politically hair brain idea of allowing lawmakers, not the voters, to pick the parties' U.S. Senate candidates after 2014. The bill almost made the full Senate floor for a vote last year. With Tea Party zealots supporting, there were concerns it might move still further this year even though the measure was deferred until March.

Now, despite sponsor Senator Frank Nicely claiming public support for the idea continues to grow the bill has been put off again until the last calendar of session. So maybe it's all but dead too.

But do remember this. There are always last minute bills that seem to come out of nowhere in the final days and weeks of session (such as the Ag-Gag measure last year which, in a different form, seems to lurking again in committee). Bills live these pass unexpectedly in committee in the final days and suddenly threaten to show up on the floor for debate or to the Governor's desk for his consideration.

So bills may appear to be dead and gone, but state lawmakers don't always wait for Easter Sunday to assist with a political resurrection. Stay tuned until the final gavel drops.

TRYING TO WORK IT OUT

Three of Governor Bill Haslam's key legislative initiatives are at a critical stage in the General Assembly. One is a proposed law to re-invigorate the state's losing war on methamphetamine by clamping down on restrictions regarding the sale of a key ingredient (pseudoephedrine) needed to produce the drug.

For months the Governor has been negotiating with local law enforcement officials to find a happy medium between requiring a doctor's prescription for all pseudoephedrine sales (allergy and severe cold sufferers could be unfairly hurting some say) or adjusting down the limit of the cold medication that can be bought both at one time and overall for a year by a customer.

Just when it looked like an agreement had been reached, the chairman of a House sub-committee considering the measure introduced his own plan with higher limits than what the Governor wanted. The sub-committee approved that plan, at least temporarily shelving the Governor's compromise deal.

The sub-committee chairman Tony Shipley told THE TENNESSEAN (March 5) he acted because he didn't believe the Governor's plan could even get a second for consideration by his panel. He's also now in a spat with House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick who told reporters: "I think he (Shipley) made a terrible mistake. I think that was an agreement completely made by Tony, by himself." Speaker Beth Harwell (ever the peacemaker) told reporters, she thought all the meth legislation, including the governor's compromise needs more work before being moved in committee.

In legislation like this the devil is always in the details (especially something as highly lobbied as this issue). But lawmakers cannot lose this opportunity to act. They must come together and agree on effective legislation that will help battle this scourge of meth. It's too important to allow personal disagreements or a fight over what is the magic number for pseudoephedrine sales, to deadlock matters and therefore, wind up doing nothing.

Another key legislation for Governor Haslam now at a critical point in the General Assembly is his "Tennessee Promise" program. That would allow Tennessee high school graduates two years of free tuition if they attend a community college or technical school. The bill passed in a House sub-committee this past week although there are signs of concern (if not opposition) from the state's four year (and private) schools. They are proposing a different way to re-allocate Lottery funds to fund "The Tennessee Promise" without cutting Lottery scholarship amounts in the first two years for their students.

So far, the Governor is listening, but has not committed to any changes to his plans. Maybe we will learn more when it comes up in the full House Education Committee next week.

The third and final piece of legislation Governor Haslam is pushing (establishing a school voucher program for Tennessee) began making progress this past week…but just barely. It passed out of sub-committee 7-6 with House Speaker Beth Harwell (The Speaker is a voting member of every committee and sub-committee) casting the deciding vote.

The measure actually looks to be gaining a bit of steam despite the narrow margin of approval in the sub-committee. The bill was amended, then passed along the narrow parameters the Governor supports to focus the voucher plan primarily to aid at-risk students who attend the state's "failing" public schools (chronic low test scores). A key Senate leader (Senator Brian Kelsey of Memphis) who has supported a much broader voucher effort now says he supports the amended House bill which brightens prospects for ultimate passage in the upper chamber as well.

The Governor says he is pleased with the progress being made and he should be. Except for the meth bill challenge, he had a good week in the Legislature. But I'm sure he and Speaker Harwell just hope that they don't have to continue to lead the charmed life of relying on the Speaker to cast deciding votes in committee to keep the legislation alive. Indeed THE TENNESSEE JOURNAL (March 7) reports a final compromise that can pass regarding vouchers is not firmly in place.

The Democrats continue to play the "Cassandra" of Greek tragedy on the Hill. They don't have the numbers to impact legislation, but they can make speeches and offer amendments during about what they think. In this case, that meant raising the specter that vouchers might be an unconstitutional unfunded mandate on local government, raising the need for a public referendum (just like wine in grocery stores) to approve such a program and/or face a lawsuit to stop it. But for the Democrats that's all just talk. They don't have near enough votes to back up their criticisms.

This past week, however, the Democrats may have checkmated the Republicans into approving one amendment to a bill they probably would have preferred not to have done so. As expected, the Republican super majority in both houses has passed legislation requiring the Governor to get their approval if he reaches an agreement with Washington to expand TennCare under the new national health care law. The Governor says he already planned to do that so he's not objecting to the bill.

Democrats see this bill however as more of an opt-out for Governor than a restriction, so they tried numerous ways to amend it. The only one that worked was putting words into the bill that if lawmakers get called into special session to approve a TennCare expansion plan they won't get paid while in Nashville. Being the "small government, lower costs" kind of public officials they claim they are, how could Republican reject that? But don't hold your breath that any special session is coming.

What may be coming is a bit of a faceoff between Governor Haslam and GOP lawmakers over proposed changes in the "guns in parks" law. Republicans (the Senate has already passed a bill) seem determined to remove local government's ability to ban guns in local parks. They say it's a constitutional rights issue for gun permit holders to have a gun in any park.

But Governor Haslam again told reporters this week he sees this as a property rights issue. Local governments own their own parks and they should decide what goes on there. That's being reported in the media as a "veiled veto threat." Maybe it is. But a Tennessee governor's veto authority is so weak, being "veiled" about it likely doesn't mean much.

But what it may mean is that the Governor supports Speaker Harwell who has voiced similar concerns about the "guns in parks" bill and he hopes she can enact enough amendments in the House so that if a bill on the matter comes to his desk (and even the Speaker predicts something will pass) it will be something he can sign.

MEMO TO CANDIDATES

Memo to 2015 Metro Council candidates (or for that matter anybody running for office): No matter how tempted or justified you feel, don't ever compare your enemies or political foes to Adolf Hitler. It's always a non-starter. Hitler is likely the greatest mass murderer of all time. There is no political comparison possible.

Kudos to Michael Cass of THE TENNESSEAN for bringing to light (March 4) a tweet posted on an Twitter account belonging to potential Donelson (District 14) Metro Council candidate Jeremy Hayes. The posting shows a picture of Hitler talking on the phone saying under a word bubble: "Fortunately, I don't have to wait for legislation. I've got a pen and I've got a phone. "The Tweet then added: "Sound familiar?"

When first confronted about the message by Cass, the candidate said he had not seen this tweet before it was posted but added: "I do believe the current (President Barack Obama) administration is expanding the power of the federal government in a way that could be potentially very frightening for many people. It's a scary time."

But when further pressed about the specific Hitler comparison, Hayes admitted: "You know, I completely agree with you. " He later told Cass he had the Tweet deleted and says he has fired an unidentified marketing firm he says created it. He also said to Cass: "Thank you for bringing this to my attention. That's not something that I want to represent myself as a Christian."

Good point. Good move. Other candidates should duly take note.

This goes as well for Hillary Clinton and her comments this week about Russian President Vladimir Putin and how his recent actions in the Ukraine (invasion) resemble Hitler's in 1930s. What she said is historically more than a bit accurate, but before it's all over the media fire storm (social, mainstream and otherwise) this has stirred up may make her wish she had skipped dispensing the history lesson.

A TO-GO CUP

For a city that has longed prided itself for being the buckle on the Bible Belt, there sure are a lot of stories in the news around here about alcohol.

First after a seven plus years of legislative struggles, the "wine in grocery stores" bill has received final approval from the General Assembly. Governor Haslam is expected to sign it. Then comes the referendum campaigns in cities and counties across the state (who already have liquor by the drink or package stores) to place the matter up for voter approval. That could come as early as November.

Of course, even with a yes decision from the voters, it will still be July, 2016 before the law is fully implemented and you can buy wine anywhere but from a current liquor store.

But if you want a "to go" cup of your adult beverage when you visit one of Nashville's downtown bars, we have just the fight brewing for you. It's what you can already do in other cities such as New Orleans (and its' French Quarter). The Nashville Visitors and Convention Bureau thinks "to go" cups would be a great addition for Nashville. So it's asked the Tennessee General Assembly to pass such a law.

But some downtown bar owners are not so sure. They say the city's tourist area has a special, unique "family" atmosphere which would be ruined with folks walking up and down the street sipping from their "to-go" cups while traveling to and from different bars.

I wonder if outgoing State Representative Mike Turner and Senator Thelma Harper (who is up for re-election) knew what they were stepping into in sponsoring this bill? Regardless, the full Metro Council is wading into the fray, voting 30-3 for a resolution asking Nashville's state delegation and the entire General Assembly to reject the idea. Council members also seem miffed that they are allowed to get involved (approve the to-go idea) only after state lawmakers do so. I think they are getting tired of being bossed around by the Legislature, even if the Tennessee Constitution gives them that power.

DR. JESSE REGISTER ON INSIDE POLITICS

He's the director in Nashville of what all our political leaders constantly say is perhaps the most important thing we do as a city, as a state, as a nation. That would be to educate our young people.

Nashville Schools Director Dr. Jesse Register is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend. From the School Board to the Courthouse, from the Statehouse to the White House and halls of Congress, there are always so many topics to discuss concerning education. We try to cover what we can in our half hour together. Join us. We'll also be discussing Dr. Register's and the District's future as he approaches the end of his present contract set to expire in 2015.

INSIDE POLITICS can be seen several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include 7:00 p.m. Friday; 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m., Saturday; and 5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and NEWSCHANNEL5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2. Portions of INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also later posted on NEWSCHANNEL5.com.

As a reminder, our long time 5 a.m. Sunday morning showing on the main channel (WTVF-TV NEWSCHANNEL5 ) is no longer listed as an INSIDE POLITICS broadcast. The Weekend Morning News program is starting an hour earlier, so we are looking (we hope) for another Sunday morning timeslot soon on Channel 5.

And don't forget you can now watch INSIDE POLITICS in real time with live streaming video on NewsChannel5.com. That means if you have a computer and internet access, you can see INSIDE POLITICS anytime it airs on the PLUS. So it no longer matters what cable or satellite service you have or where you live. It's very easy to see us now live! Log on and tune in.

NOT THE FLAVOR OF THE MONTH

Well, as the accolades continue to roll in, it's nice to know Nashville is not just the "flavor of the month" for the national media.

The latest glowing article about our fair town is featured in the latest edition of TIME Magazine (March 17). Written by current Nashville resident and Vanderbilt presidential scholar Jon Mecham (along with Washington-based TIME reporter Alex Rogers), Music City is named "The South's Red-Hot Town."

It claims we've weathered the Great Recession (with the strongest employment growth of any large metropolis) and that during most of 2013, we were the second fastest growing city in the nation. The article also glows about our foodie scene and our overall balanced economy which seems to maximize our special advantages as a community.

That fits very well with last year's praise that we are "Nowville" (FORBES) and the "IT City" (NEW YORK TIMES) and all the rest.

With a city built (but only in part) on music and entertainment, the question may now become: Do we have enough encores to keep this lovely melody going? I sure hope so.

As a born and bred Nashvillian, I've always known what a wonderful place this is to live, work and raise a family. Now I'm glad the rest of the world is learning it too. We're not perfect. We have many of the same urban and other issues you see all over the country. But we are making progress and it's great to see its being noticed.