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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 4, 2014

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 4, 2014

CREATED Apr 4, 2014

CAPITOL VIEW

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

April 4, 2013

AMP SAYS UNCLE; INSIDE POLITICS; DOWNGRADED; THE BUDGET BLUES; TO THE SATISFACTION OF THE STATE; CHATTANOOGA'S WATERGATE TAPE; HEATING UP; THE NOT SO SURE SHOT HITS THE TARGET

AMP SAYS UNCLE

I first began to suspect major changes might be afoot for Mayor Karl Dean's controversial AMP bus rapid transit project back on February 21. That's when the Mayor last appeared on my INSIDE POLITICS show. Pressing him about his flexibility towards possible changes in the route or relaxing the numbers of dedicated AMP-only traffic lanes, the Mayor said strongly: "We will do the right thing for Nashville."

At the time he didn't say what that might be. But now with opposition growing more intense, including a bill that has already passed the State Senate which would ban the proposed design of using the center traffic lane for the AMP, the Mayor has proposed some alternatives.

Saying it's time for "compromise and collaboration" and based on concerns expressed at public meetings and what he's learned from those doing the final design work on the project, the mayor's proposal would abandon the dedicated AMP lane on the western end of the route between I-440 and St. Thomas Hospital (an area where opposition is most intense). Instead that part of the AMP route along West End Avenue/Harding Road would have a BRT lite program, utilizing more rubber wheeled buses to move passengers along (much as is already done along Murfreesboro and Gallatin Roads). The same changes in the AMP would also be done between the I-40 interchange downtown to the Broadway-West End split.

Will this be enough to put the brakes on the pending state legislation? Will it mollify opposition or even build community support? So far reaction from anti-AMP leaders is mixed. House Speaker Beth Harwell (who represents the Harding Road AMP area) praises the Mayor's move while Nashville auto dealer and the money man behind the Anti-AMP movement (along with the Koch Brother's efforts on Capitol Hill) Lee Beaman says he wants the Mayor to remove all vestiges of the dedicated lane AMP and go strictly to the bus rapid transit lite program. So is this disagreement among the anti-AMP strong enough to split their efforts on the Hill? Or is legislation resembling the Senate bill still on track towards passage?

On his part, the Mayor is appointing a 20-member citizens advisory committee to increase communications between concerned citizens and the city to such facilitate a positive dialogue. Lee Beaman says he would be interested in serving but who else might be named is so far unknown.

Meanwhile I continue to hear there other design concerns about how some of the remaining AMP sections will work (up and down 5th the steep grade and meeting ADA requirements for passenger stations. I am even hearing renewed conversation about moving the downtown route to use 2nd nixed by downtown merchants and tourism officials months ago).

And so the AMP debate continues even though its parameters have now clearly changed. The planners and designers studying the revisions suggested by the Mayor are due to report their findings in the fall. The Mayor did seem to hold out the possibility that if the changes he is suggesting (or what the committee might suggests) significantly hurts the AMP's project cost-effectiveness, its speed, efficiency and predictability he might go back to the original design. He says he may have to do that to keep federal funding. But I doubt such a move would have enough political legs to happen.

There were two other stories in the news this week that underline why the AMP debate is so critical. One story comes from a new study that claims Nashville ranks 2nd only Atlanta). The other story also comes from a survey (by the U.S. Census Bureau). It ranks Nashville 7th in a Top Ten list of fastest growing cities in the nation. Transit is an issue we've got to address as a city and a region or face the possibility of drowning in our own success in the years to come.

INSIDE POLITICS

In the wake of the changes suggested for the AMP project by Mayor Dean, on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend we will talk with representatives of both sides of the debate to get their take on what's happened and, more importantly what happens now.

In separate interviews, we'll have Nashville businessman Lee Beaman, the leader and a significant funder of the STOP AMP movement followed by Nashville Chamber executive Ralph Schulz who has helped spearhead the AMP YES coalition. It's a revealing and even provocative conversation you'll want to watch and listen. Join us!

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.

DOWNGRADED

The AMP is not the only major issue Mayor Dean had to deal with this week. After months of warning Metro that it's capital debt represents an "above average debt burden", Moody's Investors Services, one of the nation's leading credit rating groups has downgraded the city's credit rating from AA1 to AA2.

Moody's continues to be concerned about the ongoing subsidies Metro is providing to its hospital authority (in particular to operate General Hospital) and the need to have a public referendum to raise property taxes in any significant amount because of a cap placed in the city's charter.

Up until now Moody's had stopped short of an actual downgrade, settling instead for placing the city on a watch list. This time it not only acted, it did so on the same day Metro began its annual budget hearings. Was that a coincidence? Maybe it was or maybe not.

Metro is taking some steps to deal with the ongoing large subsidy to the Hospital Authority. Even though last year General Hospital gave out more charity care than ever in its history ($93 million or 39% of total hospital charges), the Authority in its budget hearing (TENNESSEAN, April 4) asked the city for a 7.5% decrease in its requested subsidy ($40 million) for the coming year. That's in anticipation of the savings coming from privatizing its nursing home and assisted care facilities in Bordeaux. Decreasing the subsidy for General will be much harder to do (although privatizing could be in the offing too for that facility in the years to come). As for the property tax issue in the Charter, that will take either a law suit to overturn it or a re-vote by the community to remove it. Neither of those actions seems likely during what remains of this mayoral administration.

The credit downgrade could make it more expensive for Metro to borrow money in the future for capital projects and it is sure to raise concerns in the Metro Council where members have already stopped land acquisition to build a pedestrian bridge to connect SoBro to the Gulch downtown. Rising capital debt was one reason councilmembers objected to that project, but they also said they really wanted more money spent on new sidewalks in their districts (which is an age-old complaint).

Dean administration money officials do not seem alarmed about the downgrade (in interviews with THE TENNESSEAN 4/1). Indeed they've managed to allay concerns by other rating agencies in the past and they say the city's credit rating is strong and remains as good, if not better than it was when Mayor Dean came into office in 2007.

But meantime, there is a new major capital project looming on the horizon. Metro Sheriff Daron Hall says it's time to move the city's jail out of downtown and build a new facility in the Antioch area near the present DeBerry correctional facility. Hall says the current Criminal Justice Center (built in 1982) is old, outdated and beyond renovation as a jail. The speculated cost for a new 1200 bed facility to replace current jail capacity (depending on its level of security) would be$50 to $100 million I'm told. That's big bucks for a city which some say already has too much debt.

THE BUDGET BLUES

We mentioned briefly last week that the state's continued slump in tax revenues was causing new cuts to be recommended by Governor Bill Haslam in the budget proposals pending before Tennessee lawmakers. They add up to $150 million in the current year's spending and another $160 million in next year's expenditures which begin July 1. So we are not talking chump change.

To deal with the lack of money, the Governor is dropping his plans to give teachers a 2% raise and state workers 1% more. He's also cutting monies to state higher education meaning some college tuitions may have to go up even more than expected.

Both changes are rather significant ones for the Governor who just a few months ago pledged to make Tennessee the state with the fastest growing teacher raises in the nation. But it appears that's not going to happen now even though the Governor somehow claims it is still his "priority." As for higher education, the Governor has said almost every year higher-ed will be his top priority. But again it appears not this year. Although if the Governor can still somehow manage to get his "Tennessee Promise" program approved before lawmakers go home, he could claim a major higher education victory there.

Lawmakers are not happy with the Governor's proposed cuts. Democrats, joined by education leaders say the Governor is breaking promises which will hurt the state in attracting and keeping good teachers. GOP representatives are concerned too, especially how they will have to explain all this out on the campaign trail. There is much huffing and puffing about overruling or changing the cuts, but so far no real alternative seems to have emerged. In fact, according to THE TENNESSEE JOURNAL (April 4), some lawmakers are still pushing to continue phasing out the Hall Income Tax on dividends.

The budget uncertainty is dividing and causing problems within leadership too. According to an article by Andrea Zelinski of THE NASHVILLE POST (April 1) GOP House Caucus Leader Glen Casada has joined with Democrats and some Republicans to seize House Speaker Harwell's Charter Authorization Bill. Just after finally passing the Senate, the bill is now being held hostage because it has a "fiscal note" to implement of several hundred thousands of dollars. Everything that costs money should be on the budget table says Casada, who has locked horns with Speaker Harwell in the past.

Is this another sign of the Speaker's power (and future leadership?) being challenged in the wake of the revolt that came to the floor of the House over Common Core legislation a few weeks back? One thing is for sure. The Charter Authorizer bill is no stranger to being held hostage. It happened last year late in the session when she and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey got into a spat near the end of session. Deja vu all over again, wouldn't you say?

But don't think Speaker Harwell has lost her powers or a willingness to use them. She walked into the House Calendar & Rules committee and led an effort to kill a bill that would allow charter schools to be operated by for-profit companies. This is a move sure to anger many charter supporters including out of state groups who have lobbied and spent campaign monies to get this proposal passed. But Speaker Harwell says the charter movement is still in its early days, and for now at least, she thinks having them operated by non-profits only is the best way to go. All this shows that the lines being drawn in Tennessee's ongoing education wars are not always as rigid and as tightly drawn as some might think in terms who's on who's side.

As for the budget shortfall, it seems to me dealing with this problem is sure to gum up the legislative process and may complicate if not delay plans for final adjournment of the General Assembly now hoped for (by leadership) around April 18.

The slump in revenues is also raising questions about why this is happening, and if there is some kind of tax loophole businesses may be using to avoid or lower their tax bills. Nobody seems to know but the Governor says it's the state's job to investigate and figure out what's happening and what needs to be done. Good luck. That challenge doesn't look much easier to solve than figuring how to cut the budget.

TO THE SATISFACTION OF THE STATE

Fallout from the recent vote in Chattanooga by Volkswagen employees to reject representation by the United Autoworkers Union continues to roil state (and national) politics. Using his incomparable sources inside the Haslam administration, NEWSCHANNEL5 INVESTIGATES' Phil Williams has found documents that seem to tie rejection of the union bid to $300 million in taxpayer incentives which VW would receive for a major plant expansion.

According to the documents (under the title Project Trinity) the offer contains this provision: "The incentives…are subject to workers council discussions between the State of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee."

State Democrats who say they'd been frustrated in getting documents like this which they requested from the Governors months ago, now charge this is a sign of "anti-union collusion" and heavy handed efforts to influence the employee vote and VW. They are demanding a special investigation and using words like "subpoena." (Speaker Harwell says she sees no wrong doing involved so she's not ordering any probe).

The Governor and his administration are defending themselves by saying the offer to VW had been taken off the table prior to the UAW vote being scheduled and that it was never meant as a means to influence the vote even though it was clear Mr. Haslam opposed the union.

UAW officials have been appealing the VW rejection to the National Labor Relations Board asking for a revote. In light of the NEWSCHANNEL5 revelations they are also asking for a delay of an April 21 hearing on the matter by the NLRB so it can better prepare its case. Anti-union conservative Grover Norquist, who worked very hard to lead the fight against the UAW in Chattanooga, was in Tennessee last week. I heard him tell business leaders that he was convinced the NLRB would "find a way" to order a new vote. Could this revelation be what does it?

Regardless, the work of Phil Williams along with all of NEWSCHANNEL5 INVESTIGATES continues to attract national attention and acclaim, winning a prestigious Peabody Award this week for its previous revelations about the Haslam administration and state government. And it's not their first Peabody either. Congratulations!

CHATTANOOGA'S WATERGATE TAPE

The city of Chattanooga has more than a big labor fight going on. The congressional re-match between incumbent Chuck Fleischmann and GOP challenger Weston Wamp (set for the August primary) is bringing back memories of the Watergate tapes of the Nixon White House and the early 1970s.

This wacky affair got started when Wamp had conversations with another candidate from two years ago, former dairy executive Scottie Mayfield. The topic was who Mayfield might endorse (Fleischmann). Wamp decided to tape at least one of those conversations without telling Mayfield.

Of course, word got out after Mayfield endorsed the Congressman on March 17. Mayfield says (CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS March 28): "I never dreamed someone would walk into my house with a bug on…I just don't think that's correct behavior." Wamp says he wanted Mayfield to stay out of the race and did the taping "to protect myself."

Naturally lots of charges and counter charges are coming from both campaigns with Wamp saying he will always be open and transparent with voters and that he never intended to make the taped conversation public. Obviously, Mayfield and Team Fleischmann say otherwise.

It's stories like this that make me miss the old Nashville Gridiron Show which was an annual roast of the politicians by area journalists. What great fodder this would be for a skit or a song. And we wouldn't have to make anything up!

HEATING UP

As we approach two weeks from the beginning of Early Voting for the May elections in Nashville, the highly competitive race to be the next District Attorney for Davidson County continues to heat up.

An April 1 tweet posted on candidate Glenn Funk's web site claims the campaign has reached its quarterly fund raising goal and now has amassed $402,000. No other information about the funds was provided. Funk had earlier made a $100,000 personal donation to his efforts. Rival Rob McGuire disclosed he has raised $150,000 for his campaign in the last ten weeks (all from donors) as well as picking up the endorsement of the Nashville Fraternal Order of Police.

I have seen no fund raising numbers yet from the third candidate in the race, Diane Lance. But she has picked up endorsements from two groups, Women in Numbers (WIN) and Women for Tennessee's Future (WTF).

And as heated as the D.A.'s race is, rumor and speculation about the August 2015 Nashville Mayor's race is moving off the charts. Here's what I am hearing.

At-Large Councilmember Megan Barry: THE NASHVILLE SCENE (March 31) reports the only announced candidate for the post held her first big ticket fund raiser at her home on March 27 and brought in $100,000 in contributions and commitments. That's much more in one night than she had disclosed raising since she first entered the race several months ago ($64,000). Barry has said she's been spending much of her time trying to carefully lay the groundwork for a successful campaign. It looks like she is now seeing some fruits from those labors provided she can sustain it.

Sheriff Daron Hall: While he is presently on the ballot (May & August) trying to be re-re-elected, one source continues to tell me it is 80% to 90% certain he will run again next year, this time to be Mayor. One of his strengths to run some say, besides being a high profile official who has run successfully multiple times countywide, is that he is a Nashville native, something Metro mayors since the late 1980s have not been. Of course Hall might be challenged for that distinction if retiring State Representative Mike Turner gets in the mayoral race (and I hear that is increasingly likely to happen).

District Attorney Torry Johnson: The retiring D.A. continues to be pushed to run. In fact, one very prominent lawyer recently sent me an e-mail saying his major project these days is to convince Johnson to be a mayoral candidate. Given the past reluctance of the soon to be retired DA to seek another office, such a "draft" effort seems to remain perhaps a tricky putt.

Businessman Bill Freeman: After months of writing newspaper columns and doing other things to openly flirt with a potential mayoral bid, I am told he may be starting to lay some groundwork to interview potential staff for such a push. Stay tuned. I don't think anyone will announce getting into the race until at least after the May elections or the fall.

Jeremy Kane, Charles Robert Bone, David Fox, Stuart Brunson, Jerry Maynard, Jerry Martin: All are in various stages of considering the race, seriously considering the race or close to announcing they are jumping in. Among the group, I hear Kane and Bone are the most likely to run (along with possibly Brunson). Frankly, I am not ready to rule out any of them just yet or even others whose names may still emerge.

But I also doubt the final field of candidates will be anywhere near as large as it appears if all these campaigns materialize. There is just not enough money and support to go around (even for those self- financing). But it sure does keep the speculation and the rumor mill fun to listen to and watch.

THE NOT SO SURE SHOT HITS THE BULLSEYE

It's been a while since I've been to a political confab where I had quite as much pure fun as I did last night (April 3) at the revival of the Not So Sure Shot Rabbit Hunters Association gathering at the Nashville Fairgrounds.

The Sure Shot was the required political event of the year when it was put on for over three decades by the late Davidson County High Sheriff Fate Thomas. Now his son, Fate, Jr. and his band of hard working volunteers have revived the event as a charitable fund raiser benefiting the Room in the Inn, the Nashville Drug Court Support Foundation and the St. Edward's School Tuition Assistance Program.

In its revival, The Not So Sure was right on target bringing out a wonderful mixture of folks involved in local and state politics. That includes so many folks who were the major players some years ago who always attended Sheriff Thomas's Sure Shot. It was so great to see and talk with them again.

Of course, all the current candidates for the upcoming May, August and November elections were there campaigning (so that assured a full house) as was just about everybody even remotely thinking of running in the Metro elections for Mayor, Vice Mayor and Council in 2015. In keeping with the old tradition of the Democratically-dominated Sure Shot event, even major statewide Republicans were made to feel welcome (and both Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Lamar Alexander were there). Heck, even AMP YES and STOP AMP folks were seen enjoying themselves and managing to get along.

The Bar-BQ dinner was excellent, the company even better. I look forward to going back next year. I know the late Fate, Sr. is delighted by how his event now lives on.

One final Not-So Sure Shot note: Of course with the May election quickly approaching, there was straw poll done (using what looked like those old manual voting machines from days gone by). For what it's worth (and it is just a straw vote even though reportedly 900 of the 1200 paid attendees did cast ballots), Glenn Funk got 63.41% of the votes cast in the hotly contested D.A.'s race to Rob McGuire (24.39%) and Diane Lance (12.20%).

Among the contested judicial races John Peeler got 49.72% compared to incumbent Carol Solomon (35.88%) and Kelvin Jones (14.41%) in the Circuit Court Division VIII contest. In the General Sessions Division VIII race Blake Freeman got 57.30% to incumbent Rachel Bell's 31.68%. In two other very crowded contests, Jim McNamara (49.17%) had the most support among 6 candidates in that field, while in the 9-person field for General Sessions IX Tee Gorham got the most from those who voted at the event with 30.67%.

Again only for what's it worth. Everyone who voted had to have a ticket but campaigns did buy multiple tickets. The real voting that actually counts begins later this month when the early voting polls open for business.