Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 18, 2014

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 18, 2014

CREATED Apr 18, 2014


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

April 18, 2014



You can break out the good china and silverware again.

The young ladies and children can walk around freely to enjoy our warmer spring weather (there better not be any more frost!).

Yes, the 108th Tennessee General Assembly has "finished" its work and adjourned sine die. That means for good, including no veto override session (Governor Bill Haslam told reporters he couldn't think of anything he'd planned to veto but more on that later).

What follows is a full damage report, including what happened in the final four days of session as lawmakers approved or rejected a whole blizzard of legislation, leaving some distinct winners and losers.

And so, based on the bills and controversies we've been following this session in both this column and on INSIDE POLITICS, here's a quick scoreboard with highlights of the runs, the hits and, of course, the errors. As for those who got left on base, you're dead until at least next January when the 109th General Assembly comes to town. Enjoy your free time until then.

GOVERNOR HASLAM: It was not a great session for him. He did get lawmakers to approve his "Tennessee Promise" legislation providing two years of free tuition for any Tennessee high school graduate to attend a community or technical school. It's likely model legislation for the nation and should boost the Governor's overall push to improve the state's low college graduation rate (the Drive to 55). But his school voucher plan failed for the second year in row and he (and Senate Republicans) had to accept 50% higher restrictions on the sale of cold and allergy medications without a prescription or risk the likelihood of nothing at all passing to deal with the state's Number 1 public health issue: meth. The Republican super majority also continues to trim (share) the governor's appointment authority to state boards and commissions (Textbook Commission) and they prohibited him from expanding the TennCare program under the new national health care law without their direct permission (although he doesn't seem close to being ready to do that anyway). The Governor did hold off a continuing revolt led by the Tea Party advocates in his party by agreeing to a one year delay in the new Common Core student testing and allowing other bids for student testing system to be considered. The Governor also managed to help stop efforts (pushed by national anti-tax advocates) to repeal the state Hall Income Tax on investments. These are issues sure to return in 2015.

THE AMP: The compromise legislation approved in the final hours of session, did not go so far as banning the design of the bus rapid transit system Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has been pushing (as the Senate version did), but it does still give state legislators a veto power over the project, requiring their approval whether the AMP does or does not ask for state funding. Maybe this means the Mayor's efforts to re-design the project (fewer dedicated lanes) helped the AMP survive. But the heat is still on for the Mayor and the 20-plus member citizen panel he's appointed (and that starts meeting later this month) to build as much consensus as possible if this bus rapid transit mass effort ever has any chance to get through the roadblock still erected on the Hill.

GUNS: Late in the session efforts to allow anyone to go armed publicly without having a state permit got shot down in the House for lack of votes (the Senate had passed the idea). Another effort to repeal the veto local governments have over gun possession in their municipal parks also failed. Both efforts seem likely to return. The question that remains is will the Tennessee Firearms Association mount a primary challenge (ala Debra Maggart in 2012) against House Finance Chair Charles Sargent? It was in a sub-committee of his group where the open carry bill died.

 APOLOGIES: Whether it was for slavery, segregation or the Trail of Tears, Tennessee legislators could not join their colleagues in several other states to offer an apology for these terrible actions of years ago. Regrets only

CHARTER SCHOOLS: Charter school advocates (including some well financed in and out of state groups) had rather mixed results. While the State Board of Education now has renewed powers to approve new charters even if local school boards reject them, for-profit groups to run such educational institutions are still not allowed in the state and efforts to broaden enrollment eligibility for schools in the state's Achievement School districts also went down to defeat as was an effort to create a trigger mechanism for parents to convert a failing school into a charter.

TEACHERS: Despite the objections of controversial State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, the General Assembly approved legislation to cut the tie between student test data and a teacher's ability to get his/her license removed. Lawmakers also paved the way for teacher salary schedules to continue to grant raises for post-secondary degrees.

ALCOHOL: After years of frustration, you may soon be able to vote to have wine for sale in your grocery or supermarket. That is if enough voters sign a petition and you already have package stores or liquor by the drink in your community. Of course, if it's approved, you still won't be able to buy wine until 2016. But, hey, starting this July, liquor stores can start selling items like chips, beer, ice and corkscrews. And lawmakers are also allowing "high gravity" beer to be sold outside liquor stores. But that doesn't start until 2017. Sometimes you have to pack your patience to get what you want to drink where you want to buy it in Tennessee.    

IMMIGRATION: After years of telling any undocumented residents to just go home, lawmakers approved in-state tuition for students who were born in this country (citizens) and who want to go to college here. If you were born outside the U.S., then brought here by your parents, too bad, the much higher out of state tuition rate is all you can get. The latter seems to apply to many more students than the former, so the impact of the new law may be to just avoid lawsuits more than anything else.

SENATOR DOUGLAS HENRY: The state's longest serving lawmaker ended his four-decades plus of public service amid a torrent of admiration, best wishes, and genuine affection from his colleagues and everyone else on the Hill. A true Southern gentlemen (and perhaps Tennessee's last living and serving Whig), he will leave a legacy of dedication to his constituents and fiscal integrity (especially maintaining our bond rating) that will never be forgotten. As one of his fellow Senators said; "We will not see his likes again." Best wishes, Duck, in your retirement. Nashville and the entire State of Tennessee will always be in your debt.    


It happens every year it seems. A bill sweeps through both houses of the General Assembly with seemingly strong bi-partisan support, and minimal media coverage and controversy, until it reaches a final vote. Then after it passes, and just as it arrives on the governor's desk for his consideration, there's a strong, public campaign for him to veto the measure.

Last year it was the Ag Gag bill (which threatened but failed an encore performance in 2014 with a slightly different bill than what passed and was vetoed in 2013).

Now the controversy is over legislation to allow women who harm their fetuses with drug use during pregnancy to be charged with crimes. Bad idea says groups like the ACLU which claim such a law will drive women away from seeking prenatal care and addiction treatment out of fear they'll go to jail.  The bill's sponsor says she wrote the measure to apply only to those women who won't seek help unless "threatened by jail time and drug court diversion" reports THE TENNESSEAN (April 16). But opponents of the bill also complain its language is too vague, that it raises serious constitutional questions, and could lead to women being charged under the law after using legal drugs prescribed by a doctor.

Given the time frame of when the bill has passed, it lclearly won't reach the governor's desk for his decision until after lawmakers have gone home for the year (especially with no veto override session planned).  That means it's all up to Governor Haslam. Sign the bill into law, let it go into law without his signature or exercise what's known as a "pocket veto," rejecting the bill with legislators having almost no way to reconvene to override him (even though with Tennessee's weak gubernatorial veto powers that would only take a simple constitutional majority of 50 votes in the House and 17 in the Senate).


After REAL CLEAR POLITICS reported last week that Tennessee Republican Congressman Marsha Blackburn was going to New Hampshire to speak at a rally as a way to "test the waters" for a possible 2016 GOP Presidential bid, BUSINESS INSIDER and THE TENNESSEAN quote her as saying she's not running, but rather planning to seek re-election from her district.

As to whether she might change her mind, BUSINESS INSIDER quoted her this way: "Probably not. Goodness, no"

The apparent confusion in all this may be that the original REAL CLEAR POLITICS story quoted an unidentified Blackburn aide who explained the Congressman's trip to New Hampshire to speak at a rally sponsored by Citizens United and Americans for Prosperity (Koch Brothers) this way: "These are the kind of events you go to—test the waters and see what the reaction is." The aide continued there could be "a void to fill" because there are no other potential female GOP presidential candidates. She added about the Congressman: "If there's a door to kick down, she's willing to kick it down."

Well, from what little I have read or seen from the national coverage of her speech at the rally (and there wasn't much), it seemed to offer a good bit of red meat to GOP activists especially attacking President Barack Obama (of course). But none of the articles I read or on-air analysis I saw breathed a word about a presidential run or listed her among potential presidential candidates who were present.

So I am not sure how the wires got crossed but I still suspect Marsha Blackburn's eyes regarding her political future (outside Congress) are more likely on a race for Governor of Tennessee in 2018 (when the seat is open) or a race for one of the state's U.S. Senate seats if they become open.

But maybe not…one of the WASHINGTON POST's blogs (April 16) describes Blackburn's New Hampshire speech as a "barnburner" and says she is "the latest Republican whose name is being floated for the top of the GOP ticket…whether she likes it or not." With Democrats likely to nominate Hillary Clinton (a new RASMUSSEN Poll says 91% of Democrats see the former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and First Lady as their likely nominee), the POST article also lists Blackburn on a "wish list" of other potential female GOP candidates including Representative Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, retiring congressman Michelle Bachman, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. 

So maybe, despite what Marsha Blackburn's aide theorized, there's not "a void to fill" or a "door to be kicked down" for GOP women looking (or at least being listed or rumored to be interested) in running for president? 


This past week (Tuesday, April 15) marks not only the one year anniversary of the tragic Boston Marathon terrorist attack it also marks a year since a political bombshell went off in Tennessee.

April 15, 2013 was the day federal agents raided the headquarters offices in Knoxville of the politically powerful Pilot Flying J Company, making public a major fraud investigation into the fleet sales of fuel by the firm. Twelve months later, 10 employees have been indicted (and agreed to cooperate in the probe). The company has also spent $85 million dollars to respond and to settle multiple lawsuits that have been filed (with several legal actions still pending).

So is the probe done? Is the cloud over the Haslam-family owned business going away? This week the attorney for Pilot's CEO Jimmy Haslam predicted in an interview: "My guess is there will be several more that will be charged." But Aubrey Harwell adds he does not believe those charges will go to the top and include the Governor's brother, who also owns the NFL's Cleveland Browns.

Another sign the probe is not over: those who have pled guilty have not agreed to a penalty or been sentenced in court.  The probe has had little apparent impact on Tennessee politics to this point. The Governor looks to be headed towards an easy re-election while the Haslam business itself remains strong with the nation's largest truck stop operator bringing in more than $28 billion in estimated sales this year. Pilot Flying J issued a statement on the one-year anniversary. It called April 15, 2013 an "extremely embarrassing and humbling day" and said the company has tried to "make things right."

But the cloud over the firm remains (as does the ongoing probe) and will likely continue until those who've pled guilty are sentenced along with any others who might still be charged.


Just when you thought the controversy and politics surrounding the appeal of the Volkswagen/UAW union vote in Chattanooga couldn't get more multi-dimensional, guess what? Now Democrats in Congress say they are launching their own probe into the role of Tennessee's GOP leadership including Governor Haslam and his administration.

More specifically, a letter to the Governor from Representative George Miller of California, senior Democrat on the House Education Committee and John Tierney of Massachusetts, ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pension sub-committee seeks "more information about whether any Tennessee state officials conditioned, or threatened to condition state aid to Volkswagen on the outcome of workers' efforts to establish a union or works council at the Chattanooga plant."

Rejection of the UAW by VW employees at the East Tennessee facility has also raised questions about the role of Senator Bob Corker. The vote is being appealed by the UAW to the National Labor Relations Board asking for a re-vote with a hearing still set for next week in Chattanooga. Senator Corker (and staff) along with Governor Haslam and a number of other state officials have been subpoenaed to appear by the UAW. But all of them say they don't plan to come and are seeking to have the requests quashed and/or the hearing postponed (even Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper, a Democrat has intervened on their side). Several anti-union activists including Grover Nordquist are seeking to get their summons to appear and testify next week dismissed.

Don't you just love it when the (political) circus comes to town?      


It's been another active political week for the candidates in the quickly approaching May 6 primary election. With Early Voting beginning on Wednesday (April 16) and continuing through Thursday, May 1, all three of the candidates in the hotly contested Nashville/Davidson County District Attorney's contest are now airing TV ads. Actually, Glenn Funk has been the air for several weeks, which in a campaign with all the candidates having never run before could certainly help his name recognition with voters.

Both Rob McGuire and Diane Lane started their TV just days before the critical Early Vote (which has generated up to half of the total vote in recent election cycles). McGuire's first spot plays off the theme music and style of the old "Law and Order" network TV show. The spot allows McGuire to trumpet his endorsements from both current D.A. Torry Johnson and the Fraternal Order of Police. It also promotes his successful record as a prosecutor and takes a shot at both his opponents who the ad says haven't prosecuted a criminal case in over 15 years ("in this century" McGuire often says on the campaign trail).

Lane's ad is an introductory, biographical spot that also includes an endorsement from its narrator, the candidate's mother. Who knows you and loves you more, right?

McGuire got another plus for his campaign with an endorsement from THE TENNESSEAN. The paper cited his prosecutorial abilities in giving him the nod. In an unusual change from the past, the paper declined to make endorsements in most of the other May races, except (in an editorial I saw on Facebook on line and later in the paper itself) for incumbent Sheriff Daron Hall and against re-electing Circuit Judge Carol Solomon. The paper criticizes the incumbent Judge's demeanor and treatment of some who have appeared in her court. However, the paper did not chose to endorse either of Solomon's opponents, Jon Peeler or Kelvin Jones.

Peeler is one of only a few other May candidates buying TV spots to boost their campaigns (Melissa Blackburn and Mark Podis in the General Sessions Judge Division II race are others whose spots I've seen). Being on television doesn't give a candidate anything close to a guarantee they'll win. But as one-county wide candidate told me in a past race, once she started running ads on TV, voters began to see her as "a real candidate" for the first time.  


I said in last week's column that the budget hearing by Metro education officials before Mayor Karl Dean (held Wednesday, April 16) might open up the next battlefront in the ongoing "public education wars" in Nashville.

Mayor Dean had said earlier he was not ready to give any city department "a blank check" on their budgets, "including schools. Nevertheless the School Board came with a proposal asking for over $321 million more next year including an expansion of the city's Pre-K program and a 2% pay raise for teachers which Governor Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly cut out of its budget because of tight funds. Schools are also asking for more to handle the cost of adding more charter schools over, a controversy over which they and Mayor Dean have quarreled in the past.

But during, after the budget hearing, everyone was on their best behavior. The Mayor called the Pre-K expansion a "very innovative and thoughtful idea" (TENNESSEAN, April 16). He stopped short of saying he'd recommend funding it to the Metro Council, and was non-committal as well on the pay raise, adding this: "This is going to be a tight budget. Obviously, there are going to be more requests for things than we're going to be able to meet. I'm not ruling it out. I'm just saying today was the budget hearing and now we have to go back and work on the budget the next couple of weeks." Indeed, by law the Mayor must submit his budget plan by May 1 with the Council having until July 1 to make a final decision.

Schools Director Jesse Register was equally as nice in his comments, calling the budget meeting a "good session" and adding he hopes the Mayor and Council will approve a "responsible, reasonable" budget increase. The School Board Finance Chair Will Pinkston commented as well saying if the full schools request is not funded, he would recommend an "across the board reduction in every single line item" (of the increase) besides pension and insurance obligations. While the Mayor and Council must approve the overall school budget, it is completely up to the School Board on how those funds are divided up and spent. Therefore, Pinkston comments might also be seen as a conciliatory gesture that the Board would not act punitively in deciding cuts if its budget request is not funded.     


My guest this week on INSIDE POLITICS is outspoken Nashville School Board member Will Pinkston. He's also a former reporter (TENNESSEAN, WALL STREET JOURNAL) and a top aide to former Governor Phil Bredesen. So in the wake of the Metro School's budget process, the end of the legislative session (and all the education-related bills they've considered), plus his previous work on the Hill and state government, there are all kinds of topics and issues we can discuss. It's a fascinating interview that I hope you'll tune in and watch.

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