Capitol View Commentary: Thursday, May 1, 2014
By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
May 1, 2014
IN A GREAT STATE; THE AMP SUBDUED; THE YEAR OF THE JUDGE; A BRIEF DELAY OR A ROADBLOCK; SIGNED; CHECKING WITH THE BOSS; INSIDE POLITICS; SEIG; HEALTH UPDATE
IN A GREAT STATE
“State of” speeches (the Union, the State, Metro) are by their very nature often litanies of the achievements of the current administration in power as well as high-minded visions of how good things are in general and should remain for the immediate future (even if those listings and aspirations might at times appear a bit tedious or even stretched from the truth).
But given the present robust state and brand image of Nashville (a.k.a., the It City and the South’s Red Hot Town among our other current titles) rarely has an elected official such as Nashville Mayor Karl Dean had so much to brag about without seeming to have to do so (just report the facts or what others are saying).
And so it was with the Mayor’s 7th State of Metro Address this past week. But his speech also needed to provide a budget overview for the $1.9 billion spending plan he’s sending to the Metro Council for the 2015 fiscal year beginning July 1.
The good news: no need for a property tax increase (not likely anyway with the 2015 city elections looming just over a year away). And more sobering news may come from looking at some of the funding and reserve fund numbers in the budget overview given to Councilmembers later that day (April 30).
Yes, the budget provides the monies for several new things:
Same-sex benefits for partners of city workers (Nashville would be one of the first cities in Tennessee to do so).
A 1% pay raise for employees beginning in January (2% for workers on an open-range salary scale) and increment increases for employees in their early years on the job such as police and firemen. For what it’s worth, you’ll remember state workers had a promised raise nixed this year because of tight revenues.
New programs and assistance for those who can’t protect themselves: a Victims Resource Center for domestic violence victims (domestic violence now makes up 50% of the crime in Nashville) while the increasing number of senior citizens and others who can no longer manage their affairs will get help from the new Office of Public Guardian.
For Schools (after saying there’d be no blank check), the Mayor is providing $27.5 million of a $32.5 million request for new funds including resources to expand the city’s Pre-K program as championed by Schools Director Dr. Jesse Register. Meanwhile, in a separate program, MTA will provide free bus rides to all Metro 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade students on demand.
For improved transit: Funding the popular BRT Lite (bus rapid transit service) for both Charlotte Avenue and Nolensville Road as well as $1 million for new bus shelters so the increased number of riders will have a place to stand out of the elements while waiting to board the bus.
Nashville is “at the top of our game…. we can’t let up” says Mayor Dean: We must keep taxes low, prioritize public services and invest in the future he adds. That includes a new capital spending plan for schools, parks, sidewalks, roads, greenways while also providing funds to operate new libraries, police precincts, community centers and libraries now coming on line.
So what could be the downside?
Some in the Metro Council could well look to the budget power point presentation given out by the Finance Department. It indicates the use of $73 million in reserve funds (one-time monies) to help finance it all. Is that a lot? Well, we used $105 million in reserves back in FY 2004 (Mayor Purcell) and about $45 million last year. City finance officials say all the reserve funds are growing and we still have a 6% or more cushion remaining in those coffers. But some Council members might still wonder why if one bond rating firm (Moody’s) has lowered the city’s credit rating why would we increase your spending of reserves plus approve another capital plan to add hundreds of millions more in debt?
You could hear some of this discussion when the Council itself considers and passes the budget between now and the end of June. But in all likelihood, a lot of Council members may see this too much “inside baseball” stuff especially since no tax increase is on the table. So look for minimal changes in the final spending plan they adopt (a few million moved here and there to fund the Council’s Wish List to help a few departments who ask for more funds).
THE AMP SUBDUED
I mentioned the Mayor’s mass transit comments in his State of Metro address. Of course, he talked about the AMP (saying strongly at one point: “We need the AMP).” But his remarks on this topic were much more limited even subdued from what they’ve been in the past.
Subdued might also be the best way to describe the news reports I read about the first meeting of the 24-member blue-ribbon citizens’ group the Mayor has empaneled to facilitate a more positive interaction between Metro and the community on the AMP and to advise those working on the final design for the East-West transit project.
After the Mayor made opening remarks asking panel members to keep open minds about their work (TENNESSEAN, April 30), the group spent the rest of their first session on logistics (NASHVILLE SCENE April 30). They plan to meet once a month from now until October, and review the project from east to west. That means given the AMP’s history, the sessions could get more contentious with each passing session (especially when they get to the west side).
There did seem to be some concern raised about the Mayor’s instructions to heed federal standards about what is and isn’t allowed (i.e., funded) in mass transit projects. But given the task ahead, and the fact no one is completely sure what the fed’s rules are exactly, that discussion has been tabled for another time.
THE YEAR OF THE JUDGE
It appears more and more with each passing day that the 2014 elections in Tennessee will be the Year of the Judge.
Not only is every trial court judgeship in the state (General Sessions, Circuit, Chancery and Criminal) up for election in May and August, so are the appellate posts (Appeals & Supreme Court). The higher court vote comes in August too (on a yes or no retention ballot). Then in November follows a major constitutional question for voters to decide. It would modify how Supreme Court judges are appointed (from the governor only to a gubernatorial nomination confirmed by both houses of the General Assembly) with yes-no votes continued to retain or remove them from office.
Even before that is decided (and it appears the November vote will be contested), the August retention election has folks choosing up sides regarding keeping three of the current Supreme Court members (all Democrats) who are seeking another 8-year term. They include Cornelia Clark from Middle Tennessee and two East Tennessee Justices, Gary Wade and Sharon Lee (all are voted on a statewide basis).
First, removing a Tennessee Supreme Court Justice has not been easy to do. Only one, Penny White has been ever ousted by the voters (back in 1996 in a controversy over a capital punishment decision). Now it appears there will be another strong ouster effort this summer in which Republican Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey has told reporters (KINGSPORT TIMES-FREE PRESS, April 28) he will take an “informative role.”
Does “informative” mean Ramsey will work to get voters to cast “no” ballots against the three Democratic Justices? The news report don’t directly say, but from what the Lt. Governor is quoted as saying it sure looks that way: “…We have retention ballots once every eight years, we need to pay attention to who we’re electing…I have attended several events with business leaders who are interested in this project, and for years it’s kind of flown under the radar screen and nobody’s paid any attention to it. I do think there will be an effort by some business leaders and others not to retain the three Democrat Supreme Court judges.”
Tom Humphreys of THE KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL reports supporters of the three incumbent Justices are taking all this ouster talk seriously. Five of them (a few with strong Republican backgrounds: Lew Conner, Frank Drowota, Robert Echols, Hal Hardin and Aubrey Harwell) have sent a letter to fellow lawyers urging their attendance (I assume to contribute money) at a May 14 fundraiser for the incumbent Supreme Court judges. The letter adds that “credible information” indicates more than $1 million in out of state money will be spent attacking the judges.
Things could also get contested too on the constitutional amendment, which is number 2 on the November ballot. “Yes on 2” is the group pushing for “yes” votes and it brought out Governor Bill Haslam, his predecessor, Phil Bredesen, and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson in support of the proposal during a Nashville news conference this week (April 29). The bi-partisan nature of this appeal could be helpful to rallying voters…Bredesen to make Democrats comfortable while Thompson should help with most of the conservative GOP base. They have been joined in support for Question 2 by political heavyweight groups such as the Tennessee Farm Bureau and the State Chamber.
Meanwhile, the support of both governors might well be seen as critical for a couple of reasons. First they are saying they are OK on a constitutional change that will limit or share a gubernatorial power with the legislative branch. Second, for approval, the constitutional amendment needs to get at 50% plus one vote of the majority cast in the Governor’s race, meaning Governor Haslam has to hope voters not only vote to re-elect him but stick around and vote yes on the judicial amendment too. Historically there could be some question about that. A similar effort to write gubernatorial appointments and retention elections into the constitution failed a few years back.
And there could be some (at least noisy) opposition to Amendment #2. Political gadfly and (once again) gubernatorial candidate John J. Hooker is using his candidacy as a bully pulpit to urge voters to reject the amendment. It’s something Hooker has failed to be able to do through numerous unsuccessful lawsuits over the past several years. But Hooker’s main argument (that the present language in Tennessee’s Constitution mandates direct election by appellate judges) has seemed to won a strong supporter in recent months in Frank Daniels, writing on THE TENNESSEAN’s editorial page.
This sure won’t be the year for the usual quiet judicial election process we’ve seen so often in the past in Tennessee. Whether that’s for better or worse might not be clear until after the votes are counted in both August and November. In fact, the August retention vote could raise a question of who will hold another important state office.
The incoming Supreme Court picks the Attorney General at the beginning of its new term (which begins September 1). But what if one or more of the Democrats are ousted by voters? Will there be enough remaining court members to select a new Attorney General (and will that be Bob Cooper, the only remaining major Democratic state office holder in Tennessee)? Other questions: Would the Governor (Haslam) seek to fill any ouster vacancies on the Court prior to the November election? It seems to me he could do that without legislative input or ratification of his choice(s), although I doubt the GOP Supermajority would like that if the constitutional amendment passes.
And then what happens if voters reject Amendment #2? It appears the current gubernatorial appointment and yes/no retention system would stay in place. It’s been upheld three different times by three special Supreme Courts empaneled to hear the matter. But with voters on his side, you can also be sure John Jay Hooker will be back in court arguing his case with renewed vigor.
See why I say 2014 looks like year of the Judge politically in Tennessee.
A BRIEF DELAY OR A ROADBLOCK
Legal acceptance of same-sex marriage has been moving forward across the country at a truly remarkable pace following the historic Supreme Court decision a few months ago. But there’s been at least a temporary delay here in Tennessee.
After a local federal judge ruled the state of Tennessee had to recognize the out of state same sex marriages of three couples who now live here, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has voided that by issuing a stay as requested by Tennessee’s Attorney General.
But while THE TENNESSEAN reports (April 26) the stay “takes into account” the possibility of the state winning the matter on appeal and the possible harm that could cause the state, especially while the laws regarding same sex unions remain “unsettled”, the attorney for the couples involved is not concerned.
Abby Rubenfield says the stay is actually encouraging because it indicates the court is expediting the matter, adding: “Every single court that’s considered the merits (since the Supreme Court decision) has ruled the same way (which in her client’s favor).”
In fact THE TENNESSEAN reports (April 30) that there are same-sex groups in the state now seeking couples “willing to marry fast…to run to local courthouses the day (same sex marriage) is made legal, plus officials to perform ceremonies and volunteers to help with security and logistics.”
Despite news coverage from national outlets and pressure from in and out of state medical and drug treatment groups, Governor Haslam has signed a bill into law that could charge women with a misdemeanor if they abuse drugs while pregnant. The law is apparently a first of its kind in the nation and there are concerns it will discourage women from seeking the help they need (or the help their baby needs) because of fear of going to jail. But supporters say those who seek help will not be imprisoned.
After hearing from both sides, the Governor says he understands the concerns but that the law contains a provision (WCYB-TV) “calling for a reassessment of the situation in two years to allow officials to examine data on the impact (of the new law)” on mothers and their babies. The new law takes effect (July 1) and apparently expires in two years which is when the Governor promises a reassessment. But given the tenure and intensity of the issue and the calls to veto it, don’t be surprised to see legal action taken soon to stop the new measure.
CHECKING WITH THE BOSS
Last week I had a segment in the column reporting the comments of Tennessee’s Transportation Commissioner John Schroer. He told a group in Knoxville that the state’s present gas tax structure (to build and repair roads) is “archaic” and suggested instead we go instead to a “user fee” based on miles driven and vehicle weight (i.e, trucks would pay more).
I also said in the column that assuming his boss (Governor Bill Haslam) was on his side, the Commissioner’s remarks could “grow legs” as we says in the news business as well as generate opposition from truckers who might well decide to surround the Capitol and blow their air horns in opposition (ala the Income Tax horn honkers of a few years back).
But wait! What does Governor Haslam say when asked by reporters (NASHVILLE POST April 29)? “We don’t know that….right now we don’t have any plans to change Tennessee’s (gas tax) formula.” Forget growing legs! Those comments would seem to be “cutting the legs” out from under his own commissioner on this issue.
But maybe not, if you read the full transcript of what the Governor said, he admits the current gas tax structure does not work well, including for the federal government which is going broke to the point of running out of funds for projects now. That puts a particular crunch on states (unlike Tennessee) which also have a lot of road debt for which they use the gas tax to pay off.
The Governor adds “we are listening and waiting to see what happens on the federal level.” So is our gas tax structure archaic then, Governor? “I don’t know if I’d say archaic, but I’d say it’s definitely something that, the situation around which the funding formula was set up, has definitely changed in this state and we’re living with the implications of that.”
So perhaps the most operative phrase from what the Governor said about not having any plans on changing the state’s gas tax formula would be the words “right now.” Stay tuned.
As we enter the month of May and approach the half way mark of 2014, the midterm elections loom ever more prominently ahead. We’ll talk about that with MTSU political science professor Kent Syler this week on INSIDE POLITICS.
We’ll look at a broad spectrum of current political issues and project ahead not only to August and November but the 2016 elections too.
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Anyone who’s read this column knows how much I admire John Seigenthaler. Growing up in the local Catholic community (attending Father Ryan High School) and becoming a journalist for at least part of my career, has long made John my hero. Besides, our families have been friends dating back three generations or more.
While John has received many awards in this community, had programs, even buildings named in his honor, I can’t think of anything more fitting than the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge (the old Sparkman Street Bridge) bearing his name (the city officially did that honor this past week along with John receiving an award from the You Have The Power victims’ rights group on the same day).
The bridge naming in particular is most appropriate, since as a young reporter Seigenthaler once talked a man into not jumping off the bridge to his potential death. But beyond that, in so many ways John’s life and career has been about building bridges and connecting people in this community and across the country through his writings and his work as a civic leader. Many people may not know or remember this, but the Sparkman Street Bridge was built in the early 1900s as one of Nashville’s first “urban renewal” efforts to re-connect and revitalize the area south of Broad then known as “Black Bottom.” John likely walked and drove across that bridge in his early days growing up in Nashville.
John has been particularly involved in reaching out to and championing civil rights throughout his career. That includes his work in the Kennedy Justice Department in the early 1960s when he almost lost his life defending the Freedom Riders in Alabama.
Now John’s name through this bridge can always be linked with connecting Nashville: east to west, rich to poor, white to black. It’s befitting of what John has accomplished in his career and from all that Nashville and the nation has so greatly benefited from John’s efforts.
I went back to the doctor this week for another every 3-4 month checkup …and the news remains very good.
After reviewing my blood pressure readings (I take it twice a day every day); my weight (I have not gained a pound in three months, so I am still 30 pounds below my heaviest weight); my diet (I still try to avoid high sodium foods but I can splurge every once in a while and not hurt my BP); my exercise efforts (twice a week at the Y with only a couple of missed days in the last year); my doctor declared himself very pleased because I seem to be in excellent health 22 months after my stroke.
Now I still have days when I walk with a bit of a limp (especially if I sit for a while); or lean left or favor my left side or arm when I exercise or walk; sometimes I don’t do real well buttoning buttons especially on dress shirts and my balance when I exercise is not great; but all that comes and goes (sometimes on the same day). So I guess I’ll just live with it and keep working to make it better.
I have been asked to speak next week to a stroke survivors group at Vanderbilt’s Stallworth Hospital (where I had my in-patient rehab). I plan to tell them how fortunate I was to have friends who realized (when I didn’t) that I was having a stroke, and how their quick actions to get me to the hospital saved and changed my life forever.
I’ll also talk about the great care I got at St. Thomas, Stallworth and Bill Wilkerson (out-patient rehab) where I first began to learn the challenges I face in recovery and where I found the support and encouragement I needed from the staffs there to begin to deal with those situations both physically and emotionally.
I’ll also talk about all the help and encouragement I’ve had from my family, my many friends and from my co-workers on the recovery road and I will offer encouragement for them to keep a positive attitude. I know that can be difficult, especially as I’ve learned all strokes are a bit different, and everyone has their special challenges, depending in particular on the severity of the stroke they suffered.
I just know how blessed I’ve been to be spared and still have the chance to live a happy and productive life.