Capitol View Commentary: Friday, April 14, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners Company

April 14, 2017

IMPROVE ACT HEADED TO FINAL VOTES; BY A SINGLE VOTE…AGAIN; GETTING TENNESSEE ON LINE AND UP TO SPEED; A LACK OF OVERSIGHT OR JUST SOMETHING DIFFERENT; CONGRESSMAN COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS; ARMY SECRETARY NOMINATION DRAWS FIRE;

IMPROVE ACT HEADED TO FINAL VOTES

Governor Bill Haslam’s signature legislation for this term of the General Assembly, the IMPROVE ACT keeps moving ahead on the Hill.

By a voice vote, the House Finance Committee approved the Governor’s proposal to raise the gas tax, while an opposing plan backed by the Republican House leadership was presented to lawmakers, but then was withdrawn when efforts surfaced to kill it on the spot.

The rival House proposal would divert sales tax revenue from new and used vehicle sales in the state to the highway fund rather than the general fund. It would also increase car registration fees and impose taxes on hybrid and electric vehicles.

Haslam’s bill raises the gas tax by six cents per gallon and the diesel fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon over a three-year period. It also includes cuts to other taxes such as ones on manufacturing and on groceries. In addition, the bill allows local governments in and around the largest cities in the state to hold referendums to levy taxes to fund mass transit improvement projects.

The House committee vote opens the door for a final decision to be made soon with floor votes in both chambers. The Senate has already approved scheduling such a vote.

Still opponents of the IMPROVE ACT claim they will bring back their plan during the debate in the full House. Said Representative David Hawk of Greenville:

“ I will state that this issue is far from being done. We will have a conversation on the floor about how we need to better fund transportation and what is the most responsible way to do that as we serve our constituents,” Hawk said. “That’s a promise. We will have a debate on the floor and we will bring an amendment to the floor.”

What apparently gives Hawk and other opponents some hope to prevail is a recent straw poll conducted by the House leadership. THE TENNESSEAN reports:

“The House committee's move (the Finance Committee vote) came one day after the chamber's Republicans took a straw poll using small sticks to anonymously vote on the IMPROVE Act. Thirty members were in favor of the proposal, 37 against and six Republican lawmakers did not vote in the poll...

If just 30 Republicans remain on board with the governor's proposal, Haslam would need 20 out of the chamber's 25 Democrats to ensure passage of his signature piece of legislation in the House.”

If the GOP straw poll is accurate, it will be the first time in years that the votes of the Democrat’s Super Minority will matter on a major piece of legislation. That would indicate how deeply divided the 73-member House GOP Super Majority Caucus is, with former close allies of Governor Haslam such as House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, a likely GOP candidate for Governor in 2018, organizing and strongly supporting the alternative road funding plan.

So if Democrats now hold the balance of power on this bill, how do they vote? To my knowledge their caucus has not yet taken an official position, but their Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate next year, is making these comments to THE TENNESSEAN:

“House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said the legislature has set a precedent by having a dedicated fund to pay for the state's roads and infrastructure needs. "I see no need now to change all that because it puts the rest of our general fund at risk," he said.”

As for how the voting has gone so far as this bill has worked its way through the House committee system, THE TENNESSEAN offers this math:

“With the House finance committee's vote on Tuesday, a total of 25 Republicans and nine Democrats have voted in favor of the IMPROVE Act as it has made its way through the legislative process. Just two Democrats and eight Republicans have voted against the governor's plan, according to voting records.”

Meanwhile a NASHVILLE POST story published as lawmakers went home Thursday for the Easter holiday, found attracting House Democrats to vote for the IMPROVE Act could be difficult. In fact they are playing pretty hard to get to support Governor Haslam.

The drama continues to build as THE NASHVILLE POST and other media outlets are reporting on Friday that Speaker Harwell may be waffling on supporting the alternative transportation plan she helped put together as an alternative to the Governor. THE POST offered this narrative indicating the Speaker’s thoughts:

“When asked Thursday if she saw the amendment (her plan) passing on the House floor — as Rep. David Hawk has vowed to bring it back — Harwell told reporters, "I can't see that. No."

When asked specifically if she is now supporting Haslam's plan, Harwell said, "I'm trying to decide that. I'm leaning that way." Her spokesperson, Kara Owen, later emailed, "She said she's just keeping an open mind because this is such an important issue."

Meanwhile a coalition of pro-gas tax groups are launching a last-minute statewide radio ad campaign to build both public and lawmaker support according to the Chattanooga TIMES FREE PRESS:

“..The Transportation Coalition of Tennessee plans to begin airing the 60-second spots starting Thursday (April 13), going through April 21. The $127,000 buy hits the Chattanooga, Jackson, Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Tri-Cities markets.

Dubbed the “It’s Smart” series, the ads say “it’s smart to support better roads, safe bridges and tax cuts.”

You can listen to the radio ads by clicking here.

The Governor has his own strategy to get the 50 votes he needs in the House. THE TENNESSEE STAR reports he has set up 20-minute private interviews with 15 legislators considered “on the fence” in voting for the bill. There are 11 Republicans and four Democrats on the list of legislators getting an emailed invitation.

The e-mail reads as follows:

“The Governor has set aside 20 minute slots in his schedule tomorrow, Monday, and Tuesday. He would like to meet with each of your Representatives in his conference room on the first floor of the Capitol,”

According to THE STAR the fifteen targeted State Representatives who received this emailed invitation from Governor are (parenthesis ID added):

Barbara Cooper (D-Memphis)

Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville)

Timothy Goins (R-Morristown)

Marc Gravitt (R-East Ridge)

Bud Hulsey (R-Kingsport)

Darren Jernigan (D-Nashville)

Kelly Keisling (R-Byrdstown)

Sabi Kumar (R-Springfield)

Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville)

Mark Pody (R-Lebanon)

Jason Powell (D-Nashville)

Dennis Powers (R-Jacksboro)

John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge)

Dwayne Thompson (D-Cordova

There is little doubt the full Senate will OK the IMPROVE ACT. While the House decision remains unclear, a vote in both bodies is likely next week. The House vote is set for Wednesday. Even if both groups vote yes, the bill could have to go to a conference committee unless a disagreement in their separate versions of the measure are reconciled over tax relief provisions for qualified veterans and the elderly.

BY A SINGLE VOTE…AGAIN

Legislation to allow undocumented Tennessee high school graduates to attend state colleges and universities at the lower in-state tuition rate failed by one vote in one of the House Education Committees this week.

It’s happened before.

Two years ago a similar measure failed final approval by one vote on the floor of the full House.

The committee debate was intense as reported by the Chattanooga TIMES FREE PRESS:

“Prior to the vote, the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, passionately argued for the issue, saying there are an estimated 13,000 students in Tennessee K-12 schools who were brought illegally into the U.S. by their parents “through no fault of their own.”

“They’re graduating [high school] alongside our sons and daughters,” White said, only to “find they can’t go on. They have dreams of a better life through education.”

He argued his belief that it is “a basic conservative Republican position” to provide support for those “willing to get up and go to work or better their life.”

The students wouldn’t be getting a free ride, White said, noting they would simply be paying college and university tuition at in-state rates instead of the out-of-state rates the students now face.

…Rep. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, argued against the bill, warning, “we’re going to become a magnet in the Southeast if we allow this legislation.”

The push against the legislation gained speed a day earlier (Monday) when the General Assembly’s Conservative Majority Caucus held a news conference outside the House chambers. THE TENNESSEAN reports:

“Flanked by a dozen Republican members of the House, Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, decried the legislation… (saying) “Our state cannot afford to subsidize public college tuition for illegal aliens nor should it.”

“They were brought in by an irresponsible act, and unfortunately they have to pay the inconvenient consequences of that act,” he said.

The bill has support of the State Board of Regents saying it will make it easier for in state students to go to college at a time when Tennessee is making a concerted effort to increase enrollment and graduation rates. Governor Haslam has also signaled his support.

It is unclear what the future of the bill might be for the rest of this year’s session or next year. But it appears dead for now.

GETTING TENNESSEE ON LINE AND UP TO SPEED

While Governor Haslam has his challenges getting the IMPROVE Act through the General Assembly, some of his other top legislative priorities have moved at near lightning speed to gain approval from lawmakers.

Both the House (93-4) and the Senate (31-0) have given their ascent to the Governor’s broadband bill with overwhelming majorities. The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act addresses a major issue in our state especially in rural areas.

Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lacking access at recognized minimum standards. “More than 800,000 Tennesseans don’t have access to broadband, and one in three businesses identified it as essential to selecting their location. Spurring deployment in our rural, unserved areas will open them up to economic investment and growth,” Governor Haslam said.

The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act provides $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for service providers to assist in making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses.

In addition, the plan will permit Tennessee’s private, nonprofit electric cooperatives to provide retail broadband service and make grant funding available to the state’s local libraries to help residents improve their digital literacy skills and maximize the benefits of broadband.

Now only the Governor’s signature is required for this measure to become law and for Tennessee to start getting up to speed for on line availability.

Mr. Haslam will also soon be signing the STRONG ACT, another of its priorities in the Legislature this year. Easily passed in both houses of the General Assembly, it will extend free tuition to the state’s colleges for members of the Tennessee National Guard. The passage of this measure was never in doubt. I remember when the Governor proposed this idea during his State of the State address back in January, his comments received the longest standing ovation of the evening.

Finally the governor’s proposal to expand his Tennessee Promise program to adults in the state is moving ahead too. The bill, passed by a wide margin in the House this week, would grant free tuition to adults attending the state’s community colleges. They can already do that at the state’s technical schools. The bill still needs to pass the Senate but seems likely to be on Mr. Haslam’s desk soon for his signature. The funds for all these free tuitions come from excess Tennessee Lottery monies.

A LACK OF OVERSIGHT OR JUST SOMETHING DIFFERENT

I have reported on and observed Tennessee state government for almost 45 years. Throughout a good number of those years, its prisons and correctional system have been embroiled in controversy and under close scrutiny, even under the control and oversight of the federal courts for a while.

In response to that, the Legislature set up its own oversight committees. But those panels haven’t been in session for a few years now (since 2011. Now in the wake of an incident this past Sunday (April 9), there are now renewed efforts to re-establish such oversight groups. The assault on three correctional officers at the Turney Center in West Tennessee left two still hospitalized at mid-week after one of them was also held hostage for a while.

That led House Democrats such as Mike Stewart of Nashville to call for a new oversight panel on corrections even though Republicans have already killed such legislation this term.

Quoting from THE TENNESSEAN:

“Stewart called the failure to re-establish a corrections oversight panel “totally ridiculous,” reports The Tennessean.

“That’s obviously a slap in the face to every corrections officer in the state,” Stewart said of the Senate’s move. He urged Senate leadership to “undo that mistake” and get the bill to the floor for a vote.

Of course, the GOP immediately responded saying Stewart’s call is just partisan politics: Back to THE TENNESSEAN article:

“Republican lawmakers called the (Democrats’) news conference “shameful” and blamed Democrats for playing politics with an incident that could have happened regardless if there was oversight or not.

“No amount of oversight would have prevented that attack,” Rep. Bill Sanderson said Monday in an informal meeting with other Republicans. Sanderson is chairman of the State Government subcommittee, which stripped out a provision in a bill from Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough that would re-establish oversight committees for three state departments (the House version of SB1145). NOTE: The three agencies would be corrections, Tenncare and Children’s Services).

Currently, oversight is done in an “ad hoc” sort of fashion, Stewart said, and lawmakers rely primarily on information coming from officers or other sources independently.

“We have been trying to exercise oversight, but ad hoc oversight that relies on people inside the prisons sending information to state representatives is hardly a substitute for what we had in this state and what we need, which is full legislative oversight by a legislative oversight committee,” Stewart said.”

Count the votes on the Hill, and it’s clear Stewart and the Democrats won’t likely win this fight to re-establish oversight committees this year. But if there continue to be violent incidents in Tennessee correctional facilities there is bound to be more pressure created to establish such oversight groups.

CONGRESSMAN COOPER ON INSIDE POLITICS

With Congress in recess (district work sessions I think they call it these days), we try to have our local House members on INSIDE POLITICS while it’s a little easier to book them.

Republican Marsha Blackburn joined us last week.

This week it’s Democrat Jim Cooper.

After almost disappearing at times during last year’s election, Washington has re-emerged as the focal point of our politics, especially with the new Trump administration in town. In recent days, foreign affairs and overseas military actions have emerged as a major topic of conversation along with all the domestic controversies that have been stirred up. And there’s still the Russia investigations surrounding last year’s election.

So we won’t lack for topics to discuss. Join us.

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include 7:00 p.m. Friday; 5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday; along with 1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR if those live times don't work for your schedule.

ARMY SECRETARY NOMINATION DRAWS FIRE

As we discussed in last week’s Capitol View column (in terms of its impact on the 2018 Tennessee Governor’s race), President Donald Trump has officially nominated Clarksville State Senator Mark Green to be the next Secretary of the Army.

Even before Green’s appointment was made public, there was already strong criticism over the choice from national groups who strongly criticize him over his stance on LGBTQ rights.

Tom Humphrey has an excellent summary of the controversy, including some of Green’s own comments he made during a Tea Party session in Chattanooga. It’s an issue that will likely only grow in strength and intensity as Green’s Senate confirmation hearings approach.

The criticism of Green is growing with The Council on American Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights advocacy group joining the chorus. Again Tom Humphrey outlines their concerns in this article.

Finally, rumors on Capitol Hill here in Nashville, and in Washington continue to grow in volume and intensity that other prominent Tennessee Republicans may soon be in line for appointments to Trump administration posts or to federal offices. Buzz…buzz.

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