Capitol View Commentary: Friday, February 3, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - CAPITOL VIEW

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

February 3, 2017

HOLDING SOMETHING BACK; CRAIG FITZHUGH ON INSIDE POLITICS; GETTING THE FLOW RIGHT; TWO WEEKS WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP

HOLDING SOMETHING BACK

Prior to delivering his seventh State of the State and Budget Address on Monday night (January 30), Governor Bill Haslam made clear his top legislative priorities for the first session of the 110th Tennessee General Assembly.

There have been numerous news reports about Mr. Haslam’s proposal to raise the gas tax (for the first time since 1989). It would be 7 cents a gallon on gasoline and 12 cents for diesel. To cushion the blow of those hikes, the Governor is also proposing to cut the grocery tax (again) by a half cent as well as cut some business taxes related to manufacturing and speed up the phasing out of the Hall Tax on dividends.

Another major part of the Governor’s legislative package is to provide grants and funding to narrow the lack of broadband internet access across the state. Much like the gas tax being used to build and repair our roads and bridges, Governor Haslam sees the lack of broadband as something that holds back Tennessee and its citizens from future growth and prosperity.

But not all the Governor’s priorities were known before his speech. The longest and loudest standing ovation of the night for Mr. Haslam came from lawmakers when he proposed that the Tennessee Promise program be expanded beyond high school seniors to allow every adult in the state the opportunity to attend a community college free of tuition or fees.

If enacted, Tennessee would be the first state in the nation to offer such an opportunity to its adult citizens. This would also be the latest move to cement the Governor’s rich legacy in improving education in Tennessee. To back up that progress in education, Mr. Haslam told lawmakers our K-12 students are now the fastest growing in nation in terms of test scores in math, reading and science. Mr. Haslam wants to invest another $100 million in state revenues for teacher raises to reward that progress and keep it going. And all this is occurring he points out while Tennessee has the lowest debt and is the lowest taxed state (per capita) in the country.

But surprisingly, one of the priorities Governor Haslam touted in his legislative package prior to session, did not merit a sentence or even an aside in his speech. That would be authorization to allow local governments to raise their sales tax (by referendum) to fund mass transit improvements. At first I thought I’d just missed it being mentioned, so I went back and read the text of the speech on line. The local mass transit funding authority is not mentioned in his remarks.

Does that mean anything? I doubt it, but I really don’t know. It does seem odd. The only mention of mayors and local leaders in the State of State address came when the Governor said “scores” of local officials have told him, if the Legislature doesn’t address the gas tax and road funding issue they will be forced to consider raising local property taxes instead.

Republican lawmakers don’t seem to be buying into the Governor’s gas tax proposal. Some members of the GOP House leadership are instead pushing legislation that would allocate half of one per cent of the existing state sales tax to use for roads and bridges. There would be no tax hikes or tax cuts, and they claim, the overall fiscal impact to the state would be revenue neutral.

Other Republican lawmakers say they will soon be offering their own plans and alternatives to what Mr. Haslam is proposing, as is the Americans for Prosperity group which wants to move $200 million annually from the state’s General Funds to use for roads. The AFP has criticized earlier efforts by the Governor to talk about the gas tax and road funding. The group also helped kill Mr. Haslam’s INSURE TENNESSEE health plan a few years ago. Some Democrats see this budding gas tax fight as a replay for Mr. Haslam. Reports THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS on Thursday, February 2:

It’s Groundhog Day, and here we are four days into the session and the supermajority has sabotaged the governor’s key initiative,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro.

Governor Haslam has big doubts about these alternatives to his gas tax plan. Here’s how the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry reported to its members about the Mr. Haslam’s concerns:

"Show me the math on your plan and show me what you want to take out of the general fund if you're going to pay for it with general fund money," Haslam said. "Or show me what tax that you're proposing to cut that you don't want to cut now because you want to use that money.”

The Governor noted that sales taxes are paid primarily by Tennesseans, whereas our roads are used heavily by out-of-state drivers, and that raising the gas tax at the pump ensures that the burden is carried by all travelers. Still some members were not convinced. "Now is not the time to raise taxes," said State Senator Mark Green, who is running to succeed the term-limited governor next year. "Our priorities must continue to lower taxes, not increase them."

So is the Governor’s proposal in trouble? Possibly so. While Senate leaders seem to be lining up on Mr. Haslam’s side, the House seems more divided. THE TIMES FREE PRESS compares the situation to “bumper cars.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris told reporters that a division between the two Houses is not a good thing for the Governor’s proposal. “It’s better to work together toward a common end,” Norris said. “If the game is to divide and conquer, then the game is over. If it dies in the House, it dies.”

CRAIG FITZHUGH ON INSIDE POLITICS

Democratic State House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

We get his reaction to the Governor’s State of the State speech as well as his support or concerns (along with his 25 Democratic House members) regarding the Governor’s legislative package (a gas tax hike, expanding broadband internet access, mass transit funding options for local governments).

We’ll also talk about some other hot topics likely to come before lawmakers in the next few weeks such as medical marijuana or decriminalizing that drug; along with putting the words Alien or non-U.S. Citizen on Tennessee’s temporary driver’s licenses, among other issues.

The Democrats continue to be a decided minority on the Hill. So Fitzhugh admits they are mostly playing defense in terms of legislation this session. Occasionally the math can work out in committee or on the floor so that their votes can make a difference. So watch that if Republicans become divided. Representative Fitzhugh is also considering a 2018 run for governor, so you know we’ll chat about that.

Watch us!

GETTING THE FLOW RIGHT

Nashville has historically had a lot of issues with stormwater runoff and the flooding that can cause.

It’s a matter that has often been discussed (and cussed). But very little has been done about it because of a lack of a dedicated revenue source.

A stormwater fee was established in 1999. But it was rather limited in terms of the revenue it generates because it‘s been mostly one size fits all. There is a low cap on the maximum fee that is imposed so large developments and land owners did not pay in proportion to the amount of water runoff their land and development generates.

Now Mayor Megan Barry wants to change that by “modernizing” the fee structure she says. Quoting from a news release from her office: “…We are proposing a more equitable fee structure whereby the rates of smaller homes and businesses will be frozen, and properties with larger impervious surfaces will pay more for the water runoff they create.”

“Nashville currently ranks fifth from the bottom in a survey of 80 large cities’ available funding to support their stormwater programs. The current fees have not changed since 2009, despite the fact that the cost of containing and managing stormwater has changed, and the fee revenue has lost 20 to 25% of its buying power to inflation. Under the newly proposed fee structure, generated funds will increase from $14.4 million to $34.6 million annually. This will allow Metro Water Services to increase bond capacity for stormwater projects, expand staff and street sweeping services, and raise ”Class C” projects from $1 million to $3 million annually. “

Stormwater issues have often been the number one complaint that members of the Metro Council receive from constituents. The 40 members of the Council must approve the Mayor’s plan. Again, quoting from the Mayor’s news release there does seem to be support:

“Investments in stormwater infrastructure are necessary to protect our residents’ property and possibly save lives in flood conditions,” said Metro Council Public Works Committee Chairman Jeremy Elrod. “The new stormwater fee structure, if passed, will be fairer and will allow us to fund critically needed projects throughout city.”

But that’s the challenge. Increasing fees (some would call it an increase in taxes) are never easy. Lobbying this through the Council, will be Mayor Barry’s first such experience as our city’s chief executive. But based on her own time in the Council before becoming mayor, she’s not a novice and understands what lies ahead. Getting the rainwater to flow right in Nashville has never been easy. Getting the resources to fix it probably won’t be either.

TWO WEEKS WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP

Donald Trump has been President of the United States for two weeks as of noon EST today (Friday).

Depending on your politics, he has either been a destructive political bull in a china shop destroying our country both domestically and overseas. Or he is a deep breath of fresh air and change that is long-overdue to begin to “drain the swamp” that is Washington.

Mr. Trump is delighting his supporters while activating his opponents into a mode of “resistance.” It’s a force that will need to be sustained throughout at least the next two years when the mid-term Congressional elections are held; four years until the White House is contested again.

To this point, Trump’s numerous executive orders, particularly regarding travel bans and immigration and refugee regulations have sparked protests throughout the nation (including here in Nashville and across the urban areas of Tennessee) that are almost unprecedented in size and rarely approached in fervor. But two to four years is a long time to sustain any political effort, especially in a nation where voter turnout is rarely close to 50% in an election.

Meanwhile, can the Trump whirlwind bring about real change when judicial challenges of his orders are reviewed by the courts? Can the President be successful to get Congress to enact the policy changes and laws he will need to continue his quest to make America great again?

Most importantly will the U.S. Senate approve President Trump’s first nomination to the Supreme Court?

Each President has had a major impact on the nation, and in modern times, on the world in their four to eight years in office. But the decisions they make that can most shape history for decades to come after they leave the Oval Office, are the ones to fill the nine seats on our nation’s highest courts.

Take for examples, John Adams’ appointment of John Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower’s of Earl Warren. Our laws and our history are shaped to this day by those selections. It is not thought the elevation of 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Justice Neil Gorsuch to the High Court will tilt the balance of conservative versus liberal power on the current nine member panel. But who can say what the future will hold with a 49-year old nominee taking the bench? At that young age, he might still be on the court 25 to 30 or even more years from now?

And what will be the process to approve Judge Gorsuch? Because the Republicans control the upper chamber it does appear he will receive a full Judiciary Committee hearing. That’s more courtesy than was extended to D.C. Appeals Justice Merrick Garland last year when GOP Senate leaders stonewalled the efforts of President Barack Obama to fill this same High Court seat once held by the late Anton Scalia.

Are the Democrats still so angry and vengeful that this seat was “stolen’ by Republicans, they will now commit to a filibuster requiring 60 votes to overcome and to force a confirmation vote on the floor of the Senate. Clearly with a majority of only 52 seats, the Republicans don’t have the votes to win a filibuster battle nor are they likely to get 8 Democratic Senators to defect to their side.

But they may be able to find enough strength to invoke “the nuclear option” to change the Senate’s rules and allow Supreme Court approval by a simple majority of 51 Senators.

However if past is prolog, the GOP should be careful. When they controlled the upper chamber a few years ago, Democrats invoked the “nuclear” rules change for cabinet appointments and non- Supreme Court judicial nominations. Now with most, if not all (Betsy DeVos the only possible exception) of President Trump’s Cabinet picks slowly but surely being confirmed by the Senate, you can be sure Democrats wished they hadn’t been so quick to change the rules. Will Republicans change another long Senate tradition that an appointment to the highest court in land ought to take more than a bare majority? GOP Senate leaders have already changed the committee quorum rules to move the cabinet nominations around. Will this rules change be next? And will it likely be the ultimate determining factor that Neil Gorsuch goes on the Supreme Court?

Democrats need to think long and hard too about using the filibuster to stop or slow down Gorsuch. The filibuster is still one of the few remaining ways a minority party can have an impact on appointments. If the Republicans manage to invoke the nuclear option what’s left for the Democrats in the future? Will there be any filibuster powers that remain in the future?

President Trump is urging Senate Republicans to go nuclear if needed to get Judge Gorsuch confirmed. And why not? The newly nominated justice is highly qualified for the post say most conservatives. Even some Democrats think so too privately (when they are not claiming he is out the mainstream of past judicial law). Also if the threshold to place a judge on the Supreme Court is soon just 51 Senate votes, it might encourage President Trump to make his nomination even more “out there” and controversial.

So remember, while the resistance and the protests to the Trump administration continue, and while government by Twitter storm and executive orders persists, this upcoming Supreme Court debate may tell us more about the ultimate success or failure of President Trump than anything that has happened these last 14 days. That’s especially true since if President Trump receives the opportunity to make still more High Court nominations while he is in the White House.

High Court appointments are the most forever actions presidents can take to shape their legacy and our country’s long term future.

Just fourteen days into the new President’s term, we are learning yet again that, no matter your politics, elections have consequences, and none of them are greater than the makeup of the Supreme Court.

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