Capitol View Commentary: Friday, January 27, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - CAPITOL VIEW

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

January 27, 2017

THE FIRST 100 DAYS ON INSIDE POLITICS; PRIVATIZATION ISSUE HEATING UP; BROADENING THE BROADBAND FIGHT; THE OFFICE SHUFFLE: A NEW USE AT THE FAIRGROUNDS; COUNCILMANIC COURTESY FIRST NASHVILLE NEXT

THE FIRST 100 DAYS ON INSIDE POLITICS

Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has been measured, in terms of effectiveness, based on what he accomplished in his first 100 Days in office.

And so it will be for President Donald Trump. He’s certainly off to a whirlwind and controversial first seven days in the White House.

To give us her take on what has happened so far, including the transition period and the inauguration, Linda Peek Schacht of Lipscomb University is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS.

She is teaching two courses this winter about the First 100 Days for President Trump, one of undergraduates, the other for adults as a part of the university’s lifelong learning program. Tune us in and listen closely, some class slots are still available and you can learn what to do if you’d like to sit in on the adult sessions.

Linda Peek Schacht has quite a bit of experience and perspective on being a part of the First 100 Days of a new presidency. She did it first working with President Jimmy Carter in 1977. She did it again with two other administrations while working in the Majority Leader’s office in the U.S. Senate.

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.

The shows are also later posted for viewing on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website under NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS’ Inside Politics link.

PRIVATIZATION ISSUE HEATING UP

Last week when Nashville Democratic Representative John Ray Clemmons was my guest on INSIDE POLITICS, he spent a good bit of time criticizing Governor Bill Haslam’s effort to privatize some state services and jobs in both higher education and state parks.

Clemmons has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Governor on this issue along with Senate Minority Leader Democrat Lee Harris of Memphis. There has been little outcry from the Super Majority of Republicans in the Legislature about the matter, although that may be beginning to change.

About a week or so ago, there was this report from THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS (as posted by Tom Humphrey’s blog). Some 20 lawmakers (17 Republicans and 3 Democrats) are urging University of Tennessee officials to use their option to opt out of the Governor’s privatization plan. Many of them are from in and around the Knoxville area.

This week there were more signs that Republicans may not be on the privatization train. Again citing THE TIMES FREE PRESS and Tom Humphrey, there’s a call from State Senator Janice Bowling for an Attorney General’s opinion about whether the way Governor Haslam’s is proceeding on this issue is legal. Her district includes one of the major state parks targeted for privatization.

Also this week, THE JOHNSON CITY PRESS reports that Senator Rusty Crowe is urging East Tennessee State University officials to opt out on privatizing. Here’s Tom Humphrey’s summary on this development.

You’ll notice most of the pushback from GOP lawmakers so far is about higher education which has an opt-out on going private. It is no so much focused on state parks. But many state parks are in rural parts of the state and they provide a lot of good paying jobs for local residents. Will there be pushback coming there too even though the state department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) does not have choice to opt out?

BROADENING THE BROADBAND FIGHT

Like many states, Tennessee has a digital divide in terms of access to broadband services.

It’s not just a rich/poor division. It’s also urban/rural. As another major part of his legislative priorities for the 110th Tennessee General Assembly (which begins its work next week), Governor Bill Haslam is supporting legislation to increase broadband to unserved areas.

Reports Tom Humphrey and via a news release out of the Governor’s office:

“Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lacking access at recognized minimum standards.

“From the farmer and the accountant in West Tennessee whose businesses are stifled, to the East Tennessee student who can’t complete her schoolwork at home, a lack of reliable internet access is preventing too many rural Tennesseans, rural communities and our state from reaching its full potential,” Haslam said. “While there is no one solution that can guarantee broadband accessibility to every single Tennessean, this legislation provides a reasonable, responsible path to improve access in a meaningful way through investment, deregulation and education.”

The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, along with Haslam’s proposed budget, will provide $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.

But this is far from a new proposal or a new fight in the Legislature. Already some lawmakers are unhappy with the Governor’s plan as reported by the CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS:

“The governor’s bill does not let municipal electric systems get into the broadband business outside their service areas. Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) has been pushing to do so for years. The bill also would not allow the electric cooperatives to handle money-making cable TV service on their broadband.

Asked why he didn’t include EPB and other municipal electric services, Haslam said, “You have a situation where we’d much rather have private providers rather than government-subsidized entities have the first crack at getting that done.”

… At first blush, state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, whose district includes underserved areas, wasn’t happy.

“What I wanted is a free and open ability for any elected board of any co-op to make its own decisions what to do,” Carter added. “And it could contract with anyone, including the municipals, private enterprise — anyone — to do that.”

… State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, said the measure only goes halfway in removing regulatory limits that she said now limit fiber optic service in much of Tennessee “and keeps too many rural citizens from participating in the 21st century digital economy.”

“I’m certainly glad that electric co-ops will be able to retail fiber services under this measure and I think that will be significant,” she said. ” I am amazed that some of the giant, investor-owned telecoms have been able to confuse the conversation by trying to make it about what is fair for the provider, instead of focusing on what is right for the consumer.”

… Investor-owned telephone companies such as AT&T and private cable TV companies such as Comcast and Charter have long objected to having to compete with government entities such as EPB, which they contend have an unfair advantage by not paying income taxes and enjoying government-supported borrowing abilities.

But Bowling said she thinks “it is disingenuous to say you don’t want municipal utilities, which they equate with ‘big government,’ to compete with the private sector when you are giving another $45 million of taxpayer money to these private businesses.“

Governor Haslam this week also pushed back against lawmakers who are reluctant to support his call for an increase in the state gas tax. He says if there is not action by the Legislature it could be up to 15 years or longer before some already approved state road projects are funded, much less the multi-billion dollar backlog of other transportation projects.

Looking for possibly still other sources of funding for roads, Governor Haslam sent a $1.1 billion list of projects to President Trump who is putting together an infrastructure package to send to Congress soon, reports THE TIMES FREE PRESS.

THE OFFICE SHUFFLE

Before any new Legislature begins there are office moves and other space shuffling.

But this one reported by THE NASHVILLE POST has certainly raised some eyebrows…

“House Speaker Beth Harwell has booted House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart out of his Legislative Plaza office and turned the space over to newly-elected House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams, reports the Nashville Post.

The move means Democratic Caucus staff will be in different offices than Stewart, who will be moving into the former office of Rep. Joe Armstrong in Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh’s suite — and it means the 25 Democrats in the House no longer have a conference room to call their own.

…Harwell’s chief of staff, Scott Gilmer, said the move has nothing to do with politics, just space.

“Absolutely not,” responded Gilmer when asked if the move is retaliatory. (Stewart repeatedly attacked Harwell last year over her handling of the sexual harassment allegations against then-Rep. Jeremy Durham.) “It’s really about space. We picked up a member, and we already had a member sharing a suite with Democrats, and this is just what made sense.”

Gilmer said Democrats will be able to use committee rooms for caucus meetings, although apparently they have in the past been denied use of the rooms depending on the whims of the scheduler.

“The Speaker’s conference room can also be reserved for their use,” Gilmer said.

Williams said he didn’t ask for Stewart to be moved, and he was unaware until told by the Post that the move left the Democrats without any conference room.

…It’s unclear why Harwell’s office chose not to move Rep. Gerald McCormick from his set of offices, as he’s no longer majority leader.

Democratic staff declined to comment on the record as to whether they thought the move was political. Stewart did not return a phone call seeking comment.

But the inconvenience for the Democrats will be over by 2018 (when legislators relocated to a remodeled Cordell Hull building nearby), Gilmer said.

“The will all be resolved in the new building, where everyone will be able to have their staff all together,” he said.

That last comment made me chuckle. I have never been involved in any move surrounding new or renovated space that someone didn’t say:

“Don’t worry, it will all be OK when we get into (the new building, the new space).

Or fill-in the blank.

A NEW USE AT THE FAIRGROUNDS

For some months now groups have been working to bring major league professional soccer to Nashville.

One big need….a stadium to play home games.

This week Mayor Megan Barry announced she thinks Fairgrounds Nashville is the best place to locate such a facility. In a carefully worded statement the Mayor staked out her position. She didn’t (likely couldn’t) offer too many details on the project, but she wanted to to make sure supporters of the historic property in South Nashville don’t not feel a need to rally to the barricades to protect their turf as they did to stop Mayor Karl Dean’s effort to revitalize the area a few years ago.

Here is her statement:

“I fully support the effort to bring Major League Soccer to Nashville. While no formal proposals or deals have been reached, we have been working with the local organizing group, led by John Ingram and Bill Hagerty, to submit a great application to MLS.

“Ultimately, a soccer facility will be needed in order to attract an MLS team here to Nashville. I believe a private-public partnership, with an emphasis on the “private” part of the equation, will be needed in order to accomplish this goal, and I am convinced that the best and only site for this to happen would be at the Fairgrounds Nashville.

“This will not come at the expense of any existing activities at the Fairgrounds, such as racing, the flea market, or the fair, but will be in addition to all the great things that are happening there now.

“Last year, we allocated $12 million in capital funds to start the renovation of the Fairgrounds property, in addition to $3 million for community soccer fields at that site.

“I’ve also asked the Fairgrounds manager to initiate an RFP for the operation of the racetrack. For too long, we have held back the chances for racing to be successful by limiting the term of the contract. This RFP will seek innovative proposals that could result in an operator willing to make necessary capital improvements to the track with a long-term agreement by which they can recoup the investment.

“With playing fields, pro soccer, a more viable racing operation, a greenway through the property and renovated, improved buildings, the fairgrounds will share in and help continue Nashville’s prosperity.”

Based on the January 27 article in THE TENNESSEAN, pro-fairgrounds supporters so far are not reacting negatively to the Mayor’s announcement. But another part of the article did catch my eye.

It seemed rather buried in the story to me. It indicated that Vanderbilt University might be interested in being a tenant in the new stadium for use for Commodore football games. Replacing the current on-campus Vanderbilt Stadium is reportedly a major priority for the school’s athletic administrators and there was a story in the paper last fall that talked about a possible new on campus stadium near the current facility along Natchez Trace. But then the story seemed to pause in terms of new developments. That is until this soccer stadium possibility began to materialize.

COUNCILMANIC COURTESY FIRST NASHVILLE NEXT

Just a couple of years ago, Metro government spent a lot of time and energy seeking public input to draft planning document to guide Nashville’s future over the next quarter century.

But while almost every member or candidate for Metro Council has spoken very favorably about the NashvilleNext plan and the process that drafted it, when it comes to zoning changes they don’t seem to vote that way.

The strongest power a Metro Council member has is the almost life or death control the 35 district members have over any land use changes in his or her districts. If the councilmember is for it, the rest of the 40 member council go along in approval. If not, the change rarely makes it to the council’s meeting agenda.

It’s called councilmanic courtesy and it’s as old a tradition as Metro government itself (almost 54 years).

All zone changes are sent to the Metro Planning Commission for review and a recommendation. That volunteer body (most of them citizens appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council) are supposed to work with the city’s planning staff and assess how the proposal fits with existing zoning and with what the NashvilleNext plan envisions for the next 25 years.

If the Planning Commission rejects the zone change, it requires 27 or a two-thirds vote of the Council to override and approve the measure. But because of councilmanic courtesy that need for a super majority has never proven to be a major deterrent to stopping a disapproved zone change nor has a mayoral veto which also requires a two-thirds vote to override.

So what’s happened to disapproved zoning bills since NashvilleNext came into being and the current council came into office (September 2015)? In the last 16 months, there have been 12 non-approved zoning bills voted into law by the council. That compares to only 10 disapproved bills put into law in the previous 5 years.

Now the Planning Commission is not the source of all knowledge and wisdom, but this is a worrisome trend if you believe Nashville is serious about planning its future land use development.

Actually Metro has experienced in the past even more troublesome times in how the Metro Council handles zoning. That was true even when I first began covering City Hall back in the mid-1970s. Investigations put one Donelson councilmember in jail for how he handled some rezoning. A TENNESSEAN investigation (conducted by a young reporter named Al Gore) led to a police sting and bribery charges against another council member.

Fortunately these kinds of scandals have been rather infrequent over the years. Still with individual councilmembers having the kind of near absolute power over land use in their districts, there will always be questions or suspicions arising. You also wonder this: Why go through a NashvilleNext planning process when it can be short circuited at almost any time by a developer or council member who have different ideas?

The Planning Commission has issued its first NashvilleNext annual report. Based on a NASHVILLE POST story, the report seems to focus on other growth and development issues outside zoning. You can read the POST story and find a link to the full NashvilleNext annual report by clicking here.

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