Capitol View Commentary: Friday, March 3, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - CAPITOL VIEW

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

March 3, 2017

FROM POPCORN TO SAUSAGE; PUTTING A BRAKE ON PRIVATIZATION; THE GOVERNOR’S RACE CONTINUES TO DEVELOP; GOVERNOR WINFIELD DUNN REPLAY ON INSIDE POLITICS; ANOTHER WACKY WEEK IN WASHINGTON; LOSSES

FROM POPCORN TO SAUSAGE

Last week when Governor Bill Haslam’s transportation and gas tax plan came up in a House sub-committee, a Republican leader said bring some popcorn to enjoy the festivities. But the issue was short circuited was by an unexpected adjournment.

This week when the sub-committee re-convened, lawmakers turned to making legislative sausage. The Governor’s plan was approved by just one vote. It actually took a one of the House leaders, Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson to intervene a break a 4-4 tie.

And the bill that passed out of the sub-committee was all but gutted in the sausage making. That included amendments being added that actually eliminated any fuel tax increases, while another change scrapped an “indexing” provision that authorized future gas tax increases automatically to cover inflation.

The bill thus bears little resemblance to the original Haslam proposal. But it is still alive with the hope by the administration that it can be restored by another committee as a part of the ongoing legislative process. Two rival plans to the Governor’s proposal were not so fortunate. Both failed in the sub-committee and face an even more uncertain future.

The sub-committee actions came after a public protest to raising the gas tax emerged to further spice up the controversy. As THE TENNESEAN reports:

“In advance of the meeting, dozens of people wearing bright green and red Americans for Prosperity T-shirts packed the committee room. The group, led by Andy Ogles, the state chapter director, and former conservative talk radio show host Steve Gill, took pictures with a mascot dubbed “Gas Tax Man.”

Ogles estimated over 100 people against the gas tax were inside Legislative Plaza in advance of the committee’s action.

After the committee’s took up the transportation bills, he said the newly amended proposal is essentially “a Trojan horse” that will likely revert to Haslam’s plan.

“What it will reveal is that (House Speaker) Beth Harwell just helped the governor raise the gas tax,” said Ogles.

Kara Owen, a spokeswoman for Harwell, said the speaker has frequently said all transportation proposals would get a fair hearing, which is what occurred Wednesday. “There are still many more hurdles ahead, and we anticipate the bill will continue to change throughout the process. She looks forward to continuing the discussion regarding transportation and infrastructure funding,” Owen said.

As for Governor Haslam, through a spokesman, he put a positive face on the sub-committee vote.

“This is the first step in a thorough legislative conversation about how we as a state pay for our roads and bridges," said Dave Smith, a spokesman for the governor. "We look forward to continuing to work with the General Assembly on a fiscally responsible plan to provide a safe and reliable transportation network that remains debt-free for the next generation of Tennesseans.”

So stay tuned for next week’s exciting episode (or whenever the Governor’s plan comes up in committee again). The legislative process grinds on, as it slowly makes its political sausage for Tennessee.

PUTTING A BRAKE ON PRIVATIZATION

State Democrats are overjoyed.

Without warning, the Haslam administration this week postponed a Thursday deadline for firms to file bids to take over operations of the state’s Fall Creek Fall State Park. A spokesman for the Department of Environment and Conservation told THE TIMES FREE PRESS:

“The RFP has been postponed to incorporate amended process language which will be made available soon.”

It was not known how long the proposal would be postponed or what the specific issues leading to it are.

There was no immediate elaboration but the administration’s process has been under fire from the Tennessee State Employees Association as well as several lawmakers who have raised questions not only on that issue but the effort to privatize hospitality services at the park, which straddles Van Buren and Bledsoe counties in a remote area of the Upper Cumberland Plateau.

Democrats who’ve been opposing the privatization move were quick to claim victory:

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” Sen. Lee Harris said. “But, this looks like total and unequivocal victory for state employees and Tennesseans who want to keep our cherished public assets from landing in the laps of profit-driven companies.”

“The decision to not privatize Tennessee parks, which were first up in the governor’s expansive plan, has many positive benefits for Tennesseans. It means we will not have to raise rates significantly at Tennessee parks to feed the insatiable profit demands of a private business. It means we won’t have to expose state employees to possible job loss and wage reductions. Most importantly, it means that that we’re back to setting an agenda that aligns with the expectations of real Tennesseans, instead of relying on consultants to tell us what we should be doing.”

“Senator Harris and I heard from hundreds of concerned workers, their families and local officials at Fall Creek Falls and Montgomery Bell State Park,” Rep. John Ray Clemmons said. “To a person, these hard-working Tennesseans were afraid for their livelihoods and their community’s well-being, and they were outraged about the governor’s lack of transparency. There was widespread concern that this was a ‘done deal,’ but Senator Harris and I promised them we’d keep fighting. We did. This announcement of postponement is a significant victory for rural workers, families and their local communities.”

“I’ve stated many times that our state parks must be protected and our state facilities must be adequately maintained and improved,” Rep. Clemmons said. “Our parks protect and preserve our state’s natural beauty, and they drive local economies by providing good jobs and revenue. We must invest in our state parks and improve them for Tennessee families.”

But, as Senator Harris said, Democrats need to not get too far ahead of themselves. It is not clear how long this delay in the RFP process will last. It could get back underway quickly, and the “win” Democrats are claiming will vanish. Or not.

One development on this story came late in the week from the CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS. Its source of information is Lt. Governor Randy McNally: Quoting the story:

“Speaking with reporters Thursday, McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, shed additional light on the controversy that forced Department of Environment and Conservation officials to abruptly drop a request for proposals from companies interested in operating the 26,000-acre park in rural Van Buren and Bledsoe counties.

The plan includes giving whomever is eventually picked as the concessionaire some $22 million appropriated in this year’s budget to tear down and build a new park inn and convention center.

“Well, the administration has backed it up, and I think they’re going to go back through the Building Commission process, which is what we wanted,” McNally said. “They’ll have to have the plan approved there, and then the Building Commission will also have to approve the design.”

McNally described the controversy as “somewhere between a bump in the road and a roadblock. It’s not a roadblock, but it’s not as insignificant as a bump in the road.”

I think that’s what they call applying the brake.

THE GOVERNOR’S RACE CONTINUES TO DEVELOP

This week it was the Democrats who began to develop their field of candidates for governor for 2018.

As expected, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean announced he is entering the race. He was joined within a day by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, one of the rare rural Democrats still in the General assembly. Both Dean and Fitzhugh had already indicated they would go to the post, with Fitzhugh saying he might have preferred to wait until the legislative session was over before declaring.

Fitzhugh can’t raise money while lawmakers are meeting in Nashville, but he got a break when uber-party fundraiser and Nashville businessman Bill Freeman said he was forgoing a race for governor himself and would endorse Fitzhugh instead.

Freeman’s fund raising prowess should help Fitzhugh counter the family monies that Dean enjoyed in his two successful mayoral campaigns in Nashville (2007 & 2011). Will still more Democrats enter the run for the Executive Residence on Curtiswood Lane? Well, since there’s no runoff requirement it would seem having 3 or even 4 in the race makes some mathematical sense, but so far no other current or former prominent party leaders seem ready to step forward.

Mayor Dean said it correctly in the TENESSEAN story announcing his intentions. He and any Democratic candidate will be an underdog in the November general election. Tennessee is a very red Republican

state, just look at our GOP supermajorities in both houses of the General Assembly, our congressional delegation being 7-2 Republican and our two U.S. Senate seats being held by the GOP since 1994 (that’s getting close to 25 years). In fact, only one Democrat (Phil Bredesen) has won a statewide contest in Tennessee in the 21st Century (2002 & 2006) and no one else since 1990 (Ned McWherter)

But there are a couple of other things to keep in mind about recent Tennessee history in assessing the 2018 race. On Karl Dean’s side, our last two governors are former mayors (Bredesen and Bill Haslam). Both were successful in their service with their cities seeing strong economic growth. Both have been considered pro-business in their policies and moderate in their party politics, as is Dean.

Then there is this historical factoid that covers the nearly 50 years of Tennessee gubernatorial politics: Since 1971 when Winfield Dunn became the first Republican elected governor in modern times, the Democrats and the Republicans have split their time in holding our highest office, 24 years apiece (by 2018). And neither party had been able to elect two governors in a row. A Democrat has always succeeded a Republican and a Republican a Democrat. No incumbent has been defeated. All have left because of term limits but none has been able to convince voters to keep his party in control of the governor’s chair and elect a successor of the same party.

So is the past prolog for 2018? The odds right now say no, although 2018 will be part of the national mid-term elections and usually the party in power in Washington (the Republicans) does not do well. The Republicans also look to be attracting a pretty large field in their gubernatorial primary contest. I have my doubts that anyone will win a majority of the votes cast in the August 2018 primary. So can the GOP remain united especially if, one more time, a more moderate candidate prevails over the more conservative, Tea Party (and now Trump) wings of the party?

Right now, the smart money and the current political mood in Tennessee says the GOP will break the 48-year tie, and elect two governors in a row, and so continue to hold on to the governor’s seat.

But the election is still well over 18 months away.

GOVERNOR WINFIELD DUNN REPLAY ON INSIDE POLITICS

We've gotten a lot of very positive response about our recent interview with former Tennessee governor Winfield Dunn. So we are giving it an encore performance on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend. It’s been my favorite interview to conduct in recent months because Governor Dunn is such a wonderful and gracious gentleman.

If you didn’t see our conversation with this Tennessee treasure (he’s nearly 90), tune us in. You’ll like it. You might even enjoy seeing it twice.

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.

ANOTHER WACKY WEEK IN WASHINGTON

Wacky has become the commonplace in President Donald Trump’s Washington.

The week began with the President making his first address to Congress during a joint session of both houses on Tuesday night.

He told FOX News he planned to speak from the heart and try to do a better job in communicating what he and his administration are doing, an effort, so far, he gave low marks in the interview.

Well it certainly was a different speech. Sticking with his text and his teleprompter, the President’s remarks had a very different, more uplifting tone. He didn’t change or back away from any of the issues he’s been pushing, but his rhetoric was much less combative or dark. He was much more about “we and us” and less about “I and me.”

So the overall reviews of the President’s performance were positive and I suspect it will give him a badly needed (if perhaps temporary) bump in the polls. For the Republicans in Congress, it was a night where, for once, they could praise their leader rather than spend their time in reaction to the media and voters trying to once again explain what he really meant or distance themselves from Mr. Trump’s comments.

Now one speech does not a pivot make for an administration. But the President’s outreach to Democrats may make it slightly harder for the Democrats to just reject all his proposals out of hand.

Of course the President’s bigger problem may be getting the Republicans all together behind his legislative package. Take health care. After earlier plans to “repeal and replace” Obamacare were shot down within hours after being unveiled, the latest bill drafted by House GOP leaders seemed to be locked away in a undisclosed congressional office with limited access being given members to see it.

Say what? Hey, I thought members of Congress were infamous for not reading the bills they pass until after they approve them? So why hide them away? Could it be the recent round of angry, rowdy town hall meetings that many GOP congressmen had with voters, make them actually want to read what’s being proposed BEFORE they debate and vote on it? What a concept!

If what I just said is true, Republican leaders and the President may also want to think twice about another rumored strategy to get something passed. That would be just put up some legislation to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act with limited or fuzzy details about what replaces it and dare members to vote no.

Maybe before the recent congressional recess that would have worked (and it still might). But if recent public polls are accurate, just daring members to vote no seems a risky strategy especially if leadership doesn’t seem to even want to share any details about what’s being proposed.

The President’s speech did not mention the word Russia nor did it contain any attacks on the media, two topics that have dominated the first 40-plus days of the Trump presidency. The media truce, if that is what it is, seems to still be holding, if barely.

As for Russia (and its influence in this administration and in the recent election), it continues to be a political thorn in the President’s side (or a pain elsewhere in the President’s anatomy). It flared up again within hours of his speech. That happened after word came that his Attorney General, former Senator Jeff Sessions, had failed to disclose (even denied) during his confirmation hearings that he had met twice with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign. Sessions had also been active in the Trump campaign as had the President’s former National Security Advisor. He was more or less fired from the White House after meeting with Russian officials during the presidential transition period but then lying about it to Vice President Mike Pence, who defended him before reporters.

After this latest political firestorm exploded, Attorney General Sessions announced he will recuse himself from any investigation (and there are several underway) involving Russia and the Trump campaign or his administration.

Of course that is not enough for some Democrats and others who want Sessions to resign, and that heat and controversy continues as we go into this weekend. There are still more stories emerging of other Trump aides or confidants who’ve had meetings with Russian officials. The President says it’s all a “witch hunt” brewed up by Democrats who lost the November election and now are losing touch with reality.

The President also again blames “leaks,” a frequent enemy he and other Presidents have battled (and also used) in their efforts to win in Washington. So far, the President has not gone back on the attack against the media. But if past is prologue for him, it’s likely only a matter of time.

One more thing to watch this weekend. Marches and rallies in support of President Trump are being held in 38 states on Saturday, March 4 (hence the name March 4 or Rally 4 Trump). The events include one here in Tennessee in front of the Capitol at the Legislative Plaza. This is a heavily Republican red state that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump. What kind of turnout will be there? The weather looks favorable, sunny with a high of 62 degrees.

LOSSES

I can’t tell you how shocked I was to learn this week of the death of former Metro Vice- Mayor Jay West at the age of 65. Hey, one reason for my reaction is simple. Jay and I are the same age. People my age aren’t supposed to be passing away.

Whenever I was with Jay over the last 35 years since we first met, he was always so upbeat and friendly, with a laugh in his voice and a smile on his face. Often he had a joke to tell too. And they were not often dirty jokes. He was just somebody who made you feel good being around him.

Jay was born into a political family. His father, Ben West, was elected Mayor of the old City of Nashville just weeks before he came into the world in 1951. Jay often told stories about his dad as mayor, and about being at the breakfast table or elsewhere when city duties (and department heads) briefly intruded on family life.

But despite those intrusions Jay and his brother Ben both loved politics. Ben was a multi- term state representative from the Donelson area while Jay was elected city wide four times, serving from 1983 until 1995 as a Metro Councilman At Large, and then from 1995 to 1999 as Vice Mayor.

When he took over the leadership of the Metro Council, Jay replaced a legend in David Scobey who had served in the post for almost 25 years. West made the transition very smoothly keeping the Council’s

train running on time (and the meetings from running too long) for four years. If you think that’s easy to do with a 40 member body, many of whom envision themselves as future mayoral material, think again.

Jay saw himself as a future mayor and he sought the job in 1999, finishing third behind former Mayor Richard Fulton and former State Majority Leader Bill Purcell, who won the contest and served two terms as Mayor.

But despite the setback, Jay West continued his interest in politics as a successful lobbyist on the Hill working on behalf of city and county governments and other groups. Jay even worked as a consultant to help other cities and counties try to copy the success of Nashville and Davidson County by adopting metropolitan government.

Nashville has long been blessed with multi-generational families whose members have dedicated decades of public service to our community. They are the Garretts, the Wilsons, the Rookers, the Loves, the Halls, the Murphys, the Brileys, the Mondellis, and, of course, the Wests. All praise for their service and to my friend, Jay, may he rest in peace.

There was another passing I want to note this week. Longtime Metro Juvenile Court Judge Richard Jenkins has died. He was also a charter member of the Metro Council serving from the beginning of Metro government on April 1, 1963 until he was appointed to the bench by Governor Buford Ellington in 1967.

Jenkins passing leaves just a handful of charter Council members still with us out of the original 41. They include Nashville’s first Vice Mayor George Cate along with District representative Tandy Wilson and one other I won’t name because I am not that sure he’s still with us. Founding fathers and mothers should be cherished and celebrated by our community. They helped create all that we enjoy today in our great city. Rest in peace, Judge Jenkins.

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