Capitol View Commentary: Friday, March 31, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - CAPITOL VIEW

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

March 31, 2017

A DARK CLOUD OVER THE METRO COURTHOUSE; INSIDE POLITICS; BEGINNING TO WRAP THINGS UP; ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL; WHAT NOW

A DARK CLOUD OVER THE METRO COURTHOUSE

I have known Casey Moreland since my reporter days, long before he ever went on the bench.

During his time as a General Sessions Judge (since 1998), including being re-elected by the voters to several terms, he has experienced more than his share of ethical lapses and controversies.

But I don’t think anyone thought his career would come to this.

On Tuesday morning he was arrested by the FBI and brought before a federal judge in handcuffs and shackles. He is facing bribery and witness-tampering charges that include efforts to offer a woman over $5,000 to recant charges she’s made against him. He also allegedly planned to discredit her if she refused, by having drugs placed on her. The Judge even tried to hide his involvement through the use of a temporary cell phone issued under a phony name. THE TENNESSEAN reports there could be more charges coming and perhaps others involved in the case but gives no details.

If what the U.S. Attorney claims is true in the pending charges, it is highly likely Casey Moreland has presided for the last time as a Judge and he faces a lengthy stay behind bars in his future.

If or when he resigns or is removed from office, his judgeship will be filled on an interim basis by the Metro Council. The person selected would serve until the elections next year in 2018. Over the years, the Council has filled several General Sessions seats due to various vacancies, although none I recall following such scandalous developments as those involving Judge Moreland.

Quite often, the Council has filled past General Sessions vacancies with one of their own, current members of the Council. That has sometimes engendered criticism of such selections. I have no idea who in the current 40-member body, if any, might be interested in the position, but I’d look to see which Council members are attorneys if you want to begin to pull together an early, and obviously unofficial, list of possible Moreland replacements.

What a sad time at the Metro Courthouse to have such a cloud of alleged corruption shadowing our local judicial system.

LATE BREAKING: Friday afternoon during a hearing in federal court, Judge Casey Moreland, through his attorney, announced he is resigning from the bench.

INSIDE POLITICS

The Tennessee General Assembly now approaches the month of April. In recent years that’s been the home stretch for lawmakers winding up their work for the year. Will that be true again in 2017 and what are the big issues yet to be decided?

One of the leaders on the Hill is State Senator and Speaker Pro Tem Jim Tracy. He is our guest this week on INSIDE POLITICS.

Of course, we discuss Governor Bil Haslam's IMPROVE ACT that increases the gas tax for roads, while lowering the tax on groceries and manufacturing. I think you'll also find interesting his comments on the Governor's ongoing privatization efforts and his thoughts on whether Tennessee needs to relook at its health insurance access for our citizens in the wake of the failure of the GOP health care plan in Washington. Watch 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.

BEGININNG TO WRAP THINGS UP

April is likely to be the last full month Tennessee lawmakers are meeting in Nashville this year. If they stay into May it will be the longest they’ve stayed in session this late into the spring for several years.

The reason they are here longer seems to revolve, in part, around the IMPROVE ACT that includes the gas tax hike and the decrease in other taxes such as the grocery tax and one involving manufacturing. Until all that is settled, along with some proposed new fees in the bill, it has been hard to begin to move the full state budget through the committee system for approval.

The prospects for passage of the IMPROVE ACT have improved over the last two weeks after legislative leaders and Governor Haslam agreed on some changes. Those include cutting the gas tax hike and phasing it in over a three year period. The cut in the grocery tax was also increased to make the proposal more revenue neutral, a move which has decreased (but not eliminated) a lot of lawmaker opposition.

Several key committees have now approved the IMPROVE bill leading one House sponsor to claim “the heavy lifting has been done” to pass the bill. There is still some unhappiness about a property tax cut provision for disabled veterans being added on the Senate side, but now that doesn’t look to be a show stopper, although this is the kind of complicated bill that still could require a conference committee of the two Houses to work out the final details.

Meanwhile sub-committees, and soon full committees, will start winding up their business and closing down for the year. And so some bills are dying for now in sub committees. That includes the controversial “bathroom bill” that failed for a lack of a second when it came up in a Senate panel. The “Natural Marriage Bill” that challenges the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage has also been deferred until next year in a House sub-committee.

Another controversial bill that remains in limbo in committee is one to require that all Tennessee license plates bear the slogan “In God We Trust”. The Tennessee Attorney General said requiring that language on all license plates (rather than offering it as an option as some states do) makes such a potential law

“constitutionally suspect.” The fiscal note to make all new or renewed license plates contain the “In God We Trust” wording is a really steep one too, estimated at nearly $20 million. I’d say unless the bill is amended to make the In God We Trust slogan optional, the proposal likely won’t pass. Another transportation bill to require the temporary Tennessee Drivers Licenses for foreign nationals contain language identifying them as aliens or non-citizens is been postponed for the year as well.

Lawmakers do seem poised to pass a bill to levy a $200 fine against protestors who obstruct traffic in a way that blocks roads and emergency vehicle access. The measure passed the Senate 29-2 and is pending approval on the House floor. Regarding another somewhat related measure, a law to shield motorists from lawsuits if they hit protestors in the roadway, died in committee this week.

Marijuana-related legislation was also considered on the Hill this week. Both Houses have overwhelmingly approved bills that would nullify local ordinances in Nashville and Memphis to let police issue citations rather than charge offenders under the harsher state law for possession of small amounts of weed. Supporters say the less restrictive law corrects issues surrounding criminal justice reform. Those who voted to nullify the local laws say state law always prevails over local measures. The nullification bill await Governor Haslam’s signature.

A bill to allow medical marijuana in Tennessee has also been deferred in committee. It will be further studied this summer by a legislative task force to be appointed by both Speakers. This is probably the most significant amount of progress this kind of pot legislation has ever achieved in the Legislature, although obviously there is still a long way to go before any final votes are taken in either House.

Finally, the ongoing saga of where to bury President James K. Polk and his wife Sarah continues to unfold. The Senate voted 20-6 with 3 abstentions to approve the removal of the President’s and his First Lady’s bodies from Capitol Hill to be reinterred in Columbia at the Polk family home. Said the resolution sponsor Senator Joey Hensley, whose district includes Columbia: Polk will get more attention if he’s buried there.

“This is a first process,” he says. “We want to honor James K. Polk and his wife, and honor his legacy. Have him somewhere where every day people can talk about him and see what all he accomplished.”

But some Polk family members are objecting to the move and a lot more discussion and decisions remain. That was alluded to during the Senate debate which brought this most interesting comment from one of the Senators (as reported by Tom Humphrey):

“One of those voting no, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, probably had the most notable comment. He said the language of the resolution (SJR141) struck him as “presumptuous on our part” — by suggesting relocation would be Polk’s preference, for example – and that Legislative approval should come after the matter has been through the court system, the Tennessee Historical Commission and the State Capitol Commission — the last step, not the first.

“We may be getting the cart before the hearse in this case,” Norris said.

Indeed the State House must also approve the move to Columbia along with the other groups mentioned by Senator Norris. This would be President Polk’s fourth burial place. First when he died he was placed in a mass grave for cholera victims at the Nashville City Cemetery. Then he was moved to a grave at his local Nashville home, Polk Place, near the Capitol where he was joined by his wife she died.

Then when Polk Place was sold after a dispute over the President’s will, he and Mrs. Polk were moved to the Capitol grounds.

There was one development in Washington late this week that might aid the move of President & Mrs. Polk’s bodies. The Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee has approved a bill sponsored by Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander. The measure would take the next step to study the Polk Home in Columbia becoming part of the National Park Service.

“I can think of no better way to encourage the study of U.S. history than to protect and preserve sites like President Polk’s home and the Shiloh National Military Park (an expansion of that park is also part of the legislation) so future generations can learn about our past and help us become better Americans in the future,” Alexander said. “These pieces of legislation also provide an opportunity to attract more visitors to Tennessee and strengthen local economies.”

Alexander’s office however would not comment on whether the Senator supports or opposes the effort to move President Polk and his wife’s remains to Columbia. The study bill now goes to the Senate floor for vote. The House must approve it too. Then if the study is positive about adding the Polk home to the Parks Service system that would take further congressional action.

Finally there were a couple of major developments back here in Tennessee that impacted Governor Bill Haslam’s effort to privatize some state services. Chicago-based real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle was named the winning bidder of a potentially massive government outsourcing contract that could put facilities of all Tennessee higher education buildings under private management.

THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS reported via Tim Humphrey and his TENNESSEE JOURNAL blog:

“Haslam press secretary Jennifer Donnals said in a statement the facilities management plan “is part of a two-year process. Our job is to provide the very best service for the very lowest cost to taxpayers.”

Donnals said “individual campuses will make their own determination whether to participate in this proposal or not. If they do participate, the proposed contract will protect the livelihoods of current facilities management employees. This is another tool for campuses to keep their costs low while providing high-quality service.”

Jones Lang LaSalle already manages a large number of general state government buildings under a process that generated enormous amounts of criticism from some lawmakers, as well as critical findings in an audit last year by state Comptroller Justin Wilson.

JLL won the bid over Aramark and Compass Group, which also submitted proposals. All three companies were among an undisclosed number involved in a secretive process in which potential vendors were allowed to have input on how the contract would be shaped.

But the contract is not yet final. JLL and the Haslam administration will have to negotiate final price details before the five-year contract is signed.

According to the proposal, JLL plans to subcontract with Birmingham-based Diversified Maintenance for janitorial and housekeeping services, and with Pennsylvania-based BrightView Landscapes for grounds keeping and landscaping.”

There is another privatization controversy continuing over the operations of some state park facilities. In that regard, two bills easily passed in sub-committees in both Houses this week. Both would seek to stop privatization of parks facilities in any state contract after July 1. Writes Tom Humphrey:

“Near unanimous Republican support for a Democrat-sponsored bill even remotely controversial is an oddity. But it remains to be seen whether the committee votes are a symbolic gesture that will be scuttled later in the process, a genuine defiance of the governor’s plans or something in between.”

One more thing to keep in mind: reporter Sam Stockard writes that the Haslam administration’s plans seem to indicate they want to sign contracts for one parks privatization effort (Fall Creek Falls) in May, which we be before any new anti-privatization laws take effect.

ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL

While the fight over healthcare has been focused in Washington in recent weeks, it appears it’s coming back to Tennessee.

It’s a follow up to comments made by President Donald Trump and by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan last week in the wake of the failure of the Republican health care bill to pass in Congress. Speaker Ryan said the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) still remains “the law of the land” while President Trump indicated that will likely remain the case for a while. So now there are now renewed calls in Tennessee (particularly from Democrats) to expand our state’s Medicaid or Tenncare program to provide healthcare coverage to hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans who presently can’t get it.

It appears this will be an issue in next year’s governor’s race. Nashville Democrat and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is running and he has sent out a blast email on the issue. He says in part:

“It looks like the Affordable Care Act will remain the law of the land for the foreseeable future -- and as long as that’s the case, our focus should be ensuring that the existing structure works for our people and our state.

That’s why it’s critical that Tennessee take action to expand Medicaid. Congress has appropriated federal tax dollars to provide health care to almost half a million uninsured Tennesseans. But our state rejected that money -- and let it go to other states -- instead of using it to create jobs and help people here in Tennessee.

Several hospitals have already closed in rural areas, and we could lose even more if we don’t act soon. When hospitals leave, jobs leave too. Plus, hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans don’t have health insurance for when they get sick.

It’s simple. People need health care. Without it, families can’t thrive, businesses can’t grow, and children can’t learn.

This isn’t a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It’s a Tennessee issue.”

Candidate Dean’s comments are echoed by 5th District Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper. Hs office issued these comments:

“Speaker Ryan said: ‘Obamacare is the law of the land.’ Kansas and other states with Republican legislatures are working toward Medicaid expansion,” Rep. Cooper said. “It’s time to stop the bickering, help our neighbors and pass Insure Tennessee. There is no excuse for inaction.”

Cooper also applauded state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh and state Sen. Jeff Yarbro for reviving action on a bill in the Legislature that would authorize Gov. Haslam to expand Medicaid pursuant to the Affordable Care Act.”

It interesting that Congressman Cooper mentions Representative Fitzhugh. The West Tennessee lawmaker also appears to be a likely Democrat gubernatorial candidate. Dean may have spoken out quickly as well on the issue, in part so he didn’t appear to following behind a potential opponent’s lead.

So what will Governor Haslam or the Super Majority Republicans in the General Assembly do about healthcare with several other GOP led states now looking again at expanding their Medicaid programs? Well I’ve seen no indication they plan take any new action at least not right away.

Reports WPLN, Nashville Public Radio:

“Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he is not currently considering another legislative special session to expand the state’s Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare.

Haslam says he’s instructed TennCare officials to review their options. But it’s too soon to come up with a plan.

“I think it’s early. I mean, we literally just had, Friday, the country took a change of direction no one was expecting,” he says.

Haslam adds it’s probably too late in the legislative session to propose an expansion plan this year. Lawmakers are likely to adjourn around the end of April, and the administration has focused on passing the state budget and a road-funding plan.”

But what about House Speaker Beth Harwell on this issue? She appointed her own Tri-Star task force last year. Working with health care experts at Vanderbilt Medical School, the lawmaker task force came up with their own plan to expand health care access. They even did some negotiations with federal officials to get their input and approval.

It seems increasingly likely Harwell is running for Governor next year as a Republican. Will she champion her Tri-Star proposal before this session ends or when she enters the August 2018 primary race? Will that be a good issue for her in a likely crowded GOP field? I’d guess no, that it would not be helpful for her race for Governor among Republican primary voters. But then most people thought the recent Republican health care plan would at least make it through the House rather than crashing and burning before its first floor vote.

Tennessee’s two Republican U.S. Senators are taking action. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have introduced legislation in Washington to rescue Americans with Affordable Care Act subsidies who have zero options for health insurance on the exchanges for the 2018 plan year. This is a major problem in several states, in particular Tennessee.

“There are 34,000 Knoxville area residents who rely on an Affordable Care Act subsidy to purchase insurance, and after the one remaining insurer pulled out of the exchange for 2018, these subsidies are

worth as much as bus tickets in a town with no buses running,” Alexander said. “There is also a real prospect that all 230,000 Tennesseans who buy insurance on the exchange—approximately 195,000 with a subsidy—won’t have any plans to buy next year either, and millions of Americans in other states are facing the same dire circumstances.”

Added Senator Corker: “At some point, on behalf of the American people, Congress and the administration have to resolve the issues that are driving up health care costs, limiting choices, and causing the exchange market to spiral downward,” Corker said. “However, in the interim, we must take steps to ensure people in places like Knoxville, where more than 34,000 individuals receiving subsidies under current law will have zero options in 2018, have the opportunity to purchase health insurance off the exchange in the individual market.”

So if Senators Alexander and Corker are proposing legislation to help those in Tennessee and across the country in a health care bind, will Governor Haslam and the General Assembly still not step up and make another effort to further extend health coverage in the state? Stay tuned.

WHAT NOW

In the wake of one of the worst weeks yet in his still infant presidency, President Trump went back to what has worked for him best so far…issuing executive orders. This time he is trying to dismantle more of President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations, specifically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat global warming through cleaning up coal fueled power plants.

President Trump has claimed global warming is a hoax and that these regulations are job killers and amount to “a war on coal” that he wants to end. But Mr. Trump’s efforts may not have much immediate effect as he will be challenged legally in the courts much like his travel bans.

Meanwhile what is the President’s next legislative effort? Some say tax reform. Maybe so. But will the Republicans be able to unite to get the measure out of the House (all tax bills have to originate in the lower chamber). Will the Freedom Caucus be on board this time even after the President’s negative tweets and other comments about the group which have continued even a week after the GOP healthcare debacle? Both the President and Speaker Ryan now say there could be a “Plan B” to revive their health care reform bill.

But how can that happen if Mr. Trump keeps up his twitter attacks on the Freedom Caucus or anyone he sees as his enemies (such as Democrats). Somewhat strangely the President did seem to reach out to Democrats looking for support on health care. That brought back a comment to the media by Speaker Ryan who indicated the last thing he wants to do is work with Democrats on this issue because the favor big government. Thay brought a comment from Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who is known for being willing to reach across the aisle. Her tweeted sarcastically: “We have come a long way in our country when the speaker of one party urges a president NOT to work with the other party to solve a problem.”

And so the Republican circular firing squad in Washington seems complete.

If the focus now shifts to tax reform, will Speaker Ryan be able to deliver the goods (the votes) this time? Or will the schisms within his House Caucus continue to fester and widen, undermining his future tenue in the Speaker’s office?

Even before we get to votes on tax reform, there needs to be legislation passed in both Houses to fund the government until the end of the fiscal year (September 30). That will also mean increasing our debt ceiling limit again. It’s not clear Republican votes are there to pass something in this area. That therefore mandates the needs to get Democratic support. Maybe that’s why The Donald made nice and invited Democrats in the Senate to come to the White House for dinner this week.

In the wake of the President’s health care defeat that has further energized the party’s base, Democrats have even less reason to help bail out the Republicans on the debt ceiling/ budget votes. So another “we can’t govern very well” debacle appears to be looming for the GOP. What price in terms of budget concessions and other legislation will the Democrats demand to get their help? And will the Trump Team be any more adept in its negotiations this time than they were in their health care discussions within the GOP itself.

So far the President may still be able to claim he wrote the book on being an expert in the “Art of the Deal” when it comes to business. But when it comes to politics and government, so far he’s not even “The Apprentice.”

Republican congressional leaders seem ready to remove at least some of the controversial budget items such as defunding Planned Parenthood or funding President Trump’s Wall across the Mexican border. Will that be enough to pass legislation to keep the government funded beyond April? If past votes like this are any prediction, the answer is yes, but probably not before some tense, uncertain moments in the weeks to come.

And what will be the extended fallout from legislation passed by Republicans in both Houses, and soon to be signed by President Trump? It allows internet and cable companies to sell everyone’s internet browsing history to advertisers (or anybody else I suppose)? One of the main House sponsors of that legislation is Tennessee Congressman Marsha Blackburn. She is now targeted by opponents of the bill, including an engineer in Tennessee. He is hoping to raise up to a million dollars on line to buy the internet use records of all federal elected officials in Washington and embarrass them by placing them on a website.

Despite all this disarray among Republicans, Democrats need to be careful. So far waiting, delaying and letting the Republicans and the President screw up or divide themselves has worked well. But you can’t count on that as a long term strategy. Democrats also need to be careful in how they handle the pending nomination of Appeals Court Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

It doesn’t seem to me that Democratic Senators have done a very good job labeling Judge Gorsuch as “out of the mainstream.” Now the move grows among Democrats to filibuster the nomination to stall or kill it. Stall it? Yes that could work. Republicans control only 52 seats. They need 60 votes to break a filibuster. But what the Republicans can do to break the deadlock is change the rules (as the Democrats did a few years back) to make Supreme Court nominations exempt from filibusters. So Judge Gorsuch gets confirmed with as few as 51 votes. That means going forward President Trump and future presidents will have the leeway to nominate more extreme justices knowing they need only a constitutional majority (51) to get them confirmed.

Judge Gorsuch is not taking over a swing seat on the High Court. He is replacing another conservative. But the next Court appointment(s) for President Trump could well impact the balance of power on the

Court. The Democrat’s move to filibuster could lead to a rules change that could give Mr. Trump a lot more leeway about who he might pick in the future and it could well be someone (the Roe v. Wade case comes to mind) Senate Democrats and the party’s base really don’t like. A few Senate Democrats are indicating they don’t like the filibuster idea and might even vote for Gorsuch, so stay tuned. The debate and the voting are set for next week in the Senate.

Finally, there is the seemingly never ending saga and controversy about Russia, its involvement in our recent election and what role if any the President, his family members, his campaign, top aides might have had in this matter.

When the FBI Director last week told a congressional panel in open session that the President, his campaign, his transition team and now his administration have been under investigation by his agency since last summer, my mind flashed back to the early 1970s, Watergate and President Richard Nixon.

There is an increasing demand from the public to find out what this is really all about and for the investigation to be done as quickly, effectively and as transparently as possible. Every week if not every day there are new reports or leaks of information in the media about who met with who and other details about the various threads or strands that seem to link the Russians to the election and how that involves Team Trump. But how it all fits together and if it holds any “smoking gun” evidence involving the President or his top aides or his family remains unclear.

It is also unclear what the best way is for the public part of this investigation to unfold. Clearly the FBI will continue its own probe. The House investigation by the Intelligence Committee appears to be already dissolving into a partisan mess with the Trump White House seeming to try and manipulate the process.

The Senate inquiry appears off to a promising start but more and more it seems an independent 9/11 type panel may become the most viable way to proceed as this controversy continues to fester. This issue is not going away and it has become yet another strong impediment to the President or anyone else getting anything done in Washington.

Need another example? How about the disclosure late in the week that Trump’s former (fired) National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is willing to testify to the Congress and the FBI if offered immunity. That surely opens potential several new vistas for rumors, speculation and controversy. It’s not going to end, folks.

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