By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
March 20, 2009
GUBERNATORIAL PREDICTIONS; HIGHER ED ON INSIDE POLITICS; A FOUR YEAR BUDGET PLAN; MR DOUGLAS; RECYCLING OUR TAX BASE; DROPPING THE PUCK; OBAMA & THE BONUSES
Tennessee's 2010 governor's race is still almost a year and half away.
But continuing developments make it perhaps the most compelling political story in our state these days.
Usually, the General Assembly, which is now in session, would top any such list. However, the passage of the federal stimulus package, bringing billions of dollars to the state over the next two years, has (fortunately) helped the state buy some time while it tries to figure out how to avoid the major service cuts and layoffs that seemed about to devour our state government because of the current economic downturn.
What I find most interesting right now about our upcoming Governor's race is that, believe it or not, folks are already making predictions!
According to a WASHINGTON POST blog posting the other day, their political sources and experts tell them that Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam is the favorite to win the GOP nomination, while businessman Mike McWherter, the son of the popular former governor, Ned Ray McWherter will get the Democrats' nod, the paper says.
Now neither of those choices is completely off base, especially the one for Haslam, who has plenty of family money (Pilot Oil) at his disposal. The choice of McWherter is a little surprising to me. After waffling for months about running for the Senate last year against Lamar Alexander, some Democrats may not want to wait around very much longer unless McWhether starts showing he really does want to run this time. And so far, I am not seeing or hearing a whole lot about that from McWherter or his potential supporters except the usual generalities about having an "interest" in the race.
Of course, right now there's not a very strong field on the Democrats' side. Former House Majority Leader Kim McMillan of Clarksville is the most active declared candidate. She is a good campaigner, and her gender could work in her favor. But most political observers don't think she can overcome her vote for a state income tax a few years back.
There's Nashville millionaire businessman Ward Cammack, whose clearly has money to be a top-level candidate. But nobody knows what kind of campaigner he might be and the fact that he is a former Republican (both in his voting and his political contributions) is likely to be a burden that even money can buy a way out of among some Democratic Party activists.
Meanwhile, there remains a slew of candidates on the sidelines, indicating they might be interested in jumping into the race. That not only includes McWherter, but also newspaper magnate Doug Horn, State House Minority Leader Gary Odom, and maybe, some say, former Congressman Harold Ford, Jr.
More on Ford in a minute, but without his presence, it is pretty clear the Democratic field lacks much star power. So for Mike McWherter, the potential to be the leading candidate is still there. That's particularly true since his dad has made it pretty clear in the past he would sure like to see his son run for the state's highest office while he was still here to help him. And help him he could. The elder McWherter still maintains a lot of political muscle, especially inside his party.
In fact, just a few weeks ago a former party leader, who ought to know about these things, was telling me in no uncertain terms that McWherter was a very strong, although unseen power, in bringing together and holding all 48 Tennessee House Democrats in line to vote for the new House Speaker Kent Williams. Could Ned deliver that same kind of political magic for his son? I guess the WASHINGTON POST seems to think so.
As for the other recent prediction about the 2010 governor's race, it comes from Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who is a candidate for the GOP nomination. No, Ramsey is not predicting he is going to win. But he does believe the next governor of Tennessee will be a Republican.
Again, given the level of activity and the number of potentially strong candidates already in the race on the GOP side, Ramsey may have a point. However, he may be taking it all a bit too far when he says, even if he does run, Harold Ford, Jr. can't win because he ran his best race ever when he lost the U.S. Senate race to Bob Corker in 2006. Of course, Ford and his supporters seem to have already ruled out a 2010 gubernatorial bid, so it will likely be impossible to test the Lt. Governor's prediction in that regard.
Also don't forget that national issues, particularly the popularity and success (or lack of success) for President Obama, will likely play a major role in which party wins the governor's chair next time. And who's really ready to predict with any kind of certainty today how that is going to turn out? Also, while the GOP is much, much stronger in Tennessee, than it is nationally, even that is not a completely sure thing this many months away from the next major election.
One thing the Lt. Governor does have on his side....recent Tennessee political history. Over the last 40 years, since 1970, Democrats and Republicans have split control of the governorship, 20 years apiece. Neither party has been able to elect two governors in a row. If that cycle continues, that means 2010 is time for the Republicans to regain the mansion on Curtiswood Lane.
Elsewhere in the governor's race: If you thought GOP Congressman Zach Wamp was having any second thoughts about running after Lt. Governor Ramsey said he was getting in the race (in our last column, we told you about their recent telephone argument about Ramsey getting in), you can forget about Wamp staying in Washington. He's told reporters, including NASHVILLEPOST.COM; "I've crossed the bridge, and then I burned it."
But Wamp's best response was going onto the home turf of Bill Haslam in Knox County and raising more than a quarter of a million dollars there, showcasing his support from some GOP heavyweights in that community such as Bill Baxter, Darrel Akins and others. Fundraising will, of course, be crucial for all the candidates, but with Wamp's continuing efforts, it puts particular pressure on Ramsey who is prohibited from raising money until the General Assembly ends or until May 15 (whichever comes first). Some GOP insiders now say unless Ramsey can raise at least $1 to $2 million within the first 30 days after he can begin collecting funds, he's toast in the race.
For now, the GOP candidates seem to be eyeing the doughnut counties around Nashville as the critical battleground where the race will be won or lost. All four of them, including Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons, came to a recent GOP event in increasingly Republican Rutherford County. Look for all of them to spend big bucks on TV here as well, since Middle Tennessee is the only area of the state without a GOP candidate (Wamp, Ramsey, Haslam are from East Tennessee, Gibbons from West Tennessee).
This week on INSIDE POLITICS we look at the controversies and challenges facing our state's higher education system.
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jim Kyle is one of my guests. He believes a change in the governance structure is the way to go, getting rid of the current UT and Regents Boards along with the Higher Education Commission, and coming up with a more streamlined oversight body which will focus on raising Tennessee's terrible college graduation rates.
But Kyle admits he can't pass anything in the General Assembly without Governor Bredesen's support. Does he have it? He's not sure, so listen closely when the Governor gives his budget address next Monday (March 23). The Governor has said he believes now is an interesting "window of opportunity" since both the Board of Regents and UT Board are looking for new leadership.
But there will be lots of politics involved as well, including whether Republicans will support any such governance changes, especially ones that might see Governor Bredesen appoint all the new members of any new high-education governance body just as he is departing office. Or what about new Speaker Williams, the bane of Tennessee's GOP State party leadership making some of those choices, or Lt. Governor Ramsey, then in the midst of a heated gubernatorial race, making those selections? You can see the obvious political issues and concerns that could arise.
My other guests on INSIDE POLITICS this week are two Tennessee student leaders. Students as a group are increasingly emerging in this debate (including how to handle the possible huge budget cuts and tuition hikes facing their schools). As consumers and the customers of higher education, they are demanding a bigger say in the process. The students we will talk with are Holly Rainey, a sophomore at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the leader of the Coalition to Save Our Schools along with University of Memphis graduate student Gionni Carr, who is also a student member of the Tennessee Board of Regents.
These are bright, articulate young people. Lawmakers and those running our college and universities would be wise to listen to them, and include them in the process of deciding how our higher education system ought to be structured and funded.
You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL 5 NETWORK.
Fridays (March 20).........7:00 PM......NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast Channel 50
Saturdays (March 21)....5:00 AM.......NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
Saturdays (March 21).....5:30 PM.......NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
Sundays (March 22).........5:00 AM......NEWSCHANNEL5, WTVF-TV
Sundays (March 22)..........5:00 AM......NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
Sundays (March 22)..........12:30 PM....NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
We've already mentioned the Governor's upcoming budget address.
Are you wondering why Mr. Bredesen is presenting a four-year budget plan? Aren't these speeches usually about the state budget one year a time?
The answer to the second question is yes, that's true. Most Budget Addresses I've observed have been about one year spending plans (although governors don't mind unveiling multi-year efforts to improve education, etc).
As for why this year's speech will outline expected state funding and expenditures for four years, I've been told the Governor wants to show his audience (both lawmakers and the public) that it will likely be at least four years before state tax revenues make it back up to the level that they were LAST YEAR, the 2007-08 fiscal year.
YIKES! No wonder the Bredesen administration wants to be careful not to spend all the stimulus money too quickly, leaving an even bigger budget deficit in two years when the stimulus money dries up (and a new Governor takes over). But with Tennessee's unemployment rate hitting 9.1% in recent days (and likely headed towards 10% or even higher), I am sure the Governor is pleased he decided (after some period of uncertainty), to take all the stimulus money, including the funds to bolster the state's unemployment compensation fund.
Sure, the business taxes to support the program are still likely to be raised in the next few months, but at least this buys a little time and increases benefits slightly to those in need and out of a job. Meantime what was Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey thinking when he said the federal stimulus package is too generous to the poor and others who need assistance at this time? I know he is trying to appeal to the GOP conservative base, but maybe a little more compassion ought to be order in a state that provides among the lowest benefits in the country.
By the way, I am told by one source that the Governor's effort to present a 4-year budget plan has state commissioners and their departments hopping to get things done for the speech on Monday. One source described the Governor's speech and budget as a constantly evolving "work in progress." To that end, we are scheduled to have Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz on INSIDE POLITICS next week (March 27-29) to fully explain the Governor's budget and spending plans in detail.
Despite what you may have read in some media outlets, the recent death of former Metro Councilman Mansfield Douglas does not mark the final passing of all 40 of the original members of Nashville's first Metro Council, which took office on April 1, 1963, almost 46 years ago to the day.
Fortunately, some of those stalwarts are still with us, including Tandy Wilson, Jim Tuck and Charlie Howell and maybe some others I am forgetting (pardon me, if I am).
My point is: I hope this mistake by the media isn't another sign of how little we as a society remember or value the contributions of our Nashville Founding Fathers. Mansfield Douglas was a giant in that regard. I first remember meeting him when he came to speak to one of my political science classes when I was a student at Peabody College in the early 1970s. Even now, while I can't remember the exact topic of his speech (I think it concerned Urban Renewal efforts in the Edgehill community), I can clearly recall the fire and passion with which he spoke and what a booming voice he had.
He almost seemed fearsome, and unapproachable. Frankly, a few years later when I began to cover the Metro Council on Channel 8, I wasn't real sure how to approach Councilman Douglas. But I found him to be a warm, caring person, who always gave me a strong handshake and greeting whenever I saw him, even years after he and I left the Council. Not only did we spend many hours together over many years during long Council meetings at the Courthouse, we also spent some time together afterwards, rehashing the evening with other Council members at Rotier's or Charlie Nickens, among other places.
I didn't always agree with Councilman Douglas. Sometimes the political stands he'd take on issues like historic preservation in his district or the fights he'd get into about how Metro Police sometimes conducted its business mystified me. And sometimes he would just go on and on forever in making speeches on the Council floor. But we always remained friends.
I will also always admire his willingness to see the bigger picture for Nashville and its future. Never was that more true than when Nashville and Davidson County voters considered consolidated metro government in 1962. With the black population on the old city of Nashville on the rise, it was clear that soon a black mayor and black-majority city council would be elected. But Douglas felt that Nashville's future was brighter if the city and county governments were combined, even if that meant black political power was diminished. He continued to support metro government by being elected to its first Council, where he served from 1963 until our misguided term limits law ended his service after 36 years in 1999.
REYCLING OUR TAX BASE?
While I am on Metro soapbox, let me again express my concern about the city extending curbside recycling to the Bellevue area in the General Services District, where property taxes are assessed at a lower rate.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am a supporter of recycling and I hope lots of people participate and lots of recyclables are collected. My family has been an active participant in our neighborhood in West Nashville ever since the first curbside collections began.
But trash pickup and curbside recycling are among the few distinctive services left to entice those in the GSD to be annexed into the higher-tax rate Urban Services District. Street light service would be another one, but a lot of times neighborhoods don't want streetlights, and frankly, fire and police protection has gotten to where it doesn't matter much where you live, you are going to get Metro's quick and full response to a crime or a fire no matter what.
So in an effort to be "green" as a city, are we throwing out the "green dollars" we need to continue to grow our tax base while also asking USD residents to, in effect, subsidize their GSD counterparts for service they don't fully pay for? Or does the ten dollars a month cost Metro is charging to do curbside in the GSD cover its full cost?
If they were available now, those extra tax dollars from annexation are funds Mayor Dean and the Council could sure use as they put together this year's budget to avoid layoffs and service cuts.
As we told it would several months ago, the results of the latest countywide re-appraisal of property in Nashville, which is required by state law every four years, show property values have risen around 15% from what they were during the last reappraisal. That is bound to surprise and outrage many property owners who perhaps thought with the current decline in real estate sales and values, they might see their home and business property values stay the same or even decline. But the increase in value during the real estate boom times of just a few years ago, still outweigh any recent market decline.
That leaves the Dean administration in a real quandary. For the past several mayoral administrations (since Phil Bredesen was mayor, actually) the reappraisal year was also the time that property taxes were increased. That could still happened, and if the increase does not result in a new property tax rate above the current one (property tax rates must be lowered first so the reappraisal itself doesn't raise taxes itself) that increase could be done without a voter referendum.
Nevertheless, public opposition to paying any extra taxes during these hard times could be fierce, while some say Metro also faces serious cuts and even some additional layoffs without more revenues (even with the stimulus funds). That also means likely no pay raises for Metro workers for the second year in a row.
Those are tough choices, which is why the city also needs to look for any ways it can build its tax base. Providing USD services such as curbside recycling to residents of the GSD will only make that more difficult to achieve and may be a political luxury we can no longer afford.
WHO DROPPED THE PUCK?
I remember in late 2007 and early 2008, when Mayor Dean and his staff put in many long days that stretched into weeks and months, negotiating a new lease deal to keep the city's NHL hockey team here. After the big announcement was made that an agreement had been struck with the new local ownership, I remember we waited still more weeks, that stretched into a few months, until the final details of the lease were hammered out by the lawyers for approval by the Metro Council.
Now through some solid investigative reporting by THE TENNESSEAN, we've learned the lawyers admit they goofed and didn't draw the lease properly, costing the taxpayers $400,000 in unpaid seat tax fees owed by the team to Metro.
So what happens now? Does the lease get corrected? Will the team pay the back taxes? The city could sure use the money. But what's the impact of paying that extra money on a sports franchise which in some ways still struggling to make NHL hockey a financial success in Nashville?
OBAMA AND THE BONUSES
There's been a growing anger in this country that been building since last fall about all the bailouts in Washington. It all came to a climax in recent days with the revelation that AIG, one of the major firms bailed out with taxpayers' dollars more than once in recent months, has continued to give large bonuses to employees despite the fact that the company is still poised to go down the tubes financially.
One of those leading the political parade of those "outraged" about it has been President Barack Obama. But now there are reports and accusations that some in his administration (in particular the Treasury Department) encouraged Congressional leaders not to include language in the recent stimulus bill that would have stopped this latest round of bonuses from being given. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee says it appears the President has not been "minding the store."
The President is defending his Treasury team and says if anything went wrong, the buck stops with him. He says it is time to move on and make sure abuses such as what has happened with firms like AIG and individuals like Bernard Madoff, can't ever happen again.
What about Congress? Well, as usual, they seem to be all about the blame game, except maybe for themselves for not taking the time to fully read the final stimulus bill before passing it. What they do seem ready to do is pass a new tax that basically takes back all the bonuses from those who received them. That may make us all feel a little better, but isn't that kind of scary, singling out a group of folks, who surely the wrong thing, but using the tax code to punish them rather than the courts (if it can be proved they did anything illegal)? It just seems to me we may be setting a very bad precedent. What's the next group Congress goes after because they don't like them or they did something stupid or greedy?
Of course, perhaps the scariest thing I heard about this mess was when the new head of AIG came to Washington and told lawmakers with a straight face, that he was willing to ask those who got the bonuses to give back at least 50% of what they got. Don't you think it was kind of a little late for that? Did the folks at AIG really think that was a serious proposal to offer to the Congress and the public as a way to try and make things right? If so, what are they still smoking on Wall Street?
There could be one other major political fallout over all this. The chances of Congress doing yet another stimulus plan or bailout that gives money to banks or Wall Street or the auto industry or anybody else could now be severely wounded, as the public seems ready to say enough is enough. That's particularly as still more reports are surfacing about the bailout money being used by other companies for bonuses or lavish new office suites.
But boil it all down and the real question is: can this economy recover without another stimulus plan or bailout monies which most economic and political observers in Washington think is highly likely to be needed (and requested by the Obama administration) within the next year or so.
So far this early in their new administration, the Obama team has been able to blame the previous Congress and President Bush for all the problems they have to deal with concerning the economy, this latest debacle over the AIG bonuses may be the beginning of the end of that being an excuse the public buys.
Finally, what is it about bowling and President Obama? While making the first ever appearance by a sitting President on a late-night talk show (Jay Leno), the President also made a pretty embarrassing gaffe. Bragging that he has been improving his bowling game (which was a source of ridicule when he tried it during the campaign), the President compared his higher score (129) to a Special Olympics athlete. I am not sure just what he was thinking, but the President did quickly apologize for what he said.
The President has been very good so far in stepping up and accepting blame and apologizing when he or someone in his administration has goofed. But in the last couple of weeks it's become more of an ongoing problem rather than a rare occurrence. And in the long term, despite his continued high job performance ratings, that's not a good thing.