By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
April 24, 2009
A DIFFERENT STATE OF METRO; SCHOOLS FEUD; METRO PAY; INSIDE POLITICS; VETO; FRONTRUNNER?
This year's State of Metro Address turned out to be more than just the usual fare.
First, instead of the usual entertainment from years gone by such as The Blue Lights, a rock & roll combo band from the Police Department, or a choral group from the Metro Schools, country music superstar Keith Urban surprised everyone when he stepped up on stage to deliver a few songs (apparently at Mayor Karl Dean's invitation).
Not long after that the Mayor had to give his speech...which he even admitted was a very tough act to follow after Keith Urban. However, after upstaging himself, the Mayor did draw an early round of applause from Metro Council members and other civic leaders in the audience when he announced (the poorly kept secret) that he won't ask for a property tax hike this year (because of the bad economy, the latest county-wide property reappraisal and the pending increase in water-sewer rates).
But the Mayor then warned that the new operating budget he will present to the Council on May 1 will have cuts across the board, including reductions in city services, operating hours and positions. The Mayor did not use the word "layoffs" in his speech, but given the severity of what appears to be facing the city, it will be interesting to see how that can be avoided. Maybe the Mayor wants to be a bit more careful this year after announcing last year that several hundred layoffs were coming, but then, with a few adjustments within Metro and the budget, that didn't happen.
Despite the city's tight fiscal situation, the Mayor also used his State Of Metro address to outline what appears to be a fairly aggressive capital improvements plan. That is particularly true when you consider that when the Mayor came to office almost two years, his administration found the city could not fully bond all the projects previously approved by the Purcell administration and the last Council. So a number of those projects have been put on hold.
Now, with the Dean administration trying to establish its own priorities, it seems likely the new Capital Plan may not contain all the projects that were previously approved. So it will be interesting to watch to see how that plays with the current Council, especially any member who has a project still left in limbo.
But the Mayor's new plan still seems to have plenty of items on which to spend capital dollars including:
While the Mayor was ticking off all these improvements, it was almost easy to forget how strapped the city is for funds in its operating budget. But the Mayor believes Nashville must "not be afraid to be bold, dream big and invest in our city's future" much as we have done in the past he points out with the Centennial Exhibition of 1897 (in present day Centennial Park) which was done during even more difficult economic times.
For that reason, the Mayor also believes we need to move ahead to build the new downtown Convention Center and he used the speech to make another plea to Metro Council members to approve his plans to begin property acquisition for the project. Here the Mayor even got some help from his entertainment guest, Keith Urban, who during his performance seemed to ad lib some words in one of his songs to say:"The Convention Center is coming."
Of course, he also said on stage that one day he and Tim McGraw would be running mates for office (McGraw, another Nashville country music superstar, has talked about running for Governor or the U.S. Senate one day in future), although Urban quickly added: "Just kidding---big time!"
See, I told you it was a different kind of State of Metro. J
Another area of strong emphasis for Mayor Dean in his State of Metro address was public education, which he called "absolutely essential to our city's success." Even as the Mayor spoke, Metro school children are taking state tests that will determine if the local public education system passes or once again fails to meet the federal "No Child Left Behind Standards." If so, it could lead to the Metro School Board and its new Director, Dr. Jesse Register, being ousted and replaced by Mayor Dean.
The Mayor did not talk about that directly, but he did say that with test standards continuing to rise, "the chance of us meeting standards in subsequent years is not high." That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the School Board or its new director (by the way, neither the Board nor Dr. Register were ever mentioned by name by the mayor in his speech).
In fact, I understand that mayoral aides are furious with school officials. The two groups met in recent days to try and work out a way to close a major funding gap in the proposed school budget. My sources say nothing much new was offered by school officials. But the next morning, everyone woke up to read an exclusive story in THE TENNESSEAN (4/23) that outlines a plan by Dr. Register to eliminate hundreds of positions at the school's central office. Ouch!
Of course, until it was in the papers, I am not sure school officials knew the Mayor has hired an outside consulting firm that seems equipped to help him should he be called on to take over the school system. Given Dr. Register's close relationship with State Education officials there is some doubt whether he and the Metro School Board will be ousted, but in his State of Metro speech, Mayor Dean sure sounded ready to go, saying: "Aggressive reforms are doable here in Nashville. I want you to know that I think about and work on our schools every single day, and I am not going to stop until I am convinced that we have a system that gives all its students, regardless of race or economic status, an opportunity to graduate from our schools ready to succeed in college and careers."
It sure will be interesting to see what happens when those latest Metro Schools' test scores are graded and posted.
WHERE'S THE PAY?
While the Mayor didn't say it out loud during his State of Metro speech, it seems pretty clear his proposed budget will not include any across the board pay raises for city workers for the second year in a row. How will that play as the Mayor and the Council begin to see their re-election races looming ahead in 2011? Will it increase the near certainty of a property tax hike next year (2010)?
And what about this "Living Wage" proposal soon to be offered again in the Council, this time by At-Large member Megan Barry. She has been quoted in THE CITY PAPER (4/21) as saying: "Metro at the very least should not be paying them (city workers) a wage (below $10.35 per hour) that keeps them working in poverty." Fair enough. But does that mean she and other Council members are ready to raise property taxes (or make cuts in the operating budget) this year or next year to do that? Now there's another political hot potato for the Council to juggle.
On some previous INSIDE POLITICS shows in recent weeks, we've taken a look at how President Barack Obama seems to be doing in his early days in office. With his administration about to pass the milestone of its first 100 Days in office, we thought we'd take a look at the topic from a different point of view.
Layne Anderson is just 23 years old but she's already accomplished quite a bit in national politics, acting as a top speechwriter for the President, (during his campaign she wrote his important speech during the primaries on race as well as his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention). Ms. Anderson, who has left Washington now after being active in the Presidential Transition, is still a Special Advisor to the President and helped write Mr. Obama's Inaugural Address.
She clearly has a unique relationship with our 44th President. Heck, she has his Blackberry telephone number, how much closer can you get? And he is calling her as well!
In her bio, President Obama is quoted as saying about Ms. Anderson: "She was that young voice I had been looking for, and when I found her, I wasn't about to let her pass me by." Said another former boss, Obama's Director of Speechwriting, Jon Favreau: "I read this article in the IMPROPER BOSTONIAN about her once that said she was "half political infighter, half comedian, and all sailor. That is it, but you need to add that she can produce the most beautiful words on demand at 4 in the morning on no sleep." (Tune in to see how she explains all that and how she worked with the President both during and after the campaign as his speechwriter).
So what does she think of how the President is doing so far (in case you can't guessJ)? Have the national "right track-wrong track" poll numbers turned around for the first time in several years, because Mr. Obama's style and communications skills have made us feel a bit better about things? Can he sustain that? Can he keep job approval numbers of well over 60%? What about the large number of people in recent polling who are still worried about the economy and how difficult times are? Has he wound up distracting everyone by reopening our national debate over torture and will that hurt his chances to pass the critical legislation on energy and health care he wants to push forward on now?
We talk about all these matters during this week's show. I think it is a very interesting half hour interview. By the way, Ms. Anderson was in Nashville in the last few days to talk with students at David Lipscomb University.
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If the General Assembly can work out the final details (and that's still an IF), a bill to allow those with gun permits to carry them into restaurants and bars that serve alcohol may soon be headed to the Governor's desk. Will Governor Bredesen sign it into law?
He hasn't said, but the fact that he has indicated he needs to study the measure has sure started speculation in the media that he might reject it. Some in the media (Dwight Lewis of THE TENNESSEAN) are already editorializing the Governor should use his veto pen.
This bill is one of several gun-related measures that GOP lawmakers have been pushing this term. They seem to be doing it in some ways just to show their political muscle, i.e., that they are now in charge in the General Assembly. The other bills, several of which are still pending, would make it legal to take your permitted guns into parks, college campuses and other places. Another would even close the gun registry records to both the media and the public.
Would a gubernatorial veto make any difference in any of this? Remember in Tennessee, a governor's veto powers are very weak. Unlike in almost all other states or on the federal level, it does NOT take a special majority (such as a two-thirds vote) to override a Governor's veto on legislation. All it takes is a constitutional majority (50 votes in the House and 17 in the Senate) to do so. In other words, at least in theory, if you have the votes to pass legislation, you don't need any more to override a veto.
Now many times in the past with controversial legislation, a gubernatorial veto has been sustained and the legislation stopped. But in this particular case involving the bill allowing guns in restaurants that serve alcohol, the proposal has passed by very large margins in both houses (meaning several Democrats have voted for it, as well as Republicans).
So how likely is it that that many lawmakers will change their minds, especially with the National Rifle Association still pushing for the bill's passage? That means a veto for the Governor might be more a symbolic act than anything else. So while I am loathe to predict what any Governor will do (and usually I am wrong when I do make a prediction), let's just say in my years of watching Phil Bredesen in office, both as Nashville Mayor and Governor, he doesn't seem much into doing things for symbolic reasons.
Maybe as he approaches the end of his second term and he can't run again, things will be different. But don't forget he can also express his unhappiness with the legislation by allowing it to become law without his signature.
It will also be interesting to see what impact the Governor's comments about the Tennessee Ethics Commission will have in the General Assembly. The Commission, set up in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz scandal a couple of years ago, is set to go out of business in June, unless it is renewed by lawmakers. Some want to combine it with another government watchdog group, the State Registry of Elections.
Frankly, neither group has been all that effective or active over the years. The Ethics Commission seems to have spent most of its time fighting among itself and with its staff. It also has not had a very good working relationship in general with lawmakers. But the Governor is right when he says it this is not the time to do away with ethics oversight, even if it is not working as well as everyone wants it to function. Public opinion about legislators is low enough without giving people more excuses to wonder about the ethics of its elected officials.
We speculated in this column last week that the decision of former Congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford, Jr. not to run for governor in 2010 might begin to bring some form and shape to the Democratic primary field for that race. Much like former Senator and Majority Leader Bill Frist's decision to stay out of the gubernatorial contest did for the Republicans.
That seems to be occurring as candidates are getting in or bowing out of the Democratic race. That includes Mike McWherter, the son of the popular, former Governor, Ned Ray McWherther (1987-1995), who has announced he will definitely run. McWherter's last name and his father's continuing popularity and power in Democratic circles, certainly positions him to be the front-runner. It also ought to help him in raising the millions of dollars it will take to win the nomination and then the general election.
But while the younger McWherter has held key roles in several political campaigns, this will be his first race as a candidate. So how he performs on the stump will be an important consideration to watch as well. Then there's another Democratic candidate who just got in the race. State Senator Roy Herron hails from Dresden, the same part of West Tennessee as the McWherters. Clearly on a statewide basis, the McWherter name is better known and Mike McWherter , but nobody wants to have to split their political home base in any race.
So will one of them drop out? Senator Herron has announced he is stepping down from his post in the Senate as Caucus Leader and he can bring over a sizable war chest from his past Senate campaigns to jump start his gubernatorial fund raising. That doesn't sound like someone thinking about getting out. As for Mike McWherter, back in 2006, he froze out the Democratic field for a while trying to decide whether to run for the U.S. Senate. He didn't run, but the length of time it took him to decide didn't sit well with some Democrats. If Mike McWherter ever wants to be taken seriously as a statewide candidate, he can't back out of this race for Governor.
So as usual with Tennessee Democrats, just when things seem to take a positive turn (even the Governor and other Democratic elected officials seem to be working out their feud with state party leaders), things then take another turn into a political Alice in Wonderland and get as curious as ever.