By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
June 19, 2009
INSIDE POLITICS; CAPITOL FOLLIES; METRO; HEALTH CARE & THE STATE INCOME TAX; NELSON ANDREWS
Just when it appeared state lawmakers were settling in for a long, bitter fight over a new state budget, a sudden compromise burst forth that saw the General Assembly pass a spending plan, and then finish its business in several marathon sessions over these past few days, bringing to an a 6-month-long session.
How did it happen? Tune into INSIDE POLITICS this weekend to find out.
My guests are Senate Minority Leader Democrat Jim Kyle of Memphis and State House Republican Caucus Chair Glen Casada of Williamson County. They were two key players who helped put the final spending plan together. Casada, in fact, says it is Kyle who should get a lot of the credit for the way he really brought all parties together to push them towards a final agreement.
Interestingly, the compromise was reached without the budget bill going to a conference committee, which is usually where things get worked out. Senator Kyle said that's the way he wanted it. He felt (and Casada agrees) if the matter had gone to conference it might have only delayed a solution. Kyle was concerned, in particular, about the uncertain power and control situation between the two parties in the House, and Casada admits it was not clear Republicans could carry the day in the House to support the clear GOP majority in the Senate.
So they did what politicians are really good at doing (when they want to do so). They compromised and worked things out.
It is a fascinating story, and we also get Senator Kyle's and Representative Casada's opinions looking back on the highlights and low lights of the session.
INSIDE POLITICS can been seen several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 Network.
Friday, June 19.........7:00 P.M.........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast Channel 50
Saturday, June 20....5:00 A.M.........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
Saturday, June 20....5:30 P.M.........NEWSCHAANEL5 PLUS
Sunday, June 21.......5:00 A.M..........WTVF-TV, NEWSCHANNEL5
Sunday, June 21.......5:00 A.M..........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
Sunday, June 21.......12:30 P.M.........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS
Actually even before the budget compromise was reached, state lawmakers didn't seem that far apart dollar-wise about how to work out a new spending plan. They were ready to accept most of the proposals put forth by Governor Phil Bredesen. But fatigue and political partisanship made finding common ground very difficult.
Frankly, the state is in such bad financial shape, it's not really a question of making cuts or layoffs, it's a question of how deeply and how quickly (do it all this year or wait on some cutbacks, what about floating bonds for some capital needs to take advantage of lower construction costs, how to fund Pre-K and other issues?).
None of these should have been complete deal killers, but in the hot-house atmosphere of the final week of the session, they sometimes seemed to be. And it was clear from some of the things going on, it was way past time to settle matters and go home.
Here's the best example: Lt. Governor, State Senator and new Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey. Mr. Ramsey had to beat a hasty retreat not too many days ago when Governor Phil Bredesen complained the cuts and changes the Lt. Governor wanted to make to his proposed budget were "stupid." Senate Republicans and Ramsey quickly conceded to the Governor. That, at least temporarily, cost the Lt. Governor a chance to look like "the big fiscal conservative on the Hill" to help him attract the GOP conservatives he is fighting Congressman Zach Wamp for in the 2010 GOP primary.
But Ramsey's budget problems didn't end with his concessions on the budget. THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE-PRESS wrote a blistering editorial on the matter, saying the Ramsey budget plan was "mind boggling", "inane and reckless", even "flatly cruel" with "slash and burn cuts" to an ‘already minimalist" budget (Bredesen's).
Then the paper delivered the real clincher:
"Something else is afoot here. It smells like an effort to inflate Lt. Governor and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey's conservative credentials for the GOP primary next year. Governor Phil Bredesen used the word "stupid" to describe Ramsey's bloc cuts, and he's correct. Well-reasoned criticism abounds across the state regarding the range of current programs and projects for the future that these unnecessary cuts would harm."
The editorial commented in particular about the Ramsey's plans to change how Pre-K is funded, using lottery reserves instead of the general fund as recommended by the Governor. The Administration said such a move might lead to the demise of Pre-K given the uncertain of lottery reserves in the future.
Then the plot thickened when that theme was amplified during a news conference being held by the state's Education Commissioner. The Lt. Governor and a few other Senate Republicans crashed the news conference, demanding to be heard "to set the record straight", adding what the Education Secretary was claiming was not correct.
Crashing someone else's news conference? My, my, you really knew when that happened that it must be getting really close to the end of the session when nerves and tempers are always on edge.
But that was not all of Lt. Governor Ramsey political woes. His counterpart in the House, Speaker Kent Williams seemed to side with the Democrats on how to do the budget. And Speaker Williams took after the Lt. Governor himself for being absent from the Hill, out campaigning for Governor. Here's how THE NASHVILLE SCENE's Blog reported it: "He's not here," Williams says of Ramsey. "He's got three fund raisers tonight and that's a little more important than state government."
Williams and Ramsey have been feuding ever since Williams' upset victory for Speaker in January over Ramsey's own Republican representative, Jason Mumpower. Obviously, relations are still not great. What will happen next year when the General Assembly re-convenes?
Speaker Williams himself is having trouble in his own Chamber. Having been stripped by GOP state officials of his party membership after he was elected with the votes of all 49 Democrats, he's had an equally rocky relationship with his Republican House Caucus. Ken Whitehouse of NASHVILLEPOST.com reports that during a recent caucus meeting Williams got into a square-off and near fight with at least one GOP colleague when he was told he would "have to wait your turn" to speak. Another point in the confrontation, Speaker Williams reportedly replied "make me", after another member told him to "sit down, fat boy."
Getting back to Speaker Ramsey, he now faces a huge challenge in his gubernatorial campaign after he failed to pass a bill in the waning days of the session to exempt lawmakers running for Governor from raising money while the General Assembly is in session. That ban expires each year on June 1 if lawmakers stay in Nashville after that date, so the Lt. Governor has finally been able to get out and raise money the last few weeks. But Mr. Ramsey can't avoid another delay like that next year if he wants to have any chance to win the primary against already well-funded candidates like Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam. The Mayor, who has a large family fortune from a retail gasoline business, already claims to have raised a $3 million war chest.
Even if the Lt. Governor can get lawmakers to give him his fund raising exemption when the Legislature re-convenes in January, the pressure is really on him to raise lots and lots of money, just in case he still can't get an exemption passed. Why did it fail in the House Calendar Committee controlled by Republicans? On INSIDE POLITICS, Representative Glen Casada could only say that so much was going on in the final days of the session, some key Republicans were missing for that vote, and so it failed to get committee approval to go to the floor.
As for current campaign fund raising, with a June 30 deadline to report monies raised and expenditures made, all the gubernatorial candidates are working hard, including sending out scores of e-mails to potential supporters. In one of his e-mail pleas for money, the Lt. Governor already seems to be preparing his loyalists that he may be well behind Haslam when the disclosures come out, reminding them that the race will be "a marathon" not a sprint.
The General Assembly certainly seemed like a marathon in its final days and sometimes that made people do silly, thoughtless things. Here's rule one of modern politics. Never send out or put anything into an e-mail that you wouldn't want to have your mother, all your friends and everyone who watches TV and reads the paper to see and read as the lead item of the newscast or on the front page of the paper (or its web site or blog) in Nashville, across Tennessee or around the world. That's true whether you are an elected official, a long-time state employee, even a young intern. E-mails last forever and can never be deleted. You may as well write it in stone or place it on the most prominent spot on earth.
The Capitol here in Nashville was embroiled for days in an "e-mailgate" scandal that sparked damaging news stories about our state and its politics (especially the GOP) being written and aired all across the country and the world. It all began when it was revealed by bloggers that a 20-year veteran state employee sent out a clearly racist e-mail concerning President Barack Obama. News reports I've seen say the employee claims she sent the message out by mistake and to "the wrong list." Does that imply there was a right list to which to send this trash?
The employee in question works in GOP Senator Diane Black's office. She has tried to stop the political damage by decrying the content of the e-mail and strongly reprimanding the employee. That has seemed to only inflame the story as other lawmakers (particularly Democrats) demanded she be fired. Then a young former intern (worked in a Democrat's office but had a Republican background) was found to also have sent out inappropriate e-mails, making fun of Asians and other groups. He quickly resigned from his lowly state position, a victim of not just incredibly bad judgment but also bad timing.
Another prominent political person who recently wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time on Capitol Hill here in Nashville is Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore. A proposal to allow a statue of Gore (and Tennessee's other Nobel Peace Prize winner Cordell Hull) to be built on Capitol Hill (with private funds) was rejected by the Republican-controlled State Senate, falling two votes short of the 17 needed for approval. GOP Senators who voted no or abstained said they did so because of the state's policy of not erecting statues to living persons.
That's a good point. So I guess you could say the State Senate just told Al Gore ( a former U.S. Senator and two-term Vice President) to drop dead if there's ever to be a statue of him in our state. He's wouldn't be alone in that honor. Tennessee has long had statues on Capitol Hill to honor our national leaders. There's the equestrian statute of President Andrew Jackson. President James K. Polk is actually buried on the Capitol grounds. But our state's third President, Andrew Johnson went many years after his death before he had a statue here.
It was unveiled during the state's bi-centennial celebrations back in the mid-1990s. Even then the event was somewhat controversial. Nashville Senator Doug Henry came to every event the Bicentennial Commission officials held. But he did come to this one. He told organizers that Johnson was "mean to my people" during the Civil War (when Johnson was military governor of the state) so Senator Henry did not come to the unveiling. It is likely similar hard feelings was the reason it took so many years for Johnson to have any recognition at all here at the State Capitol.
In some ways I think what the State Senate did was holding on to a grudge or political partisanship too long. After all, on many occasions we have named state buildings, even state parks for living former elected officials and governors. And those are built with taxpayer dollars. I am sure we will find something to name for Governor Bredesen in the near future as he prepares to leave office, and I think that's very appropriate.
But is the only reason we name state buildings and parks, but don't erect statues to living persons the fact that you can re-name a building or a park if the person later does something wrong or embarrassing, but a statue is a lot harder to deal with? What if Al Gore had won in Florida in 2000, or even won here in Tennessee that year when he sought to be President?
Would Senate Republicans abstained even then, making Gore a 21st Century version of Andrew Johnson?
Finally on the Hill, and just to show it was not all conflicts and problems in the final days of the session, members of both parties sang "Happy Birthday" to former House Speaker Jimmy Nafieh when he turned 70 recently. I guess maybe he's a little less threatening to everyone, especially the Republicans, when he now just a regular (but still influential) member of the House.
And, as we predicted, Democratic House leaders found a way out of a very difficult situation that they had gotten into by blocking approval of a bill to expand charter schools in the state. After being threatened by their own Democratic administration in Washington with the loss of at least one hundred million dollars in federal stimulus funds if the state didn't "reform" its charter school laws, Democrats in the House worked out some face-saving amendments to add to the bill, got it out of four committees in one day, and passed it into law pending the Governor's certain signature. I offer political kudos as well to those supporting the Charter School bill who were smart enough to know that it was better to give Democrats a graceful way out to support the measure rather than just continue to attack them in trying to pass the bill.
While the state remained at loggerheads about its budget, Metro passed its spending plan for the next fiscal year at the earliest date ever in June. But that doesn't mean there aren't problems ahead.
The $1.5 billion budget was changed only very slightly by the Metro Council from what Mayor Karl Dean recommended. In fact, less than a million dollars was moved around. As we told you first in this column last week, Council re-allocated just over $750,000 to save about 19 jobs, primarily in the Parks, Public Works and Codes department. Metro will still lay off several folks, but no one seemed to put up much of a fuss (including tourism officials) when some of their funds were taken to make this change.
Frankly, there wasn't all that much the Council could do to change this budget. This is the first time in Metro history that it will likely take in and spend less money (by several million) than it did the year before. So things are very, very tight...and don't look like they'll improve much in the months to come.
There is one other thing to watch for with this budget in the months to come. The Council had to lower the tax rate because of the recent property reappraisal by about 56 cents. That gives you a possible ceiling of how high a property tax increase next year might be if the Mayor wants to avoid having to go to a public vote on the matter.
But given what could be a long laundry list of potential "needs and wants" for Metro, would the $110 million plus that kind of tax hike would generate be enough? Just to restore the cuts in longevity pay and step raises would be significant and what about a pay raise for the first time in 3 years for city workers? And then there's the money Metro will have to find to provide more debt service to pay for the $500 million-plus capital plan the Council recently approved, plus the funds Metro will need to deal with pension issues and to make up for the hotel-motel tourism dollars that will leave the general fund to help pay for the new convention center?
You can see next year's budget may be the most challenging yet for the Mayor and the Council.
HEALTH CARE AND THE STATE INCOME TAX
What does the debate over national health care reform in Washington have to do with a possible Tennessee state income tax?
Senator Lamar Alexander seems to think they might be in some way connected. He made a speech on the Senate floor (and sent out a news release so we'd know about it), claiming that pending health care legislation now being debated in committees in Washington is so expensive, that just the Medicaid portion of the bill would cost so much it would take a 10% state income tax in Tennessee to pay for it.
Now the Senator is no dummy. He understands there is strong support in the country to do something about health care. He also knows in Tennessee how strongly the people of this state hate even the concept of a state income tax (honk! honk!)
So why not link the two as way to build opposition or at least slow the progress of the Democrat's proposal for health care change. I am sure it will get the attention of folks in this state (and maybe give some conservative talk show hosts some new conspiracy theories to stir up about the income tax which always keeps the phone ringing).
Anyway it will probably work better for the Senator than his recent "Car Czar" award program.
Senator Alexander does have a point about the enormous cost of the pending health care plans. You are hearing that now from both sides of the aisle in Washington. Nashville Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper is expressing his concerns. My question is: So now you notice? It was as predictable as the sun coming up each day that this kind of major health care reform would be very, very expensive. Why should any elected official be surprised this late in the debate? But that's not the only expensive part of all this, with new stories coming out with predictions that health care costs will rise at least another 9% in the next year under our current health care system which is clearly broken.
Does this concern about cost mean there will be new efforts to try and reach a bi-partisan solution to this matter? One of Senator Alexander's political mentors, former Tennessee Senator and Majority Leader Howard Baker has joined with some of his former colleagues to offer such a plan.
I have not looked it over in detail, but it is refreshing to see Democrats and Republicans of any age trying to work together in D.C. Of course, when you don't have raise money and support to get re-elected, it is probably a lot easier to find common ground for compromise and new ideas in today's politics.
I wrote most of the following article for NASHVILLEPOST.com a few days ago in the hours following the death of Nashville business leader Nelson Andrews. I have now added a few more reflections:
I've had something of a relationship with Nelson Andrews all my life. When I was a child, I often shopped at his McClure's Department Store in Hillsboro Village. As a young adult, my wife and I bought one of his remodeled homes in the Brookside neighborhood off White Bridge Road, where we raised our two daughters, and where we still live today over 30 years later.
But the first time, I remember meeting actually meeting Nelson Andrews was my very first day in Leadership Nashville back in September, 1982, while I was still a reporter at Channel 5.
We were going through an orientation session at the Opryland Hotel. In front of the whole class, he looked sternly at me and at THE TENNESSEAN's Frank Ritter, who was also in the group, and warned us not to report what was said during our monthly sessions. That was to encourage a free and open discussion about the matters we dealt with, among our classmates, and from those who spoke to us.
I have never forgotten that and I will never forget Nelson. As I came to know him over the years, I was (and remain) amazed at how many parts of Nashville he touched and made better during his lifetime. I believe no one has had a more positive impact on our community in my 57-year lifetime. This is particularly true in the area of breaking down barriers and encouraging communications between whites and blacks in our city.
But few people in the general public really knew that. They really didn't know how Nelson helped start the Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, the Better Business Bureau, how he helped pass liquor by the drink here, and how he formed significant organizations like Leadership Nashville and the Cumberland Group.
To tell the truth, Nelson seemed to like it that way.
Back in the summer of 2001, I was lucky enough to be chosen to put together a video celebrating the silver anniversary of the founding of Leadership Nashville back in 1976. One of the major focuses of the piece was, of course, Nelson, who was given the assignment by the city's secretive Watauga Group, made up of Nashville's major business leaders, to check out the idea of creating this leadership group.
Nelson, of course, did much more than that. He not only helped to found the group, but remained a driving force within it right up until the moment he passed away. But despite all those who offered tributes to him in my 2001 video, Nelson repeatedly tried to downplay his role, giving credit to others such as Brent Poulton, Corrine Franklin, Eddie Jones or Jerry Williams.
What Nelson seemed happiest about was that Leadership Nashville had held together over the years and that the quality of emerging and current leadership in our community continues to grow and diversify. He's right about that, as he was about so many things. But I think I am also right when I say how lucky Nashville has been to have a leader like Nelson in our midst these past many years. There will never be another one quite like him. May he rest in peace.
One other remarkable story I want to relate about Nelson Andrews is one I heard from several sources at his wake a few days ago. Nelson had been undergoing treatments for cancer for some time. He was in the hospital last Friday (June 12) when he decided enough was enough. He left the hospital and went home. His wife invited over several close friends and they spent the evening talking while he rested on a couch. About 9:00 PM that came to an end and Nelson retired to bed. He died about 3:00 A.M. the next morning.
Even in death, Nelson was his own man, taking the end of his life on his own terms. In a year when we have lost way too many of Nashville's long-time leaders, Nelson's passing is like the loss of another great tree, a great Sequoia, falling in the forest. Who among us will rise to his heights?