Capitol View Commentary: Friday, August 7 - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, August 7

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CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

August 7, 2009

MY ANSWERING MACHINE; METRO SCHOOLS BEDFELLOWS; INSIDE POLITICS; THE GOP-SPEAKER WILLIAMS IMPASSE; TWO BILLS IN TROUBLE IN METRO COUNCIL

I've had some interesting phone calls hit my answering machine at home the last few days.

The first came from the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) telling me that Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper was "opposing health care reform" in Washington. The caller then went on to urge my family and myself to call the Congressman and get him to change his mind. He even gave his own name and phone number if we wanted more information or needed other assistance in contacting Representative Cooper.

If this is what the Democrats (normally Congressman Cooper's supporters) plan to do during the Congressional recess to win over the support needed to pass health care reform in Washington this fall, I can only imagine what the Republicans are plotting. Or maybe I will just get a phone call from them, too.

Congressman Bart Gordon, another Blue Dog Democratic congressman from Tennessee sure seems to be in the GOP's sights. He was one of four Democrats who cast a crucial vote right before the recess that moved health care reform out of a critical committee. For that, he is being criticized in radio ads in his district and there is some speculation in a CNN article I read (8/6) that his town hall meetings with voters could be among those targeted for disruption by those who oppose the health care change plans now before the Congress.

Some are also speculating that this could create re-election issues for Mr. Gordon, the dean of the Tennessee delegation. Certainly his district on the state level (state house and senate elections) has trended Republican in recent years, and his district has gone red in several recent presidential campaigns. But given the way the congressional district is structured (Williamson County, one of the strongest GOP areas in the state, was removed a few years ago) I doubt Congressman Gordon is in grave danger. But Republicans control the General Assembly after the 2010 election and the Census, all bets are off.     

Meanwhile, with the increasing number of critical letters to the editor I have seen in the local papers in recent week concerning Congressman Cooper, this is not likely to be a fun congressional recess for him either. And the longer this continues, it raises the specter, which is usually pretty remote, that the incumbent could face a primary opponent next summer, especially if President Barack Obama's health care reform goes down in flames (also a possibility) and Congressman Cooper and the rest of the Blue Dogs in Congress get the blame. But at this point, just how strong an opponent and how well financed that person would be remains to be seen, and looks somewhat doubtful.

Nashville has always been a safe Democratic House seat. They don't call it "The Old Hickory District" in honor of Andrew Jackson, who once represented this area in Congress, for nothing. It has also been a strong, safe seat for incumbents. The last time an incumbent (Carlton Loser) was defeated for re-election was almost a half century ago (1962).

The other interesting call on my answering machine came from my State Representative and House Majority Leader Gary Odom. He is urging everyone to get out this weekend (August 7-9) and spend money during the state's sales tax holiday. I can understand that and certainly as folks get ready to send their children back to school for the fall, the sales tax break (about 10%) is welcome.

But I am not sure how welcome the revenue loss is at the state, which also has to make good on the local sales tax loss to city and county governments. This could pose a big problem for Representative Odom in the next few months and especially next year when the General Assembly is struggling to piece together the next state budget without more service cutbacks and layoffs.

Just how bad is the situation? According to an article by Andy Sher of the CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS (8/5) the state is now posed to make another $56.1 million in additional cuts to state spending beyond what lawmakers lopped off before they went home for the summer. Those cuts totaled $750 million plus another $151 million in "planned savings" that was somehow supposed to be realized over the next year. OK. Good luck with that.

 Why are things so bad? It appears state sales tax revenues continue to plummet with collections down by double digits from what the state projected to collect in July. That's the fourth straight month of double digit losses. And with the "sales tax free" weekend in August, don't expect revenue projections to improve this month either.

One glimmer of hope, the "cash for clunkers" program (now that the U.S. Senate has voted to continue it) could pump a lot of extra sales tax funds into the system in the next few months. The slight decline in unemployment just announced nationally is potential good news as well (if that also extends to Tennessee).

So maybe Governor Phil Bredesen is right about why the state should go ahead with the sales tax holiday. He told THE TENNESSEAN (8/6) that "Tennesseans need the money more than the state does."

I guess you can make a case for that, after the fact. And certainly retailers can use the help. "Back to School" sales are their second best time for sales behind only the Christmas Holidays. But the plain truth is if the Governor and lawmakers had known when they approved this sales tax holiday how bad things were still going to be (they did cancel a second one), I am not sure this weekend of no sales tax would be happening.

If I was a state worker I would sure be hoping that a lot of car clunkers continue to get traded in or that the economy finally starts to improve....and soon. 

I saw State Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz a few days ago and I teased him about his successful ability to stay out of the news in recent weeks. He smiled then told me to wait a few days because that was going to change. After seeing his new budget cuts and projections, I see what he meant. 

And then there is this story which broke as the week ended. State corrections officials say that by 2011 they will to release 3,000 inmates (out of 19,400) in order to meet their budget cuts. According to a TENNESSEAN on-line article (8/6), this won't be an early release program, but rather allowing low-risk inmates to leave, inmates who are already eligible and up for parole consideration.

I am not sure I fully understand the difference, but I can guarantee, the hard-liners and tough on crime folks on the Hill (not to mention perhaps some of the 2010 gubernatorial candidates) will jumping on this new wrinkle in the state budget's crisis very, very quickly.  Will it become a legislative or campaign issue next year? And if more budget cuts are required, what do Corrections officials do then to cut costs?

METRO SHOOLS BEDFELLOWS

 We all know the saying about politics making for strange bedfellows. I guess that's true for Metro Schools as well.

After months of doing all they could (almost always separately) to improve Metro Schools, now Mayor Karl Dean and Schools Director Dr. Jesse Register are co-hosting an event to (according to a media advisory from the mayor's office) to "begin a community dialogue on effective strategies and models tied to teacher's pay."

That's a roundabout way of saying, "let's make teachers' pay based on performance," which has been a very controversial topic in Metro for several years. Amy Griffith Graydon in her recent NASHVILLE CITY PAPER story (8/5) reminds us that it was just two years ago that the teacher's union, the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA), successfully opposed a pay-for-performance plan that would have used a $400,000 private grant to try out the idea at two area schools.

So with this kind of past history, you can perhaps see why the Mayor and Schools Director believe it might be time to (finally) combine forces if they want to have any hope of bringing about this controversial change in local schools (which they both support). Again, according to the mayor's office media advisory, the invitation-only joint forum on August 7 (today) will be sponsored by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and will consist of speakers and panelists from "both the public and private sectors with expertise in the areas of teacher compensation and teacher effectiveness."

The hope is to "bring all interested parties together to help Metro Nashville begin to explore the creation and implementation of an effective-pay-for-performance program" which the mayor's office describes in these terms. "Paying teachers based on a predetermined set of performance measures is gaining increasing attention as a way to improve the quality of teaching."

There are some indications that the MNEA might be a bit more receptive this time around to tying pay to performance. According to Graydon's article, the school district and the union have worked together to approve incentive pay plans for teachers in five middle schools which are being "fresh started" this fall, as well as a pay incentive plan for some schools as a part of the new rezoning plan that starts with this new school year.

But is MNEA ready to go district-wide with this kind of pay plan? And what about the three-year study Vanderbilt University is wrapping up that has been trying to measure whether incentive pay for teachers results in better student performance? Maybe we will start to get some answers at this forum where teachers, school administrators and representatives of the business, community, state and local government will discuss the issue. Or short of answers, maybe we will learn just how close or how far apart Nashville remains on this issue.   

By the way don't expect this joint meeting thing between Mayor Dean and Schools Director Register to continue. There's already a mayoral media advisory out for next Friday (8/14) about a Nashville Education Summit bringing educational leaders from across the country to Nashville to talk about the "aggressive education reforms taking place in urban school districts across the country."

Schools Director Register's name is nowhere to be found in the advisory, although there is mention of such speakers as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education, Jim Shelton, Governor Bredesen, former U.S. Senator Bill Frist, and the State Commissioner of Education, Tim Webb.      

INSIDE POLITICS

This week on INSIDE POLITICS we take a look at all the issues swirling around Washington as Congress goes on its summer break for the month of August.

Vanderbilt Political Science professor Bruce Oppenheimer is our guest. He's a nationally recognized expert on congressional politics, so we are happy to have him.

INSIDE POLITICS can be seen several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes:

Fridays (August 7).......7:00 p.m.........NEWCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast Channel 250

Saturdays (August 8)..5:00 a.m.........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Saturdays (August 8)...5:30 p.m..........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Sundays (August 9).......5:00 a.m..........WTVF-TV NEWSCHANNEL5

Sundays (August 9)........5:00 a.m.........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Sundays (August 9).........12:30 p.m.......NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Don't forget, Comcast customers, we are now seen on Channel 250, while we remain at Channel 50 for Charter Cable viewers. You can also now see INSIDE POLITICS even if you don't have cable service, by tuning us in on Channel 5's over-the-air digital signal (5.2). And, if you live outside the Nashville or cable service area, you can still see excerpts of previous INSIDE POLITICS show here at NewsChannel5.com.

THE SPEAKER WILLIAMS-GOP IMPASSE

Ever since Representative Kent Williams upset the GOP apple cart in the Tennessee State House last January by joining with 49 Democrats to elect himself Speaker, there's been a very strange little political dance going on, both on Capitol Hill and within the State Republican Party.

After being understandably outraged by what happened, GOP Party leaders kicked Williams out of the party and forbade him to run for re-election within their primary system. Williams was also indentified by national Republican leaders, such as GOP National Chairman Michael Steele, as a prime target for defeat in the 2010 elections.

But on Capitol Hill itself, Republican legislative leaders, after a lot of initial sniping and complaining, found a way to work with Speaker Williams to get things done during the session. That helped pass many parts of the Republican legislative agenda, including many bills that could never get out committee in years back.

This cooperation has also led to whispers, and perhaps some behind-the-scenes efforts, to patch things up between Speaker Williams and the State GOP, especially now that the top leadership there had left (Chairman Robin Smith and Communications Director Bill Hobbs).

Based on some recent news stories I heard on Nashville Public Radio (8/6), I wouldn't bet it. While both Speaker Williams and new GOP State Chair Chris Devaney believe that Republicans are poised to make more gains in the General Assembly in 2010 and that a Republican House Speaker could sure help with that on the campaign trail next fall, the criteria for a reconciliation looks pretty much impossbiel.

Says Devaney: "While our door is open, our by-laws and the resolutions from those by-laws and peoples' behavior have consequences. And Speaker Williams need to face those consequences. He lied to Republicans, to voters across the state of Tennessee. And I think the way to start a dialogue is an apology."

Devaney then added: "It's not as simple as an apology...there has to be more than an apology." Although he did not say what that might be.

Probably, it doesn't matter. Here's what Speaker Williams told Nashville Public Radio: "I think I did what was best for not only the Republican Party but for the state of Tennessee and I'll stand by that. I want to be a part of the state GOP, but I don't want to be where I am not wanted."

  Does anybody see a pending reconciliation here? I didn't think so.

  METRO COUNCIL

There are two bills now pending in the Metro Council that look to be in trouble.

One is the ever-controversial "guns-in-parks" opt-out proposal. The other is legislation to prohibit discrimination within Metro government (and only Metro Government) on the basis of sexual persuasion or sexual identity.

While the guns-in-park bill passed on second reading at the last Council meeting, it only had 20 votes, which is one short of what it will need on third and final reading in two weeks. I don't know why the media missed this, but I haven't seen this potential problem for the legislation reported anywhere.

Are there absent or abstaining council members who plan to vote "yes" in the future or will sponsors be scrambling to find that last vote needed? 

There is also now confusion about the necessity of the "gun-in-parks" legislation because of a dispute between Metro attorneys. The city's legal director says there really may not be any need to opt-out of the new state law (as many cities across the state are doing) because a 1966 Metro ordinance banning hand guns in city parks is grandfathered in under the new provisions. But the Metro Council's legal advisor does not agree with that. Great, just what we need....more confusion about this most controversial matter.

As for the Metro discrimination bill, despite failing in Council by one vote a few years ago, its chances for passage looked much better at first. But obviously opponents started working council members against the legislation, and it got only 24 votes on first reading (when the vote is usually unanimous and done without a roll call). Now when it was deferred on second reading the other night (after something of a floor fight waged by those who wanted to kill it), it appears the measure may be in even more difficulty.

Mayor Karl Dean has said he is in support of this measure. He is willing to spend still more of his political capital to pass it? Can it pass without it?  

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