Capitol View Commentary: Friday, Oct. 16 - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, Oct. 16

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CAPITOL VIEW

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

October 16, 2009

DISTRICT 62; INSIDE POLITICS WITH DR. BILL FRIST; STATE FINANCES & NATIONAL HEALTH CARE; THE MTSU POLL; BEING GREEN VS. METRO'S TAX BASE; A MOVING TARGET

After the special election in District 62 (Bedford, Lincoln & a portion of Rutherford County) you can color the Tennessee General Assembly a bit more red as the GOP has picked up another seat in the Tennessee House. And it is a seat that has been traditionally Democratic.

That's also the reason you can color state Democrats a bit more blue (as in disposition). This latest loss continues a losing streak that reached its climax last year when the party lost control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction (after the Civil War).

While it is often easy to over-analyze and exaggerate the outcomes of special elections, it is clear there are plenty of things for the Democrats to ponder during their post-mortem. First, what does this say about the new leadership of state party chair, Chip Forrester? His forte is supposed to be grassroots politics, identifying and turning out the voters in elections just like this. It didn't seem to happen.

What does it say about the popularity and political strength of Governor Phil Bredesen, who is now about to enter his final year as Governor? He campaigned and helped raise money several times for the Democratic candidate (Ty Cobb, the brother of Curt Cobb who resigned the seat to take a higher-paying position in local government)? If the Governor once again failed to see his endorsement help another candidate win at the polls, what hope is there that he can be of major assistance to whichever ever Democrat is nominated to replace him as the state's Chief Executive next year? By the way, all six Democratic candidates hit the campaign trail to help in District 62, but it seemed to make little difference.

And what about the State Democratic House leadership, especially Nashville's Gary Odom (Minority Leader) and Mike Turner (Caucus Chair)? They both worked very hard for Cobb, but came up well short. They thought Cobb, a Democratic conservative, who even got the endorsement of Tennessee Right to Life, was just the right candidate for a district (which, like the rest of the Middle Tennessee counties surrounding Nashville) has been leaning Republican for years in its national and statewide voting patterns. 

But they obviously turned out to be mistaken, and are now left to ponder how they can turn things around before next November's general election when the entire House (all 99 seats) will be up for grabs along with about half the State Senate. The margin of difference between the parties in the House is still pretty close (51-48). But after losing another traditional Democratic seat the trend does not look good  for Democrats and losing the next election could be particularly disastrous since the next General Assembly will be redrawing the district lines after the 2010 Census is complete. In other words, if the Republicans increase their majorities, as they appear poised to do, the next General Assembly could cement the Democratic Party into a permanent underdog status when the new districts lines for the House, Senate (and the U.S. Congress) are complete come 2012.

On the Republican side, this District 62 special election victory is a boost to its new state chair Chris Devaney. Some wondered if he had too much Washington, and too little local and state political experience to do the job. One victory at the polls may not have proven anything one way or another, but it should silence some of the second-guessing, at least for a while. There will be some Republicans and others who will try and link the victory of Representative-elect Pat Marsh in the District 62 race to the continued unpopularity of President Barack Obama, who ran poorly in the state in 2008. That might have played a minor role.

What appears to have been the biggest factor is that Marsh was a very good candidate who effectively reached across party lines to gain support (and to neutralize others) to help him win the race. Despite what you may have read in the Washington media, Marsh's presence in State House doesn't change the status of House Speaker Kent Williams. He's been elected for a two-year term and there are no provisions in state law or the constitution for a re-vote unless he dies or resigns. 

I am told that because Marsh did not have the support in the GOP primary of State Republican House leaders (Jason Mumpower & Glenn Casada), he may not be inclined to support them in their leadership positions. Given the other things happening on the Hill (reports in the media including some comments made by Ken Whitehouse and Tom Humphrey on one of my recent INSIDE POLITICS shows) that Representative Mumpower, in particular, has seemed to be losing interest in some of his leadership duties, will this District 62 election increase the chances of a leadership re-vote among Republicans when they return to Nashville in January?

Elsewhere on the Hill, the District 62 race was a big plus for GOP State Senator Jim Tracy. He worked hard for Marsh and the results from within his Senate district show it. There is, for sure, one big loser in the District 62 special election. It's Tennessee Right to Life. The group endorsed Cobb over Marsh, a move that infuriated many Republicans. The pro-life group then added more fuel to the fire by going after Marsh with some membership alerts and other statements that questioned the candidate's sincerity on right-to-life issues. I am told this won't be easily forgotten and could greatly limit the effectiveness of Tennessee Right to Life in the next session of the Legislature.   

     

 INSIDE POLITICS

As Congress draws ever closer to floor debates and votes in both chambers on comprehensive national health care reform, I can't think of a better person to have on my INSIDE POLITICS show this weekend (October 16-18) than former Tennessee Senator and Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist.

As Leader, he was the last politician to push a major health care change through Congress (the Medicare Prescription Drug program) so he knows how things work in Washington. Washington is also calling him. On the show, Dr. Frist reveals he remains in frequent touch with many of the major players on both sides in the ongoing debate, from President Obama to current Majority Leader Harry Reid, and even Maine Senator Olympia Snow, whose "yes" vote in the Senate Finance Committee has raised some brief flicker that a bi-partisan solution to this controversial, multi-faceted issue can yet be found. Dr. Frist won't reveal what is being said in his conversations, but I think if you watch the interview you can get a pretty good idea of what he is recommending to his former colleagues inside the Beltway and how he feels about what is going on up there.

Dr. Frist is currently on a media tour promoting his new book, A HEART TO SERVE, which also contains his thoughts about the current health care debate. He clearly believes that health care reform (and health insurance reform) is imperative. His quotes by TIME Magazine about being ready to vote for "health care reform" and "take the heat as the leader" got misinterpreted he says as support for the bill coming out of the Senate Finance Committee. He insists he does not support any of the 5 different health care bills now in the Senate because they are too costly, both to terms of new taxes and higher premiums.

Watch the show to hear his prediction of what kind of health care legislation he does think will pass the Congress by the end of the year.

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 Plus, Comcast & Charter Cable, Channel 250 and NewsChannel5's over-the-air digital sub-carrier, Channel 5.2

Fridays (October 16)...........7:00 PM

Saturdays (October 17).......5:00 AM

Saturdays (October 17).......5:30 PM

Sundays (October 18)..........5:00 AM

Sundays (October 18)...........12:30 PM

Dr. Frist's book is a good read if you'd like to pick it up. It's a review of the various periods in his life (growing up in Nashville and becoming a doctor, building the transplant center at Vanderbilt, and then his career in politics). He also tells several family history stories that are quite interesting, especially given his family's now prominent place in Nashville's growth and development over the past 40-plus years. 

It's an autobiography, so, of course, it tells the story from his personal point of view. In the area of politics some may find that a bit incomplete and self-serving. But that's the nature of self-authored life histories. Dr. Frist has apparently learned from past confessions in a previous book he wrote before he ran for elected office. There is no mention in this book of his use of cats as a part of his training while in medical school.

ANYONE STILL WANT THIS JOB?

I am sure Governor Bredesen isn't trying to discourage those seeking to take his place after the 2010 elections.

But the way he is talking about the state's current and future financial condition must surely be depressing for anyone seeking to take his place.

In a recent letter to Senator Bob Corker and Congressman Bart Gordon, the Governor, who is very concerned about the federal government forcing states to pay hundreds of millions of dollars more for Medicaid services to the poor under national health reform, says:

"Bob and Bart, the problem that we are facing is simple: By 2013, we expect to have returned to 2008 levels of revenue and we will have already cut programs dramatically-over a billion dollars."

How will things look by 2013? Continues the Governor:

"We will have not given state employees or teachers a raise for five years, our pension plans will need shoring up, our cash reserves (the rainy day fund) will have been considerably depleted and in need of restoration, and we will have not made any substantial new investments for years."

The Governor says there will also have to be major cuts to areas such as Children's Services, while we will still have to meet our expanded TennCare/Medicaid obligations.

Add it all up and the Governor concludes that it will take at least full decade before Tennessee can "dig our way out and back to where we were prior to the recession."

 So after hearing this, people still want to be Governor?

When Bredesen administration officials shared this same bad fiscal news with the leadership of the Tennessee State House the other day, it brought at least one interesting response. House Speaker Emeritus, Representative Jimmy Naifeh scolded his colleagues (and perhaps the Governor as well) saying: "No one has even got the backbone or the guts to talk about revenue enhancement."

Uh, isn't that another way of saying a tax increase? With all the backbone and guts that the former Speaker is seeking, couldn't he even bring himself to use those words, instead of a euphemism such as "revenue enhancement?" You can imagine how popular Naifeh was with his fellow lawmakers for even bringing up this topic, especially in the midst of what is likely the worst economic downturn in the history of the state since the Great Depression.

And what kind of tax increase or "revenue enhancement" are we talking about? The sales tax seems already maxed out and businesses will say they already pay more than enough. An income tax? That's the dirtiest word in Tennessee politics (and the Speaker Emeritus, as much as anyone ought to know that). Besides, there is evidence that even states that have income taxes are having money troubles right now.        

 In some ways, Jimmy Naifeh's courage to bring this matter up is commendable. But while his timing stinks, one day in the not too distant future, some governor and some General Assembly will have to figure out how we handle our state's financial needs going forward. It won't be pretty that's for sure.   

Meantime, the Governor's message about Tennessee's current fiscal gloom seems to have convinced Senator Corker. He has issued a news release raising concerns about many of the Medicaid (TennCare) issues that Governor has mentioned. That's one of the reasons I found it surprising that Senator Corker's name was one of those mentioned by the White House as GOP Senators they are courting to join Senator Snowe in supporting the health care bill coming to the floor of the Senate soon.

Senator Frist told me he would be surprised as well, especially since he believes the Bacus bill coming out the Senate Finance Committee is the most conservative (cheapest) health care bill now pending on the Hill. At this point, he believes the bills yet to come (when all the Senate bills are combined by Majority Leader Reid) will be much costlier and even less to the liking of GOP Senators (or Republican House members).

Dr. Frist says "health care is the black hole of American politics." He's right. He also compares what's about to occur in Washington to that old "you don't want to see sausage being made" analogy in talking about law-making. He's right about that as well, even if "history calls" as Senator Snowe said in committee in casting her vote (for now) in favor of the Bacus bill.

 THE MTSU POLL

I've said before that an individual public opinion poll doesn't mean very much to me.

But a recent survey done by students at Middle Tennessee State University sure caught my eye in a number of areas.

I am not that surprised that a significant number of people in this state give President Obama a low job approval rating (46% approve, 48% disapprove). Mr. Obama lost this state badly last November and any bump in popularity he received here (he had an approval rating of 53% in a similar poll last spring) was merely the honeymoon and best wishes any president receives when he first comes into office. That has long since faded here, and probably also helps explains why some rather large fractions of the state's population seem to still believe all the false information about President Obama that's out there (that he is not a native-born American, that he is a Muslim, etc.)

What really does surprise me is how those polled would then say they oppose recent successful efforts in the General Assembly to ban guns in state parks (54% oppose), in restaurants (60% oppose) and in bars ( a whopping 80% oppose).  And according to those who conducted the survey, the strong opposition is there even among those who themselves have gun permits to carry weapons.

If this is a true reflection of opinion statewide (and I am not convinced it is) GOP lawmakers better start re-thinking their legislative priorities next term (where they reportedly plan to pass more gun-related bills).

Finally, if the vaccine developed to combat the H1N1 flu is critical to the public health of our state in the next few months, there's an awful lot of public education that needs to be done. The MTSU poll shows 52% of those surveyed say they don't plan to get the shot, with 38% saying they will. I think the gravity of this matter is further underlined by the lack of enthusiasm (or even the unwillingness) of health care workers to roll up their sleeves or take a nose spray with the vaccine. Here in Nashville, the flu vaccine is being made available early to the public because health care providers just don't seem to want it. Very strange

This is another issue I discussed with Dr. Frist on INSIDE POLITICS and he is strong believer that people need to get the vaccine, especially if they are in the high-risk groups (which by the way includes health care workers).

Go figure.

 BEING GREEN VERUS METRO'S TAX BASE

I am a big supporter of Metro's curbside recycling program.

For years I have once a month carried down to the street my heavy container of recyclables so the city can come and pick it up.

I am happy that the program is being further expanded to those in the outlying areas of the General Services District (GSD) who pay a lower property tax rate than those of us who live in the Urban Services District (USD).

I am also happy that, unlike police and fire and ambulance services, my taxes aren't subsidizing this expansion, as a private hauler, working with Metro, is charging its new curbside recycling customers $10 a month for the service (plus an initial $40 fee for a container for the recyclables).

  But I do have a concern that as well intentioned as this expansion is, it will just further undermine about the only remaining reason outlying residents would support being annexed into the USD. Over the years Metro has bastardized the exclusive services USD residents used to get, removing water and sewer services, fire protection and extra police protection.

While all of this was done over the years with the best of intentions, it has left Metro only being able to offer GSD residents weekly trash pickup and street lights as new services they would receive if they are annexed. Now, since the curbside recycling program has now been expanded beyond Bellevue to include the zip codes of Brentwood (37027), Antioch & Cane Ridge (37013), Hermitage (37076) and Old Hickory (37138), why would anyone anybody care to be brought into the USD? They are already getting what they need in terms of police, fire and ambulance services (several mayoral administrations have said quite openly they no longer pay any attention to USD/GSD lines in giving out these services) and, if they want it, GSD residents can now get the convenience of curbside pick-up of their recyclables and no longer have to haul them to the recycling centers.

I'm glad USD taxpayers aren't subsidizing this the way they are police, fire and ambulance services, but I fear these moves to expand curbside recycling just make it more convenient for everybody to ignore this growing tax imbalance and the issue will never be addressed.

The two tax districts were created so that those in the underdeveloped, rural parts of Davidson County (and that was quite a bit of territory in 1963 when Metro began) would not have to pay higher taxes for services that were enjoyed only in the inner city or the USD. It's pretty clear that these new areas for curbside recycling (Bellevue, Antioch, Cane Ridge, Hermitage and Old Hickory) have now developed to the point where they should be paying property taxes at the same rate as the rest of us in the USD.

But when politicians continue to come up with ways to avoid having to make those tough decisions, it makes it less and less likely that there will ever be another major annexation in Metro or that Metro will ever have just one property tax rate (as was ultimately envisioned to happen by our Metro founders). In my experience, street lighting is not a big attraction for annexation. In fact, a lot of folks don't want or like street lights even if they live in the USD.

Another reason this is likely to become more and more important is that in a city that now requires a public referendum on property tax rate increases, doing well intentioned things that also cut into our future tax base don't make a lot of sense.

 A MOVING TARGET

The final Metro Council vote on the new Music City Center has been pushed back....again.

Mayor Karl Dean has told THE TENNESSEAN's Michael Cass (10/16) that it will now likely be January 19 (the Council's second meeting of 2010) before the Council decides, rather than by the end of this year. His comments to Cass seem to indicate the Dean Administration wants to give Council members the time they've requested (up to 6 weeks) to review the financing plan, which I guess is still supposed to be given to city leaders (and the public) sometime in November or early December to begin their review.

All this comes just after the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Development & Housing Agency (full disclosure: a former client of mine) has voted to move ahead with possible condemnation of some of the land needed to build the new convention center. That is already outraging some Council members, such as Jim Gotto. That's not surprising given what a politically explosive issue imminent domain always is. Councilman Gotto says he is proposing an amendment to the Metro Charter that would require the city (including MDHA) to get special permission anytime it wants to condemn land. But it would take a special election to amend the charter and that's not very likely to occur before this convention center matter is settled one way or another (it is also somewhat doubtful that two-thirds of the Council would approve calling such an election).

 Meantime MDHA maintains that while the final vote has yet to be taken on the Music City Center, the  full Council approved the funds for the agency to acquire the property with a deadline (from the Dean administration) to have everything ready to go land-wise by early 2010. MDHA says while negotiations are continuing to buy the land, it must begin the court process now in order to meet the city's own deadline.

Deadlines are becoming more important in other ways. As I have told you before in this column, there's a time crunch looming if Metro wants to have the new Center and its hotel ready to go by the end of 2013 when some conventions are already booked to use the new facilities. And already the Nashville Convention & Visitors is making estimates on the big dollars the city will lose in penalties and lost revenues if the project is not completed on time.   

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