Capitol View Commentary: Friday, Nov. 6 - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, Nov. 6

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CAPITOL VIEW

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

November 6, 2009

INSIDE POLITICS;BAD TIMING TIMES TWO; THE END AT PARKS? METRO SCHOOL'S PROBLEMS CONTINUE; FAIRGROUNDS BACKLASH; MUSIC CITY CENTER RUMBLINGS

With the off-year elections now at an end, we thought this was a good time on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend (November 6-8) to discuss what the voting in various parts of the country means about the mood of voters and what it portends for 2010 when Congressional and Senatorial other elections are held in all 50 states.

So join our panel of Republican consultant Chip Saltsman, Democratic activist and lawyer George Barrett and Vanderbilt political science professor Marc Hetherington as they discuss with me what the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey (both Republican pickups) mean, along with that special congressional election in upstate New York which saw the Democrats win a House seat there for the first time since the 1870s.

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. That includes both Comcast and Charter Cable Channels 250 and on NEWSCHANNEL5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

Our program is also back on the main channel (WTVF-TV, Channel 5) every Sunday morning at 5:00 AM.

Here are our other broadcast times on The Plus:

Fridays (November 6).........7:00 PM

Saturdays (November 7).....5:00 AM

Saturdays (November 7)......5:30 PM

Sundays (November 8)........5:00 AM

Sundays (November 8).........12:30 PM

Don't forget you can also see excerpts of past INSIDE POLITICS show here at NewsChannel5.com

Because of the uncertainty about the pending vote on health care reform in the House of Representatives this Saturday (November 7) we didn't talk much about that issue (and how it might be impacted by the off-year election results) on this week's show. But clearly lots of other groups are weighing in with the AARP and AMA now supporting the House plan and lots of business groups (The U.S. Chamber, the NFIB, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Associated Builders and Contractors, the National Franchise Association and the National Retail Association) all coming out against the plan.

These business groups are also launching a major TV ad campaign, with Tennessee's Blue Dogs Congressmen (Cooper, Davis, Gordon, Tanner) all in the cross hairs.

We are coming down to cases. One political observer told me: "The reason the House is voting on Saturday (which is very unusual) is because Democratic congressional leaders fear that if the members go home and visit their constituents, the whole plan will die."

But Congress got one clear message from the recent elections where exit polls said the economy was the key issue on the voters' minds. Within a matter of hours after the polls closed, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed long-delayed economic legislation to extend unemployment compensation, while continuing and expanding the popular home ownership tax credit. And not a moment too soon, as the tax credit was due to expire the end of this month and unemployment nationally is now 10.2% the highest since the 1980s.  

BAD TIMING TIMES TWO

Timing is everything in politics.

That's what so interesting about two recent developments at the State Capitol, one regarding the state's ongoing budget shortfalls, the other, yet another fight over state gun permits.

On the budget issues, Governor Phil Bredesen say state revenues are still so bad (and with federal stimulus funds starting to run out in 2010), he is asking all state departments to present budget cuts for next year (starting July 1) of from 6% to 9%.

Ouch!

The state has already cut its budget the last couple of years, and the Governor admits these new reductions are likely to mean further service cutbacks and more layoffs. It certainly also means another year state workers won't get a pay raise.

So in the wake of this bad news, what is disclosed by officials of the Tennessee General Assembly?

The daily "per diem" expense payments to lawmakers have increased (effective October 1) by $14 to $185. The increases are automatic under state law and are based on calculations made by the federal government on what it costs to travel and stay in Nashville, including hotel and food expenses. Lawmakers receive the money when they are in town engaged in legislative business or when they make trips out of state for conferences.

Now usually, I am not one of those who raises the devil about matters like these. In my opinion, Tennessee lawmakers get paid a pittance for the important jobs they do ($19,900), and the per diem is not really adequate for many legislators who have to travel the length of the state to perform their duties. I know they are aware of the pay when they hire out for public service, but normally an increase like this would be justified.

But this particular economic situation is different, and I think lawmakers ought to find a way to roll back the per diem increase as soon as they get to Nashville. To think about further cutting back state services and laying off more employees while the per diem for lawmakers is increased is not a good idea. In fact, if it's not changed, it could be a political recipe for disaster for incumbents when the November, 2010 roll around.

I hope lawmakers also take the opportunity to examine the one-size-fits-all way per diem is awarded. I don't think lumping it into pay is a good idea, but prorating per diem based on who lives where (and how far they have to travel) might be a good idea to explore. The other major problem I do have with per diem now come from the local lawmakers who get fully paid, even when they are at home sleeping in their own beds each night.

Now on to the other matter of very bad timing displayed recently on the Hill.

A major controversy arose not too long ago when THE MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL newspaper printed the data base (names and addresses) of some 257,000 Tennesseans who hold gun permits. The paper said it was doing so because the documents are public records, and the public needs to know that state has not always done a good job in making sure those who don't qualify for the permit are denied one.

That led to an effort by the National Rifle Association (supported by all the Republican members of the General Assembly) to close the gun registry data base on the grounds that making the information public put those holding the permits and their families in danger, and that the information should be private and closed to the public. That effort failed by just one vote in the last Legislature.

Now comes an Associated Press story by Erik Schelzig (November 3) which indicates those so interested in closing the records have now made requests themselves to obtain the gun permit lists for what appears to be political purposes. The AP story says  both "the state Republican Party and a direct mail contractor that has done extensive work for the GOP's legislative caucus" requested the list, along with a woman who identified herself as a part of the NRA (the group denies she works for the organization).

GOP party and elected officials have been diving for cover ever since the story broke. After all, how do you explain that public records you said should be kept private, even secret, should still be fair game to be used for political fundraising purposes?

I'm glad I don't' have to explain it. It just doesn't pass the smell or the logic test. And the timing is horrendous.

THE END AT PARKS?

I told you several weeks ago that the latest controversy surrounding Metro Parks Director Roy Wilson and his budget overrun problems was one to watch.

Now as the budget shortfall has grown to $1.77 million, it appears (according to an article in THE TENNESSEAN on November 4) that Wilson may conclude the best decision is to step down from his post. Lots of Metro departments have had budget problems, but a lot of Wilson's issues appear to stem from complaints by Metro Finance officials, Metro Council leaders and even Wilson's own Parks Board members that he did not warn or keep them in the loop about the department's money issues.

 Now Metro Finance is taking over the Park's financial operations and may seek a special appropriation from the Council to keep from "decimating" the Parks and Recreation system (according to what Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told  Michael Cass and THE TENNESSEAN in that same story on November 4).

Parks services such as community centers, golf courses and nature centers, among others are very sensitive politically. So you can understand why both Wilson, and now the Finance Department are concerned about making cutbacks.

But what about the next budget year that begins next July?  Unless the Dean administration plans to seek some kind of property tax increase (which I hear is increasingly unlikely, especially the state is considering a tax hike either), spending remaining reserve monies only defers a very difficult decision about important city services for a few months. And we are not just talking about Parks services.

So stick around, the fun and games about all this is not over, and it likely won't be confined to Metro Parks and Recreation.   

 METRO SCHOOL'S PROBLEMS CONTINUE

Another area of concern for the next state and Metro budget will be funding for K-12 education. As government revenue collections continue to slump, can cuts be avoided? What about allocating more tax dollars? That would seem very difficult unless the Governor and Mayor Dean seek an increase in property taxes.

But for Metro Schools, the challenges it faces go much deeper than that.

After somehow achieving "safe harbor" status in the latest No Child Left Behind testing, and avoiding a possible full state takeover, the latest state "report card" shows the system made little progress in overall student achievement. And this was based on progress made under an "easier" curriculum, which was significantly toughened this fall. 

So can Metro avoid falling further behind again? And what will be the impact in the community of the federal desegregation lawsuit now underway here in Nashville? City leaders thought after nearly a half-century in court, we had finally reached the point where this kind of legal confrontation was behind us.        

 But clearly that is not where we are, (and while not pre-judging, one way or another, which side is right in this matter) ongoing legal conflicts always bred uncertainty and lack of confidence by the public in the school system....and that can't be good for Metro schools at all.

FAIRGROUNDS BACKLASH

I have expressed my concerns in a previous column about the State Fairgrounds situation.

It appears to me the city has been a bit hasty in its decision to shut down the property next June, and it has not allowed for additional community dialogue especially with those who have annual or monthly rental events at the Fairground's facilities, and are looking to Metro for leadership and help in finding alternative locations in Davidson County (if they exist).

I also think there is a sense among some in the community that the Dean administration will do anything it can to finance big sports teams and a new convention center, but is not at all interested in facilities like the Fairgrounds which tends to attract more blue-collar and working class family audiences. I don't think that's an accurate portrayal of the Mayor's office, but I can see how some people might say that and feel that way.

All that said, if the leader of the opposition to the Fairgrounds closing is Councilman Eric Crafton, the chances to change anything are probably not good. Crafton jousts at too many windmills, and I don't think he has a lot of credibility either in the community or among his Council colleagues. 

Finally, I think Metro needs to step up and be more transparent and forthright about its future plans for the Fairgrounds property. Media reports in THE TENNESSEAN that Chamber of Commerce officials have "shown the land to corporate executives for potential purchasing and relocation... and that Nashville-based Hospital Corporation of America, Inc. Is interested in the property" should be a wake-up call to the Mayor's office that it needs a publicly-stated game plan about how it plans to proceed before the political rumor mill starting making up its own stories.  

MUSIC CITY CENTER RUMBLINGS

While the Dean administration continues its work to put together the final financing plan for the new downtown convention center, some details (some only in rumor form) continue to circulate around the Metro Courthouse.

The latest intelligence indicates it will now be early December before the Mayor presents his final plans, and there are some reports that the Dean Administration is at least considering presenting ONLY the final Convention Center financing proposal and holding back until later on the final proposal on how to fund the adjoining convention center hotel.

If that happens, I will be very interested to see how that is explained and sold to the public and lawmakers. It has been a matter of gospel on this project (and in the convention business in general for many years) that you do NOT build a convention center without a nearby convention hotel opening simultaneously with the new facility. Numerous examples have been given over the years (Memphis comes to mind) where a failure to do both at the same time has resulted in overall ruin for the project.

The second objection if this delay in hotel plans is proposed would likely come from council members, some of whom will once again complain that the city should not piecemeal a large, expensive project like this, that citizens and lawmakers need to finally know what all of this is going to cost the community, and how we are going to pay for it.

Some hints about that also continue to trickle out. A recent presentation to the new Convention Center Authority indicated the strong possibility that Metro will use a new bond program (supported by federal stimulus money) that could save the city up to $5 million a year in interest payments. The use of federal dollars would not be a first in a Nashville convention center project. It was a multi-million dollar federal UDAG grant given to the city in the mid-1980s that helped pay for construction of the shared areas between the hotel and the convention center and paved the way for final construction of the project. This was during the administration of President Ronald Reagan and it didn't hurt that two very prominent local Republicans, Joe Rogers and Ted Welch were developers in the hotel project.      

By the way, another interesting report I have heard from several sources is that Metro in all likelihood will provide the major funding for the hotel, unlike the present convention center hotel which was privately financed. I am also told from more than one source that Metro has concluded it cannot afford to fund a hotel much larger than 700-plus rooms. That is significantly lower than the 1,000 room hotel originally talked about, and it is more the size the Gaylord Opryland has been urging the city to do (to avoid too much competition with its hotel). But I am told this decrease in size is not a concession to Opryland but rather a conclusion based on what Metro things it can likely afford.

One last interesting observation, the presentation made to the Convention Center Authority went into some detail about how the Music City Center would be funded, using the special tourist taxes now in place, plus as a back-up, a pledge of all of Metro's "non-property and sales taxes." There was no talk about how the hotel would be funded.

The first convention center was delayed a few years back in the mid-‘80s because of uncertainties about how to do the hotel's financing. Are we headed that direction again? And will the State Building Commission approve Metro tourist development zone at its meeting this coming week? Without it, another key financing piece for the Center remains in limbo.

Finally, the effort to acquire the land for the Music City Center is shaping up as a multi-level legal fight. One of the key land owners, Tower Investments has filed a counter suit to Metro's condemnation plans, and it looks like things could get a bit ugly (and maybe more expensive and time-consuming) as the city tries to have the land assembled by January.      

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