By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
November 13, 2009
GOVERNOR BREDESEN ON INSIDE POLITICS; WHY THE BLUE DOGS SPLIT; UPON FURTHER REVIEW; METRO COUNCIL OUSTER; AN X-FACTOR IN THE CONVENTION CENTER DEBATE
That’s how much more money Governor Phil Bredesen says the state has to cut out of its budget for the next fiscal year which begins in July.
That’s on top of the hundreds of millions that have already been chopped in the last couple of years as the state continues to struggle with the ongoing economic slowdown.
As Tennessee state government begins its annual budget hearings (Monday, November 16) Governor Bredesen is my guest this week on INSIDE POLITICS. He’s not very optimistic about our fiscal outlook. In fact, he says the next six months will be his “toughest ever” during his time in office, and given what he faced with the TennCare situation when he first took office nearly seven years ago, that’s saying something. And he warns it could be 2014 or 2015 before state revenues return to the levels they were back in 2008.
While the Governor doesn’t say exactly what he plans to cut out of state government, he does seem to indicate he is beyond just trimming around the edges or across the board. He says it is time to think about the government no longer providing certain services and moving on. As for an employee pay raise, I wouldn’t count on it. Employee layoffs? Very likely, I would say, although how many will have to go the Governor isn’t saying just yet until he hears the plans of his Commissioners. The Governor says he is open to employee furloughs as a way to soften the blow for state workers. It seems no matter how you slice it, the face and the services of state government are about to be completely changed in the next few years. Look for this to become a theme, and perhaps a point of contention in a few areas, in both the upcoming session of the General Assembly and with the gubernatorial candidates in both parties.
You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 Network.
That includes a prime time airing this Friday (November 13) at 6:30 PM on the main channel (WTVF-TV) as well as another showing on the main channel of the NEWSCHANNEL5 Network on Sunday morning at 5:00 AM.
You can also catch the show on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS either on the Comcast or Charter Cable systems (Channels 250) or over-the-air on NewsChannel5 Digital channel 5.2
Friday, November 13……..7:00 PM
Saturday, November 14….5:00 AM
Saturday, November 14….5:30 PM
Sunday, November 15…….5:00 AM
Sunday, November 15…….12:30 PM
We talk about a lot more than just budgets with the Governor. He’s got strong opinions about the health care debate in Washington and he is starting to think about his legacy after nearly eight years in office. That includes one regret he has about a project he would have like to have untaken but state finances just won’t allow it now (and no, it’s not statewide Pre-K, although he would have liked to have done that as well).
SOME FURTHER PERSPECTIVE
While the Governor is not saying just yet where the budget axe will fall in state government, there is already some informed speculation going around. I heard a presentation by Linda O’Neil, the Executive Director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. Looking back at what was on the chopping block a year ago before federal stimulus dollars were used to grant a reprieve, she fears the coming cuts will roll back “25 years of progress” in the state providing services in the areas of health and human services, specifically to children and those in many cases unable to help themselves (the poor, the elderly, the mentally disabled, troubled teens).
She also cites figures from the Tax Foundation which show the 2007 State and Local Tax burden as a share of personal income is the lowest in Tennessee than anywhere else in the southeast region (all the states from the old Confederacy plus Kentucky, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware and Oklahoma). She says the region’s average tax burden is 10.1%, with Tennessee’s at about 8.5%. What’s the difference? It’s about $3.4 billion in new revenue if the state was just at the average.
Studies and comments like these are bound to encourage new debate about Tennessee’s changing its tax system to be less reliant on the sales tax and perhaps adding an income tax. That’s just a non-starter on Capitol Hill, especially as an election year approaches in 2010.
There is also a new study out by the Pew Center for the States which shows Tennessee in the “not-so-bad category” as Tom Humphrey of the Knoxville News Sentinel reports it (November 12). Leading the list of states in danger of a continuing major financial crisis are California, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. The Pew Center these states account for more than one-third of America’s population and economic output.
I think almost all of them have income taxes as well, which may be an indication that despite our state’s continued reliance on what many people insist is a very regressive and single-source centered revenue source (the sales tax) for our state, it’s just bad all over right now, and it’s unlikely this continued downturn will lead to any success in changing our tax system this coming year.
As for the Governor’s continued criticism of the national health care bill and the extra financial burden he says it will place on our TennCare program, those on the other side of the fight point out that under the new plan the federal government is actually increasing its payments to the state up to a 90%-10%. Yes, it will increase the state’s overall spending, but it will also provide coverage to many folks who currently have no health insurance coverage. They say it’s a good investment for Tennessee. But their voices aren’t so loud in this state, and these proponents are clearly losing the public relations battle here in Tennessee on this part of health care reform.
THE BLUE DOGS SPLIT
When push came to shove on the House floor concerning health care reform, Tennessee’s Democratic Blue Dog Congressmen split their votes. And it appears in doing so, each of them made sure to leave themselves in the best position possible heading into next year’s congressional elections.
Congressmen Bart Gordon, John Tanner, and Lincoln Davis have the most to fear in terms of re-election from strong Republican challenges in their districts next November. So voting no, leaves them in the best position possible, especially if the health care change effort goes south (the Senate can’t muster 60 votes to pass anything, which is somewhat likely, or the joint conference committee of both houses can’t come to an agreement, which is less likely).
As for Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper and his yes vote on the House health care bill, he is more vulnerable to a challenge in his primary next August had he voted “no” on this Democratic legislation. His yes vote makes a challenge a little harder to organize I think, despite the efforts so far of national groups like Move On to find an opponent to run against him. Besides, just before the House vote, Cooper received a rather unusual letter signed by a number of Nashville’s top elected Democratic officials, both in the State House and in the Metro Council, (a number of whom could be potential primary opponents) urging him to vote yes.
As I said, I think Cooper’s yes vote makes a primary challenge somewhat harder to do, although I should point out that if the Senate passes a bill and then a conference committee presents a final version of a health care proposal for a vote, all of these Blue Dogs will get another bite at this apple.
Congressman Cooper says he voted for the House bill because, while he thinks it is still very flawed, he believes it is more important politically to keep the legislative process alive to try to force the Senate to vote. Otherwise major health care change could be dead for another decade or so. He’s probably right about that, although his vote would be a lot more important if he was in the Senate where the effort to reach a 60-vote majority is still struggling (particularly as the now front-burner issue of abortion rights threatens to make it even more difficult for Democrats to get the votes they need for passage).
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
When Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter made statements about a month ago that he did not support gay (or same sex) adoption and might sign a bill to outlaw it if it came to his desk while he was governor, I said I didn’t think that was sustainable position for a candidate running in a Democratic primary.
Sure enough, there are now media reports (Bruce Barry, Nashville Scene Pith In The Wind blog, November 11 ), that McWherter is “walking back” his position.
Now the candidate has reportedly told the city’s “Kitchen Cabinet” breakfast group that while “I believe that a child should be placed in a traditional loving home. I view it as a child rights issue, not any other group’s issue.” He then added that he doesn’t want to see a change in the current law which allows gay couples to adopt.
As to what he would do if a bill to ban gay (or same-sex) adoption made it to his desk as governor, McWherter is now quoted as saying: “I can’t imagine a bill coming before me that I would sign.”
That’s probably about the best damage control that the candidate can do on this matter, but it seems to be requiring the splitting of more than a few hairs, which is always a tough place for a candidate to be.
METRO COUNCIL OUSTER
It appears for the first time in the 45-year history of Metro government, a sitting member of the Metro Council has been ousted from office through a re-call vote.
Given the apparent very narrow margin of victory (2 votes) for attorney Jamie Hollin over incumbent Pam Murray, the election results may look to some more like a nudge than an ouster. But give Hollin credit. He is the first person to ever remove an incumbent councilmember in the middle of a term of office. Going forward, you can bet that is something current and future council members will no doubt keep in mind as they decide how to handle their constituent services, zoning and even where they live and work (these were major issues for Hollin in his effort, first to call the election, and then to defeat Ms. Murray, who lives and works part-time in Detroit).
A special election never gets a large voter turnout. This one got less than 1200 voters, which is interesting because the petition drive got 1200 signatures to call the election, and Hollin got well less than half of that number (542) to win the race over Murray (540). Ironically, I guess that just goes to show how much easier it is to get people to sign a petition, than it is to get to them to the polls. That’s weird, but apparently true.
In the end, this hotly contested battle (in which race and tensions between new residents and existing residents were also major factors) came down to the results of 3 or 4 provisional ballots which kept election officials scrambling and the final tally in doubt for almost a day after the polls closed.
And in a very close race like this there is, of course, the possibility of a recount and perhaps even legal action, although Hollin says if the results are certified in his favor on Monday, he places to be sworn into office in time for the next Metro Council meeting on Tuesday, November 17.
By the way, this election is not the closest one I can remember in Metro Council history. That would be the 1983 race in District 24 (where I live out in West Nashville) between then-incumbent Ralph Cohen and Nashville lawyer Nick Bailey. Cohen, who ran a plumbing supply company on Charlotte Avenue, won the contest by ONE vote.
That’s right, one vote.
I remember when the results came into the Channel 5 newsroom we really weren’t sure whether we should broadcast them, without adding that the results were still unofficial and not final. But the one-vote margin held up in the end and Cohen won a new four-year term in office. He also won a new nickname that stayed with him the rest of his life, “Landslide Cohen.”
As you read here first in last week’s column, Mayor Karl Dean is now confirming through statements in the media (THE CITY PAPER, November 11) that his administration is considering moving ahead only with council approval of the financing plan for the new convention center, while leaving the funding plans for an adjoining new convention hotel until later. This is a move that, until now, would have been considered heresy by those in the convention/tourist industry. But apparently the financial prospects to do both projects right now remain quite daunting. Still this remains a somewhat radical change of plans. Will the hotel-motel industry continue its support? Do they really have anywhere else to go? How long can the hotel be delayed before it causes real problems for the new convention center and its bookings?
The Mayor and his administration did get some good news about its convention center plans as a special tourism zone (that will help the city collect extra sales tax monies for the project) was approved by the state. At the insistence of state officials, Metro did adjust some of the boundaries of the zone a bit. Areas of East Nashville and around Jefferson Street to the north were dropped out of the zone while the boundaries were extended all the way out West End Avenue to I-440 to capture the tourist and convention dollars spent in that part of the city.
Metro finance officials say the approval of the tourist zone is a major step forward towards putting the financing plan together for the convention center. They also announced, at the request of Mayor Dean, that the construction costs for the Center have been lowered about $50 million. Much of that is because of the depressed economy and lower prices for construction projects these days. So now the new cost for the Music City Center is $585 million, with $415 million for construction, and $170 million for related costs (land purchase, relocations, planning, etc). And while city officials are also touting the thousands of new jobs (both construction and permanent) that the project will create, interestingly, no breakdowns on the size or the cost of the hotel are being discussed by city officials these days.
There will be a final feasibility study coming out in the next few days. I suspect it will further confirm that Metro can move ahead (at least with the convention center). If it doesn’t, you will really see some scrambling going on that Courthouse. J
Meanwhile as the community debate over building Metro’s new convention continues to build, there are few signs that the strong support for the proposal (so far) is weakening in the Metro Council. But opponents continue to try and stir the pot. The latest mechanizations involve a resolution asking that land acquisition for the development be stopped until the Council gives final approval to the financing plan (which is due to be presented to the Council in December for possible approval in January).
But the Council knew what the situation was for buying the land when, just a few months ago, it overwhelmingly approved the funds for the properties to be purchased (either outright or through condemnation). How can they justify backing off now? What has really changed?
There has also been an effort to change the city’s charter to require large projects like this one to have to be approved by a public referendum. Nobody thought that was really going anywhere, especially given the current timing for Council consideration of the project, but the city’s Charter Commission (which is appointed by the Mayor) put a further crimp in those efforts by unanimously rejecting the proposal.
Meantime, the African-American members of the Council (9 members out of 40) are showing increasing signs they are unhappy that business for the project is not going to minority-owned and female-owned business as promised (20%). But the Dean administration points out that only about 3% of the funds have been spent so far. They say they are confident the 20% goal will be reached.
In the midst of all this debate, there remains something of an X factor about the future of the convention business downtown. A few months ago you will recall, a group came to our city saying they wanted to locate a medical mart in downtown Nashville. They’ve reportedly started work on Phase I of their project by leasing space in the old AT&T building (the Batman Building).
While officials tell me this business model of a medical mart is untested, they say it could result (as it continues to develop) to become like having a permanent convention in Nashville, as health care folks come to town to see and, perhaps purchase health care equipment and other items, offered at the medical mart. It could also result in a permanent new use for the exhibition space for the current downtown convention center, as well as provide many more room nights for guests (both in the adjoining present convention hotel and perhaps other hotels downtown).
All this would also generate more hotel motel revenues and other revenues which could change (for the good) the financial prospects of building and funding both the new Convention Center and the new Convention Center. But all this is a lot of speculation right now, so I doubt you will hear the Mayor and his financial advisors talk much about it or make it a big part of the financing plans they will finally unveil to the Metro Council and the community in early December. But these are tantalizing prospects to think about as debate about this controversial project moves ahead.