Capitol View Commentary: Jan. 8, 2010 - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Jan. 8, 2010

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CAPITOL VIEW

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

January 8, 2010

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010, about a week and half from now, is shaping up to be a very important date in Nashville history.

That's when the Metro Council is set to give final consideration to a funding package to build the new downtown convention center.

At about $650 million, this would be the largest project in the history of the city. And while over the past few months Mayor Karl Dean has enjoyed strong support for the proposal through many of the important preliminary votes in the Council to design the facility and acquire the land, his administration is leaving nothing to chance.

As community meetings are being held all over town by district council members seeking to inform and get feedback from their constituents about the plan, the mayor is providing new ammunition and talking points for Music City Center supporters to use to argue their case.

Yet another consultant study has been conducted with the conclusion that the new convention facility, when fully operating, will pump almost $135 million dollars a year into the local economy in direct, indirect and induced spending. It will also reportedly create about 1,500 new jobs by 2017.

Not so fast say opponents. They claim the group who did the study, HVS Consultants, has not always been a good forecaster based on similar work it has done in other cities. And they add if CVS is wrong, Metro taxpayers are going to be on the hook to pay off any deficits from the new center. Not so say Music City Center supporters, while CVS is quick to defend its professional reputation.

And so the arguments go back and forth. The crowds I've seen reported at these ongoing community meetings seem to be fairly large considering they are being held at night in January during very cold weather. Frankly, I can never remember an issue that generated this many community meetings all across town, not even the hot-potato controversies of the past like a new Metro landfill or the Stadium.

According some postings on one local blog (The Enclave) the debate over the new Center is getting so heated it is being banned from discussion on at least one local neighborhood list serve out in West Nashville. I will keep that in mind when I moderate one of the convention center public hearings at West End Junior High on Tuesday, January 12. J

Both sides are keying towards the city-wide public hearing to be held in the Council Chambers at the Metro Courthouse on Monday evening, January 11. The proponents are already planning a pre-event rally, and you can be sure the opponents will be there as well competing for support as well as TV air time.

The process to gain approval continues to move forward even before the Council acts. The new Convention Center Authority, which will be in charge of building the project if it is approved, has (not surprisingly) given its unanimous support to the plan. The Authority has also now been requested by Mayor Dean to form a special committee "devoted to ensuring that opportunities for minority participation are maximized." Some minority members of the Council have made it clear they are not pleased with how many contracts have been given to minority and women-owned businesses so far in regards to convention center work. Some even hint the issue will play a major role in how they vote come January 19.  

So you can see why the Mayor wrote a letter to the Convention Center Authority asking for this new committee to be created. One thing the new committee seems likely to consider is a change in the language governing minority participation in the project. Some feel it is "too soft" (no real teeth to penalize contractors who don't reach out to and hire more minority and female owned businesses). But while it remains unclear just what new language Metro might adopt, you can be sure it will be clear to concerned minority members of the Council before the January 19th vote, and so far their response to the Mayor's effort seem positive.

Besides holding and building support in the Council, the Dean administration also has to continue to deal with the reality of the rest of Metro government intruding on this debate. Stories in the media about how Metro schools will be tightly squeezed in the next year's budget because they can no longer dip into their depleted reserve funds, or about ongoing financial difficulties for the city's NHL hockey team, can only provide more fodder for convention center opponents to use against the project.

But meanwhile you have wonder, what has happened to the petition drive the opponents launched a few weeks ago in an effort to convince the Council to delay their decision and put the matter on the ballot for an advisory vote? Has it fallen flat or has it generated lots of response and signatures? Are the opponents trying to move on and not mention the petition drive anymore because it has failed? Or do they plan to unveil an avalanche of support by releasing the results of the petition drive at the Monday public hearing or some other time before the January 19th final council vote?  And what about the community poll which is about to be released by another Nashville TV station? Will it be found credible and have any impact on this community debate as it heads into its final days?  

 THE LEGISLATURE RETURNS

As Governor Phil Bredesen begins his final year in office, the words "lame duck" do not appear to be in his vocabulary. He's called the General Assembly back into special session beginning Tuesday (January 12) to consider some major changes for both K-12 and higher education in the state.

While the Governor says he is not doing this just because the reforms he is proposing are required for Tennessee to qualify for potentially hundreds of millions of federal dollars, he is still just giving lawmakers a week to make their decisions because waiting any longer means the state would miss a critical deadline to qualify for the funds for Washington.

So the rush is on, and that's how this effort feels to me….a little rushed. The devil is always in the details and the specific legislation the Governor wants passed was still in preparation most of this past week and therefore not available for lawmakers or the media to review. Meanwhile the Governor himself traveled all across the state this past week stumping for support from the business community urging them to call their legislators to support his proposals.

The most controversial part of his plan would require student test scores make up a significant part of how teachers are evaluated and gain tenure in the future. The Governor at first suggested test scores count up to 50%, a figure he is seemingly backing away from now in order to try and negotiate something with the teacher's union, Tennessee Education Association (TEA). But the Governor doesn't believe that a compromise will be reached especially since the TEA is not comfortable with the State Board of Education (made up primarily of business people appointed by the Governor) making the final decision on the standards. The Governor has also floated the idea of an independent, blue-ribbon committee studying the matter and making recommendations. That could provide some basis for compromise for both sides but maybe not. TEA says it is OK with test scores playing a part in evaluating teachers, but it wants the standards set and overseen by other professionals or peers in the education business.

All this controversy no doubt makes it somewhat uncomfortable for Governor's Democratic friends in the Legislature. In fact, Nashville representative Mike Turner had to politely correct the Governor after he told a group in Memphis that "Mike Turner is all behind this." Turner says he is behind trying to find a way to qualify for the federal funds not necessarily exactly what the Governor is proposing. It may well be the largest amount of support for the Governor's K-12 plans will come from the Republicans on the other side of aisle, and since they control both houses, the Governor may yet get what he wants.

There are also some major changes being proposed by the Governor concerning higher education, an area of state government he has somewhat ignored in his first seven years in office. He wants to change how the state allocates its money to try and reward those schools who graduate the most students, not just those institutions who have the most students attending classes. That sounds like a good idea, but will the larger universities and college really support it?

What about the governor's plan to consolidate all the community colleges under one set of leadership? While it's a good idea to make sure all or most the courses that are taught at community colleges are transferable if students want to go on to a 4-year school, are we also creating yet a fourth level of overhead and bureaucracy in Tennessee higher education to go with the UT system, the Board of Regents and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission? And what about those persistent rumors that there will be an effort made to set up a separate governance board for the University of Memphis? Won't other Regents schools like MTSU, ETSU and others want the same?   

And how does the governor's new higher education financing plan correlate with the lottery scholarship program? It was recently reported that the increase in the scholarship amounts along with the lowering of qualifying standards for students to get the assistance, combined with the larger number of students going to college due to the back economy, will soon leave the lottery scholarship program unable to fund all scholarships for those who qualify.

But the Governor has made some recent remarks indicating he doesn't believe that. He maintains that the lottery may have to dip into reserves, but the scholarship program is OK at least for now to continue forward.  

Maybe he is right. But maybe he just doesn't want his proposals to get caught up in the big fight that is sure to ensure when lawmakers argue over how to cut back the lottery scholarship program. And what will be the impact of the governor's new higher education money allocation on all this? If more students graduate (which is a very good thing), doesn't that means they will be using the lottery scholarship monies longer? A good percentage of students now qualify for the scholarship, but then flunk out or drop out before they graduate. How does that work out for the financial viability of the lottery monies especially with lottery sales remaining flat?

INSIDE POLITICS

With the General Assembly about to come back to Nashville (hide the women, children and the good silverware!), it is a great time to bring to our INSIDE POLITICS show this weekend (January 8-10) NewsChannel5's Legislative Reporter Scott Arnold and longtime Capitol Hill reporter Joe White of Nashville Pubic Radio. 

Scott will share with us an exclusive interview he has just done with Governor Bredesen, and together with Joe, we will discuss what is likely to happen in the special session as well as what lies ahead when this  106th General Assembly begins its second year of work the following week.

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. That includes on both the Comcast and Charter Cable television systems on Channel 250, as well as on digital channel 5.2 on NEWSCHANNEL5's over-the-air TV service.

Here are our air times:

Fridays (January 8)……….7:00 PM

Saturdays (January 9)…..5:00 AM

Saturdays (January 9)…..5:30 PM

Sundays (January 10)……5:00 AM

Sundays (January 10)……12:30 PM

Don't forget you can also watch excerpts of previous INSIDE POLITICS show here on the newschannel5.com website. 

JANUARY

January is always a tough month, especially for our elected leaders who are involved in continuing to do damage control because of major screw ups that occurred back during the slow time in the news in and around the holidays.

Ask President Obama about that as it regards the near disaster that occurred on Christmas Day when our system to safeguard our airline transportation system had a "systemic failure" during an international flight into Detroit. While sometimes it seems we have come a long way since the events of 9/11 back in 2001, it only takes an event like this to make it look like we haven't learned much of anything at all.

Ask the Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington. They are still trying to regain their balance as poll numbers show support for the party and Congress in general continues to plunge. The way the health care bill has been negotiated and passed, and now how it is being compromised between the two houses seems to just be adding new fuels of controversy to the fire. And meantime more and more Democratic leaders in Washington are retiring, bailing out rather than seek re-election later this year.

Here in Tennessee it is particularly stunning to continue to see how no major Democrat wants to run for retiring Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon's seat in the 6th District. While Republicans have a full house of candidates in the field for their August primary, so far every Democrat thinking about running is saying "thanks, but no thanks."

They do add they still believe the Democrats can hold the Gordon seat. Really? Will someone then show us the candidate or get in the race themselves?  Don't hold your breath, even Governor Bredesen has already all but counted out his party chances in the 6th.

There is a much more hopeful picture for the Democrats emerging in the 8th District where Congressman John Tanner is retiring. State Senator Roy Herron has jumped in the Democratic primary race and taken control with support and fund raising numbers that seem to be precluding the field for August and that make him a likely frontrunner for November as well, even though his main GOP challenger, Steven Fincher, seems to be hanging in there in terms or raising money as well.

Meantime another former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr. continues to look at running for Hillary Clinton's old Senate seat in New York State. THE NEW YORK TIMES (January 7) is writing about it saying Ford reportedly will make a decision within the next 45 days. Is Ford really serious and ready to make another race for the Senate after losing his effort here in Tennessee almost four year ago, or is he just loving the speculation and the limelight as he did when his name came up for Tennessee Governor last year?

Clearly he could raise the money. In fact, the NYT article points out that about one-third of the funds for his Tennessee Senate campaign came from New York.  His race and his family baggage are not as likely to be big issues in New York. And while the seat is not currently vacant, there seem to be a number of Democrats who don't like the current occupant of the office and are looking for the right candidate to beat her (Kirsten Gillibrand).

But is Ford the right candidate? He was considered somewhat liberal here in Tennessee. He will be considered much more conservative in New York and may have to find a way to change or soft pedal some of his past positions on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and some of his pro-business stands. Ford is already being pressured by some New York politicians to stay out of the race to the point where the former congressman (who is declining all interviews) has hired a spokesperson to say he won't be bullied or intimidated about his decision about whether or not to run, according to THE NEW YORK POST (January 8). My, what drama!

Meantime it seems Ford, may never escape that terrible TV ad the national Republicans ran against him in the Senate race. The one with the young blonde whispering "Harold, call me."  It is mentioned again in the NYT article and I am afraid right now it is a strong candidate to make it into his obituary one day, which is so unfair to him.

Getting back to Tennessee, it could be a tough time coming up for two gubernatorial candidates in the State Senate. State law precludes Republican Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey or Democratic Senator Jim Kyle from raising funds during the upcoming legislative session. Ramsey tried to change the law, but now seems to have given up. Kyle says he opposes changing the law and will continue to run. Ramsey plans to also stay in the race, but unless the legislative session is unusually short this year can either Senator remain viable moneywise for their primaries in August?

By the way I think Governor Bredesen is making it a little tough for all those trying to take his place, especially because of the continuing success he is having with recruiting new business here. In recent days Tennessee was named the 2009 State of the Year by Business Facilities Magazine. All the 2010 gubernatorial candidates are talking jobs, jobs, jobs (as they should be given these tough times), but can they really do better than the Bredesen administration, especially what has happened during this second term? Perhaps the candidates should all take some comfort in the fact that many of the recent Bredesen accomplishments, such as the new Hemlock Semiconductor project in Clarksville won't come to completion until after Governor Bredesen is out of office and one of them will helping to cut the ribbon as the new governor.

 Nevertheless, Governor Bredesen has his challenges. No Democratic Governor has been more outspoken about his unhappiness with how Democrats in Congress want to fund the expansion of Medicaid as a part of the national health care bills now pending in Congress. But Republican state leaders are going further. They are outraged about some of the deals made in Congress to give special concessions or even exempt some states (Nebraska) from paying the extra cost of this Medicaid expansion. Unconstitutional they say, and they want our Tennessee Attorney General and the Governor to support a federal lawsuit about the matter.

After avoiding an answer when asked about this matter during a Nashville Rotary Club speech last Monday, the Governor now says that while he is "moderately outraged" by what has happened in Congress about the Medicaid deals, it is premature to talk about a lawsuit before anything officially passes. He's right, but Phil Bredesen is the only politician I know who can say he is "moderately outraged" about something and not be laughed at or have the words come back to haunt him.   

From reading this, you might think it is mostly Democrats that are having problems. That's not true. The GOP has plenty of its own U.S. Senators who are not seeking re-election, and the national party continues to struggle with defining its mission and leadership. Perhaps the national Tea Party convention to be held here in Nashville next month will play a major role in how things will work out for the GOP going forward for 2010 and 2012. Or will it mark the emergence of the Tea Party movement as a national third party of its own?

Finally, even the Tennessee Republican Party continues to have issues. As you heard first on my INSIDE POLITICS interview with State Party Chair Chris Devaney back before Christmas, there is no way Speaker of the House Kent Williams can run as a Republican for re-election. There have been efforts to mend fences between the Speaker, a self-styled "Carter County Republican", and the rest of the state GOP leadership. But there are still hard feelings about how Williams supported himself along with 49 other Democrats last January to take over the House leadership chair.

Devaney told me he did plan to call a meeting of the State GOP Executive Committee to consider bringing Williams back into the party but not until later this spring (after the primary qualifying deadline). Now Devaney has told Carter County election officials not to allow Williams on the ballot this August as a Republican, further inflaming the situation.

It looks like it is going to take a lot more work…and a lot more than a public apology by Speaker Williams to even begin to heal all these wounds.        

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