By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
January 15, 2010
CONVENTION CENTER DOWN TO THE WIRE; FORD; FUND RAISING; SPECIAL LEGISLATIVE SESSION; INSIDE POLITICS; JOHN WILDER; VOTING; KIFFEN
Anyone who knows Mayor Karl Dean knows he is a huge baseball fan (especially for the Boston Red Sox).
But there might have a few moments recently when the Mayor was an even bigger soccer fan. That was when Nashville was one of 16 cities selected to be a part of the U.S.A.'s bid to host the world's largest sporting event, The World Cup, here in America either in 2018 or 2022.
Why be so excited about an event (that even if the U.S.A. is picked as the host country, and games are played here) won't take place until well after the Mayor is out of office? Well, it could bring lots of international tourists and worldwide publicity to the city for one thing. But more importantly, the Nashville selection gives the Mayor another major talking point to use with Metro Council members and the general public for why Nashville needs to approve funding to build a new downtown convention center.
And in that regard the timing of the Nashville selection could have been better. The final vote by the Council on funding the new convention center is set for Tuesday, January 19. But since the soccer games would be played at LP Field, why is the convention center important? The center is apparently a key part of Nashville's host plan for the World Cup games. It would act at the world broadcast headquarters for the hordes of media likely to be here for the contests. In fact, local convention & visitor officials say without the new center, the Nashville proposal just won't work.
Not surprisingly, opponents of the new Music City Center are not convinced. They say the convention industry is declining all over the country and that taxpayers could well get stuck having to make up the difference when the tourist taxes in place to pay for the project don't deliver the funds needed to pay off the construction debt or the operating expenses of the new facility, which at about $650 million, would be the largest civic project ever undertaken in Nashville.
It's a debate that has been raging across the city with increasing intensity in recent weeks with a number of public hearings and forums being held all over the city. The one I moderated at West End Junior High School (January 12) brought out a crowd of about 75 to 100 people. The debate was spirited, but respectful, which is more than you can say for some of the comments and the YouTube videos that are dominating the discussion of this matter in the local blogosphere.
The Dean administration remains quietly confident that it has the votes (22 at a minimum or close to 30 votes max, says one source) to pass the convention center funding legislation. As a first test of strength, two council committees (Budget & Finance along with the Convention, Tourism and Public Entertainment Facilities Committee) met Thursday (January 14) and overwhelmingly approved the proposal, with only one dissenting vote (Councilman Michael Craddock). ,
And so it is on to the full Council on Tuesday for the ultimate test, although the strong committee votes seem to position the Dean administration very well to prevail, as most Metro mayors have over the years on their major legislative priorities (except perhaps Bill Boner, and maybe that's why he is our only one-term mayor in Metro's nearly 50-year history). J
But, as I have mentioned before, the reality of the rest of Metro government continues to intrude on the convention center discussion. Most recently, on the night of the committee votes, one of the country's major bond rating houses (Fitch Ratings) issued a financial news release saying it is placing Metro on a "negative watch rating" for some of its capital bond debt, in part due to the convention center proposal.
Here what Fitch Ratings said: "While Fitch believes that the convention center may enhance economic activity in Nashville's downtown, even the moderate amount of general fund support that appears possible for debt service and operations would increase the strain on the government's finances to a point where the (current Metro rating) is no longer consistent with the current rating category."
But while all that sounds quite ominous and negative (especially coming right before the big final vote on this project) Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling continues to maintain that the city's general fund is only to be used as a backup, and would likely never be tapped to pay for the new center (although the administration did provide a breakout on the annual dollar cost of what that might be if collections of the tourist-related taxes fell short). It should also be pointed out that two other bond rating services expressed no qualms about Metro's convention center funding proposal and its impact on the city's ability to pay its debts.
Based on the committee votes that followed council members still seem to be hanging in there and supporting the project. But there remain other Metro realities that continue to try to intrude on this debate.
The recent severe cold snap has led to multiple water pipes breaking in the lower Broad area, snarling traffic and temporarily closing many tourist-related businesses. That has given the convention center opponents new ammunition to argue that we ought to fix our infrastructure before we build glitzy new buildings.
That may sound right, but actually it is comparing apples and oranges. The money to fund water and sewer line repairs and replacement comes from a completely different source that what is being proposed for the convention center (and it doesn't come from the general fund either). In fact, the money to replace the downtown lines is already in place thanks to the Dean administration stepping up to the plate last year (after several earlier administration failed to do so) and got the Metro Council to approve a water and sewer rate hike that will pay for it. In fact, the funding is somewhat similar to the way the new convention center would be done, a user tax paid by those who use the service (water & sewer) just like the convention center will reportedly by paid for by tourists and visitors who come to town and/or use the center.
The problem the Dean Administration has is that Metro has had all these pipes break at once. It turned the city's long-time policy of "run to fail" for a lot of its vital infrastructure, into "everything failed at once" and left the city in a somewhat embarrassing situation. After all, every one of the pipes that broke were over 100 years old, well past their expected service life.
Equally troubling are new reports that Metro Schools face a $35 million budget deficit next year just to maintain the status quo. This will be particularly challenging since the school system's reserve funds (tapped in recent years to balance the budget) are so low now they can't be used again this year.
While Mayor Dean has certainly focused a lot of time and energy on the convention center project in recent months, he says his top priority always has been and remains public education. So does that mean a property tax increase is coming to keep schools "fully funded?" And what about other Metro needs such as restoring employee pay cuts, reopening libraries or, for that matter, the $14 million operating budget shortfall the city must make up when hotel-motel tax funds are re-directed back to paying for the new convention center?
My sources continue to tell me a property tax hike is not likely this coming year even though that's actually a two-year decision since raising taxes in 2011 is most unlikely because it is a re-election year.
So while the Mayor and his allies may be getting ready to celebrate a big and hard earned victory when the new convention center is finally approved, there are still plenty of challenges yet ahead for all of Metro government.
One last comment: While I don't think they had any real control over it, I am not sure it was wise for city convention officials to be in the newspaper complaining that all the controversy and new bills and laws about "guns in bars and restaurants" have hurt bringing tourists and conventions to the state. That may well be true, but bringing that matter up publicly just days before the final convention center vote could well anger gun supporters in the state and encourage them to get motivated to work against the convention center project.
For a guy who says he is still making up his mind and will make a final decision sometime in the next 45 days or so, former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr. sure acts and sounds like a candidate running for Hillary Clinton's old U.S. Senate seat in New York State.
He's hired a spokesperson and he's now out every day in the NY media explaining his positions on the issues (including how some may have "evolved" over time). And Ford is already under heavy attack by those who don't want him to run against Kirsten Gillibrand who presently occupies the Senate seat by appointment.
Interestingly among those apparently not crazy about a Ford candidacy: the Obama White House, which has reportedly been active in discouraging other candidates as well in recent months. Concerning what the White House might do about Ford, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: "Stay tuned."
Now I know how tenuous the Democrats' hold on power is in the Senate (where you need 60 votes to do anything), but why President Obama wants to get involved in a fight like this is beyond me. Doesn't the President have more than enough to say grace over without getting into an intra-party fight like this? And the New York Senate seat may not be the only one in real play.
Unless the fund raising e-mails I've been seeing in recent days from Democratic officials are just a money-raising ploy, there is real concern among party leaders that the Senate seat in Massachusetts, once occupied by the late Ted Kennedy, might soon fall (January 19 special election) into the hands of a Tea-Party Republican Scott Brown.
It still remains hard to believe that could happen. But how unbelievably ironic would that be? Losing that Senate seat would mean health care reform (and almost all of President Obama's legislative agenda) would be dead, as the Democrats would no longer have 60 votes to pass any legislation in the upper chamber over the objections of Republicans. And for that massive political change to occur because of the loss of Ted Kennedy's seat, he who was the champion for so many years of health care reform, and for whom the current pending health care legislation has been named, it would be a political plot twist not even worthy of a third-rate dime novel.
But reality is always stranger than fiction, and for the Democrats to lose a Senate seat in deep-blue Massachusetts would clearly be another major body blow nationwide for the party, which continues to struggle to deal with major retirements, private, but indiscreet and ridiculous comments by its Senate Majority Leader some months ago about the President, along with secret negotiations about health care that are only further undermining what little public support remains for the legislation.
Speaking of getting a lot of e-mails containing last-minute appeals from candidates for money, with both the federal and state campaign disclosure deadlines looming, my e-mail box has been full to overflowing.
That includes appeals from two gubernatorial candidates (Republican Lt. Governor Rom Ramsey and Democratic State Senator Jim Kyle) looking for funds. Now that the General Assembly has begun they can't send out any new appeals until after the session is over, and it appears the Lt. Governor has more or less abandoned his efforts to repeal the state law on this matter.
The question is: Can either Ramsey or Kyle remain viable as gubernatorial candidates without being able to raise money for such an extended period of time (the earliest date I've seen talked about for a possible legislative adjournment is late March or April)? So this is certainly something to consider when both Ramsey and Kyle disclose what they've raised so far (and still have in the bank) when they make their campaign finance reports soon.
The most interesting fund raising e-mail I've seen recently came from the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Mike McWherter. It's an endorsement (and a pitch for money) from former U.S. Senator Harlan Mathews, whose political roots run deep in the Tennessee Democratic Party (back to the days of Governor Frank Clement). Mathews also worked for, and remains very close to, McWherter's father, former Governor Ned McWherter. In fact, it was Governor McWherter who appointed Mathews to the U.S. Senate to replace Al Gore when he was elected Vice-President in 1992.
Spotlighting Senator Mathews' support and using it for a critical fund raising appeal is a smart move by the McWherter campaign. His connection and support of the old-line Democratic Party in the state is probably the strongest thing Mike McWherter has going for him (along with his father's name recognition). So why not take advantage of it and try and come up with a fund raising total that will solidify McWherter's position as the front-runner in the Democratic primary and (hopefully for his campaign and the party) inject some badly needed excitement about any Democrat's chances to win the Governor's office this November? But as we will discuss later in the column and on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend, how will this square with McWherter's efforts (as manifested in the gubernatorial forum the other night) to position himself as a "businessman outsider" not a "politician."
SPECIAL LEGISLATIVE SESSION
As we discussed in last week's column, despite going into his last year in office Governor Phil Bredesen is no lame duck. Far from it
While the legislation is still pending final approval as this column was being written (it has already passed the Senate and is headed for the House floor very soon), the Governor seems to have convinced the General Assembly to make some sweeping changes in Tennessee's K-12 education system, gaining approval of his plans in a special legislative that has lasted less than a week so far (a near-record time for any legislative body).
Why was he so successful? Well, a certain amount of bipartisanship and a hot-box deadline for action. Governor Bredesen is a Democrat while Republicans control the Legislature. But even with his own party split, and at best lukewarm about his K-12 proposals (largely because of teacher opposition),Republicans have long supported many of the key elements the Governor wants (such as mandating that test scores play a significant role (at least 50%) in evaluating teachers for tenure and pay). So he took the Republican support (along with what Democrats he could get) and quickly attained victory.
The Governor had such an upper hand that the teacher's union (The Tennessee Education Association) saw the handwriting on the wall. They knew they could not defeat what the Governor wanted, so they dropped their complete opposition and endorsed the proposal with the hope they could get some changes (an emphasis on value-added scores in evaluations and an appeals process for teachers) that would make the proposal a bit more palatable to their members (but not much actually).
But then there's the real reason this passed so quickly, money. It's the federal "Race to the Top" program with up to $250 million dollars of federal funds that could come the state's way, but only if we change our laws to allow test scores to be a part of the teacher evaluation process. This must be particularly galling in some ways to teachers, who supported Barack Obama for President and now it is his administration requiring these changes.
Regardless, with that amount of money on the line, nobody wants to get blamed for doing anything that might keep Tennessee from getting that cash.
But two questions remain. Will we actually get the funds? And when we do what will we spend it to do?
As for the higher education reforms the Governor also presented to the General Assembly, there appears to be strong support for that as well including basing state funding for colleges and universities on how many folks the schools graduate not how many students are enrolled. There also appears to be support for making the courses taught in our community colleges compatible (credit accepted) at all the state's 4 year schools.
These proposals for our colleges and universities seem so elementary (if you'll pardon the pun), you have to wonder why it has taken so long for them to be implemented. Even now there has been concern that the negotiations to work out the K-12 reforms will take so long, the higher ed plans will have to wait a while, maybe an extra week of the special session or even until the regular session of the legislature that will begin soon. The Governor wants action now….and my bet is he will find a way to win that fight as well.
One of the key players in paving the way for the Governor's victory in the special session on education has been the SCORE education reform group, spearheaded by former Tennessee Senator Bill Frist.
(Full disclosure: My agency, DVL Public Relations & Advertising helped put together the final recommendations of SCORE after series of statewide meetings and other work done by the bipartisan, non-profit group. I was not involved in the project).
The SCORE plan (which it claims will make Tennessee number one in education nationally in five years) had a lot of the same recommendations that the Governor sent to General Assembly and it seemed all the major gubernatorial candidates running to take Mr. Bresden's place support it as well.
That was apparent from a gubernatorial candidate forum on education sponsored by SCORE at Belmont University last Thursday (January 14) and which was televised exclusively on the NewsChannel5 Network here in Nashville as well as on CBS-affiliates statewide.
On INSIDE POLITICS this week, we will take a further look at that forum (who did the best, who goofed, what is the impact of the forum) with Rhori Johnston of NewsChannel5 who moderated the forum, along with the dean of the Capitol Hill Press Corps, Tom Humphrey of the KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL.
You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on NewsChannel5 Plus (Comcast & Charter Channels 250 and over the air on NewsChannel5 5.2 digital channel).
You can see the show at the following times:
Fridays (January 15)……….7:00 PM
Saturdays (January 16)……5:00 AM
Saturdays (January 16)……5:30 PM
Sundays (January 17)………5:00 AM
Sundays (January 17)………12:30 PM
You can also see excerpts from previous shows here on the NewsChannel5 website.
I was remiss last week in not taking some time to comment on the life of former Lt. Governor and State Senator John Wilder, who died New Year's Day.
I don't have any warm and fuzzy stories to tell about him. I can never remember being in any warm and fuzzy situations with him.
I can remember being in his very dark conference room or elsewhere on the Hill listening to him talking with reporters. It is an understatement to say John Wilder could be hard to follow or understand sometimes. Only baseball's Casey Stengel or the Oracle of Delphi from Greek ancient history could be harder to decipher.
It wasn't because he spoke in long sentences and was therefore hard to follow. No, his speaking style was often in very short sentences. But when he started on "the cosmos" or "You are good, I am good, the Senate is good," he sometimes came across as a little befuddled, especially as he approached the later years of what became the long serving tenure of any Lt. Governor or legislative body chair in the history of the country (1971-2007).
But Lt. Governor Wilder was dumb like a fox. And he knew how to build and keep relationships in a body of men (and a few women) where that matters a lot, certainly more than party affiliation, or perhaps anything else. How else could stay in power as Lt. Governor after the Democrats tried to dump him some years back, but he prevailed for re-election as Senate Speaker for several terms after that through a coalition of Democrats and Republicans he built and maintained.
Until his final miscalculation as Lt. Governor, when a member of the Democratic Caucus (Senator Rosalind Kurita) forsook him and voted for present Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, John Wilder rarely lost a major vote. But clearly after he lost his Speaker's seat, you could see he felt out of place. Many reporters noted on his final day in session (2008) after he decided not to seek re-election, how pitiful he seemed as he pleaded with his colleagues not to change the judicial selection plan he helped pass some years ago, and of which he was always very proud. Bu lawmakers passed the changes anyway.
The loss of his devoted wife also no doubt darkened his final days. But John Wilder was tough. He fully understood what my late friend Eddie Jones was fond of saying: "Getting old ain't for sissies" He remained active for many years, riding his bike and flying his airplane "Jaybird."
He was a political force in Tennessee politics we are not likely to ever see ever again. Now he belongs to the cosmos.
While normally special sessions are restricted in what can be considered, the State Senate did take up some old business, passing with 22 votes a bill (which the House has already passed) that would delay until the elections of 2012, buying new voting machines that provide a paper trail to try and assure voters that their vote really counts.
The federal money to buy the machines and train poll workers is already in place and the new machines were supposed to go into use during 2010. But Republicans made it a priority when they gained control of both houses of the Legislature last year to defer the purchase of new machines because they claim there were no machines available which could do the job outlined in federal law.
Baloney said Democrats who accused the Republicans of trying to stall needed election reforms. When the State Senate adjourned last year after falling a few votes short of passing the 2012 deferral it looked for a time as if they would be quite a legal case brewing and perhaps some chaos at the polls later this year. But the Senate's vote (assuming Governor Bredesen signs the bill) seems to end all that, even if it means the state remains with what a study by New York University calls "the most insecure voting machines available."
It's been almost a decade since the nation embarrassed itself before the world with what happened with the Presidential vote count in Florida. It has been almost 8 years since President Bush signed into law the Voter Confidence Act to deal with the issues uncovered in the Florida debacle and other voting problems.
And we still haven‘t solved this problem in Tennessee?
Of course, the major controversy to erupt in Tennessee in recent days has been the departure of one-year Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin. He stiffed the Vols without warning to take his dream job as coach at the University of Southern California.
To say the move left a very bad taste in people's mouths here would be a major understatement. I have never seen people in this state so mad about an athletic matter, not even when Peyton Manning lost the Heisman.
According to an Associated Press story I found on THE TENNESSEAN's web site (1/13), the unhappiness even played out on Tennessee's Capitol Hill.
There seems to be a long-standing custom for Tennessee lawmakers to pass a resolution each year honoring the UT football coach. But when House Speaker Kent Williams brought up the matter up this year (the day after Kiffen left), the resolution met with what the article said was "a unanimous "No!"
There was also a lawmaker who said on the floor of the House that he understands there is a new word here in Tennessee. It's a "kiffen," meaning you say one thing, and do another. Ouch! Does that include contacting UT recruits already on campus? J
Well, at least our lawmakers aren't burning any mattresses which some UT students in Knoxville did to signal their displeasure.