Capitol View Commentary: Jan. 22, 2010 - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Jan. 22, 2010

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CAPITOL VIEW

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

January 22, 2010

WHAT DID IT MEAN & WHAT NOW; WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES; INSIDE POLITICS; SPECIAL; HAITI

29-9

With the Metro Council's final vote to move ahead with construction of the city's new convention center so lopsided (more than a two-thirds majority), you might be wondering what all the fighting has been about the last few years about this project?

Well, its size played a role. At $650 million it's the largest capital investment Nashville's ever made (with an estimated $40 million in annual debt service to prove it). And that yearly outlay will go even higher when the city moves ahead on an adjoining convention center hotel which the Mayor says he hopes to propose later this year (no word yet on how Metro would afford its share of that financing).

Proponents of the Music City Center say the tourist-related taxes now in place will more than pay for the new center and if not, there are reserve monies available to help out so the city never has to use its back-up financing which would come out of the city's general fund non-tax revenues. Not so, say the opponents who maintain the convention industry is dying all across the nation and Metro taxpayers will ultimately have to ante up to pay off the debt to build and operate this new facility.

And if you think all the fighting is over now, think again.  The property condemnation battle between the City and Tower Investments, which owns an important part of the land footprint where the new center would go, is getting uglier by the day. Lawyers for Tower went quite melodramatic in the hours before the final vote, serving subpoenas on six council members and the Metro finance director, all in effort to ask them questions about the legislation approved by the Council which permits the condemnation to move forward. Tower lawyers say they also want to know the "legislative intent" of the Council in this matter.

Unless I am mistaken I suspect those documents were pretty similar to ones used before by the city when it has needed to acquire land for a public project. Why all the extra dramatics and the special day-of-the vote timing of these legal maneuvers? Metro certainly doesn't like the subpoenas and has gone to court to seek to have them quashed. With the matter due back in court beginning soon, look for the media and legal fireworks to continue.

And there's the offer by anti-tax activist Ben Cunningham to help Metro citizens organize petition campaigns to oust from office any of the council members who voted in favor of the convention center. He better hope he gets better results than the petition drive organized by the anti-convention center group, Nashville's Priorities.

After saying they hoped to garner up to 25,000 signatures on the postcards they sent out to voters, Nashville's Priorities could only muster about 9,000, indicating that while voters may tell pollsters on the phone they don't like the project, they don't seem motivated enough right now to take it any further, even if all they are asked to do is sign a petition and mail it in. 

 But you can likely expect the convention center issue to stick around for next year's 2011 Metro elections, not only for some opponents to use against incumbent council members, but you can also expect convention center supporters, particularly in the business community, to be looking to find candidates to run against and beat those who voted against the Center (with the full blessings of the Dean administration in all likelihood). However, remember not all those council members who voted for or against the Center are eligible to run again for their present offices because they are term-limited.

And there are other issues Metro has to handle with the new convention center. Besides the uncertainty of how it might help finance the convention hotel, there are also questions about who exactly in Metro will oversee building the Music City Center? While the private-sector development team has already been chosen and is in place ready to start construction, is the new Convention Center Authority ready? As far as I can tell, it has little or no staff to monitor this major $$$ project. Can it gear up quickly and keep the project on time and on budget? If there is a major whoops during the construction or the new hotel proposal stirs controversy, we may see this battle over Nashville's future re-erupt all over again.

One matter related to the convention center that seems to be gaining in support is the plan to convert (and expand upward by several stories)) the present convention center into a medical mart. According to THE TENNESSEAN (1/21) after meeting with developers in Texas even some of the die-hard anti-convention center council members seem intrigued by the idea. The full Council will have to approve a lease for that to happen, and time seems to be of the essence, since similar projects are also on the drawing boards in New York City and Cleveland.    

Meantime, from the perspective of the pure politics of the fight, you have to admire the job done by Mayor Dean, his key staff and the Music City Center supporters to get the Music City Center approved. Sure, most Nashville mayors historically get the major projects they want approved, but in this case, mainly due to the sour economy, they had to piecemeal council approval, basically asking city leaders to sign off multiple times on various aspects of the plan, instead of having just one big Council vote taken on everything and then moving ahead (as previous mayors got to do for projects like an NFL stadium, the Arena, the new Downtown Library, even the first convention center back in the 1980s).

Also don't forget all the other firefights the convention center supporters had to deal with over the past few months. That includes all the questions and controversy about the project's PR and other contracts, as well as the failure to get a hotel financing package together despite earlier statements by the Dean administration that a hotel was essential. Finally, just days before the final Council vote, there was a negative reaction to the center financing plan from one of the major bond rating houses.

But despite all the difficulties that cropped up, like that old Bulova watch commercial, they took a licking, and kept on ticking (some of you reading this may be way too young to remember or understand what this means, especially if the name John Cameron Swayze is not one you recall. Oh well….(J)     

Now it's time for the Dean Team to get back to the rest of Metro government with the annual budget kickoff looming in the next few days. Given the current economy and the city's (and state's) financial condition, it won't be a fun thing to deal with, regardless of whether or not a tax increase looms later in the spring (which I still doubt).

There is one final lesson to be learned from this convention center fight. Transparency is important. For months, like the supporters of English Only before them, the leaders of Nashville's Priorities have been criticized for refusing to release a list of their donors. The Music City Center Coalition has now released its financial backers, but in doing so may have created a media problem, or should I say a problem for a major media outlet in town.

It turns out the morning daily contributed up to $15,000 to the MCC cause. Now there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but apparently no one in its newsroom knew anything about it. They apparently assumed they were doing their ethics due diligence when they reported, when necessary, that the paper's (now former) publisher was a member of the Coalition. In retrospect, more disclosure was needed not only to the paper's readers, but to its employees as well.

 WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES

Politics in Washington is getting to be like the weather here in Tennessee lately, subject to sudden and somewhat extreme changes.

This time last year President Barack Obama was riding high in the polls and had what appeared to be a filibuster proof majority in the Congress. People were ready for what he promised would be "change we can believe in." Democrats were riding high, while Republicans were trying to figure what to do next to keep their national relevancy.

My, how things can change

After trying to do perhaps too much, too fast, the President, as he observes his one-year anniversary in office, finds his job approval rating barely at 50% and, because of the shocking results of the special Senate race (for the late Ted Kennedy's seat) which we warned in our column last week might be coming, the President has lost almost any chance to hold off a Republican veto of his key legislative proposals in the Senate, including health care.

It is a real game changer and the President (and the Democrats) must change their tactics and probably their plans to avoid even further disaster in the upcoming mid-term elections in November.

The health care bills passed in both Houses of Congress are probably dead. Sure, the President and the Democrats could use some parliamentary maneuvers (reconciliation or getting the House to agree to the full Senate bill) to get a health care bill rammed through, but that doesn't seem likely to happen in part because it would only likely increase voter anger and further undermine any public support for health care change. And besides, it is seems pretty clear the votes are just not there anymore in either the House of the Senate.

I think one of the biggest mistakes this President has made is relying too much on the Democratic House and Senate leadership (and some lobbyists) to get this health care bill done. Many of their maneuvers (cutting special Medicaid deals, holding secret negotiation sessions, voting in the middle of the night or on Christmas Eve) are the regular order of day on the Hill when necessary, but the public doesn't understand that or like it one bit.

What has also happened is that many Democrats are disappointed that the President has delivered on so little of the agenda of change they expected and he promised (a watered down health care bill with no government option, no action on immigration change or "don't ask, don't tell," etc.). Independents are also defecting in droves from the President, scared to death of rising federal deficits and concerned that what the President has gotten approved (the stimulus plan in particular) seems to have done very little to revive the economy or reduce double-digit unemployment across the country, which remains at 10% nationwide and has spiked to 10.9% in Tennessee.

People are angry. Wall Street (which many people feel was the cause of our Great Recession) may have recovered, but nobody else has. They want change, a growing economy with jobs, jobs, jobs, not Congress and the President endlessly debating a health care plan that seems to cause more problems than it solves and which adds to the deficit and perhaps to future taxes. They feel the same way about the "cap and trade" energy/climate change bill in Congress.

That's why an unknown back-bench GOP legislator like Scott Brown, in one of the bluest states in America, could wipe out a 30-point deficit in the polls and win the Kennedy seat.  That plus the lousy candidate the Democratic Party leaders put up for their side. People here in Nashville with long memories can think back to the mayoral race of Councilman Casey Jenkins, who came out of nowhere in the summer of 1971 to take two-term incumbent Mayor Beverly Briley into a runoff largely because Jenkins was able to capitalize on voter anger over a new court-ordered school busing plan. When the public is mad (and won't take it anymore) they are willing to support even relatively unknown candidates to get their message across that they want something changed.

To his credit, President Obama (in his recent interview with ABC News 1/20) seems to realize his situation and the problems he faces. For someone who was so good on the campaign trail of staying in touch with and correctly reading the mood of the public, he has totally misread the current situation and has allowed the Republicans to beat him badly in the court of public opinion in recent months.

So what will he do about it? Perhaps we will begin to find out during his first "State of the Union" speech this coming week. He already seems to be indicating a willingness to back up and pare down the health care plan. But can he make that work? He must also come up with plans on how to deal more effectively with the economy and do so without raising the deficit much higher. It won't be easy, but he really has little choice. The major parts of his legislative agenda are dead for the time being as long as the Republicans hold 41 seats in the Senate. 

As for the rest of the Democrats, after they get through with a "circular firing squad" exercise that is sure to occur as they assess who is to blame for their problems, they also have to figure out how to avoid over-reacting to what has occurred in Massachuetts. Yes, it is scary that they could lose a major race in solidly blue state. But it means they need to do a better job listening to the voters and quit trying to bull their ideas through Congress without seeking some bi-partisan support. And if that bi-partisan help isn't forthcoming (and I doubt it will be) then they need to do a better job of convincing voters who is the really the party to blame for nothing getting done in D.C.      

That brings us to the Republicans. The GOP is obviously elated and emboldened about their chances for success in the elections this November, but they need to be careful. While the polls show problems for President Obama and the Democrats, they don't show much improvement in the overall support for Republicans (who voters basically fired in the 2006 and 2008 elections). The plain truth is voters don't care much for either major party and they are sick of the partisan bickering that seems to occur on every matter up for discussion inside The Beltway. 

That means both Republicans and Democrats need to do things differently. As Democrats pare down their measures, Republicans need to be more than the "Party of No." And they need to offer more than just criticism that a bill is too long, too big or comprehensive. They need to be willing to offer their own proposals then seek to find ways that both parties can work together to come up with good legislation. 

That's what voters want, a bi-partisan effort that will lead to real change, not more bickering. Whichever party can convince voters they can do that (and then do it) will have the real advantage going into the fall elections. But fat chance that will happen I am afraid.

Republicans also have their own internal X-Factor to deal with. The Tea Party Movement has truly energized many of the conservative elements of the party and they are taking a lot of credit for the big Senate win for Kennedy's seat. But they are very independent group and don't always seem ready to align with other elements in the GOP. In fact, as we are seeing with the upcoming Tea Party national meeting set to be held here in Nashville next month, they don't always agree among themselves.       

 INSIDE POLITICS

With all that is going on (including the other big political news of the week: the Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and labor unions to spend as much money as they want, anytime they want, to support political candidates or issues), I can't think of better guests to have on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend than long-time, local Democratic activist and attorney Larry Woods and national Republican consultant and former Tennessee GOP Party Chair, Chip Saltsman. To keep them both a bit honest (J), we will also have Political Science Professor John Vile of Middle Tennessee State University with us to give his political wisdom and perspective on these matters.

You can watch INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on NewsChannel5 Plus, both on Comcast and Charter Cable channels 250, and on NewsChannel5's over-the-air digital channel, 5.2.

Fridays (January 22)…….…7:00 PM

Saturdays (January 23)……5:00 AM

Saturdays (January 23)…….5:30 PM

Sundays (January 24)……….5:00 AM

Sundays (January 24)……….12:30 PM

Don't forget, if you live outside the Nashville area or don't have cable, you can watch excerpts from previous INSIDE POLITICS shows here at the NewsChannel5 website. (www.newschannel5.com) 

  SPECIAL

Another week and still more important achievements for Tennessee's (so-far) not-lame duck governor, Phil Bredesen

In addition to announcing that still more clean-energy solar related jobs are coming to Tennessee (200+ as a part of a $200 million plant investment), the Governor has gotten state lawmakers to complete the work of their special session, by approving his reforms for higher-education in the state. Last week, lawmakers approved the Governor's K-12 changes so the state could compete for hundreds of millions of federal dollars as a part of the "Race to the Top" program. This completes a real triumph for the Governor, adding some extra shine to the resume of his now 7+ years in office.  

As for higher-education, it might seem pretty easy to implement plans that would award state funding to our colleges, universities and community colleges based on how many folks they graduate not just enroll, or that courses taught at higher education schools across the state ought to be easily transferable to other schools in the system, but you'd be surprised.

Memphis lawmakers were not ready to come on board, until they got promises the University of Memphis could find ways to form partnerships to get more research grants. Actually what they really want is a separate governance board for the Memphis school. But since that isn't going to happen, the extra research opportunities might be a good consolation prize.   

And so with the special session now over, lawmakers are set to begin their regular tour of duty that they perform each winter and spring here in Nashville. So keep the good china and silverware locked up. J

HAITI

The massive earthquake that has devastated the island of Haiti seems almost too cruel.

This is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, one of the poorest in the world. It can't even function adequately in terms of providing for its impoverished population during normal times, much less a humanitarian calamity of this magnitude.

Perhaps that's one reason (along with its close proximity to our shores) that there has been such a strong outpouring of aid and support for the residents of Haiti after the quake. It reminds me of the reaction after the Christmas tsunami a few years ago or after Katrina along the Gulf Coast.

While there is always "the disaster after the disaster" trying to get aid into the impacted area, and we never seem to plan well in advance for these disasters, it is quite heartening to see how much people care and how much good there is in the world. You can't help but cheer when you see the aid being distributed, even though so much more needs to be done. And you can't help but get a little emotional when you see trapped victims pulled from the rubble even many days after hope for any more survivors would seem to have vanished. How brave and skillful are those rescuers, how dedicated those folks who are going to Haiti to provide aid and assistance.   

Too bad we don't have that kind of cooperative, selfless spirit and attitude in our politics.

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