Capitol View Commentary: May 21, 2010 - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: May 21, 2010

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CAPITOL VIEW

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

May 21, 2010

FLOODED; MORE FLOOD RESIDUE; INSIDE POLITICS; READING THE ELECTION TEA LEAVES; LOCAL ELECTIONS; ELECTIONS ACROSS THE NATION; BUDGET DECISION WEEK LOOMS; GUNS IN BAR VETO II;

The water is gone, but the damage numbers continue to rise from the Great Flood of 2010.

 Latest figures show private property damage approaching $1.9 billion with more than 11,000 properties impacted and perhaps as many as 16,000 before the calculations are complete.

Those numbers don't include public property where the losses are also significant. For example, Metro has some $200 million in damages just to its water-sewer facilities, including $100 million to repair the Dry Creek Wastewater Plant. It is hoped that private insurance will help cover most of that cost, while the federal government will step up as well as to cover a good bit of the $247 million in costs the city estimates it has sustained regarding other damages to public infrastructure, buildings and overtime for city workers.

For its part, Mayor Karl Dean says the city will, if necessary, commit its entire 4% building equipment repairs and replacement fund, both for the rest of this fiscal year and next to cover its share of costs. There's about $14.7 million left in the fund this year and another $23 million next year (beginning in July). By the way this also means there are likely to be no police car purchases or equipment or minor repair monies available for other city agencies for maybe the next year and a half. 

Metro is also considering a buy-out program for an unknown number of the 3,000 damaged properties that are within the federally-designated 100-year flood plain. It is, of course, still unknown what that will cost, which properties will qualify, and how Metro will pay for its share of the costs.

Nevertheless, all this extra expense has led a second national bond rating agency to express concern about how Metro government will be able to handle this financially. Following Fitch Ratings which expressed concerns and downgraded Metro's bonds during the convention center funding effort some weeks ago before the recent flood, Moody's has now placed Nashville on a "watch list" for a possible rating downgrade that is due at least in part to the recent flood damage.

"Moody's believes that Metro's already narrow financial position will likely experience further strain due to the recent flood damage and disruption of various revenue streams, including hotel/motel, sales taxes and possibly property taxes." However the rating service added that it believes Metro's economy will "remain relatively stable over the long term" and that the city's debts levels are manageable.

Look for the Dean administration to remain in high gear to try and minimize any negative impact from this. Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling says Moody's has expressed similar concerns in the past and the city has been able to address those issues. He is hopeful that something can be worked out over the next 90 days before Moody's makes a final decision about Metro. Riebeling points out that Metro still has a strong bond rating. In fact, even if Moody's downgrades, the city's debt rating will be at the same level with all the bond rating houses.       

 But this latest "watch list" announcement does possibly create some perception issues about the city's financial situation. The "watch list" announcement also occurred within hours after the Metro Council overwhelmingly approved a plan to refinance the city's debt in order to generate more money for its general fund to avoid major service cuts or a property tax increase for the next two years. It is not clear what impact, if any, this rating service development will have on the refinancing. So far, it appears no impact at all.    

MORE FLOOD RESIDUE

Like the Great Flood it began somewhat quietly. Now the chorus grows ever louder in strength and force almost with each passing day.

First, it was a news release from Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander asking questions about how things could be done better if we ever suffer another flood or disaster, and suggesting a possible investigation.

Then, with his first comments made on my INSIDE POLITICS show last weekend, Nashville Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper said he thought a full and complete congressional investigation of how the flood was handled by the Federal Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service is in order. As a Democrat, Cooper likely has the influence to make that happen.

Now the Tennessee General Assembly is adding its voice to conversation with a resolution supporting a congressional inquiry unanimously passing the House Finance Committee and soon to be scheduled for a vote in the full House.

It seems finally our state lawmakers are getting involved. In the first week or so after the Flood, our representatives seemed much more interested in the latest "guns in bars" bill or trying to mandate that the state's drivers' license exam being given in English as much as possible.

Two of Nashville's representatives seem to be trying to change all that. It is House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner who is sponsoring the resolution asking for the congressional investigation, while Minority Leader Gary Odom wants to see if there is some way that flood victims (as approved by FEMA) can be exempt from sales tax while they try to rebuild and recover. Odom is also seeking legislation (already passed in the Senate and set to be approved in the House Monday that would allow for property tax relief for those out of their homes for longer than a month. It would require approval by a two-third votes by the Metro Council, but I suspect that is easily doable.

While there are a lot of details yet to be worked out, I would bet both these tax relief efforts as well as the Corps investigation request will pass the General Assembly as well.  Who knows what, if anything will come out of congressional hearings. But at least, it finally seems the folks in the General Assembly are paying attention to the problems caused by the Great Flood.   

INSIDE POLITICS

As we continue to wade through the rainiest month in Nashville's history, the news headlines and our hearts and mind continue to be focused on the Great Flood of 2010.

Joining us on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend to discuss where things stand are Nashville State Representative and House Minority Leader Gary Odom, 5th District East Nashville Metro Councilman Jamie Hollin and Metro Codes Director Terry Cobb.

We tried to get a representative of the federal Army Corps of Engineers to come on the show to talk about their role in flood control efforts during the Flood, but officials declined our invitation.

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend including twice on the main channel (WTVF-TV, Channel 5). First, we are on at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Friday, May 21) and then Sunday morning (May 23) at 5:00 a.m.

We are also on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast & Charter Channels 250 and Channel 5's over-the-air digital station 5.2. You can see us at 7:00 p.m. tonight (Friday, May 21), Saturday (May 22) at 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. and finally on Sunday (May 23) at 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

Watch us! It's an informative show.

READING THE ELECTION TEA LEAVES

In recent days we've seen local and regional elections across the country that offer a lot of food for thought as we try to read the tea leaves for what the voters are saying and what lies ahead for the rest of the 2010 election cycle.

LOCAL ELECTIONS

You can call it Metro's "forgotten election." Voter interest is never very high in the May primary for the county constitutional offices here, especially when most of the high profile positions such as sheriff, trustee and county clerk are unopposed races for long-time incumbents. But add in a two-week delay in voting because of the Great Flood, and voter interest and turnout was likely near all-time lows on May it.

This continues a downward trend in participation that began almost two decades ago.

May, 1990….. Voter Turnout 95,199

May, 1994…….Voter Turnout 47,971

May, 1998…….Voter Turnout 51,577

May, 2002…….Voter Turnout 36,592

May, 2006……..Voter Turnout 37,219

May, 2010………Voter Turnout 23,065 (numbers courtesy of Metro Election Commission website)

So why is this decline continuing? Is it the demise of former Sheriff Fate Thomas and his political machine? Are many of the current incumbents in these positions too strong to be challenged, especially in what is now a one daily newspaper town? And while you may not have noticed it, this time, not even THE TENNESSEAN made endorsements in these races. While newspaper endorsements are not what they used to be in terms of political clout, is this another statement about the overall lack of community interest in these contests?  Should state law and the constitution be changed (fat chance) because these clerk positions in particular have become positions best appointed by judges, not elected by the voters?

Here are some more turnout figures to contemplate. There were 5 precincts where NOBODY showed up to vote all day. In 14 election locations less than 10 people voted. In well more than a third of Metro's precincts (77 of 172 precincts) 100 or less voters came out to cast their ballots

Given these pitiful voter turnout numbers and the rising costs of putting on elections, is it time for the government and the taxpayers to quit paying the tab for these primaries? Should the parties figure out their own ways to nominate candidates (caucuses or by the party executive committee) or should the parties pay for holding primary elections? It does not seem fair to hold elections paid for by taxpayers when so few people are voting out of a total registered voter list of almost 350,000 people.  

 But while turnout was abysmal, voters were decisive. For the second time they fired Metro Juvenile Court Clerk Vic Lineweaver. In fact, he finished fourth in the Democratic primary field garnering only 12% of the vote. That means 88% of those casting ballots did so for anybody but Lineweaver. Many had thought a crowded field would enhance Lineweaver's re-election chances.

A district/precinct breakdown of the vote is now available. And it appears Lineweaver's base was either was either too busy with flood recovery (his political base is the hard-hit Bellevue area) or perhaps they'd just abandoned him due to all the difficulties and controversies he's faced involving proper record keeping and telling reporters he was in the office when he was really at home in his bathrobe going out to get his mail.

Here's how bad it was. From a quick look at the precinct breakouts, Lineweaver carried ONE box. Ironically, it was one of the very small precincts (Eakin School) in the Vanderbilt area where you would not expect him to have any political strength. Only four votes were cast there and he got 3 of them. Otherwise Lineweaver carried ZERO boxes in the entire county.         

One person who did a great job getting his vote out was long time court clerk David Smith, who won the Juvenile Clerk primary. Smith comes from a family with a long interest and involvement in local politics. He has learned well. He started early, and even when the field got crowded, he continued to organize and build support. He also had quiet but strong support from lots of other major candidates on and off the ballot (Sherriff Daron Hall, Trustee Charlie Cardwell, State Senator Joe Haynes, Juvenile Judge Betty Adams).

The payoff was that David Smith got almost 50% of the vote, a very strong number given all the difficulties in this race and the size of the field. Breaking it down by precincts, a rough count shows Smith was strong in all parts of town (except perhaps some of the historically black boxes). He carried over 120 of 172 precincts.

Now Smith must face something few Democratic primary winners in this county have had to do….a Republican opponent. Controversial Councilman Eric Crafton won the GOP primary for the right to run in the August general election against Smith. Turnout for the GOP (3,941) was much, much less than the Democrat (18,514), and ordinarily that alone would make the August vote something of a cakewalk for Smith.

But this time there are some other dynamics at work. A lot more Republican voters may turn out in August wanting to participate in the hotly contested GOP gubernatorial primary. That could help Crafton as could the fact that Democrats will not have much to vote for as their gubernatorial contest is down to a single candidate (Mike McWherter) and there are only a few contested state house and senate primaries to attract Democratic voters. 

Crafton is very fortunate to have this kind of opportunity. When he first got in the race, it was clear one the reasons he was running as a Republican was to try and get a one-on-one shot at Lineweaver, to give him a better chance at victory. It would have been hard for Democrats to unite behind Lineweaver. One sign of that was apparent on Election Night, as all the local Democratic officials hosted an election victory party, but somehow forgot to invite Lineweaver.

But the party will be united behind Smith, and while Crafton is already trying to use that against his opponent saying Smith is the choice of "the Courthouse Machine" if the local party can turn out its vote in August, Smith is a big favorite to win.

Looking back at the May 18 numbers, here are some of the challenges Crafton faces in boosting his vote totals. Less than 4,000 votes were cast in the GOP primary, compared to over 23,000 on the Democratic side. In 14 precincts nobody even asked for a GOP ballot. Crafton garnered 2820 votes which was more than Lineweaver but still it would have placed him no better than 3rd in the Democratic race. Crafton did not receive 100 votes or more at any voting location (the closest he came was 96 at Bellevue Middle School)                 

Here's one other interesting note from the Juvenile Court Clerk's race. The 2nd and 3rd place finishes by Metro Councilmember Vivian Wilhoite (2,863 votes) and School Board member Karen Johnson (2,649 votes) show that the day may soon be coming when a minority can win one of Nashville's constitutional offices.   In fact, Wilhoite carried around 40 boxes in the May 18 election while Johnson showed enough strength in enough areas to finish behind her by less than 300 votes. Both women are likely to run again (the Council At-Large race next year comes to mind although all the incumbents can also seek re-election making winning one of the five spots a tough task). But these two ladies have to find a way to put their personal differences behind them and quit running against it other. It is self-defeating to say the least.

  There is one other local race to reflect on as Criminal Court Clerk David Torrence won a fifth 4-year term in office. He handily defeated Councilman Michael Craddock, garnering 66% of the vote. Craddock had strongly challenged Torrence about how often he was or was not on duty at the Courthouse. But the charges never seemed to stick. That's perhaps because of Torrence's long service in office, and the high regard his father was held in while also serving as Criminal Court Clerk and as Metro Finance Director. The precinct number reflect this as Craddock won just 10 precincts, most of them north and east of the river close to his council district.

Craddock was also not nearly as well-funded as Torrence and, as for why he was better qualified to be the Criminal Clerk, he talked primarily about his perfect attendance record with the Metro Council. Admirable, surely, but said one political observer to me Election Night, not nearly enough to convince people to turn out a longtime incumbent.

ELECTIONS ACROSS THE NATION

Across the country, there were a number of very interesting primary and other elections on Tuesday, May 18. Many of them continue to send the strong message from voters that they are very much in a "throw the rascals out" mood.

In many cases that means incumbents are in jeopardy. That is what happened in Pennsylvania where long-time Senator Arlen Specter found out (even with the endorsement of President Barack Obama) that switching parties from the GOP to the Democrats in order to hold on to his seat didn't work, and he was defeated in the primary. Another incumbent Senator still at risk is Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas who now must win a primary runoff and then a general election fight to stay in office. She made labor unions and others on the left side of the Democratic Party base mad, and she is still paying for it.        

But it is not just incumbents who are in danger. Anyone who appears to be the chosen candidate of the political establishment in either party is at risk. That's what happened in the Kentucky GOP Senate primary. Rand Paul, son of GOP libertarian stalwart Ron Paul, and a big fan of Tea Party supporters, easily defeated the hand-picked choice of Kentucky Republican leaders (including the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) in the race to replace Jim Bunning who is retiring.

So where does this leave us for the fall elections? While it is pretty clear the Democrats as the party in power will (as always) lose seats in both the House and Senate, some pundits are saying these recent elections may help to better position the Democrats for November. According to Jonathan Chait of THE NEW REPUBLIC (May 18) Arlen Specter's defeat in Pennsylvania may actually make "the Democrats marginally more likely to hold the Senate seat" because the GOP nominee "is a radical candidate" who has been stripped "of the anti-incumbent sentiment that's his best shot."  

I have seen similar comments from other pundits about the Senate race in Kentucky which would be a pickup for the Democrats. This seems to be based on Paul's Tea Party beliefs, while others point out that the Kentucky Democratic Senate race actually attracted more voters than the GOP contest. The same is reportedly true in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. So, despite the gains of the GOP and the Tea Party, are Democrats really dispirited and not interested in voting this cycle?

Finally, there is the one race of May 18 where Republican met Democrat…and the Democrat won. This is the special House election to replace the late John Murtha of Pennsylvania. The GOP had high hopes to take the seat, especially since this was a district (as Jonathan Chait points out) "that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008—the only district in America that went for John Kerry in 2004 and flipped to McCain in 2008. It is also the district that John Murtha described as too racist to support Obama. It ought to be ground zero for an anti-Democratic backlash."

It didn't happen. The Democrat, a former aide to Murtha, won the contest, but with a rematch likely this fall.

All this occurs while President Obama did notch another major legislative victory with Senate passage of finance reform. Three Republicans came over to help make it happen (including the former darling of the Tea Party folks Scott Brown). While the bill needs to be reconciled with what the House, there is speculation a bill could be on the President's desk to sign before the 4th of July.

But will it work? Given the struggles we continue to see with government trying to control anything from massive oil spills in the Gulf to the growing fear of another worldwide financial implosion because of the financial situation in Europe, we continue to live in most uncertain economic times. And, unfortunately, right no one has an app for that.

BUDGET DECISION WEEK

You may soon need a program to figure which state budget proposal is which on Capitol Hill here in Nashville.

It began with the Governor's budget which relied on a tax on cable TV bills and removing the sales tax on some large purchases to balance, along with an increase in your drivers' license fees.

Republican Lt. Governor and gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey didn't like that idea at all and vowed to come up with his own plan. He did, although his proposal seemed to do nothing more than delete the taxes, along with a 2% bonus for state workers, then make up the rest of the deficit by taking still more money out of the state's rainy day fund. His GOP colleagues in the House didn't sign on completely, and there are rumblings Ramsey does not have the full 17 votes he needs to pass his plan in the Senate.

And so the Republican leaders in both Houses have been trying to reach a compromise. House Speaker Kent Williams, who had earlier declared the Ramsey plan dead, has now expressed some optimism about a budget deal being reached. But that can sometimes be a very difficult target to hit in the late days of a legislative session.

Now the House and Senate Democrats are trying to come up with their own plans, all the while seeking to lure over Republicans so they can have the votes they need. They believe restoring some of the cuts being suggested by Senate Republicans along with keeping some kind of employee bonus will help do the trick. Perhaps because it is his last session, the Governor, so far, seems pretty open on compromises, even using more rainy day funds that he has suggested, something which he has strongly resisted in the past.

What will happen? Who knows? Given where all sides appear to be, there likely won't be any tax hikes (which will give Lt. Governor Ramsey something to crow about on the campaign trail), but the exact look of the new budget remains a bit of a mystery going into what is likely to be the last of week of this session.

But whatever occurs will likely happen quickly. Lawmakers really want to be gone sine die by Memorial Day and they know at least the Senate is about out of legislative days (meaning those members won't get paid if they stay beyond that). There is nothing like a time crunch to focus the mind and the pocketbook.

GUNS IN BAR VETO II       

Before they leave lawmakers, for the second year in a row, are likely to override Governor Bredesen's veto of the latest guns in bars and restaurants proposal. This year's bill seeks to resolve the vagueness of the first measure which was ultimately struck down by the courts because it is just about impossible for the average person to tell the difference between a bar and a restaurant in Tennessee.

But the Governor doesn't like the new version any better. He says simply (as he did last year) "guns and alcohol don't mix." But apparently they do well enough for lawmakers who should easily override the Governor's objections, especially since in Tennessee you only need a simple constitutional majority (not a two-thirds votes as it is in almost every other legislative body) to do that.

Then, while they will need to find some new legal arguments, you can expect those who side with the Governor and oppose this measure to take the matter back to the courts.                        

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