By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
May 28, 2010
THE BUDGET STALEMATE; CROSS CURRENTS; WHO'S AHEAD; ENDORSEMENTS; INSIDE POLITICS
Remember when they were promising to finish their business and leave town as early as April?
Now it appears the Tennessee General Assembly could go well into June before they approve a state budget and adjourn for the year (sine die).
The financial battle, now in a stalemate, involves primarily a fish tale, that won't allow anyone to get away. There are also some side controversies involving slashing programs to save premature babies, flood relief efforts, bonuses for state workers versus buyouts for those about to be laid-off, and, of course, a large helping of gubernatorial and state legislative election politics.
The fish tale revolves around $17 million to build a fish hatchery in House Speaker Kent Williams' district in Upper East Tennessee. Already some $800,000 has been spent on the plan with the rest of the monies to be employed if federal funds become available. "Fish is the new pork," says the watchdog research group the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, adding that the 22 jobs to be created will cost about $768,000 per new position. Oink!
But Democrats and some House Republicans want to keep the project. They wonder if this matter is being singled out as "revenge" against Williams who crossed party lines to get elected Speaker by Democrats last year. Of course, that's denied by Republicans. But being opposed to the project for public policy reasons and "sticking it to the man" in this case, don't have to be mutually exclusive, do they?
Democrats criticize the Republican budget coming out the State Senate because it deletes a pilot program that is helping to save the lives of premature babies, and, of course, that very quickly gets into charges of hypocrisy for lawmakers who always talk about being "pro-life."
Flood relief efforts are also creating issues. While folks need help, is it setting a precedent to provide state funds for flood victims when it hasn't happened in the past?
What's best for state workers is also a fight. Should there be a small, one-time bonus for workers who haven't had a raise in several years? Or does it make sense to give bonuses when some employees are being laid off? Should funds instead be put together for buyout plans?
Not surprisingly, gubernatorial politics are getting involved, as Lt. Governor and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey is leading the Republican efforts. Some Democrats and others think Ramsey is particularly trying to cut the fishery project to continue his feud with Speaker Williams. They also say he is trying to make things easy for himself with buyouts during his first year in office (if he wins). Ramsey denies all that, of course, and says he is just doing his job.
You'd think all these folks would love to cut a deal (the overall amount of money in dispute is a very small amount of the overall budget) so they can go home and start running for re-election with the party primaries about two months away. But given the heightened concern about spending at all levels of government, this has become a very sticky situation to easily resolve. Some of these so-called "pork projects" including grants to local museums across the state have been part of the budget for some years and lawmakers have routinely approved them in the past.
As for Lt. Governor Ramsey, whether he intends to or not, he is likely to get much more on-going statewide publicity in regards to this matter, than anything he can get on the campaign trail. And he can wage this battle on behalf of state taxpayers (as he will position it) while his primary opponents can only sit on the sidelines.
But despite all this, if lawmakers can find a way to fish or cut bait on the Fishery (leave the project funding as it has been in the past or delete it) maybe everything can get resolved late in the week (Thursday or Friday June 3-4) and lawmakers can finally go home!
As Nashville and the rest of Middle and West Tennessee continue to recover from the Great Flood of 2010, we are beginning to see some cross-currents develop that are creating controversy and potential difficulties moving ahead.
We've already mentioned the budget dispute here on Capitol Hill here in Nashville with some lawmakers now concerned about setting a precedent to give aid to flood victims when the state has not done that very often, if at all, with past natural disasters.
Meanwhile, I told you another legislative fight would likely be coming on the local level in the wake of the flooding. THE NASHVILLE CITY PAPER (May 28) reports a bill in the Metro Council that will prohibit all new residential development anywhere in the 100-year flood plain. That is bound to create concerns, even opposition, in the development community as well as others in the Council who are concerned what this could cost the city down the road with existing development rights for property already zoned, but not built out, in flood plain areas.
As for those trying to rebuild, Metro Codes is working hard and doing a good job to gear up for those outside the flood plain who need to get building permits. Approximately 5,800 damaged properties are outside the flood plain. Metro usually gives out 10,000 building permits during an entire year. Dealing with 50% of that volume in just the next few weeks means Metro has to be really ready for the onslaught. So Metro has created a way for folks to apply on-line for building permits while the Codes' department phone system has been enhanced and expanded to better handle the flood of requests for codes inspections as the work is done.
But I also noticed in one of Metro's latest news releases that there are 5,000-plus damaged properties in the flood plain. So, it's likely they can't get a building permit until the extent of their damage is assessed which is still some weeks away. And if it's more than 50% destroyed, no permit may ever be issued. So how long will folks be in limbo about their homes and properties? And how soon will Metro begin a buyout program? Who will eligible? What will be the timetable? At what cost? The city has done this kind of work before, but that has been at a volume of a few dozen homes, not thousands. So Metro, this time the Water Services Department, has a lot to work to do to get ready and gear up..
There are other flood relief issues that face flood victims on the federal level. While FEMA and the Small Business Administration have gotten high marks for their efforts so far, EPA may be running into a problem. Starting under the Bush Administration, there have been new rules underway to regulate how lead-based paint is handled.
Lead in paint is an environmental hazard and no one really disputes the need to regulate that. But with this new rule now in effect, it could create real problems and long delays for folks trying to rebuild. Lots of older buildings (constructed before 1978) have lead-based paint, but the implementation of the new rule to mitigate the lead based paint requires contractors to be certified by EPA. There are only three EPA trainers in all of Tennessee. With the hundreds, if not thousands of repair jobs getting underway, it is pretty easy to set the bureaucratic train wreck about to occur.
Both Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have been urging EPA to grant a waiver here in the state to delay the new rule. But so far, that hasn't happened. That's dumb I think and it is "tone-deaf to reality" says Senator Alexander. The Obama administration needs to get on the stick about this…and so do our Congressmen.
Senator Alexander has already passed an amendment to the supplemental federal assistance bill for flood relief that has passed in the Senate. The amendment prohibits EPA from using any money from this bill to enforce the new lead-based paint rule. Good first step. Now the House needs to do the same….while EPA extends a waiver during this crisis period.
Speaking of the flood relief bill in the Senate, it is interesting to note that our Senators surprisingly split their votes. Senator Alexander voted yes, Senator Corker, no. Why did Senator Corker oppose it? Both Senators tried, but failed, to add amendments to may sure the extra appropriations were paid for by spending cuts or freezes on salary increases. When those went down, Senator Alexander felt it was still more important to vote aye, while Senator Corker decided that our increasing national debt was too important that voting for this bill.
Senator Corker's office quickly issued a news release to explain why he voted. But with his re-election looming just two years from now, I suspect he will have to continue to explain this vote over and over in the months to come leading up to 2012.
I can tell by more than the calendar that the Memorial Day holiday weekend is approaching.
This traditional kickoff for summer also means an increased awareness and interest in the upcoming gubernatorial election with the August primary ahead.
I know it is happening when I get approached by total strangers who see me somewhere and ask…"So who's is ahead in the Governor's race?"
That's an interesting question, especially since I have not seen any kind of professional independent poll on the contest for several weeks now.
Conventional wisdom says Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam is the front-runner. Without a poll, is that right? Well, it may be correct, based on another important and almost never wrong indicator. Haslam is the candidate who is being attacked from time to time by his opponents. The candidate in front is always the one in the crosshairs. It's almost never the other candidates, unless they perceive to be moving up quickly in the pecking order of the race.
Haslam recently has been attacked (on the same day) about two different family investments involved with projects involving both state and local government by both GOP candidate Zach Wamp and by Democratic candidate (and soon to be nominee) Mike McWherter. That's a pretty strong case for who is the front runner.
This also made me remember recently when WASHINGTON POST staff writer Chris Cillizza took some flack for a comment he made in a (May 24) story (about trends in political dynasties). He said: "in Tennessee, Mike McWherter, son of former governor Ned Ray McWherter, is the likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee, but doesn't have much chance of claiming the state's top office in the fall."
Nobody can prove that this many months out. But I know Cillizza can find plenty of political observers all over the state who would tell him that quietly. Cillizza just printed it. I can understand how the McWherter campaign is most unhappy. But if he has another quarter raising just $100,000 of outside funds, he'll have less than a snow ball chance come November. I also keep hearing from folks, including some Democratic leaders here in deep-blue Nashville who say: "Well, if I have to have a Republican governor, I guess I'll be OK with Haslam." Hmm….isn't that kind of what I heard from some Republicans eight years ago when Phil Bredesen was running as a Democrat for Governor?
It is always interesting to watch endorsements in a race and see how they play out.
That includes a bit of a strange one in recent days that was given to Congressman Wamp by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. According to Tom Humphrey of THE KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL LaHood "told a group of Tennessee Valley Corridor business and government leaders gathered in Washington…that the Chattanooga congressman would be a good choice as the state's next governor. "I know I am not supposed to be doing something like this, but I don't know a better person to lead your state than Zach Wamp."
It sounds very nice, especially since Wamp and LaHood are friends from serving together in Congress a few years back. But wait a minute. LaHood is a Republican serving in the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama (can you say RHINO?) and he is clearly from and part of Washington. Wamp doesn't even mention he's a Congressman or mention the word "Washington" in his TV ads. Friendships are great, but the Secretary is right when he says "I'm not supposed to do this", later adding (according to Humphrey's article, "I'm sure I'll get in trouble with somebody saying that. But I love Zach and when you love somebody, you just have to say what you think." Busted
By the way, the Wamp campaign issued a news release about the Tennessee Corridor conference, but it only mentioned that LaHood was one of several speakers. The release focused on how Wamp joined with Volkswagen's CEO during his appearance to see more production jobs coming to Tennessee.
But sometimes campaign endorsements can attempt to be particularly positioned and perhaps strategic. We talked before in this column about how Mayor Bill Haslam has to reassure conservative Republicans that he is not too moderate or a bit of a RHINO (Republican in name only). Witness the recent endorsement of Cyndi Bryant, the wife of former West Tennessee GOP Congressman Ed Bryant. According to an announcement by the Haslam campaign, Bryant is "a longtime pro-life advocate." She returns to the praise to Haslam saying: "He's pro-life, strong on guns, believes the best gift a child can have is a mother and a father, and has the proven record as Mayor of Knoxville of a rock-solid fiscal conservative."
Remember all the GOP gubernatorial candidates are from East Tennessee. So endorsement from other parts of the state might be helpful when Ms. Bryant made his statement during a Haslam event in her husband's old congressional district in Jackson.
Memorial Day weekend is a time to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our freedom.
It is also a great time to discuss politics.
So our guests this week on a wide variety of topics (the Gulf oil spill, the President's job numbers, the fall elections) are Linda Peek Schacht, Associate Professor at Lipscomb University in the departments of communications, history, politics and philosophy and Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, political scientist at Vanderbilt University.
It is a fascinating discussion that you can watch several times this weekend of NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast and Charter cable channels 250 as well as NewsChannel5's over-the-air digital channel 5.2.
Our show times are 7:00 p.m. Friday (tonight, May 28), 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday (May 29) and Sunday, 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
Happy Memorial Day!