By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations
May 9, 2008
Another round of primaries and another candidate comeback
This time it's Senator Barack Obama who has re-assumed a commanding front-runner position as the nominating contest for the Democrats heads into its final rounds of primaries and caucuses. After several weeks of being on the defensive about the Reverend Wright controversy and his "bitter" comments concerning small town voters, Obama's double-digit win in North Carolina and his closer-than-expected loss in Indiana now places him less than 200 delegates away from securing the Democratic nomination (depending, of course, about what is done to seat delegations from Michigan and Florida, which could change the number needed for a nomination majority).
There are still six primary and caucus contests to go between now and early June. But we have reached the point where there are now more undecided super-delegates (265) than there are delegates (217) still to be selected through primaries and caucuses. And with the tilt in super-delegates (mostly elected officials and party leaders) continuing to lean ever more toward Obama, as it has since Super Tuesday in February, the road (and the math) continues to get harder and harder for Senator Hillary Clinton. In fact, late breaking news from ABC as this column was being written shows Senator Obama now taking the lead among super-delegates wiping out Senator Clinton's once huge advantage in this area. CNN says it's still Clinton by 3 over Obama in super-delegates but the trend is unmistakably clear, especially with Obama also getting new support from organized labor (Service Workers International) further marginalizing the Clinton position.
Even former Clinton chief-of-staff Leon Panetta is now being quoted as saying it's time for Senator Clinton to bow out and former candidate John Edwards says he now believes Obama will be the Democratic nominee.
But, as we all know, the Clintons aren't quitters (her husband, former President Clinton is telling audiences in West Virginia the race is still not over), so I would expect her to try stay in the race at least until the final primary vote is cast and the last caucus delegate has been selected. A lot of super-delegates seem to expect that too, although a number of them are sending unmistakable signals they'd like the candidates to work this out between themselves and not force them to make the final decision (although that has seemed almost inevitable for several weeks now).
What the super-delegates are also saying to Senator Clinton, I think, is not to continue this race all the way through a rules fight and floor fight at the convention over what should be done with the delegations from Michigan and Florida. Would she do that? Possibly. Her argument that she can better attract white, working-class men and women voters is still proving to be true in some primaries, especially in the large, electoral-vote rich states. And she may well win (and win big) in a couple of the remaining primaries in states such as West Virginia and Kentucky, building new (if perhaps false) momentum for her continuing campaign efforts.
But former Democratic Senator George McGovern, a man who knows a lot about running as a presidential candidate of a divided (and soundly defeated) party (1972) has likely given Senator Clinton the best advice. He says Barack Obama has won the nomination "by any practical test."
Senator Clinton got her start in national politics working as a volunteer for Govern in 1972. If this is her last national campaign, she ought to listen to him carefully when the former Senator advises: "Hillary, of course, will make the decision as to if and when she ends her campaign. But I hope she reaches that decision soon so we can concentrate on a unified party capable of winning the White House next November."
Meantime, Tennessee's Harold Ford, Jr., just returned from his honeymoon, is urging the dream ticket of combining Obama and Clinton be strongly considered (again). Changing networks from FOX to NBC to do his political punditry, Ford is still declining to make a personal endorsement in the race, but there are some who say his most recent comments seem to be a veiled effort to help Clinton, and at least reward her with the VP prize for her hard- fought campaign. Certainly, combining Obama and Clinton would make for a powerful team and the combination could help heal lots of intra-party wounds. But the personalities involved (including the role of former President Clinton in such a pairing) still make such a ticket less than likely, in my opinion.
What a mess! Only the Democratic Party can come up with a nominating process that makes the Electoral College look modern and progressive.
Our state's nickname as "The "Volunteer State" is about to put to the test again...at least for our state employees.
Faced with a revenue shortfall approaching $600 million in next year's budget, Governor Phil Bredesen says the state needs to shed just over 2,000 employees. He hopes to do that on a voluntary basis with senior state workers (those with more than 30 years of service) and others leaving their positions in exchange for a financial buyout ( a so-far unspecified amount of money) along with receiving some kind of continuing health insurance and discounted tuition if they want to go back to school at a state college or university.
Will that be enough? Certainly the continuation of health insurance could be particularly attractive if premiums don't cost too much. But frankly, until we know all the numbers (the $$) involved, especially the amount of the one-time buyout, it's impossible to say what the reaction and decisions of state employees will be, although you can be sure almost every state employee is out there working on what $$ amount it would take to get them to leave early.
We understand the state has as many as 6,000 workers who have enough years of service (30 years+) to take the incentive package, leave and still be eligible to draw their state pension. But will a third of them be willing to do that? In this uncertain economy? And what about those who aren't pension-eligible? Will many of them step forward to do this?
And if 2,000 plus don't volunteer, how many state workers will have to be laid off? Those are just some of the questions the Governor will have to start to answer when he addresses state lawmakers on Monday evening (May 12). Don't expect complete answers. In fact, there are several indications this voluntary reduction in force plan is still very much a work in progress for the Governor and his staff.
Here's another thing for them to think about long term. How do you replace the likely brain-drain in state government that will occur with this reduction? I know we can all joke about those who work for the state and how capable and smart they are, but officials have been expressing concern for years about how they can handle losing key, long-term employees just due to normal attrition and retirements. Now that process could be greatly accelerated. And frankly, state pay for many positions is so poor, attracting new workers to replace them (when funds are available) doesn't look promising either. (Just watch NewsChannel5's Ben Hall's recent report about the situation with correctional officers in Tennessee to see what I mean).
The Governor's speech will also outline all the other cuts he will recommend for state programs, including some of his pet projects, like expanded Pre-K and further expansion of K-12 funding statewide. He is trying to shield these areas from the 5% cut being taken in the rest of state government, including (once again) in higher education. He is also reluctantly dropping some new program efforts to further discourage drunk driving, because Tennessee can't afford to hire the new employees that would involve.
Clearly, some of the Governor's legacy, especially in terms of education, is being delayed, if not denied by these cutbacks. Maybe some of them will still occur when the economy rebounds. But expanded Pre-K already had significant Republican opposition in the State Senate. Will it be even harder to get that passed if the next General Assembly contains a larger GOP majority in the Senate? And how much longer will key members of the Breseden team, especially Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz (who has been so successful in working with the Republicans in the General Assembly), continue their service in state government? Will an opportunity denied by budget cutbacks, be an opportunity forever denied?
From all indications, lawmakers appear ready to approve the Governor's proposals and head home by the end of next week (May 15 or May 16). A failure to hash out enough details on some of the cuts or the buyout plan could throw a monkey wrench into that, as could several other pending measures keeping the Legislature from final adjournment (judicial reform and lottery changes come to mind). To be sure, there will be critics (the State GOP leadership comes to mind) who will complain about the Governor not rolling back those big pay raises he gave some commissioners last year or not mothballing his "bunker" out at the Mansion on Curtiswood, but that doesn't appear to be having much impact right now.
And so lawmakers appear ready to approve what the Governor is requesting, go home and run for re-election and blame him (he's not on the ballot), if things don't go well.
While we are on the subject of possible employee layoffs, I told you a few weeks back that some Metro department heads, now faced with the reality of reductions, have gotten real creative on how to absorb some of the cuts. So much so that what appeared to be significant layoffs for some departments (Parks, Public Works) now appear to be not so bad, although I am told that you likely will be able to notice the cutbacks in Parks by how high and long the grass is getting at some of its facilities like the City Cemetery because of a cutback in seasonal employee hires.
Now, don't misunderstand. I hate to see anyone lose their job. But I do think these switcharounds to avoid layoffs could raise some credibility issues down the road for these department heads and the rest of the Dean administration, especially next year when Metro budget issues could be even more severe and there could be a possibility of some kind of tax increase. So based on what they said would happen this year (and it now appears some of it won't) what or who do you believe next budget go-around?
My guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week is Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey.
We taped the interview early, before a lot of the details about the Governor's revised budget plan were known, but I think our conversation gives you a pretty good insight into the Senate leader's thinking and game plan as he approaches the final days of this term of the General Assembly.
We discuss all the major issues still pending before lawmakers and I think you will see, especially in the area of judicial selection and election changes, he is ready to drive a pretty hard bargain to get his way, even though the GOP margin of control in the Senate remains razor-thin in the full body. But the GOP is stronger in the committee system and you can be sure Governor Ramsey will use that for all it's worth to get the changes he wants.
Interestingly, Lt. Governor Ramsey is not afraid to part company with his party's Presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, about a federal gas tax holiday. Tennessee's U.S. Senator Bob Corker also disagrees with the idea and I believe Senator Lamar Alexander is also opposed, as are his two Democratic opponents, Mike Padgett and Bob Tuke.
So who's in favor? Believe it or not, the Minority Leader of the State Senate, Democrat Jim Kyle of Memphis. There's an interesting reason he has spoken out (and I don't think it has anything to do with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who also supports the gas tax holiday). You see, Tennessee adopted this law a few years back that says if the federal gas tax is ever lowered, Tennessee's state gas tax would go up by the same amount. I guess that was to protect us from the federal cutbacks in road money any such federal gas tax cut would mean.
Senator Kyle has had the authority for any automatic state gas tax hike suspended for the last few years, but that is due to expire July 1, about the time any federal gas tax reduction would take effect. So, despite it being the waning days of the General Assembly, Senator Kyle is trying to get his gas tax legislation renewed by lawmakers.
He says if the rest of the country is going to get a gas tax break, then so should Tennesseans. That makes sense, but I have seen several reports that say any reduction in the gas tax could mean nothing to consumers, since it's quite possible the oil companies could just further raise prices to cover their higher costs.
One thing for sure: the continuing skyrocketing price of gas has the full attention of politicians, who are all calling for everything from a "Manhattan Project" for energy (Senator Alexander) to a gas tax holiday with higher taxes on the oil companies. Unfortunately, none of these ideas will do anything to provide much immediate relief at the pump. Senator Bob Corker and others are trying to get the feds to reverse an earlier congressional decision that mandated higher use of ethanol in the production of gasoline. That has led to a much greater proportion of the grain crop to be used for making fuel, while also driving the price of food all over the world. Oops.
I also see a lot of gotcha politics going on in Washington, bills loaded with items that the other party wants to get their opponents to either support or vote against, so it can provide them with political fodder for attack ads during the upcoming campaign charging they are for not doing enough to help our troops and veterans, help those facing foreclosure, help the unemployed and those down on the farm or just fill in the blank. Re-election season is rarely a time for good public policy in Washington. Why else are most of our tax rebate checks likely to wind up with OPEC instead of stimulating our own economy?
Getting back to Lt. Governor Ramsey, you can catch my INSIDE POLITICS interview with him this Friday (May 9) at 7:00 PM on NewsChannel5 Plus, Comcast Channel 50. Then on Saturday (May 10), the show will air again on the Plus Channel at 5:00 AM and 5:30 PM. Sunday (May 11), we are featured on the main channel, (WTVF-TV, Channel 5) at 5:00 AM, while also showing on Comcast Channel 50 at 5:00 AM and again at 12:30 PM.
THE SENATE RACE
Our race for the U.S. Senate is showing some signs of life.
While Senator Alexander was out touting his Manhattan Project for Energy Independence, Democratic opponent Mike Padgett accused the incumbent of only being interested in energy in a re-election year, saying Senator Alexander had done nothing to help lower gas prices during his previous five years in office.
The other Democrat in the race, Bob Tuke, is accusing Senator Alexander of flip-flopping on the issue of a flat tax. He's put up a web site at www.LamarFacts.com where the Senator, in his own words, praises the flat tax as "pro- family" during a recent speech on the Senate floor. Then the video shows presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, again in his own words, describing the flat tax as "a nutty idea" during his 1996 race for White House against opponent Steve Forbes who was touting such a tax plan.
The video is a bit overdone, repeating Alexander's "nutty idea" remark over and over and over again. But there is no mistaking that the video is effective in raising some questions about the Senator's seemingly new found admiration for this major change in the tax code.
TAKING ON THE FEDS, PART ONE
It has long been illegal, even in Tennessee, for a driver to operate his car holding an open container of alcohol. Most states, but not Tennessee, extend that prohibition to include anyone riding in a car. That's so a driver won't just hand over the incriminating evidence when he or she is stopped by the law.
The federal government likes the passenger prohibition and has encouraged Tennessee to adopt such a measure. Our lawmakers have repeatedly refused however, even though it has cost this state over the last few years tens of millions in federal highway funds.
This year, it looked as if something positive might finally happen. But now the measure has been sent to a summer study committee. What's to study? Either you are for this bill or against it? Who needs all summer to study (or more likely avoid) this issue until next year? And who's really trying to stop this bill?
At a time when government funds are as tight as they ever have been, why are we continuing to block ourselves from some needed federal funds? And why are continuing to leave open this loophole in the law which makes it easier to drive and drink?
TAKING ON THE FEDS, PART TWO
It's not just on Capitol Hill where taking on the feds seems popular with lawmakers.
Down the street at the Metro Courthouse, we have an example of the irresistible force (councilmanic courtesy in the Metro Council) meeting the immovable object (the federal government).
When Goodlettsville Councilman Rip Ryman had neighbors opposing a rehab facility being opened in the area, he amended the city's zoning laws so it could not be done in agricultural zoning where the facility involved ( a home) would be located. Even though the action had city-wide implications, traditional councilmanic courtesy kicked in, and most, if not all the other council members, went along with him.
But the group trying to open the rehab facility, Teen Challenge, which provides drug, alcohol and other rehab services to young people, thought that was unfair and illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. So the group filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination in federal court. The Justice Department then got involved and has been investigating the matter. Metro's lawyers seem convinced the city will likely lose the case, so they are seeking a settlement that would include changing the city's zoning law to once again allow rehab facilities in agricultural zoning areas. But, ignoring their legal counsel's advice, the Council voted to reject that idea at its most recent meeting.
What could be at stake are fines and millions in federal money the city receives each year. It's not the first time this kind of fight has taken place. For years, the Council refused to implement a car emissions inspection program. But eventually, they backed down and tail pipes here have been looked at annually for over two decades now to make sure they don't pollute.
So where are we headed with this controversy? Could it be that after all these years, councilmanic courtesy has finally met its match in the federal government and its power of the purse?
THE STATE OF METRO
Mayor Karl Dean will deliver his first State of Metro address on Tuesday, May 13.
That may seem like a random date. At least I thought it was, at first.
Frankly, the State of Metro has been an event in search of a meaningful date in recent years.
For many years, it was held on or around April 1 to commemorate the city's birthday in April, 1963 when our consolidated Metropolitan Government was formed. Yeah, I know, why would anyone choose April Fool's Day for your civic birthday? But we did, and mayors gave the State of Metro address to a Chamber of Commerce breakfast every year for several decades.
Then Mayor Bill Purcell came along and moved the State of Metro address to around May 25, the date the city's chief executive must submit his annual operating budget to the Metro Council. But then the Metro Charter was changed to require the budget be submitted by March 25. So do you move the State of Metro address to very early spring?
Mayor Purcell did not, and neither is Mayor Dean.
He chose May 13 for a very interesting and historical reason. May 13, 1780, is the day the first settlers in Nashborough (as it was known at the time) set up their local government. The Cumberland Compact is believed to be one of the first democratic governing documents of its kind in the area west of the Appalachian Mountains, created and signed while the fledging 13 colonies to the east were fighting for their independence from Great Britain.
So I guess it's fitting that if we can no longer find a way to celebrate the birth of our Metropolitan Government, let's celebrate and have the State of Metro on the date when our forefathers first decided they needed to find a way to govern themselves on a local level here.
But while you are feeling all warm and patriotic about that, let me share with you something I found while looking through our current Metro Charter the other day.
Remember that term limits amendment adopted by the voters in 1994? Well, the amendment has two other provisions you never hear much about. One requires the Metro Clerk (Marilyn Swing) to send a letter every year on behalf of the voters and residents of Davidson County asking our Davidson County State Representatives and Senators to approve a state constitutional amendment to mandate term limits for the General Assembly. Send the letter, every year.
The other part of the amendment requires the Clerk to do the same thing on the federal level: Send a letter to our local Davidson County Congressional delegation (Jim Cooper and Marsha Blackburn) and our two U.S. Senators asking them on behalf of the local voters and citizens, to approve a federal constitutional amendment for term limits in Congress. Again, send the letter, every year.
Marilyn Swing says that's exactly what's she done every year since 1995. She does try to make it clear this is not a personal matter for her, just fulfilling the requirements of her office under the Metro Council. She says she doesn't believe the letters have changed anybody's mind on the issue, and all she's ever gotten in return are form letters thanking her for her letters, and sometimes her opinions (even though they are not that).
So form letter responded to by form letter. Year after year, your tax dollars at work. Regardless of what you think about term limits, what is this silly provision doing in our local government's constitution? This is, at best, the kind of thing that belongs in a memorializing resolution for the Metro Council to consider and approve. Why should we mandate the government lobby the government on an issue like this?
And while we are at it, why not clean up some of the language in the charter about the mayor's pension rights after he or she serves three terms? Mayors can't serve three terms anymore, but the language remains.
Surely the State of Metro demands better than this.
A WORD OF WARNING
Because of client commitments and some travel, the next CAPITOL VIEW column will be coming out a day early on Thursday, May 15. So the subject matter may not be extensive or complete as usual (especially if the General Assembly is still wrapping things up and lots of issues remain undecided).
Comments about Capitol View should be sent to Pat Nolan directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .