Capitol View Commentary: Friday, January 13, 2017


By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners Company

January 13, 2017



The 110th Tennessee General Assembly began its work in Nashville this week.

That includes our 33 State Senators electing a Speaker for the upper chamber. That person also serves as Tennessee’s Lt. Governor. It’s an office that is arguably the second most politically powerful in the state.

The new Lt. Governor is Senator Randy McNally of Oak Ridge. He’s the longest active member of the General Assembly (38 years) and he is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

It’s an interview and conversation I have been really looking forward to conducting.

Pay particular attention to what Governor McNally says is his "comfort level" about how much the state gas tax should be raised, and what other taxes might be cut if that happens. He also shares his thoughts on how local governments ought to look to fund their mass transit needs. Watch us!

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include 7:00 p.m. Friday; 5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday; along with 1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on Just use your TiVo or DVR if those live times don't work for your schedule.

The shows are also later posted for viewing on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website under NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS’ Inside Politics link.


For the most part, it was routine business as usual during the 110th General Assembly’s organizational week.

Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell was unanimously re-elected to a fourth term. That means even the 25 Democrats in the 99-member lower chamber voted for her. In the Senate, 3 of the 5 Democrats abstained from voting for Lt. Governor McNally. But they say it is not a sign of ill will. In fact, one of the Democrats, Nashville Senator Jeff Yarbro told THE TENNESSEAN he has a lot more confidence in this

transition here in the Tennessee State Senate (from Ron Ramsey to Randy McNally) than the one about to take place in Washington.

Actually, Senator McNally did not even vote for himself to be Speaker of the Senate. He cast a symbolic vote for his predecessor, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey.

Elsewhere past this week, both Houses re-elected all of the state’s constitutional officers and, in the wake of last year’s sexual harassment controversy last year that saw Representative Jeremy Durham of Williamson County expelled by his colleagues, all members in both chambers will now complete a new on-line course on harassment topic, including a 15-minute video. The House will also have a standing sub-committee that will review any seemingly valid complaints lodged against members.

In one other ethics related development, new rules adopted by the House, will require members to disclose any out of state legislative related trips they take valued at more than $100. That includes travel paid for by non-lobbyists.

Lt. Governor McNally also made his first committee assignments. It looks like most the changes that occurred (Bo Watson chairing Finance, Jim Tracy becoming Speaker Pro Tem and Paul Bailey chairing Transportation) arose from the leadership shuffle that had to occur with the new Speaker being selected and the subsequent leadership shifts that brings about down the line.

I would say in a year when transportation will be such a huge issue (gas tax, mass transit, President Trump’s proposed infrastructure plans), there could be concerns with having a change in the transportation committee leadership (Tracy) now. But I am told Senator Tracy preferred the Speaker Pro Tem position and you can’t hold both jobs at the same time.

The House committee appointments were also announced by Speaker Harwell. Most of the changes in chairmanships in the lower chamber were expected. One came about because a member (Jon Lundberg) was elected to the Senate. The new chair of the Civil Justice Committee is Andy Farmer. Another committee chair (Steve McManus of Banking & Insurance) was defeated for re-election. He is replaced by Ron Travis.

A third chair change was also not unexpected, but in this case it likely was for political reasons. Representative Jimmy Matlock mounted a bid to unseat Speaker Harwell. He lost. He is therefore no longer chair of the Transportation Committee. In fact, he is not even on that committee anymore. Barry Doss is the new Transportation chair.

And so in a year when the gas tax and mass transit will dominate Hill as major issues, both transportation committees will have new top leadership. That’s an interesting turn of developments.


Even though it will the first Tuesday in November, 2018 (about 22 months from now) before we pick our next governor, the jockeying among would-be candidates continues to build.

Last week Clarksville Republican State Senator Mark Green became the first candidate to file papers to raise money and hire staff for a statewide campaign. Now Tennessee Economic & Development Commissioner Randy Button has announced his resignation from state government to return to the

private sector. It is thought the move also opens the way for Button to enter the GOP primary for governor in the near future.

When he makes that bid, it appears the former commissioner will be touting his business expertise along with his success in helping current Governor Bill Haslam create both the Tennessee Promise and Drive to 55 education programs.

House Speaker Harwell’s name is also being mentioned as a potential GOP candidate for governor. She told THE TENNESSEAN there is still plenty of time for her to make a decision about running. That’s probably true since she already has over $2 million in funds raised in her various political accounts and she had another big-ticket fund raiser recently just before the annual moratorium on state lawmakers raising money kicked in this week with the beginning of session.

There are at least two other GOP state lawmakers that could join the race for the governor’s residence on Curtiswood Lane. They are Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and Senator Doug Overby. Two Tennessean Republican members of Congress are also being mentioned, Diane Black and Marsha Blackburn.

I told you the race might get crowded.

Even the Democrats are showing signs of activity. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh indicates he is leaning towards running. A rare West Tennessee Democratic state legislation, Fitzhugh thinks he can appeal to both urban and rural voters.

He says he’d prefer to announce his decision after the session, but Fitzhugh adds if other potential primary opponents, such as former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean or party activist and Nashville businessman Bill Freeman jump in soon, his plans may needs to be accelerated.

I guess there is no real dead time in politics and elections anymore.


We’ve mentioned before the backlash of those unhappy with the state law passed last year which allows counselors to refuse to take on patients who hold beliefs that conflict with their own values. That’s discrimination they say, particularly aimed at LGBTQ community.

So this week the state of California joined a couple of other cities (including Boston) which will not allow their employees to travel to Tennessee because of the law. There are a couple of national groups and associations which have also cancelled meetings here.

The boycott move has angered State Senator Mike Bell, who told the CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS that Tennessee may have to pass its own travel ban in response. This information is via Tom Humphrey’s Humphrey on the Hill blog:

“If states want to get in a shooting match over what they find ‘morally reprehensible’ about another state, maybe we should find something we don’t like about California and pass a similar [travel ban] law here. Maybe there’s something out there. Maybe I need to look for something.”

This issue may blow up even further. During this upcoming legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers have before them a bill that would allow the state to write its own code of ethics for counselors rather than follow the national code.

And so it goes in the culture wars.

Here’s another example that cropped up in the news the end of the week. Courtesy of Tom Humphrey and Carie Wade Gervin of THE NASHVILLE SCENE, a bill has been filed by Representative Shelia Butt that would prohibit food stamp recipients from spending their funds on cake or ice cream.

And you thought Scrooge only came around at Christmas.


There has long been a great controversy about the effectiveness and the amount of funding the state provides local and county schools systems. There have been several lawsuits over the years about the matter (some of which have led to changes in funding). There are now new legal actions pending.

There’s also a new national ranking recently released. It could provide legal fodder for both sides in this on-going dispute.

Here are the details from Tom Humphreys.

And if you wonder what legislation might be filed this year in the wake of unsuccessful effort last term to make the Holy Bible the “official book” of Tennessee how about putting “In God We Trust” on all our license plates?

Again Tom Humphreys has the story:

Lawmakers now go home. They will return January 30 to hear Governor Bill Haslam’s annual “State of the State & Budget Address.”


It’s been another wild and crazy week in the presidential transition involving President-elect Donald Trump, the outgoing administration of President Barack Obama and the new Congress.

There have more been more Twitter storms and fights (the one involving renowned actress Meryl Streep and her comments at the Golden Globe awards) probably got the highest profile. There was even a very combative news conference between the President-Elect and some media members. It was Mr. Trump’s first meeting with the press since the November election (actually his first since last summer). If this session portends the next four years, it’s going to be a long, stormy period ahead.

This past week President Obama gave his farewell address to the nation, reflecting on his achievements and challenges of the last eight years and his advice to his fellow countrymen as he leaves office. While not every President has made a formal goodbye speech, several (Washington, Eisenhower come to mind among others). Given our hyper-partisan times reaction to President Obama’s remarks seemed to split along party lines (at least on my Facebook feed where there were many comments and articles posted).

As for Mr. Trump, ever since he entered the race for the White House, he has been involved in one controversy after another. It has often been predicted whenever a new one arises, this will be the one that will finally do him in politically.

It happened again this week, when an unverified intelligence report, given to both President Obama and President-Elect Trump came out (leaked) in the media. The report claimed the Russian government had compromising personal and financial information regarding the incoming President that might subject him to blackmail.

Both Trump (and the Russians) have denied the claim, calling the news stories “Fake News” “which represent “a political witch hunt. The Russian denial even called it “Pulp Fiction.” The President-Elect got so upset about it in his news conference, he compared media organization who reported the unverified intelligence report as being like something out of “Nazi Germany.” He then refused to let reporters from those media groups ask him any questions.

More ominously, Mr. Trump blamed U.S. intelligence agency for “leaking” the report which has some pretty spicy, sordid details Trump called “crap.” The relationship and trust between a President and his intelligence team is a critical element in maintaining national security. I’d say right that relationship is maybe the worst it’s even been.

As for this particular new controversy involving this unverified intelligence report involving the President-Elect and Russia, if it plays out the way so many others have, Mr. Trump may find yet gain a way to defuse, confuse or even counter the controversy to his favor.

How does he do that? And is it a political power that is uniquely his own?

There’s a fascinating article in POLITCO Magazine by Ronald Klain that address this. He says Trump prevails not just by breaking all the long-endorsed “rules” for how to handle political controversies or do crisis communications. He says Trump has created a whole new set of rules for how to respond. I am not sure I buy into everything he writes in this article, but a lot of it makes sense to me.

Let see how Trump’s new rules work in handling this continuing Russian issue along with his plan announced at news conference to step back from his companies, allow his sons to run them while they put into a trust. Mr. Trump say while in the White House, his businesses will give any funds given by foreign government, (which is a violation of the Constitution), to the U.S. Treasury instead.

Already the Trump proposals are being denounced by officials of the federal Office of Government Ethics as being inadequate compared to all other previous presidents in the last 40 years.

On the policy side in Washington, cabinet confirmation hearings for President-Elect Trump nominees are in full swing on Capitol Hill, even if all the required disclosure forms and background checks are not

complete say government ethics officials. So far in the hearings, lots of tough questions have been asked (especially by Democrats) but from what I see and read in the news coverage, none of the nomination appear to faltering from ultimate approval by the GOP-led Senate.

The Republican-led Congress is also scrambling to assist the new President to implement quickly one of his major campaign promises: to repeal and replace Obamacare. The problem is: while votes for repeal are there, the details, timing and the votes to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are not. With Obamacare now providing health insurance coverage for 20 million Americans, repeal without a quick and effective replacement could be a disaster.

This problem of finding an alternative to the ACA has been a problem ever since Obamacare was first approved by Congress. That occurred without any GOP votes. Since then, the GOP leaders have loudly and effectively complained but they have never been able to agree upon a replacement.

Mr. Trump wants “repeal and replace” to happen more or less at the same time and both of Tennessee’s Senators are trying to help him.

Senator Bob Corker believes the process is going too fast on the Hill. He is sponsoring legislation to allow Congress to wait until March to work things out. A news release from his office says in part:

“…repeal and replace should take place simultaneously, and this amendment will give the incoming administration more time to outline its priorities after its chief health care official assumes office and fully reviews the tools currently at his disposal. By extending the deadline for budget reconciliation instructions until March, Congress and the incoming administration will each have additional time to get the policy right. Repealing President Obama’s health care law and replacing it with a responsible alternative is a top priority, and by exercising due diligence we can create a stable transition to an open health care marketplace that provides far greater choice and more affordable plans for the American people.”

Senator Lamar Alexander, Chairman of the powerful Senate committee that handles health care issues puts it this way in his comments to THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS:

"To me, 'simultaneously' and 'concurrently' mean Obamacare should be finally repealed only when there are concrete, practical reforms in place that give Americans access to truly affordable health care," Alexander said. "The American people deserve health care reform that's done in the right way, for the right reasons, in the right amount of time. It's not about developing a quick fix. It's about working toward long-term solutions that works for everyone."

Alexander likened what he said are the collapsing Obamacare exchanges in Tennessee to handling a collapsing bridge.

"If your local bridge were 'very near collapse,' the first thing you would do is send in a rescue crew to repair it temporarily so no one else is hurt," he said. "Then you would build a better bridge, or more accurately, many bridges, as states develop their own plans for providing access to truly affordable health care to replace the old bridge. Finally, when the new bridges are finished you would close the old bridge."

With Corker and Alexander in support, the Senate has taken the first steps this week through the budget process to repeal Obamacare. The House was expected to take similar steps today (Friday). The series of

votes taken Wednesday night in the Senate (nicknamed “vote-a-rama”) are already stirring up political controversy because they would repeal popular items in Obamacare such as coverage of pre-existing conditions and coverage for children up to age 26. Those benefits are likely to continue in any new Trumpcare plan, but that replacement plan still doesn’t exist. So you can see the looming problem for the incoming President, the 51 Senate Republicans and the GOP House members who voted for the beginning of this ACA repeal.

In political terms, let’s put it this way: If the Congress and the new President screw this effort up, it will be a very big, early setback and a major political black eye for Mr. Trump and for those seeking to showcase the new GOP dominance in Washington.

By the way, Governor Bill Haslam this week got involved in the health care debate in Washington. Republican congressional leaders have asked governors across the country for their input. Mr. Haslam responded with a letter and a plan that would give state governments more oversight and power in providing health care coverage. He thinks the state can do a better job. Given Washington’s record both under Obamacare and before the ACA went into effect, it seems hard to argue against at least looking at other ideas.


Nashville city officials have always known we don’t have enough sidewalks in our community. But when the administration of Mayor Megan Barry did the research and the math, everyone got “sticker shock” over exactly how many lost or missing sidewalks we need and what it might cost just to build the most critical sidewalks we need.

WPLN Nashville Public Radio offers this story.

It long been said that Nashville is famous for building sidewalks to nowhere…ones that don’t connect to other sidewalks. This week we learned just how many miles we have of “lost sidewalks,” and what a long, expensive journey it will be to walk us out of it.

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