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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, October 20, 2017

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Posted at 2:54 PM, Oct 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-20 15:54:55-04

CAPITOL VIEW

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

October 20, 2017

ANOTHER POTENTIALLY SIGNIFICANT WEEK IN THE TENNESSEE SENATE RACE; BLACKBURN OTHER NEW CHALLENGES; JEB BUSH BECOMES AN ISSUE IN TENNESSEE’S GOVERNOR’S RACE; LET’S MOVE NASHVILLE: METRO’S TRANSPORTATION PLAN UNVEILED; SOME OBSERVATIONS; VICE MAYOR DAVID BRILEY ON INSIDE POLITICS; HEALTH CARE YET ONCE AGAIN; THE BUDGET AND TAXES; THE RUSSIA INVESTIGATION COMES TO TENNESSEE;

ANOTHER POTENTIALLY SIGNIFICANT WEEK IN THE TENNESSEE SENATE RACE

There were still more of those “Are you kidding me moments?”’ in this week’s Tennessee U.S. Senate race.

The surprises began a couple of weeks ago when incumbent Senator Bob Corker announced he was retiring rather than seeking a third term. That brought one major candidate into the GOP field, Congressman Marsha Blackburn, while Governor Bill Haslam spent several days considering a run but decided not to do so.

At the time, so did former Governor and Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, who pointed out he had served 16 years in public office and had other plans for his future than running again for office. But then Monday afternoon, October 16, this story broke from the Associated Press via NASHVILLE POST:

“Bredesen confirms interest in Senate seat

Former Nashville mayor, Tennessee governor could enter race to succeed Corker

AUTHORS Staff Reports

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen confirmed Monday he is considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat set to be vacated by retiring Republican Bob Corker next year.

Bredesen, also a former Nashville mayor, was the last Democrat to win a statewide race in Tennessee.

In the days ahead, I’m going to do some research, talk with people and carefully think this through,” he told the Associated Press. “I’ll make a decision quickly.”

Bredesen, 73, would face Nashville attorney and veteran James Mackler in the Democratic primary, with others considering their own bids. U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn decided to run for the Republican nomination for the seat after Corker announced his retirement and Gov. Bill Haslam announced he would not run.”

It is still far from clear if Bredesen will enter the race. But if he does, it would have profound impact on the contest and would likely elevate it to a very competitive level and raise the race to national prominence. Tennessee is a state that seemed to be safe for the GOP in 2018. After all, the last time Democrats won a Senate contest here was in 1990 when Al Gore, Jr. was re-elected.

Bredesen is in fact the last Democrat to win a statewide race in Tennessee, period. That’s when he won re-election to a second term in 2006. Who or what exactly is making Mr. Bredesen reconsider?

Well Democratic leaders have been pleading with the former governor to re-enter public service ever since he left office, but to no avail. So I don’t they would make him think again.

Could it be his spouse, Andrea Conte? Very possibly. In fact, one source tells me she is strongly encouraging her husband to run. And you know what they say: If mama’s not happy, then nobody is happy!

This next comment is a purely (educated?) conjecture on my part. Maybe some other convincing appeals to Bredesen to take a second look are coming from a most unusual place. That would be our statewide elected Republicans leaders such as Governor Bill Haslam and Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander? None of them care much for the Congressman Marsha Blackburn, the overall Senate frontrunner. They all come from the establishment East Tennessee wing of the Republican Party which just doesn’t have a candidate to beat Blackburn in the primary.

They also know Bredesen is a Democrat that independents and moderate Republicans could support (maybe with some nose-holding) in the general election. Maybe somebody has also some statewide polling in hand to share. I do hear some new research is being conducted in the field right now for Bredesen to show him what kind of chance he has to win?

It was that kind of less than positive polling in a GOP primary that probably helped convinced Haslam not to enter the Senate field. Maybe similar numbers for Bredesen in a general election matchup with Blackburn might convince him to stay on the sidelines too. Or maybe not.

We’ll see.

If Bredesen enters the race he would likely clear he Democratic field and leave him to focus strictly on the general election race in November 2018 against Blackburn or against one of her primary opponents if she is upset in August.

BLACKBURN OTHER NEW CHALLENGES

Despite what Governor Bredesen decides, the number of Senate primary opponents Congressman Blackburn is likely to face seems ready to grow in a significant way in coming days. This comes at the same time when a major issue/scandal is emerging involving the Congressman that could create an even more serious, on- going problem for her campaign.

As for her new primary candidate, former West Tennessee Congressman Fincher has been traveling on a “listening tour” across the state to make up his mind. Based on a recent Associated Press interview and this article by Tom Humphrey, it’s pretty clear Fincher’s made up his mind. He’s starting to make little attacks on his opponent. That means, he’s likely in the race.

Last weekend, Fincher (and all of Congressman Blackburn’s opponents) got even more material on which to attack her (not to mention those outside Super PACS that might come in to Tennessee to

express their opinions during the election). It all began with a 60 Minutes/ WASHINGTON POST joint investigation that indicates Congressman Blackburn co-sponsored legislation that passed the Congress. The new law inhibits the ability of the Federal Drug Administration to regulate the massive flow of deadly opioid drugs in the country .

NEWSCHANNEL5 AND Chief Investigative reporter Phil Williams has a good summary.

One stunning set of numbers out of the national media investigation: In one year, in a town of just a few hundred residents in West Virginia, nine million-plus opioid pills were shipped there, most likely going into the illegal opioid drug black market. The new law seemed to have fooled many. It passed both Houses of Congress with little debate or dissent. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

But the backlash from the media investigation has been immediate. It has already forced the Pennsylvania congressman who was the main sponsor of the opioid bill to withdraw from consideration to be President Trump’s next head of the (DEA) the Drug Enforcement Administration. So you can bet the heat is rising on Blackburn too, with one of her Democratic opponents calling on her to resign and other GOP opponents sharply criticizing her. Reports THE NASHVILLE POST:

“Democratic Senate candidate James Mackler has called for U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn to drop out of the race, as criticism increases over her co-sponsorship of a bill that limited the DEA's ability to crack down on opioid distributors.

"That Congresswoman Blackburn would champion legislation like this while Tennesseans face an opioid epidemic is all one needs to know about her priorities. The ‘unintended consequences’ of her legislative actions are that Tennesseans died and she should be held accountable," Mackler said in a press release.

Blackburn's office has commented, "We are in process of gathering information and Congressman Blackburn will quickly work to address any unintended consequences from the legislation."

Her challenger in the Republican primary for Senate, Andy Ogles, issued a statement that didn't mention Blackburn by name but calls for President Donald Trump to issue an executive order directing the "DEA and other federal agencies to use all available means to intensify the investigation and prosecution of those engaged in the reckless, illegal and dangerous over-prescription and distribution of opioids."

"Congress has tied the hands of our law enforcement officials as they seek to crack down on the illegal distribution of opioids, but with the law enforcement powers they retain they should aggressively pursue those who are fueling the opioid epidemic," Ogles said. “The other addiction that this legislative opioid debacle reveals is the fact that Congress is hooked on special interest money and has an insatiable need for a ‘fix’ in the form of PAC money."

Reports THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS about Stephen Fincher’s reaction to the Blackburn opioid bill:

“What is so troubling about what we are seeing develop is what Tennesseans want are people who will go to Washington and stand up and fight for them and fight issues like this,” Fincher said.

A West Tennessee farmer who served three terms in Congress, Fincher said “career politics and forgetting who you work for — that’s what’s wrong in Washington. People’s lives are at stake here. This

issue, it’s an epidemic that’s all across our state, from Frog Jump to Mountain City. It’s affecting all of us.”

“This is why we’re so interested in running for this seat to make sure that Tennesseans have a voice against special interests and what’s going on in Washington.”

Asked specifically about Blackburn’s role, Fincher said “as far as Tennesseans go, I think the ’60 Minutes’ program was pretty clear what’s happening here. This is not good. This is not good for Tennesseans and this epidemic is facing all of us and breaking our little counties, people are dying.”

As for legislation to fix the new law, Representative Jim Cooper of Nashville is co-sponsoring a bi-partisan bill to repeal it. Will Congressman Blackburn sign on as well to fix any “unintended consequences” from the legislation she passed?

Now there were some positives for the Blackburn Senate campaign this week. She received two more endorsements from major conservative groups says THE NASHVILE POST:

“The pro-Trump super PAC Great America Alliance endorsed Blackburn, saying, “The best way to advance the ‘America First’ movement is to hold elected leaders accountable — get on board and get the job done or be replaced by someone who will.”

And the anti-tax, free market 501(c)(4) Club for Growth has also endorsed Blackburn as well. “Earning a lifetime score of 90 percent on Club for Growth’s scorecard is no easy feat, but it is if you’re a conservative leader like Marsha Blackburn. Despite her time serving in Washington, Marsha has never become ‘of Washington,'” the group said in a press release, noting that it had endorsed Blackburn when she first ran for Congress in 2002.

But on the whole, this was sure not a good week for the Blackburn Senate campaign. Only time and ongoing developments will tell if things gets worse.

JEB BUSH BECOMES AN ISSUE IN TENNESSEE’S GOVERNOR’S RACE

I remember just a few years back when former Florida Governor Jeb Bush came to Tennessee to be the keynote speaker for the Tennessee Republican Party’s annual Stateman’s Dinner.

Party officials were thrilled especially since Bush was then seen as a leading contender in the 2016 Presidential race.

Well, that didn’t work out…and my, how the Tennessee GOP has changed in a few years.

Now Bush is coming here to help GOP gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd to raise campaign funds, and Bush’s presence has become the subject of an attack by one of Boyd’s opponents.

Says THE NASHVILLE POST:

“Rep. Diane Black's campaign is bashing a fellow candidate for governor, Randy Boyd, after this publication reported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would speak at a fundraiser for Boyd's race next month.

"Jeb Bush and Randy Boyd are a match made in establishment heaven. Their pro-illegal immigration, pro-big government, anti-Trump positions are more suited to the Democratic primary than the Republican primary," said Black campaign spokesperson Chris Hartline. "Despite efforts to label himself as not simply an extension of Gov. Bill Haslam, Boyd’s embrace of Bush could further views that he is a moderate Republican. It’s no surprise that Randy Boyd would bring in Jeb Bush to shake down Nashville donors."

That’s an interesting source for that criticism. Diane Black has been considered the frontrunner in the GOP gubernatorial primary, and therefore, in the overall race to be the next governor of Tennessee. Two things front runners don’t usually do: Attack their opponents, and if they do, it is often considered a sign of who they think is the biggest threat to beat them.

Just saying.

Of course, the Boyd campaign has not missed the opportunity to respond.

From the TIMES FREE PRESS:

“Boyd spokeswoman Laine Arnold suggested U.S. Rep. Black has spent a little too much time in Washington.

“Each of those claims is ridiculous and false, and honestly beneath the dignity of Diane Black,” Arnold said. “This is Tennessee. Not DC. We don’t act that way down here.”

…”Randy is a strong supporter of President Trump and a long-time friend of Jeb Bush,” Arnold said. “We look forward to having their support.”

LET’S MOVE NASHVILLE: METRO’S TRANSPORTATION PLAN UNVEILED

Saying an “investment today is an investment in Nashville’s future”, Mayor Megan Barry this week unveiled a $5.2 billion transportation package for the city’s next three decades. She describes the proposal as “bold’ and ‘the most significant capital investment in Nashville history. “

She’s right. But it only happens if the Metro Council approves it and voters do so as well in a public referendum set for next May 1, 2018.

Outlined by the Mayor during a presentation to civic leaders at the Music City Center, the mayor’s office then offered these particulars on the plan:

Let’s Move Nashville is a $5.2 billion infrastructure investment that will be funded by a range of fees, including business, sales and tourism taxes. The plan originated after many years of study and community engagements through the nMotion strategic plan, which was led by MTA and RTA, as well as coordination at the state and local level. It includes 26 miles of Nashville’s first-ever light rail system, four rapid bus routes, a dramatic increase in the service and frequency of the bus system, and a strategy of service and infrastructure improvements.

Details of the plan are:

“• Existing bus service improvements with state-of-the-art electric buses and more cross-town routes, 15-minute peak service on busy routes and buses running 20 hours of every day.

• Rapid Bus along Dickerson Road, Hillsboro Road, West End Avenue and the Bordeaux route, which will include signal prioritization, queue jumps, and infrastructure improvements to move transit riders faster to their destination.

• Light Rail on our busiest corridors – Gallatin Road, Nolensville Road, Charlotte Avenue and Murfreesboro Road to the airport. There will also be a light rail line using existing rails that will run along the Northwest Corridor to Buchanan Street near Tennessee State University. The network will begin operations in 2026 and be completed by 2032.

• Underground tunnel downtown serving the region’s job, economic and entertainment center while connecting the light rail network from north to south.

• Neighborhood Transit Centers that offer safe and comfortable access to the entire system.

• Transportation network enhancements such as better sidewalks, traffic synchronization and signal improvements, and fixing dangerous intersections. “

As for the details about the billions to fund it all: Metro will seek federal grants where available or the city will utilize four tax surcharges that Nashville voter will be asked to approve May 1:

• One-half percent sales tax surcharge beginning in July of 2018, and graduating to one percent in 2023

• A recent study released by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce shows that nearly half (47%) of sales tax collections in Davidson County are generated by out-of-county residents.

• One-quarter percent surcharge on the hotel/motel tax, graduating to three-eighths of a percent in 2023

• The Convention Center Authority, which is funded in part by local hotel taxes and fees, is anticipated to help pay for the transit system by constructing a SoBro station for light rail and rapid bus service. Additionally, the Metro Nashville Airport Authority has agreed in principle to fund a light rail spur from Murfreesboro Road to the Airport with terminal access.

• 20% surcharge on the rental car tax

• Metro currently charges a 1 percent tax on the gross proceeds derived from the lease or rental of any passenger motor vehicle, truck or trailer for a period of five days or less. This 20% surcharge would result in a total of 1.2% surcharge on rental cars.

• 20% surcharge on the business and excise tax

• Businesses in Davidson County are assessed a business and excise tax based on a variety of classifications established under TCA 67-4-708. If a business currently pays $1,000 in such a tax, this surcharge would result in an additional $200 annually.

To further explain the proposal, Metro plans a series of open houses across the county in the weeks to come:

• Downtown Corridor: Nashville Farmers’ Market Food Court area – Thursday, October 26; 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

• Northwest Corridor: Tennessee State University, Elliott Hall – Thursday, November 2; 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

• Charlotte Avenue Corridor: Lentz Public Health Center, Centennial Rooms – Thursday, November 9; 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

• Murfreesboro Road Corridor: Trevecca, Tarter Student Activity Center – Tuesday, November 14; 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

• Nolensville Road Corridor: Coleman Park, Gym – Saturday, November 18; 12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.

• Gallatin Road Corridor: East Nashville Magnet High – Monday, November 20; 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

After that that the Mayor’s office says it will have the plan “approved by an independent CPA firm based on criteria set forth by the Tennessee State Comptroller office. Then it goes to the full Metro Council late in the year for review and approval to put it on the May 1 ballot.”

FULL DISCLOSURE: My firm, DVL Seigenthaler has been involved in putting together the initial presentation of the transit plan (and website). The firm will also be involved in doing the same for the upcoming community meetings. I have not personally been involved on the DVLS team working on this.

SOME OBSERVATIONS

It is indeed a bold plan the Mayor proposes. It is also something of a political stretch for her (and several in the Metro Council) who are political progressives. Progressives almost always oppose sales taxes because the poor must pay a larger percentage of their overall income. To counter that, the Mayor is proposing eliminating transit fares for Nashville residents living at or above the federal poverty level. From what I hear the voter polling done on this plan is positive (both quantitative and qualitive research). But the support is not by a wide margin. That is because it is never easy to get people to agree raise their taxes, no matter how much people say “we’ve got to do something” on an issue such as Nashville’s traffic woes.

Already I am reading comments in social media that this is the largest tax increase ever in Nashville. I am also reading complaints asking why does the light rail in the plan not serve help Donelson or Hermitage or why doesn’t light rail go out Charlotte Avenue into West Nashville beyond I-440? Why not to Bellevue?

There is much more to this plan than light rail. The Mayor will need to get voters and councilmembers to understand that and understand existing population density. That’s because I am not sure how much the plan (or its proposed taxes) can be amended. So it could be that the plan is the plan and the projects within it are not likely to be changed or added to. That may also be true for the tax plan. When it gets on the ballot along with the plan, I am pretty sure you will have to vote yes for all of it or vote no against it. That’s the way the state law, crafted by the Tennessee General Assembly to hold such transit referendums, says it must be done.

One last thought, it appears there will be portion of the light rail system underground downtown. I had cast some doubt on that idea based on past experiences in Nashville which has found so much bedrock just below the surface, that the costs to blast or drill are prohibitive.

But given the narrowness of downtown streets (remember the preliminary AMP engineering?) and what the Mayor thinks is improved drilling techniques used in other cities’ transit efforts, it may be building underground is the best, even only way, to proceed downtown. But I will note in her presentation remarks, the Mayor admitted the downtown light rail construction cost alone for the 2-mile tunnel portion is $1 billion.

Let’s hope this effort for a “Nashville Downtown Underground” will provide a cool new marketing opportunity for our city, and not become our version of Boston’s “Big Dig.”

VICE MAYOR DAVID BRILEY ON INSIDE POLITICS

Our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week is Metro Vice Mayor David Briley.

He is the presiding officer of Nashville’s 40-member Metro Council.

That group is dealing with several major issues in the weeks to come, including the new $5 billion-plus transit plan for Nashville that we’ve just been discussing as well as the new MLS major league soccer stadium to be built at the Fairgrounds.

So, we have invited Vice Mayor Briley to discuss those matters with us, as well as a number of other challenges the city and the Council have been facing.

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include 7:00 p.m. Friday; then 5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Saturday; and 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 NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.

This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also posted on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website for your viewing. New shows are posted the week after they air on The Plus.

HEALTH CARE YET ONCE AGAIN

Just when you thought you might have heard the last fight over health care on Capitol Hill for this year 2017. Surprise! You haven’t!

But this time the tune may actually have a bit of a bi-partisan swing to it.

According to The Hill, after several abortive efforts, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have reached a bipartisan deal that would extend payments to insurers under ObamaCare that President Trump said he was ending last week.

The deal would extend the payments to insurers for two years and give states more flexibility to change ObamaCare rules. The negotiations had been aimed at stabilizing insurance markets.

President Trump at first said he supported the new plan, but now doesn’t. That’s because he sees it as a giveaway to insurance companies. There’s been a split reaction among congressional leaders. House Speaker Paul Ryan does not seem supportive, some House conservatives surprisingly are but other think it is still too much Obamacare which they can’t support. Senate Alexander says he and Senator Murray have 24 co-sponsors (split between both sides of the aisle). Otherwise there is also no sign of a consensus in the Senate, as THE HILL reported Thursday…

“It is… not clear that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will bring the measure to the floor — nor is it clear it would win 60 votes on procedural motions, the threshold for breaking a filibuster.

The deal would restore $106 million in ObamaCare outreach funding that was cut by President Trump, according to a Democratic aide.

In a concession to Republicans, the deal would also amend a "guardrail" in ObamaCare to give states more flexibility to change rules through a waiver. States would be allowed to make changes as long as they allowed "comparable" affordability to consumers, according to Alexander.

He said minimum standards for what insurance must cover have not been changed, which represents a priority for Democrats negotiating the compromise.

The deal would also allow people to buy lower cost, less generous "copper" plans, a Republican request.”

Thursday, in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, Senator Alexander made a strong appeal to fellow Republicans to support his plan, with a warning of what might happen unless the party changes course on health care.

Another article from The Hill on Friday made the stakes plain for Senator Alexander and his party:

“Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) faces the challenge of his career in selling a breakthrough health-care deal to skeptical Republican colleagues.

If he fails, it would be a blow not only to his reputation but perhaps also to the political prospects of the Republican Party in 2018.”

THE BUDGET AND TAXES

Republicans and the Trump administration did make some progress this week with the Senate voting to approve a budget framework. The legislation also allows any tax cut or tax reform package to follow to be done under the reconciliation process. That requires just 51 votes not 60 to pass in the upper chamber.

But just like the failed Obamacare “repeal and replace” effort the GOP has also no margin for error. The budget framework passed in the Senate 51 to 49. That means Republicans cannot lose any other votes. Enter Senator Bob Corker. He voted yes for the budget framework. But a statement from his office makes it clear Senator Corker will not be a yes vote for a tax bill unless his standards are included in the final legislation (including not adding to the deficit).

Here is what Senator Corker’s statement says:

“The sole purpose of this budget resolution was to kick-start the legislative process on tax reform,” said Corker. “Now that we have given the tax-writing committee the headroom they need to move beyond parliamentary hurdles that exist in the Senate, it is my hope that they will produce a bill that – while allowing for current policy assumptions and reasonable dynamic scoring – does not add to the deficit, sets rates that are permanent in nature, and closes a minimum of $4 trillion in loopholes and special interest deductions.”

So it may be that Senator Corker’s vote will be the key one if Congress is to pass a tax bill (maybe the last chance for President Trump and the GOP to score any kind of major legislative victory for 2017).

THE RUSSIA INVESTIGATION COMES TO TENNESSEE

Given everything else coming out, it seemed bound to happen.

A Twitter account that appeared to be targeting Tennessee during the 2016 election cycle, did indeed come from a Russian “Troll Farm.” A story in the Russian media confirms it.

The Tennessee State Republican Party complained about the account for months, asking that it be suspended. They got nowhere with Twitter for months, until August of this year when the account was suspended by Twitter.

Tom Humphrey has a roundup of coverage that includes THE TENNESSEAN and NEWSCHANNEL5.

I am sure folks will say the Twitter feed didn’t force anyone to vote a certain way, nor was it proof of collusion, but from its retweets it sure was popular and surely “contributed” to the political atmosphere in Tennessee and across the nation last year and even well into this year. I wonder if those reading or re-tweeting it all knew/ or now care that its real source was from Russia.