Capitol View Commentary: February 16, 2007 - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: February 16, 2007

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence Public Relations

February 16, 2007

He did the right thing.

In a show of political fortitude and courage that is somewhat rare among our elected officials, Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell has vetoed that wrong-headed "English First" ordinance recently approved by the Metro Council.

The mayor is correct when he says the measure is "not who we are" in Nashville, that "we don't need a law to tell us what language we are already speaking...(or) a law that will make it harder for a police officer to do his job, for a school teacher to teach or a doctor to help a patient."

In fact, while amendments had been made to the proposal to exempt law enforcement, education or health activities of the government, the result was a bill so vague, the Mayor is rightly concerned it could tie up the city (and hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars for legal fees) in litigation trying to determine just what, if anything, the law really means and whether it is constitutional.

But the real reason I believe the Mayor stepped in to clean up the Council's mess is because the proposal made Nashville the laughingstock of the nation, even the world. And in a day when all cities are competing regionally, nationally, even internationally for residents, new businesses, jobs and investments, it created an image of Nashville we cannot afford to have and remain competitive.

The story of our Council's passage of this English First law made headlines all over the country and the world. It also held us up to ridicule, condemnation and parody on a level not seen since a previous Metro Council approved a resolution supporting special landing pads for UFOs some years back. Fortunately, as a counterbalance, the Mayor's veto also received extensive news coverage from all the major networks, USA TODAY, THE NEW YORK TIMES, the International Tribune, the Guardian in the UK, even publications in Canada and Australia. He even got some unexpected support from Governor Phil Bredesen. While these two share many of the same supporters, they are not in any way close and the Governor's words of support for the veto must have sounded pretty nice to the Mayor, I think.

But make no mistake. Despite all the glowing editorials and letters to editors about the Mayor's action, he is taking a real political risk. The angst and anger over the federal government's continuing failure to deal with illegal immigration remains so strong, this veto could very well come back to haunt the Mayor in any future political campaigns, especially on a statewide level, where the concern about Nashville and its competitive image won't be nearly as high as it is locally.

So those who are praising the Mayor now need to be watching his back down the road.

We owe him one for this veto.

As for those still supporting the English First measure, there appears to be almost no chance an override of the veto can succeed in the Metro Council. First of all, it needs 27 out of 40 votes to pass over the Mayor's objections. There were 14 votes against it on third and final reading. That means unless someone who voted no before changes his or her mind, there is no way it can get through. Even then supporters would need to pick up all three members who were absent or abstained. They might have a shot at Councilman Ronnie Greer, but there is no way I can see Council Members at Large like Diane Neighbors (now running for Vice Mayor) or David Briley (now running for Mayor) voting "yes" to override.

I think trying to get the Council to approve an amendment to the city's charter is equally doomed. That, too, takes 27 votes, so I doubt seriously it would ever pass.

However, that doesn't mean this matter is over. A voter petition drive to put the proposal on the August ballot is very doable, it appears. It takes just 10% of the registered voters from the last general election (November, 2006) and that's just 17,802 names according to election officials. The challenge is to get that done by sometime in mid-May so it makes the deadline for ballot items.

So with Bill Purcell stepping up, where are the candidates who want to succeed him, as well as those running for Vice Mayor and Council? Some have voted or spoken out strongly, others not so much. I told you in my last column, this issue could become like the controversial gay rights bill of four years ago and play a major role in this upcoming election. So far, it looks like I'm right, especially if a petition drive is successful in getting the English First matter on the ballot.

Unfortunately, we may not be out of world and national news headlines on this issue just yet.

INSIDE POLITICS

This English First controversy is the focus of my INSIDE POLITICS show this weekend (February 16-18).

My guests are Metro Councilman Eric Crafton, the prime sponsor of the English First bill, and Mayor Bill Purcell. With this matter remaining a red hot issue, I can't think of two better folks to talk to about what is going on and what lies ahead.

You can watch INSIDE POLITICS on NewsChannel 5 Plus, Comcast Cable Channel 50. Our Friday evening show at 7:00 PM (February 16) is pre-exempted this week for coverage of the Stellar Gospel Awards. We are still on Saturday (February 17) at 5:30 PM. And on Sunday (February 18), we air three times at 5:00 AM, 12:30 PM and 8:30 PM. Also after Monday (February 19) you can find a link to see a portion of the show here on the NewsChannel5 web site.

By the way, Crafton announces on my show that he will not seek to get the Council to override the Mayor's veto nor will he bring a charter amendment there. He says he just doesn't want "to put the Council through that" (OK, but what about the rest of us, Councilman? What makes you think we want to revisit all this again?)

Crafton does seem poised to move full speed ahead with the petition campaign and Mayor Purcell wonders if another council sponsor might still try an override. But sometimes when a mayor vetoes a controversial matter like this, the sponsors get fewer votes on an override than they got when the bill was originally approved. If that happens, it wouldn't be a great start for the petition drive now would it?

And so the politics continues to churn...

SHARE AND SHARE ALIKE

I told you they would cut a deal.

Sure enough, Gaylord Entertainment and those pushing a new downtown convention center seem to have come to an agreement that will allow the new Music City Center to be financed and built south of Broadway and for Gaylord to greatly expand its Opryland convention center in the Pennington Bend area of town with the help of city dollars (for the first time).

This agreement is likely much to the relief of local and state elected officials who weren't looking forward to having to choose sides if the convention center supporters (i.e.; the Chamber, the tourism industry and downtown business leaders) had not been able to come together with Gaylord (which fought the original downtown center tooth and nail twenty years ago and seemed poised to do the same again).

But with seemingly plenty of money to go around (and we are talking tens of millions of dollars) generated by the new tourist and visitor taxes it will take to finance these projects, the final deal seems almost like a political no-brainer right now to gain  legislative approval from both the General Assembly and the Metro Council.

Of course, we haven't seen all the fine details or exactly how the funds will be split up. It does appear with Gaylord having a sizable bit of its expansion costs covered by a Metro Industrial Development Board bond issue and with it being paid off by the additional sales and property taxes the expansion will generate, Gaylord is poised to get an even better financial deal than it did a few years back when Metro, under then-Mayor Phil Bredesen, agreed to move the Opryland complex to a lower property tax rate for ten years in return for the construction of the Delta complex there. Making the deal even sweeter for Gaylord is that Opryland will also now share some of the hotel motel taxes it generates an ongoing basis.

Experts say with an expanded Opryland complex and the new Music City Center downtown, Nashville will be able to compete at the highest levels for convention business. With property tax increases greatly limited in the years to come, the sales tax and other revenue all this will generate will be very welcome to city leaders (not to mention all the new jobs and investments). Despite all the noise and misinformation to the contrary, the downtown convention center and Opryland serve two very different markets and don't really compete that much with each other. Many cities would love to have the convention options Nashville has enjoyed the past twenty years and will enjoy even more with these new facilities.

But now it's time for those we ELECT to come forth and review this deal and see if it is as good as it seems to be for Nashville's future. There are bound to be many details yet to be worked out, but let's hope it proceeds more quickly than the current plans to build a new minor league baseball park (with supporting office, housing and entertainment amenities) along the riverfront. That plan appears to be a more and more shaky proposition with a final drop dead date to put the deal together of April 15 looming ever closer.

SMOKING IT OVER

Well, everyone has had a few days now to "smoke over" the Governor's education improvement proposals and his plans to fund them largely through a sharp increase in the cigarette tax (sorry, I couldn't resist the pun).

So far, I think the response has been a little tepid. Sure, lawmakers like all the extra money to go to the schools in their districts (unless you're in Knoxville and Chattanooga which don't seem to have nearly as many at-risk students as other parts of the state and therefore won't get nearly as much new dough).

And there's the funding part. People are concerned about the long-term viability of funding what the Governor wants using a waning tax source like cigarettes (as the number of smokers continues to decline). Others want to use the funds to decrease the sales tax on food. Others say, given continuing extra large state revenue collections each month, maybe a lot of this money can come out of the state's expanding reserve funds.

Given all this division and uncertainty, I spoke with one of the major tobacco lobbyists the other day. While he admits there is a lot of support in general for raising tobacco taxes, he believes all the discord about how to spend the new tax money and the extra money the state has in its reserve funds could allow his client to get off with just a 20-cent hike, instead of the 40 cents being proposed by the administration. Or if things really get huffy...maybe no tax hike at all this year while a study group "smokes things over" during the summer recess.

One couple of final notes: The way the Governor wants to finance his education plans speaks volumes about the nature and condition of the state's taxing system. If you are looking for big bucks, the tobacco tax, despite its current and future shortcomings is probably one of the few places to look. The sales tax is pretty much maxed out. The gas tax seems to be ready to run short soon to keep up with planned road projects and the Governor caught hell for moving it around in his first term. Nobody wants to get into a state property tax and God forbid someone even mention an income tax. Of course, you could just cut back state government and its services, but that's not a very appetizing alternative for many lawmakers either.

Ironically removing the sales tax on food could move things closer for an income tax or a state property tax to happen in the future. The food tax for obvious reasons is one of the largest and most stable sources of income Tennessee has. No matter what, folks got to eat, right? So it's doubtful to me either an increased tobacco tax or growth in other state revenues will be enough down the road to cover the shortfall of losing the food tax. That could leave future lawmakers will a lot of bad political choices to pick through the next time the state's economy goes into the dumper (and there will be another time someday). This is what legislators saw back in the 1980s during the Alexander administration when they passed a law to remove the food tax, only to add it back on when they saw the fiscal hole it left in the state budget. 

FORD

Another month since the November elections and another new job for Harold Ford, Jr. This one, as Vice Chairman and Senior Policy Advisor with Merrill Lynch, looks like the one that will provide the largest pay check.

The job announcement describes the former Congressman's duties, saying he will "advise senior management on domestic policy issues, serve as a member of the firm's public policy and social responsibility management committee, and support a variety of business development initiatives in the institutional and retail markets." It sounds like a job to advise his bosses about politics and maybe help make it "rain" some new business for the firm.    

 Regardless, this new job, to go along with his post as chairman of the national Democratic Leadership Council and being a part-time professor at Vanderbilt, seems to position Ford very well to remain close to the political scene, while gaining some business experience that might help him a bit in his next run for office (at least they won't be able to say he's never worked for anybody but the government anymore).

THOMPSON

I keep hearing rumors that GOP conservatives, still unhappy with their choices in the 2008 Presidential race, are looking at former Tennessee Senator and "Law & Order" TV star Fred Thompson as a possible candidate.

I didn't think much of it or that Thompson had any real interest in running, until he started speaking out in the last few days against Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald and how he is prosecuting former White House aide Scooter Libby for perjury in the Valerie Plame CIA case.

The use of special independent prosecutors has been a favorite whipping boy for years for both parties when one of their own is on the spot. According to an un-bylined Associated Press story of February 13, while Thompson is unhappy with this prosecutor, he was also unhappy when Attorney General Janet Reno and the Clinton administration would not act on his pleas to appoint a special counsel a few years back "to look into...(a) fundraising scandal surrounding the 1996 presidential election."  As I remember, it concerned alleged Chinese money and how it was funneled into and used in the election.

Is Thompson speaking out because this Scooter Libby case, and how it is being handled, is of particular great concern to him as a prosecutor himself (both on and off the TV screen)? Or as this trial comes to a climax, is this the first issue to get Fred Thompson back in the national spotlight, championing a cause dear to many conservative hearts?

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode.....    

THE MAYOR'S RACE

Another interesting week in the Mayor's race:

Karl Dean has become the last of the major candidates to put up his web site. It contains a YouTube video of his announcement a few months back. It's a bit too long I thought, excerpts might have been better, especially as Dean works to perfect his speaking style.

Speaking of using technology, Buck Dozier has his own vblog or video blog. It's a nine minute autobiography posted on his website and sent out by e-mail to an estimated 8000 potential supporters.

The use of vblogs and YouTube is an increasingly popular way for candidates to get out their messages directly to voters rather than depending on the media through news coverage or paid advertising. Several presidential candidates have made their announcements this way and even a Metro At Large candidate Jerry Maynard put his announcement on YouTube to get more exposure for his efforts (especially when no local TV showed up to cover it).

The Dozier vblog has a lot of elements of reality TV as Dozier drives around the city, revisiting his old haunts throughout Nashville, including where he grew up, went to school and had success in his professional life (as a teacher, coach, elected official, mayoral aide and fire chief). You get to meet his wife and learn the importance of his Church of Christ faith. At nine minutes in length it's a bit long, but it moves along and never got too boring.

I have seen Dozier media guru Mike Kopp quoted in a recent TENNESSEAN article that in another election cycle or so, all the candidates will be doing this and won't need to do all the expensive TV ads. Maybe, but I don't think it will happen quite that quick, and I wonder if some of that was wishful thinking by Mike whose campaign doesn't seem to have quite the financial resources of the rival Bob Clement camp (although at last report Buck has raised more money than anyone other than Clement).

I couldn't help thinking as I watched the Dozier video how different this mayoral race is in some ways than others in recent years. Most of the major candidates are natives of the city (in contrast to our last two mayors) and therefore have longtime roots in the community. The Dozier video plays heavily on that, even going back to what previous generations in family did in the city. With so many new folks coming into town in recent years (and natives of Nashville becoming something of a dying breed) I will be interested to see how this plays for Dozier and the other candidates.

Finally, candidates continue to issue their platforms on major issues facing the city. For David Briley, this time it's the environment. His seven point plan looks ambitious (although he says it can be done, with cooperation from the private sector, without a tax increase). Why spotlight the environment now instead of sticking with the more traditional issues like schools and public safety? Well Briley is in competition for the so-called "progressive vote" in Nashville with Karl Dean. If Dean has spoken out on this issue yet, I haven't seen it, so perhaps Briley is trying to get there first in the hopes what he is proposing (which is very much in line with national progressive thought about the environment) will attract them to his camp before Dean is ready to compete.

Of course there is a risk. Some of what Briley is talking about may not go down well with elements of the Nashville business and development community. They will see what he is proposing as unneeded government interference and that will further retard any inroads Briley might be seeking into this influential and well-funded group that is deeply involved in local politics. But Briley has never had much of this support anyway, so going early and strong after the Green vote makes a lot of sense.     

CONGRESS

And so the new Democratic House of Representatives, with a few Republican crossovers, has issued a vote of "no confidence" in the Bush administration and its new policies (the troop surge) for the war in Iraq.

 But the approval by a 246-182 margin was for a non-binding resolution, which means basically nothing, other than an expression of opinion by the lower Chamber. The Senate is set to try and vote Saturday February 17 (filibusters notwithstanding) on a similar statement of feelings and concerns. But the real fight remains ahead as Congress (after a recess) takes up new appropriations to support the war.

How can the Democrats and other war opponents find a way to oppose the President and change our Iraqi war policies without putting themselves in a position to be criticized for abandoning or not fully supporting the troops still in harm's way?

I am sure there's a lot to think over for many members of Congress as they come home to meet with constituents during this break. From their speeches during the House debate, most Tennessee representatives seem to be about where they've been on the Iraq war. The Democrats have great concerns and oppose the Bush Iraq policies. The Republicans are mostly supportive of what the President wants to do. That is, except for Knoxville Congressman John Duncan, who despite what you might conclude from the headlines of a recent front page story in THE TENNESSEAN has been on the anti- war side concerning Iraq since the get-go. He wasn't going over to join anybody on this issue. He's already been there, done that...and gotten re-elected.


NewsChannel 5 thanks Pat Nolan for providing this column every week. Mr. Nolan's commentary reflects his own opinions, not those of the NewsChannel 5 Network.

Comments about Capitol View should be sent to Pat Nolan directly via email at pat.nolan@dvl.com

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