Behind the Headlines — Feb. 7, 2013

Behind the Headlines — Feb. 7, 2013


(female announcer)
This is a production
of WKNO – Memphis. Production funding for “Behind
the Headlines” is made possible in part by.. Mayor Wharton grapples
with the pension problem. Governor Haslam makes a bold
promise about education and 13 schools in Shelby County
are on the chopping block. All that and more coming up
on “Behind the Headlines.” [theme music]
♪♪♪ Welcome to
“Behind the Headlines.” I’m Pierre Kimsey
sitting in for Eric Barnes. Joining me today is Jackson
Baker of the Memphis Flyer. Bill Dries of the
Memphis Daily News. And Les Smith of Fox 13 News. Well this week we were faced
with a range of issues from wine in the grocery stores
to school closings. But we start off the
program with Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton’s State of
the City address. In it, he talked about the
looming pension problem. And Les Smith was there. What were some of his proposals? January 29 seems
so long ago, right? [chuckles]
Actually, it was an
interesting and upbeat speech delivered January 29th
at a very unique site, in the auditorium at the
University of Memphis Law School, which I
thought was very nice. Thirty-five minute speech
that basically came down to the moniker of potholes to poverty
that expanded through the five Ps that he picked out. And of course, one of
them was indeed pensions, which is a big discussion. The pension — Our
pension situation. City employees is going to
add like $100 million to what they’re going to have to
determine for fiscal year 2015. So it’s about $142 million
or something like that which they’re saying right now they’re
going to have to figure out how to deal with that. But what he didn’t deal with
and refuses to say is the word taxes. He will not go there. I mean it seems obvious
to everybody I talk to. You’re talking $140 million. You should be able to say look,
you’re gonna get taxed or else we’re gonna be cutting
in to public safety, we’re gonna be
doing all these things. Youknow, tighten the belts
in efficiency and all that. But just say the word taxes
because that’s what’s gonna come. And I think he needs to be
honest with people in that regard. And I thought — fairly
ironic too — was that people remembered four of the Ps
but they forgot the fifth, which is plan. And that’s pretty significant
because with the Wharton administration, that P word
planning sometimes goes astray. Remember his line? We have become so
tomorrow-minded, we forgot about the
immediacy of today. He doesn’t make plans. That’s right! Well there is one line from
the speech that I have here. And he’s talking about the
proposal that he has for the pensions, the pension itself. And he says what this means is
that we must go to a model in which the city of Memphis
and it’s taxpayers are not the ultimate guaranteurs of what the
pension should be regardless of the market. What is he
referring to there, Bill? He means that city employees
are gonna be called on to make a sacrifice. And it’s going to be a much
larger sacrifice that’s going to venture in to public safety. It’s going to venture in to the
two largest divisions in city government that account for the
largest part of the budget — the police and the
fire department. And that’s where we we’ve
gone since the State of the City address. The mayor and the council are
now starting to engage in what do we do about public safety. The fire
department has had cuts. But we’re talking about
possibly more cuts for the fire department. Although, Wharton has said that
will be much more difficult than dealing with the police whose
budget has actually increased over the last
four or five years. There was some talk that
early on both Alvin Benson, fire services director, and Tony
Armstrong appeared briefly for about two minutes each a couple
of weeks ago in front of the budget committee. And a lot of people said
well, that’s just scare tactics. I mean we’re gonna cut
here, we’re gonna cut here. They’re just doing
that to scare us. But I don’t think that’s.. I don’t think that’s true. I mean they seriously are
going to have to make some cuts. Alvin Benson said
the other day.. He said you know
I’ve done all I can. I’m almost at the end of my rope
in terms of trying to cut people or cut services or whatever. Tony Armstrong at one point said
that the 2,400 man police force may be depleted down
to 1,900 or whatever. Still no specifics on
how that’s gonna be done. But what has to be
done is efficiency. Maybe that’s
where it really lies. The secret to try to make all
this work is getting things to run a little bit
more efficiently, getting civilian people to maybe
man phones instead of officers. Put in those officers
back out on the street. Those are the kind of
things I think A.C. is looking at. I think they’re still
having a debate within the administration. I don’t think there’s agreement
within the administration, particularly about
the police cuts. And the mayor has
acknowledged that, you know, this is not all
everybody on the same page in terms of the
discussion about it. I think there’s still a
heck of a debate within the administration about this. Yeah, you said
something earlier, Les, that was interesting. You talked about the fact that
the mayor never mentioned taxes. Is there a perception by the
city council at all that they’re the ones that have to
take the heat for all this? Well yeah but you know ten
times during his speech, he brought in the council. Oh, he praised the
council working together. We can get this
done and all that. But the council knows. Wanda Halbert said immediately
after his speech that day — why didn’t he jusy say it? Why didn’t he jsut say
we’re gonna need to tax. And just be honest about it. And there’s another aspect
to the mayor’s strategy. You know he’s made a big deal
about moving away from the old process of annexation, which
Mayor Herenton pursued bigtime. And folks singing the chorus
city and the in-field kind of strategy. What he left unsaid is that the
city is so broke that the only way other than taxes to enrich
the city is to do what Robert Lipscomb keeps proposing, which
bring a lot of state or federal money in. It’s kind of like the city’s in
the situation of someone who’s gonna go for a deal and get a
$50 prepaid Visa card signing up for a three-year telephone plan. You know we get a little money. We’ve got to have
something to operate on. I don’t think the mayor will
propose a tax hike to solve this. I don’t believe him when he
says it’s not on the table. I think that if someone on
the council were to do that, which I think is highly
unlikely that they will, especially the year after, city
and county property tax hikes. I think he might be
willing to talk about that. But I don’t look for him
to propose a tax hike. But can he truly do that
through just efficiency? I just don’t see that. I just don’t see it. Well hopefully we’ll have the
mayor on here in the next couple of weeks and he’ll be
able to tell us himself. Moving on to our next topic,
Governor Bill Haslam on Monday night introduced the Tennessee
Promise in his State of the State adress. Bill, give us an idea
of what that promise is. Some people are
calling this pretty bold. It’s very bold but it’s
something that several political figures at the state level have
talked about in recent years — Republicans and Democrats. The Tennessee Promise is that if
you graduate from high school in Tennessee, you will have two
years of community college, which is an associate degree or
some kind of certificate similar to an associate degree. Those two years of community
college will be absolutely free of charge to you. And it is funded — would be
funded through an endowment from the Tennessee
Lottery’s reserve fund, whcih is over $400 million. The Tennessee Promise would
use all but $110 million of that reserve. And as I said, this is something
that has been suggested in various forms as a last dollar
scholarship gap funder in the past. And there’s certainly
Republicans and Democrats in Nashville have had their eye on
that lottery reserve over the years for quite some time. Now in our last segment, we
talked about the benefits. And that was a
promise that was made many, many years ago that was
discovered that was not sustainable. What are the
projections on this? I mean is this something that 20
and 30 years down the line can still be sustained. Don’t know about 20 or 30 years
but Haslam is clearly thinking of 10, maybe 15
years out in the future. That’s about all you can
really project realistically. And that’s the reason that he
went for an endowment because he said that’s the only way
that it can be sustained from administration to
adminsitration, from one legislative
session to another. I don’t think the issue is
whether it can be sustained because people are gonna
keep on buying lottery tickets. But the problem is
— and by the way, I like this plan because I have
one daughter who hasn’t finished college yet and she
could use this money. But not only does former senator
and now Congressman Steve Cohen, the father of this lottery
system — not only did he say I don’t like it, a lot of people
associated with the university systems in the state don’t
like it either because you’re actually taking money
from the higher education, from the university — from
better students who earned Hope scholarship and taking that
money away and reducing that fund. Now it’s good for
a lot of people, not good for some people. The universities
are worried about it. He said that Cohen had said that
this would hurt the University of Memphis. And he was quite
vehement about that. He says because to him, this
plan is pushing people toward community colleges rather
than four-year institutions. Because the Hope scholarship’s
amount in the first two years of college would be
reduced by $2,000. But the third and fourth years
under the Hope scholarship would be increased by $2,000. And the governor’s
thinking on that is okay, it’s decreased in the first two
years of college because you get community college for free. He’s trying directly to
steer more students in to the community college
system that the state has. And in his speech, his
justification for that was that some Tennesseans are not getting
the message that you need some kind of education after high
school in order to even be able to hold the new
manufacturing jobs that we have. He doesn’t think the message is
getting through with these new jobs. There are not the old
manufacturing jobs where a high school diploma would do. So it’s trying to change
a culture in terms of the perception of what
higher education is for. And there’s gonna be a lot of
discussion between the two-year schools and the
four-year schools. That’s right. It’s far from being a done deal. You can propose it. Bredesen back in 2006 apparently
proposed something similar or along these lines,
almost the exact thing. And it didn’t go
anywhere in the legislature. And another objection that Cohen
made was that when the lottery Hope scholarships were founded,
$4,000 would take you a fair distance down the line. They don’t do that anymore. To cut that sum makes it
harder for the Hope scholarship students to be worth something. Interesting. Well the wine in
the grocery stores, that old chesnut came back. [chuckles]
I think how many
times have we talked about this on this program. But in any case, Jackson, you’re
telling me that this is looking pretty good this year. It is but I’m wondering if we
should be talking about the wine grocery store bill. We should probably be talking
about the newspapers and beer and cigarettes bill
for liquor stores. They, the liquor stores, their
part of the deal is they can start selling other things
right away in July of this year. The grocery stores, and they
really tend to be big boxes, maybe some convenient stores
to put in depending on which version of the bill passes. They have to wait two years. And if they’re within 500
feet of a liquor store, they have to wait three years
before they can start selling wine. And then, they
can’t have loss liters. Kroger will not
have lost liters, a big sale on beer because
you have to have at least a 20% mark-up. The bill insists on that. So the liquor stores are
protecting themselves and they get a fast start on this. The grocery stores
have to wait a while. Well who wrote this bill? I mean who had the biggest
influence on it being written. The lobbyists. Every lobbyists involved. For all those
lobbies, the groceries, the big-bozed lobbies. You can bet they had input. The liquor stores — you
can bet they had input. They’ve been entrenched on
capitol hill for a long time. Now we were talking
earlier this week. You told me that the last
time, it failed by one vote in committee. Yeah. How does it look this time? It looks pretty good. It’s passed all the
relevant sub-committees. It’s passed the senate. And a somewhat different version
in the house has passed all the relevant sub-committees. It will go before house finance
next week and probably pass. The question is whether you’re
gonna have the house bill, which requires 2,000 square feet
to sell wine and has a somewhat higher license fee,
or the second bill, which allows convenient
stores in on the game really. And it has a license fee
equivalent to what liquor stores pay. The house bill makes it
a little harder to do. The senate bill is more relaxed. Somewhere in there,
they’ll compromise. Who was opposed to it the
last time that kind of turned? Well the liquor lobby,
clearly, and the preachers. The unholy or holy alliance,
depending on which side. But again, the liquor lobby has
been bought off because they’ve got this fast start and they get
to sell more things themselves. And again, they can’t be
undersold by big box sales. I see. Okay, well we’ll look at that
with interest and see if it actually passes this time. Because if I remember correctly,
a year ago at this point, we were thinking that the
last one was going to pay. Somebody’s vote
changed is what happened. Somebody’s vote changed. Okay, well we’ll
watch for that then. On the chopping block this week
for the Shelby County School Board were as
many as 13 schools. It was an emotional — an
extremely emotional subject. Some parents even acknowledging
that some of the schools have to be closed. They just don’t want it
to be their kids’ school. So let’s talk a
little bit about that. How is that going? It’s always an
emotional process. It’s one of the most emotional
decisions that any school board can make. And the interesting thing is
that there is much more emotion and public outcry involved when
you’re talking about closing high schools then when
you’re talking about closing an elementary or a middle school. It’s kind of funny
how that works out. But there’s this emotional
attachment to high schools. At any rate, Shelby County
Schools has a list of 13 schools — elementary, middle and
high schools that Superintendant Dorsey Hopson wants the board
to debate and consider closing. He’s not made a final
recommendation at this point. That’s the board’s process. So the public hearings have
moved to the schools that are affected themselves
this week and last week. And the board will probably vote
at it’s meeting either at the end of this month or
at the end of March. And there are always changes in
the lists to some degree the way this has worked in the past. Usually one or two
schools drop off of it. And Hopson’s plea to the
communties has been pretty basic and direct. These schools
have low enrollment. These schools have low student
performance and if you can show me a plan that says you have a
way to help turn that around in both cases, then maybe my
recommendation will not include your school. I’m willing to work with you. But you’ve got to
show me something here. And the interesting thing is
these are not schools that are totally bereft of
community support in every case. Alcy Elementary School has 10
or 11 doctors or people from the outside who have
programs within the school. Yet, it’s on the block and
it’s been on the block before. So you really have a
fundamentally different way of looking at these schools from
the supporters and from the schools’ administration. The supporters of these schools
see potential for those schools to be rescued. The school system looks at them
and says maybe but if it was going to happen, why
hasn’t it happened by now. Yeah and you talked about, Bill. It always seems to be more
emotion-attached when it’s a high school. And Northside High School is one
of those on that chopping block. I was at my
barbershop on Saturday. And a woman came through getting
a petition trying to get people to sign and all that. And you wonder though why
couldn’t this effort have been done earlier on the part of
those parents who reallty felt, you know, what
they’re doing now.. You know, why weren’t
they out a month ago, two months ago,
three months ago? I mean, if they knew that. The devastating thing, I did a
story last year about Florida Elementary that used to be. You go to that neighborhood now. Everything around it.. The houses are boarded up. What a school does is it
brings the community together, it becomes a hub. You take that school
away, you close it down, you close down that community. And that is the
saddest part of it. But that’s the problem. They’re just not cost-effective. But it does injure the community
when they have to be closed, no question. But can the school system be
expected to shoulder the entire weight of bringing
that community back? That’s really the question that
the school system and the school board are dealing with. They can’t afford to be social
engineers is what it comes down to. Well of course all this news was
mitigated by some good news — relatively good news for the
Shelby County School System. And that was the free lunch
program as I understand it. Right but plans are already
underway for the next school year which is going to be
another historic school year for the school system
on many fronts. But yeah, free breakfast, lunch
and dinner will be offered under a federal program that is used
in several other school systems that have a very high percentage
of students already who are on the free and reduced lunch
federal program where you have income guidelines for it. And this has been in the works
for at least a couple of years simply because most of the
students in the school system are on the free lunch program. And the thinking is is that the
cost of administering that are so high that if you go to a
totally free lunch program where you only report the number of
meals served as opposed to all of the other beaurocratic
stuff that’s there now that you actually make it possible to
have free lunches for everyone. Well let’s move on to the fact
that it’s the political season or it’s about to rev up here. And I find myself.. It’s kind of funny to even say
that considering the fact that it seems like we have an
election every 15 minutes here in Shelby County. But Jackson, you’ve been
keeping a close eye on this. What are some of the more
interesting races that you’ve been able to discern. Well first of all, I want to
point out that this is a big ballot year because all
of the judges are up. All the trial judges are up. So it’s bigger than usual. But Bill and I were in
a meeting last night, the Shelby County
Democratic Executive Committee. We saw one of the more
interesting races being formed. That’s the race for
Shelby County mayor. Now Mark Luttrell is a
Republican incumbent. And he’s pretty optomistic about
re-election but Democrats think that theoretical numerical
majority in Shelby County gives them the chance. So four people so
far are trying. Well maybe more than four but
four major candidates are trying so far to get the
democratic nomination. Deidre Malone,
former commissioner, has been declared for a while. Steve Mulroy declared this
week, another Shelby County Commissioner. James Harvey, the
chairman of the commission, has declared. And Kenneth Whalum, who is a
famous school board member. And between the
four of those guys, we should have a
very interesting race. A lot of energy last
night at this meeting. And another interesting race is
the one for attorney general. Well the one thing I was going
to say is I’ve been noticing that Kenneth Whalum has
been kind of expanding his, you know, his view
of various things. He’s not just the school board. He’s weighing in on
various issues in the city. For a while, I was wondering if
he was going to run for mayor of Memphis. Well his appetite was
wetted when he thinks he single handedly defeated the sales
tax referendum last year. And he was
instrumental in doing that, no question about it. And he’s still got that lawsuit
to get back on the school board. That’s still pending. He may be back on the school
board unless he’s elected mayor in the meantime. The other interesting race that
is forming up on the Democratic side because as a Republican,
you have all of the incumbencies right now. Because they had this
big wipe-out in 2010. Attorney General — that race
is going to be very interesting. Amy Weirich, of course,
is Republican incumbent. And she’s pretty optomistic
about re-election because she, like Luttrell, had a lot
of Democratic crossover. Now that is stuck in the
crawl of some Democrats. It’s stuck in the crawl of
one would-be candidate Carol Chumney, the former legislature
and council member who’s made a big deal about chastising
Democrats who didn’t support her when she ran for that office two
years ago when Amy won the right to continue the term. And we have
another possible entry, Judge Joe Brown. Yes, yeah. From the syndicated series. He was firing
Brimstone last night. He made so many charges. We couldn’t report them
all because they have a very investigative
about people in power. But it was kind of a cat and
mouse game between him and Carol Chumney because
he’s not declared. Although, he’s
talking about running. She hasn’t even mentioned it but
you know she’s thinking about running. And each had an
eye on each other. Is he gonna do it? Is she gonna do it? One of them is likely to
do it, probably Carol. I don’t see Joe Brown doing it. I think it’s a lot of
hot air on Joe Brown. If they don’t, at this point
we’re two weeks from the filing deadline for the
May county primaries. And the Democrats have no one
who’s even pulled a petition in that race as of the taping of
this show on Friday morning. So if it’s gonna happen,
it needs to happen soon. They are flaoting balloons is
what they are doing — both of those two. And there are a lot of
interesting commission races because we have the 13 single
member districts for the first time. A lot of new faces and a few of
the old faces who are not term limited who can run. Those are good races. The white male Democrat, he
is like that’s what they want. The guy that’s straight off and
go on and voted Republican on occassion or whatever because he
didn’t like the party’s people. Well that’s the guy they got
to get out to vote Democrat. You’ve got Mike running
for criminal court clerk. That’s why you’ve got
Mulroy running for mayor. And it’s also why I think
the party is in the midst of a really interesting discussion to
try to reconcile what happened to them four years ago when they
lost every county wide race. They reviewed the
charges last night. It was stolen from him
but it probably won’t. Well quickly — you know this
has been a big week for the Beatles. Because this is the
50th anniversary. Quickly in the 30
seconds that we have left. Jackson, you were
at the Coliseum. Covered that
concert back in 1966. It was a long time ago. As long as Paul
McCartney is still holding up, I can too. [laughter]
And it was. It was one of those concerts you
couldn’t hear anything because of the screaming
of the audience. But you could tell
they were doing good. Alright, thank you. Thanks for joining us. Goodnight.

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