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May 21 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.  

Haslam defends making records confidential (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam says it’s “not easy” to strike a balance between efficiency and transparency in state government. In several cases this year, the Republican governor has sided in favor of making information confidential. Haslam has signed measures to make confidential the names of all but the three finalists for leadership positions in state colleges and universities, and to prevent parents from finding out the evaluation scores of teachers.

Tennessee GOP boasts of tax cuts approved in latest session (TFP/Sher)

Tennessee’s Republican governor and legislative leaders are touting an estimated $164.1 million in tax cuts set to take place by 2016 through phasing out the state’s inheritance tax, eliminating the gift tax and lowering the sales taxes on groceries from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent. “We cut taxes really three times,” Gov. Bill Haslam said, noting that last year lawmakers also trimmed the Hall income tax on interest and dividend income.

Lawrence Man Charged In Giles County On TennCare Fraud (WKSR-Radio Pulaski)

A 30 year old Lawrenceburg man has been charged with TennCare fraud. Authorities say Mitchell Looney sold prescription drugs in Giles County that were obtained by using TennCare benefits. Loony is accused of obtaining a prescription for the painkiller Hydrocodone and planning to sell a portion of his prescription which was paid for by TennCare. He was being held in the Lawrence County jail on unrelated charges and was taken to the Giles County jail where he was served the indictment.

State auditors review required college changes (Associated Press)

The Complete College Act of 2010 changed the formula for how Tennessee’s universities are funded, rewarding them for graduating students, not just enrolling them. With the change the Tennessee Higher Education Commission is being asked to do more than just take a college’s word about graduation rates. It should find a way to verify them. The recommendation comes from state auditors, who have been tracking implementation of the Complete College Act.

Medicaid primary care pay: The next SGR? (American Medical News)

Reid Blackwelder, MD, a family physician in Kingsport, Tenn., said primary care physicians in his state would benefit immensely from a federal proposal raising Medicaid payments to equal what Medicare pays for the same services. TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, currently pays him only 60% of Medicare rates, Dr. Blackwelder said. If TennCare had paid 100% of Medicare rates for the previous 10 months of billing, from July 2011 through April 2012, “we would have made an additional $400,000 in our three residency programs,” said Dr. Blackwelder, a professor of family medicine at East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine.

Tennesseans show ‘bittersweet’ reaction to health law in Vandy Poll (TN/Wilemon)

Majority like kids provision but still want act tossed Mothers never stop fretting about their children even when they become adults, but Louise Hardaway worries less now that her 21-year-old son is back on her health insurance. A mandate of the Affordable Care Act allowed the Nashville woman to put him back on her employer-based plan. “He didn’t give it a second thought, but I was concerned and hoped for the best during that time,” Hardaway said.

Vanderbilt poll: Obama closes gap with Romney (Tennessean/Cass)

President Barack Obama has pulled into a virtual tie with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney in traditionally conservative Tennessee, according to a new Vanderbilt University poll. The poll also found that Tennesseans weren’t thrilled with the Republican-led General Assembly’s frequent focus on social, cultural and religious issues this year. But Republican Gov. Bill Haslam managed to remain above the fray, winning approval from 61 percent of poll participants.

At Vanderbilt, all-comers policy and athletics butt heads (CP/Greenberg, Boettcher)

On a public stage in a packed lecture hall in January, Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers quietly raised his hand and took the microphone. What followed was a bold declaration of belief as one of the school’s most notable athletes took three of the university’s top officials to task about the university’s newly clarified “all-comers” policy. “The fact that this is restricting who is able to be a leader completely undermines the mission, our vision, and the direction of every single one of these organizations,” Rodgers said.

Tennessee dental health among nation’s worst (Times Free-Press/Martin)

Tennessee’s dental health can be measured in so many ways: Twenty percent of adults ages 18-64 have lost six or more teeth because of decay, infection or gum disease, twice the national median, according to a report by the Commonwealth Fund, a health care advocacy group. Only 66 percent visited a dentist or dental clinic in 2010, according to a Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

League of Women Voters backs Knox schools’ $35M request (News-Sentinel)

The Knoxville-Knox County League of Women Voters has endorsed the $35 million funding increase proposed by the Knox County school board for 2012-13 that is not included in County Mayor Tim Burchett’s $673.7 million budget. The organization says its support is based on facts that include Knox County has not increased its $2.36 property tax rate in more than 12 years.

Memphis VA participating in seismic monitoring (Associated Press)

The Memphis VA Medical Center is participating in a seismic monitoring system that will help engineers to learn what happens to buildings during earthquakes so that they can build safer hospitals in the future. The Memphis VA was recently equipped with 36 sensors in two buildings that will provide real-time information to the U.S. Geological Survey in the event of an earthquake. Nationwide, over 70 VA medical centers are part of the monitoring project that will give the USGS a better understanding of how building act during shaking and how damage occurs.

Summer program helps Knox 8th-graders prepare for high school (N-S/McCoy)

District already has success in first year Knox County Schools says it’s seeing results in a summer program designed to help struggling eighth-graders before they start high school. Last summer, about 200 students participated in the district’s Summer Bridge program. According to school officials, 74 percent of the students completed the program, and of those who did 77 percent had passing grades in three or more classes after their first semester of high school.

Turning around academics at middle schools (Jackson Sun)

Raising achievement scores at Jackson-Madison County’s five middle schools was the goal of many School Board members earlier this year when they asked Superintendent Buddy White to research a plan of action. But budget limitations have forced school officials to prioritize and come up with creative ways to make improvements while waiting for money to become available. School officials estimated that giving principals everything they asked for in their proposals for an academic “turnaround” at all five middle schools would have cost $4 million.

Unified school system sees daunting task requiring creative financing (CA/Kelley)

An aggressive drive toward greater efficiency and some persuasive lobbying could help close a projected multimillion-dollar funding shortfall for the unified school district. Such an approach will be required to build the world-class educational system that architects hope to produce from the merger of Memphis City and Shelby County Schools. That’s the message behind a set of potential recommendations being studied by the Finance Committee of the Transition Planning Commission, the 21-member group that is closing in rapidly on a plan for the unified district.

Hawkins County report cards delayed for grades 3-8 (Times-News)

Hawkins County students in grades 3-8 won’t receive their report cards as previously scheduled because T-CAP state achievement test results haven’t been returned to the schools yet. Ordinarily school systems wouldn’t expect to receive their T-CAP achievement test results until well into the summer break, but this is the first year that the state achievement testing results were to count as 15 percent of a student’s final grade. Only grades 3-8 take the annual T-CAP tests.

Wisconsin: Democrats’ Wisconsin Worry (Wall Street Journal)

Some Fear Walker’s Surviving Recall Would Boost GOP’s Chances in November With little more than two weeks until Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall election, some Democratic and union officials quietly are expressing fears that they have picked a fight they won’t win and that could leave lingering injuries. Recent polling and a head start on fundraising by Gov. Scott Walker have some Democrats concerned that the Republican will survive the June 5 recall election.




Free-Press Editorial: Sketchy claims (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

No, it wasn’t Tennessee leading the charge on the constitutionality of the health care mandate, but our state’s attorney general did lead the charge — against fat-burning sneakers. In an increased effort of the Federal Trade Commission to address false or unfounded claims, a California sneaker company, Skechers U.S.A., Inc., will pay $40 million in a settlement in a case led by Tennessee and Ohio. This follows last year’s FTC suit filed by Ohio against Reebok that resulted in a $25 million settlement.

Free-Press Editorial: Et tu, Tennessee Tech? (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Vanderbilt University took some well-deserved lambasting for its ludicrous policy forcing virtually all student groups on campus to let any interested student join and seek a leadership position — meaning students of similar ideology or faith, for example, are in effect denied freedom of association. They suffer forfeiture of their campus space and loss of their Vanderbilt affiliation if they don’t obey. Still, as a private institution, Vanderbilt has the right to set those types of bad policies.

Editorial: Students can’t learn if they can’t get to school (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Public officials in Tennessee have bragged about recent policies they deem as education reform, as they have reminded us of the need to train a work force for the challenging jobs of this century. Amid all that, they apparently forgot one of the basics: Students have to be able to get to school in order to learn. No public school system in Tennessee should have to ground its buses the last weeks of the term. What has happened in Union County should serve as a reminder to all school board members, county commissioners, county mayors, state lawmakers and the governor that Tennessee has a long way to go to achieve anything significant in education if it can’t provide money to keep buses running for the entire school term.

Editorial: Don’t let failing seniors slip by (Commercial Appeal)

Getting that diploma is important: Education officials should stay on parents to make sure failing seniors make up course work. The push to better evaluate the competency of teachers has produced a predicament for high school seniors who expect to graduate this month. Some in Memphis and Shelby County will march down the aisle in their mortar boards and gowns not knowing how they did on end-of-course exams. As a result, they will not know whether they have passed courses required for graduation. Given the emphasis here and statewide on increasing the high school graduation rate, it would be good policy to create a process that strongly encourages all of those who failed, to complete the course work and receive their diplomas.

Gail Kerr: Council’s tax foes need to reveal what they’d cut (Tennessean)

A handful of Metro Council members are already putting as much distance as they possibly can between their political careers and Mayor Karl Dean’s proposed property tax hike. None of them has answered the obvious next question: What are you proposing to cut? The jobs of 200 cops? Library branch hours? The number of firetrucks that respond to an emergency? Pothole filling? The city’s charity hospital? Teacher pay? Or what? Four councilmen are running for the legislature: Robert Duvall, Darren Jernigan, Bo Mitchell and Jason Potts. Duvall is an anti-tax-of-any-kind conservative, so it was no surprise that he voted against both the mayor’s budget and the tax hike when it went to the council on first reading last week.

Guest columnist: After years of cuts, Nash. needs revenue to handle growth (TN)

I had the honor to serve on the Metro Council for eight years, under two different mayors. For the last full term of my tenure, each year at budget time, we focused on cutting the budget within Metro government. This was done with an eye toward maintaining basic services while confronting the harsh economic realities of the city and nation. The year I was Budget and Finance Committee chairman was no different. As we adapted to reduced revenues, we made tough decisions, including layoffs, hiring freezes and thoughtful budget cuts. As gas prices rose (sound familiar?), our public transportation participation increased, meaning we had to balance budget cuts with growing needs.

David Cook: The meaning of Weston Wamp (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

The day after he turned 25, and thereby old enough to run for Congress, Weston Wamp stood on the second floor of the Hunter Museum of American Art, staring at one of the most recognizable images in all of American photography. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” You’ve seen the photo. The black-and-white image is the face of the American Depression. A mother suffering in untold ways stares off into a horizon drought of hope, as her children bury their faces in her shoulder. Wamp looked at the plaque on the wall. “She looks a lot older than 32,” he said quietly. So true. Age can be tricky, can’t it?

Times Editorial: A postal reprieve (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

The U.S. Postal Service processing and distribution center on Shallowford Road, initially on the agency’s short list for closure, will continue to operate a bit longer — probably until spring 2014. That’s a positive development for workers at the facility and for area postal patrons, whose delivery times would have been negatively impacted by the closure. The news is not so good for workers and residents in many other places. The USPS said that 140 centers around the nation will be closed by February 2013. The Chattanooga facility is among 89 facilities to be closed in 2014.

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