This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam is gearing up for workers’ compensation reform, saying he plans to propose legislation on the issue while drawing on a new report that makes a range of recommendations. The report, just released by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, recommends a “structural” change to the state’s system, largely moving it out of the courts. It also makes a range of other suggestions to streamline the system — the goal being to cut employer costs and getting workers back on the job sooner — and improve accountability.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has washed his hands of choosing what benefits will be required in basic health insurance plans sold to individual Tennesseans and small businesses under the federal health care law. In deciding not to act, Haslam has turned over to the Obama administration a decision that will affect hundreds of thousands of people and small companies. A number of Republican and some Democratic governors in other states have done the same. Unlike many, Haslam hasn’t shared anything with the general public, instead serving notice of his decision in a letter dated Sunday to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Katherine Sebelius.
A decision by Gov. Bill Haslam against setting minimum benefits that health insurers would have to offer for individual and small-group coverage here starting in 2014 could make a plan from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee the benchmark for the state. Under federal guidance to implement health care reform, if a state chooses not to select a so-called essential health benefits package, the federal fallback option would be the largest small-group plan available as of March 31. In Tennessee, that’s a BlueCross preferred provider organization plan that had 92,836 people enrolled as of that date.
Tennessee added 24,600 nonfarm jobs in August, putting the state near the middle of the pack in terms of job growth for the month. According to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Tennessee ranks No. 21 in nonfarm job growth. The state grew to a total of 2.68 million nonfarm jobs, compared to 2.65 million in August 2011. California topped the ranking, gaining 298,700 nonfarm jobs between August 2011 and this year. New Mexico was at the bottom, losing 13,300 jobs over the last year.
Cumberland County was recently named as one of the winners of the 2012 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Awards. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau recently announced the winners. “We were honored to have won in this category and are glad the state recognized the efforts Tom (Breeding) and Mike (Harvel) are putting forth in our county,” said Cumberland County Mayor Kennth Carey Jr.
Comptroller Justin Wilson’s move to automatically waive the first $25 in fees for public records requests is drawing praise from open government advocates. The proposed rules would also give the comptroller the discretion to waive all costs related to public record searches and copies. “The fee waiver provisions are progressive for Tennessee and should be a model for other state and local agencies,” said Frank Gibson, the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government. TCOG is a nonprofit alliance of citizen, professional and media groups, including The Associated Press and The Tennessean.
Tennessee’s outbreak of a rare form of fungal meningitis has evolved into a national health crisis that has sickened at least 26 people in five states, killing four of them — and officials say the count is certain to rise. A Massachusetts specialty pharmacy that already had a record of regulatory violations was linked Wednesday to the disease outbreak and voluntarily surrendered its license. Doctors and health officials in Tennessee had alerted federal officials that the company’s medicine might be the cause of the infections — an action that mobilized the nation’s health-care system to identify illnesses in other states and keep more people from getting sick.
Tennessee and federal health experts are investigating an outbreak of meningitis that infected 14 people who received steroid injections, killing two of them, the state’s chief medical officer said Tuesday. Dr. David Reagan, chief medical officer for the Tennessee Department of Health, said the latest two cases were confirmed in the past 24 hours. All but one of those who contracted the infection had received steroid injections for back pain at a Nashville clinic, authorities said. The other case was reported in North Carolina in a patient who had received the same type of injection, authorities said.
Eighteen Tennesseans have now been made sick with a rare meningitis after being given tainted injections for back pain, along with eight others around the region. Four people have died, including two in the state, where health department officials say more cases from the contaminated shots are “almost certain” to show up. The FDA says Massachusetts-based New England Compounding Center is recalling shots believed contaminated with the fungus Aspergillus. In Nashville, St. Thomas Hospital had some two thousand vials, and more went to clinics in Crossville and Oak Ridge and four other states.
An outbreak of a rare type of meningitis, linked to spinal injections for back pain, is growing and has killed four people and sickened at least 30 others in five states, health officials said on Wednesday. New cases are appearing every day. “I’m afraid we’re going to see many more cases spread across the country,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The patients are thought to have been infected by a steroid drug contaminated with a fungus, Aspergillus.
Legislators called it “egregious” that state parole officials claimed they were supervising felons who later turned out to be dead. But what upset them even more was the fact that two parole officers were not arrested after being caught falsifying some of those dead felons’ files. “Why is that?” asked state Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, vice chairman of the Government Operations Joint Subcommittee on Judiciary and Government. Gary Tullock, assistant commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Correction who oversees supervision of the state’s felons, struggled to respond.
Officials from the State Board of Parole faced a committee of angry legislators Wednesday. They wanted to know why officers continued to report on more than 80 parolees, even after they died. The parole board’s Gary Tullock says at least two officers have already lost their jobs, but that wasn’t enough for Republican Representative Barrett Rich. “Rich: Were they criminally prosecuted? Tullock: They were not. Rich: Why is that? Tullock: I don’t have a good answer for you. I…is it a crime? I… Rich:Falsifying documents, certainly state documents, would be a crime and if that hasn’t been referred to the District Attorney General then I think certainly would be imperative for you to do so.”
A Roane County woman is charged for the second time with TennCare “doctor shopping,” or going to multiple doctors to obtain the same or similar controlled substances, and using the TennCare program as payment. On Wednesday, the state Office of Inspector General, with assistance from the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, announced the arrest of Kimberly Sue Christian, 29, of Harriman. She is charged in a Morgan County indictment with three counts of fraudulently using TennCare to obtain a controlled substance by doctor shopping for prescriptions for the painkiller Oxycodone.
Civil rights attorney George Barrett Wednesday filed an appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals of a recent state court decision that found Tennessee’s voter identification law to be constitutional. His application for emergency appeal asks state officials to remove government-issued photo ID as a voting requirement in the November election. The appeal requests a hearing no later than Oct. 12. Tennessee’s early voting starts Oct. 17. Barrett has been at war for months with state officials over the state’s voter ID law, which took effect this year.
The City of Memphis filed an application to appeal its voter-photo identification case to the Tennessee Court of Appeals late Wednesday, a week after a Nashville judge declined to block the photo-ID requirement in the upcoming elections. Attorneys for the city and for two Memphis women who are co-plaintiffs in the case filed the “application for emergency appeal” in hopes of expediting a ruling before early voting in the Nov. 6 general election starts Oct. 15. The city is asking the appeals court to determine that the city and the two co-plaintiffs have standing to challenge the state’s photo ID law required for voting and that the law violates the Tennessee Constitution, which sets out four requirements for voting — and a photo ID is not one of them.
Voters also may honor military Andrew Dodd, elections attorney with the state Division of Elections, said there are various acceptable photo IDs that people can use to comply with the state’s new photo ID law. According to the law, all voters must present a state or federally issued photo ID before voting. Dodd explained the law at a session hosted by AARP Tennessee on Wednesday in Jackson to remind voters of the requirement before the Nov. 6 election. People can use any of the following: a driver’s license with a photo, state-issued gun carry permit with a photo, Department of Safety and Homeland Security photo ID, U.S. military photo ID, U.S. passport or other forms of government-issued photo identification.
The day after Hamilton County General Sessions Judge Ron Durby notified state officials that he is stepping down, he released a public statement saying he hopes his absence won’t last long. Durby said he’s leaving the bench because of a disability, though he has not publicly specified what it is. He said in the statement he hoped treatment would allow him to resume his duties soon. “I am experiencing some physical difficulties which affect my exercising the duties of General Sessions Court judge,” Durby wrote.
Striving to maintain a substantial presence in the Tennessee General Assembly, Democrats appear more aggressive than Republicans do in attacking their opponents in legislative races across the state as campaigns enter the final stage. “We are holding a lot of incumbents accountable for their reckless actions … and some non-incumbents,” said Brandon Puttbrese, communications director of the Tennessee Democratic Party. He described the state GOP as “a political party that flaunts the law and believes in accountability for everyone but themselves.”
Memphis businessman Karl Schledwitz has played host to political candidates over the years, and his latest beneficiary, for an event this week, is a West Tennessean whose race for the state House of Representatives has taken a truly unusual twist. Brad Thompson of Union City, a Democrat running for the open District 24 state Senate seat vacated this year by longtime incumbent Roy Herron, was scheduled to be the honoree at Schledwitz’s house on Wednesday night for a fundraiser co-hosted by state senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the Democrats’ Senate leader.
Pair vying for newly created House seat Democratic House candidate Robert “Bob” New knows he’s been out-funded by Republican Dawn White in their race for the new 37th House seat in Rutherford County, but he’s forging ahead anyway. “We’re working. We’re not conceding anything,” New said, adding he believes he has enough money to run a good campaign but needs more volunteers to go to work for him. Though she out-raised New $29,800 to $4,400 during the second quarter, according to information filed with the state Registry of Election Finance, White said she isn’t taking anything for granted.
Davidson County’s election process will continue to have a public relations problem even if technology that went awry in August is permanently fixed, Democratic state lawmakers who represent Nashville said Wednesday. “I think the public is still very much concerned,” said Rep. Brenda Gilmore. “They’re going to have to do a lot to restore confidence.” Gilmore and three other House Democrats met with Davidson County Election Administrator Albert Tieche and a bipartisan contingent of the county’s election commissioners to talk about problems that caused some Democratic voters to receive Republican ballots in the Aug. 2 primary election.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker says that because the Tennessee Valley Authority is a “blip on the radar screen” for President Barack Obama or any president, he fears most days in Washington that “the federal government is going to destroy TVA” through benign neglect. “Just because, again, it not being important,” the Tennessee Republican told reporters Wednesday following a speech to Nashville’s Chamber of Commerce. Corker also said he is looking at alternative governance structures for the federal utility, which was created in 1933 to serve parts of seven states, including Tennessee.
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker says TVA might be better off if it came out from under federal oversight. Both of the state’s U.S. senators say the White House isn’t putting much thought or taking their input over appointing new board members. Corker says any President – no matter the party – has bigger fish to fry than naming directors for the Tennessee Valley Authority. But regionally, the $11 billion power producer is huge. And Corker says board members with corporate experience could hold the agency accountable for screw-ups like going $2 billion over budget on a nuclear reactor.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker told Nashville business leaders Wednesday he believes lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will work more closely after the election to solve the nation’s fiscal problems, including Medicare. Corker, R-Tenn., also said there won’t be Senate action to confirm President Obama’s five nominees to the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors until after the election. The nominees include Memphis accountant V. Lynn Evans, a member of the Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division board since 2004, and Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor of Tennessee.
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker denies trying to score political points over the deadly consulate attack in Libya. Corker has been a regular guest on national news programs calling the Obama Administration’s reaction “bizarre.” Corker sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and could even become the ranking Republican after the November elections. When he asks questions of the State Department, he says he almost always gets answers, even if he has to keep them to himself. So the lack of information surrounding the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Corker calls “strange.”
Candidate Dr. Mary Headrick scored a coveted endorsement in local Democratic circles this week, landing the backing of former U.S. Rep. Marilyn Lloyd in a bid for the congressional seat Lloyd held for two decades. An acute care physician from Maynardville, Headrick is the Democratic nominee in Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Chattanooga, Oak Ridge and several rural counties that extend to the Kentucky border. She is facing off against incumbent Rep. Chuck Fleischmann.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said in Chattanooga on Wednesday that the nation’s jobs outlook is “on the right track,” but there’s a lot more work to do. Solis, at Chattanooga State Community College to unveil a $3 million training grant, declined to talk about new jobs figures that beat analysts’ expectations but are barely enough to cut the jobless rate. “I do believe, given the circumstances, we’re seeing growth in sectors that are being revived,” she said, adding that more than 500,000 jobs were created over the last 30 months in manufacturing.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis took a whirlwind tour of Roane State Community College’s campus here Wednesday to tout a $12.6 million federal grant the college will oversee to boost training in health care careers. Solis quietly chatted with students in classrooms and tutoring areas, dropped in on a lecture for older residents and gave a pep talk on behalf of community colleges. “I think community colleges play a very, very pivotal role right now in the workplace,” Solis said, calling such institutions “a big secret for the last few decades.”
My book about the federal budget, which emphasizes the fiscal significance of rising health spending (it was 10% of federal spending in 1960, is 25% today and is headed to 33% within a decade), has many readers asking: Isn’t it true that we spend huge sums on people who are in their last year of life, and isn’t finding a socially acceptable way to stop doing that the best way to slow health-care spending? The short answer: Yes to the first part, no to the second. About 25% of all spending by Medicare, the insurance program for the elderly and disabled, is done in the last year of life, according to analysis by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The floodwaters are swelling, but the resources needed to confront them are shriveling up. That’s the frustrating reality that state dam officials face as they confront added stress to the thousands of structures they regulate. Extreme weather, shifting demographics and the simple passage of time are teaming up to erode the condition of dams and increase the cost of their failure, often measured in millions of dollars and significant numbers of lives lost. The number of deficient dams in the U.S. — those with structural or hydraulic issues that increase the risk of failure — is rising dramatically, outpacing the rate at which they can be fixed.
Agrana Fruit US is expanding its Centerville, Tenn., location, state officials announced today. The $10 million expansion will create 64 new positions at the Hickman County plant. Ohio-based Agrana Fruit US prepares fruit for the dairy industry. The expansion will allow the company to add new production lines, according to a news release from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. “The North American yogurt industry has seen explosive growth in the past five years. This trend is expected to continue and is driving the need for significant expansion in our business,” Bob Prendes, president and CEO of Agrana Fruit US, said in the release.
Superintendent Rick Smith doesn’t support public school vouchers or efforts to take public charter school approval away from local school boards, the Hamilton County Schools chief told parents and educators Wednesday. In his second “State of the Schools” address to the Hamilton County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, Smith spoke of the changing educational climate, continued student enrollment growth, the school district’s widespread facilities needs and a renewed focus on teacher recruitment.
The Bledsoe County Schools system has its highest number of students ever at 1,932, a jump of about 60 systemwide over last year, officials said Wednesday. And that doesn’t include the nearly 100 preschool students enrolled at the county’s three elementary schools, according to Bledsoe County Schools attendance supervisor Jack Roberson. But the growth is putting pressure on some facilities, Roberson said. “Some of the classrooms are not overloaded, but they’re real close to maxing out,” he said.
The Knox County School board tabled voting on a resolution Wednesday night that would put Historic Knoxville High School into surplus at the beginning of the year. Board member Lynne Fugate asked that the vote be pushed back to gain clarity on a resolution passed six years ago that states if the county sells a school building put into surplus that the proceeds will be returned to the school system. “I just think if we are surplusing school property that was paid for by school dollars, I would like to know for sure that the money is coming back to the schools for us to use with other school projects,” she said.
Nashville is awash in watery metaphors these days. Of course, there was the Flood of 2010, a tragedy but one that saw the city rise stronger than ever from the outpouring of volunteers committed to rebuilding and recovery. Early this year, plans were announced for a new water and snow park to be built near Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, with the hope of bringing back some of the old Opryland magic. Then last week, the park plan sank — at least temporarily — when Dollywood pulled out of the partnership with Gaylord, which has sold management of the Gaylord Opryland hotel to Marriott and reformed as a real estate investment trust.
Last week, I shared some big news about HCA’s decision to locate two corporate headquarters in our Midtown area, which will bring 2,000 jobs in the near term and a $200 million investment to our city. Where a vacant lot now stands, two attractive towers will rise some 20 stories high. This planned development speaks to the vitality of our West End corridor, the talent of our workforce and the vibrancy of our city. Parallon Business Solutions will anchor one tower, relocating 750 jobs from Williamson County, while Sarah Cannon Research Institute will be in the other tower, bringing 200 workers from their current Nashville offices.
With last week’s announcement that hospital giant HCA would relocate the headquarters of two of its entities to the West End/Broadway split, we must say goodbye to a Nashville institution. Lake Palmer: We bid you adieu. When lawsuits and a sluggish economy combined to stop work on Alex Palmer’s ambitious West End Summit property, all that remained was a giant construction excavation hole, some 80 feet deep. After it was blasted into existence more than six years ago, rainwater and runoff found a home at Nashville’s lowest point — as water will do — and filled that rectangular chasm along one of the city’s major thoroughfares.
While the exact motivation is unclear, state Comptroller Justin Wilson’s decision to waive up to $25 in fees for public document requests from his office is a step in the right direction for open government. We would like to see this approach taken throughout Tennessee by all state and local government agencies. More and easier public access to government operations leads to more accountability. Wilson’s proposal to automatically waive the first $25 in fees associated with public record requests also grants him discretion to waive all fees associated with a public records request in any given situation. The proposal drew immediate support from the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government.
Closing Achievement ‘Gaps’ in Knox Schools I have been impressed with the Knox County school system and its leadership since Jim McIntyre became superintendent in 2008. So I was surprised that the McIntyre-led system failed to make a list of 21 “Exemplary School Districts” recently announced by the state Department of Education. This recognition was based on student achievement gains this past school year as measured by TCAP test scores in grades three through eight and high school end-of-course exams. While Knox County Schools (KCS) had overall achievement gains in all of the above that met or exceeded state benchmarks, it fell short by a new set of standards the state adopted early this year.
Americans are nearly unanimous in their support for national parks, but the bitter political divisions in other realms of public policy could wind up gutting the National Park System, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park likely won’t be spared. The threat to the Smokies and other units in the National Park System is growing acute as the country approaches the “fiscal cliff.” Regardless of how the election turns out, Tennessee’s congressional delegation must return to Washington ready to make the hard decisions to avert sequestration, which is the term for $109 billion in across-the-board spending cuts automatically triggered in January if lawmakers don’t pass a budget.