This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Despite regular broadsides against expanding the role of the federal government, Tennessee Republicans in Congress aren’t criticizing Gov. Bill Haslam for ceding more control over health care to Uncle Sam.Haslam on Monday became one of at least 18 governors to reject a state-run health insurance exchange, instead allowing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish and operate such an exchange for up to 558,000 uninsured Tennesseans. Undecided governors have until Friday to make a choice.
Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey both said Tuesday they are inclined to oppose a Medicaid expansion, though not flatly ruling out the possibility as Gov. Bill Haslam studies the issue and contemplates making a decision sometime next year. With Haslam’s decision Monday to leave operation of a health insurance exchange in Tennessee to the federal government, battle lines are now being formed on whether or not to expand Medicaid, operated as TennCare in Tennessee, as envisioned by the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
With his decision on who will operate a health care exchange for Tennesseans now in the rearview mirror, Gov. Bill Haslam faces yet another major hurdle in resolving how to best align the state with the Affordable Care Act. Though he doesn’t face as aggressive of a deadline, the governor must decide soon whether TennCare will expand its coverage under the new law to include more low-income Tennesseans than its current structure allows. In 2014, a key requirement of President Barack Obama’s policy is set to go into effect, mandating that everyone have some form of health insurance.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision to allow the federal government to run the state’s health insurance exchange raises as many questions as it answers. What sort of coverage will a federally-run plan provide? What are the costs and the rules for Tennessee employers? What about the nearly two years of planning and hearings — and more than $9 million in tax dollars spent — to develop a Tennessee plan? Haslam announced Monday he was ceding control of the federally mandated health insurance exchange to Washington.
A Dayton, Tenn., automotive supplier is growing its business as it wins new work among an array of car companies, officials said Tuesday. International Automotive Components is upping its workforce by about 50 people and investing $7.7 million into its Rhea County operations, said state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty. That will push the company’s plant staff to just under 300, according to IAC. “The automotive industry in Tennessee is thriving because of companies like IAC,” Hagerty said in a statement.
There is a lack of research data about teacher professional development in Tennessee, which makes it difficult to for taxpayers to know how tens of millions of dollars in Race to the Top stimulus funds are being spent, according to a recent state report. Ultimately, that means that it’s impossible to know whether teacher training programs in Tennessee are having an impact on student learning, says the report, released by the Offices of Research and Education Accountability in the state Comptroller’s office. Of the $500 million Tennessee received in Race to the Top funds, $148.2 million was allocated to train the state’s 63,000 public school teachers.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman won’t be involved in any meetings this week aimed at some type of agreement among all of the parties in the municipal schools district federal court case. And countywide school board chairman Billy Orgel said Tuesday, Dec. 11, the school board won’t be present at any meeting this week although the board is interested in talking with suburban leaders. “We’re open to meeting with them,” Orgel said. “We’re not under any time pressure. We’re going to let them have their meeting and talk later.”
The good news is Tennessee ranks two spots better than last year. The bad news is we’re 39th. According to a survey compiled by the United Health Foundation, dubbed America’s Health Rankings, the Volunteer State has moved two spots up from the 41st position last year, portending bad things for the state’s populace if changes, primarily related to lifestyle, aren’t soon made. “America’s Health Rankings from United Health Foundation is an incredibly valuable tool for us to clearly understand health trends facing us as a nation and here in Tennessee,” Dr. Janice Huckaby, medical director of UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee, said in a statement released today.
Tennesseans have gotten slightly healthier, but remain in relatively rough shape compared to the rest of the country, a new study shows. Tennessee ranked No. 39 in a new national study by United Health Foundation, up from No. 41 last year. The study looked at a range of factors, from health problems to lifestyle, in evaluating the health of the population across the country. Dr. Janice Huckaby, medical director of UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee, said the study’s results are critical to understanding trends in health care in Tennessee and around the country.
Tennessee health officials are training nursing home care providers how to treat dementia patients with fewer drugs – especially those with Alzheimer’s disease. The Tennessean reported statistics collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services show about 30 percent of long-term nursing home residents in Tennessee are treated with antipsychotics drugs. The national average is 23.8 percent and federal officials want that cut by 15 percent by year’s end. Tennessee health officials have a $370,000 federal grant for a series of sessions to train nursing home workers.
The Tennessee State Museum is accepting reservations starting today for those wanting to see the original Emancipation Proclamation when it is on display in Nashville in February. Those wanting to see the document — an executive order issued by President Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863 that freed slaves in the Confederacy — can wait in line or pay a small fee and reserve a time in advance. The document will be on display for only 72 hours over the course of seven days from Feb. 12 through Feb. 18. Nashville is the only southeast stop for the document as part of the National Archives’ “Discovering the Civil War” exhibition.
The University of Tennessee’s new large animal hospital boasts an underwater treadmill for a horse and an MRI machine large enough to screen a cow. But it’s the seven new isolation stalls and four new surgical suites that the UT College of Veterinary Medicine hopes will restore its full accreditation. “It’s a serious thing. You have a two-year window of time to show that you’re making satisfactory progress to accomplishing the issue,” said Dean Jim Thompson, who received the accreditation notice from the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Education two days before he started at UT in fall 2008.
Emotions ran high Tuesday night during a meeting on proposed changes to state Route 126. The Tennessee Department of Transportation has been discussing improvements to the section of the road from Interstate 81 to East Center Street in Kingsport for 10 years. TDOT originally proposed a four-lane road through the entire section, but many residents expressed concern about damage to graves at East Lawn Cemetery and the historic Yancy’s Tavern. “We want to listen to the community,” said Toks Omishakin, TDOT chief of environmental planning.
On Tuesday the Tennessee Department of Transportation unveiled an alternative proposal for possible improvements to State Route 126 (Memorial Boulevard) which TDOT officials said removes any threat to graves at East Lawn Cemetery, while also limiting adverse impact on historic Yancey’s Tavern. A crowd pretty well filled a 240-seat area of the Kingsport Civic Auditorium early in the day for the first to two public hearings TDOT was set to host Tuesday.
Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey voiced skepticism Tuesday over expanding Medicaid coverage to thousands of Tennesseans under the federal health care law. But the leaders aren’t quite ready to rule it out, saying they need more time to study the issue. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act provides new money to states that expand Medicaid programs such as TennCare to millions of low-income people at mostly federal expense.
Democrats in the state house are electing their leaders Wednesday. And for some, the party’s diminished role is cause for change. Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory is the current caucus chairman, but Johnny Shaw of Bolivar in West Tennessee has thrown his hat in the ring. He says Turner can be too quick to insult Republicans, who now hold a two-thirds super majority in the House. “You understand that if a guy got a gun on you, why you going to cuss him out? That’s kind of an elementary phrase, but we’ve got to find a way to work with people even if they disagree with us and even if we don’t get what we want.”
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe will talk to constituents in Tennessee’s First Congressional District about the so-called fiscal cliff and the long-term budget challenges of the federal government Thursday. The Johnson City Republican is holding a tele-town hall. The call-in event takes place from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Those who want to participate can call (877) 229-8493 and enter the ID code 19641. The conference call is free. “This is one that we are looking forward to and hope we get a lot of participation,” Roe said.
Rally set for congressman’s office today Proponents of President Barack Obama’s plan to avert the “fiscal cliff” are planning a protest today in front of U.S. Rep. Diane Black’s office. The group is set to rally at the West Main Street location at 4 p.m. where it plans to hold speeches and deliver more than 100 letters asking the Gallatin Republican to sign a Democratic-sponsored discharge petition dealing with national taxes, according to Murfreesboro resident Colleen Janus. The petition supports the president’s proposal to extend tax breaks for the middle class and end the Bush era tax cuts for individuals making more than $200,000 and couples exceeding $250,000.
East Tennessee’s U.S. attorneys say justice pays for itself.Total collections in fines and forfeitures by federal prosecutors in the region for the past three years have been more than two and one-half times the office’s total appropriated operating budgets for fiscal 2010, 2011 and 2012, according to William Killian, head of the district office. In 2011, U.S. attorneys in East Tennessee collected $44 million — a record high — and in 2012, they brought in $24.8 million in criminal and civil actions. Both years were high compared to most years, Killian said.
In Kentucky this year, the percentage of elementary and middle-school students who rated “proficient” or better on statewide math and reading tests declined by about a third. Kentucky high schoolers also experienced a double-digit percentage point decline in both subjects. Those results may sound dismal, but they were better than state education officials had expected. Kentucky is the first state to tie its tests to the new national Common Core standards in English and math, and state officials had projected that the new, tougher standards could yield declines of as much as 50 percent.
Tennessee among those listed Four years after a massive coal ash spill in East Tennessee, environmental conservation groups have launched an interactive website and map that shows the location and hazard risks for coal ash sites at 100 power plants throughout the Southeast. The website, www.southeastcoalash.org, is a project of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Appalachian Voices, Southern Environmental Law Center and North Carolina Conservation Network. Since the 2008 spill of 5 million cubic yards of ash into a river about 35 miles west of Knoxville at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil plant, environmentalists have been sounding an increasing alarm about coal ash, a waste byproduct stored at coal-fired plants, and the possibility of water contamination.
Several environmental groups, including one that got a kickstart with TVA’s Kingston ash spill, are offering the public an interactive Web page to track coal ash pollution. The map shows the location and hazard risks for coal ash sites at 100 power plants throughout the Southeast. The idea is to help people know where coal ash — a byproduct of making electricity — goes after it helps them flip on their light switch. The effort — offered at www.southeastcoalash.org — includes information on the health threats associated with toxic-laden ash from coal-fired power plants, safety ratings of the coal ash impoundments and proposed safeguards.
Environmental groups are using the fourth anniversary of a massive ash spill near Knoxville to raise the call for stronger regulation. The disaster at the Kingston Fossil Plant prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its rules for coal ash, but little has changed since then. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Southern Environmental Law Center and others are trying to spur an outcry to regulate coal ash. They’re putting out a map, and point to some 44 ash ponds in Tennessee alone.
A federal judge has reset the trial for three nuclear protesters who broke into the Y-12 weapons plant in Oak Ridge to May 7. The three people were scheduled to start trial on Feb. 26, but The Knoxville News Sentinel reports (http://bit.ly/VylJJX ) that Federal Magistrate Judge C. Clifford Shirley Jr. moved the trial back during a conference call Monday with attorneys because of a new charge of felony sabotage that a grand jury added earlier this month. Michael Walli, Greg Boertje-Obed and Sister Megan Rice are accused of breaking into the plant in July, cutting through security fences and defacing the plant’s storage facility for uranium.
Metro Public Schools has been turned down for an extra $40 million to craft individual learning plans for thousands of students, but that plan will go ahead. Nashville was a finalist for a federal Race to the Top grant, but lost out to cities like Miami, Seattle and Charleston. The district wanted the money to write individual plans for some 27 thousand students – a third its enrollment. But superintendent Jesse Register says that effort will move forward, even without the federal money.
Metro Nashville Public Schools missed the cut for a district-centered federal grant awarding school systems for innovations in education reform, national education officials announced Tuesday. The school district ranked 40th among almost 400 competing systems across the state, landing it in the final round. But the U.S. Department of Education passed over MNPS and is handing awards to only the top 16 schools, according to the agency’s website. MNPS was the only district in the Volunteer State to land in the final round of 61 applicants in the grant competition, beating out Shelby County Schools and the state’s Achievement School District charged with turning around failing schools.
Metro Nashville Public Schools will have to push ahead with its turnaround plan for the district’s lowest-performing schools without the aid of an additional $40 million in federal funds. The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday announced the 16 winners of its Race to the Top district competition, and Metro was not one of them. Instead, the largest dollar-amount – $40 million – delivered in the national contest went to Green River Regional Educational Cooperative in Kentucky and the Puget Sound Educational Service District in Washington state. Other winners include schools districts in Miami, Charleston, S.C. and Union City, Calif.
Pieces of a nearly decade-old middle school reform effort will live on, thanks to a grant of more than $1 million. After months of uncertainty, the Lyndhurst Foundation has committed $500,000 this year and another $750,000 next year to Middle Schools for a New Society, a partnership between Hamilton County Schools and PEF. The Middle Schools for a New Society initiative, previously funded by Lyndhurst and the National Education Association Foundation, is a broad effort to improve teaching and leadership at all 20 Hamilton County middle schools.
The Metro school board reaffirmed its decision not to sue over millions in education funds state officials withheld from the district earlier this fall. The only person on the nine-member board voting in favor of pursuing litigation over the $3.4 million in withheld basic education funds was Amy Frogge, arguing against fears that the lawsuit would be costly and exhaustive for members. “I’m all for compromise, too, but I feel our backs are against the wall because this is our last chance to have this discussion,” said Frogge, who brought the motion to the board at Tuesday night’s monthly meeting during a discussion about how to make up for the held back funds.
Despite one board member’s push to dig in and fight, the Metro school board on Tuesday backed off its threat to sue the state for withholding $3.4 million in funds to punish the district for rejecting a charter school application. Board members expressed hope that the state might willingly restore the funds if the district takes a more cooperative approach instead. The school board voted 8-1 on Tuesday to defeat a motion from board member Amy Frogge to pursue litigation against the Tennessee Department of Education over the financial reprimand that followed the Metro board’s repeated rejection of Great Hearts Academies’ charter school proposal this summer.
An attorney for the suburbs in the ongoing education battle sent a letter to unified school board Chairman Billy Orgel this week asking that he designate representatives to participate in negotiations toward possible solutions to the controversy. The letter from Nathan Bicks was written on behalf of Shelby County’s six suburbs — Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington — that want to establish municipal school districts separate from the countywide system.
There I was. A former honor student who had graduated at the top of her class, gotten a 5 on four of the six Advanced Placement exams I had taken, been accepted to all 10 colleges I’d applied to, staring at words I had never seen before: “Recommended for Remedial Math.” A few days before, I’d sat in a room with 100 other freshmen hunched over a booklet that would determine my pathway at Harvard. I’d always been a good test taker, but this test did not resemble any I had taken before. Before I went to college, my math classes consisted of a lot of memorization so that we could “plug and chug” to get answers. By the time I got to my senior year of high school, we had all accepted that there was only one way to arrive at an answer and, instead of rebelling as we might have in middle school, simply waited for the teacher to show us the way.
After years of withering on the vine, it’s time for legislation to bear fruit that — at long last — puts wine on the shelves of Tennessee grocery stores. This is not a pro-grocer or anti-liquor store stance. Rather, it is a push for common sense. States across the nation allow grocery stores to put wine on the shelves, but Tennessee’s laws are so archaic that a person can’t pick up a bottle of red at the the same place they buy pasta, beef and tomato sauce for a pot of spaghetti. One of the biggest problems is that wine and liquor distributors apparently hold sway in Tennessee, determining who distributes what to which stores, and that continues to hold up legislation sponsored by state Sen. Bill Ketron.
We’ve all seen it: Cans, bottles, fast food containers and other litter tossed along roadsides by thoughtless people. State and local governments spend millions of dollars each year to clean up these messes, when the money could be used for things such as education. Anti-litter campaigns aren’t new, but this one merits note. It combines the anti-litter message with recycling, Tennesseans’ pride in volunteerism, the state’s rich musical heritage, history, culture and Tennessee scenic and recreational venues from the Mississippi River to the Great Smokey Mountains. “Tennessee Speed Cleanups” is a unique effort to keep the anti-litter message in the public eye.
The leadership transition at TVA is well under way. With the new year, the second CEO for the Tennessee Valley Authority will be in charge and continue the shift from more than six decades of management by a three-member board to a more traditional corporate structure and part-time board. As the first CEO, Tom Kilgore set TVA on a clearer path tied to low rates, cleaner air and a diverse energy mix. During the TVA board’s search for a new CEO, a primary objective was a candidate with a track record of day-to-day application of a diverse and balanced energy-generation portfolio. We found that candidate. We conducted the inspection, “kicked the tires” of our new CEO, Bill Johnson, and we found quality all around.
Partisan gamesmanship in politics has consequences. Tennessee’s U.S. senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker surely know that, yet it didn’t stop them from slow-walking President Obama’s picks this year for five new board members for TVA’s nine-member board. As a result, it looks like the board won’t be able to muster a quorum to conduct official business for a while after the turn of the year, just when a new CEO from an investor-owned electric power company is scheduled to take the reins. Ratepayers in TVA’s seven-state region of 9 million citizens are the ones who stand to get short-changed in the political chess game on the agency’s leadership. The pending interregnum in TVA’s leadership changes didn’t have to happen.
There was some pretty interesting news last week out of South Carolina, where the government cracked down on a former Savannah River Site scientist who allegedly filed fraudulent expense reports. Those included reimbursement for his lodging while working at the site as a subcontractor, even though he was staying rent-free with his brother. As a result of the investigation, former senior principal scientist George Michael Goldston agreed to pay $57,000 in damages and penalties to settle the case against him, according to information from the U.S. attorney’s office in Columbia, S.C. The allegations were that Goldston submitted a fictitious rental agreement and postdated dummy checks when he was asked to provide evidence of his expenses.