This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam has two public events this week, both of them in Nashville. The Republican governor speaks at the launch of Leadership Tennessee at Lipscomb University on Wednesday, and is the luncheon speaker at the Tennessee Press Association’s winter convention on Thursday. In last year’s speech to the state Press Association, Haslam announced the launch of what would extend into an eight-month review of how the executive branch responds to requests for public records .
Legislation imposing enrollment limits in Tennessee virtual schools is included in a 59-bill package in the Haslam administration’s legislative package for the 2013 session, though the governor never mentioned it in his “state-of-the-state” speech or news releases on his “priorities” for the year. The measure (SB157) comes with a growing controversy in the Legislature over Tennessee Virtual Academy, established through a contract between Union County by for-profit K12 Inc.
Tennessee’s top health officials didn’t set out to promote electronic medical records when they visited the state capitol last week. But in recounting their investigation of the deadly meningitis outbreak, they essentially handed lawmakers a test case for what value e-records can bring. When the alert first came that one patient had a strange case of meningitis, the state Health Department faced a wide range of possible causes. Within 48 hours they’d identified a problematic steroid injection, where along the line it had been contaminated–the lab that made it rather than the clinic that administered it–and two other related cases.
The state Consumer Affairs Division is warning Tennesseans to beware of scams when seeking to repair damage from recent tornadoes, winds, ice and flooding. Consumer Affairs Director Gary Cordell said in a news release that unscrupulous people often use times of disaster to make a quick profit. He urged homeowners to take the time to verify with the Board for Licensing Contractors before signing any contracts. A license database can be found at verify.tn.gov. Cordell said homeowners should also ask for contractors’ references and for copies of their general liability and workers’ compensation insurance policies.
State lawmakers are hoping to get some answers this week from the embattled Tennessee Department of Children’s Services that has been heavily criticized for its refusal to release records related to the abuse and death of children under its care. The Tennessean reported that DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day has agreed to address questions from the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday morning. One concern among lawmakers is the diminishing oversight of DCS. In the past two years, at least a half-dozen groups that once monitored DCS’ work have been eliminated, according to The Tennessean.
Battle over whether to expand plan is likely to last until April or May It would be difficult to argue that Joyce Coggin does not receive medical care. Figuring out who pays for it is where things get complicated. Pulling orange prescription bottle after orange prescription bottle from a Save-A-Lot shopping bag, the 54-year-old Old Hickory woman recounts a litany of health problems, many of which she traces to early childhood. She counts off nine prescription medications in all. Coggin has been ineligible for TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, for the better part of the past decade because her husband’s Social Security payments are too high to qualify.
Sixteen Republican state senators declared their support last week for legislation to prohibit expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee, but Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says it’s likely there will be no action on the controversial subject in the 2013 session. Sen. Brian Kelsey’s bill, refiled in the Senate in an updated version that matches the House bill (HB82), has 15 co-sponsors. Ramsey is not among them, though he is outspoken in declaring opposition to Medicaid expansion, which is permitted but not required under a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the federal Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare.”
This week Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey wants to push through legislation from the last session that would give gun owners a way to legally store firearms in their vehicles. Last year, the issue was so divisive among Republicans, a top-ranking lawmaker was unseated in a primary election out of retribution. This year’s proposal sponsored by Ramsey and Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) is different in two key ways. First, it applies only to people with handgun carry permits. Also the guns-in-trunks revamp gives immunity to property owners if someone is injured or killed because of a firearm stored on site.
The Department of Correction is in trouble. State prisons are packed, the inmates who can’t fit in are filling up local jails, and the system for transitioning people out is losing credibility But policy makers back on Capitol Hill have bigger appetites to stiffen punishments for criminals than to tackle the troubled corrections system that manages the people lawmakers want thrown in there.“Although it makes us feel good and it is an absolute necessity to lock people up, we’re losing the battle because we’re continuing to build more jails,” said Tony Shipley, a Kingsport Republican who pushes for tougher sentencing laws.
A packed bar on a Wednesday night is not a rare sight in Nashville, but this past week revelers at Yazoo Brewing Company were congregating for a common cause: the reformation of an archaic policy that gives Tennessee the distinction of having the nation’s highest beer tax. Under the current structure, the 17 percent wholesale beer tax is based on the price of the brew, not volume sold. This means that beers with higher price points — typically, microbreweries and craft beers — are taxed higher, putting a strain on the small Tennessee-based businesses that produce them.
Riding the wave of a boy band revival, the tip of the spear in a new British invasion, the mop-topped members of One Direction will take the stage at Bridgestone Arena on June 19. In 2012, they became the first act in the SoundScan era — that is, since 1991 — to have two albums in the Top 5 of the year-end American charts. With only one drinking-age member, the group has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide. One Direction is a phenomenon. Add in the accompanying pre-teen hysteria, and you can expect their first headlining show in Nashville to be a hot ticket. And, in fact, it already is.
A bill that proposes forcing schools to tell parents if their children have talked to a teacher or counselor about being gay has set the stage for a new fight over social issues in the Tennessee Legislature. Opponents call the legislation unnecessary and an inappropriate government intrusion in family matters. The measure, filed Tuesday by state Sen. Stacey Campfield, is already drawing attention. The Knoxville Republican was mocked by talk show host Jay Leno last week, and he made headlines in 2011 when his legislation — often called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — to ban classroom instruction or discussion of homosexuality passed the Senate.
Chattanooga’s gang task force recently completed a draft plan to address growing gang problems by outlining ideas for programs involving schools, nonprofits, churches, local businesses and police. The 16-page draft plan is based on community needs identified in a 173-page assessment released in September. “This is a beginning. This is where we are deciding to start. This is where the assessment has indicated we need the most focus, and that’s what the steering committee through its feedback also identified,” said Boyd Patterson, gang task force coordinator.
As the nation pushes to improve the quality of its public school teachers, it’s pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into professional development with little way to measure the results. In a small study in Memphis City Schools, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is testing two ways to help, then measuring their effects on test scores. One group of teachers is getting eight rounds of one-on-one coaching from experts at Cambridge Educational Services in Des Plaines, Ill. The second have a password to an online learning community, giving them 24-7 freedom to talk about classroom management, teaching fractions — anything that comes up — with other site members.
Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre said that while he shared with school board members the substance of an independent audit by Stansell Electric Co. that found major deficiencies at Powell Middle School and Hardin Valley Academy, he did not give them the full audit to review. School board members said they don’t remember being told at all and they want answers about what happened. “I just find this appalling that apparently this was going on and the board was not informed of it,” board member Mike McMillan said.
Think for a moment about the individuals who have dramatically influenced your life. Our guess is that somewhere on your list is a great teacher — someone who pushed and challenged you to learn new and important skills that you have used throughout your life. If we want Tennessee to be the best state in our nation to live, work and play, we must stay focused on ensuring that effective teaching is happening in every classroom in our state. The past few years have marked the beginning of a dramatic turnaround in Tennessee public education. In 2012, our students made the most academic progress in state history. Fifty-five thousand more students in Tennessee are proficient or advanced in math, and 38,000 more students are proficient in science compared with just two years ago.
Though Amazon finally agreed to begin collecting Tennessee’s sales taxes in 2014, the company long avoided and aggressively contested that responsibility. So the notices that Amazon has begun sending its Volunteer state customers to remind them of their legal duty to send the sales taxes they owe to the state treasurer will likely come as a surprise to many. The company’s interim step towards a fair tax policy may be wasted motion in too many instances — many purchasers just won’t pay a tax that isn’t collected at the point of purchase — but at least it points in the right direction. Amazon, eBay, Overstock and other online retailers should always have been required to collect state sales taxes, just as their bricks-and-mortar competitors do.
It was a nice try, tax reformers. But a state income tax, to borrow a song lyric from Taylor Swift, is never ever ever going to happen in Tennessee. Bank on that. A national group put out a report last week that said Tennessee’s tax structure is fundamentally flawed because it puts a greater percentage of the burden on families who make less than $17,000 a year. It ranked Tennessee in its “terrible 10” group of states. The affiliated local organization, Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, has long advocated for a personal income tax. Read the postcard: The state legislature has been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt. They are going in the exact opposite direction.
In the most prosperous of times, citizens should not have to tolerate fraud, waste or abuse of government funds. That’s even more important during economically-challenging periods like the one we are living through now. Tennesseans simply can’t afford to have their hard-earned tax dollars spent on anything other than government services that are provided in the most effective and efficient manner possible. The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has long been committed to bringing attention to cases in which public funds are being misused. For more than three decades, the office has relied on the help of citizens who provide tips to a toll-free telephone hotline.
Close cooperation and communication between the Jackson-Madison County School System and law enforcement is making a difference. Schools must be kept safe, and students who might get caught up in gangs or other destructive behaviors need intervention and help. The success of these efforts, teacher training and constant vigilance not only keep schools safer, they ensure more student learning. In 2011, local law enforcement and school officials began working together to fend off gang activity in Jackson-Madison County Schools. Thanks to these efforts, for example, North Side High School discipline referrals are down 67 percent this school year, according to North Side Principal Ricky Catlett.