February 25 TN News Digest

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

TN leads the way as U.S. improves high school graduation rates (TN/Wilemon)

Tennessee’s high school graduation rate improved faster than those of other states as the nation finally showed promise of reaching the 90 percent diploma threshold, according to a report released today. The hopes are now on the Class of 2020 — two decades later than 2000, the time President George H.W. Bush set for achieving the goal in his 1990 State of the Union address. The report showed that the high school graduation rate has increased 6.5 percentage points since 2001, with average annual growth of 1.25 points between 2006 and 2010.  

GOP governors take a pragmatic turn (Associated Press/Thomas, Peoples)

Many Republican governors who worked to thwart much of President Barack Obama’s first-term agenda are shifting gears and softening their rhetoric now that his run was extended for four more years and they’re facing their own re-election. These state leaders are offering greater cooperation on health care and skipping the tough talk on immigration, taking a cue from voters who in last November’s election expressed their opposition to partisan gridlock in Washington.

As cuts loom, Obama meets with governors (Associated Press/Peoples)

President Barack Obama will be meeting with the nation’s governors as they push Congress to avert deep federal spending cuts that begin to take effect Friday. The state leaders are in Washington for the annual meeting of the National Governors Association. The president, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, are scheduled to address them at the White House. Obama administration officials warn of significant airport delays, deep cuts to education and furloughs for hundreds of thousands of government workers if the budget cuts go through, as widely expected.

Tennessee universities’ sticker shock grows (Tennessean/Fingeroot)

Tennessee State University freshman Brea Amos was ready to pack up and head home when school administrators found a last-minute scholarship that allowed her to stay at school. Her financial need is a common problem in Tennessee public colleges as families struggle to keep up with skyrocketing attendance costs. At TSU alone, about 300 students quit school last fall because of money, President Glenda Glover said. The costs are creating such hurdles for Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to increase the number of college graduates in Tennessee that he is proposing an increase in higher education funding in hopes of creating more scholarships.

Nashville-area nursing home faces closure after inspection (Tennessean/Roche)

Nashville-area nursing home with a history of regulatory citations is facing a cutoff from state- and federally funded programs Tuesday after an on-site inspection Feb. 15 found conditions that placed residents in immediate jeopardy. The notice of involuntary termination issued late last week to officials of the Imperial Gardens Health and Rehabilitation Center sets a Tuesday cutoff of funding for new patients in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Existing patients will be covered for an additional 30 days to allow time for the “orderly transfer /relocation of residents.”

Capitol Hill Conversation – Voucher Time (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Governor Bill Haslam vaguely referenced school vouchers in his State of the State speech last month, and now his limited proposal is up for debate in the legislature. Committees begin their work on the bill this week. Haslam’s plan limits the program to paying private school tuition only for poor students from failing schools. But many lawmakers would like to see a much wider reach, including the sponsors tapped to carry the governor’s legislation. “What I’ve told people who really want to expand it, you know down here, votes are everything,” says Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville).

Tenn. lawmakers to decide fate of supermarket wine (Associated Press/Schelzig)

Tennessee lawmakers are poised to decide this week whether a proposal to allow supermarket wine sales moves ahead or withers on the vine. The bill to overhaul the current system that prevents shoppers from buying wine alongside groceries faces votes in both House and Senate committees this week, where as little as a single vote could decide the bill’s fate after months of lobbying. “It could fall either way at this point,” said Republican Sen. Ken Yager of Harriman, chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

Contested Wine in Grocery Stores Bill Begins Legislative Journey (WPLN-Radio)

A measure to allow grocery stores to sell wine begins working its way through the state legislature this week. A Senate committee has set aside two hours this afternoon to hear from supermarkets which want the change, and from liquor stores which currently have control of all wine sales in Tennessee. Senator Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro is sponsoring the controversial legislation, which in past years has had trouble getting through the upper chamber. “After about four or five years of debate, discussion, etc., it’s been voted on in the House, but this will be the first time that it’s ever been voted on in the Senate.”

TN considers making it difficult to rename, remove C. War hero memorials (TN/Sisk)

Their names are often set in stone. A bill making its way through the Tennessee legislature would make certain they remain there. State lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it much harder to rename or move memorials to the state’s war heroes — including those associated with the Civil War. The measure has prompted a backlash in Memphis, where local officials have hurriedly renamed three city parks in anticipation of its passage. But the bill is meant to put an end to the controversies that have erupted periodically across Tennessee over parks, buildings, statues and other commemorations of a war fought to a large degree over slavery.

Tennessee bill would end telephone landline subsidy (Times Free-Press/Sher)

An estimated 93,000 low-income Tennessee households would lose a $3.50 monthly subsidy on their landline telephones under an AT&T-backed bill moving in the General Assembly. The legislation seeks to eliminate the state’s Lifeline program, but would not affect an identically named federal program. “It’s a bill that AT&T brought to me,” said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, the bill’s House sponsor. “It will keep them from forcing them to [fund] that. Poor people don’t want landlines any more with copper wires on it. They all have cellphones now.”  

Treasurer introducing changes to employee retirement plan (CA/Locker, Roberts)

Tennessee may be contributing much less to state employee retirement accounts in the future based on a state plan to convert to a defined contribution plan. State Treasurer David Lillard will unveil details of his proposed revisions to the state pension plan Monday, and the state legislature will consider the changes with bills sponsored by Rep. Steve McManus, R-Memphis, and Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge. Lillard’s proposal will change — for future hires only — the pension plan from a defined-benefits plan to a hybrid plan that includes elements of defined-benefits and defined-contribution programs.

Guaranteed State Pensions Could Become Thing of the Past (WPLN-Radio Nash)

The traditional state pension would begin to be phased out under a plan to be presented to state lawmakers Monday. The state treasurer is trying to move away from guaranteed retirement benefits.In recent decades, the rap on state jobs is that the pay may be less than the private sector, but the benefits are good – especially the retirement plan. Lester Hines took a job in the state codes department seven years ago. “It was good deal for me. I was almost 50 years old and didn’t have a pension.”  

Shelby Co. wants state funding gap for public defender’s office closed (CA/Moore)

On Monday the Shelby County Commission will vote on a resolution that asks the State of Tennessee to increase funding for the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, correcting what the public defender says is a problem two decades old. Shelby and Davidson counties, the only counties that do not have public defenders provided by the State Public Defenders Conference, have also not received comparable increases in funding since the conference was established in 1993.

NashvilleNext to consider demographics, equity (Tennessean/Cass)

The varying returns on investment from different kinds of urban planning are the kinds of things Nashville should consider as it looks at how it wants to grow over the next 25 years, a planner with both regional and national perspectives will tell an audience here tonight. Mitchell Silver, planning director for Raleigh, N.C., and president of the American Planning Association, will talk about demographics, equity and inclusion at Scarritt-Bennett Center’s Fondren Hall, 1008 19th Ave. S., at 5:30 p.m.  

Greater Chattanooga area sequester worries emerge (Times Free-Press/Carroll)

Two hundred Tennessee teachers at risk of getting fired. Four thousand Georgia children unable to get vaccines for measles and mumps. Twenty-seven thousand federal employees in Alabama facing furloughs. For the first time, the White House this weekend released state-by-state data behind the Beltway buzzword “sequestration,” warning of painful spending cuts and real-life consequences ahead. In a Sunday afternoon conference call with reporters, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said most people haven’t digested the reality behind budget-slashing rhetoric.  

White House lists possible TN losses if spending cuts kick in (Tennessean/DeVille)

Tennessee will lose $14.8 million in education funds, among other sharp cuts, if automatic federal spending cuts take affect March 1, according to a report issued Sunday by the White House. The state could lose approximately $11.7 million in funds for about 140 teachers, aides and staff who help children with disabilities, said the report, which detailed the impact the administration said the sequester would have on all 50 states. Also in jeopardy would be the elimination of Head Start and Early Head Start services for about 1,200 Tennessee children.

Cuts will affect Tenn. programs (Associated Press)

Below are examples of how Tennessee could be affected by the automatic budget cuts that are set to take effect this week. The White House compiled the numbers from federal agencies and its own budget office. The numbers reflect the impact of the cuts this year. Unless Congress acts by Friday, $85 billion in cuts are set to take effect from March-September. As to whether states could move money around to cover shortfalls, the White House said that depends on state budget structures and the specific programs. The White House did not have a list of which states or programs might have flexibility.

Gaps Persist in High-Speed Web Access (Wall Street Journal)

Federal stimulus programs that devoted $7.2 billion to bringing high-speed Internet access to rural communities have left some areas without access and others complaining they have too much. The disparity is on display in Dixie County, Fla., in the remote northern reaches of the state. A quasigovernment consortium received a $31 million federal high-speed grant, giving residents hope of taking classes online, consulting with physicians and running businesses at home. “We thought it was the best thing since indoor plumbing,” said George Reid, who sells dial-up service at his computer store in Old Town, Fla.

Supreme Court to Weigh States’ Rights vs. Voting Rights (Stateline)

When the Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday (February 27) in a direct challenge to a central part of the Voting Rights Act, it will once again wade into a decades-old dispute over voting rights that has its roots in the country’s long history of racism. But in asking whether a key part of the federal law is constitutional, the court also will reopen a debate that long predates the measure’s enactment in 1965. It’s an argument that was at the heart of the U.S. Civil War, and one that has seen resurgence in recent years as Republicans around the country bristle at what they perceive as meddling from Washington. That debate is the battle over states’ rights.

Third of Hamilton County Schools’ principals near retirement eligibility (TFP/Hardy)

By the end of the next school year, nearly a third of school leaders in Hamilton County will have reached a milestone decision: Sail into retirement or keep plugging away in county schools. And their decisions will have a major impact on the school system as a whole. If the 43 eligible administrators choose to retire, they could leave behind a leadership vacuum that would be difficult to fill. To begin to address the problem, officials are creating a program aimed at identifying more people to fill principal, assistant principal and other leadership positions long before they become vacant.

Submitted photos raise questions about school’s video system (NS/Satterfield)

As Knox County’s school chief and board members moved to allay concerns over security systems early this month, someone slipped into a supply room at Farragut Middle School, camera in hand. Placing a copy of a Feb. 3 News Sentinel with a lead headline that read “School Officials Defend Security” in the foreground, the person began snapping photographs of a video monitoring system that appeared to be riddled with problems. They depict wires tangled in a heap on a counter. Wires in the photos are exposed on an extension cord, which is plugged into a second extension cord being used to power the system.  

California-based charter school system works to win over parents (CA/Roberts)

Game night Friday was a church carnival collection of photo booth, sack races, musical chairs and treats in the cavernous Hanley Elementary. Children frolicked between stations, then turned their tickets in for prizes. Winners got purple Hanley ASD T-shirts. The rest got school supplies. At the registration table nearby, Saree Mading, Aspire Public Schools’ director of HR, IT and student services, chatted and laughed with a visitor: “In two years, you’ll know who we are, and you’ll remember me and the day I told you this.”

 

OPINION 

Guest columnist: Bills’ impact on business is vital concern (Tennessean)

Often, legislation proposed by the Tennessee General Assembly has an impact on business. But while bills are studied for their impact on the state, currently no consideration is given to their impact on commerce or jobs. As an engineering and architectural firm with locations across Tennessee and beyond, we at Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon Inc. understand that new laws can affect a business’s bottom line. In order to create a more informed legislative process, our representatives on Capitol Hill should have the opportunity to gain this understanding, as well. Just as we cannot afford to fail to consider a bill’s fiscal effect on the public sector, we also cannot afford to continue to ignore that same bill’s fiscal effect on private businesses.

Editorial: Lakeshore land should remain publicly owned (News-Sentinel)

The city of Knoxville is poised to take over the property of the former Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, and city officials rightly oppose an 11th-hour effort to gum up the process. The city is expected to take over the property the end of March. The effort has spanned at least three city and gubernatorial administrations and has the support of former mayor and current Gov. Bill Haslam, according to his staff. That hasn’t stopped state Sen. Stacey Campfield and state Rep. Steve Hall from introducing a bill proposing the land near the intersections of Northshore and Westland drives and Lyons View Pike be sold at fair market value.

Columnist: Time to act Tennessee solutions in D.C.: Balance budget now (TFP)

During this week, the U.S. government will reach its 1,400th day operating without a budget. Every year a budget has been passed in the House but never addressed in the Senate. The White House has submitted budget plans, but those have been rejected on a bipartisan basis. After almost four years of neglecting the most basic constitutional duty of Congress, a piece of legislation sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander is aiming to end this disgusting embarrassment of having no budget. At its essence, the legislation proposes an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would require that: “Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn members of each house of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a roll call vote.”

Editorial: Better when some drug offenders get chance to clean up (CA)

It is heartwarming and inspiring when individuals whose lives are spiraling toward rock-bottom are able to grab hold of something to break that fall and climb back into a fulfilling life. In Amanda McHan’s case, that something to grab was the Born Addicted program operated as part of the Drug Court Treatment Program, which offers counseling, mentoring and education. The goal is to get mothers and their children back together. McHan, 35, overcame an addiction to crack cocaine that cost her the custody of her two children. When she gave birth to her third child two years ago, the infant tested positive for cocaine.