March 7 TN News Digest

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

 

Workers’ comp debate persists in TN (Tennessean/Marsteller)

Labor and consumer advocates are marshaling opposition to Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed workers’ compensation reform package, which cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday. The House Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee voted 4-2 to recommend approval of House Bill 194. The dissenters were Reps. Joe Towns and Johnnie Turner, both Memphis Democrats who questioned the postponement of public testimony on the bill until the full committee meets on it.

First vote on workers comp overhaul reveals party-line divide (WPLN)

An overhaul of the state’s workers compensation system began moving forward in the Tennessee legislature Wednesday. It would remove judges from the process, which is worrying some opponents. The core of the proposal from Governor Bill Haslam is to set up a new agency to mediate disputes over how much employees should be paid when they’re hurt on the job. This is meant to keep both sides from having to hire a lawyer. A few people who’ve been through such an experience sat through the first hearing.

TN bill sets standards to shut down failing online schools (Tennessean/Sisk)

A bill that would let education officials shut down failing online schools advanced in the Senate, but a plan to give parents vouchers for use in private schools was delayed Wednesday. The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to approve Senate Bill 157, a measure that would cap enrollment in new and underperforming virtual schools and let the Department of Education shut down the worst performers. Gov. Bill Haslam submitted the measure this winter after the Tennessee Virtual Academy, an online school run by private operator K12 Inc., received a rating of 1, the lowest possible, based on test results last year.

DCS reveals circumstances of kids’ deaths (Tennessean/Wadhwani)

The Department of Children’s Services released grim new details Wednesday about the deaths of children in state custody in a 113-page response to pointed questions by Democratic lawmakers in advance of hearings at the state legislature next week. Interim DCS Commissioner Jim Henry and other top DCS officials are expected to answer directly to lawmakers next week in separate hearings Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

First lady picks book for Women’s History Month (Associated Press)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — First lady Crissy Haslam is using her Read20 Family Book Club to commemorate Women’s History Month. Haslam is scheduled to read to about 60 fourth-grade students in the House chamber of the state Legislature on Thursday. She will be reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Independent Dames, a book with stories about women who influenced the Revolutionary War. Haslam will be joined by House Speaker Beth Harwell, the state’s first female speaker of the House.

Grocery wine bill barely passes Tenn. House subcommittee (CA/Locker)

NASHVILLE — Minutes after House Speaker Beth Harwell broke a tie vote to help the wine-in-grocery-stores bill pass out of a House subcommittee Wednesday for the first time ever, liquor retailers vowed to keep fighting the bill rather negotiate a compromise. Harwell’s vote killed a motion to defer the issue to July 2014 — a legislative maneuver often used to kill measures by delaying them past the expected adjournment of the current two-year legislative term. She then helped vote the bill out of the House Local Government Subcommittee.

Harwell steps in to advance wine-in-grocery bill (KNS/Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — House Speaker Beth Harwell cast the deciding vote Wednesday to keep a wine-in-grocery-stores bill from failing in a House subcommittee. Harwell, who has the right under House rules to sit and vote on any committee, voted twice in the House State Government Subcommittee. First, she broke a 4-4 tie on a motion by Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, to delay action on the bill (HB610) until July, 2014. Carr said the delay — which would have effectively killed the bill — would provide “time to sit down on both sides and see if we can get something worked out.”

Speaker Beth Harwell casts decisive vote for wine legislation (Tennessean/Sisk)

A push to allow wine sales in grocery and convenience stores cleared another major hurdle Wednesday after House Speaker Beth Harwell threw her full weight behind the measure. A bill that would let voters, via referendum, decide whether to allow wine in their local grocery stores was approved by a House subcommittee on a 5-4 vote, with Harwell taking the rare step of breaking the tie. Harwell also cast the decisive vote to defeat an earlier motion that would have killed the bill. Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters that the vote would prompt opponents of the bill to negotiate a compromise with grocery stores.

Harwell vote rescues grocery store wine bill in subcommittee (AP/Schelzig)

NASHVILLE (AP) — A bid to allow local governments to hold referendums on whether to allow supermarket wine sales survived in a House subcommittee Wednesday thanks to a deciding vote from Speaker Beth Harwell. As leader of the chamber, the Nashville Republican is allowed to vote in any committee, but rarely does. Her first vote on the panel halted an effort to punt the bill until July 2014, and she later broke a tie to advance the measure to the full House Local Government Committee.

Speaker Harwell Lifts Spirits of Wine-in-Supermarkets Backers (TNReport/Wilson)

Advocates for wine sales in Tennessee food stores scored another legislative victory by the slimmest of margins Wednesday, thanks to a crucial rescue effort by House Speaker Beth Harwell. Members of the state House Local Government Subcommittee voted to pass House Bill 610, sponsored by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. The law would allow for municipal and county-level referenda to decide if supermarkets and convenience stores could start selling wine. Currently, only package liquor stores are able to sell wine in the state.

Harwell breaks tie to save wine in grocery stores (WPLN)

House Speaker Beth Harwell single-handedly kept an effort alive that would allow grocery stores to begin selling wine. In a rare move, Wednesday she broke a tie in a legislative subcommittee. The speaker can vote on any of the committees. And for the first time this year, Harwell chose to do so. She says it’s time to find a compromise that would still be agreeable to the state’s 600 liquor stores, which are the only places wine can be sold now.

Lawmakers abandon ultrasound bill to focus on constitutional amendment (CP)

Lawmakers have agreed to shelve a plan that would have required women undergoing abortions to view their ultrasound and hear the heartbeat days before the procedure. Instead, the pair of legislators sponsoring the bill said they will refocus their energy on convincing voters to approve a constitutional amendment in two years to remove abortion protections from the state’s guiding document, according to a press release.

GOP sponsors won’t advance abortion bill requiring ultrasound (Associated Press)

The Republican sponsors of a measure setting ultrasound requirements in advance of abortions have decided not to push the bill forward in the Tennessee General Assembly this year. State Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville and Rep. Rick Womick of Rockvale said Wednesday in a news release that they instead will focus on persuading voters to pass a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion. That amendment, on the ballot in 2014, would allow the state to enact laws requiring a 48-hour waiting period for abortions and for all but first-term abortions to be performed in hospitals.

Haslam ‘concerned’ over bill targeting Vandy police (WPLN)

Governor Bill Haslam says he’s concerned over a new bill that echoes one he vetoed last year. At issue is a campus anti-discrimination policy at Vanderbilt University. It means Christian groups can’t exclude gay members, drawing ire from some in the legislature. Last year lawmakers threatened to pull state money from Vanderbilt, over its so-called All Comers policy. It was the first time Haslam vetoed a bill. This year it’s back, now targeting the school’s police powers. Haslam says he’s still concerned.

Vanderbilt police debate takes odd twist (Associated Press/Schelzig)

The effort to strip Vanderbilt University of its police force over a nondiscrimination policy for student groups has brought up a traffic stop involving the chairwoman of the Senate committee handling the bill, but the lawmaker says she doesn’t know why the incident has become part of the debate. David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, said the senator, whom he didn’t identify at a Tuesday news conference, had been stopped on a major Nashville thoroughfare bordering the campus.

College counseling programs under fire from Fowler bill (WPLN)

Students in the state’s counseling programs could refuse to see patients on the basis of their religious beliefs. The proposal passed its first test Wednesday night with little resistance, except from professional counselors. The issue first came up in Michigan, when a counselor-in-training refused to see a patient who was gay because she views homosexuality as a lifestyle choice that goes against her religion. She was dismissed from the program. One of the half dozen counselors pushing back is Leslie Robinson of the University of Memphis.

Moonshine bill clears subcommittee hurdle (Knoxville News Sentinel/Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — Legislation brought to help Chattanooga whiskey has become entangled in a Gatlinburg moonshine war. A prominent Nashville lobbyist is already a casualty — at least in losing Gatlinburg as one of his clients. The bill in issue (House Bill 102) cleared its first hurdle Wednesday in the House State Government Subcommittee under sponsorship of Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, over the objections of Joe Baker, who operates Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery in the Sevier County city. Gatlinburg officials are also opposed to the measure.

House panel OKs whiskey-production bill (Times Free Press/Sher)

NASHVILLE — Chattanooga Whiskey Co.’s effort to distill its product in its hometown finally flowed through a House panel Wednesday after lawmakers voted to let cities OK the operation of whiskey manufacturing. State Government Subcommittee members approved it on a 4-1 vote, sending the measure on to full committee, despite the objections of Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga. Floyd, who opposes alcohol generally, said that while he considers the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lacassas, “my friend. We just happen to be on different ends of the spectrum on this bill.”

Tennessee bill allows easier rate hikes by utilities (Times Free Press/Sher)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper’s office warned Wednesday that Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to streamline rate setting for utilities shifts their “business risks” onto households and businesses, effectively making them guarantee the monopolies’ profits. “What this does in our opinion is make it more likely that rates will increase for business and households,” Assistant Attorney General Vance Broemel told House Business and Utilities Committee members Wednesday.

State House panel OKs amended Bluff City speed camera bill (KTN/Hayes)

State Rep. Timothy Hill’s legislation to put Bluff City’s two speed enforcement cameras out of business on Highway 11-E advanced in a House Transportation Subcommittee on Wednesday with an amendment. That amendment, according to Hill, would allow Bluff City officials to complete the remaining year and a half of the town’s contract with the cameras’ private operator. State Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, advised Hill that if other amendments are added to the bill when it reaches the House floor, the legislation would have to be sent back to the committee level.

Bill offered to create TN higher ed inspector (Associated Press/Johnson)

Republican state lawmakers are proposing legislation to create an inspector who would examine operations within Tennessee’s higher education systems. The legislation, which was delayed in the House State Government Subcommittee on Wednesday, would create the Office of Higher Education Ombudsman within the office of the state Comptroller of the Treasury. It also would establish the position of Higher Education Inspector General within the ombudsman’s office, which is estimated to cost $504,300, according to a legislative summary of the bill.

Feds question Tennessee dropout policy (WPLN)

Federal officials are asking questions as Tennessee’s high school graduation rate improves faster than almost anywhere else in the country. A state law is being changed in response. This new law would force school districts to get “formal, written proof” that a student who has moved out-of-state actually enrolled in another school. Otherwise, a student should be counted as a dropout.

UTHSC awarded $333K diabetes research grant (Associated Press)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen says the University of Tennessee Health Science Center has been awarded a federal grant of more than $333,000 for diabetes, endocrinology and metabolic research. Cohen said in a statement Tuesday that the center, located in Memphis, was awarded the grant by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The $333,102 will be distributed by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

DOE: Sequester could affect 1,400 Oak Ridge jobs (KNS/Munger)

OAK RIDGE — In a letter this week to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, the U.S. Department of Energy warned that the sequestration order could result in about $90 million in reduced funding for DOE’s Oak Ridge contractors and the furlough or layoff of an estimated 1,400 employees. Some of the numbers, as presented by Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman, are even higher than earlier gloom-and-doom projections, and Poneman said there could be additional impacts on subcontractors that are not even included in these numbers.

Vanderbilt expects $50 million loss in funds (Tennessean/Wilemon)

Vanderbilt University’s hospitals and medical research programs are bracing to absorb a $50 million loss in revenue because of the sequester and other federal funding cutbacks. Dr. Jeff Balser, dean of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, issued a letter this week asking employees to look for ways to reduce expenses, improve efficiency and find new sources of income to “avoid or minimize workforce reductions.”

Grimy dentures led to Collegedale nursing home closing (TFP/Harrison)

The first warning signs were the grimy dentures and the tangled hair. In mid-February, Haley McDonald was visiting her 96-year-old great-grandmother, Gertrude Moore, at Moraa’s Home for Seniors when she first started feeling something wasn’t right with Moore’s care. McDonald’s aunt had only admitted Moore to the small assisted living facility a few days before, but McDonald already had noticed a difference in her great-grandmother’s hygiene and her demeanor.

Greater Chattanooga area GOP lines up against minimum wage (TFP/Carroll)

WASHINGTON — Long before hitting Capitol Hill, they scrounged as restaurant servers, fast-food workers and paperboys. But even now, making $174,000 a year, several Tennessee and Georgia Republicans in Congress oppose raising the minimum wage for the laborers who came after them. President Barack Obama recently pitched lifting the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25 currently, calling it “the difference between groceries and the food bank” for millions of American families.

DesJarlais opposes GOP plan for budget (Daily News Journal/Stockard)

Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais voted today against a GOP budget plan designed to soften the blow of sequester, just hours after testifying in Washington before the Budget Committee on the need to cut deficit spending. DesJarlais, a Jasper Republican who represents Rutherford County in the 4th Congressional District, told the budget panel that the nation’s “unsustainable debt,” now at $16 trillion, is the No. 1 concern he hears from “nearly every single business owner in my district, regardless of their industry, size of the business or even political affiliation.”

Memphis schools special master earned reputation as organization ‘fixer’ (CA)

People close to Rick Masson say he is a rare combination of a left-brain analytic with an abundance of right-brain intuition, qualities that have earned him a reputation as a behind-the-scenes fixer in public and private spheres here for years. Now, as newly appointed special master, his job is to “fix” the complicated and controversial merging of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools. His deadline is July 1, making this the tightest public turnaround project Masson has ever taken on.

Knox Schools to seek additional funding for 58 school resource officers (KNS)

Knox County Schools will be asking County Commission for an extra $1.9 million in next year’s budget to hire an additional 58 school resource officers. And they’d like to have $219,000 of it now. Superintendent Jim McIntyre said those funds would allow the school system to begin hiring, training and equipping those new officers so they will be ready for the beginning of next school year. “The new fiscal year begins July 1 and so if we wait until then to begin the process of hiring and training, we’d be hard pressed to be prepared for the new school year and have all those positions filled and all of those officers trained,” he said after Wednesday night’s school board meeting.

Knox man files $1 million lawsuit against Sevier jail, nurse (KNS/Coleman)

A former Sevier County Jail inmate has filed a $1 million federal lawsuit claiming staff at the facility refused him proper medical attention for three weeks and that resulted in doctors having to remove his large intestine. Timothy Clabough of Knoxville filed the lawsuit Feb. 25. in U S. District Court against Sevier County, County Mayor Larry Waters, Sheriff Ron “Hoss” Seals, Tammy Finchum as a health care provider at the Sevier County Jail, Dr. Robert M. Maughon and First Med Family Medical Centers. Maughon owns First Med and also serves as the jail doctor.

Chattanooga plant ‘fighting hard’ to get new VW crossover (Tennessean/Williams)

Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant is competing with an Audi plant being built in Mexico to become the production site for a new midsize crossover utility vehicle that the German automaker plans for the American market, the company’s Tennessee CEO said Wednesday. Audi, one of Volkswagen’s premium brands, earlier this year chose Mexico over Chattanooga as the location of its first North American manufacturing facility, and now it could also be chosen over Tennessee to produce the VW crossover.

 

OPINION 

Editorial: Legislators strongarm VU over policy (Tennessean)

Some Tennessee lawmakers have found a new use for their powers: to bully academics. With HB 1150/SB 1241, state Rep. Mark Pody and state Sen. Mae Beavers, aided by Family Action Council President David Fowler are trying to use state law to bludgeon Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos into dropping the university’s “all-comers” policy. Vanderbilt prohibits university-sponsored clubs from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. And it seems that Pody, Beavers and Fowler don’t like that.

Editorial: Todd’s acceptance of free housing from lobbyist is an ethical failure (CA)

Having ethical lawmakers represent voters is an issue that transcends political party labels. When a lawmaker shows a blatant disregard for ethical conduct, Democrats and Republicans alike should be concerned. When state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, said he saw nothing wrong with living rent-free in a Nashville house owned by a lobbyist, who regularly worked on legislation that passed through a House committee Todd once chaired, he demonstrated a pathetic disregard for ethical conduct by a legislator.

Editorial: Praise deserved for lower youth incarceration rate (KNS)

Youth incarceration rates are plummeting across the country, and nowhere is the plunge more dramatic than in Tennessee. A report recently released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged children, shows that the national youth incarceration rate dropped 37 percent between 1997 and 2010. Tennessee’s rate fell a remarkable 66 percent during the same period, a bigger improvement than any other state. Though the United States still puts youths in jails or prisons at a higher rate than the rest of the world, the decline in confinement is a welcome development.

Thomas: Home schoolers on public school sports teams leaves a sour taste (CA)

Picture the worst dinner guest ever. He turns his nose up at the entrée, says the kitchen is dirty, insults the chef’s skills and then, inexplicably, demands and then devours dessert. Then direct your attention to the cadre of home-school families who make this guest look charming. On Monday, the Tennessee Senate unanimously passed a bill that would force every school system in the state to allow home-schooled students to participate on public schools sports teams.

Cowart: Fla. Gov. Rick Scott’s Medicaid decision benefits Nashville (Tennessean)

Almost 20 years ago, Rick Scott left Nashville as a defrocked CEO. In a brief span, he went from being the Boy Wonder of health care to disgraced CEO — replaced by HCA’s board of directors and branded with more than $600 million in health care fines and penalties. After years as a health care entrepreneur, Scott re-emerged on the national landscape in 2011 as Florida’s governor. He was a darling of political conservatives, but he rocked the health care and political world last month when he announced that Florida would expand its Medic¬aid program as part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Guest columnist: Nonviolent need better alternatives than prison (Tennessean)

Enhancing public safety in Tennessee is the core mission of the Department of Correction. Our agency’s commitment to the people of Tennessee is to protect public safety. We believe, without a doubt, the people who have wreaked havoc on our communities and taken lives should be behind bars, and we want to reserve our prison beds for those violent offenders. For the nonviolent offenders, such as those with substance abuse problems, the time has come for us to rethink how we supervise those who could benefit from programs in the community rather than time in prison.

Guest columnist: Should Nashville aim for a Music City Dome? (Tennessean)

When NashvilleNext, the community-driven process for guiding Metro Nashville through 2040 recently began pondering what we should look like as a city 27 years from now, one indelible image came to mind: a climate-controlled football stadium. Our own Music City Dome? First, let me document precisely how sports have broadened Nashville’s appeal and the profound impact which sporting events have had in elevating Nashville to its freshly anointed “It” city status. Having been a resident here since 1985 and an active participant in Music City’s business, civic and sports communities, I feel qualified to offer an opinion.