This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has officially voiced opposition to 22 bills pending in the Legislature, including measures revising the state’s motorcycle helmet law, allowing school faculty and staff to carry guns and increasing the penalty for motorists not wearing a seat belt. The governor this year is not issuing formal “flag letters” to legislators except when there are “philosophical” objections to the measure, according to gubernatorial spokesman David Smith. In the past, Haslam also issued “fiscal flags” against bills that called for what the governor deemed inappropriate state spending.
A proposal to tighten enrollment requirements at online-only schools in Tennessee is expected to be up on the Senate floor Monday evening. The administration bill proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam would allow beginning online schools to start with an enrollment of 1,500 and continue to expand as long as they meet performance requirements. The measure originally sought to cap online school enrollment at 5,000. Critics of virtual schools have sought to limit their enrollment or do away with the ones operated privately after reports of the low performance of Tennessee Virtual Academy, the state’s only privately operated virtual school.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol is assigning a helicopter and pilot to support law enforcement efforts in West Tennessee. Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons and THP Col. Tracy Trott said Friday that the helicopter will enhance public safety by increasing response time to incidents in the western areas of the state. The helicopter, a 206 B Bell Jet Ranger, will be based in Jackson. It is equipped with a powerful searchlight, specialized radios, night vision and infra-red technology that produces a thermal image of a person.
Health officials and law enforcement are at odds over proposed legislation on how to deal with the rising number of Tennessee children born addicted to prescription drugs. Doctors and health advocates are pushing for the “Safe Harbor Act,” which would give pregnant women incentives to get into drug treatment programs — first by moving them to the front of the line for available spots, and then by guaranteeing newborns won’t be taken away by the Department of Children’s Services solely because of the drug use, as long as the women continue their treatment.
After approving a handful of reforms to turn around the state’s struggling education system in recent years, Gov. Bill Haslam took his time deciding whether he’d propose adding another to the pile. With a scant blueprint in hand from a panel that studied taxpayer-funded school vouchers last year, the governor pitched a plan to allow 5,000 low-income students from the state’s 83 worst schools to attend private school for nothing out of pocket. The governor’s problem now is there’s a movement within his party’s ranks to go further than he is willing — laying the groundwork for a clash between the various factions of the GOP.
A bill in the state legislature would allow graduate-student counselors to reject clients for religious reasons. The measure would bar schools from disciplining students if they decline to treat clients with “goals, outcomes or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student.” It was inspired by a case in Michigan involving a Christian student named Julea Ward. She was expelled from a master’s degree program at Eastern Michigan University for refusing to counsel gay clients or clients who were sexually active but not married.
Chris Wilson believes his nephew would still be alive if his college had required him to get a meningitis vaccination. A proposed new Tennessee law might save some lives. Middle Tennessee State University freshman Jacob Nunley died last year less than 24 hours after contracting meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. “That’s the most difficult thing to deal with,” Wilson said, “the fact that the vaccination was there. All he had to do was get it.”
Local officials and 26th Judicial District Attorney General Jerry Woodall are concerned that a potential decision by the state legislature to redraw the lines of judicial districts could disrupt law enforcement relationships and disband some crime-fighting task forces. Jackson City Council members were prepared to consider a resolution last week to recommend that the Tennessee General Assembly leave the current judicial districts alone, but they decided to hold off on the consideration until the state releases maps of where redistricting could occur, according to Jackson Mayor Jerrry Gist.
Libertarians and Tea Party Republicans rallied at the foot of the state capitol Sunday. They’re making a last-ditch effort to keep Governor Bill Haslam from cooperating with the White House and expanding the state’s Medicaid program. The federal government will be paying the bill for the first three years. But Congressman Scott DesJarlais says Washington can’t afford it, and that states should refuse the money out of principle. “I’d like to think that Tennessee would like to lead from the aspect of being responsible.”
A small throng of protesters gathered at War Memorial Plaza on Sunday in a rally organized by conservative activists, including tea party members, to oppose extending TennCare to tens of thousands of Tennessee families, claiming that an expansion would undermine small government values and inflate the national debt. On a bright and breezy day, about 100 demonstrators carried handwritten signs suggesting that their anger stretched beyond the issue of TennCare expansion with messages like “entitlement programs create more dependency and harm.”
Opponents rallied Sunday at the state Capitol against expanding TennCare to an estimated 182,700 people under the federal health care law, hoping to pressure Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and GOP lawmakers to reject any such move. “We can’t fight this alone,” state Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, told the tea party and libertarian crowd of 100 to 125 people assembled on Legislative Plaza. “I’m here to ask you to help us by making your voices loud and clear to the legislators that we don’t want Obamacare in Tennessee.” U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., a Jasper physician, delivered a critique of the 2010 health care law.
This week state lawmakers will consider whether or not to expand TennCare. Sunday, dozens gathered on Legislative Plaza rallying against a proposal to receive more than $1 billion in federal money over three years as an incentive to expand the number of people eligible for the state’s Medicaid program. “What are we going to do in three years when those funds are gone and the federal government does not pay one red cent on it,” Sen. Mae Beavers (R- Mt. Juliet) said. It’s a part of the Affordable Care Act that could insure 300,000 more Tennesseans by the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
Republican lawmakers said Sunday they welcome President Barack Obama’s courtship and suggested the fresh engagement between the White House and Congress might help yield solutions to the stubborn budget battle that puts Americans’ jobs at risk. Yet the lawmakers cautioned that years of hurt feelings were unlikely to heal simply because Obama dined last week with Republican lawmakers. They also said they would not to rush too quickly into Obama’s embrace during three scheduled, and unusual, visits to Capitol Hill next week to win them over.
Sequestration spares Medicaid and almost all of Medicare, but automatic cuts to other federal health-care programs will make it more difficult for low-income Americans to get maternal and infant care, vaccinate their children, and receive treatment for mental illness. The federal government gives states tens of millions of dollars in grant money for health services each year, and all of those programs are subject to sequestration cuts. In addition, Washington will be funneling less public health and research money to states because of automatic cuts to federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health.
Colleges play a guessing game every spring when they tell prospective students how much financial aid is available to them. So the federal spending cuts that began with last Friday’s sequestration are complicating an already complicated process even more. For some schools, the timing couldn’t be worse. “We’re hoping to send out awards this week, and before we hit the switch, we’re going to have to make a decision,” said Pamela Fowler, executive director of the office of financial aid at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. “You can make fewer awards or you can cut the amount of the award. Which do you do?”
The epidemic in painkiller-abuse gripping the Southern and Eastern U.S. is tightening its hold on the Western part of the country, having blindsided law enforcement and public health authorities. “We’re just in the beginning stages of grasping the full magnitude of this issue,” said Elisha Figueroa, Idaho’s drug-policy administrator, who started noticing that prescription-drug abuse was becoming pervasive in her state about two years ago. The painkiller issue is so new to the region that states are still diagnosing the problem and developing policies and regulations to combat it.
In the four years after the financial crisis struck, a great wave of federal stimulus money washed over Rutland County. It helped pay for bridges, roads, preschool programs, a community health center, buses and fire trucks, water mains and tanks, even a project to make sure fish could still swim down the river while a bridge was being rebuilt. Just down Route 4, at the New York border, the landscape abruptly turns from spiffy to scruffy. Washington County, N.Y., which is home to about 60,000 people — just as Rutland is — saw only a quarter as much money.
Two years after the nuclear crisis in Japan, the top U.S. regulator says American nuclear power plants are safer than ever, though not trouble-free. A watchdog group calls that assessment overly rosy. “The performance is quite good,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Allison Macfarlane told The Associated Press. All but five of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors were performing at acceptable safety levels at the end of 2012, Macfarlane said, citing a recent NRC report. “You can’t engage that many reactors and not have a few that are going to have difficulty,” she said.
This week, thousands of artists and music industry professionals, many from Nashville, are flocking to Austin for the 27th annual SXSW Music Festival and Conference. In 2012, the renowned multimedia entertainment event brought more than 300,000 people to the Texas capital and $190 million into the local economy, making it the single most profitable hospitality industry event for the city of Austin. After nearly three decades, SXSW has consistently grown each year, now spanning a two-week period with distinct music, film and interactive media components.
The schools’ names rise from memory like tombstones, tragic reminders of the mass violence, lost innocence and senseless pain that gave them their horrible distinction. Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Red Lake Senior High School in Red Lake, Minn. West Nickel Mines Amish School in Nickel Mines, Pa. Chardon High School in Chardon, Ohio. And, only three months ago, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. If the schools’ names don’t all ring a funeral bell, the collective death toll marks them. In just those five shooting incidents, 62 people, mostly students and teachers, lost their lives.
In the battle to get the Medicaid expansion being championed by Gov. Jan Brewer approved by the state’s legislators, her closest advisers are hanging their hopes on the number eight. That is how many of the 17 Republicans in the State Senate they believe they can get on their side. They were working on an equally modest tally in the State House of Representatives, an unusual state of affairs for a staunchly conservative governor: her most reliable supporters on this issue are on the other side of the aisle, in the Legislature’s usually powerless Democratic minority.
When discussing “Obamacare” expansion, we must remain mindful of our state’s future as well as its past, and recognize a ticking fiscal time bomb. Just eight years ago, Gov. Phil Bredesen faced a crisis. TennCare growth projections showed cost overruns of $650 million and that the program would become 40 percent of the state budget by 2007. After a flurry of public demonstrations and a weekend sit-in at the governor’s office, 172,000 people were removed from TennCare. Expanding Medicaid would add 180,000 back to the program by 2019.
Republican members of the Tennessee General Assembly still are playing hardball on requiring voters to have a state-issued photo identification card before they can cast a ballot. The Republican-controlled Senate last week rejected an amendment to a new voter ID bill that would have allowed local governments like Memphis and Shelby County to create secure photo identification cards that would be acceptable under the state photo ID law. A little bit of sanity slipped through, though, when senators agreed to allow state-college student IDs to qualify. Under the voter ID bill passed in 2011, they were not allowed.
The transportation office on the campus of the former Lakeshore Regional Mental Health Institute will close July 1, state officials announced last week. The closure will cost 14 positions, but a lack of demand to transport mentally ill patients to state hospitals doomed the office that opened last year with Lakeshore’s closure. The dearth of work also indicates that the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse decision to rely on private facilities to treat the area’s mentally ill is working. The East Tennessee Transportation Unit will be moving to the Moccasin Bend Regional Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga.
Colleges often make themselves appear less expensive — and more attractive to cash-poor families — through promotional materials and financial aid letters that hide the true costs. Last month the federal government unveiled an online college scorecard that can help families cut through some of the confusion. It gives students a reasonable idea of what they could owe once they graduate and allows clear cost comparisons among schools. For a given college, the new calculator shows the average net cost (what the student pays once grants and scholarships are taken into account); graduation rates; loan default rates; the median amount that the average student borrows; and the monthly loan payment that the debt would likely entail. Very often, the sticker price can be misleading.