This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers’ compensation overhaul cleared its first full House committee today. House Consumer and Human Resources Committee members approved the legislation after nearly two hours of testimony from businessmen and business organizations supporting it and labor officials and attorneys, who oppose it. The bill’s main thrust is removing jurisdiction over injured workers’ claims from state courts and directing them into a commission. Haslam’s bill also changes some key definitions on claims, affecting employer responsibility.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed workers’ compensation overhaul, more than a year in the making, is now on the legislative fast track. The measure on Tuesday easily flew through a pair of committees, including one that limited public comment on the 68-page bill to a few minutes. The proposal now seems poised for swift approval in the Republican-controlled legislature over opponents’ accusations that it is being rushed through with little debate. That wasn’t the case before the House Consumer and Human Resources Committee, which heard nearly two hours of comments on House Bill 194 before advancing it on a 7-3 party-line vote.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee is advancing in the House. The measure carried by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga was approved 9-4 in the House Education Committee on Tuesday. The companion bill is set to be heard in the Senate Education Committee next week. The legislation would limit the program to 5,000 students in failing schools in the academic year that begins in August and grow to 20,000 by 2016.
As college tuition continues to rise, parents and grandparents are socking more money away in 529 college savings plans, reports CNN. CNN reports that the average balance for 529 college savings and prepaid tuition plans grew to a record $17,174 in 2012 – up 12 percent from an average of $10,690 in 2011, according to a report from the College Savings Plan Network, a nonprofit and affiliate of the National Association of State Treasurers. CNN notes that the plans, also known as “qualified tuition programs,” allow holders to save money and withdraw it tax-free, as long as the proceeds are used towards approved college costs — typically tuition, fees, room, board and other required supplies.
The man who took over Tennessee’s embattled child welfare agency said Tuesday he’s addressing problems that have plagued it for years, including having staffers personally call him when a child death is reported. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services interim commissioner Jim Henry and key members of his staff spoke before the House Government Operations Committee about improvements made since Henry stepped in about a month ago. Henry replaced Kate O’Day, who resigned at the end of last month.
The Department of Children’s Services is trying to regroup after losing track of deaths in recent months. Officials from the agency briefed state lawmakers on the progress Tuesday. Tom Cheatham says the DCS commissioner will now be in the loop on every fatality and help notify lawmakers in that child’s district. “Within one hour he will know whether a child in custody has died, so he will be able to communicate that information.” DCS is asking for an additional $15 million to shore up the department.
The acting chief of the Department of Children’s Services told state lawmakers Tuesday about improvements made at the troubled agency within the past 30 days, including a new policy requiring staff to call his cellphone within one hour of a child’s death in state custody. Jim Henry, interim commissioner, fielded questions from lawmakers for about three hours at a special hearing to examine mounting problems at the $650 million child welfare agency. The department’s inconsistent reporting of child deaths and other issues led to the resignation of the former commissioner, Kate O’Day, last month.
University of Tennessee at Martin says it is receiving a $706,000 state grant for the school’s Healthy Families Initiative. UT-Martin says the grant was awarded by the state Department of Health for work that will take place over a three-year period. The initiative seeks to increase the number of healthy pregnancies and births in at-risk communities by responding to the needs of children and families. The project will target women and at-risk children from Dyer, Lake and Lauderdale counties.
Google will pay a $7 million fine to settle a multistate investigation into the Internet search leader’s interception of emails, passwords and other sensitive information sent several years ago over unprotected wireless neighborhoods scattered throughout the world. The agreement announced Tuesday covers 38 states and the District of Columbia. Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper said Tennessee’s share is estimated at $133,528 as part of the agreement stemming from privacy complaints regarding Google’s collection of data while taking photographs for its Street View service between 2008 and March 2010.
The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office announced today it has received a $133,528 payment from search engine giant Google in a court agreement stemming from alleged Tennessee Consumer Protection Act violations. Thirty-seven states, including Tennessee and the District of Columbia, were involved in the “voluntary assurance of compliance.” Google agreed to pay a total of $7 million to all the states. Google collected personal and private data while creating their “Street View” function on Google Maps from 2008 to 2010.
Tennessee attorney general Bob Cooper says that a measure before the state legislature will raise utility rates. According to the Tennessean, The measure, included in House Bill 191 and Senate Bill 197, would allow investor-owned utility companies to raise rates without having to prove that such increases are needed to remain profitable. Currently, utility companies must pass a review process called a “rate case.” In a memo, Cooper’s office contended that companies had overstated cases by as much as 60 percent.
A proposal to loosen wine sale laws in Tennessee has failed by a single vote in a House committee after members of the panel refused to grant the sponsor a week’s delay to negotiate a final version. The House Local Government Committee voted 8-7 Tuesday to reject advancing the measure, which would allow local referendums on whether grocery stores should be able to sell wine. Republican Rep. Matthew Hill of Jonesborough, the panel’s chairman, cast the deciding vote against the measure after voting in favor of the bill in subcommittee.
Just as Tennessee supermarkets were feeling good about their chances to begin selling wine, the perennial proposal was dashed in a House committee. The chairman of the House Local Government committee forced a vote even though the bill’s sponsor wanted to put it off, with one lawmaker missing. House Speaker Beth Harwell was standing by to cast a tie-breaker – like she did to rescue the bill in a subcommittee last week – but it never got that far. The chairman – Rep. Matthew Hill – switched his position, voting with opponents.
Despite what appeared to be growing momentum, a bill allowing local referenda on wine sales in food stores was stopped in its tracks Tuesday by the state House Local Government Committee. The vote was 8-7 against House Bill 610. The committee proceedings were marked by some parliamentary fireworks. The bill’s Republican sponsor, Jon Lundberg of Bristol, initially appeared confident that he had the votes to move the measure along. However, following a recess he asked that a vote be postponed for a week.
Proponents of wine in grocery stores had a bit of a buzz going into a House committee Tuesday only to be sobered later when their legislative effort to put the issue before voters was shot down. With House Speaker Beth Harwell ready to cast the deciding vote, the decision fell on a 8-7 vote in the House Local Government Committee, rendering her vote useless to break a tie. “I’m disappointed because I think the people of this state deserve an opportunity to vote on this issue,” said Harwell after the vote, which would have been the second time she had tried to influence the bill’s outcome this year.
A bill allowing grocery stores to sell wine failed by one vote in a House committee Tuesday, but a door could open to revive the legislation. The Local Government Committee rejected the bill on an 8-7 vote, surprising the sponsor, Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who thought he had the votes to move the years-long effort ahead. Instead, Chairman Matthew Hills, R-Jonesborough, cast a surprise vote against the bill, which would allow local voters to decide through referendums whether grocery stores can sell wine.
The wine-in-grocery-stores bill suffered a potentially fatal setback for another year Tuesday afternoon when it failed to win approval in a House committee by a single vote. That normally signals a bill’s defeat, and liquor retailers and wholesalers who flexed their political muscle in the House Local Government Committee proclaimed victory for the year. But the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said the measure isn’t dead and that he will try to press ahead, possibly with a separate bill.
Tennessee’s liquor laws could become even more complex as a compromise emerges to allow grocery stores to sell wine. The perennial issue has been sent to a special panel to hash out a deal. Liquor stores see the writing on the wall and are now at the bargaining table. They want permission to have more than one location and sell more than just wine and liquor. Senator Mark Norris of Memphis has played mediator. “This is part of the Pandora’s box that we open, and we’re peering under the lid very carefully as we proceed here.”
President Rich Foge says the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association has reversed its position on wine sales in grocery stores, according to the Associated Press. The beer association now supports the measure working its way through the Tennessee legislature that will allow grocery stores and convenience stores to sell wine. But the brewers want something in return. The beer makers want a provision added to the legislations to allow grocery stores to sell beers with higher alcohol. These “high-gravity” beers are currently only sold in liquor stores.
Opponents of expanding TennCare as envisioned in the Affordable Care Act say the country can’t afford to add to the national debt. But hospitals are pushing back, saying the money amounts to just seven-thousandths of one percent of the country’s red ink. Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Wright Pinson held up a sheet of paper with a pin dot in the middle, representing the potential savings for no expansion compared to the country’s $16 trillion debt. “I think that you would agree that weighing all of the conflicting politics and data, the health and welfare of the citizens of Tennessee far outweigh this dot.”
Legal notices like public auctions and meeting announcements would have to be published online, as well as in newspapers, under a bill that is headed to both state House and Senate calendar committees to be scheduled for floor votes. Newspapers that are eligible to print legal notices would be required to post them on their website and a site maintained by the Tennessee Press Association, starting April 1, 2014, under the amended versions of House Bill 1001 and Senate Bill 461. The notices would be published on the Internet for the same period of time notices are published in the newspaper and at no extra cost to the person or business.
Two state legislative committees Tuesday delayed voting on a controversial bill Mayor Karl Dean contends would “gut” the concept of unified Metro government. The House’s State and Local Government Committee, at the request of bill sponsor Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, rolled legislation that would hand new powers to Davidson County’s five satellite cities and thus potentially duplicate basic city services. Carr pointed to ongoing talks between Dean, the satellite cities’ mayors and House Speaker Beth Harwell as the reasoning behind the delay.
A bill to make wearing a motorcycle helmet optional for riders 21 and older passed a key legislative panel Tuesday. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, would give riders the choice if they met certain requirements. Those include having minimum insurance coverage – $100,000 in liability insurance coverage and $200,000 in medical insurance, taking a safety course and buying a special $50 sticker permitting riding without a helmet. The House Transportation Committee approved the bill 10-7 and sent it to the House Finance Committee for consideration.
A proposal to put pregnant women at the front of the line for drug treatment programs passed the state House health subcommittee Tuesday. The “Safe Harbor Act” — which also would prevent newborns from being taken from families by the Department of Children’s Services solely because of drug use during pregnancy — is one of four proposals concerning babies born addicted to prescription drugs. The bill now goes to the House Health Committee. A companion bill has passed in the Senate. Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, added language that requires physicians to make a “reasonable inquiry” into whether a woman is still abusing drugs.
Annexation into a city would require majority approval of impacted residents in a referendum under legislation approved by a House committee Tuesday despite contentions the move breaks an agreement that was supposed to last for 20 years. Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, said his bill, HB475, is simply a matter of fairness to people and respect for their property rights. But Chad Jenkins, deputy director of the Tennessee Municipal League, told the House Local Government Committee that passage of the measure would break a truce in county-versus-city battles that were constantly waged in the Legislature before enactment of a law, known as public chapter 1101, in 2000.
Republican Rep. Mike Carter has cities roiled yet again over annexation, this time with a bill that requires municipalities seeking to take in new territory first to put the issue up to voters who are being annexed. The House Local Government Committee approved the Ooltewah lawmaker’s legislation on a voice vote Tuesday, despite opposition from the Tennessee Municipal League and legislative colleagues from urban areas like Memphis. Carter’s bill now goes to the House Finance Committee. It is the second of his bills dealing with annexation issues.
Memphis parent Ferdinard Sakho didn’t know what to expect as he and about 40 other supporters of Memphis and Shelby County school consolidation boarded a charter bus at dawn Tuesday for a trip to the State Capitol to try to explain to lawmakers why they oppose new suburban school districts in the county. But after several hours of meetings, Sakho said the response by lawmakers “was about 50-50.” “We’re hopeful. We think it went well. We were trying to get the school merger to push through.
The University of Tennessee said Tuesday it will not pursue legislation that would allow it to become a stakeholder in a Knoxville proton therapy center currently under construction. The bill was withdrawn because “it was going to be very cumbersome to gain the needed approvals legislatively,” President Joe DiPietro said. The university had hoped to get state approval to guarantee up to $98 million of the project’s costs. It would have gained a 30 percent interest in the company in exchange for the development and funding of related academic programs and facilities, including a Joint Institute for Radiological Sciences and Advanced Imaging at Cherokee Farms.
About a year after the Tennessee legislature set new district lines for itself and the state’s nine members of Congress, it is about to set the district lines for civil and criminal trial court judges at the state level. Tennessee Lt. Gov. and state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey unveiled a “consensus” judicial redistricting proposal Monday, March 11, in Nashville that leaves Shelby County as its own judicial district. The only change to Shelby County’s 30th Judicial District is it would become the 29th Judicial District.
House Speaker Beth Harwell is helping a group address the lack of access to healthy foods in low-income Tennessee areas. On Wednesday, the Nashville Republican is expected to lead representatives of the Tennessee Obesity Taskforce on a walk from Legislative Plaza in downtown Nashville to a local urban market to illustrate the difficulties Tennesseans living in so-called food deserts have buying healthy foods. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a food desert is a low-income census tract in which a substantial number of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.
The Tennessee Republican Party on Monday denied leaking in-house personnel files that benefited U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann’s first campaign, new court filings show. State party attorney Bill Outhier couldn’t pinpoint the source beyond the denial. “Your speculation is as good as mine,” he said Tuesday. Originally stored at state GOP headquarters in Nashville, the documents inspired a 2010 Fleischmann campaign ad that attacked Republican rival Robin Smith. A TV voiceover charged that Smith paid “lavish bonuses” to staffers while she was state party chairwoman and financial times were tough.
Grundy County Mayor Lonnie Cleek says there are few options but to go with a $37-per-day, per-inmate contract with Carroll County to house a half-dozen or more of Grundy’s female prisoners while county officials work to build a new jail. Even at 208 miles away, Carroll County was the closest jail that could house Grundy’s female prisoners, said Cleek, once the chief deputy at the sheriff’s department. Last month, the Grundy County Commission informally settled on a $4.98 million jail design and now is studying funding sources, which include loans and a possible increase in property taxes or a new wheel tax, Cleek said.
Those who favor mixed drink sales for Pigeon Forge businesses have outspent those who oppose it by about a 10-to-1 margin so far, records show. The referendum on liquor by the drink, in which only Pigeon Forge city residents or property owners are eligible to vote, will be held Thursday at Pigeon Forge City Hall. Both sides were late in filing the required pre-election financial disclosure statements with the Sevier County Election Commission. The anti-liquor group Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge filed theirs Friday, one day late.
As Holly Swogger led members of the West Tennessee Veterans Home Inc. fund-raising committee in a training session on Tuesday, she paused for them to reflect on one particular photograph. It showed a group of young men, veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, all with missing limbs. “They would not have survived in Vietnam,” Swogger told the group. That’s the image that will stay with people being asked to donate toward the construction of a veterans home to serve vets from Shelby, Fayette and Tipton counties.
As three protesters moved deeper and deeper into “Zone 63,” the last buffer before they reached the inner sanctum of the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, their movements were triggering alarms like crazy, documents released to the News Sentinel show. Even though a critically important camera wasn’t working the morning of July 28, 2012, when the unprecedented security breach occurred, three different types of motion sensors and detectors were active and sending continuous alerts to the plant’s Central Alarm Station as the protesters — collectively known as Transform Now Plowshares — cut through fences in the predawn darkness.
The new owner of the paper mill in Calhoun, Tenn., is shutting down its newsprint machine and laying off 150 employees. Resolute Forest Products, which merged with the former AbitibiBowater Inc. in 2007 and acquired the rest of the Calhoun mill it didn’t already own earlier this week, announced the shut down of the newsprint operation today. “The idling comes as a result of a decrease in demand for newsprint, coupled with high operating costs for the machine,” the company said in a statement.
Metro school board members are wringing their hands over several potential changes to state education law. Of particular concern is a proposal to allow state officials to decide when new charter schools can open. Charter schools are run privately, but they get public money. That means Metro’s budget will feel it when a new charter opens, even if it’s the state’s decision, instead of the local district. Pinkston: “What we need to look at is a fiscal guardrail to keep us from inadvertently running off a fiscal cliff.”
Charter schools are expected to siphon about $40 million from the Metro Nashville school budget next year, school board Chairwoman Cheryl Mayes said, leaving the district with a shortfall close to $30 million. The Metro school board spent several hours Tuesday discussing charter schools in two separate meetings, and the discussion in both centered on the financial impact. Much of the talk took place with one eye on the state legislature, which is weighing a measure to bypass local school districts in authorizing charter schools.
Shelby County Commissioners are about to consider another change to the terms of the ongoing reformation of public education in Shelby County. At Wednesday, March 13, committee sessions, a new ad hoc committee will discuss possibly changing the size of the countywide school board effective Sept. 1. The 23-member school board that now includes all nine members of the old Memphis City Schools board and all seven members of the old Shelby County Schools board is to pare down to a seven-member board Sept. 1 as it loses the 16 members of the two former boards.
A proposal by Gov. Bill Haslam to put limits on privately-run online schools in Tennessee is set to be taken up in a Senate committee this week. Better known as “virtual schools,” online education is a new approach to education that has potential, but still is in the developmental stage. Haslam is right to take a go-slow approach to bringing online education to Tennessee. The governor’s proposal initially called for limiting new online schools to enrolling 5,000 students. But the bill has been amended to set the limit at 1,500 students until the online school can show students are making adequate progress before expanding.
There is a new definition of “compromise legislation” in the Tennessee General Assembly. It consists of taking a struggling piece of legislation that is unnecessary, inappropriate and which intentionally or unintentionally infringes on people’s rights, and slap on an amendment that basically says, “we can do this terrible thing that the bill sets out to do, by reducing people to caricatures.” The bill in this case is the Classroom Protection Act, which most people know by its more appropriate nickname, “Don’t Say Gay.” Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, just can’t quite get this detested piece of legislation to pass, but like a dog with a bone, just won’t let it go.
My grocery bag Saturday had something a little extra — a political flyer to support the sale of wine in grocery stores. The grocery chain’s flyer urges its customers to contact their legislators to support bills in the state House and Senate that would allow residents of communities with package sales to vote in referendums to add wine to grocery shelves. House and Senate committees were considering the proposal in hearings this week before this column went to press. Although the grocery chain is supporting the sale of wine in grocery stores, the flyer is taking a somewhat more “democratic” or “direct democracy” approach: “(Y)ou deserve the right to vote on what you want.”
Legislation allowing state-issued student photo IDs for voting purposes is overdue. Much of the opposition to the 2011 voter ID law stemmed from the fact that it allowed faculty and staff members at state colleges and universities to use their campus IDs for voting, but it prohibited that very same use for students. Considering young people are more likely to vote Democrat than their elders, the bill appeared to be aimed at putting Republicans in political power. After all, if it was good enough for faculty and staff, it should have been OK for students.
This is how it’s supposed to work: Educational and business interests coming together to cultivate the workforce of tomorrow. Often, it happens best in a real-world setting, rather than a traditional classroom, and that’s the premise for the externship program that is ongoing in the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System’s Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) training initiative. These externships are equipping teachers and their young students with a sense of how what they learn in the classroom is applied in the workplace. CMCSS continues to research local businesses to identify those that have some practical compatibility with the STEM program.
The Shelby County unified school board is on the verge of making a major policy change concerning the way teachers are paid. Board members next week are expected to approve a plan that calls for eliminating extra pay based on seniority or advanced degrees for most teachers hired after July 1, when the schools merger becomes official. By the 2015-2016 school year, district officials, with the board’s approval, want to have a merit (or performance) pay plan in place. It would be a significant change in a profession that places a tremendous value on advanced degrees and seniority when it comes to pay and career advancement opportunities.
We are in the midst of Sunshine Week — not a respite from the dreary weather that has held East Tennessee in its grip for several weeks but a celebration of efforts to open government up to public scrutiny. Open meetings and public records laws are vital to a healthy democracy. They are the primary tools citizens can use to make sure public officials deserve their positions of trust. Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act requires that public bodies — county commissions, school boards, city councils, planning commissions and the like — conduct their business in the open. Knox Countians know firsthand what can happen when officials attempt to circumvent the law.