This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Governor Bill Haslam may take a political risk in backing a big state Medicaid expansion, but says he’s trying not to let politics steer his decision. Haslam’s fellow Republican governor in Florida, Rick Scott, took a gamble and lost. Scott called to expand Medicaid, but Florida lawmakers refused to go along. Tennessee’s legislature would be a tough sale, Haslam says, and he’s not sure where a similar defeat with his own party would leave him politically. “We’re trying our hardest to make the right decision, regardless. A lot of people say the governor should never propose something that he or she can’t pass. But I guess I hadn’t bought into that theory.”
A new study from tax-prep company Jackson-Hewitt shows employers will face higher tax penalties under health care reform if Tennessee doesn’t expand its Medicaid program. In Tennessee, the costs to employers could be $60 to $89 million each year if Gov. Bill Haslam or the Legislature choose to not expand TennCare, according to the study. Brian Haile, former head of the Tennessee Health Insurance Exchange planning unit, authored the study. Haile left his post last month to become senior vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt.
Tennessee companies employing 50 or more lower-paid workers are staring at paying up to $90 million collectively in annual tax penalties if the state rejects expanding TennCare, according to a national tax preparation firm. Jackson Hewitt Tax Service’s estimate comes in a new report shedding light into a little-discussed provision in President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The report outlines the tax consequences for some employers with full-time employees in states that forgo expanding Medicaid after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that doing so is voluntary instead of mandatory.
Workers’ comp reform, expected to breeze to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk, will be a major coup for businesses. But business interests didn’t get everything they want. Tennessee retailers are backing the workers’ comp reform legislation even though it lacks an opt-out provision, in which companies can exit the state system. Tennessee Retail Association pushed last year for a provision that would let businesses run their own system, creating the possibility of major savings but also opening the door to litigation.
HGTV will be filming the unveiling of a kitchen renovation and a cutting garden at the mansion of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. First lady Crissy Haslam will show off the new features of the executive residence to a film crew on Thursday. The work includes a build-out of the kitchen and a garden to promote local agriculture and farm-to-table sustainability. The kitchen and garden renovation launches the second phase of a project to renovate and restore the executive residence and its grounds.
The Department of Children’s Services’ request for a $15 million budget increase to hire new staff and pay higher rates for foster care easily passed its first hurdle in the state legislature Wednesday, earning unanimous approval from a Senate health committee. Interim DCS Commissioner Jim Henry told lawmakers the agency needs additional funding to hire more caseworkers to investigate child abuse and neglect, and more DCS attorneys to manage the growing caseload of children overseen by the agency.
Tennessee pharmacies that compound medicine could see more inspectors more often under proposals the state pharmacy board set into motion Wednesday. To do that, the board would beef up its inspection staff and pay for it by increasing licensing fees for all pharmacists and pharmacies. The board told its staff to draft rules implementing those and other potential changes for its review, possibly as early as May. It’s not clear which proposals will become reality or when, as the rule-making process can last several months or longer.
Sara Kyle has resigned from the board of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, citing the panel’s diminished role under a restructuring of the agency by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Kyle was elected to the Public Service Commission in 1994. She was appointed as one of three members of the agency when it was converted into the TRA two years later. Haslam last year expanded the board to five members but made the panel part time. Kyle is married to Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle.
The only female director on the Tennessee Regulatory Authority announced Wednesday she is resigning, warning she is concerned about impacts of 2012 changes on the state’s consumers. Sara Kyle, a Democrat first elected to the former Public Service Commission in 1994, said legislation, pushed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last year, “changed the structure of the agency from a full-time to part-time [board], which severely limited our ability to render fair and just decisions. “With less time and reduced staff, we have fewer checks and balances and less opportunity to protect Tennessee consumers from unfair practices in the utilities industry.”
Sara Kyle of Memphis — the last woman popularly elected to a statewide office in Tennessee — resigned Wednesday as a director of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority where she has served for 19 years. She said she’s resigning primarily because the office changed from a full-time to a part-time position this year as a result of legislation approved in 2012. “There’s never a good time to leave public service but things have changed at the TRA and it’s become part time but consumers are full time — they need full-time service. I believe I can use my skills and talents for consumers elsewhere. I don’t know where that will be right now but I will be looking for opportunities.”
The University of Tennessee in Knoxville is the flagship public research university in the state. So it makes sense that it’d want to invest in a longterm project to study the effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the oil and gas industry in the state. Right? Well, maybe not, say critics of UT’s new plan to lease land at its Forest AgResearch and Education Center property in Scott and Morgan counties to oil and gas interests. “As a resident of East Tennessee and a mother I am concerned about the environmental impacts of fracking on our watersheds.
Nearly 30 home sales in Tennessee have been disrupted by letters making bogus claims on property titles. Tennessee’s Secretary of State Tre Hargett says it’s not clear what motivation is behind the letters, but his office is treating them as a possible new scam. At least eight real estate companies have reported receiving messages from an organization in Portland, Oregon called the French Trust. All of them threaten legal action if the sale goes through. Hargett says the letters make a number of statements that are not true, including a reference to his own office.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to tighten enrollment requirements at privately run online schools is scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor Thursday. The proposal 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 have pushed for capping enrollment following the low performance of Tennessee Virtual Academy, the state’s only privately operated virtual school.
Governor Bill Haslam has some competition on his limited school voucher program. The chair of the Senate Education Committee has introduced a much broader proposal to shift money from public schools to pay private school tuition. After the first few years, Senator Dolores Gresham would have no limit on how many students in Tennessee could use a voucher, as long as they meet the income qualifications. And instead of roughly $40,000 for a family of four, Gresham wants to bump the income cap to nearly $75,000.
A senior Republican in the state Senate has filed a rival plan to Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to create a school voucher program — one that would raise income limits and the number of vouchers available at the outset. State Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, has filed a measure that would let a family of four earning as much as $74,625 qualify for a voucher, and make as many as 10,000 vouchers available next fall. The measure also calls for lifting restrictions on the number of vouchers in two years.
A state panel that could authorize charter schools to open anywhere in Tennessee is moving forward against the objections of Democrats and a few rural Republicans. School boards remain largely opposed as well. The proposal would require that charter applicants first ask the local school board for permission to open a publicly funded, privately run school. If the answer is no, they could go to the new independent state panel that would have the final say-so.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told state lawmakers Wednesday that his Department of Education has taken no position on legislation allowing creation of new municipal and special school districts in Shelby County and across the state. Under questioning by Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle during a Senate committee meeting, Huffman also acknowledged that his agency has done no analysis of the potential impacts of new districts. State law has banned creation of new special school districts since 1982 and new municipal school districts since 1998 — largely to block the proliferation of new districts and the costs of new administrative staffs for each.
Any attempts to nullify federal gun laws in Tennessee are likely dead for the year. State Rep. Joe Carr of Rutherford County wants to prohibit the enforcement of any new firearms regulations out of Washington. But his bill ran into a brick wall in a House subcommittee. “We understand that we’re pushing the envelope a little bit here.” The committee remained unconvinced and voted unanimously against the legislation. Carr’s bill and another one like it were determined to be unconstitutional by the state’s attorney general.
A proposal to do away with the state’s motorcycle helmet law passed a Senate panel on Wednesday despite Gov. Bill Haslam’s opposition. The proposal sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville was approved 6-3 in the Senate Transportation Committee. Thirty-one states allow riding without a helmet, Bell said. Under his proposal, a person would be required to have $25,000 in additional medical coverage, a minimum two-year motorcycle license, have taken a motorcycle riding course, and be at least 25 years old.
Motorcycle enthusiasts in Tennessee could soon ride helmet-free, so long as they have enough insurance. Several bills have been proposed this year, and one has now begun moving forward in the legislature. Much of the debate is about cost, not safety. Representatives from TennCare point to accident victims with million-dollar medical bills. Senator Frank Niceley and others counter that motorcycle riders without a helmet could end up costing the state less. “You know, if you’re not wearing a helmet, you’re in the morgue. That’s bad and that’s terrible, but it’s not something where we’re worrying about dollars here. We can’t worry about that side of it.”
A proposal that would increase the fine for not wearing a seat belt by $40 is advancing in the Senate. The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro narrowly passed the Senate Transportation Committee 5-4 on Wednesday. The companion bill was to be heard in the House Transportation Subcommittee later in the day. Currently the penalty for not wearing a seat belt is $10. Under this proposal, the fine would be $50. Ketron said the measure is simply to encourage people to buckle up.
A bill that could settle a debate over how to notify the public about bids, meetings and other government actions is headed to the Senate floor. The Tennessee Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on Senate Bill 461, a measure that will require newspapers to place public notices online starting in April 2014. The bill follows repeated debates between newspapers and lawmakers over how to publish notices as some readers shift from print newspapers to websites. “This bill recognizes the growing use of computers but preserve the independence of public notice,” the measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, said in a news release.
A bill aimed at encouraging Tennesseans to eat healthier by eliminating the sales tax on unprepared foods like fruits and vegetables is headed to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee next week. But House Bill 484 still has a steep hill to climb before becoming law because of the huge estimated drop in tax revenue – more than $90 million for state and local governments. Still, Rep. Ron Lollar, chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, said there is a possibility some version of it could be rolled into Gov. Bill Haslam’s initiative to reduce the sales tax on groceries another quarter of a percent.
Troubled by the age-old problem of underage drinking, Rep. Bill Sanderson is pushing a bill to clamp down on grocery stores that use self-service lanes. The Kenton Republican has put forward a proposal to limit self-checkout lanes – “Welcome, valued customer. Please scan your first item.” – to six per attendant. Sanderson says House Bill 304 will deter youths who scan a six-pack of Coca-Cola, then sneak a six-pack of Bud into their grocery bags. “The notion that one person can oversee an infinite amount of self-checkouts is not even practical,” Sanderson said Tuesday before the House Local Government Committee gave the nod to his bill.
Even if a reduction in expense payments to lawmakers sails through the Senate like it did in the House Monday night, lawmakers will still make more than the average worker in Tennessee. Five Democrats joined all but three Republicans in voting, 72-15-3, to eliminate the $107 payment for lodging received by lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the Capitol. House sponsor Rick Womick said HB80 is the right thing to do. “Right now, we receive $107 a day for hotel plus $66 a day for food,” the Rutherford County Republican said.
The Metro District Attorney’s office will be asked to look into an allegation of improper behavior by a supporter of the Fairness in Ticketing Act. The request stems from a letter sent last week by Nashville attorney John Ray Clemmons, a key opponent of the measure and chairman of the state Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. In the letter, Clemmons accuses Fielding Logan, manager of The Black Keys, of offering him tickets to a concert by the rock band in exchange for withholding his testimony against the proposal in a Senate hearing last week.
State Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, the Democratic leader of the Senate, sees things at the legislature these days he does not like. But he knows there is not much he can do, other than raise public attention. With just seven Democrats and 26 Republicans in the Senate, Kyle says, “our goal is not be marginalized.” Some issues facing the state are vitally important, and he believes Democrats should be heard. Among them is an expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee under the new federal health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
Military retirees and lots of babies helped make Middle Tennessee one of the nation’s hotbeds of growth as the area emerged from recession, new Census Bureau estimates show. Four Middle Tennessee counties — Montgomery, Williamson, Wilson and Rutherford — were among the nation’s top 100 for population growth from 2010 to 2012, the census numbers show. And from 2011 to 2012, the Clarksville area ranked as the second-fastest growing metropolitan statistical area in the nation with 3.7 percent growth.
When a federal judge next month decides what punishment to dole out to a once-respected jurist turned convicted felon, he must choose between two contrasting images — betrayer of public trust or repentant sinner. In the run-up to the April 10 sentencing of former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, both sides filed on Wednesday sentencing memorandums laying out their respective positions on what fate he should suffer. Baumgartner was convicted in October of five counts of misprision of a felony for lying to various judicial officers, including fellow judges and a prosecutor, to cover up his mistress’ involvement in a federal drug conspiracy.
If Congress doesn’t work out its fiscal issues in the next few months, Memphians could feel budget cuts where they may hurt the most — in their stomachs. Included in cuts proposed by the sequester is $51 million for federal food safety and inspection services. That funding would furlough inspectors who work at food processing plants around the country. According to a letter published in February by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the sequester would cause an estimated 6,290 food processing facilities across the country to shut down for 15 days.
Meat lovers should expect shortages and price hikes this summer if federal food safety inspectors are forced to take lengthy furloughs, America’s top agriculture official said Wednesday. In a 20-minute phone interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack criticized the blunt budget cuts known as sequestration, warning of logjams for farmers, processors and consumers. “We’re not an unlimited ATM machine here,” the former Iowa governor said.
Documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request show three different alarms were triggered by nuclear weapons protesters during an incursion at an Oak Ridge plant. The Knoxville News Sentinel obtained documentation that Y-12 plant contractor B&W Y-12 sent the government in response to the incident on July 28, 2012. Three protesters cut through a fence and reached a storage facility that holds weapons-grade uranium before they were confronted. The 102-page report states the triggering of multiple alarms “suggested a pathway was being followed.”
Federal investigators said Wednesday a security breach last summer at the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex exposed a larger pattern of cultural and management problems at the federal agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear stockpile. The National Nuclear Security Administration is marred by a deeply ingrained culture in which holding down costs takes priority over nuclear security and by a convoluted and ineffective management structure that left the agency incapable of watching over the federal contractors that provide security at nuclear facilities, investigators concluded.
Cleveland City Schools would like to give all of its employees — teachers and supporting staff — a 2 percent raise. On Wednesday, the school board approved the measure, which is included in the proposed 2013-14 Cleveland City Schools budget, in a 6-0 vote. The money for the proposed salary bump comes from a state-funded 1.5 percent salary increase supplemented by overall revenue growth, education officials said. The decision to share the extra money with all school employees instead of using it for a pay-for-performance bonus program for eligible teachers was the right choice, said Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of Cleveland City Schools.
Shelby County Commissioners advanced in Wednesday, March 13, committee sessions a general plan to restructure the countywide school board. But the plan to turn the 23-member board into a 13-member board on Sept. 1, instead of the seven-member board it is now scheduled to become on that date, is far from complete. And lots of legal questions remain about the details. The new set of district lines for a 13-member school board is also not an exact match of the district lines to be used by the Shelby County Commission in the 2014 county elections.
A picture of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administrative style is clearly emerging this legislative session. On the one hand is the sensible, thoughtful leader who quietly pushes lawmakers to slow-walk bad bills that would hamper the state. On the other hand is the decidedly pro-business governor who is swiftly pushing through bills that would dramatically ease costs and regulation for businesses. A picture of the first Haslam: He intervened when the rightest of the right lawmakers introduced legislation to put a halt to Tennessee accepting $1.4 billion in federal funding to expand TennCare. Haslam wisely said, basically, “Whoa! Slow down, folks. Let’s weigh the pros and cons of this.”
It is hard to imagine a tougher job in Tennessee government than the one facing interim Department of Children’s Services chief Jim Henry. The $650 million child welfare agency is a mess. Based on recent testimony before state lawmakers and ongoing news reports, we believe Henry understands the depth of the problems, and that solving them will take more than money. He must earn the trust and support of DCS workers, engage state lawmakers to address reality, not just complain, and put the safety of children above bureaucratic and financial challenges. DCS has been plagued by problems for years. It is not a new story.
Now, we know there can be constructive compromise in our General Assembly. After lawmakers fought hard in the past two legislative sessions to limit Tennesseans’ access to public notices, the tide may have turned, thanks to a common-sense proposal from state Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, with help from Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville. Currently, local governments are required by law to run public notices in general-circulation newspapers, for two reasons: It is the best way to reach the most people with this sort of information; and it ensures that there is a check on the power of government to control the message — a free press.
It’s not enough that Tennessee gun laws are being blown away. Now it may also be a breeze to walk the streets with every crazed cowboy who thinks of himself as a vigilante James Dean, Zorro or Jim Bowie, too. Last week, the state Senate, led by our own Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, drove a 27-3 vote to allow residents to carry a switchblade and all knives with blades over four inches — machetes, swords, daggers, etc. — anywhere and anytime we like, except on a school grounds. That one prohibition was tacked on as a late amendment. The state House of Representatives may take the bill up this week.
Here we go again? Decades ago when many Tennesseans left the farm to move to the major cities, it left sparsely populated rural legislative districts intact and city districts did not grow. City residents were under-represented and rural legislators remained in control of state government. It took the courts to order legislative districts be redrawn and provide the cities with fair representation. It broke up the rural control of state government. There arose a coalition of rural Democrats and urban Democrats to take control of the Legislature. Since many urban Democrats were black, it also provided the state’s largest minority a modicum of political power.
Pity the poor fools who went online and thought they were buying great tickets to the upcoming “Million Dollar Quartet” Broadway show at the Orpheum in Memphis — when in fact they were being duped. It may well have happened. Unscrupulous ticket scalpers have figured out a way to make money from a gullible public looking for a good deal. New computer technology allows scalpers to scoop up hundreds of tickets when they first go on sale, tying up many of the best seats to shows before the ticket-buying public even knows what hit them. Then, the electronic scalpers post the tickets for sale on their own websites, which look official but aren’t — and often offer the tickets at much higher prices.
The current administration in Nashville and Republican leadership have made no bones about the fact they are trying to make Tennessee an easier place to conduct business. We recognize and acknowledge the benefits of such actions, and by and large support them. Business-friendly states often see improvements in the job market and reduced tax burdens on citizens. However, efforts to make a state business friendly can go too far, and we believe HB194, which was recently passed by the Tennessee House’s Consumer and Human Resources committee, is doing so. A companion bill, SB 200, also passed the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.