April 2 TN News Digest

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

 

Leading by Listening (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Nolan)

Randy Boyd readily admits his first foray into education reform met a brick wall. As a Doyle High School student, he spearheaded an effort to prove that open classrooms — a 1970s-era education fad that he says “as a student with ADHD I did not do well in” — were ineffective learning environments. He learned, however, that change within school systems is complicated, when his move was quickly thwarted by school administrators who did not want to step on the toes of their boss, who had championed the new classrooms.

State works with Y-12 to develop supply network for UPF (News-Sentinel/Munger)

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development is partnering with Y-12 and TVA to help recruit and prepare businesses for work on the Uranium Processing Facility, a project that could cost up to $6.5 billion and pump big bucks into the state’s economy. At a forum held Monday at Y-12’s New Hope Center, Economic Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty said the state has assembled a team to assist in developing a supply chain for the giant project, identifying companies in the state that could provide equipment or services for UPF and provide them with support, and convincing other businesses to come to Tennessee and bring resources with them.

Regulators scrutinize compounding pharmacies in Tenn, nation (TFP/Harrison)

Compounding pharmacies long have been able to fill the gap between mass-produced drugs and highly personal medical needs. These pharmacies can customize a drug product into a liquid or a gas for patients who can’t swallow pills. They can make a medication without specific allergens. They can flavor a medicine with mint or tropical fruit to be more palatable. And they can compound drugs that are on back order — such as Tamiflu for children. “Maybe [the patient] can’t take something that’s commercially made because it’s one-size-fits all. Or it’s something that’s not commercially made and they’ve got to have it,” explains pharmacist Phil Smith at Access Pharmacy, which has been compounding drugs in the Hixson store for more than 50 years.

Media want DCS records free of charge (Tennessean/Wadhwani, Gonzalez)

The Tennessean and a dozen other media groups have asked a judge to order the Department of Children’s Services to produce computerized records in hundreds of child death cases at no cost, calling the agency’s previous cost estimates “grossly excessive” and in violation of state law. The filing in Davidson County Chancery Court also highlights inconsistencies in DCS attorneys’ assertions that certain records require hand-delivery from across the state and could not be produced electronically at their headquarters. The filing also questions why the records the agency has released so far do not appear to follow a judge’s order.

New Life Lodge investigated (Tennessean/Roche, Rau)

New Life Lodge, the sprawling Dickson County drug treatment facility, is under investigation by state and federal officials over whether the facility may have filed false claims for TennCare recipients over a four-year period. In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, New Life’s owner, CRC Health Group, disclosed that the state attorney general has demanded records “inquiring about possible false claims for payment for services provided to TennCare recipients for the period 2007 to 2011.”

Workers’ comp changes advance (Associated Press/Johnson)

Legislation that seeks to change the way injured workers’ claims are considered passed the Senate Monday evening despite opponents who say it would reduce benefits and remove impartiality from the judgment process. The measure, which is part of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative package, was overwhelmingly approved 28-2. The companion bill is set for the House Finance Committee today. “I feel confident that these reforms are not only going to keep Tennessee competitive but are going to benefit the workers of this state,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who is carrying the bill.

Senate OKs workers’ comp bill, puts off Senate primaries bill (Tennessean/Sisk)

The Tennessee Senate approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to rework the state’s workers’ compensation system, but it put off a proposal to end primary elections for candidates for the U.S. Senate. State senators voted 28-2 in favor of Senate Bill 200, a measure that would replace Tennessee’s court-based workers’ compensation with an independent agency run by an administrator chosen by the governor. Supporters argue such a system will be cheaper and will process claims faster. Critics say it will leave workers with smaller awards and make it harder to get a claim approved.  

Senate approves bill to change injured workers’ fund (Associated Press)

Legislation that seeks to change the way injured workers’ claims are considered passed the Senate Monday evening despite opponents who say it would reduce benefits and remove impartiality from the judgment process. The measure, which is part of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative package, was overwhelmingly approved 28-2. The companion bill is set for the House Finance Committee on Tuesday. “I feel confident that these reforms are not only going to keep Tennessee competitive but are going to benefit the workers of this state,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who is carrying the bill.

Haslam’s Bill or No Bill on School Vouchers (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The fate of school vouchers in Tennessee may be decided this week. Governor Bill Haslam has threatened to kill his own proposal if legislators try to change it. The governor wasn’t a huge fan of diverting money from public schools to pay private school tuition. But to satisfy the legislature, he came up with a plan limited to poor kids in failing schools, with a cap of 5,000 in the first year. A bill that would have opened vouchers to many more students was in the works until lawmakers decided to change course and just expand the governor’s bill.

Capitol Hill Conversation – Understanding Medicaid Indecision (WPLN-Radio Nash)

Many lawmakers couldn’t decipher what Governor Bill Haslam meant last week as he addressed a rare joint session of the General Assembly. One of the most anticipated decisions of the year – expanding the state’s Medicaid program – turned out to be no decision at all. It left Republicans struggling to figure out when to applaud. And the indecision scuttled plans by the minority party to stage a walkout. Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner stayed in their seats.

Dispute of details may have Gov. Haslam’s voucher bill in peril (NS/Humphrey)

Gov. Bill Haslam’s refusal to accept an expansion of his plan for launching a limited voucher system in Tennessee has raised the possibility that the measure will die in a dispute over details despite broad Republican support for the general idea. Some legislators, meanwhile, are voicing concern about Islamic schools qualifying for voucher funds. It appeared Monday that perhaps just one Muslim school in Memphis would be eligible under Haslam’s bill, but several could qualify under a proposed expansion amendment.

Cigarette Markup Would Nearly Double Under Lawmakers’ Proposal (TN Report)

Tennesseans would pay more for their smokes under a bill working its way through the General Assembly. The measure, SB788/HB644, would increase the amount Tennessee retailers are required to mark up cigarettes from 8 percent to 15 percent of cost. It would be the first change to the requirement since 1950. “The Legislature in the past has passed the cigarette minimum markup law to prohibit retailers from using cigarettes as a loss leader and to discourage consumption of cigarettes, including, of course, underage usage of cigarettes,” state Rep. Matt Hill, R-Jonesborough, said in a House Agriculture Subcommittee meeting Feb. 27.

401(k) eyed to cut cost of Tennessee pensions (Times Free-Press/Hardy)

The next generation of Tennessee teachers and state workers could lose the security of a guaranteed pension as state leaders eye a more risky, investment-driven retirement plan. A bill making its way through the General Assembly seeks to overhaul the state’s pension plan, shifting risk from the state to employees through a combination pension and 401(k)-style plan. Billed as a “hybrid,” the proposal comes from State Treasurer David Lillard. He says the state’s current plan, though one of the strongest-funded ones in the nation, needs to be changed to ensure long-term sustainability.

Bills will apply tax to satellite TV (Daily News Journal)

State legislation in committee in one chamber and subcommittee in the other is not a new tax on satellite television, according to a Department of Revenue spokesperson. But a coalition of satellite TV providers and users has mounted a campaign against the legislation anyway.Senate Bill 183 and House Bill 177 is not aimed at creating a new tax on satellite television,” said Billy Trout, public information officer for the department of revenue. Under current law, he explained, the Tennessee business tax is an optional local level tax in both counties and municipalities.

Democrats Want Out of Bill Changing Senate Nominations (AP/Schelzig)

Democrats want to opt out of a bill that would give Tennessee lawmakers the power to select nominees to the U.S. Senate. Under the bill scheduled for a vote in the state Senate on Monday, primary elections would be replaced with caucus votes in the General Assembly. State Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron noted Monday is also the 100th anniversary of the state’s ratification of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which eliminated state legislatures’ power to directly appoint U.S. senators.

Some in GOP wary of Tennessee primary plan (Times Free-Press/Sher)

Republicans raised alarms on the state Senate floor Monday night about a GOP colleague’s bill aimed at stripping Tennessee primary voters’ ability to determine who their respective party nominees are for U.S. Senate and put it in the hands of just 132 state lawmakers. “This bill is anti-democratic,” charged Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. “This bill smells of elitism, of cronyism, and it would open up a system that was and could be in the future rife with corruption.

Dems want ‘no part’ of bill for legislature to select Senate nominees (CA/Locker)

Tennessee Democrats say they want no part of Republican legislation that would remove the nomination of the state’s two U.S. senators from open primary elections decided by voters and give the power to the party caucuses in the state legislature. Voters would continue electing the senators, on ballots with independent candidates and the party nominees selected by lawmakers. The bill was scheduled for a state Senate floor vote Monday night but was delayed to the last day of the legislature’s 2013 session later this month after a brief debate.

Democrats Want No Part of Ending U.S. Senate Primaries (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Democrats in Tennessee say they oppose allowing the General Assembly to pick nominees to the U.S. Senate. A proposal is up for consideration Monday night. The bill would end primary elections for selecting senate candidates, giving sole authority to the 132 members of the state legislature. The Tennessee Democratic Party wants to be left out. “I believe in the people’s right to decide,” says TNDP chairman Roy Herron. “I believe the people should pick the politicians instead of the politicians picking each other.”

Bill banning non-citizens from polling places termed ‘suspect’ (NS/Humphrey)

A Senate-passed bill banning those who are not United States citizens from polling places has been deemed “constitutionally suspect” by state Attorney General Bob Cooper. “When these (relevant legal) standards are applied to HB985, the provisions of this bill appear on their face to be constitutionally suspect as violative of the Equal Protection Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, says the attorney general opinion. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, the opinion notes, provides that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Bill passes allowing home schoolers to play public school sports (CA/Locker)

A bill requiring Tennessee school systems to allow home school students to play on local public school sports teams if they otherwise qualify won final legislative approval Monday night. The bill does not guarantee home schoolers will make the team, a decision left to coaches, but guarantees they will not be prohibited from trying out if they are eligible under the rules of the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association or other sports-governing organizations the school belongs to. They must meet the same health, academic and conduct standards required of other participants.  

Online hotel tax bill dies in Tennessee (Nashville Business Journal)

Tennessee lawmakers have nixed a bill that would have collected more taxes from online travel websites, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. The bill would have required travel sites like Expedia.com to pay taxes on the room price they charge to consumers. Current law requires such companies to charge taxes only on the wholesale price they pay the hotel. Supporters of the bill, including the Tennessee Hospitality Association, argue that the current law gives online travel sites an unfair competitive advantage.

Tennessee state senators honor WWII Navy veteran (Times Free-Press/Sher)

State senators on Monday paid homage to local World War II Navy veteran Lewis H. Erwin, who served on the USS Indianapolis in a top-secret mission that helped end the war and then survived days of exposure, dehydration and shark attacks after a Japanese submarine sank the ship. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who sponsored an earlier-passed resolution honoring Erwin, said he had never “been so humbled” to stand before colleagues and introduce Erwin, now 88, describing his “incredible struggle” and “honor to the human spirit” and service.

Nuclear regulators hold public meeting on Sequoyah (Associated Press)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold public meetings in Soddy Daisy to discuss the agency’s review of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s application to renew the operating license of the Sequoyah nuclear power plant. The meetings will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Soddy Daisy City Hall. NRC staff members will explain the license renewal process and solicit public comments on the environmental review. TVA’s current operating licenses for the plant’s two pressurized-water reactors are set to expire in 2020 and 2021. TVA is asking NRC to renew the licenses for an additional 20 years.

Sequoyah Nuclear Plant license extension hearing set (Times Free-Press/Sohn)

TVA officials have asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to renew the operating license of Sequoyah Nuclear Plant and extend the plant’s two reactor licenses for an additional 20 years — until 2040 and 2041. NRC plans public meetings Wednesday on the extension requests. The 32-year-old Sequoyah plant, about 16 miles northeast of downtown Chattanooga, has two pressurized-water reactors. The current operating licenses expire Sept. 17, 2020, for reactor Unit 1 and Sept. 15, 2021, for reactor Unit 2.

New $95K fence blocks protesters’ access at Y-12 (News-Sentinel/Munger)

It was April Fools’ Day, but there was no fooling around Monday at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. Workers carried out a government order to install a new fence near the plant’s entrance, and by early afternoon the job was completed, blocking access to the grassy acreage that’s been used by demonstrators for decades. It’s the latest in a series of measures taken in the wake of last year’s break-in by three Plowshares protesters, who embarrassed Y-12’s vaunted security team by cutting through fences and ultimately reaching the plant’s inner core where bomb-grade uranium is stored and weapons work is carried out.

Visitor center closed as repairs made at TVA plant (Associated Press)

Repair work at TVA’s Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage Plant has caused the utility to close the visitor center there. The center and its parking lot were closed Monday and will remain closed until fall. The utility discovered cracks in the turbines of its four-unit hydroelectric plant and is making repairs this summer. The Raccoon Mountain plant pumps water from the Tennessee River up the mountain into a 528-acre lake and releases it through the turbines during peak demand periods.

Officials laud Agricenter expansions planned by Bayer, Helena (CA/Sells)

Bayer CropScience and Helena Chemical outlined their expansion projects Monday at Agricenter International to government and business officials who said the projects show faith in Mid-South agriculture and will help the nation compete worldwide. Bayer CropScience will invest $17 million in a large new greenhouse and other research-and- development facilities around its existing campus on Smythe Farm Road, less than a mile away from Agricenter’s Expo Center. The project will more than double the size of Bayer’s facility from 4 acres to 9 acres.  

Nashville General Hits Record for Uncompensated Care (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Nashville General Hospital will set a record this year for uncompensated care. Hospital officials say they’ll have to write off $93 million. They’re also for preparing for big changes under the federal Affordable Care Act, which they discussed during Metro Budget hearings today. Nashville General is the last resort for people without health coverage. Starting next year, all Americans will be required to have insurance. When that happens, Chief Financial Officer Bob Lonis says patients will have more options.  

150 Unarco workers strike in Springfield (Gannett/Miller)

More than 150 union workers at the Unarco Material Handling facility in Springfield went on strike Monday morning, after the union and the company failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. In a statement released Monday, Unarco officials say the union last week rejected a proposed 3 percent pay increase for each of the three years of the new agreement, an increase in the company’s contribution to the union’s pension fund and a reduction of the employees’ share of health insurance premium costs.

State-approved charters’ funds concern Metro (Tennessean/Fingeroot)

Metro Nashville school officials want a guarantee from the state legislature that, if an outside body is going to approve charter schools in Nashville, it will also protect the local districts from losing too much money in the process. Private groups operate charter schools, but they do so with per-student public dollars, which follow students from regular public schools to the charter schools they choose. Metro administrators say the district will lose about $40 million in the coming school year, with 4,400 students opting for charter schools.  

Proposed land swap would demolish old Ben West Library (City Paper/Greenberg)

A proposed land swap between Metro and the state could result in the demolition of the old Ben West Library building in downtown Nashville. The building is located at 225 Polk Ave. near the intersection of Eighth Avenue North and Union Street. The plan, approved by the State Building Commission last week, would swap Metro’s Ben West property for the former Tennessee Preparatory School site off of Foster Avenue. Metro currently leases the former TPS land and buildings from the state to house the Nashville School of the Arts.

Metro Could Fight Proposed Charter Authorizer In Court (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The Metro school board is getting ready for a potential court fight with the state over who can give new charter schools permission to open. At a special meeting members vented frustration over the proposal for a state charter authorizer. The state legislature is still tweaking the proposal, which some board members fear is an end run to launch new charters without their consent. State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman turned down an invite to talk about it with the board, prompting member Amy Frogge to single him out by name.

Oak Ridge school system gets new chief (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Fowler)

Mo. educator to take pay cut to come to ET He’s taking nearly a $60,000-a-year pay cut, but being head of a small-town, high-achieving school system where he can have more time for his family is worth it. So says Bruce Borchers, who was offered a contract by the Oak Ridge Board of Education to be superintendent of schools in a 5-0 vote Monday night. Borchers said he’ll accept the $175,000-a-year post. Board members want him at work by June 15 or sooner. Borchers is presently superintendent of the 22,000-student Rockwood School District in St. Louis County, Mo., where he is paid $234,600.

Consolidation plan delayed for Sullivan schools (Bristol Herald-Courier)

The Sullivan County school system will wait at least six months before deciding on any school consolidation plan, the school board announced Monday night. In February, the school board voted to study rezoning county schools and potentially closing some. Director of Schools Jubal Yennie supported a plan to merge North and South high schools and consolidate Kingsport middle schools. Originally, the board wanted to implement the consolidation plan in the fall, but Yennie recommended that schools not be closed until the following year.

Arkansas: Veto of Voter ID Law Is Overridden (Associated Press)

The Republican-led State House voted Monday to complete an override of a veto by Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, of a law requiring voters to show photo identification. The Senate passed an override last week. Critics of such laws say that the type of fraud they target is extremely rare, and that the laws are designed to make it harder to vote for people who tend to back Democrats: minorities, students and the elderly.

Georgia: Georgia steps up bid for access to Tennessee River (Tennessean/Brown)

Need for water drives border dispute Less than 100 yards of muddy grassland separates Georgia from the Nickajack Reservoir along Tennessee’s southern border, but if Peach State lawmakers have their way, the land could one day be theirs. What they really covet is water from the Tennessee River, which feeds the reservoir. But they’re serious enough about quenching the growing thirst of metropolitan Atlanta that Georgia legislators last week passed a resolution authorizing the state’s attorney general to sue Tennessee if it doesn’t voluntarily give up a 11/2-square-mile parcel of land they say is rightfully theirs.

 

OPINION 

Bill Haslam, Bob McDonnell: Getting from failure to excellence (Politico)

“A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.” James Madison, our fourth president and father of the Constitution, recognized that the lifelong opportunities presented by a quality education form the foundation of a free people’s ability to govern themselves. It was as true when he said it in 1822 as it is today. Tennessee and Virginia have incredible schools and higher education institutions. Virginia regularly ranks in the top five states in student achievement, and Tennessee is making double-digit gains in high school graduation rates.  

Guest column: Fast food, the free market and quality school choices (C. Appeal)

When it comes to education, Tennessee has set itself apart from the rest of the country. Tennesseans achieved this by coming together in a bipartisan manner to establish common-sense policies that are in the best interests of our children. Over time, we have made significant strides to identify and retain excellent teachers and principals by adopting meaningful educator evaluations, bringing professionals into the classroom through alternative certification pathways and valuing effective teachers through tenure reform. But despite progress in ensuring that every child has access to a great teacher, the state’s legislators must continue their work to provide every child with access to a great school.  

Editorial: Bridge Academy program getting good results for JMC students (J. Sun)

Just about everybody agrees that to survive and prosper in today’s world, young people need to get an education. Increasingly, there are many ways to accomplish that goal. From traditional public schools, to magnet schools, charter schools, online schools, home schools and private schools, there is something for everyone. What is most important is that students have access to what works best for them. In Jackson-Madison County, one of those options is the Bridge Academy, which helps students who don’t fit well into a traditional classroom environment complete high school. Grant funding for this successful program will end next year.

Free-Press Editorial: Tennessee spending limit needs repair (Times Free-Press)

What would you say about a constitutional amendment to cap the amount government spends so that lawmakers can’t increase spending at a rate faster than taxpayers’ ability to pay for it? If you’re like most working Americans, it probably sounds like a marvelous idea. Did you know that such an amendment already exists in the Tennessee State Constitution? Unfortunately, big-spending state lawmakers have stripped the spending limit of much of its value. In 1978, Tennessee voters approved a constitutional amendment intended to limit the amount state government could spend every year.  

Editorial: Don’t rob the voters to their right to choose party nominees (C. Appeal)

The bill in the state Senate that would rob Tennessee voters of the right to choose party nominees for the U.S. Senate needs be buried at the bottom of “File 13” so that it can never see the light of day again. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, put it best Monday when he reproached the proposed legislation as “anti-democratic” and said it “smelled of elitism and it would open up a system that was and would be in the future rife with corruption.” We couldn’t agree more. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, would remove the nomination of U.S. Senate candidates from open primaries and give the power to the party caucuses in the state legislature.

Editorial: Concerns about session’s speed are justified (News-Sentinel)

Tennessee lawmakers have been grumbling about this year’s galloping legislative session — and for good reason. The frenetic pace prevents meaningful deliberation and debate, which could lead to ill-advised bills being passed and good bills being scuttled in the process. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville set the pace and now are facing criticism from harried members. Their arbitrary deadline to wrap up business is April 18, two weeks earlier than last year. In the past, some sessions have dragged on into July. The complaints are coming from members of both parties — a rare flurry of bipartisanship in Nashville and thus a signal that the criticisms have merit.

Guest columnist: Diane Black’s comments violate oath of office (Tennessean)

U.S. Rep. Diane Black’s picture reminds me of my precious, sweet grandmother who helped raise me as a child on a Kentucky farm while my mother had extended stays in the hospital. Rep. Black may be a grandmother, but she’s not very precious or sweet in my book. In a naked assault on innocent babies born in the United States of undocumented parents, as well as violating her sworn oath to uphold the Constitution (which includes the 14th Amendment), Black has irresponsibly joined radical xenophobe Rep. Steve King of Iowa to sponsor a bill to deny such children U.S. citizenship.

Times Editorial: President renominates Brown for TVA post (Times Free-Press)

Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee refused to bring President Obama’s nomination of Dr. Marilyn Brown for a second term on the TVA board before the Senate for confirmation in early January. That understandably left independent TVA analysts and critics aghast at their blind and blatant partisanship. The senators didn’t reject Dr. Brown, an international expert on energy efficiency and a Nobel Prize winner in 2007 for her work on climate change, because she isn’t supremely qualified. Her outstanding record as a Distinguished Visiting Scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and her highly ranked tenure as a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Public policy, along with her international standing, make her credentials unassailable.