This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam acknowledges his decision not to expand Medicaid in Tennessee and instead pursue a “third way” reform centered on using federal money to buy private health insurance for the working poor “frustrated people on both sides” of the issue. Opponents of Medicaid expansion are frustrated because he didn’t weld the door permanently shut. Instead of covering more uninsured Tennesseans directly through the Medicaid program, Haslam said he’ll keep trying to work out a compromise with the Obama administration based on Haslam’s plan to use the billions of new federal dollars to buy commercial health insurance for uninsured residents.
Patricia Heim is one of the three Republican Davidson County election commissioners being replaced by the House speaker and the county’s other GOP lawmakers. But she’s on track to continue her service on the board of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, which the governor appoints. Heim, a member of that board since 2007, has been appointed for another term by Gov. Bill Haslam, subject to legislative approval. The new term would run through 2016.
Matt Webster didn’t want to be seriously hurt on the job four years ago, and he’s especially glad it didn’t happen under Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed workers’ compensation reforms. Otherwise, Webster says, he probably would have been financially ruined. He suffered burns over a third of his body, primarily on his back, right arm and neck, from a flash fire at the Shelbyville, Tenn., printing plant where he worked. His employer’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier later paid a $235,000 disability settlement that Webster and his family have since survived on because he has been unable to work.
Pam Milam calls the many months she spent fighting for her unemployment benefits the most difficult time of her life. In the summer of 2011, Milam, who cut back her work hours so she could take care of her terminally ill husband, says she was given a choice by her employer: either return to work full time or be forced to resign. After she chose the latter, Milam, 52, of Hermitage, applied for unemployment benefits with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Armed Forces personnel and their families in Tennessee are getting extra financial assistance to make homeownership more of a reality. Tennessee Housing Development Agency Executive Director Ralph Perrey shared details on the now permanent “Homeownership for the Brave” program during a visit with the Bristol Herald Courier Editorial Board on April 3. Launched as a pilot project two years ago, the agency’s Board of Directors voted in March to keep the program for military personnel in place.
Inspired by its role in the Washington County New Build project in Dry Creek, the Tennessee Housing Development Agency has launched a new statewide grant program to help communities struck by disasters.In Johnson City Thursday to announce the extension of a state home loan assistance program for veterans, THDA Director Ralph Perrey said in an interview at the Johnson City Press that THDA is impressed with the public-private partnership through which Washington County leveraged a $300,000 THDA grant into $3 million in assistance for flood victims.
The University of Tennessee will celebrate the opening of its Confucius Institute — a joint center with the Chinese government — with an inauguration ceremony and gala show Friday. The non-profit institute, which has been two years in the making, is a collaboration between UT, a Chinese Ministry of Education subsidiary in Beijing and the Southeast University in Nanjing, China. The goal of the center is to foster a relationship between China and the state of Tennessee and to provide cultural resources to both UT and the community.
Almost a year ago, Middle Tennessee State University announced it had spent three years raising funds for a capital campaign. The goal was $80 million and at that time, nearly $54 million had been committed. In the days following the April 13 announcement, the community was buzzing about the campaign, highlighted by a $10 million gift from alum Andrew Woodfin “Woody” Miller. Centennial campaign efforts are still going strong and turning out good results, said Joe Bales, vice president for development and university relations.
On the state Senate floor last week, Sen. Brian Kelsey brought up a resolution that he explained as putting senators on record as declaring “if the federal government tries to infringe on our rights as American citizens, then we will intervene and fight for those rights.” This prompted Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris to ask his fellow Republican how the resolution (SR17) differed from perhaps the most prominent of several bills introduced this year to nullify federal laws and subject federal officers to prosecution should they try to enforce them. The question was a bit of a gibe at Kelsey because Norris knew the answer.
A bill pending before Tennessee lawmakers could dramatically alter the relationship between developers and city and county planners and change how building projects move forward. Under the legislation, the development standards, zoning and other rules in place at the time a planning commission grants preliminary approval for a project would remain in place for as long as 15 years. The building industry and the bill’s Republican sponsors in the House and Senate say the measure will give developers certainty and prevent local officials from changing the rules midstream.
When Davidson County’s Republican legislative delegation submitted its nominations for three positions on the county election commission Wednesday, it was two days late, according to the schedule laid out in state law. Tennessee Code Annotated 2-12-101 says the State Election Commission “shall appoint, on the first Monday in April of each odd-numbered year, five (5) election commissioners for each county, for terms of two (2) years and until their successors are appointed and qualified.”
A bill that would halt all city-initiated, or so-called “forced” annexations statewide for two years, will hit the Senate floor Monday in Nashville, and its passage has major implications not only for Johnson City, but for Washington County as well. Oddly enough, leaders from both entities share some of the same concerns over the bill and feel it will do more harm than good. Many believe the bill developed from an ongoing adversarial relationship between the two and a perceived aggressive annexation policy by the city, though it has played by the rules.
Not exactly an April Fools’ Day column, but Wired magazine came out Monday with a great tongue-in-cheek read on how Tennessee should defend itself in the event of a Georgian invasion. Written by Andrew Exum, identified as a former Army Ranger and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the piece suggests defending the Interstate 75 approach with mortars positioned at Sir Goony’s Family Fun Center.
Providing context to recurring issues ranging from a possible payroll tax to vehicle emissions-testing, new Census figures show that more than 90,000 residents from other counties commute to jobs in Shelby County. During the five-year period from 2006 to 2010, an average of 90,112 out-of-county employees from as far away as Kentucky and Louisiana commuted to jobs in Shelby, according to the figures. Among Shelby residents, 385,405 commuted to jobs within the county, compared to the 22,972 who worked in other counties.
He voted with Obama 62 percent of the time last year, according to Congressional Quarterly As some conservatives press Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander to prove that he is one of them, Tennessee’s senior senator has wasted few opportunities this year to speak out against President Barack Obama and his policies. “A complete failure of presidential leadership,” he said when the White House and Congress was unable to find a way around budget sequestration at the end of February. A few weeks earlier, at a Senate hearing on budget matters, Alexander thundered that there was “no plan from the president” to rein in entitlement spending.
In 1966, a young Republican lawyer and U.S. Senate candidate named Howard H. Baker Jr. rode a Greyhound bus around Tennessee every day but Sunday, stopping by Morristown, Memphis and everywhere in between. The future White House chief of staff and U.S. ambassador to Japan enjoyed the backslaps and the hobnobbing, telling biographer J. Lee Annis Jr. he visited “every village, hamlet, city and crossroads in Tennessee.” Beyond that, he did something unusual for a white Southerner in the 1960s: He opened headquarters in black areas of the state’s largest cities and started campaign organizations at 80 percent of the state’s colleges.
State Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, has endorsed state Sen. Jim Tracy’s run for Congress, the Tracy campaign said Monday. Perhaps best known for his strident views on Islam and national security issues, Womick is the fourth state lawmaker from all-important Rutherford County to endorse Tracy. He joins state Sen. Bill Ketron, state Rep. Mike Sparks and state Rep. Dawn White. The county’s remaining lawmaker, state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, also is running for the Fourth Congressional District, as is the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-South Pittsburg.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park drew 9,685,829 visitors last year to maintain its title as the most visited national park in the U.S. Grand Canyon National Park was second with 4,421,352 visits, and Yosemite National Park was third with 3,853,404 visits, according to a National Park Service report. The Blue Ridge Parkway — a unit of the national park system but not technically a national park — was the most visited of all places in the national park system with 15,205,059 visitors in 2012. The Smokies’ visitation count for 2012 was the highest in a decade.
John Craft is nervous about preaching from the Bible next week. Really nervous, actually. In the past few weeks his sermons to the campus ministry have centered on dating and marriage, which leads him to this inevitable discussion of his own view on homosexuality. Now he finds himself caught between two commitments. Every year he signs a pledge with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to lead a student ministry that doesn’t discriminate against anyone based on race, sex or sexual orientation. He also made promises to his church.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has begun its biggest single pollution control project to help clear the air around its Gallatin Fossil Plant. But the $1 billion upgrade of one of TVA’s oldest coal plants isn’t winning many friends for the federal utility from the environmental community. “We’re glad that TVA is trying to cut its air emissions, but this move is just prolonging a dirty, 1950s technology instead of investing in new and cleaner sources of power,” said John McFadden, executive director for the Tennessee Environmental Council, which urged TVA to shut down rather than repair the 60-year-old Gallatin plant.
Peace activists lost a legal attempt last week to gain access to their traditional protesting spot near the entrance to the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, but they showed up anyway on Saturday and voiced their feelings from across the street. About 75 demonstrators gathered in Bissell Park for a rally against the government’s plans to build a new multibillion-dollar production facility at the weapons plant. Following speeches, music and a series of skits, the group hoisted their peace puppets and protest signs at midafternoon and marched across town to Y-12.
TVA is teaming with Babcock & Wilcox on a project that may produce the nation’s first operational small modular reactor. The potential of this device to make nuclear power cheaper and more readily available excites proponents, but worries those who don’t think wider availability of nuclear power is such a great thing. The smaller, simpler design of modular reactors makes it possible for a power company to scatter them in more sites — maybe even a decommissioned coal plant — or to cluster them to get the effect of a full-sized reactor, proponents say.
Richland Elementary teacher Allyson Chick spends at least $500 a year on pencils, paper, notebooks, clothes and shoes for her students. The alternative, she said, is watching them go without. “Part of the nature of teachers is to be giving and providing for their students,” said Chick, the 2013 state Teacher of the Year. “And every teacher will tell you that not having the materials you need is a barrier to instruction.” According to an online survey of nearly 1,000 Tennessee teachers, 36 percent said they spend between $251 to $500 on classroom supplies, including work sheets, handouts and other materials they need to teach class.
Dorsey Hopson in charge of merged school district Low-key and all-business in the quiet execution of his duties as the general counsel for Memphis City Schools, Dorsey Hopson has emerged as a forceful spokesman for public education in Shelby County since his elevation last month to interim superintendent of Memphis and Shelby County Schools. In fact, he has enthusiastically embraced the task of trying to unite the community behind the public schools merger, set to take effect in 85 days.
City school board members and officials are raising some concerns about funding, staffing and programs offered at Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee. IA is a joint venture of the Sullivan County schools and Kingsport City Schools, which recently received a rave review from an education official who visited the campus at the county’s former Brookside Elementary campus in Bloomingdale last month. Aside from offering a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to students, its best practices for STEM are being shared for Tennessee schools throughout the region.
Voters want things. And politicians — officeholders, especially — are responsive to voters. Cranky people stuck in traffic are not happy people, and they pass their unhappiness along to those who represent them. Those same voters, in many cases, have already expressed unhappiness to those responsive and able officeholders about some other things, too — things that, in politics, might get somebody’s mouth washed out with soap: taxes, debt and tolls. No need to start a pity party, but you can at least see the quandary for some lawmakers — especially the professional revenue haters.
President John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” In this simple quote, Kennedy encompassed the true definition of what it means to be a statesman. I was reminded of this historic quote last week as Gov. Bill Haslam made the announcement that Tennessee would not be expanding the state’s Medicaid rolls pursuant to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as “Obamacare.” Instead, Haslam announced, our state will pursue its own independent “Tennessee Plan” for expanding health care coverage to those truly in need.
Gov. Haslam’s rejection of the federal offer to cover all the cost of expanding TennCare/Medicaid for three years, and 90 percent thereafter, is widely reported to leave at least 180,000 poor Tennessee workers uninsured. These are workers, and families, whose incomes range from 100-to-138 percent of the federal poverty: They simply can’t afford insurance. This is needlessly cruel — a fact made more poignant by estimates that the number that might be covered, if the governor cared to advance health care for the working poor, could be double that figure.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to Knoxville on Wednesday and gave Tennessee a pat on the back for its education reform efforts — and offered some wisdom for officials to follow. Duncan sandwiched delivering the Baker Distinguished Lecture at the University of Tennessee between visits to West High School and Ritta Elementary School. Duncan raved about Tennessee’s education reforms — implementing rigorous teacher evaluations, increasing standards on statewide assessments and performance-based funding for the state’s community colleges and universities.
Frustrated by attempts to morph his limited school voucher program into a full-fledged platform for parental school choice, Gov. Bill Haslam pulled his proposal (Senate Bill 0196) on Wednesday, leaving proponents for the school choice movement contemplating — their options. Haslam’s educational reform agenda has been a mixture of aggressive changes and experimental solutions, and Tennessee has seen progress with this approach, with student performance improving more rapidly than under previous administrations.
Unless the unexpected happens, legislation moving through the General Assembly that will smooth the way for new municipal school districts in Shelby County will be approved before the legislature adjourns later this month. If that happens, Shelby County’s six suburban municipalities likely will move swiftly to restart their efforts to form their own individual school districts. That puts the Shelby County unified school board and administrators of the new merged school system, which goes into existence July 1, in the unenviable position of creating a school system prepared to educate every student in the county beginning Aug. 5, while being mindful that all their plans could change if the municipal districts are ready to go for the 2014-2015 school year.
While one bold plan to enhance to the political power of the Legislature’s partisan caucuses sank into the 2013 session sunset last week amid considerable media clamor and political rhetoric, a subtle plan with the same general goal was quietly positioned for passage. Sen. Frank Niceley was author of plan No. 1, which would have allowed Republican state legislators to pick the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate while Democratic legislators chose the Democratic nominee. The Strawberry Plains farmer pitched his proposal as a way to fix a broken Washington, delivering “a little history lesson” about how the Founding Fathers fashioned things so legislatures directly named a state’s U.S. senators until the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted in 1913.
In a year that has seen multiple attempts to deny Tennesseans their right to know what their government is up to, the General Assembly’s rapid march toward sealing handgun carry permit records could have the harshest consequences of all. While other bills would have allowed some meetings of governmental bodies to be conducted in secret, other bills sought to limit distribution of public notices — all serious infringements. But at least none of those touched on lethal force.
Breathe easy, Tennessee workers. It’s a good day to celebrate. The federal income tax deadline is looming, but you’re already ahead of the tax game. As of April 2 you had earned enough this year to pay all of your federal, state and local tax obligations for 2013. That’s right, Tax Freedom Day in Tennessee has come and gone. You can gloat while most of the rest of the country works another two weeks or more to achieve that milestone. Only two states celebrated Tax Freedom Day earlier than Tennessee this year, according to the Tax Foundation, the oldest nonprofit think tank in the country.