April 13 TN News Digest

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

Jackson, TN recognized as a “Top Ten Metro Area” (Memphis Business Journal)

Jackson, Tenn. has been recognized by Site Selection magazine as a “Top Ten Metro Area” for cities with a population fewer than 200,000 people. Jackson tied for 7th place with Midland, Texas; Decatur, Ala.; Saginaw, Mich.; Victoria, Texas; Winchester, Va.; and Winchester, W. Va. The ranking is based on the number of corporate real estate facility projects announced in Jackson’s metropolitan statistical area during 2012. Jackson and the other cities all had nine projects in 2012. To be included in the project database, a project must be $1 million or more in capital investment, create at least 50 new jobs or add at least 20,000 square feet of new space.

Haslam Signs Bill To Change Age Requirement For Pre-K (Greeneville Sun)

Gov. Bill Haslam has signed into law a bill that changes the Pre-K enrollment birth date requirements. This change takes effect in the 2013-14 school year. For the 2013-14 school year, children must be 4 years of age on or before Aug. 31, 2013, to enroll in a public school Pre-K program. For the following school year, 2014-2015, children must be 4 years of age on or before Aug. 15, 2014, to enroll in a public school Pre-K program. 

DCS to announce major reorganization Monday (Tennessean/Wadhwani)

The Department of Children’s Services will announce a reorganization of the state’s $630 million child welfare agency on Monday afternoon, the agency said Friday. The changes are “aimed at elevating child safety, health and programming,” a news release said. The announcement comes just over two months after Gov. Bill Haslam appointed Jim Henry as interim commissioner of the troubled department. His predecessor, Kate O’Day, stepped down Feb. 5 amid mounting controversies at the agency, which included a computer system that failed to adequately track children in its care, a child abuse hotline that left calls unanswered, foster parents who went unpaid and a series of miscalculations on the number of children who have died after being reported to the agency.

State cuts off job training contractor cited in audit (Tennessean/Roche)

Indiana company collected $1.1 million despite mishandled contracts The state of Tennessee has halted payments to an Indiana company that collected $1.1 million in fees through the Department of Labor and Workforce Development despite being cited in two successive state audits for contracting irregularites. The payment freezes by Interim state Labor Commissioner Burns Phillips were disclosed Friday after The Tennessean asked for details about the state agency’s dealings with the Center for Workforce Learning and its owner, Mary Ann Lawrence.

TBI 10th District investigation didn’t include grand jurors (TFP/Walton)

Tennessee’s top legal officer says state investigators couldn’t substantiate an allegation that a McMinn County, Tenn., prosecutor tried to influence a grand jury in a 2010 case with political overtones. The reason why, as it turns out, is because the investigators never asked. Grand jurors who said last year they were persuaded not to indict a candidate in the 2010 McMinn County sheriff’s race now say the TBI never interviewed them during an investigation of the 10th Judicial District ordered by Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper.

Lawyer’s license suspended after $50,000 taken from disabled client (TN/Roche)

A prominent Nashville attorney has been temporarily suspended from the practice of law after the discovery that he paid himself $50,440 from the estate of a ward in a nursing home without the approval of a judge. The state Supreme Court concluded that allowing John E. Clemmons to continue practicing law “poses a threat of substantial harm to the public.” Clemmons’ actions came when he was serving as conservator of the Rutherford County man, a legal arrangement overseen by a judge when a person is determined unable to handle his or her own affairs, often for medical reasons, and an outside person is given that authority.  

Governor’s Workers’ Comp Plan Makes It’s Way Through the House (WPLN-Radio)

A proposal that could make it harder for Tennesseans to get paid after they’re hurt on the job will soon become law. Governor Bill Haslam’s plan to revamp workers’ compensation in Tennessee was one of his top priorities this session and supported by businesses across the state. Republicans claim the previous system was the cause of some small business closures. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh led a futile attempt by Democrats to stop or amend the bill.

Legislature Approves TN Workers’ Comp Overhaul (TN Report)

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers’ compensation reform legislation passed the state House of Representatives Thursday, 68-24. The bill now heads to his desk to be signed into law. The House moved to concur with Senate Bill 200, where the bill passed by a vote of 28-2, with little discussion earlier this month. Only one Democrat – Rep. Charles Curtiss of Sparta – broke rank with the House minority party in voting against the legislation that expands the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development to oversee a process formerly handled by the courts.

Workers’ comp reform heads to Haslam’s desk (Nashville Business Journal)

A bill that will restructure Tennessee’s workers’ comp system is heading to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam, WPLN 90.3 FM reports, after House lawmakers gave their final approval Thursday. The bill, a major legislative priority for Haslam, will create an independent agency to oversee the system, including appeals that are now heard by the courts. Haslam will appoint the administrator of the new agency. As the Nashville Business Journal reported in March, companies and business groups expect the reform to save businesses time and money and diminish uncertainty.

Workers’ comp bill heading to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk (Nooga)

A bill to change the way claims for injured workers are processed in Tennessee is headed to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam, where it is expected to be signed into law. The measure, called the Workers’ Compensation Act of 2013, was approved in a 68-24 House vote yesterday. Earlier, the bill had been approved in a Senate roll call of 28-2. The bill is a key component of Haslam’s legislative agenda, introduced in February. By changing the process for the handling of workers’ compensation claims to be overseen by the state Department of Labor and Workforce instead of local courts, supporters of the bill argue that it will make the process more streamlined and efficient.

State reps tout workers’ comp bill (Daily News Journal)

Rutherford County’s state legislative delegation touted a series of bills Friday tackling everything from the way workers’ compensation claims are resolved to pension reform for state government employees. Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, called passage of the workers’ compensation bill “very important,” while addressing an audience at the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce’s final Capital Connection breakfast on Friday. “We are one of two states in the country that still use the (trial) court system,” Ketron said.

GOP supermajority winds down 2013 session (Tennessean/Sisk)

More than two decades have passed since Tennessee lawmakers went home before the end of the third week in April. They might have another chance this year, if Republican leaders get their way. The legislature is expected to leave Nashville this week, having delivered a raft of measures sought by business and gun-rights groups. Although the vast majority of bills filed failed, as in any year, by the time lawmakers leave town, the GOP supermajority will have overhauled the workers’ compensation system, further cut Tennessee’s tax on investment income, and approved bills that close gun records and give gun owners the right to carry their weapons into workplace parking lots.

House adds exceptions to drone bill (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)

The House and Senate both unanimously approved Thursday a bill that sets rules for Tennessee law enforcement agencies’ use of unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft, better known as drones. As approved by the Senate, the bill (SB796) says that drones may only be used to search for a fugitive or a missing person, in monitoring a hostage situation or when a judge issues a search warrant authorizing them. Any information gathered otherwise by a drone cannot be used in court and must be destroyed within 24 hours, the bill says.

Senate Vote on Animal-Abuse Reporting Delayed (TN Report)

Legislation is on the Tennessee Senate floor that would require individuals who shoot video or take photographs of people being cruel to animals to submit those images to law enforcement within 24 hours. The bill is on hold now though, after conflicting perspectives on the proposal emerged between fellow GOP caucus members. It was rolled until next week. On Thursday Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris told members of the body that he sees problems with Somerville Republican Delores Gresham’s measure, Senate Bill 1248. “

Solar tax compromise moving through Legislature (Nashville Business Journal)

The Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association (TenneSEIA) has endorsed legislation that seeks to resolve questions of constitutionality surrounding how solar investments are valued for property tax. Under a law passed in 2010 during the administration of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, Tennessee now taxes solar installations at salvage value, or virtually nothing. Attorney General Bob Cooper’s office found that those tax breaks were “of doubtful constitutionality.”

Littlefield’s push for tougher anti-gang laws faces defeat (Times Free-Press/Sher)

As he leaves office Monday, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield faces a final defeat, his effort to persuade the state Legislature to toughen Tennessee’s anti-gang laws. The problem for Littlefield’s Gang Free School Zone Act is its costs for housing gang members expected to go to state prisons under its effects. By year 10, legislative analysts project it would cost $2.3 million annually to imprison an estimated 77 criminal gang members under the proposed law’s three provisions.

Dean noncommittal on funding Metro Schools’ budget request (TN/Garrison)

Mayor Karl Dean on Friday was noncommittal whether he would fully fund the Metro school board’s requested $44 million budget increase, cautioning that there’s only so much revenue at a time when the district’s spending needs continue to balloon. Dean has covered Metro schools’ entire budget requests in each of his previous five budgets. But the district’s $764 million budget hope for the 2013-14 fiscal year – approved by its board Tuesday – comes one year after he and the Metro Council carved out a $46.4 million bump for public schools in an operating budget that relied on a property tax increase.  

Dean fully behind charter expansion (City Paper/Zelinski)

Mayor Karl Dean said it’s doubtful his administration will fully fund the local school district’s budget, which is complete with a $44 million increase over the last year. Wrapping up his final public budget hearing for the year by digging into the $764 million spending plan for Metro Nashville Public Schools, Dean told district officials Friday the “flood gates have not opened” in terms of revenue and hinted that this would be a difficult budget to assemble. “I don’t know whether we’ll be able to do all they ask for. Certainly I remain totally committed to schools as being the most important work we’re doing now in the city. It’s key to our future, but we’ll just see how the analysis goes,” Dean told reporters after the budget hearing.

Mayor to Schools: ‘Floodgates of Money’ Haven’t Opened

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean warned officials from Metro Schools today their request for a $44 million dollar budget increase is asking a lot, given years of flat pay and layoffs in other areas of government. Dean stopped short of saying the city can’t afford the 6 percent increase. But “the floodgates of money have not opened,” he said, noting schools have gotten a lot more dollars in recent years, even as most other Metro departments have faced shrinking or flat budgets.

Knox County studying lower paying jobs (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Donila)

Study looks at salaries in other counties Knox County convenience center operator Phillip Parks wouldn’t quit his day job — even if he hit the million-dollar jackpot.c“No, no way,” he said. “I love it too much.” Still, he wouldn’t mind at least a small bump in pay. And that’s something that could happen. Parks’ position as the lone operator at the Powell center pays $9.23 an hour, and it’s one of at least several dozen that the administration is studying for a potential pay raise. Officials aren’t making any promises, but Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said he asked his finance department to give him some options.

Gun Control Ad Targets Tennessee Senators (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker are among the targets of a new television ad from Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The spot calls for Senators to support an amendment requiring background checks for all gun sales, even at gun shows and online. Alexander issued a statement yesterday saying he opposes the measure because he considers it to infringe upon the Second Amendment. Corker has not specified how he intends to vote, but says he “will not support any legislation that violates our Second Amendment rights.”  

Local senators ready to enter debate on guns (Times Free-Press/Carroll)

Let the debate begin. Fulfilling earlier promises, Tennessee and Georgia Republicans on Thursday voted to bring expansive gun control legislation to the Senate floor for debate next week. But the votes should not be confused as a call for tighter gun control. Instead, they represent a desire to fight senators who favor tougher restrictions. “For me to be unwilling to debate and defend Second Amendment rights would be like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being willing to sing,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Sens. Alexander, Corker to vote against gun legislation (News-Sentinel/Collins)

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Thursday he will vote against a compromise proposal to require background checks for gun sales made at gun shows and in online transactions. The Maryville Republican’s announcement came shortly after the U.S. Senate voted to end a filibuster by some conservatives and move ahead with debate on a bill requiring new gun restrictions. The compromise background-checks language was negotiated by U.S. Sens. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and will be offered as an amendment to the bill.

Tennessee senators vote to allow debate on gun bill (Nooga)

Bucking the line taken by the majority of their fellow Republicans, Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker voted Thursday to not block debate on controversial gun rights legislation passing through the upper chamber of Congress. The senators were among 16 Republicans who voted in favor of the cloture motion, which allows the bill to clear a procedural hurdle and be debated at length before moving on for a final Senate vote. Needing 60 votes to pass, the bill would not have moved forward without support from the Republicans who favored it.

Debate on gun background checks starts next week (Associated Press/Fram)

The first hurdle cleared, the Senate turns to the heart of the battle over curbing gun violence next week when it considers a proposal to expand required federal background checks to gun shows and online firearms sales. In a bipartisan 68-31 vote Thursday, senators rejected an effort by conservatives to block debate on gun control legislation. Senators then formally opened debate on the bill, lawmakers’ response to the mass shooting in December in Newtown, Conn., and the most ambitious effort to limit gun violence in nearly two decades.  

Cohen: Posts to Cyndi Lauper ruse to promote Memphis music (CA/Sullivan)

Congressman Steve Cohen tweeted and deleted a message to Cyndi Lauper this week intentionally to fool the press into promoting Memphis music, he said in a Capitol Hill news conference Friday afternoon. “There’s been a lot of discussion about my tweets — some questioning my ability to tweet,” Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, said from his desk in the Rayburn Building. “The fact is I tweeted exactly what I wanted to tweet and I deleted exactly what I wanted to delete because, in this age, which I learned a couple of months ago … the best way to get a message out was to tweet and delete because the press will instantaneously assume the worst — something nefarious, something salacious — and jump on it.”

Meningitis outbreak: FDA, compounders clash over access (Tennessean/Wilemon)

Court orders issued for 2 inspections The U.S. Food and Drug Administration positioned itself as a more assertive agency pushing the boundaries of its power to police compounding labs this week, while representatives of pharmaceutical companies disputed FDA claims that they tried to deny its inspectors proper access. The back-and-forth occurred just days before FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg’s scheduled testimony Tuesday before a congressional committee.

TVA could pay more for bonds (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Flessner)

President Obama’s suggestion that the federal government study selling the Tennessee Valley Authority may not get very far in Congress. But the budget proposal to study privatizing TVA did temporarily devalue TVA’s bonds on Wall Street — and could push up borrowing costs for America’s biggest government utility if investors remain wary about the continued government ownership of TVA. Moody’s Investors Services Analyst Toby Shea said if the federal government were to sell TVA the agency would likely lose its top bond rating since the government would no longer be linked to TVA’s debt.

ORNL’s funding still clouded by uncertainty (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Munger)

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason said there is even more uncertainty than usual after this week’s release of the Obama administration’s budget request for 2014. “No one likes uncertainty,” Mason said in a telephone interview Friday. “I thinks that’s probably the trickiest thing to deal with.” ORNL, in many cases, is still waiting to learn exactly how much funding various programs will get for the rest of Fiscal 2013. That’s because of the complexities of sequestration and operating under a continuing budget resolution.

Bryce Corp. plans $21M Memphis expansion (Memphis Business Journal)

Memphis-based Bryce Corp. is planning a $21 million expansion that will create 95 new jobs and retain 318 jobs, according to an application for tax abatements the company filed with the Economic Development Growth Engine of Memphis & Shelby County Bryce is seeking payment-in-lieu-of-taxes benefits for 10 years that will save the company an estimated $4 million in taxes, while creating an estimated $17.9 million in new tax revenue for Memphis and Shelby County, according to the PILOT application. Bryce will invest the money in new equipment at its facilities at 5405 Hickory Hill, 4505 Old Lamar and 3825 Delp St.

Memphis-based Bryce plans to add 95 jobs, invest $21.3 million (CA/Bailey)

Packaging maker Bryce Corp. plans to invest $21.3 million in its three Memphis facilities, add 95 jobs and retain 318 employees, documents released Friday show. But in return, the maker of flexible packages seeks a 10-year tax break that would save the company $4.01 million. If Bryce doesn’t get the tax break, it could eventually shut down its Memphis operations, the company indicated. The Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) board will vote Wednesday on the application for the tax break, a payment in lieu of taxes called a PILOT.

Hamilton County Schools budget includes no new money for tech (TFP/Hardy)

Despite months of talk about major, systemwide technology upgrades, Hamilton County Schools officials aren’t putting up any of their own cash for the effort next year. Next year’s proposed budget calls for no new local money to buy computers, iPads or other devices. The district is studying Superintendent Rick Smith’s ambitious plan to give all students tablets, both to enhance the classroom experience and to get schools up to speed for online tests by 2014. Smith estimates it would cost nearly $20 million to buy 42,000 iPads and provide the proper infrastructure improvements like broadband upgrades.

Collierville looks at hiring first school employees (Commercial Appeal/Garlington)

They don’t yet have approval to start their own school district, but the first employee hired for a proposed Collierville school system may not be the superintendent. Town officials are considering a budget request for three armed police officers who could start work this fall in the elementary schools. Technically, the police officers — which the town calls school resource officers — would be town employees since Collierville and the other five Shelby County suburbs are still waiting for the legal go-ahead to restart the process of forming municipal schools. 

Oregon: Experiment in Oregon Gives Medicaid Very Local Roots (New York Times)

Some say America has been homogenized, a chain-store nation bereft of regional distinction in dialect or dinner. But now this state, at the pioneer’s end of the road, is testing the idea that local community difference is alive and well, and that grass-roots leadership holds the key to fixing health care in America. Under an agreement signed with the Obama administration last year, and just now taking shape, Oregon and the federal government have wagered $1.9 billion that — through a hyper-local focus on Medicaid — the state can show both improved health outcomes for low-income Medicaid populations and a lower rate of spending growth than the rest of the nation.

 

OPINION 

Guest columnist: Haslam finds his footing on slippery slope (Tennessean)

The quintessential moment of the 2013 legislative session — and maybe of Gov. Bill Haslam’s two-plus years as governor — came last month when he appeared before a joint session of the legislature to announce his decision on TennCare expansion. His answer, at first blush, sounded like “yes, no, maybe, maybe not.” It wasn’t until his office put out a statement that you knew for sure that he’d turned down federal help. He probably didn’t write the statement. It was way too clear. Democrats, who had planned to walk out if Haslam rejected $14 million in federal help to give poor people health insurance, were too confused as Haslam spoke to ever make their move.  

Times Editorial: Don’t cut Social Security checks instead of closing loopholes (TFP)

In a bid to entice Republicans into a budget compromise, President Obama has proposed to switch the basis for cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security benefits to what’s known as the “chained Consumer Price Index.” This amounts to an unreasonable and unfair cut in Social Security benefits. Whatever he thinks he can trade for this cut, Obama’s on the wrong path. When Democrats propose to help lower the federal deficit by eliminating special-interest corporate tax loopholes, Republicans always object, and always filibuster to block such proposals in the Senate.

Editorial: City, county budgets will feel reappraisal fallout (Commercial Appeal)

One of the more interesting discussions that have arisen as a preamble to the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission budget deliberations has to do with the 4.5 percent drop in property values after this year’s property reappraisals. The administrations of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and county Mayor Mark Luttrell said the devaluation will cause the city to lose $14 million in property tax revenue while the county will lose an estimated $52 million. Since the property tax bills of those whose homes lost value will drop, the council and commission are faced with the prospect of raising the tax rates to collect the same amount of revenue for the next budget year.