This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Governor Bill Haslam says meetings and calls are ongoing as he tries to wrangle a deal channeling new federal healthcare dollars to Tennessee. Haslam wants the money to buy private insurance for thousands of the state’s working poor. A major hurdle to win Washington over will be showing a private plan can cover people as cost-effectively as expanding Medicaid would. Haslam says it’s doable – and it may mean reworking how doctors are paid. Haslam argues if Tennessee can use extra federal money for private insurance instead of a Medicaid expansion, more doctors might be willing to accept poor patients.
Gov. Bill Haslam and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey say they hope the U.S. House will go along with the U.S. Senate in approving legislation that would allow states to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases. Haslam, who last year testified before a congressional committee in support of the “Marketplace Fairness Act,” said he now will contact members of the Tennessee delegation to the U.S. House. Ramsey said he has already spoken to U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, in support of the bill. Tennessee’s two U.S. Senators, Republicans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both voted for the bill when it was approved by the Senate 69-27 on Monday.
Top teachers in Metro Nashville’s five lowest-scoring schools might earn a bonus next year, thanks to a state plan that will reward them for staying in troubled schools or give them a pay boost for moving to one. The bonus plan is the first move in Tennessee’s efforts to shift to a merit pay system and away from the traditional teacher pay scale based on years of service and advanced degrees. Rewarding teachers for working in troubled schools is just one of the ideas suggested by Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman last month when he presented a pay plan to the State Board of Education.
The Tennessee Board of Nursing on Thursday approved a step in Lee University’s plan to get into nursing education. The board OK’d the university’s letter of intent to develop a four-year curriculum for a bachelor of science degree in nursing and a separate program to allow registered nurses to complete bachelor’s degrees, said Dr. Carolyn Dirksen, vice president of academic affairs “It’s a wonderful feeling,” Dirksen said Thursday evening. “We’ve wanted to do this at Lee for a long time, but we had to make sure we were absolutely ready in terms of our infrastructure … to offer a quality program.”
The Tennessee Lottery is adding a sixth drawing-style game to its lineup and this one pays the withholding taxes. Hot Lotto is a multi-state drawing-style game similar to Powerball and Mega Millions. The all-cash jackpots begin at $1 million and average between $5 million and $6 million. Hot Lotto begins in Tennessee on Sunday with tickets costing $1 each. A “Sizzler” option that triples all non-jackpot prizes costs an extra $1. Drawings will be held every Wednesday and Saturday at 9:40 p.m. Central with the first drawing on May 15.
The Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs says it has formed a committee to look for sites for a new veteran’s cemetery in the Upper Cumberland region. Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder announced Thursday an initiative to establish a new State Veterans Cemetery that would serve 14 counties in the region. The department has submitted a pre-application grant to the National Cemetery Administration for federal funding of the architectural design, engineer support and construction costs.
The Department of Children’s Services’ latest price estimate for obtaining records that The Tennessean and other media groups have sought for months is no more efficient or cost-effective than its two previous estimates, according to a filing submitted on Thursday by the newspaper’s attorney. The amount, approximately $9,000, is far higher than what a state chancellor recently agreed to as reasonable — about $1,067, attorney Robb Harvey argued. That amount, which was based on the cost of photocopying files, already has been paid to the state.
The Bristol Nursing Home now has 15 days to prepare for trial and any further appeals after a court decision Thursday that ruled in their favor, according to company officials. Sullivan County Chancery Court Judge E.G. Moody said the facility has the right to a fair trial and that the relocation of patients will be postponed until future court proceedings dictate otherwise, the report said. The ruling also puts the home back on the list to receive Tennessee Medicaid payments, impacting 90 residents at that location who receive Medicare and Medicaid benefits.
A proposed law requiring people who capture images of livestock animal abuse to hand over those images to police within 48 hours is “constitutionally suspect,” according to state Attorney General Robert Cooper. If passed into law, the measure could come into conflict with the First Amendment on the basis the bill is too narrowly tailored, poses an unconstitutional prior restraint on expression and puts a burden on news gathering. The measure also raises Fifth Amendment concerns on self-incrimination, according to the opinion released late Thursday.
Tennessee’s proposed “Ag Gag” law suffered a setback Thursday when the state’s attorney general labeled it “constitutionally suspect” and said it could violate freedom of the press and the right against self-incrimination. The bill, awaiting either Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature or veto, would force anyone who purposefully took pictures or video of livestock abuse to turn those over to law enforcement within 48 hours. That limits the media, incriminates those who captured the video through trespassing and exposes police to copyright problems should the public ask for copies, Attorney General Robert Cooper wrote.
Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper says a so-called “ag gag” bill passed by state lawmakers is “constitutionally suspect” under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The 10-page legal opinion, released Thursday, comes as Gov. Bill Haslam continues to wrestle over whether he will sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. “The governor is reviewing the opinion,” Haslam spokesman David Smith said. The bill requires anyone who intentionally makes a picture or video documenting livestock abuse provide copies to “law enforcement” within 48 hours.
The “Ag Gag” bill narrowly approved by the state legislature last month but awaiting action by Gov. Bill Haslam is “constitutionally suspect” on three First Amendment grounds, Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. said in an advisory opinion Thursday. The bill is the focus of an intensive push to persuade the governor to veto it, and the newly released legal opinion gives Haslam more political cover to nix the bill. He has until Wednesday to veto or sign it or it becomes law without his signature.
The Tennessee Attorney General lists a number of problems with the bill dubbed the “ag gag” bill by opponents. In an opinion released Thursday, he calls the legislation requiring activists to turn over footage of livestock cruelty “constitutionally suspect.” The bill may run afoul of the First Amendment’s freedom of speech in several different ways, according to the opinion. It only requires a certain group to turn over their video – people who intentionally tried to get it on tape.
After a whirlwind end to this year’s legislative session, the state’s House and Senate speakers are back on speaking terms. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — who controls the Senate — and House Speaker Beth Harwell both say their relationship is fine, although the last day of this year’s legislative session showed their relationship fizzle when the chambers refused to pass bills favored by their counterpart in the opposite chamber. “It came to a little boiling point,” Ramsey told reporters Thursday, adding the legislature had a “mob” mentality that last day.
The news that the Tennessee General Assembly’s most senior legislator will leave office next year has effectively set off what could be the premier state Democratic primary of 2014. After a career in the legislature spanning six decades, Sen. Douglas Henry confirmed earlier this week that he will not seek reelection next year. The beloved Nashville Democrat has held his current Senate seat since 1971, and his announcement prompted tribute from members of both parties. Confirmation of a coming vacancy in a strongly Democratic seat immediately ignited speculation about the interests of younger talent in the party.
Even before state Sen. Douglas Henry announced he wouldn’t run again for the seat he has held since 1971, speculation on who might replace him centered on two names. And now that the Tennessee General Assembly’s elder statesman has made his intentions public, Nashville politicos are looking ahead to a Democratic primary fight shaping up between two attorneys, both in their 30s, who live just blocks away in Sylvan Park: Metro Councilman Jason Holleman and attorney Jeff Yarbro.
The man who oversees elections in Nashville has been fired for mismanaging his agency. In protest, one of Davidson County’s five election commissioners resigned at a meeting Thursday afternoon. Albert Tieche has been under scrutiny by state election officials for a series of mistakes. They range from failing to open polls on a Saturday to going forward with a technology upgrade against the recommendation of state officials. Ron Buchanan chairs the commission and says Tieche lacks the management skills “to do the job.”
Albert Tieche is out at the Davidson County Election Commission, and Commissioner Jim Gotto announced he will be leaving as well. After a heated meeting where tempers where high and accusations flew, the commission voted 4 to 1 to fire Tieche from his post as administrator of elections. The decision follows a highly critical report from the state, detailing numerous problems with the execution of elections over the last year. Before the vote, Gotto — a newly appointed Republican commissioner — accused Chairman Ron Buchanan of “fast-tracking” the process, and harboring a “deep personal bias” against Tieche.
The Davidson County Election Commission on Thursday fired its top administrator at the end of a tense meeting punctuated by angry catcalls from Republican activists and the resignation of the lone dissenting commissioner a mere month after he was appointed. The commission voted 4-1 to terminate Election Administrator Albert Tieche, effective immediately, in the wake of a scathing state report that cited “an unacceptablepattern of serious errors” throughout the 2012 election cycle. Joan Nixon, Tieche’s top deputy, was named acting administrator.
Knox County and its school system are on pace to close out the current fiscal year with a projected $15 million to $27 million in combined surplus. The additional money, officials said, comes in part from increases in property and sales tax collections, and more funding from the state’s Basic Education Program. Officials also said overall spending countywide is down. “Our departments have done a good job and our revenues are coming in a little bit better than expected,” said county Finance Director Chris Caldwell.
Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones has agreed not to make another end-run around the mayor’s office to Knox County Commission for the money he needs each year to maintain his fleet of patrol cruisers. And Mayor Tim Burchett has assured the sheriff he’ll make an honest effort moving forward to find the funding for the 50 to 55 new vehicles that Jones says it takes each year to stay ahead of the wear and tear police work inflicts on the cars.
The meeting followed a promise from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton that he will not support a referendum that could cost the city more than 30,000 residents. “Once you do it, stick to it. Make the best of it, as we are doing,” the mayor said of the annexation. Shelby County Commissioner Terry Rowland, whose district includes part of Cordova, brought most of the emotion to the meeting. “What other than a green garbage can and higher taxes are they getting?” he said.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey joined with Gov. Bill Haslam Thursday to encourage congressional Republicans to support a bill allowing states to collect sales tax on Internet purchases. “I’ll encourage everybody. This is not a new tax,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville, the state Senate speaker. He said traditional retailers are disadvantaged by having to collect state and local sales taxes while many online retailers don’t. The bill only affects online sellers with more than $1 million a year in annual sales.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey on Thursday joined Gov. Bill Haslam in supporting the federal legislation requiring large out-of-state Internet retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases, and said that U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn is “100 percent wrong” by calling it a new and unfair tax. “She’s wrong on this. It’s not a new tax. And how can you say it’s unfair? It’s not a new tax and it is fair,” Ramsey told reporters. Ramsey, R-Blountville, the speaker of the state Senate, said Tennessee could use some of the estimated $748 million it looses per year in uncollected sales tax on Internet purchases to reduce or eliminate other taxes like the “Hall” tax on interest and dividend income.
Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper is claiming victory today for an amendment that passed the House—even though it was attached to a bill he himself voted against. The overall measure essentially lessens the likelihood of a federal government default in the event it pushes past the debt limit. That vote split neatly along party lines-Republicans voting yes, Democrats, including Cooper, saying no. But an amendment, based on a separate bill Cooper introduced earlier this year, was overwhelmingly approved on both sides of the aisle.
Billed by its sponsors as “The Working Families Flexibility Act” and characterized by opponents as “The Bosses Flexibility Act,” H.R. 1406 narrowly passed the majority-Republican U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday by a vote of 223 to 204. The bill, technically an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a New Deal measure, is given no chance of passage in the Senate, and it is also opposed by President Obama, who has indicated he would veto it if need be, and by organized labor.
President Barack Obama’s administration committed about $650,000 to community health centers in metropolitan Memphis on Thursday to help patients afford medical insurance. The grants are part of $150 million available nationwide to community health centers to help the uninsured sign up for health insurance coverage under the new health care law. The grants, announced Thursday by the Obama administration, address concerns from Congress and advocacy groups that many consumers will have a hard time navigating the health coverage options available to them next year as a mix of government programs and tax credits for private insurance kicks in.
Jimmy Haslam, CEO of embattled truck stop chain Pilot Flying J, will speak to trucking executives at a seminar in Indianapolis next week. The event is hosted by Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary, an Indianapolis-based law firm that focuses on the transportation sector and whose clients including trucking companies. In recent weeks, Pilot has been battered by federal allegations that certain employees for years had conspired to engage in rebate fraud against unsophisticated trucking companies.
The White House proposes that the government forgive billions of dollars in student debt over the next decade, a plan that cheers student advocates, but critics say it would expand a program that already encourages students to borrow too much and stick taxpayers with the bill. The proposal, included in President Barack Obama’s budget for next year, would increase the number of borrowers eligible for a program known casually as income-based repayment, which aims to help low-income workers stay current on federal student debt.
Republicans several years ago seized the upper hand in the so-called “voting wars” by pushing voter ID and other measures that created new voting restrictions. But now Democrats across the country are fighting back. This week, Colorado lawmakers sent Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, a bill that allows voters in that state to register at the polls on Election Day; creates an all-mail ballot system; and ensures that voters who move within Colorado don’t have to re-register at their new address.
TVA announced today it has promoted James R. “Bob” Dalrymple to oversee its coal and gas operations. Dalrymple, who was in charge of TVA’s gas operations, has been named senior vice president of coal and gas operations. He will be in charge of TVA’s more than 150 coal, combined cycle gas and simple cycle gas units. Dalrymple has more than 25 years of utility experience in power generation, system operations and transmission delivery.
The continuing wet weather is creating headaches for the Tennessee Valley Authority. South Holston Lake was full several weeks sooner than expected, and Watauga Lake is at record levels. “There is a lot of water,” said Chuck Bach, TVA general manager, river scheduling. “The ground is wet, and all the rain runs off.” TVA officials spoke to the Bristol Herald Courier Thursday during a media tour held this time of year to talk about lake levels going into the summer recreation season.
A wet weather system that unexpectedly rolled up from North Carolina did produce Watauga Lake’s highest water level on record, but it also has set in place what Tennessee Valley Authority officials said Thursday will be a first-rate fill for summer recreation. The word of choice among local emergency management personnel and lake dwellers has more times than not been “inconvenience,” not “disaster,” after the record high of 1,966.5 feet above sea level water mark at Watauga had many feeling antsy about their safety.
Whether it was the long-awaited reunion of Rayna James and Deacon Claybourne, or the fact that Juliette Barnes’ reputation is once again in turmoil, the viewers returned last night to ABC’s “Nashville.” Two weeks ahead of the season finale, the ABC show drew a 4.1 rating, meaning 4.1 percent of viewers tuned into the show, and 5.42 million viewers watched, according to SpoilerTV.com, citing Nielsen Media Research. That is up 3 percent from last week and puts it in the same range of ratings it has experienced so far this year.
Friday marks Union County School Superintendent Wayne Goforth’s last day on the job. On Thursday, Goforth told members of the school board that beginning Monday he was going to take 36 of his 56 days of accrued time. “I have worked in Union County for 30 years and have accumulated a number of sick days which I am able to put toward my retirement. But I have a number of annual days which will not go toward my retirement,” he told board members. “I’m not one to walk away from responsibility or neglect my duties, but at the same time if I don’t use these days I will lose them.”
The Memphis City Council wants to resolve all of its financial issues with Memphis City Schools before the school system dissolves July 1 and believes its debt to the system is far below $57 million. City Council members passed a resolution Tuesday that gives Mayor A C Wharton and a council designee the power to negotiate or mediate “all pending financial issues” between the city and MCS on or before May 31. That may mean an infusion of badly needed funding for the merged Memphis and Shelby County school district that will begin classes on Aug. 5.
Employee bonus, computers included In a 7-to-1 vote, the Jackson-Madison County School Board approved its 2013-14 budget, which includes the capital expense of additional computers but not a computer-based curriculum initially proposed by school officials last month. The budget does include one-time bonuses for employees. Certified employees will receive $300 while support staff will receive $150. Superintendent Buddy White said the budget is over maintenance of effort, which is the minimum amount required by state and federal officials. White has said the budget is approximately $97 million.
Pam McMichael, executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, noted recently that the state’s attempt to have applicants for welfare benefits tested for drug use was an extension of “an already unsuccessful war on drugs.” More likely, the state’s effort in drug-testing Temporary Assistance for Needy Family applicants has little to do with a war on drugs but instead is part of the Legislature’s war on welfare recipients. It ranks up there with the mean-spirited and unsuccessful (thus far) attempt to make adult welfare recipients dependant for their benefits on their children’s grades in public schools.
Public school teachers and students in Shelby County have much to gain with implementation of a new bonus system for educators who take on the greatest classroom challenges. The federally funded program, administered by the state Department of Education, could mean up to $7,000 in bonuses for qualified teachers who leave schools that are not performing in the bottom 5 percent of schools across the state and go to work in schools that are. There would also be extra pay for high-performing teachers who remain in the most difficult schools. Statewide, 83 schools are in that group; 69 are in Memphis.