This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s annual budget hearings are getting under way this week. The Republican governor will kick off the annual public discussions with agency leaders at the Capitol on Tuesday with the Education Department. Wednesday’s hearings include the correction and safety departments, while the governor will hear from the revenue and agriculture departments on Thursday. Friday’s hearings include the higher education and the state lottery. The embattled Department of Children’s Services presents its budget prorates next week, while the Transportation Department wraps up the hearings on Nov. 25.
The futures of education, health care and services for people with disabilities hang in the balance as Tennessee officials open discussions this week on the state’s spending plan for next year. Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration will have its first hearings Tuesday on the state’s next budget — a plan that will be developed amid a slow economy and the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare’s impact on Tennessee’s Medicaid program, TennCare, will claim some of the spotlight as the state’s top officials pitch their needs for the budget year that starts in July.
The holiday shopping season will help bring more than 5,000 jobs to Middle Tennessee. According to a news release, SMX | Staff Management is looking to fill full- and part-time positions, paying up to $12.50 per hour. According to SMX | Staff Management’s website, the company is helping fill positions for Amazon’s distribution centers in Murfreesboro and Lebanon. SMX will host a job fair at Murfreesboro’s Double Tree hotel, at 1850 Old Fort Parkway, from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The new Military Service Scholarship provides up to $2,000 for military personnel, retired military, veterans, and military spouses looking to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree through any of WGU’s more than 50 online degree programs. WGU was established in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors and is the only accredited competency-based university in the nation. Tennessee is the fifth state to join WGU and opened on July 9, enrolling approximately 700 students. The online university offers students the opportunity to earn an accredited degree by completing coursework on their own time and schedule from anywhere with an Internet connection.
This week, budget hearings begin at the Tennessee state capitol. They come at a time when it appears economists overshot how much tax revenue would come in to fund state government. Tennessee operates primarily on the sales tax. And until recently, collections have been above projections. So the state’s economists who advise the governor chose to aim even higher. Turns out, it was too high. Tax revenues have missed in the three months of the fiscal year so far, down roughly $2 million from budgeted estimates but still growing over the previous year by 3.5 percent.
Raw milk is likely to blame for eight sick kids in East Tennessee. Top public health officials are using the small e. coli outbreak to warn against unpasteurized milk. “Those who consume raw milk are eroding years of progress in reducing dangerous, preventable illnesses,” Tennessee Department of Health commissioner John Dreyzehner says in a statement. Dreyzehner says people are 150 times more likely to get sick than if they just drank store-bought milk. And illness can be “life threatening to some, particularly the young,” he says. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two deaths occurred from 1998 to 2011. But raw milk advocates say the health benefits are well worth the risks.
Mayor Karl Dean wants the city to pay $65 million to cover the cost of a new Metro-owned baseball stadium for the Nashville Sounds in the historic Sulphur Dell area — a plan he says would infuse a long-neglected neighborhood with much-needed activity. With Dean wanting a final green light before 2014, the Nashville Sports Authority gave procedural approval of a $65 million revenue bond plan on Monday to kick off a quick legislative process in the Metro Council. The vote came moments after the city’s financedirector and top mayoral aide, Rich Riebeling, unveiled what he called a “true public-private partnership” to return baseball to its original Nashville home north of the state Capitol building.
There’s a lot of moving parts. That’s our summary of the proposed deal for a new downtown baseball stadium, which Nashville Mayor Karl Dean hopes to get fully approved before the end of the year. It entails a land swap to get state property. So Metro is handing over millions to pay for a couple new state parking garages. Then there’s a developer adding residential construction nearby, to say nothing of the Sounds, the baseball team itself. See what we mean about complicated? Mayor Karl Dean thinks the deal could be approved in less than two months. “It’s been run by everybody at the state. So I would anticipate that it will pass.
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker says the Obama Administration needs to be careful in its nuclear negotiations with Iran. The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says the US shouldn’t give too many concessions to keep that country from developing nuclear weapons. The US has placed restrictions on Iranian banks. Sanctions also make it hard for Iran to buy certain goods on the international market, like aircraft parts. Corker credits the restrictions one reason the country is now willing to negotiate about the future of its nuclear program. Appearing on NBC’s Meet The Press, Corker says the US and its allies shouldn’t drop sanctions in favor of a partial deal.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who makes no secret of his disdain for some of the legislative tactics of the GOP’s tea party wing, finds himself disliked by groups that aggressively fund tea party candidates. But while they hold unfavorable views of the two-term Tennessee incumbent, organizations that strongly supported tea party candidates such as Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas in recent elections have yet to decide whether to help state Rep. Joe Carr of Lascassas. Carr is Alexander’s only announced opponent in the 2014 Republican primary.
It’s not just longstanding battles over taxes and curbing mandatory spending that are obstacles to a year-end pact on the budget. Another problem is a perception among some lawmakers that the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration haven’t been as harsh as advertised. Indeed, the first year of the automatic cuts didn’t live up to the dire predictions from the Obama administration and others who warned of sweeping furloughs and big disruptions of government services. But the second round is going to be a lot worse, lawmakers and budget experts say.
Fewer than 50,000 people had successfully navigated the troubled federal health-care website and enrolled in private insurance plans as of last week, two people familiar with the matter said, citing internal government data. The figure is a fraction of the Obama administration’s target of 500,000 enrollees for October. The early tally for the HealthCare.gov site, which launched Oct. 1, worries health insurers that are counting on higher enrollment to make their plans profitable. Technology problems and design flaws have blocked many users from completing insurance applications or even creating accounts to use the site, which serves consumers in the 36 states where the federal government oversees the new health-insurance exchanges.
Problems with the federal health insurance website have prevented tens of thousands of low-income people from signing up for Medicaid even though they are eligible, federal and state officials say, undermining one of the chief goals of the 2010 health care law. The website, HealthCare.gov, is primarily seen as a place to buy private insurance with federal subsidies, but it is also a gateway to Medicaid, which generally provides more benefits at less cost to consumers. That door has been closed for the last six weeks, with the federal government unable to transfer its files to state Medicaid programs as it is supposed to do.
As officials struggle to fix technical problems with the new federally run health-insurance exchange, some states that are operating their own programs are facing similar problems. Oregon hasn’t fully opened its website to the public and is directing residents to insurance brokers and counselors. Maryland officials Friday delayed until April the opening of its small-business exchange, so they could focus on improving a website that has prompted many residents to apply on paper. “We are not satisfied with the way things are going,” Rebecca Pearce, executive director of Maryland’s exchange, told a state board Friday.
Some major health insurers are so worried about the Obama administration’s ability to fix its troubled health care website that they are pushing the government to create a shortcut that would allow them to enroll people entitled to subsidies directly rather than through the federal system. The idea is only one of several being discussed in a frantic effort to find a way around the technological problems that teams of experts are urgently trying to resolve. So far, the administration has resisted the idea, partly because of concerns about giving insurance companies access to personal data.
Children’s health advocates were overjoyed when they learned that dental care for kids would be one of the “essential benefits” in the insurance policies on the Affordable Care Act health exchanges. Suddenly, it appeared possible that combined with other ACA-related changes, as many as 8.7 million children would gain dental coverage by the year 2018. That was before they read the fine print. It turns out states will have a lot of leeway in determining exactly what dental services are offered, and they could be quite limited. Advocates also are concerned that states have wide latitude in the setting of deductibles, co-payments and co-insurance.
With scores of new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment at stake, Chattanoogans are anxiously waiting a green light from Volkswagen by year’s end on whether the city will land assembly of a sport utility vehicle. At the same time, pro- and anti-union forces are trying to sway VW and plant employees to support or turn back the United Auto Workers and a German-style works council labor board at the factory. A top German labor leader at VW is to visit Tennessee soon, as early as this week, to talk with plant workers and state political leaders.
The second phase of a security system review at 58 Knox County schools revealed much of what the first did — a number of cameras were in need of maintenance, from dirty lenses to needing adjustments of focus or view, to some just not working at all. The audit, conducted by school security contractor SimplexGrinnell, examined security alarms and video-monitoring systems and tested each keypad and/or proximity-card reader at each of the buildings. Out of the 58 reports in the second phase, 26 schools did not have any deficiencies noted.
The best ticket to job security is success. That being the case, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman — once beleaguered and the subject of hostile opponents who wanted him gone — is golden. Huffman was most certainly there Thursday when Gov. Bill Haslam announced Tennessee “blew away the other states” in math and reading assessment scores, making Tennessee the fastest-improving state in academic growth. Tennessee’s overall growth in the areas measured marked the largest collective test score jump in the federal assessment’s history. Huffman handled the news with dignity, not raw glee. He did profess that he teared up during the national anthem. One cannot help but ponder if, inside, Huffman was hollering “na na na na boo boo” and chanting “I told you so! I told you so!”
Tennesseans’ right to know what their government officials are doing was dealt another blow last week with an appellate court ruling in a 2005 case that “high government officials” have a right to secrecy if they deem certain information was part of their decision-making process. While the ruling applied to a specific instance and specific documents, it opens the door wide for government officials to make the same claim. It is one more example of the state’s open government laws being chipped away, piece by piece, increasingly leaving the public in the dark. The question now is how far the ruling will be allowed to go. The court ruled only on a specific case. It did not define what constitutes a “high government official.” Nor did it clarify what types of documents and information might be included.