This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro and Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said at a budget hearing at the state Capitol that they may be able to limit next year’s rise in tuition to 4 percent or less. But the state would have to commit about $41 million more in tax dollars for operations. The spending proposal comes amid rising concerns about the cost of higher education and a push by Haslam to drive up the number of college graduates in Tennessee. “We want to keep our quality up at all of our institutions,” DiPietro said Friday.
Students at Tennessee’s public colleges and universities would face tuition hikes of 2 to 4 percent next school year if the institutions’ request for about up to $40 million more in taxpayer funding for operations is approved. If approved by the state legislature and later the higher education governing boards, that would be the lowest percentage increase in tuition on the state’s public campuses in several years, said Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan. The schools raised tuition this year by up to 6 percent, but over the last five years, tuition and mandatory fees have risen 41.4 percent at the University of Memphis, 61 percent at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and 37 percent at community colleges, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Gov. Bill Haslam announced Thursday the formation of a task force charged with evaluating how best to serve Tennessee veterans seeking a certificate or degree beyond high school. The task force has been asked to identify common hurdles for transitioning veterans into higher education, research best practices to serve student-veterans, and make recommendations on improving opportunities for those seeking a degree. Many-Bears Grinder, the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, will chair the task force.
A top Volkswagen labor official said Thursday that a pending decision about union representation for workers at the automaker’s lone U.S. plant will have no bearing on whether the company will decide to add the production of another SUV vehicle there or make it in Mexico. Bernd Osterloh, head of the Volkswagen’s global works councils and a member of the company’s supervisory board, said that while the company’s dedication to “co-determination” supports the creation of works councils at all its plants, market forces will decide whether the Chattanooga plant is expanded. “Those two things have nothing to do with each other,” Osterloh said during the interview with The Associated Press, which was conducted in German.
Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker met with Volkswagen AG Works Council Chairman Bernd Osterloh Thursday to discuss the issue of unionization at the local plant, and Osterloh said that the pending decision about whether and how to organize won’t impact production in Chattanooga, according to The Associated Press. The meeting comes after years of relatively quiet efforts from United Auto Workers leaders to organize Volkswagen Chattanooga. When those efforts started gaining more strength recently, Haslam and Corker spoke out against the UAW.
After finally meeting in person with Volkswagen’s top labor official, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam remains just as fearful of the United Auto Workers organizing at the company’s Chattanooga plant. With translators in tow, VW’s Bernd Osterloh traveled to the state capitol. The conversation was described by a spokesman for the governor as “frank and fair.” But it was not convincing. Haslam says his biggest concern is getting VW to build another vehicle in Chattanooga. The German automaker has said that decision will be based on the cost of labor and attracting suppliers to move nearby.
Whether some 70,000 Tennesseans will be able to keep their health insurance policies will likely be up to companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield, according to the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. The state needs to decide whether to allow insurers to use a one-year grace period extended by a directive from President Obama yesterday, a decision the department is still researching but wants to say yes to. “Given the alternatives, we would like our citizens to be able to keep their policies as they were promised,” Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday.
It will be left to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee to decide on extending 66,000 policies that were set to expire. President Obama’s one-year grace period for plans that didn’t meet new minimum standards affects an estimated 70,000 Tennesseans, according to the Department of Commerce and Insurance. Most have individual plans with Blue Cross. It’s unclear whether state regulators can require Blue Cross to renew policies that didn’t meet minimum standards under Obamacare. But Commissioner Julie McPeak thinks the company should help its customers out.
The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance is still exploring the implications of President Obama’s decision that insurers can extend by one year policies that would otherwise have been canceled under the health law. The department has also asked HHS to send further guidance on a few key issues. Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak issued the following statement this morning: The one-year extension of existing plans has major implications for consumers and the health insurance market in Tennessee. I believe in providing Tennessee consumers with a variety of insurance options and I support allowing Tennesseans to keep the coverage they were assured they could.
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the state’s largest insurer, has decided to extend cancelled policies for one more year, assuming the state gives its approval. Kate Abernathy, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, said this afternoon that a decision has not yet been reached, but one is expected early next week. BlueCross BlueShield issued the following statement this afternoon: “At BlueCross, we’ve always believed people should be able to choose the plan they think best meets their needs, so we support this effort to let our individual members and small business customers keep their existing coverage.
In another development in the quickly changing landscape of Obamacare, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee says it “supports” efforts to let customers keep existing coverage that was going away under Obamacare. BlueCross BlueShield spokesperson Gary Tanner released a statement Friday afternoon which read, “At BlueCross, we’ve always believed people should be able to choose the plan they think best meets their needs, so we support this effort to let our Individual members and Small Business customers keep their existing coverage.
For tens of thousands of Tennesseans facing the prospect of canceled plans under the Affordable Care Act, the past month has been nothing short of a roller coaster. First came the letters that their policies didn’t comply with the new health law’s standards, despite repeated promises from President Barack Obama that if they liked their plan, they could keep it. Then, on Thursday, Obama announced that the 5 million Americans with such plans that did not meet new standards under the health law would be able to keep them for another year.
A day after they were caught off guard by President Obama’s proposal to prevent cancellation of insurance policies for millions of Americans, top executives of some of the biggest insurance companies emerged from a meeting at the White House on Friday, expressing mixed feelings about whether the idea could work in every state. The hastily called meeting was an attempt by the White House to address the growing frustration of the nation’s insurers over the administration’s fumbling of the health care law.
Davidson Goldin was disappointed when he learned in September that his small business’s health-care plan was being discontinued. Now it’s possible he’ll be able to keep it after all. President Barack Obama on Thursday said he would allow insurers to extend by one year those policies they had canceled for failing to meet the health-care law’s requirements. Such policies include small-group plans, which apply to employers with fewer than 50 or 100 employees, depending on the state. Separately, the House of Representatives passed a measure Friday that would grant insurers permission to sell plans due to be canceled under the health law to new customers as well as the already enrolled for one more year.
Despite coming under fire in a state audit this week for his administration’s contract procurement process, Gov. Bill Haslam praised the Department of General Services for cutting Tennessee’s property leasing costs. The day after the state comptroller’s office reported flaws in a facilities-management contract with Chicago-based real estate management firm Jones Lang Lasalle, Haslam lauded DGS for helping the state reduce spending on office space and thus allowing taxpayer resources to go to other state needs such as increasing salaries for teachers.
The Tennessee Department of Safety has launched a pilot program at two Davidson County driver service centers aimed at reducing the wait times for drivers who need to take their road skills tests. The testing centers on Hart Lane and Centennial Boulevard are currently participating in the program. Earlier this year, Nashville’s News 2 reported on wait times that were several months long in Davidson County. Many parents complained about them and said they had to take their teens to other counties so they could take the test to get a driver’s license.
In budget hearings this week, the deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Safety called wait times at driver service centers some of the agency’s biggest ongoing problems. “You don’t want to wait. I don’t want to wait,” said Deputy Commissioner Larry Godwin. “It’s about service. It’s about the customers. It’s about the state of Tennessee taking the lead.” The state comptroller spelled out the issues in a review released this week. Wait times increased throughout the state as centers saw more customers seeking gun permit transactions.
It’s that time of the year again: Tennessee State Parks is offering special winter rates.The rates apply to 360 cabins in 21 parks across the state, along with individual rooms at six state park inns, from Nov. 15 through March 15. The rate at the park inns will be $59.95 a night, excluding tax. The discount is good for seven days a week and applies to both individuals and groups. Cabins ranging from premium to rustic are priced at two for one, Sunday through Thursday.
It’s time for new ethics rules to keep your tax dollars from being abused. That’s the message from the head of the Tennessee Democratic Party following NewsChannel 5’s exclusive investigation of some questionable state contracts. Roy Herron’s plea follows a scathing state audit, issued this week, that suggested a big corporation out of Chicago cannot give impartial advice on how to spend your money because of its own profit motives. “This Chicago company has gotten in a honey jar, and the honey so rich and so deep and so much of it, they are having to take both paws to shovel it into their mouths,” said Herron, the state party’s chairman.
Fifty people, many of them veterans, engaged in a sometimes heated discussion with state officials this week over concerns about a donated 28-acre South Cleveland site earmarked for the proposed Cleveland/Bradley State Veterans Home. One result of the meeting of the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council, which included representatives from the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs and State of Tennessee Real Estate and Asset Management, is that all parties said they are committed to working more closely to make the veterans home a reality.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the senior Republican on the U.S. Senate health committee, today praised Senate passage of his bill to reduce infant deaths and disabilities by expanding research, education, and intervention activities related to premature birth. The House passed the bill on Tuesday, and it now heads to the president’s desk. The legislation marks an important step for Alexander’ home state — the rate of premature births in Tennessee is higher than 12 percent.” “This bill will help the scientists and researchers working on saving infant lives and preventing births from happening too early,” Alexander said, in a release.
U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2008, will campaign for the re-election of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in Nashville on Sunday and at the Airport Hilton on Monday while the two also do homework leading to a Senate vote. Alexander, a Maryville Republican seeking his third term next year, and McCain will be at Fort Campbell, Ky., on Sunday for a tour and briefing with Brig. Gen. Mark Stammer, base senior commander, Jim Jeffries, an Alexander spokesman, said Friday.
Remarking on this week’s U.S. Justice Department settlement of a U.S. Air-American Airline merger plan, Congressman Steve Cohen told the head of the department’s antitrust division that a similar agreement between Delta and Northwest “has been nothing short of disaster for Memphis.” William J. Baer, an assistant attorney general, was testifying Friday before the House subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law. Cohen is the subcommittee’s highest ranking Democratic member.
It’s not easy being a Democrat on Capitol Hill these days, as the party’s congressional ranks join President Barack Obama in suffering an abrupt fall in approval ratings due to the problem-plagued rollout of the Affordable Care Act. But the only two Democrats in the Tennessee congressional delegation, Reps. Jim Cooper of Nashville and Steve Cohen of Memphis, stand by the beleaguered health care law and say House Republicans are making too much over flaws in the healthcare.gov website, where consumers are supposed to easily shop among competing plans.
The mayor of Hollywood, Ala., calls the unfinished Bellefonte Nuclear Plant where he once worked “the eighth wonder of the world.” “Bellefonte is as fine of a built facility as there is, but TVA keeps changing its mind about what it will do with it,” Buster Duke, a retired 66-year-old TVA employee who was elected mayor of Bellefonte’s hometown last year, said Friday. “We would love to see it finished and operating some day, but once again we seem to be getting a different message from TVA.”
The Tennessee Valley Authority says an unfinished nuclear plant in Alabama will likely stay that way. Not only has TVA stopped work at the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant, it’s also turned down an offer from a Nashville financier to finish the project with private money. Bellefonte has sat unfinished since the 1980s. But in 2011, TVA decided to complete one of the two reactors there. Since then, the agency has seen a drop in power demand and cost of finishing the reactor has nearly doubled. CEO Bill Johnson told the TVA board Thursday that current estimates say it will cost between $7.4 and $8.7 billion to complete.
With an opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General in hand, Shelby County commissioners Terry Roland and Melvin Burgess remain at odds over the legality of Burgess’ vote on the school system’s budget. Burgess was director of internal audits with Memphis City Schools and worked for MCS for 23 years; he now has a similar position with Shelby County Schools. Roland argued that as an employee of the school system, Burgess should not have been allowed to vote last summer on the school’s budget and asked the attorney general for an opinion.
Kingsport City Schools leaders backed common core standards, taxing authority for special school districts and keeping local control over schools while opposing vouchers and elected superintendents during a legislative luncheon with two state lawmakers on Friday. Dobyns-Bennett High School culinary arts students served Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and state Rep. Jon Lundberg while KCS Board of Education (BOE) members dished out their legislative positions on issues that could come before the Tennessee General Assembly next year. At the top of that list was support for common core standards, a statewide initiative emphasizing thinking, problem-solving and creativity through next-generation assessments that go beyond multiple-choice tests.
Congress right now has a historic chance—really, it could wind up in the history books next to the stopping of FDR’s court-packing scheme in 1937—to hold back ObamaCare. Congress can delay it, or pass a law mandating or allowing insurance companies to continue insuring everyone they just threw off coverage. Heck, they could try to vote now, under new conditions and with the American people behind them, to repeal the whole thing. And who knows, they just might. A great deal is possible because the people are coming around to the Republican point of view on the program: They do not like it, do not trust it, do not believe it will make things better.