This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee is one of three states receiving a million dollar grant to increase on-time college completion rates. The Tennessee Board of Regents announced Monday that the three-year grant will come in cash and technical assistance from the Lumina Foundation for Education and in partnership with Complete College America. Education officials say the grant supports the state’s higher education reform efforts that help students finish a degree in two years from a community college and in four years from a university.
The Tennessee Board of Regents has received a $1 million private grant to create structured degree programs to guarantee students can take the courses they need when they need them, ultimately allowing them to graduate on time, officials will announce today. The system already has been working with 300 faculty members to improve how freshmen receive their general education requirements, and the new funding will be used to purchase software, consult with experts and deliver predictive analytics that will help ensure courses are available to students, officials said.
Laura Herzog, communications director for U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, is stepping down to join Gov. Bill Haslam’s staff. Herzog said in an email last Monday to her contacts in Washington and Nashville that she will leave Corker’s office at the end of the month and return to Nashville. Herzog said she will start as deputy director of communications to the governor in mid-January. A native of Loudon, Tenn., and a graduate of the University of Tennessee, Herzog cited a desire to be closer to family. She has served as Corker’s communications director since his election in 2006. Before that, she worked nearly four years for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Rick Frawley is an avid hunter who keeps an eye out for deer whether he has a gun in his hands or not. He spots them frequently near his home in Nolensville. But he usually doesn’t see deer on his way to work because he drives before sunrise. Last week was different. The darkness didn’t keep him from spotting a large buck in the distance off Wilson Pike. It was visible, Frawley said, because it “glowed.” It was an albino deer, an extremely rare animal. Several have been spotted in Middle Tennessee over the years. “They stand out like a sore thumb,” Frawley said. “I would have never seen the one I saw … if it had been a regular deer. It was at the crack of daylight and it was in the thicket and looked like it was glowing.”
City officials here say getting an Interstate 65 interchange built to access Spring Hill’s core is now the city’s top priority. U.S. 31 (Main Street), the main drag through the center of Spring Hill, is mostly two lanes and has constant heavy traffic, and there’s no sign it will be widened anytime soon. Spring Hill has access to I-65 on the far north and south ends of town, which forces drivers to use U.S. 31 to get to their homes and businesses in the city’s center, creating severe congestion on Main and other critical collector streets.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation is suspending lane closures in construction zones to accommodate holiday traffic. Lane closures will be halted on interstates and state routes from 6 a.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. Jan. 2, according to a TDOT news release.
Local public money sometimes is used to lobby at the state level for nearby counties, but more traditional channels for contacting legislators typically prevail. “We’re fortunate to have senators and representatives that are on hand and work closely with local government officials,” said Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell. “It’s not necessary to employ a lobbyist.” Sevier County has hired lobbyists to get the ears of legislators in Nashville on key issues in the past. “We have at various times in years past, depending on if there are issues before the Legislature that we need to address,” Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said.
Just 2½ weeks after the end of the legislative session, the president of the University of Tennessee headed to Nashville with six other passengers on the system’s private plane early on a Wednesday morning. While there, Joe DiPietro met with his staff and attended a school bond authority meeting. He dropped in on the State Building Commission, where UT had two projects pending on the Knoxville campus. He then made a two-hour appearance at a meeting of the University Faculty Council, discussing the state budget, UT’s “Sex Week” and its partnership with online education provider Coursera.
Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, is on a new state Senate Subcommittee on TennCare and Long-Term Care Oversight and reports that whether Tennessee should expand its Medicaid program is not the committee’s purpose although it could be. The purpose of the committee is to look at two issues — a TennCare choices program and long-term care, and Gov. Bill Haslam’s TennCare payment reform initiative, Overbey said. The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has a provision for an expansion of Medicaid, which is TennCare in Tennessee, to cover people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
Oak Ridge Republican Randy McNally, first elected to the state Senate in 1986, says he has decided to seek reelection to another four-year term believing “there are a number of things sort of left undone” — notably including “reform of our state judiciary.” “It seems the system now is more for the protection of criminals and the enrichment of trial lawyers and not for protection of the public,” he said. McNally and state Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, had earlier announced plans to propose legislation requiring drug testing of all judges, citing legal challenges to convictions in the killings of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom after revelations that the trial judge, Richard Baumgartner, was abusing narcotics.
If there’s some last-minute gifts to buy on your naughty-or-nice list, it might be a good idea to shop in Knox County. Sales tax revenues are lagging, and projections don’t look good for the current fiscal year. “You’ll see that our projections are negative compared to the budget,” said Chris Caldwell, Knox County finance director. His estimates show sales tax revenues are expected to be $563,167 below the originally-projected totals for the current 2013-14 fiscal year. That means money collected will be down, but the impact stretches beyond the current budget. “We projected about a 2.5 percent growth in sales tax,” he said.
As a key enrollment deadline hits Monday, many people without health insurance have been sizing up policies on the new government health care marketplace and making what seems like a logical choice: They’re picking the cheapest one. Increasingly, experts in health insurance are becoming concerned that many of these first-time buyers will be in for a shock when they get medical care next year and discover they’re on the hook for most of the initial cost. The prospect of sticker shock after Jan. 1, when those who sign up for policies now can begin getting coverage, is seen as a looming problem for a new national system that has been plagued by trouble since the new marketplaces went online in the states in October.
Monday is the final day for consumers to get new health coverage that takes effect when the new year arrives, leaving thousands of people racing to sign up in time—and health insurers trying to figure out whether the federal health law will work in the way they had hoped. The number of Americans enrolling continues to fall short of the goals the Obama administration has laid out, which is a problem for the White House. It also represents a problem for the insurance industry, which calculated that the prospect of millions of new customers brought their way by the Affordable Care Act and its coverage requirements would make up for any disruption that came along with the law.
As interments of veterans and their dependents climb to a record level, the Department of Veterans Affairs is rushing to add burial space at the fastest rate since the Civil War. The project is adding thousands of burial sites and vault spaces across the country. But a Nevada congresswoman is pressing the VA to add more national cemeteries, especially in Western states that now have few cemeteries but whose senior populations are growing. “The prestige of being buried in a national cemetery is something every veteran is entitled to,” said Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat, who has been prodding the VA to open more such cemeteries in places like Nevada.
Companies moving to Memphis will soon pay more in property taxes, which Councilman Harold Collins said creates more revenue for the city to solve some overdue problems. The City Council voted last week to decrease the amount of property taxes waived as an incentive for large companies looking for a new home. A city development group said the city can still compete with communities outside the metro area in other ways, but may face some competition from those within the metro area that can tout the same perks as Memphis. Still, Collins said it’s time to take care of home first before catering to outside businesses that historically haven’t employed as many Memphians as promised.
With less than a year until the next gubernatorial election, it appears Gov. Bill Haslam is starting to lay the groundwork for his next campaign. And, despite a scandal that embroiled his family’s business and some widely criticized changes to the state education system, it appears Haslam will cruise to a second term. No serious Democratic challengers have surfaced, Haslam has a healthy fund in his political war chest, and a recent Vanderbilt study shows the governor with a 61 percent approval rating in spite of his family’s struggles in 2013. An easy legislative session would probably make Haslam’s re-election even more smooth, meaning hospitals’ and Democrats’ desires for expanded Medicaid probably won’t be a high priority for 2014.
The public commonly thinks of lobbyists as hired guns who influence — and sometimes manipulate — lawmakers on behalf of corporations, trade associations and other private interests. But governments lobby, too. Cities, counties, school boards and other public boards and officials pay liaisons — lobbyist is a word studiously avoided — to advocate for or defend against bills that affect them and their constituents. The News Sentinel’s two-day series on government lobbying that concludes today serves as a primer on how governments attempt to sway members of the Tennessee Legislature. The lobbying starts at the top. Gov. Bill Haslam has 40 legislative liaisons who sell the administration’s agenda to members of the General Assembly.
Note: The news-clips will resume on Friday, December 27.