This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam held a series of public events in East Tennessee just before the holidays, and his comments related to education are worth highlighting as the new year begins. Educational opportunities offered to Tennessee students at all levels — and the resulting improvements in academic achievement — directly affect our ability to grow globally competitive businesses here, to provide opportunities for our kids and grandkids, and to recruit top talent to Tennessee. The governor, speaking Dec. 13 to 400 community leaders at the East Tennessee Economic Council’s annual meeting, emphasized the importance of strong support for STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.
Tabitha Lockwood did not find out that her daughter’s health insurance through the state’s Medicaid program had been discontinued until she was already at the doctor. She was confused, so she took a day off work to go to the Hamilton County Department of Human Services to set an appointment to get the coverage set back up. Instead, the state employee at the DHS counter handed Lockwood a small blue card and pointed her to one of three computer kiosks on the far side of the room. The blue card explained that she — and anyone else applying for TennCare — must apply online through HealthCare.gov, the federal insurance website as of Jan. 1.
In a two-hour span this afternoon, drivers across Middle Tennessee will go from tooling around on merely wet roads to a complete mess — one Tennessee Department of Transportation workers would prefer they stay home and avoid. This morning will begin as rainy, but the National Weather Service predicts snow will accumulate in Clarksville by 3 p.m. and Cookeville by 5 p.m., with areas north of Interstate 40 getting 1-2 inches and south up to an inch. While transplants from northern states may scoff at those totals, that sort of weather event brings Nashville-area travel to a standstill. TDOT workers will try to keep things as clear as they can for as long as they can, said spokeswoman Deanna Lambert, putting down brine and calcium chloride — a type of salt.
Northeast Tennessee lawmakers admit they don’t have a good feel for how to combat methamphetamine use. They also admit the state’s war on meth will probably get a lot of attention in the Tennessee General Assembly’s next legislative session beginning on Jan. 14. “The public is expecting something. … There’s an expectation of some sort of resolution with meth and it’s a very difficult place to go,” state Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said in meeting between lawmakers and members of the Times-News Editorial Board. A next step could be passing a law requiring pseudoephedrine products — so-called “meth precursors” — to be sold by prescription only.
Anthony Hyde’s journey to homelessness began the day he stopped seeing straight. He had punched the time clock at the Purina Mills plant in Nashville on a winter morning in 1997 and was headed home. “On the interstate, I hit some black ice,” he said. “Everything has been changed ever since.” Hyde woke up in an intensive-care unit with a lopsided head and fluid on the brain. “I was seeing about 12 of everything,” he said. “I see two of everything now, but I have done got used to it.” Hyde has learned to make do in the 17 years since his accident, eating what he could get and sleeping in shelters. He didn’t receive medical checkups until a clinic opened in the Nashville Rescue Mission two years ago.
For Chyna Brackeen, Wednesday brought a new year and with it affordable health insurance. After more than a dozen attempts since it launched in October, Brackeen successfully signed up for a health plan on the federal health insurance exchange. “The program is really designed to help people like me who is self-employed and has a pre-existing condition,” said Brackeen, the owner of Attack Monkey Productions. “I’m pretty pleased how it worked out, but it was definitely very frustrating in the beginning. I finally gave up. I tried again when they said the website had been fixed in November and sailed right through.”
For more than a half-century, TVA’s Allen Fossil Plant has been a reliable, if dirty, presence on Memphis’ southwestern edge as it consumed towering piles of coal to make electricity. All that could change, however, as a result of a decision expected early this year. The Tennessee Valley Authority is slated to announce whether it will install costly air-pollution controls at the Allen facility or add it to the growing list of coal-fired plants that are being retired. Under an agreement that settled environmental litigation, TVA is required to add the scrubbers to the Memphis plant or retire it by the end of 2018.
When Electrolux won more than $180 million in government incentives two years ago to create an oven factory and 1,200 jobs in Memphis, the wages that workers would earn were a back-burner issue. In fact, the Swedish appliance maker officially told Memphis and Shelby County officials approving a property tax break only that jobs at the plant would pay an average of $14.65 an hour, not including benefits. However, employees say that inexperienced new hires start at less than $12 an hour. While those aren’t the solid middle-class wages that lifted factory workers a generation ago, lower labor costs turn out to be a big asset for Memphis as manufacturers look to return jobs to American shores.
Rutherford County should see some pretty direct benefits from new state laws that went into effect Jan. 1. The new law that has received the most attention is the one that will require Amazon to collect state sales taxes, and Murfreesboro is the site of one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers. State officials have estimated that the agreement with Amazon, which went into effect last week, will mean at least an additional $17 million going into the state treasury. State revenues have been below projections for this fiscal year. Amazon, however, also will be collecting local-opinion sales taxes, and this may mean at least an additional $7 million for local governments.
Once again, Tennessee’s children are being treated as the least among us. After all, as Dr. Bill Walsh pointed out, “babies don’t vote very well. They don’t run for office.” And babies don’t hire lobbyists to carry their case to the governor and state lawmakers. Gov. Bill Haslam, in an effort to keep the state’s budget in balance and in line without coming up with any new revenue or taxes, asked every department to tell him how they would cut 5 percent. Over in the TennCare offices, one of the programs that stands to be slashed to meet that goal is $2.25 million in grants, matched dollar-for-dollar with your federal income taxes, that directly fund five regional perinatal centers.
A group of state legislators plan to file a bill that would knock two years off the state Department of General Services’ legal lifespan because of questions about the handling of a contract for management of state buildings by Jones Lang LaSalle. In doing so, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate Government Operations Committees stressed that they weren’t really interested in terminating the existence — or “sunsettting” — of a major arm of state government’s executive branch. They were just following what House Government Operations Vice Chairman Rep. John Ragan called “legislative niceties” to ensure that the proper procedural steps were taken to hold a special meeting of the House and Senate panels during this year’s session devoted to the Jones Lang LaSalle arrangement and other contracts through the new state procurement system.
A new calendar year is a great time for a fresh beginning. This year could be just that for Metro Nashville Public Schools, Mayor Karl Dean and state leaders to work collaboratively on education reform. That may seem farfetched after the sparks that flew in 2012 and 2013 over MNPS’ and the Board of Education’s approach to charter schools: rejecting Great Hearts Academy’s application and the state’s subsequent withdrawal of some funding; a repudiation of charters altogether by some on the board; and culminating with the mayor’s sharp words to a chamber of commerce audience, just three weeks ago, that Metro Schools’ leaders are unfairly characterizing charters as a drain on public school resources.
The superintendents of Shelby County’s six new municipal school districts have a heck of a task before them as they begin putting processes and staff in place so that classes can begin next fall. Hiring personnel is just one aspect. Ancillary necessities, such as phone systems and the computer hardware and software needed to maintain crucial record keeping on myriad aspects of school operations, will have to be purchased, installed and tested for glitches. Beyond the logistical challenges of getting started, though, is the fact that the districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington and their superintendents are starting out with a clean slate.
2014 ushered in a new era of adult education for those who need to complete their high school diploma. Beginning this year, the General Educational Development exam is changing. The test is being updated to bring it in line with the latest higher education and workplace requirements. It is another example of evolving education, and its increasing importance in individuals’ and the nation’s economic futures. It is clearer than ever that those who fail to get a good education risk being left behind in today’s complex, high-tech world. The new GED exam is more demanding in almost every area, and especially with regard to reading and math.