This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Based on her ACT results last year, Erial Cole knew she would have to take remedial math in college. Now, a year later as a senior, she’s finished the class online and can’t wait for statistics, her next college math class. Cole and several thousand others like her are the darlings of a state effort to help seniors knock out remedial math before it costs them tuition as freshmen. She attends classes at the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences. “It seems like a pretty simple solution. Instead of waiting for students to show up at a community college and then requiring them to take remedial math, why not go down to their senior year and eliminate the remediation for free,” says Mike Krause, assistant executive director of academic affairs at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
The Tennessee legislature opens its 2014 session at noon Tuesday, but none of the issues expected to dominate the three- to four-month session will be front and center on opening day. School vouchers, wine in grocery stores, Medicaid expansion, the “Common Core” academic standards for K-12 public education will unfold in committees in the weeks to come. And Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to present his own legislative agenda — or at least his plans for this year’s voucher bill — later this week. Vouchers allow parents to take public funding for schools to pay private school tuitions.
With Davidson County judicial elections coming up in May, candidates have begun to declare their interest in the 30 judgeships that will be up for grabs. Attorney Jon Peeler announced Monday that he’s running for the Circuit Court seat held by Judge Carol Soloman in Division VIII. Circuit Court Judge Phil Smith, who was appointed by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2009 and elected in 2010, recently announced he’ll seek re-election in Division IV. Meanwhile, attorney Joy Smith Kimbrough held a kickoff event Friday for her campaign for the Criminal Court Division I judgeship, and attorney Allegra Walker announced that she’ll run for General Sessions Court, Division IV.
With the passage of significant workers’ compensation and tort reform in the past few legislative sessions, many in the business community agree that the upcoming session will feature less comprehensive bills and issues. Among the usual suspects, such as leftover issues like wine in grocery stores, there will likely be debate on budget cuts, as the state’s tax collections for this year come in below forecast. But even as the wine-in-grocery store debate ramps back up, the business community should keep its attention on issues in education, particularly implementation of the Common Core Education Standards, as well as developments on the selection process for Tennessee appellate and Supreme Court judges.
It’s going to be one of the hottest issues facing state lawmakers this legislative session: the bill that would allow wine in grocery stores. State lawmakers are heading back to the capitol Tuesday for the 2014 session. The bill to allow wine sales in grocery stores and other retail outlets had unprecedented momentum until it died in a House committee last year. House Speaker Beth Harwell stated last month that negotiations are already underway for a compromise bill. Liquor stores have long-opposed the measure, claiming wine in grocery stores would threaten jobs.
Democrats in the Tennessee House of Representatives have indicated that during the legislative session this year they’ll advocate establishing a state minimum wage . But they won’t get very far without support from Republicans, and that doesn’t appear forthcoming. Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick last week told TNReport he sees little likelihood the GOP supermajority will agree to impose a state-level wage mandate exceeding the $7.25 federal wage floor. Tennessee and four other states, including Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama, don’t actually have a state minimum wage, and therefore employers are required to pay employees in keeping with federal regulations.
State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, was about an hour away from the State Capitol on Monday afternoon when the Press caught him on the way to the start of the 108th General Assembly. “I’m headed to Nashville in a raging rainstorm,” he said. “It’s basically an organizational week. It’s a time when we get a good feel for what bills are coming that affect our constituents. There are about 15 or so pieces of legislation that I’ve been talking to my staff about.” The Senate had only a Minor Political Parties Study Committee meeting scheduled for Monday, including representatives of the Green, Libertarian and Constitution parties.
Tennessee lawmakers will remember state Rep. Lois DeBerry when they reconvene for the legislative session on Tuesday. A tribute is planned for the Memphis Democrat who died in July after a nearly five-year battle with pancreatic cancer. DeBerry was the longest-serving member of the state House of Representatives. She also was the second African-American woman to serve in the General Assembly and the first female speaker pro tempore in the House. Raumesh A. Akbari (rah-MESH A. ahk-BAR-ee), a Democratic Memphis attorney, won a special election to fill the District 91 seat that DeBerry had held since 1972.
Lacking a school voucher system and a law that lets charter school operators turn to the state for approval, Tennessee gets an “F” for school choice, according to a national education-reform group. That’s the main negative in an otherwise fairly positive outlook in StudentsFirst’s 2014 Tennessee report card released today. Tennessee received a “C” score overall — sixth among all states — up from a “C minus” a year ago. “Our leaders should be encouraged by the rise in Tennessee’s report card grade, and motivated to continue the course for reform,” said Brent Easley, state director of StudentsFirst Tennessee.
If the Tennessee State Board of Education is going to get into the business of opening charter schools, a national expert says state officials will need to do their homework. Lawmakers return to the capitol this week after leaving last year without taking a final vote on one of the most heavily debated topics: whether to give the state school board authority to oversee the opening of charter schools that have been rejected by local school boards. Alex Medler of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers says his organization prefers methods that “de-politicize” the approval process of new schools.
Whether or not to mandate prescriptions for cold medicine used to make methamphetamine is a debate being revived in the Tennessee legislature, which reconvenes this week. The latest study suggests lawmakers may have to go with their gut. On Friday, the Tennessee Comptroller updated its research about the most effective ways to curb meth production. It found that the current tracking system isn’t working very well. And while a growing number of policy makers are convinced that prescriptions for the precursor ingredients are the only way, the study says there’s no way to know for sure. Oregon and Mississippi have seen meth figures decrease after requiring prescriptions for medicines like Sudafed.
Minor political parties fighting to get on the ballot in Tennessee were given a chance to air their views Monday, but they left the Capitol disappointed. In a meeting held on the eve of the start of the 2014 legislative session, representatives for the Libertarian, Constitution and Green parties presented plans that would have slashed the number of signatures needed for minor parties to be recognized by state election officials. But state lawmakers would agree only to a nonbinding recommendation to lower the requirement for local and statehouse races. The decision frustrated representatives for third parties, which have sued state officials over rules that they say have been designed to thwart them.
Weston Wamp announced Monday that he is mounting another bid to win his father’s old seat in Congress. Wamp announced in Chattanooga that he will again challenge incumbent Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in the Republican primary this year. “This Congress is the least productive and least popular in our nation’s history, and for three years now, Chuck Fleischmann has simply gone along with the flow,” Wamp said. “He has done nothing to change Washington.” Fleischmann, who won the seat vacated by Zach Wamp when he ran for governor in 2010, beat the younger Wamp and dairy executive Scottie Mayfield to win the GOP nomination on his way to a second term in 2012.
Republican Weston Wamp launched another bid Monday to gain the job once held by his father, hoping to unseat two-term incumbent Chuck Fleischmann by capitalizing on voter frustration with the current Congress. “This Congress is the least productive and least popular in our nation’s history, and for three years now, Chuck Fleischmann has simply gone along with the flow,” Wamp told reporters in his campaign announcement Monday in Chattanooga. “He has done nothing to change Washington, nor has he been effective as a legislator on behalf of our district.”
More than 50,000 Tennesseans have signed up for coverage under the new health insurance exchange established under President Barack Obama’s law. According to nationwide statistics released Monday, more than 2 million people had enrolled through the end of the year. Three out of every four people eligible for the exchange also qualified for financial subsidies. And two out of three enrollees selected the mid-level “silver” plan. Adults from ages 55-64 were 35 percent of the total, while young adults between 18 and 34 made up just 24 percent. Independent experts say that total needs to be closer to 40 percent to control costs.
A total of 36,250 Tennessee residents chose a health insurance plan from a government website during the first three months of enrollment under the federal health care law. It’s unclear how many of the new enrollees have followed through and paid their first monthly premium for coverage effective Jan. 1. Enrollment continues until the end of March. Nationwide, the administration continues to play catch-up. Originally, officials hoped to sign up more than 3.3 million people through the end of 2013, nearly halfway to the goal of 7 million enrollments by the end of March. Instead, enrollment as of Dec. 31 was not quite 2.2 million.
One-third of health plan enrollees in new insurance marketplaces are 55 or older, the Obama administration said Monday, a figure that insurers said makes the pool older than they would need to sustain their coverage at current premiums. Administration officials said they are pushing to enroll more young people before a March 31 deadline for most people to get coverage for this year, and some cushions built into the law mean it won’t necessarily face trouble right away even if the 2014 pool of enrollees skews older.
Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers union leaders say they are continuing to talk about how a works council may be created in Chattanooga to help bring workers and managers together to plan car production. But both sides say any decision about union representation at the VW plant in Chattanooga should be made by the hourly employees at the facility. Volkswagen of America’s new chief executive, in his first comments on union organizing efforts at the company’s Chattanooga plant, said Monday he will accept whatever workers at the factory decide on the issue.
Every Nashville 4-year-old whose parents covet prekindergarten would have a seat by 2018 under a plan Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register is pushing as the state continues to balk at expanding early childhood education. Nashville’s superintendent backs a phased approach to expand prekindergarten locally over the next three or four years. It would begin with converting two existing Metro elementary schools — one in East Nashville and the other in Bordeaux — into new regional pre-K centers. The plan would start coming together in the spring when Register said he would recommend funding to add more than 500 prekindergarten seats to a program that annually has a wait list of more than 1,000.
In the stately Green Hills home of Mary Pierce, a dozen mothers (and one dad dressed in a suit) sip coffee and share pet stories on a recent weekday morning. These are families with means. Many send their kids to private schools. But they feel like they might be raising their children in a bubble, and they’d like to do something about it.“Hey guys, we’re going to go ahead and get started,” Pierce says, talking over the hum of polite conversation. “I think most of you have had the chance to meet Todd Dickson.” Dickson is the man of the hour – shaved head, gray facial hair and earnest eyes. The young father is the founder of soon-to-open Valor Collegiate Academy. He was recruited by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean to replicate a system of charters he helped start in California.
Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson meets this week with the newly installed superintendents of the county’s still-forming suburban school systems to talk details and cooperation. The talks are part of a complex relationship forming among the school systems and the emerging structure of a county with seven public school systems. On another level, Hopson will be looking for some certainty on the start dates of the municipal school district for his own planning purposes in the 2014-2015 school year. And he is preparing a fast-track plan to specifically compete to keep the best teachers and principals in those suburban schools in Shelby County Schools.
The application process for the Shelby County Schools Optional Program begins Monday, January 27, which is the first day parents can pick up bar-coded applications. Parents interested in transferring their children into the Optional Program can pick up bar-coded applications on Monday, January 27, from 6:30 a.m.-5 p.m. in the Board Auditorium, 160 S. Hollywood. Bar-coded applications will also be available January 28-30, 7 a.m.-5 p.m., in the Department of Optional Schools office, 160 S. Hollywood, Room C106. All applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis, and the bar-coded applications will reserve parents’ place in line as long as they are submitted in person, by mail or online by 5 p.m. on January 31.
After one week on the job as Bartlett Municipal Schools Superintendent, David Stephens is working to pave a path of cooperation between all seven area school districts. “We’ve got kind of a standing meeting we have once a week,” said Stephens. Stephens says the municipal superintendents have a standing weekly meeting to get on one accord. One school consultant recently suggested the school systems invoke The Education Cooperation Act. Stephens says collaboration is critical. “With all the area superintendents to see what makes sense, because we’ve got to look at how we can save as much money as possible to make sure we’re able to do this,” he said.
Being the only state still with the power to set rates at all of its hospitals, Maryland is no stranger to health experimentation. But the state took another big step forward on Friday with the announcement that the federal government will allow the state to tie increases in hospital spending to economic growth—a bold challenge for a sector of the economy that has typically far outpaced the broader economy. After a decade in which hospital spending in Maryland grew twice as fast as the state’s economy, Maryland will hold all of its hospitals to a growth rate of 3.58 percent, the state’s per-capita rate of economic growth.
Efforts to revise how teachers in Tennessee are paid are raising the same issues that have confronted support of public education in the state for years — who’s going to pay for it and will all public school students have the same educational opportunities as result of the revisions. State education officials want to move the salary schedule closer to performance-based pay, while Rutherford County Schools officials seem reluctant to move as quickly to abandon previous criteria for pay increases. The new state minimum salary schedule does not eliminate the previous system of increased pay for years of service and earning of advanced degrees, but it has reduced the number of steps in a teacher’s career when such raises would come.
The second session of the 108th Tennessee General Assembly begins at noon today. As in past years, we will closely follow many key legislative issues, and a few that might otherwise be lost in the shuffle, but could be important to many Tennesseans. Here are a few we will be following closely: • Though not officially on the legislative agenda at his point, a key background issue is the expansion of TennCare. Gov. Bill Haslam has failed to act decisively on this issue. TennCare expansion would make health insurance available to people with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty level. The federal government would cover 100 percent of the cost for the first three years, gradually reducing to 90 percent after that.