February 6 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.

Governor says program would help average students go to college (CA/Connelly)

Gov. Bill Haslam promoted his plan to give most Tennessee high school graduates free access to two-year colleges Wednesday, calling it a way to give average students a shot at higher education. “There are a lot of people that said, ‘Really, you’re going to let someone who just barely graduates from high school have a free scholarship?’ My point would be if we don’t grab them now, when are we going to grab them?” Haslam asked during a visit to The Commercial Appeal’s editorial board. “And unfortunately, we don’t have a great track record in Tennessee of helping that mediocre student figure out a way to get a degree.”

Governor Haslam introduces plan for free college tuition (WMC-TV Chattanooga)

In hoops city, the basketball court is a popular spot, but Governor Bill Haslam would like the classroom to be even more popular. At his State of the State address Monday, Haslam announced a plan to offer all Tennessee high school graduates two free years to any Tennessee community college or college of applied technology. “Cost is the biggest hurdle to higher education. Net cost to the state: zero. Net impact on our future: priceless,” said Haslam. For high school graduates such as Cordarius Halls, who wants to study math and be an accountant, two free years of education would be a dream come true.

Teacher Makes Impact on Gov. Haslam (WZTV-TV Nashville)

It was a moment during Governor Haslam’s State of the State speech that one teacher will never forget. Megan Baker spends her days teaching 6th grade math in Mt. Juliet, but last year a brief meeting with the Governor, and a small gift, made a big impact. Spend a few minutes in Megan Baker’s math class, and you’re sure to see something unique. “I think I’ve always been ingrained with expecting greatness and positivity,” says Megan Baker. Baker has embraced Wilson County’s school motto, “Let’s Expect Great Outcomes,” or “LEGO” for short. In fact, Lego blocks remind teachers here to stay positive.

Governors Pitch Early Education, Workforce Development Ideas (Stateline)

Training students in the skills that industry needs and expanding early childhood education could be the big winners in education funding this year, if governors get their way. After years of state cuts to education, governors of both parties are presenting lawmakers with long wish lists for schools…. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, proposed using $300 million from the state Education Lottery Fund to create an endowment that would cover tuition at community colleges and technology centers.

Tennessee Promise seems promising to educators (Memphis Business Journal)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam continues to add more pieces to his Drive to 55 initiative, with the latest being the Tennessee Promise proposal. Tennessee Promise, which Haslam introduced during his State of the State address Feb. 3, would use surplus funds from the Tennessee Lottery’s reserve fund to provide free tuition to community colleges or state workforce training schools for high school graduates. The tuition would not only provide students with two years of college or workforce training that could either go toward a four-year college or put them in the workforce sooner, but also reduce the debt they would incur during college.

Free Community College? Proposal Draws Praise, Concerns (Chron. of Higher Ed)

In recent years, nearly every state in the nation has been scrambling to find cost-effective ways to help more students complete a college degree. As policy makers and colleges grapple with how to attract and retain the growing population of low-income and first-generation college students to programs that prepare them for the 21st-century work force, a bachelor’s degree, or both, the biggest conundrum has been how to do that without increasing the financial burden for either students or the states. Gov. William E. Haslam of Tennessee this week proposed a relatively simple idea: Have the state pay the tuition and fees of all high-school graduates who want to go to a community or technical college for two years.

Noland: Haslam’s promise could change higher-ed landscape (Johnson City Press)

East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland said Wednesday that Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise will likely mean dramatic changes for the makeup of the state’s college students, and said ETSU will have to do a better job of showing the value of a four-year degree in order to meet its enrollment goals. Haslam unveiled his ambitious higher-education access program, which he called the Tennessee Promise, during his State of the State Address Monday night. The promise, to ensure two free years of tuition and fees for graduating high school seniors at the state’s community colleges, is a key component of the governor’s “Drive to 55,” an initiative aiming to help 55 percent of Tennessee residents earn a post-secondary degree by 2025.

Western Governors University looking to train 100,000 STEM teachers (MBJ)

Western Governors University, which launched its Tennessee online college in summer 2013, has formed a partnership with 100Kin10, an organization dedicated to training 100,000 science, technology, engineering and math teachers by 2021. 100Kin10 was created in 2011 by a group of educators and the Clinton Global Initiative with financial support from Carnegie Corporation of New York and the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation. The organization has nearly 200 partners across the U.S.

Meth-makers, Cold Sufferers Could Face Tighter Limits on Purchases (M. Pulse)

The Tennessee General Assembly returned to Nashville last month, armed with legislation they’ve been working on since last spring. Chief among the Legislature’s first targets this year is meth labs, thanks to a new bill introduced by Gov. Bill Haslam as part of his public-safety legislative package. The Tennessee Anti-Meth Production (TAMP) Act seeks to stymie would-be meth-makers by further limiting access to pseudoephedrine and ephedrine products, which are frequently used as decongestants in products like Sudafed, without a prescription.

Gov. Haslam tries to keep UAW out of Tennessee (Tennessean/Garrison)

As workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant prepare to vote next week on joining the United Auto Workers labor union, Gov. Bill Haslam is making a last-minute pitch to the German automaker against unionization. “We’re trying to be really clear: I think that there are some ramifications to the vote in terms of our ability to attract other suppliers,” Haslam told The Tennessean’s editorial board on Wednesday. “When we recruit other companies, that comes up every time.” Haslam, along with Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, has been an outspoken critic of UAW’s involvement in efforts to represent employees at what is the United States’ only Volkswagen plant.

Haslam: Unloading Tower to lure Sears wasn’t ‘seriously considered (TN/Garrison)

Sears was never offered the state-owned William R. Snodgrass Tennessee Tower in downtown Nashville as an incentive for relocating its headquarters here, Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday. “We have employees all the time that say, ‘Hey, what if we did such and such?’” Haslam told The Tennessean’s editorial board. “I can tell you that as governor that was never seriously considered and was definitely never offered to Sears.” WTVF-TV Newschannel 5 this week reported on an economic proposal from 2011 that the Haslam administration called “Project Neptune.”

ECD chief: Tennessee Tower proposal was temporary (Associated Press/Schelzig)

A proposal to offer a relocation package to Sears that would have included moving its headquarters from Illinois into the Tennessee Tower state office building was meant as a temporary measure until permanent space could be found, the state’s economic development chief said. Economic and Commissioner Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty said after a State Building Commission meeting on Wednesday that documents about the proposal obtained by WTVF-TV in Nashville did not reflect the final proposal to try to persuade the company to bring more than 6,000 jobs to Nashville in 2011.

Tennesseans’ wait for unemployment benefits nearly longest in the country (WSMV)

Tennessee is ranked one of the worst states in the country when it comes to making benefit payments in a timely manner. In fact, the Volunteer State is only ahead of two other states when it comes to timeliness of payments. Tara Cook says she’s never seen the state’s unemployment benefits system this bad. And she would know. Her family owns an asphalt company in Estill Springs. Each year, she says she has to lay off construction workers during the winter, then she hires them back in the spring. She says her company has been doing that for 40 years. During the time when her employees are not working, she wants to make sure they get their unemployment checks.

Time crucial in screening newborns for disease (Times Free-Press/Harrison)

Every hour counts when it comes to testing newborns for serious illness. A quick prick of the tiny heel, a few drops of blood on a sheet of filter paper, and a lab test can help reveal what doctors may not be able to detect: Genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. Without such tests — and without quick turnaround times for results — some such disorders may remain undetected until it’s too late to prevent disability, brain damage, even death. One in 800 babies is born with such illnesses.

DHS seeking sponsors for food program (Associated Press)

The Tennessee Department of Human Services is seeking sponsors for its Summer Food Service Program. This federally funded program is intended to assure that children who rely on free and reduced price meals during the school year have access to nutritious meals during the summer. Eligible sponsors include schools, private non-profit organizations, government entities and non-profit residential camps. Sponsors are reimbursed on a per-meal basis for meals served to eligible children and may sponsor the program at one or more sites.

No money for Elizabethton fish hatchery in Haslam budget (Johnson City Press)

Officials at Elizabethton City Hall expressed disappointment that the proposed fish hatchery for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency on the Watauga River was once again not included in Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget for next year. City Manager Jerome Kitchens said he has not given up on eventually getting funding for the fish hatchery in the next few years, “but given the time frame, we have looked at alternatives” for developing the valuable riverfront property. The city’s main interest in seeing the fish hatchery built is to make it a centerpiece of the West End Redevelopment plan. 

Tennessee has 10 executions scheduled in 2 years (Associated Press)

The Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts says the state is scheduled to execute 10 death row inmates between this April and November 2015. The Tennessean says three executions are scheduled this year, with seven in 2015. Gov. Bill Haslam told the newspaper’s editorial board Wednesday that he agrees with the decision to seek the executions although they didn’t go through him. The state sought the execution dates after changing the drug protocol for lethal injections. Kelley Henry of the Federal Public Defender’s office in Nashville said it’s unfortunate so many death row inmates were being grouped together.  

Tennessee sets execution dates for 10 men (Tennessean/Cass)

The state of Tennessee plans to execute 10 death row inmates over the next two years after changing the drug protocol to be used in lethal injections, officials said Wednesday. The state is scheduled to execute the condemned prisoners between April 22, 2014, and Nov. 17, 2015, the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts confirmed. Three executions are scheduled this year and seven in 2015. Gov. Bill Haslam, noting that three execution orders were handed down Friday by the state Supreme Court, told The Tennessean Wednesday that the decision to seek the executions didn’t go through him. But he said he agrees with it.

Appeals court upholds THP trooper’s firing (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Satterfield)

A state appeals court is giving its stamp of approval to the firing of a Knoxville-based Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper with a history of departmental violations. The Tennessee Court of Appeals is upholding the Tennessee Civil Service Commission’s firing of State Trooper Marty Nix in a decision made public late last week. Nix, hired as a trooper in 1998, was fired in 2009 for making a false sexual harassment claim against a superior after a string of suspensions Nix received two years earlier. Records show Nix made the claim anonymously and purported it to be on behalf of an administrative secretary he insisted was too scared to come forward.

State AG not getting involved in funding dispute (News-Sentinel/Willett)

The question of whether Loudon County Commission has the authority to force the school board to spend money to move school offices to the north end of the county is still open for debate. The state Attorney General’s Office says it certainly cannot offer clarification. Earlier this month commission approved $800,000 to repair the roof and make renovations at what is known as the Technical Center on Harrison Road. School board members and some on commission have questioned the legality of the decision. “We are not following the correct procedures,” said Commissioner Sharon Yarbrough.

Senate School Voucher Bill Delayed (Associated Press)

The Senate version of a bill to create a school voucher program in Tennessee has been delayed to allow sponsors of the measure and a competing version to try to work out differences. The proposal sponsored by Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown was to be discussed in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday but was delayed for two weeks. The proposal is a competing version of legislation brought by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam that’s limited to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools.

Senate Defeats Proposal to Elect Attorney General (Associated Press/Schelzig)

The Senate on Wednesday defeated an effort to change the Tennessee constitution to require the popular election of the attorney general. The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet received 15 votes in favor and 14 votes against. Proposals need at least 17 votes – a majority of the 33-member chamber – to pass. Beavers argued that the current system of having the state’s chief legal officer appointed to an eight-year term by the Supreme Court is “twice removed from the people” because justices don’t have to stand for contested elections.

Senate rejects elections for Tennessee attorney general (Tennessean/Sisk)

The Tennessee Senate rejected a proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday morning that would have let voters choose the state’s attorney general. Senate Joint Resolution 123, filed by Republican Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet, called for replacing the state’s unique system in which the attorney general is chosen by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Instead, the state’s top attorney would be chosen through direct elections, the system used in 43 states. The proposed amendment received 15 votes in the 33-member Senate, two votes short of the tally it needed for passage.

Elected attorney general bill falls short in Tenn. Senate (Times Free-Press/Sher)

A proposed state constitutional amendment calling for the popular election of Tennessee’s attorney general fell two votes short Wednesday on the Senate floor. Sen. Mae Beavers’ Senate Joint Resolution 123 received 15 yes votes and 14 no votes. One senator abstained and three cast no vote at all in the 33-member chamber. It would have taken 17 votes to advance the amendment. The measure will be held in the Senate Calendar Committee and could be brought back later if Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, can scrounge up two more votes.

Amendment for Popular Election of Attorney General Falls Short in Senate (TNR)

The Tennessee Senate failed Wednesday to approve a proposal to let voters pick who serves as the state’s most powerful lawyer. The measure, Senate Joint Resolution 123, is a constitutional amendment sponsored by Mt. Juliet Republican Mae Beavers. It calls for contested statewide elections for attorney general beginning in 2020. The upper chamber’s vote on SJR123 was 15 in favor and 14 opposed. One senator, Republican Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, abstained. The resolution needed 17 votes to win passage. Three senators didn’t vote: Republicans Janice Bowling and Todd Gardenhire, of Tullahoma and Chattanooga, respectively, and Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis.

Bill on electing attorney generals rejected in Senate (Nashville Business Journal)

A bill calling for a constitutional amendment that would make the attorney general an elected position in Tennessee failed in the Senate Wednesday. The amendment, introduced by Sen. Mae Beavers (R- Mt. Juliet), proposed to change the appointment process for the state attorney general, which currently is appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Forty-three other states elect the position. The 33-member Senate was split on the measure, which garnered 15 votes in support, two shy of the number needed for passage.

Push To Let Voters Pick State Attorney General Falls Short In Tenn Senate (WPLN)

A proposal to popularly elect the attorney general was narrowly defeated in the state Senate today. Right now Tennessee’s top lawyer is appointed by the state Supreme Court. The attorney general has sometimes drawn fire from lawmakers for deeming legislation unconstitutional. In recent years he turned down calls to fight the Affordable Care Act. But arguing in defense of the current system Wednesday, one senator invoked the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The measure ultimately fell two votes short, with several members not voting, to the disappointment of its main supporter, Sen. Mae Beavers.

Wine-in-groceries legislation moving toward full House vote (Tennessean/Sisk)

A pair of bills that would let supermarkets, convenience stores and big-box retailers sell wine sailed along Wednesday morning. The House Finance Subcommittee approved House Bill 47 and House Bill 610 on voice votes, sending them along to the full committee. The bills remain on track for a vote by the full House of Representatives later this month. Members of the panel, which primarily reviews the impact legislation would have on the state’s budget, did not debate the measure. Analysts for the legislature estimate the bills eventually would generate between $6 million and $7 million a year in state revenue, after expenses.

Food store wine bill jumps another committee hurdle (C. Appeal/Locker)

The bill allowing Tennessee’s food, convenience and “big box” stores to sell wine sailed through the House budget subcommittee Wednesday with no debate, but still delays wine sales other than at liquor stores until 2016 or 2017. The bill is a compromise negotiated among liquor retailers, wholesalers and grocers. It heads next to the House Finance Committee, probably next week. The House bill differs from one that passed the state Senate last week by requiring food stores to have at least 2,000 square feet of retail space to be eligible and to pay a $2,000 annual license fee. The Senate version requires only 1,200 square feet and an $850 annual license (the same fee as liquor stores), both an effort to allow more convenience stores to qualify.

Deal Inches Forward To Allow Wine—But In What Size Grocery Store? (WPLN)

A deal to let Tennessee grocery stores sell wine inched forward Wednesday in a state House subcommittee. One of the last details to hash out is just how big such a store would have to be. The core of the wine-in-grocery-stores deal has already been approved by the state Senate, and the House could take its turn later this month. Backer Jon Lundberg says lawmakers still have to settle on just how small a store to include: “We wanted to frankly exclude somebody like—not being facetious—a fruit stand on the side of the road. If they say, ‘Well, I’m a grocery store, I sell groceries,’ no, that’s not a legitimate grocery store.”

Senate, House misfire on ‘guns in parking lots’ tweaks (News-Sentinel/Humphrey)

Senators shot down an attempt to protect handgun permit holders from dismissal by their employers Wednesday, then approved two minor gun bills while all other pending firearms legislation was put on hold until next month. By delaying action on any other gun bills pending special March committee meetings, the prospects for passage could be dimmed for any new firearms legislation beyond the two bills making relatively minor changes to the so-called “guns in parking lots” law enacted last year. Both of those bills were brought to the Senate floor Wednesday.

Womack: Tuition plan could affect entrance rules (Daily News Journal)

A former state senator said Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed plan to waive tuition for students attending community college could potentially raise enrollment standards for incoming students. Andy Womack, who focused heavily on education during his time as a state senator, said the plan should be watched closely as it’s rolled out. “Standards for community college entrance may be a little tougher because of the ability of any student to attend regardless of their finances,” Womack said. “Now it’ll depend solely on their scholarly ability as a opposed to being because of financial resources.”

Alexander cosponsors bills to make state sales-tax deductions permanent (NBJ)

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R- Tenn.) is cosponsoring two bills that would make federal deductions for state and local sales taxes permanent, according to a news release. “This is a matter of fairness. Tennesseans shouldn’t pay a greater share of taxes than other taxpayers, simply because we pay sales tax instead of income tax,” Alexander said in the release. “Making this deduction permanent will provide certainty to Tennesseans who itemize their taxes and allow them to plan their family budgets.”

Iran Benefits From Nuke Deal, Tenn. Senator Corker Says Leverage Lost (WPLN)

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker says Iran is reaping major economic benefits from a short-term deal over uranium enrichment, but the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says the county doesn’t have to make sacrifices to its nuclear program. The interim agreement relaxed some of the sanctions against Iran, in exchange for limiting its nuclear program. Appearing on MSNBC yesterday, Corker says the deal opens the door for countries like Turkey and Russia to do more business with Iran. If that happens, the country won’t have an incentive to reach a final settlement.

Rep. Cohen of Memphis named ranking member of panel (C. Appeal/Collins)

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, has been named the ranking member, or top Democrat, on the House Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee. The panel has jurisdiction over constitutional amendments, constitutional rights, federal civil rights, ethics in government, medical malpractice and product liability and legal reform. Cohen replaces U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, who was elevated to ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet. Cohen has been named to that subcommittee as well.

Insurers Face New Pressure Over Limited Doctor Choice (Wall Street Journal)

Insurers are facing pressure from regulators and lawmakers about plans that offer limited choices of doctors and hospitals, a tactic the industry said is vital to keep down coverage prices in the new health law’s marketplaces. This week, federal regulators proposed a tougher review process for the doctors and hospitals in plans to be sold next year through HealthCare.gov, a shift that could force insurers to expand those networks. Meantime, regulators in states including Washington and New Hampshire are ramping up their own scrutiny, and lawmakers in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, among others, are weighing bills that could force plans to add more hospitals and doctors.

Regulators remove negative findings against TVA nuclear plants (TFP/Flessner)

TVA’s nuclear power program, rated among the country’s worst two years ago after regulators discovered safety problems at all three of the utility’s plants, is on the mend. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is lifting negative findings against each of TVA’s operating nuclear plants this month after inspections late last year showed TVA has resolved questions over potential flood risks to the riverfront power plants. Regulators on Wednesday night said they are removing both “yellow” and “white” warning flags thrown against TVA’s Watts Bar plant near Spring City.

Drama high in union vote at Chattanooga VW plant (Times Free-Press/Pare)

Most of the 1,500 or so Volkswagen employees who’ll vote next week on whether to endorse the United Auto Workers at the Chattanooga plant are facing a new experience and have never before taken part in such a secret-ballot election, observers say. And the drama will really start when the counting begins, said Chattanooga labor attorney Dan Gilmore. “Everybody representing different sides are keeping track with the ‘yes’ and the ‘nos,”‘ said Gilmore, founder of Squire Strategies and an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Shelby County Schools: Budget deficit is $103 million for 2014-15 (CA/Roberts)

Shelby County Schools is $103 million in the red for next year, more than double its initial projections. “We spent all day yesterday (Tuesday) looking at the central office and staffing in schools. We are looking all the way across the district,” said Reginald Porter, SCS chief of staff. The goal is to keep the cuts out of the classroom. In a district that pared nearly 2,000 jobs last year in the lead up to the merger with Memphis City Schools, including outsourcing hundreds of custodial jobs and terminating 300 central office staff, the obvious cuts have already been made.

 

OPINION

Columnist: Governor’s free tuition pledge may aid college-life adjustment (DNJ)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s call to make community college free for any graduating senior could be a good thing even if MTSU takes a hit in recruiting freshmen. Middle Tennessee State University should not be in the business of taking money for incoming freshmen who end up flunking out, as former Tennessee Higher Education Commission Chairman Ransom Jones of Murfreesboro said more than a decade ago. Jones upset many MTSU faithful in Murfreesboro who were pursuing aggressive expansion plans to offer higher education to the growing Middle Tennessee region. More students means fees coming in to support MTSU sports, recreation services, course offerings, band, the arts and many other university goals.

Wendi C. Thomas: What will Memphis get from free tuition promise? Not much (CA)

If Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise plan, which would give free tuition to any two-year state school for high school graduates, sounds familiar, it should. It already exists. It’s called tnAchieves, which is in 27 counties, including Shelby County. What would his proposal, which was greeted with bipartisan cheers during his State of the State address Monday, give Shelby County’s students that they didn’t have? Nothing, unless you count the 25 percent cut in the Hope Lottery scholarships for freshmen and sophomores.

Guest columnists: Proposal limits pseudoephedrine access by illegal users (Tenn)

Meth use, abuse and production have increasingly become a blight on the state of Tennessee, and something must be done about it. New legislation proposed last month by Gov. Bill Haslam aims to do just that by limiting access to pseudoephedrine or ephedrine products — key ingredients in the manufacture of meth — by those who are using them illegally while not overburdening law-abiding Tennesseans who need temporary cold and sinus relief. The Tennessee Anti-Meth Production (TAMP) Act would limit the amount of pseudo­ephedrine or ephedrine in products that a consumer can purchase to 2.4 grams in a 30-day period, down from the current 9 grams per 30 days.

Editorial: Make tax deduction permanent for state (Jackson Sun)

There is no shortage of things Congress does or doesn’t do that defy logic. Take, for example, the recurring debate over reauthorizing a sales tax deduction on federal income tax returns for Tennesseeans and residents of other states that don’t fund state government with an income tax. Why is this not made a permanent part of the Internal Revenue Service Code, as is the deduction for state income tax payments? Why must our representatives and senators fight this fight over and over? Because the deduction expired in December, Sen. Lamar Alexander has again introduced legislation to make the deduction permanent.