This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam has kept the spotlight on education in 2014, even as long-held notions of what constitutes a “good education” are being reshaped by economic realities. In the governor’s State of the State address to the General Assembly six days ago, he unveiled the eye-catching “Tennessee Promise”: that the state will pay all tuition and fees for two years of community college or a college of applied technology to graduating high school seniors. The proposal is a key component of Haslam’s Drive to 55 program to increase the percentage of Tennesseans who have a post-secondary certificate or degree from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by the year 2025.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to give most Tennessee high school graduates free access to two-year colleges and technical centers garnered positive attention in the national news media after he announced it during his State of the State address Monday night. Closer to home, though, his plan to reduce the amount of lottery scholarships to pay for it and concerns about its impact on four-year higher education institutions have some people questioning whether this is a wise move. Those are legitimate concerns, which we addressed to the governor during his visit with The Commercial Appeal’s editorial board Wednesday.
With Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam pushing dual enrollment in his Feb. 2 State of the State address, Northeast State Community College is ready to oblige. In fact, the school already has plans in the works to expand dual enrollment for Sullivan County and Elizabethton students this fall. During the speech, Haslam promoted his “Tennessee Promise” program that would guarantee every state high school graduate two years of free community college or technical school. He said high school dual enrollment is an important way to help students succeed in college and prepare for the work force.
An infant care program that had been targeted for elimination is back in the proposed budget Gov. Bill Haslam sent to the Tennessee legislature. The $2.5 million state grant — matched dollar-for-dollar with federal funds — supports Tennessee Regional Perinatal Centers in Nashville, Chattanooga, Johnson City, Knoxville and Memphis that help smaller hospitals prevent birth complications, aid in the diagnosis of babies who have special needs and help children overcome their challenges. The $597,000 that the Vanderbilt NICU Follow-Up Program receives accounts for two-thirds of the clinic’s annual operations.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam doesn’t want to “back up” education reform, instead pressing forward to raise expectations in K-12 and beyond. But asked about the controversy over value-added test scores in public schools being used to remove a teaching license, Haslam emphasized that was separate from the TVAAS program in general. “I would push back really hard on that,” Haslam said during a Feb. 4 editorial board meeting at the Kingsport Times-News, calling TVAAS the “gold standard” in evaluating teacher and student performance.
The primary job of police officers is to serve and protect “the least among us,” La Vergne Police Chief Mike Walker said, and that philosophy is what drives his desire to rid his town of methamphetamine abuse and manufacture. “We’re told in the Bible ‘Whatever you do to the least of these, you also do unto me,’” Walker said. Walker took his passion to the La Vergne Board of Aldermen over the summer and convinced them to adopt an ordinance that would make pseudoephedrine and ephedrine prescription only.
Any notion of Tennessee giving more people health insurance coverage by expanding the state’s Medicaid program appears to be dead for now, according to Gov. Bill Haslam. Haslam announced in March 2013 he would not expand the Medicaid program — called TennCare — under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) but would attempt to leverage federal dollars to purchase private health insurance for Tennesseans who did not have access to coverage. He called for a “Tennessee Plan” that would give people coverage much like ACA’s federal health insurance exchanges.
Late-night comedians aren’t the only people who bash some of the legislation coming out of the General Assembly each winter. Without naming specific bills, Haslam said the legislature sometimes floats ideas that keep the state from “putting our best foot forward” in economic development recruiting battles. “I do think there are times that we do need to think about what’s the message we’re communicating,” he said.
A new push is underway by some Republican lawmakers to increase the General Assembly’s role in state government decisions that have traditionally been left to the governor, and the current Republican governor does not like their ideas. “The intent of this legislation is not to take away the executive branch’s ability to manage,” said Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, in pushing one such bill last week. “The intent is to assert the Legislature’s constitutional authority for oversight.” Hill’s bill (HB1748) would require the governor to get specific approval from the Legislature for any move to lay off 50 or more state employees in any department or agency.
As Colorado and Washington state settle into a world that includes legalized marijuana, some Tennessee policymakers are just trying to get their heads around the idea of legalized hemp production. Legislation in the General Assembly would allow Tennessee farmers to grow hemp, a crop cousin of marijuana that has only trace amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC. Hemp is used in plastics, insulation, clothes, shoes and handbags. Gov. Bill Haslam said last week that he is studying the bill and hasn’t formed an opinion. Haslam volunteered to The Tennessean’s editorial board that he was a bit confused by the proposal at first.
It was only during the later years of her life that Anna Jo Mann stopped pleading with her parents and brother to take her away from Clover Bottom Developmental Center, the state’s oldest institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Born with a missing chromosome that left her severely disabled, blinded in one eye by another resident at a young age, Mann died unexpectedly in August at the age of 73 of cardiac arrest. She had lived at Clover Bottom for more than 60 years. Her death came just a few months shy of the state’s long-delayed promise to move her into a suburban home on a tree-lined street, where she would have had her own room for the first time in her life.
The federal Highway Trust Fund’s $15 billion shortfall is so severe that without action from Congress, major road projects around the nation and in Tennessee could get stuck on the drawing board. The shortfall could mean a $900 million cut to the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s budget, a move that could spark across-the-board reductions, shelve road projects and scuttle ride-sharing programs. “We are facing some dire straits in how we fund transportation across the nation,” TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said. “The very thing that this country was built on, which is good transportation, is at risk at this point in time.”
Regardless of one’s moral views on alcohol consumption, the sale of suds and spirits is big business, and some local communities have seen their cups runneth over from the monetary benefits of allowing libations. In Tennessee, the decision of whether to allow alcohol to be sold is made mostly on the local level, in the cities and counties in which it’s sold. For the purposes of regulation, state law splits beer, defined as beer, ale or other malt beverages with alcohol contents no more than 5 percent by weight, from other intoxicating beverages, like wines and liquors.
Speaking of marijuana, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, said at a House subcommittee hearing on federal drug policy Tuesday that the government shouldn’t be focusing its enforcement powers on that particular drug. Two days after acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose, Cohen said heroin and meth are the drugs to watch. “It is ludicrous, absurd, crazy to have marijuana in the same level as heroin,” he said. “Ask the late Philip Seymour Hoffman if you could. Nobody dies from marijuana. People die from heroin. And every second that we spend in this country trying to enforce marijuana laws is a second that we’re not enforcing heroin laws.”
The lure used to get uninsured Americans to sign up for health care was the promise of generous premium subsidies. But that promise comes with a catch for almost 3 million people earning three to four times the federal poverty rate: They may have to pay up to 9.5 percent of their income toward that premium before the government subsidy kicks in. That could take a substantial bite from their budgets — potentially as much as $600 a month for a family of three earning $58,590 to $78,120. As a result, some middle-class families may decide health insurance is beyond their reach and pay a penalty rather than buy coverage.
Union supporters and critics are stepping up activity ahead of this week’s vote on organizing the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in a city that’s now ground zero in the fight over the future of the United Auto Workers in the South. Two top officials in VW’s works council network said Saturday in Chattanooga that they want to see a labor board crafted at the plant that doesn’t follow the German model but rather is a fit for the U.S. Meanwhile, a former president of manufacturing at the plant said he thought the UAW would hurt efforts to bring a new sport utility vehicle assembly line to Chattanooga.
Richard Isbell is a car guy who’s living his dream working at Volkswagen’s auto assembly plant. “I’ve always liked to work on cars since I was a kid,” the United Auto Workers supporter said in an interview last week. “This was a good way to get training and do what I enjoy doing.” Isbell, 33, has lived in Chattanooga his whole life except for two years when he studied at Penn State University. But he moved back to the city, working at Cargill, Invista and at Silverdale Correctional Facility before joining VW more than three years ago. He started in door assembly on the line, he said, but now works doing small repairs to cars that come off the line needing to be adjusted.
Gov. Bill Haslam is trying to make a Tennessee Promise to high school seniors, but if his proposal to provide the first two years of college free to them advances, the ramifications still are not fully clear. The Tennessee Promise would require students to study at two-year institutions — community colleges and colleges of applied technology — to receive free tuition and fees paid. While this should benefit Motlow State Community College, which has a campus in Smyrna, and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Murfreesboro, in regard to enrollments, effects on Middle Tennessee State University’s enrollment are less clear.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s refusal to expand the state’s Medicaid program, TennCare, is depriving hundreds of thousands of low income Tennesseans access to health insurance, costing the state millions of dollars every day, endangering jobs and putting financial pressure on Tennessee hospitals. But Haslam is not the only culprit in this politically motivated fiasco. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and a cadre of right-wing extremists are as much, or more, to blame. They are ready to watch the state’s health care ship sink. Common sense Tennesseans should be outraged. It is estimated that between 175,000 and 330,000 Tennesseans with incomes between 100 percent and 138 percent of the poverty level could be benefiting from TennCare expansion.
Free speech is both celebrated and protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Tennessee Constitution states, “The free communication of thoughts and opinions, is one of the invaluable rights of man and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.” So it is with puzzlement and indignation that we view state Sen. Stacey Campfield’s attempt to restrict speech on the campuses of Tennessee’s public institutions of higher learning only to popular student organizations. The Knoxville Republican has sponsored legislation this session that would require the state’s public institutions to allocate speakers’ fees based on the size of the sponsoring student organization.
The only serious lobbying wars in the Tennessee Legislature these days are those that pit one business interest against another, and in this year’s clash of titans the liquor stores have emerged victorious, albeit a bit battered. On the other hand, wine consumers are probably the biggest losers — certainly in the pocketbook. The liquor victory is nothing new. The great wine-in-grocery-stores (WIGS) lobbying war has raged for years and the liquor business has always triumphed. In past years this has been accomplished by the liquor lobby — which hires some really good influence peddlers and backs them up with generous campaign contributions — simply killing the bills generated by lobbyists for supermarkets, big-box retailers and convenience stores wishing to join in reaping wine-selling profits.
Plenty of national and local news stories are telling us that much is riding on this week’s secret ballot involving more than 1,500 hourly workers at Volkswagen’s $1 billion state-of-the-art auto assembly plant here. Those stories say the future of unionization is at stake. The future of Chattanooga jobs is in the cross-hairs. As Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Mike Pare writes: “Some see the upcoming vote as historic, and others view it as apocalyptic.” But the reason for the polarization is, as Southerners like to say, about as clear as mud.