This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Last week during my annual State of the State address, I was excited to announce a new proposal called the “Tennessee Promise.” The Tennessee Promise is an ongoing commitment to Tennessee students – from kindergartners to high school seniors. We will promise that high school graduates can attend two years of community college or a college of applied technology absolutely free of tuition and fees. As we urge more Tennesseans to continue their education, we know we have to remove as many barriers as possible. For many Tennessee families, cost is the biggest hurdle to further education.
Crissy and I hope 2014 is off to a great start for you and your family. We’re excited to have a new granddaughter, and two more grandchildren will arrive by this summer. Things have also been busy at the Capitol. The 108th General Assembly reconvened in mid-January, and Feb. 3 I delivered my fourth State of the State address. The highlight of the evening was the opportunity to announce the “Tennessee Promise” proposal, an ongoing commitment to every student – from every kindergartner to every high school senior – that he or she can attend two years of community college or a college of applied technology absolutely free.
“I continue to believe that if children are given the necessary tools to succeed, they will succeed beyond their wildest dreams!” -U.S. Senator David Vitter This past Monday evening, Governor Haslam presented his “State of the State” address. The highlight of his speech was the proposal of the “Tennessee Promise”. This is a plan to waive tuition for students at community colleges and technology centers. He will do this by setting aside $300 million from the Tennessee Education Lottery to fund an endowment that would cover tuition and fees for 2 year institutions for all graduating high school seniors.
College affordability and accessibility are shaping up to be hot-button issues in higher education this year. Some states’ responses, such as Oregon’s “Pay It Forward” plan, are looking to revolutionize funding higher education. Others, such as California’s Master Plan, are simply looking to evaluate and update existing higher education plans. However, there’s also the state of Tennessee, which is looking to do both. A Tennessee politician wants to revolutionize higher education funding by slightly repurposing an existing system. In his annual State of the State address, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam unveiled the “Tennessee Promise program,” which would offer two years of community college or technical school at no cost to all graduating high school seniors in Tennessee.
A proposal made by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam last week to send students to community college for free has sparked a debate over how the state could go about making sure more people have college degrees. During his “State of the State” address on Feb. 3 in Nashville, Haslam introduced a plan he called “Tennessee Promise” that will provide extra funding for college students, if passed by the state legislature. “Tennessee will be the only state in the country to offer our high school graduates two years of community college with no tuition or fees along with the support of dedicated mentors,” Haslam said.
Bradley County veterans and all who have worked the past decade to bring a state veterans home to Cleveland soil have received a shot in the arm when it was needed most. Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed budget document for Fiscal Year 2014-15 includes a $4 million appropriation for the local facility, the Cleveland Daily Banner has learned. Included on page A-137 of the vast 354-page budget document, it is listed as a line item earmarked for a new Tennessee veterans home in Bradley County. “This is a wonderful and timely gift from Gov. Haslam to our local community,” said state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland whose 24th Legislative District includes the 28-acre site off APD-40 that supporters still hope will become the 108-bed facility’s nesting place.
Students at Tennessee’s public colleges and universities could face tuition increases in August closer to 8 percent than the 2 to 4 percent originally projected, Tennessee Board of Regents officials said Thursday. The new projections are only tentative and months away from anything final, but they’re the preliminary figures that result from the failure of Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget proposal to fully fund the performance outcomes-based formula for higher education created by the state legislature in 2010, officials said. The Haslam budget plan is under review by General Assembly and won’t be final until lawmakers approve it in late March or April.
Two top officials at the Clover Bottom Developmental Center — including its chief officer — were fired Thursday, and a third person contracted to provide behavioral services also was dismissed. The terminations follow a Tennessean story on Sunday that chronicled ongoing health and safety problems faced by the remaining 40 residents at Tennessee’s oldest institution for people with intellectual disabilities — more than four years after state officials pledged to shut it down. The Tennessean also reported on the high cost borne by taxpayers as a result of the delay in closing the institution.
Hoping to replicate its success in Antioch, Nashville State Community College is scouting for property elsewhere in Davidson County for another satellite campus. Specifically, the state-run, two-year institution is targeting the East Nashville and Madison areas, said president George Van Allen. The school prefers to buy a building with at least 30,000 square feet and 150 parking spaces, although buying land to build is also an option, he said. If a purchase, Van Allen would like to have a new campus opened by January.
One of the outstanding questions on Governor Bill Haslam’s plan to offer free community college is whether the financing will really work. That’s even a question to the state’s top money-man, Treasurer David Lillard. The state estimates spending $34 million a year to provide scholarships for anyone without another way to go to a 2-year school. The tuition would be paid for in part by investing a major chunk of reserve funds from the state lottery – $300 million or so. The funding would also come from modifying the 4-year HOPE scholarship, reducing the amounts given to freshmen and sophomores.
Brad Martin recently came across some old photos of University of Memphis students that struck him as a different kind of collegian. To him, they seemed more focused than college students who come to college directly from high school. The U of M interim president has seen lots of photos from the 100-plus year history of the city’s largest higher learning institution, but these particular snapshots depicted students who were older than most of their classmates. They were veterans of the two World Wars.
Staring down pending legislation that could limit — or even eliminate — how the University of Tennessee distributes its student activity fees for campus speakers, President Joe DiPietro expressed concern in a statewide email to employees Wednesday. DiPietro, in a nearly 400-word memo, wrote that he supports the right for students and staff to bring various speakers to campus as a First Amendment issue, but also cautions organizers to “be mindful of the diverse opinions.”
A measure to do away with local government’s power to decide whether to allow firearms in public parks overwhelmingly passed the Senate on Thursday despite concerns expressed by the governor. The proposal sponsored by Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville was approved 26-7. Six Democrats and one Republican voted against the legislation in the GOP-dominated chamber. The Legislature in 2009 gave city and county governments the ability to opt out of a new law that allowed firearms in public parks, playgrounds and sports fields. Under Campfield’s proposal, permit holders would be allowed to carry, unless there’s a school function.
The Tennessee Senate approved a bill Thursday that would undo a 2009 law that let city councils and county commissions ban guns in local parks. Lawmakers voted 26-7 to pass Senate Bill 1496, despite efforts by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and the leaders of other Tennessee cities to derail the legislation. Gov. Bill Haslam, a former mayor of Knoxville, also has said he opposes it. The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Stacey Campfield, told reporters after the Senate vote that he remains confident it will pass the House, which has not scheduled debate on the bill, and that he has enough votes to override a veto by Haslam.
State House Speaker Beth Harwell says she and fellow Republican representatives will seek to strike a balance on a just-passed Senate bill stripping Tennessee cities and counties of authority to ban guns from local parks, playgrounds and ball fields. “There are some discussions on the piece of legislation,” Harwell told reporters Thursday after the GOP-dominated Senate passed the bill 26-7. “I suspect there will be some amendments on our side.” She said the House Republican Caucus is “very pro-Second Amendment — and we want to be protective over that — but also firmly believe in local rights and local control.
The state Senate on Thursday approved on a 26-7 vote legislation that would allow handgun permit holders to take their weapons into city and county parks where they have previously been prohibited. The bill (SB1496) revises a 2009 law that allowed guns in state parks, but left decisions on local parks up to each city or county. Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, sponsor of the measure, said the 2009 law violates a provision of the state constitution declaring that the state – not local governments – shall regulate the “wearing of arms” and that it has created a “patchwork of laws” rather than the uniform statewide policy that should prevail.
The state Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would end the authority of towns, cities and counties to ban permit holders from bringing guns into their local public parks, greenways and similar areas. If approved later by the House of Representatives and it becomes law July 1 as envisioned by the Senate bill, it would allow people with handgun-carry permits to go armed in any state and local park in Tennessee except those that are parts of school property. People without carry permits are still banned from going armed in state and local parks.
State Rep. Bill Dunn says that a bill proposal he sponsors would ensure religious freedom and shield Tennessee businesses from some lawsuits. Knox County Commissioner Amy Broyles warned that the law, if passed, would discriminate against homosexuals and hurt commerce. “A business is owned by a human being, and that human being has the constitutional right of freedom of religion,” Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, said. “In the end, it’s a human being that’s being sued.” Dunn said that the bill’s initial sponsor, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, named it the bill “The Religious Freedom Act.”
Less than a week after touting a bill shielding individuals, businesses and others from lawsuits for refusing services to same-sex couples, state Sen. Brian Kelsey quietly removed his name from the measure and transferred its sponsorship to an East Tennessee colleague Thursday. Kelsey, R-Germantown, e-mailed the Senate clerk’s office soon after the Senate recessed for the weekend, transferring sponsorship of Senate Bill 2566 to Sen. Mike Bell, R-Athens. It’s set for a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kelsey chairs.
There’s movement in the Tennessee legislature on proposals giving in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants and even to undocumented aliens themselves. A bill sponsored by Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) would offer the children born in the U.S. – making them legal citizens – a break on tuition at public colleges. Currently, they have to pay out-of-state rates, which can be more than double. “Never before in our history – that I know of – have we punished children for what their parents did or didn’t do,” Gardenhire said in a hearing Wednesday. “We’re talking about these children.”
Tennesseans oppose legalizing marijuana generally but appear willing to allow medical marijuana use, the latest MTSU Poll shows. The poll also found: » A solid 64 percent majority of state residents oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally; and » 52 percent support forbidding the enforcement in Tennessee of federal-level firearms laws and leaving firearms regulated solely by state and local laws. Additionally, the poll measured attitudes toward abortion, further restricting access to pseudoephedrine, allowing grocery stores to sell wine, and repealing the new federal healthcare law.
U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Frog Jump, visited with local farmers at the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee Research and Education Center, at 605 Airways Blvd. in Jackson, Thursday to break down the complexities of the 2014 farm bill. The major issue Fincher discussed is that the bill will do away with farm subsidies for the first time in its history. “This is a shifting away from the subsidy program that so many like to talk about to a market-based insurance product,” he said at a Cotton Focus meeting at the center, one stop on a series of Farm Tour meetings Fincher has scheduled.
One in five people who signed up for health insurance under the new health care law failed to pay their premiums on time and therefore did not receive coverage in January, insurance companies and industry experts say. Paying the first month’s premium is the final step in completing an enrollment. Under federal rules, people must pay the initial premium to have coverage take effect. In view of the chaotic debut of the federal marketplace and many state exchanges, the White House urged insurers to give people more time, and many agreed to do so. But, insurers said, some people missed even the extended deadlines.
The head of the Tennessee Valley Authority says five of the top 10 energy usage days in TVA history occurred last month as the region saw three waves of low temperatures. TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson says January was demanding for the nation’s largest public utility, which serves about 9 million people in seven southeastern states. During a board of directors meeting Thursday in Chattanooga, Johnson thanked the public for helping reduce demands and TVA and power company employees for operating the system reliably. With plunging temperatures across the Southeast last month, TVA appealed to consumers to reduce power usage to help avoid outages.
The Tennessee Valley Authority says March electricity bills will increase, due to record demand at the beginning of the year. The agency sold more power, but it also had to pay a premium for coal, natural gas, and uranium. At a board meeting in Chattanooga Thursday, TVA CEO Bill Johnson acknowledged that many of their 9 million customers are already paying more, due a to a bitterly cold start to the New Year. “One thing about this kind of weather, it puts extreme pressure on the power system. But also on customers and employees, and on the power bill at the end of the month,” Johnson said.
The TVA board has picked Alabama attorney Joe H. Ritch to become its new chairman, effective in May. Meeting Thursday in Chattanooga, the board unanimously approved Ritch as chairman-elect, to begin a two-year term when current chairman Bill Sansom’s term ends May 18. “He will be the first chairman of TVA from Alabama,” Sansom said. “He has been a real leader in Huntsville.” Ritch, who was sworn in as a TVA director in January 2013, is with the Huntsville law firm of Sirote & Permutt. He has also served as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Base Realignment and Closures Committee, co-chaired the Tennessee Valley Growth Coordination Group and has been a board member of the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce.
One of the most monumental labor votes of the past few decades is underway about two hours away in Chattanooga. By late tonight, about 1,550 Volkswagen employees will have cast their votes on whether to accept representation by the United Auto Workers labor union, which has nearly 400,000 active members. Labor leaders say a “yes” vote is critical to the union’s long-term prospects. If successful, this would be the first victory for organized labor inside a foreign automaker’s U.S. operations. But critics — some of whom have poured millions into anti-union efforts in recent weeks — say a “yes” vote will potentially harm the South’s ability to build a thriving auto industry.
Votes will be tallied late Friday night in the closely-watched union election at Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant. If the United Auto Workers prevail, other foreign-owned auto plants in the South may be looking over their shoulder. Some Republican politicians have warned that if VW falls, a domino effect would be triggered. Gary Casteel, the UAW’s top man in the South, says he doesn’t see that happening. But the union is already laying the groundwork elsewhere. “We’re talking to Nissan workers. We’re talking to Mercedes workers. We talk to BMW workers,” he said this week.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said this week that the only votes he has missed during his Senate stint were related to Volkswagen business and when he was on a trip to Israel, and that was an unexpected one. “There’s not a week that goes by when we don’t talk to someone at VW USA or VW in Germany,” he said, noting his first recruitment call as a senator was to Volkswagen. And when VW chief Martin Winterkorn won a major award in New York, Corker said he was asked to introduce the CEO. “I’ve been involved in this all the way through,” Corker said about the automaker and its connection with Chattanooga.
Corker’s comments could be construed as “coercive” and could provide grounds for the United Auto Workers to contest any vote by plant workers rejecting unionization, said Angela Cornell, who directs the Labor Law Clinic at the Cornell University Law School. “Employees have what’s been recognized by our Supreme Court as a fundamental right to engage in this process and decide whether to organize or not,” she said. “And it seems as if things are so riled up in that community that they’re starting to encroach on employees’ free choice.” About 1,500 workers at the plant have been voting in a three-day election scheduled to end today.
Some 1,500 employees at Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., started voting today on whether to affiliate with the United Auto Workers. Here are a couple of interesting points about this vote, which will continue through Friday. –Volkswagen’s in favor. –Tennessee Republicans, including Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker, have been threatening the company with retribution if the vote succeeds. Reading the remarks of the state’s GOP politicians is like a trip through cloud-cuckoo-land.
As part of a restructuring, The Tennessean has a new leader for its newsroom. The Tennessean announced today that Stefanie Murray will assume the new position of vice president/content and management, which the article describes as “the top leadership role inside The Tennessean’s news center. Murray was previously assistant managing editor/digital for the Detroit Free Press, which, like The Tennessean, is owned by Gannett. Murray will be “responsible for strategic approach, performance management, audience growth and development and news content and quality across all platforms and products,” The Tennessean reports.
School districts here, including new ones in the suburbs, will be funded early next year based on the number of students enrolled in the schools right now, leaving all the systems exposed if large numbers of families migrate from system one to another. In a typical year, state funding — the bulk of any school district’s budget — is based on the prior year’s enrollment. Since the municipal districts will be in their first year next year, they will have no prior data. Their first payments instead will be based on children currently attending the schools, now under the authority of Shelby County Schools.
Could Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly be coming to their senses about TennCare expansion? We certainly hope so. Each day, Tennessee is walking away from an estimated $2.5 million of federal health care subsidies, leaving hundreds of thousands of low-income Tennesseans without health insurance, compromising the financial stability of Tennessee hospitals and endangering health care jobs. On Tuesday, moderate Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee joined Democrats to pass amended legislation that does not tie Gov. Bill Haslam’s hands in choosing to expand TennCare, as called for under the Affordable Care Act.