This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam has asked U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to come up with a proposal that would give Tennessee more flexibility to expand Medicaid coverage. Haslam, who was in Washington over the weekend for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, said he talked with Sebelius on Sunday and again Monday about what the state needs to expand Medicaid.“We’ve had a lot of conversations about what won’t work,” Haslam said Monday. “I said, ‘You know what we need to make a plan work. Why don’t you come back to us with a proposal that will work?’ And that’s where we left it.”
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says he has asked U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to make a counterproposal to Tennessee’s efforts to carve out a special deal for Medicaid expansion. Haslam told reporters Monday that he had met with Sebelius twice during a Washington visit and that she was aware of the state’s requests to use the federal money to subsidize private insurance and promote healthier lifestyles through a series of incentives. The governor said he told Sebelius: “Why don’t you come back to us with a proposal that you think will work?”
Governor Bill Haslam and the 49 other governors are meeting with President Obama this week to discuss ways the federal and state governments can work better together. “The truth is we’ve been meeting all week with the governors together,” said Gov. Haslam. “There have been incredible helpful discussions because we’re all dealing with the same issues. We all face healthcare pressures on our budget regardless of what you’ve done on expansion. We’ve all realized the training our workforce is going to need is way different than it used to be.”
Tennessee’s governor says President Obama needs to give more authority to states. Speaking today after a meeting between the nation’s governors and the President, Gov. Bill Haslam said there seemed to be very little interest in giving states more leeway. “It is a little hard to hear when you say when it comes to critical issues like health care or education, ‘we don’t trust you to care about the least of these.’ People that do what you do – whether you’re Republican or Democrat – hear that and say that’s a little hard to take.” Gov. Haslam has been unable to get the Obama Administration to sign off on a modified plan to expand the state’s Medicaid program.
Tennessee’s controversial decision to outsource the management of its real estate to Jones Lang LaSalle has attracted the attention of other state and local governments. According to officials in the Department of General Services and JLL, the state’s outsourcing model has drawn interest from peers in Kentucky, Missouri as well as local governments in Virginia. “There have been multiple states that have contacted us,” Kelly Smith, assistant commissioner of General Services, said of the state’s real estate programs, which included a reduction in the state’s office footprint in addition to the contract with JLL.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to make community and technical colleges free could be a double-edged sword for public universities such as Middle Tennessee State University, its president said Monday. The program, called Tennessee Promise, would use money from the state lottery to pay for two years of community college. To help fund it, Hope lottery scholarships for freshmen and sophomores at Tennessee’s four-year universities would drop to $3,000 from the current level of $4,000. For many students, that $1,000 difference could determine whether they attend a public university, MTSU President Sidney McPhee said.
Workers on Monday yanked orange barrels from the Henley Bridge to open two lanes in each direction for the first time in three years. That’ll be good news for the 38,800 or so vehicles that daily traversed the 82-year-old structure before it was closed Jan. 3, 2011, for renovation and widening. Mark Nagi, regional spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said two lanes in each direction were opened Monday afternoon. The contractor, Britton Bridge LLC, faced daily liquidated damages of $1,000 if the additional lanes were not open by Feb. 28.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation is studying the safety of Vietnam Veterans Boulevard to find out if there are ways to make the road safer for drivers. The road has been the location of 145 vehicle crashes since January 1, 2013. The vast majority of those wrecks, 110, happened between the Center Point Road and Saundersville Road exits. The most recent fatal wreck happened there on January 30. Four vehicles were involved. Heather Clinard, 24, Rafael Coto, 23, and Tyler Schultz, 24 were killed in the crash just before 2 a.m. Five other people were injured in the crash. Hendersonville crash investigators believe speed was a factor in the wreck.
The Tennessee House of Representatives approved a bill Monday night making it harder for Gov. Bill Haslam to expand TennCare. House lawmakers voted 69-24 to approve House Bill 937, a measure that would require Haslam to get explicit permission from the General Assembly before offering TennCare coverage to approximately 175,000 more Tennesseans as called for in the Affordable Care Act. The vote sends the matter to the state Senate, which could take the measure up within a week. The bill appears to enjoy broad support in that chamber.
The state House of Representatives approved a bill Monday night requiring Gov. Bill Haslam to win legislative approval before expanding Medicaid to more working poor, as provided under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Democrats charged that the bill, pushed by majority Republicans, sends a message that the General Assembly “doesn’t trust” the Republican governor, who is negotiation with the Obama administration over a Haslam proposal to let Tennessee use billions of dollars in federal Medicaid money to buy health coverage for those eligible through the private insurance markets rather than directly through Medicaid.
Republican Representatives in the state House voted Monday night to require Gov. Bill Haslam to get the legislature’s approval before trying to expand Medicaid in Tennessee. Haslam has already said if he made such an attempt, he’d ask state lawmakers to sign off. So the bill legally requiring Haslam to keep his word gave ammunition to Democrats like Craig Fitzhugh, who argued it shows a split between many Republicans and their governor. “We have tied – You have tied – This general assembly has tied the hands of its governor,” Fitzhugh said before the House vote. “It sends a message that we don’t trust this governor.”
A legislative bill on the state Senate calendar this week would, if approved, give the state Legislature unprecedented power over the state attorney general. Bill sponsors say the move would bring the attorney general one step closer to public accountability. Opponents say the bill is a shortsighted “power play” that undermines independence among the separate branches of government. “I think the attorney general needs to be responsive to the people,” said state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. But state Senate minority leader Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said this move is the “dark side” of a Republican super majority.
Tennessee lawmakers who have railed against education standards known as the Common Core are targeting its test. Thousands of teachers have already been trained on Common Core, but the test, known as PARCC, won’t be underway until next school year. Lawmakers in many states have proposed backing out of Common Core, but at this point that might not be realistic in Tennessee. There are also bills that would keep the state out of the test that comes with it. “If you cut off PARCC, you pretty-much kill Common Core, too,” says Republican Frank Niceley. One of Niceley’s complaints about PARCC—shared by some Democrats—is that the test can be expensive to implement.
Military veterans could attend Tennessee’s public colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates if a bill that won approval by the state Senate Monday night wins House approval as expected. The Veterans Education Transition Support Act, or “Tennessee VETS ACT,” would allow a former member of the U.S. armed forces, a former or current member of a reserve or a Tennessee National Guard unit called into active U.S. military service to pay in-state tuition provided they have not been dishonorably discharged, are eligible for Post-9/11 GI Bill or Montgomery GI Bill benefits and enroll with 24 months after discharge.
A bill that would force local governments in Tennessee to make full payments to their pension funds each year is scheduled to go before committees in the state legislature this week, and a proposed change may have increased its likelihood of success.The bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, made an amendment that would give cities more chances to come into compliance, a concession to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s administration, which asked for greater flexibility. “We certainly are comfortable and supportive of that amendment,” said Memphis chief administrative officer George Little.
A proposal that would protect schools from lawsuits for allowing traditional winter celebrations, or religious displays, has passed the Senate. The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville was unanimously approved 30-0 on Monday. The legislation says schools can display scenes or symbols associated with such celebrations on school property, if the display includes more than one religion, or one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol. Messages that encourage adherence to a particular religious belief are prohibited.
Legislation to protect public schools from lawsuits for participating in religious holidays passed 30-0 in the Senate Monday night. Senate Bill 1425 would permit schools to educate students about “traditional winter celebrations” like Christmas or Hanukkah and allow school faculty and staff to say “Merry Christmas” or other holiday greetings. “Even ‘Happy Festivus’,” joked the bill’s sponsor, Senator Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville. Although the bill won’t have much practical impact, Campfield said he sponsored it so schools could talk about holiday celebrations “without fear of lawsuit.” He stressed that the legislation would only apply “as long as more than one religious organization is recognized.” The bill would also allow schools to display the symbols of winter celebrations, but only if the display references more than one religion.
The separation of church and state prohibits any religious teachings in public school classrooms, but a new proposal would allow Tennessee students to observe faith-based holidays while at school. “I’m sure anybody who votes ‘no’ on this gets coal in their stocking at Christmas,” said State Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville. Campfield sponsored a bill that would allow schools to teach the history of traditional winter holidays. It also allows students and staff to say traditional greetings like “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah.”
The House has voted to condemn the student organizers of a weeklong program about sex at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The resolution sponsored by Republican Rep. Richard Floyd of Chattanooga was approved on a 69-17 vote on Monday evening. Opponents of the university’s Sex Week said they object to student fees being used to pay for the event. After state lawmakers objected to last year’s event, the university withdrew more than $11,000 in direct funding. The resolution is non-binding, but House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin that if the event continues on the UT campus, “there may be stronger actions that come from this body.”
Plans to promote safe sex at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus through a series of lectures, games and classes have sparked debate in the state legislature for the second year running. The state House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution on a 69-17 vote Monday night that condemns Sex Week, a campus-wide event that starts Sunday and features light-hearted activities such as an aphrodisiac cooking class as well as serious discussions on topics such sexual assault, binge drinking and pornography. Legislators say the six-day event sends the wrong message about the University of Tennessee and the state.
Following a spirited debate about the First Amendment, the state House on Monday approved a nonbinding resolution condemning “Sex Week” festivities at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus. “I support First Amendment rights,” said Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, the measure’s sponsor. “You don’t have a right to drag the UTK brand” and its graduates, students and others “through the mud.” The resolution passed on a 69-17 vote. The resolution now moves to the Senate. Sex Week, which begins Sunday, is student-led and includes events ranging from an aphrodisiac cooking class to sexual assault prevention and a drag show.
Local lawmakers and Bradley County families of victims on Monday renewed their push for legislation boosting penalties for some categories of drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes. Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and the families are hoping to persuade Gov. Bill Haslam and legislative colleagues to find money in a tight budget to fund their proposed “Dustin’s Law.” The bill stalled last year over funding — about $445,000. The bill is named in memory of 24-year-old Dustin Ledford of Bradley County. He was killed on July 10, 2010, when a woman high on meth and nearly twice the legal blood alcohol limit of .08 slammed into his car.
A new proposal passed by a Senate subcommittee would require warnings in lottery advertisements if it becomes a law. Dickson Republican Senator Jim Summerville said people who play the lottery need to be told that most of the time they probably won’t win. “You know it leads people to think they’re going to get something for nothing,” he said. “They’re going to move from where they live in a trailer park to Easy Street. It’s not going to happen.” Senator Summerville said he wants to add “Warning: You will probably lose money playing the lottery” to every Tennessee lottery print ad and commercial.
Fans of high gravity beer are hoping to follow in the footsteps of a push to make selling wine legal for Tennessee grocery stores. Making it easier to find the kind of beer that packs more punch may take both a groundswell of outside pressure and complex negotiations. It took seven years for the wine-in-grocery-stores push to get to the brink of passage. Backers say a big factor was the public kept calling for it. Cameron Sexton is sponsoring a bill to make high gravity more beer available: “Kind of like what they said with wine-in-grocery-stores—As long as we can bring people to the table and start the discussion about it we’ll be able to take a look, regardless of how long it would take.”
Tennessee Sen. Bo Watson, a Republican from Hixon, has been showing up in the national media lately, thanks to his public statements against unionization effort at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. On Feb. 14, officials announced workers had voted not to join the United Automobile Workers by a 43-vote margin. As the second-ranking Republican in the upper chamber, Watson spends most of his time working on the state’s budgetary matters. When it comes to other issues, Watson says he feels most comfortable in the supporting role, not the pack leader.
The state of Tennessee continues to be plagued by repeat drunken drivers, including a Nashville man who was recently arrested for his 10th DUI. Now, the state’s district attorneys have a new idea for dealing with that sort of dangerous offender, but the approach may be a surprise for many. The prosecutors in the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference say they want to attack the problem by actually reducing jail time. The idea is to get the chronic offenders in a treatment program rather than a cycle of repeat jail sentences.
A new budget proposal calls for the smallest Army our nation has seen in decades. Monday Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed his plan to help the Pentagon save money in the next few years. The secretary is calling on the army to cut 80,000 troops. The National Guard and Reserve would lose about 30,000 soldiers. The budget also includes scrapping expensive planes, weapons, and bases. In East Tennessee, the cuts have the potential to be painful for the Tennessee National Guard.
Tennessee Valley Authority’s advisory Regional Resource Stewardship Council is holding a two-day meeting at the agency’s Knoxville headquarters. The meeting runs Tuesday and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to noon each day. The public comment session is on Wednesday beginning at 9:30 a.m. The council was created in 2000 to provide an avenue for citizens to participate in the decisions TVA makes about managing the Tennessee River system. TVA is the nation’s largest public utility, serving about 9 million customers in parts of seven southeastern states.
The No. 2 leader of the United Auto Workers vowed tonight that the union will stay in Chattanooga and continue its organizing efforts at the Volkswagen plant while government regulators decide if a new election should be ordered for VW employees to reconsider their earlier rejection of the union. Dennis Williams, the secretary-treasurer for the UAW who is expected to take over leadership of the Detroit-based union in June, said the UAW is hopeful that the National Labor Relations Board will direct a new election to be conducted for VW workers to decide again whether they want to be represented by the UAW.
The United Auto Workers will depend on statements by Tennessee Senator Bob Corker as evidence that the narrow Volkswagen union vote this month was unfair. The UAW filed a challenge with the National Labor Relations Board on Friday. The 13-page document suggests Corker’s guaranteeing expansion of VW’s Tennessee plant if workers reject the union was part of a “coordinated effort…to coerce a no-vote.” UAW President Bob King tells NPR’s Hear and Now that there is some old case law that could cause the NLRB to side with the union and call for another vote.
The Shelby County Commission approved a nine-member district map for the Shelby County Schools board after Commissioner Steve Basar changed his vote to end an impasse. Basar had proposed a resolution to create a seven-member school board, excluding the six suburban municipalities that are creating their own school districts. Commissioner Mike Ritz’s proposed the nine-member board, a resolution which also removed the municipalities from representation. The proposal for a nine-member board first received only six of the seven votes it needed to pass.
Lawmakers in the General Assembly have understandably responded over the past year with anger and frustration at practices within the state Department of Children’s Services that kept Tennesseans in the dark about the tragedy of hundreds of child deaths and near-deaths under the agency’s watch. But with so much more work to do, now is not the time for lawmakers to reverse course. DCS’ performance and practices appear to have shown some improvement — driven by a court ruling against the department and by the threat that lawmakers could make changes at the department.