This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to create a community college program for all high school graduates is advancing in the House. The “Tennessee Promise” legislation passed out of the House Education Subcommittee on a voice vote Tuesday. Lawmakers plan to try to amend the measure in the House Education Committee. The proposal would cover a full ride at two-year schools for any high school graduate, at a cost of $34 million per year. It would use state lottery reserves to cover the difference between tuition costs and all available aid.
A widening gap has grown between what students are learning in K-12 schools and what they’re expected to know by the employers who hire them and the colleges and universities where they choose to enroll. For too long Tennessee’s education systems have operated independently, lacking coordination to ensure the needs of our students, our employers and our communities are aligned. Unfortunately, it’s not just in Tennessee. The numbers bear the results. U.S. students’ math skills rank 25th in the world, and their reading skills fell to 14th. While we cheer for medals awarded in Olympic competitions, the U.S. is falling behind in education compared with the rest of the world. That’s not a standard we should accept.
A House subcommittee Tuesday sidetracked Gov. Bill Haslam’s anti-meth proposal while advancing a rival measure that would place lesser restrictions on buying cold and allergy medicines used to make the illegal drug. State Rep. Tony Shipley, the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said there was “simply no stomach” on the panel for the governor’s proposal that would limit the annual amount of medicines containing the meth precursor pseudoephedrine at the equivalent of a 2 ½-month supply of medicines like Sudafed.
State lawmakers dealt a rebuff to Gov. Bill Haslam and his plan to clamp down on the key ingredient in methamphetamine production by putting off his plan. At a high-profile hearing Tuesday afternoon, a House subcommittee set aside a compromise hammered out over the past two months between the governor and law enforcement officials who had pushed for even tougher restrictions. Instead, the panel advanced an alternative presented on the spot by subcommittee Chairman Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, which set higher limits than Haslam favored.
House lawmakers are tussling over exactly how much of the cold medicine used to make meth Tennesseans should be able to buy each year. A proposal backed by the governor would stop people from buying more than about two months’ worth of pseudoephedrine each year without a prescription. But that measure got held up Tuesday in a place bills often languish and die—a subcommittee. The subcommittee’s chairman, Tony Shipley, instead passed out his own, less restrictive bill. Shipley said afterward that the governor’s measure wouldn’t have had enough votes. In response, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told reporters Shipley had “made a terrible mistake by moving his bill ahead of the governor’s, and I don’t think it will be successful.”
Undocumented immigrant college students from around the state came to Nashville on Tuesday to show support for what they called “tuition equality” bills that would make them eligible for in-state tuition. House Bill 1992 would change the law so students who entered the country illegally but had attended a Tennessee school for at least five years could be eligible for in-state tuition if they met the academic requirements for the HOPE Scholarship. The House Education Subcommittee had been scheduled to hear the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga.
Rep. Richard Floyd says he delayed a subcommittee vote on his bill allowing in-state students in the U.S. illegally to pay in-state tuition rates at Tennessee public colleges because he was short a vote. But the Chattanooga Republican said that given the slimness of the margin, he believes he can eventually win enough support to move his “Tuition Equality” bill forward. “Well, I got to counting votes in there,” Floyd said Tuesday after delaying a vote on the measure in the House Education Subcommittee. “Last week I believe I could have gotten it out. But it just was not going to get out today. We’re going to try to work on it. I think we lacked but one vote today.”
Ana Rodriguez, a straight-A senior at Wooddale High, wants nothing more than to go to college and spend the rest of her life in Memphis, a city in need of college-educated talent. Bills inching through committee in Nashville now are the best chance she’s had at the American dream since her family — all undocumented — left Mexico eight years ago. SB1951 and HB1992 would give undocumented students who have spent five years in Tennessee schools access to in-state tuition. At the University of Memphis, the in-state cost is $8,312 vs. $23,024. Rodriguez’s father is a tree-trimmer. Her mother is a homemaker.
Legislation moving through the Tennessee House and Senate could set aside an age limit for school bus use, permitting them to run so long as inspections show they’re meeting safety standards. Tennessee’s current law allows the vehicles to be used for up to 17 years and requires at least two inspections a year. State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, has proposed a bill allowing buses to run regardless of their years of service or mileage if they pass regular inspections. An amendment calls for two annual inspections after a school bus has been in service for 15 years and allows the state’s Department of Safety to charge a fee to districts for the reviews.
West Wilson Middle School Principal Wendell Marlowe thinks his 35 years as an educator in Wilson County Schools makes him a better county commissioner, a job he has held for 22 years. But others say commissioners and council members shouldn’t be able to hold an elected office in the municipality that employs them because it raises conflict-of-interest questions. “This should not be allowed,” said Wilson County Commissioner Clint Thomas, who is not a county employee. “There is too much at stake. The citizens lose. The taxpayer loses.”
On good days, Ginger Wright spends a large part of her day trying to corral her 11-year-old son, Corbin, keeping a constant eye on him as he scales cabinets and windowsills, holding him down long enough to practice reading words, reciting numbers and writing his name. On bad days, Wright only wishes she were chasing Corbin, who has severe autism and epilepsy. Instead, she might be watching him have anywhere from 20 to 80 seizures, or worrying about the potential damage the drug that drastically reduces his seizures will have on his body long-term. In Wright’s mind, a group of plant compounds could improve Corbin’s life and health immeasurably — but they’re illegal in Tennessee.
An advocate for educating children about speaking out against child abuse went before Tennessee lawmakers Tuesday to promote Erin’s Law. Erin Merryn has been all over the country talking to lawmakers about her proposal. The law requires public schools to teach children how to speak out when some is molesting them. Merryn said she’s trying to give children a voice. “Empowering kids on how to speak up and tell if this is happening to you and not to keep it a secret,” she said. Merryn told lawmakers her own powerful story, which began when she was six-years-old at a friend’s sleep over.
Many people who like problem solving usually tackle a tough crossword, or maybe Sudoku. Collierville’s Mark Norris opted for politics. “I like serving people as well as finding solutions to problems, so that led me to the legal profession,” said Norris, who currently serves as state Senate majority leader, and represents District 32 in West Tennessee. “Once I became a lawyer, I found that there are certain issues in this life that lawyers can’t effectively address. I’d been involved in volunteerism in a fairly significant way, and had seen a lot of issues up close and personal, and so when I had the opportunity to serve on the Shelby County Commission, I took it.”
The only active row-crop farmer in Congress has been on the road the last month talking particulars of a very complex farm bill with farmers not only in his West Tennessee district, which includes part of Memphis, but in five other states and other parts of Tennessee. U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Frog Jump, winds up the series of town hall meetings Friday, March 7, at the National Guard Armory in Alamo, Tenn. The Memphis hearing Saturday at the Sheraton Memphis Downtown Hotel took advantage of the crowds at the nearby Memphis Cook Convention Center for the 62nd annual Mid-South Farm & Gin Show.
An unnamed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs official stationed in Nashville not only violated federal rules and ran up thousands of dollars in unauthorized expenses, but also caused an unknown number of benefits delays for area veterans, a new report has found. An investigation by the department’s inspector general found that, although the employee was assigned to Nashville, he spent much of that time — nearly 24 months — in Washington, D.C., beginning in 2011. As a result, the report concludes, work in Nashville didn’t get done and an untold number of claims by veterans that he should have handled were delayed.
Tennessee is often touted as a state with no income tax—but anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist says that comes with an asterisk, because the state still taxes interest and dividends from investments. Standing beside state lawmakers today, Norquist called for the end of the Hall income tax. More than a hundred thousand people in Tennessee pay the Hall income tax. As a percentage of the state’s overall budget it’s tiny, but it adds up to more than a hundred million dollars annually. Lawmakers hope to phase it out over several years. Norquist says in the meantime, Tennessee has competition in a kind of race to cut taxes.
As states prepare their budgets for the next fiscal year, many are facing millions of dollars in new Medicaid fees under the Affordable Care Act. Starting this year, the health insurance industry will pay an $8 billion annual fee, which will grow to $14.3 billion in 2018 and keep pace with premium growth thereafter. Private insurers pay their part of the fee based on the size of the market they control. But states that contract with private insurers to manage their Medicaid programs are shouldering those fees as well — at least according to some of the states that stand to pay the most.
President Barack Obama signaled Tuesday he still wants the federal government to sell its ownership stake in the nation’s largest federal utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority. His proposed 2015 fiscal year budget praises TVA for undertaking “a major internal review” over the past year and having “taken significant steps to improve its future operating and financial performance.” But then it adds: “The administration recognizes the important role TVA serves in the Tennessee Valley and stands ready to work with the Congress and TVA’s stakeholders to explore options to end federal ties to TVA, including alternatives such as a transfer of ownership to state or local stakeholders.”
The biggest government utility could shift from federal to state control if Congress goes along with a proposal from the Obama administration to sell the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the White House budget plan for fiscal 2015 released Tuesday, the Office of Management and Budget suggests the federal government consider transferring or selling TVA to state and local governments, power cooperatives or energy companies in the Tennessee Valley. The proposal advances the controversial idea floated by the Office of Management and Budget a year ago for the federal government to dispose of the 81-year-old TVA to help cut the federal debt associated with the government-owned utility.
The Obama Administration says the Tennessee Valley Authority has a better handle on its financial situation. But they’re still floating the possibility of the putting the nation’s largest public utility in private hands. The President’s budget proposal released Tuesday praises TVA, saying it’s taken significant steps in the past year to cut expenses. The agency has announced it’s shutting down eight coal-fired power plants and offering buyouts to long-time employees. “We are pleased the Administration has recognized TVA’s efforts in improving our financial outlook and supports our ongoing operating and financial direction,” TVA CEO Bill Johnson said in a statement.
Coca-Cola Bottling Company United’s $62 million expansion may be Chattanooga’s biggest project in more than three years, if it comes to the city. And so far, so good. The Birmingham, Ala.-based Coke bottler talks like it wants to build a 290,000-square-foot distribution and sales facility on the former Olan Mills plant Highway 153. The facility would create 43 new jobs, according to a news release. And proposed legislation necessary to rezone two plats of land adjacent to the desired property on the bottler’s behalf sailed through a City Council economic committee board hearing on Tuesday.
As officials at Metro Nashville Public Schools head into the homestretch of budget talks that began months ago, they’re now looking at a smaller number. Director Jesse Register’s administration in August unveiled a preliminary $784.4 million operating budget for the 2014-15 school year, $38 million more than the current fiscal year. Though officials call the final figure a “moving target,” they believe the next budget could be $4 million to $5 million less than the previous forecast. Board members, who are planning to vote on a final budget April 8 before their budget hearing with Mayor Karl Dean a week later, met Tuesday to discuss changes since August.
There is much to recommend in Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise program, which aims to get far more residents attending college or technical school by paying all tuition and fees for their first two years. Our state has long struggled to produce more postsecondary students, with a major factor being not their grades or desire to learn, but the inability to pay for it. For the past decade, lottery-funded HOPE scholarships for four-year colleges and universities have done much to enable more kids to go to college, many of them the first in their families to do so.
Tennessee does not want to be No. 1 on this list. But we’re about to be ranked atop the list for how much methamphetamine is used statewide, nosing Missouri out of the spot it has held for a decade. This does not make a good impression when you’re wooing companies to invest in your state. Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislation to combat meth cooking would have limited how much cold and allergy medicine that contains pseudoephedrine you could buy at a time. Once you’ve exceeded the legal limit, it would require you get a prescription from a doctor. For anyone who has ever caught a cold, Sudafed and store brand remedies that contain that ingredient are about the only thing sold that makes you feel better.
We are glad the major battle over wine sales in food stores is over and a bill allowing the sales is awaiting Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature. Still, the bill is only a partial win for Tennessee consumers because it is weighted down with elements that delay its implementation and could require shoppers to pay more for wine if they buy it in a grocery rather than a liquor store. Those are just two of the vexing elements of the bill that, with the governor’s signature, will end a seven-year legislative battle to allow wine sales in grocery stores. This is a bill Tennesseans wanted.
Orson Welles, shilling on television for Paul Masson Mountain Winery in the 1970s, used to purr: “We will sell no wine before its time.” In Tennessee grocery stores, “big box” retailers and convenience stores, that time has almost come. With the expected signature of Gov. Bill Haslam, voters in cities and counties that have approved either liquor package stores or liquor-by-the-drink soon will be able to determine if they want the sales. On the whole, it’s a sensible way of handling an issue that has been percolating in legislative chambers for seven years. Indeed, according to House sponsor Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, it’s the way legislators dealt with the sale of liquor in package stores in 1939 and liquor by the drink in 1967.
For a change, Republicans and Democrats in the Tennessee General Assembly appear to have something in common. In this case, members of both parties oppose efforts to restrict crossover voting in Tennessee political primary elections. We agree, such restrictions aren’t needed and would limit the rights of voters to fully participate in the electoral process. House Bill 1833 being pushed by Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, and Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, is a bad idea. It seeks to limit so-called crossover voting where members of one party vote in another party’s primary election.
Picture an election where an entity is given nearly unfettered access to voters for two years and then is allowed to call for a surprise vote with only a few days’ notice. Then imagine that the entity loses the vote and complains that “outside forces”—who happen to be community leaders—should not have been allowed to speak or share their point of view. While most Americans can contemplate such a scenario playing out in another country, this is what has been happening in Tennessee. Just over two weeks ago, an election was held at the Volkswagen VOW3.XE +0.05% plant in my hometown of Chattanooga to determine whether the United Auto Workers would represent the workers there. UAW operatives spent two years inside the plant working to organize it.