This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
The State of Tennessee Indebtedness Report, which was released by the Comptroller’s office today, documents how the state’s total debt fell during the last six months of last year by $347 million – or more than a third of a billion dollars. Of that decrease, the state reduced the debt on its general obligation bonds, which are used to pay for most of the government’s capital projects, by more than $95 million. That’s part of a two-year decrease of nearly $190 million, according to a press release from Blake Fontenay, a communications director for Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson.
The State of Tennessee’s total debt dropped by $347 million during the second half of 2013, to $5.781 billion, according to the semiannual debt report issued by the state comptroller’s office Wednesday. The report comes a few months after a report issued by Fitch Ratings, one of the country’s largest bond rating agencies, concluded that Tennessee’s debt ratio was the lowest in the nation. The state’s bond rating by the big three bond rating agencies are AAA by Fitch, Aaa by Moody’s Investor Services and AA+ Standard & Poor’s.
Local government leaders and economic development officials got to hear the state’s good economic news during a business roundtable meeting at the Elizabethton Airport on Wednesday. Bill Hagerty, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, and several of his key staff members discussed the state’s economic performance and the efforts to help the state’s rural counties participate in the growth. Hagerty told the local leaders that Tennessee has had a net growth of 155,000 jobs during the three years under Gov. Bill Haslam.
Gov. Bill Haslam seemed surprised Wednesday when the first question he fielded from physicians attending the Tennessee Medical Association’s Day on Capitol Hill wasn’t related to Medicaid expansion. “I just lost my $2 bet,” Haslam joked, before addressing a question about certificates of need. Soon after, though, the Medicaid issue did come up. Haslam told the doctors he’s “been more encouraged” by his recent negotiations with the Department of Health and Human Services about a unique Tennessee plan for expansion, but didn’t offer any new specifics.
Governor Bill Haslam said Tuesday “some progress” has been made in the state’s effort to use federal Medicaid expansion money from Obamacare to help buy uninsured Tennesseans health insurance. It comes as the Obama administration official who has to approve the plan says Tennessee “is looking at a variety of options.” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made herself available by satellite to Tennessee TV stations Tuesday to help push Obamacare enrollment before the March 31 deadline, but she was also asked about Governor Haslam’s Medicaid expansion plan which was introduced more than a year ago.
A House subcommittee has voted to let the governor keep control of most appointments to the Tennessee Textbook Commission, breaking with a Senate move to give legislators control. Over the objections of House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, the House Education Subcommittee voted to amend the bill he is sponsoring, HB2249, to give the governor five direct appointments to the commission, the speaker of the House two and the speaker of the Senate two. Under the bill, a 10th member of the panel would be the commissioner of education, who is also appointed by the governor.
Legislation that would have rolled back Common Core academic standards in Tennessee died in the Senate late Wednesday evening. The Senate Education Committee voted 7-2 to defeat Senate Bill 1985, sponsored by Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, which would have delayed any further implementation of Common Core beyond those standards implemented as of June 30, 2013. The conservative senator told committee members that he’s for high standards — just not Common Core. But members of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, two Tennessee superintendents and a Memphis teacher each testified that sticking with the standards is key to Tennessee continuing to make academic gains.
The Tennessee Department of Education will be looking at Cherokee High School’s robotics class as it develops a high school robotics curriculum for use across the state. At the same time, the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT) in both Morristown and Surgoinsville are looking to align their own programs with the Cherokee class so that students can make a seamless transition into the TCAT program after high school graduation. The goal is to train students for the industrial jobs of the present and future, but it’s also turning out to be quite a bit of fun for students. In fact, the program’s origins trace back to Cherokee’s Robotics Club, which built robots from the ground up and entered them in competitions over the previous two school years.
State insurance officials are warning Uber and Lyft drivers to carefully check their insurance policies. More and more people are becoming drivers for app-based services where they use their own cars to ferry people around town. Drivers are required to have both company and personal auto coverage, but state officials say the coverage may be inadequate. Because Uber and Lyft are essentially taxis but are not regulated as such, claims can be tricky to process, and liability is often hard to determine, says Katelyn Abernathy. Abernathy is a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Commerce and Insurance. She says in the event of an accident, a driver could be stuck with a wrecked car or carrying unpaid medical bills.
Relief has arrived for motorists exiting U.S. Highway 27 North at Signal Mountain Road. Workers completed the new permanent two-lane, free-flow ramp at the intersection late Tuesday night that transportation officials say should reduce travel time for thousands of drivers in the area who have been delayed by construction to the ramp for close to six weeks. Those exiting to travel toward Signal Mountain will no longer be subject to a traffic light or police direction. This phase of the $102 million TDOT project to widen U.S. 27 and redo three interchanges was scheduled to be completed by March 31, but officials chose to expedite completion of the ramp because of the delays the construction caused, especially during rush hour.
With one exception, Republicans on a House subcommittee joined in voting Wednesday to kill a Democrat-sponsored bill that would have authorized Medicaid expansion in Tennessee so long as the federal government is paying 100 percent of the cost. The exception was Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, who broke ranks with fellow Republicans to support HB1793, sponsored by House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley. Keisling said he did so based on advice he has long heeded to “always vote your district first, then your heart.”
House panel rejected a proposal Wednesday to raise the cigarette tax by 44 cents a pack to pay for expansion of the state’s health insurance program for the poor. The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee voted down a bill filed in January by state Rep. Gary Odom that he said would cover the full cost of offering TennCare to approximately 175,000 more Tennesseans by raising the levy on cigarettes to $1.06 a pack. Odom, D-Nashville, argued that, unless TennCare expands, many hospitals — including some in the districts of subcommittee members — face dire financial futures, as the federal government shifts away from reimbursing health care providers directly and toward funding new programs and subsidies for the poor and insured.
Anti-methamphetamine bills advocated by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and state Rep. Tony Shipley remained in competition with each other on Wednesday. The two pieces of legislation have differing limits on meth precursor sales involving cold and allergy medications, but neither calls for those medications to be available only by prescription. Haslam’s anti-meth legislation, which limits the amount of pseudoephedrine sales from 9 grams to 4.8 grams in a 30-day period, has advanced out of a Senate Judiciary Committee but not out of a House Criminal Justice Subcommittee chaired by Shipley.
A bill that would forbid the granting and renewal of teacher licenses based on students’ standardized test scores took steps toward passage this week, despite opposition from the State Education Department. The “Educator Respect and Accountability Act” passed out of the House Education Subcommittee Tuesday and the Senate Education Committee Wednesday. Jonesborough’s Rep. Matthew Hill, the driving force behind the legislation, said the 8-1 vote in the House subcommittee showed promise for its passage. “I think it’s a very good sign,” he said Wednesday morning from Nashville. “It’s going to run next week in the full committee, and I think that margin means the chances are good of it getting out.”
Two state legislative committees gave a Nashville mass transit project mixed messages Wednesday, eliminating a difficult requirement for approval while adding restrictions that could tie the hands of engineers. The Senate Transportation Committee decided to drop language that would have required the General Assembly to sign off on individual bus rapid transit projects such as the Amp, which would run mostly in dedicated center lanes down a state road. But at the same time the committee voted to prohibit buses from picking up or dropping off passengers in center lanes of state roads. Ed Cole, and Amp supporter and executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, said that provision would hamstring the $174 million Amp plan.
Tennessee lawmakers in both Senate and House committees Wednesday eased off blocking a dedicated bus lane across downtown Nashville, but the legislature could still toss a wrench into Metro’s plans for the bus project, known as the Amp. The Senate language would stop the Amp from loading or unloading passengers from the center lane, potentially forcing Metro officials to retool their designs, as well as their slick promotional animations. The reasoning from Amp opponent Rick Williams is that barring use of the center lane would be safer.
State legislation tailored to block Nashville’s bus rapid-transit route, the Amp, passed in respective Senate and House transportation committees Wednesday, though changes pared the requirements for approval from the General Assembly. Senate Bill 2243, sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy, passed in the Senate Transportation Committee. The measure includes an amendment, similar to a companion House bill, requiring any metropolitan government or metropolitan transit authority using a dedicated lane for bus rapid-transit on a state highway to get approval from the local legislative body and the commissioner of transportation.
Bans on fracking and mountaintop mining in Tennessee appear dead for the year. Three measures before state lawmakers aimed at adding those protections for Tennessee’s natural resources failed to make it out of the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. “I can’t say I am really surprised by the vote. But I think they are important enough issues to keep talking about,” said state Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, the sponsor of the bills. “Regardless of what is going to happen with the bills, we got to keep some kind of conversation here going. That was the intent today.”
A leading conservative member of the commission that evaluates Tennessee’s appellate judges says the panel was influenced by partisan politics in deciding whether a judge on the state’s highest court was fit to serve. Through an open records request, The Associated Press obtained an Oct. 10 email from Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission member Chris Clem to Republican leaders in the state Senate. In it, Clem argues that Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Bill Koch, a Republican, is not as conservative as many of his fellow Republicans think, stating “Koch may be the most liberal member of the Court.”
University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro is urging lawmakers not to pursue legislation that would penalize the school over its student-run Sex Week. In a letter this week to Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham and Senate Government Operations Chairman Mike Bell, DiPietro argued that First Amendment protections prevent the school from ending the event that has raised the hackles of GOP leaders in the Legislature. DiPietro said he is growing concerned that “the attention focused on this matter by the General Assembly is quickly reaching a point that will cause greater harm and damage to the long-term interests of the University than any programming that may occur as result of Sex Week.”
Hamilton County lawmakers are delaying a bill to modernize Erlanger Health Systems’ governance structure after consulting with executives from the public hospital. “During our discussions with Erlanger over the past several weeks, we came to a mutual agreement that the focus now needs to be on the financial health of the hospital,” House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said in a news release. “Erlanger serves a critical health care role in our region and maintaining that service is the first priority.” McCormick said the need to modify the 1976 Hospital Authority Act and the possibility of creating an operating board is secondary to curing Erlanger’s financial ills.
State lawmakers Wednesday delayed until next week consideration of legislation that would require private insurance carriers in Tennessee to cover proton therapy for cancer treatment. At the request of insurance lobbyists, the House Insurance & Banking Subcommittee postponed consideration of an amendment to HB0264/SB0435. The proposed amendment is sponsored by Sen. Doug Overbey and Rep. Dennis Edward Roach. Terry Douglass, chairman of Provision Center for Proton Therapy, said the amendment was important because patients between the ages of 19 and 64 who want the treatment can’t typically get it because their insurance won’t cover it.
Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander today held a press conference for the kind of small bill that would normally only merit a short, written statement. Four Senators each said a few words about a proposal to help working mothers pay for day care. But the bigger point may just who the Senators were: two Republicans, and two Democrats. Alexander is a vocal critic of increasingly partisan tactics in the Senate. He hopes this effort serves as an example of how the Senate can and should work. Rather than pushing each other around, we need to do what we’re doing here. We’ve worked out a compromise, we’re going to bring it to the floor, we’ve got a number of amendments by both Democrats and Republicans, we’re going to debate them, vote on them, and hopefully pass the bill.
Four weeks after Volkswagen’s hourly employees narrowly voted against representation by the United Auto Workers, supporters and opponents of the Detroit-based union are still battling over whether the UAW should be recognized at the VW plant in Chattanooga. The UAW said Wednesday it will appeal a decision to allow business groups backing local Volkswagen workers to intervene in the union’s bid for a new election at the VW plant in Chattanooga. The union is asking the full 5-member National Labor Relations Board to review a staff decision to include the National Right to Work Legal Foundation and Southern Momentum in the debate over the UAW’s election appeal.
Four central office employees of Anderson County Schools will get hefty checks soon representing unpaid overtime racked up over decades. The assessment follows a special U.S. Department of Labor audit. School officials were told to make the payouts totaling $84,783.02 for overtime accumulated for periods ranging up to 30 years, said school system budget chief James T. Woodward Sr. The school system was assessed no penalties or liquidated damages for the unpaid overtime, Woodward said. He said the school system is now trying to bring its overtime bookkeeping records into compliance with Labor Department standards.
Shelby County Schools administrators are planning a budget for the next school year that includes 4,673 fewer positions than existed in Fall 2013, the first year Memphis City Schools merged with SCS. Assuming thousands of employees are likely to find employment with the six new suburban school districts next fall, roughly 800 SCS employees will be out of a job next year, district administrators told The Commercial Appeal’s editorial board Wednesday. The district’s 2014-15 general fund expenditures are expected to decline 19.1 percent, or $227.3 million, to $961.3 million, from $1.2 billion during the current school year.
We note with interest that Gov. Bill Haslam this week announced more jobs coming to Tennessee. The German medical products manufacturer, Fresenius Medical Care North America, will locate its new manufacturing facility in Knoxville, the governor’s home town, bringing an estimated 665 jobs to East Tennessee. While we are pleased for our fellow Tennesseans in the Knoxville area, we once again feel obligated to remind the governor that Tennessee extends west of the Tennessee River. Fresenius will invest $140 million to convert an existing facility to its new use. The expected jobs will pump an estimated $20 million directly into the Knoxville area economy through employee wages.
As we all know, great schools are the backbone of a prosperous community — they attract businesses and help maintain national competitiveness. By enhancing education and involving more parents in the teaching process, we do more than just prepare students for college and entry into the workforce — we preserve the economic well-being of our state. This year, in conjunction with state Sen. Mike Bell, I have proposed legislation in the House which I believe will move the Tennessee educational bar forward by overhauling the way our State Textbook Commission conducts business while also helping to empower parents to become more involved in the daily lives of our students.
Admit it: Monday was tough. First day back at work or school after losing the hour of sleep Saturday night with the spring forward to daylight saving time. The extra hour of daylight in the afternoons is nice this time of year. It’s not dark when we leave work. The kids can play outside after school. But do we really want DST year-round in Tennessee? State Rep. Curry Todd generated considerable attention last month after filing his bill that, as originally worded, would have taken Tennessee out of DST. But he said the bill was drafted incorrectly; what he really wanted to do is have DST year-round in the state. He has an amendment to the bill that would accomplish that.