This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday that lawmakers still have a “ways to go” in reaching a consensus on his school voucher legislation, particularly in the House, where the proposal has stalled. But the Republican governor told reporters after speaking at a higher education event organized by the Tennessee Business Roundtable that he’s optimistic a measured approach to his proposal will prevail. “I think at the end of the day we want to get something done,” he said. “We’re having … discussions now.” Vouchers — or “opportunity scholarships” — give parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school, with the state providing tuition funds.
Tennessee colleges and universities are staring at state funding that would be $20 million short of the level recommended to carry out a plan that’s supposed to reward schools based on performance. That could trigger tuition hikes at some campuses for the 2014-15 year greater than the 2 to 4 percent increases suggested last fall. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission in November recommended that the state allocate $29.6 million more funds to carry out an outcomes-based funding formula that came from the 2010 Complete College Tennessee Act. Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed 2014-15 budget would deliver just $9.3 million in additional higher education dollars, enough to cover only 1 percent salary increases required for employees.
WGU Tennessee is launching a new bachelor’s degree program for software design. The program, which will offer a bachelor’s degree in software development, is currently accepting enrollees for a June 1 launch. The program will include coursework in software engineering, project management and mobile application development, and will prepare students for careers in those areas. This and other WGU Tennessee programs focus on non-traditional students and working adults looking to enhance their skills. Kimberly Estep, chancellor of WGU Tennessee, said the program was created to meet the growing needs employers have for people who can write code, and to accommodate the increasing use of mobile applications in the business world.
Davidson County saw its unemployment rate in February rise to 5.6 percent from the 5.3 percent mark in January. According to figures the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development released today, Davidson had for the month the lowest jobless rate of the state’s four major metropolitan counties. The Knox County (Knoxville) February rate was 5.7 percent, up from 5.5 percent. Hamilton County (Chattanooga) was 6.9 percent, down from 7.1 percent. Shelby County (Memphis) was 8.4 percent, down from 8.5 percent. Williamson County had the state’s lowest jobless rate in February at 4.7 percent.
Unemployment increased in two-thirds of Tennessee counties in February, with Davidson County among them. According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, unemployment increased in 61 counties in February, decreased in 21 and remained flat in 13. Davidson County’s unemployment rate increased to 5.6 percent, up from 5.3 percent in January. Williamson County, which maintained the lowest unemployment rate in the state, nonetheless saw its rate increase to 4.7 percent, up from 4.5 percent in January.
Montgomery County’s unemployment rate between January and February rose ever-so-slightly to 7.2 percent, according to newest figures released Thursday by the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development. The monthly jobless increase was a miniscule 0.1 percentage points. The new Clarksville rate is reflected in 5,470 people who were out of work in February according to the state, out of an estimated countywide labor force of 75,700. The Clarksville area has a jobless rate now that is 0.8 percentage points lower than at this time a year ago. For the four-county Clarksville, Tenn.-Ky.
State Department of Commerce and Insurance officials are cautioning uninsured Tennesseans that they may find it challenging to get health insurance if they wait after the March 31 deadline for open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act. Insurers say one of the reasons for the deadline is to make sure people don’t wait until they get sick to purchase health insurance. Open enrollment ends March 31, but people who have started an application but were not able to finish enrolling will be given a short amount of extra time. People who lose job-based insurance or have other life-changing events may be able to enroll after the deadline.
The state fire marshal’s office is urging Tennessee residents to create an escape plan in case there’s a fire in their home. According to the National Fire Protection Association, one-third of American households estimate that it would take at least six minutes before a fire in their home became life-threatening. However, Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak says fire is unpredictable and moves faster than people realize. She says creating and practicing an escape plan can help get individuals out of their home quickly and safely during an emergency.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says worse-than-expected revenue collections could force Tennessee to cancel planned pay raises for state employees and reduce planned investments in higher education. The Blountville Republican told reporters at his weekly news conference on Thursday that he had not yet heard the outlines of fellow Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposals to deal with the shortfall. But Ramsey expressed a preference for finding the savings among bigger ticket items rather than spread among a large number of small projects. The state’s general fund revenues have fallen $260 million short of projections through the first seven months of the budget year.
Governor Bill Haslam will have to run it by lawmakers, if he settles on a plan to expand Medicaid in Tennessee. That’s the requirement laid out in a bill that has now passed both chambers of the state legislature. The bill originally would’ve altogether barred what Senator Brian Kelsey termed an “Obamacare Medicaid expansion.” But state estimates put the cost to Tennessee in forgone federal revenue in the billions, so Kelsey’s bill was watered down; as amended, it makes Haslam seek approval from lawmakers, which the governor already said he would do anyway. The requirement may be a moot point, if no Medicaid proposal emerges in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Senate staked a hard line against The Amp on Thursday, passing a bill that would block the bus rapid transit project and any other like it in Nashville. Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a broad ban on mass transit projects in Nashville, moving ahead of their House counterparts, who have been working on a bill with fewer restrictions. The 27-4 vote followed a push by opponents of the project, including the libertarian group Americans for Prosperity, to bring about a Senate vote and keep proponents on their heels. Democratic state Sen. Thelma Harper was the only Nashville senator to vote against the measure, an amended version of Senate Bill 2243.
The state Senate voted Thursday to throw a major wrench into Nashville’s proposed bus rapid transit line, known as the Amp. The move to bar the Amp’s use of a dedicated center lane, jeopardizing crucial federal funding for the project, passed 27 to 4, with backing from several Nashville senators. After the vote, opponents of the Amp gave thanks to the Arlington, Virginia-based national conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity. The group’s director in Tennessee, Andrew Ogles, argues the center lane design “defies logic.” “We’re not against mass transit. I think in many circumstances it can be beneficial, but this project, as drawn, under the current fiscal environment, is just a bad idea.”
The state Senate approved a bill Thursday to require voter approval by referendums in areas that towns and cities want to annex into their city limits before the annexations can occur. If the House of Representatives follows suit next Wednesday and the bill becomes law, it would end six decades in which Tennessee cities could annex new territory by passage of ordinances by city councils and without referendums. Before 1955, annexations were approved by the state legislature at the request of municipalities. Annexation has been the main vehicle for growth by the City of Memphis, but there and across the state, it has aroused opposition by annexed residents who often fought long court battles to block annexation, usually unsuccessfully.
State senators on Thursday overwhelmingly approved the most far-reaching change ever in Tennessee’s nearly 60-year-old annexation laws, teeing up the bill for final passage next week on the House floor. The Senate voted 27-1 for the bill by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, that eliminates cities’ power to acquire new territory by ordinances, which critics deride as “forced annexation.” The House version, sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, is set for consideration Wednesday. If the bill passes the House and is signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, cities could annex properties only with the owners’ consent or by a public referendum vote.
The state Senate on Thursday passed a consolidated bill that, if passed by the House and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, would end municipal annexation by ordinance, halt annexation of farmland and require a referendum for any annexation, whether requested by municipalities or property owners. “The days of annexation by ordinance are over,” state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said from Nashville. “With three separate annexation bills working, we decided to all get together and combine them into one bill — SB 2464. We determined the best way to do this was to completely do away with annexation by ordinance.”
A proposal that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school is advancing in the Senate. The so-called parent trigger legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown was approved 8-1 in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. Sponsors say the measure, which failed last year, gives parents a say-so at the table and another option to better educate their children. Under the proposal, if 51 percent of parents at a school in the bottom 10 percent of failing schools believe a drastic change is needed, they can then select from several “turnaround models.” For instance, they may want to convert it to a charter school or change the administrators.
State legislators Thursday paid a memorial tribute to Will McKamey, a Naval Academy football player from Knoxville, and Sen. Randy McNally moved to have a section of Oak Ridge Highway named in his honor. McKamey, 19, died Tuesday in a Maryland hospital after collapsing during a spring practice session at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on Saturday. On the Senate floor, McNally, R-Oak Ridge, made a brief speech at the outset of Thursday’s session in recognition of McKamey, who had been awarded a statewide “Mr. Football” title while playing for Grace Christian Academy.
Democrats marked the anniversary of Gov. Bill Haslam’s promise to seek a “Tennessee Plan” to expand Medicaid to more people with a press conference Thursday in which they urged him to take action. The Republican governor promised a year ago that he would work with federal officials to develop a unique expansion program that would offer coverage to about 175,000 low-income Tennesseans modeled after private health insurance. But several members of the state House of Representatives said he has been too slow to complete his proposal. “Tennesseans can no longer wait for Governor Haslam to find political cover to expand Medicaid,” said state Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville. “We need real leadership today.”
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius visited Nashville on Thursday and warned that not expanding Medicaid in Tennessee could leave thousands uninsured. Tennessee is among the states that have not decided whether to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. Sebelius said not expanding the program for low-income Tennesseans would create a significant gulf in coverage. “So there’s still a big gap,” Sebelius said. “In Tennessee, it could leave half-a-million people still without affordable options,” citing a figure more than three times higher than the one often used by state officials.
A line of Chattanooga residents looking for work, unemployment benefits, job training or a mixture of all three backed up to the door at the Tennessee Career Center at Eastgate Town Center on Thursday. Tom Smith chatted with strangers waiting near him. “There are plenty of jobs,” he said. “But they don’t pay anything.” In fact, a new U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study reveals that Tennessee leads the nation in the share of workers being paid at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The BLS estimates that 7.4 percent of Tennessee’s workforce — or 117,000 workers — was paid minimum wage or less last year.
The Tennessee Republican Party won’t formally distance itself from organizers of an anti-Islam event being thrown in Nashville this weekend. But the event’s organizers are quick to distance themselves from average Republicans. Calling themselves “the Republican Wing of the Republican Party,” the Tennessee Republican Assembly will host anti-Islam activists Michael Del Rosso and Andy Miller at its annual conference Saturday. But according to assembly President Sharon Ford’s Facebook page, Frank Gaffney, a nationally recognized anti-Islam author and speaker who testified in a lawsuit aimed at stopping Murfreesboro mosque construction, had to bail on the event due to a scheduling conflict.
UnitedHealthcare is hiring 200 customer service representatives in Tennessee to manage TennCare Medicaid enrollees, with 113 positions to be filled immediately. The UnitedHealth Group company is hiring representatives responsible for customer service and claims processing. The 200 hires will add to United Healthcare’s more than 2,000 employees in Tennessee. They will work at the company’s central offices in Maryland Farms’ Creekside Crossing II. “Employees who work at UnitedHealthcare in Tennessee help meet the health care needs of hundreds of thousands of Tennessee residents, and we look forward to adding more local talent to help us serve our members,” Scott Bowers, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Tennessee, said in a release.
Nashville’s college football bowl game each December has become major business for Music City during an otherwise weak time for tourism. Last year’s Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl brought over 40,000 out-of-town fans to Nashville and had a $19.6 million impact on the local economy, according to research made public Thursday by the Nashville Sports Council. The bowl game has had a total economic impact of nearly $250 million over its 16-year history. Tourism officials believe the bowl game, while not a top-tier postseason college football game such as the Rose Bowl or the Sugar Bowl, is critical to the Nashville economy because it brings in visitors at a down time for the hospitality business.
Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson asked the school board at a retreat Thursday to back an ambitious goal to boost the number of the district’s graduates who are ready for careers or college from roughly 30 percent today to 80 percent by 2025. Over the next nine months, Hopson and district administrators said they will create a plan designed to improve graduates’ performance. The board will be asked to approve the plan in December. The district aims to bolster its high school graduation rate to 90 percent, from 70 percent today.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s conservative approach to creating a school voucher program in Tennessee appears to be making progress in the General Assembly. The measure was withdrawn by the governor last year when lawmakers attempted to broaden it far beyond its intended purpose by greatly expanding the population of students it would cover, allowing them to use public education funding to attend private schools. Public school vouchers are not a solution to poor public schools. At best, vouchers represent a stopgap measure to offer immediate help to a limited number of students in failing public schools.