September 17 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.

Haslam, Bredesen to talk judicial amendment at UT (Associated Press)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and his Democratic predecessor, Phil Bredesen, are appearing at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on Wednesday in support of a proposed constitutional amendment on the merit selection of appeals and Supreme Court judges. The event at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy will be moderated by UT College of Law Dean Doug Blaze. Voters will decide in November whether to approve the constitutional amendment, which would keep the current system of having the governor appoint the state’s top judges. It would also add a provision to give the state Legislature the power to reject the governor’s nominees Some opponents of the measure call for popular election contests for justices instead of yes-no retention votes every eight years.  (SUBSCRIPTION)

MTSU tops in Tennessee Board of Regents enrollment (Daily News Journal)
Middle Tennessee State University remains the largest institution in the Tennessee Board of Regents system, despite a decline in enrollment from last year, figures released Sept. 12 show. MTSU also welcomed TBR’s largest class of freshmen and transfer students for the 2014 fall semester and set a new record for international enrollment, according to a news release. In addition, the class of 2018 had an average ACT of 22.3, a slight increase over the record mark of 22 put forward by last year’s freshmen. MTSU’s Fall 2014 head count is 22,729, which includes 20,262 undergraduates and 2,467 graduate students. The university’s enrollment is down 4.82 percent over last year. The university welcomed 2,932 freshmen and 1,809 transfer students this fall.

MTSU Enrollment Decline Causes Funding Cuts, Worries About TN Promise (WPLN)
MTSU is seeing lower than expected enrollment this fall with 1,000 fewer students sitting in its classrooms. This concerns Steve Morris, the political science department chair, who has seen a big drop in students choosing poli-sci degrees. He worries what this will mean when the state launches Tennessee Promise next fall, which will allow students to attend state community colleges for free. “Many of us envision that’s it’s going to have a dramatic effect, and so enrollment will continue to be a challenge,” Morris says. Governor Bill Haslam doesn’t see the drop enrollment as anything alarming, nor does he think Tennessee Promise will have a negative effect on four-year schools. “When you look back at 2008-2009, the economy was softened and college attendance went up,” Haslam says.

TSU’s new buildings a hub for agricultural research (Tennessean/Tamburin)
Tennessee State University is opening three buildings on its campus today, and administrators say the multimillion-dollar investment is emblematic of the expanding national footprint of the research done there. The centerpiece of the additions is the Agricultural Biotechnology Building, which is the first new building constructed at TSU since 2006. Its $8 million price tag was bankrolled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the past few years, research funding at TSU’s College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Sciences has tripled, according to Dean Chandra Reddy. The jump in funding has been met by climbing enrollment at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Issues with 911 calls affecting thousands in Tennessee (WSMV-TV Nashville)
Officials are warning thousands not to dial 911 because certain calls are being dropped, disrupted and rerouted in several Tennessee counties. It involves calls coming from cell phones. Many are AT&T, but other carriers are affected as well. Sixteen of the affected counties are in West Tennessee. “We are diligently working around the clock with all parties involved trying to resolve this issue,” said Amber McDonald with the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board. TEMA and the Emergency Communications Board sent out news releases and have also sent text alerts to those living in the problem areas. Anyone passing through the affected area should get that text warning as well. Instead of calling 911, callers have to dial a 10-digit number. Each of the affected counties have their own individual phone number.

Report says income inequality undermines sales tax revenue growth (C. Appeal)
Income inequality has undermined the rate of sale tax revenue growth in Tennessee, Arkansas and other states reliant on sales taxes, says credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s. “States generate the bulk of their revenue from taxes levied on current economic activity, namely personal income and consumption. Therefore, when the economy operates below its potential, state tax revenues tend to suffer,” the New York agency wrote in a report released Monday. In Tennessee, sales tax collections rose 5.88 percent on average from 1990 to 1999, and 3.78 percent from 2000 through 2009. Since then, collections have averaged 4.34 percent. In Mississippi, sales tax revenue rose 7.22 percent on average between 1990 and 1990, and slumped to a 3.56-percent average between 2000 and 2009.

TDOT funding to overhaul stoplight hardware (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
The Knoxville City Council on Tuesday approved an agreement between the city and TDOT that would fund upgrades to the city’s traffic signals and improve traffic flow. The project will cost about $7 million. $1.4 million of that will come from the city. The funding will help replace the computer hardware in about half the city’s traffic signals. Knoxville’s director of engineering says the systems that run Knoxville’s traffic lights are out of date. “We have a lot of really outdated equipment in some of those boxes. Some of it as old as 25 years old and if you have a computer at home that’s 25 years old, you know what we’re dealing with,” said Jim Hagerman.

Ramsey told two justices he hoped for a “more conservative” AG (CA/Collins)
In the weeks after his failed effort to unseat three Democrats on the Tennessee Supreme Court, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey invited two of the three judges to breakfast separately — to “bury the hatchet” and encourage the selection of a “more conservative” state attorney general, Ramsey said Tuesday. The Republican speaker drafted a strategy and spent at least $425,000 from his PAC, or political action fund, to defeat Justices Connie Clark, Sharon Lee and Gary Wade in their Aug. 7 retention election. But in the last week of August, he met privately with Wade at a Cracker Barrel at the Sevierville exit of Interstate 40, and with Lee, the new chief justice, at Noshville Delicatessen in Nashville.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey spins wins out of defeats (Associated Press/Schelzig)
State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has a way of turning spectacular failures into soaring victories. The latest example is his attempt to beat Democratic state Supreme Court justices in last month’s retention elections as a way to install a Republican attorney general. The ouster effort was solidly defeated at the polls, but the court this week still decided to replace incumbent Attorney General Bob Cooper, a Democrat, with Republican Herbert Slatery. “He somehow always seems to win, even when he’s losing,” said Will Pinkston, who was an aide to former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. “It’s really just a function of being willing to roll the dice and take risks. The Democrats could learn a thing or two from him.”

Senate candidate confronts opponent about a debate on UT’s Campus (WATE)
The Democratic State Senate candidate confronted her Republican opponent Tuesday about a debate. Cheri Siler, State Sen. District 7 Democratic candidate, says she just wants intelligent discourse about the issues, but Republican candidate Richard Briggs hasn’t responded to her invitation. According to Siler, Briggs initiated the idea of a debate in a political function that they both attended. “He said that we could have some intelligent discourse about the issues,” says Siler, “and I was really looking forward to that.” Briggs offered the contact of his campaign manager and said that the voters had enough information about his views.

Tennessee, neighbors buck U.S. trend of falling poverty levels (TFP)
The nation’s poverty rate dropped last year for the first time since 2006, but the number of Tennesseans living below the poverty line increased in the most recent two-year period, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. Nationwide, the poverty rank fell to 14.5 percent from 15 percent in 2012, driven by an increase in people with full-time jobs last year. The number of people working full time rose last year by about 6.4 million to 105.8 million, including nearly 1 million households with children under 18 years old. Employment also improved across the mid-South. But poverty rates in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama remained above the national average. In Tennessee and Georgia, one of every six residents was in poverty during the most recent 2012-2013 survey by the Census Bureau.

Alexander puts forward NLRB reform bill (Nashville Business Journal)
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, alongside Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R- Ky.), introduced a bill Tuesday to reform the National Labor Relations Board. Alexander told reporters Tuesday the legislation aims to make the NLRB “an umpire rather than an advocate” in labor disputes. The bill, the “NLRB Reform Act,” targets ending “partisanship” on the board, encouraging timely decisions and reining in activist NLRB general counsels. Alexander’s bill would increase the NLRB board from five members to six, requiring three Democrats and three Republicans (a majority of 4 would be needed to make a decision). “The board is too partisan, swinging from one side to the other with each new administration – taking employers and employees on a wild ride,” Alexander said.

Sen. Alexander seeks to reform federal labor board (News-Sentinel/Collins)
The federal board that mediates labor disputes between employers and their workers would undergo major reforms under legislation U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander says would make the panel act more like an umpire and less like a partisan advocate. The National Labor Relations Board “is too partisan, swinging from one side to the other with each new administration — taking employers and employees on a wild ride,” said Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. While the board’s partisan slant didn’t start under President Barack Obama, “it’s gotten worse as he’s loaded the board with union insiders,” Alexander said.

TN Republicans seize on report about abortion coverage (Tennessean/Shesgreen)
Tennessee lawmakers seized on a nonpartisan report Tuesday that found insurance companies are not complying with an abortion financing provision included in President Barack Obama’s health care reform law. The report — issued late Monday by the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan congressional agency — added new fuel to a long-simmering debate over whether the Affordable Care Act funnels federal tax dollars to pay for insurance that covers abortions. In its report, the GAO found that only one of 18 insurers it reviewed was separately itemizing a charge for coverage of elective abortions on enrollees’ bills — as required by the ACA.

Sen. Alexander continues warning about Ebola as Obama sends troops (WKRN-TV)
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander minced no words again Monday in describing the Ebola epidemic that has killed thousands in three West African countries. “We should treat the Ebola virus as seriously as we treat the danger of ISIS,” said the Tennessee lawmaker on the U.S. Senate floor. He went on to say, “Why would I say such a thing?” Senator Alexander said he would use descriptions from the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and the head of the U-S Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta who have called it “one of the most deadly explosive epidemics in modern times.” Alexander continued their description of the deadly virus by saying “it moves rapidly.

‘Hybrid’ candidate Ball hopes to unseat Alexander (Johnson City Press)
Though he returned to Johnson City to greet local Democrats and hear their concerns, U.S. Senate hopeful Gordon Ball had already spent a portion of his day answering questions. On Tuesday evening at Alta Cucina, local members of the Democratic Party held a gathering to host and show their support for Ball, the party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Lamar Alexander. A Cocke County native, former lawyer and East Tennessee State University alum, Ball won the party’s nomination after garnering 87,665 Democratic votes in the Aug. 7 primary. Tuesday’s event was organized by local attorney and active Democrat Tom Jessee, who said he believed his party had found a winner in Ball.

Grant to help reduce worker misclassification (Associated Press)
Tennessee is among 19 states receiving more than $10 million to ensure workers are accurately classified in unemployment insurance programs. Tennessee’s grant is $499,260. The funds will be used to help state unemployment insurance tax programs identify instances where employers improperly classify employees as independent contractors or fail to report wages paid to workers. The states selected will also use the funds for improvements and initiatives, including enhancing employer audit programs and conducting employer education initiatives. While several states have existing programs designed to reduce worker misclassification, this is the first year that the U.S. Department of Labor has awarded grants dedicated to this effort.

Target failure shuts down SNS; key vessel must be replaced (N-S/Munger)
The Spallation Neutron Source, one of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s major research facilities, has been shut down because of an unexpected problem with the vessel that holds the mercury target — a critical component in the production of neutrons. In the meantime, experiments have been placed on hold. “We have begun the target replacement process, and should resume operation for users within two weeks,” Ron Crone, ORNL’s acting assistant lab director for neutron sciences, said via email. During operations, the 20-ton mercury target — which flows through the stainless-steel target vessel — is pounded 60 times a second by powerful pulses of a proton beam.

‘Nashville’ gets $1 million from Metro, double last year’s grant (Tennessean/Cass)
Rayna and Deacon can start their third season of country music soap opera drama knowing Metro government is still helping pay the bills — and doubling down on its investment. The Metro Council voted unanimously and without debate Tuesday for a $1 million economic development grant to the local production of ABC’s “Nashville,” which starts its third year on the air next week. The city money, a 100 percent increase from last season’s $500,000 grant, is part of an $8 million incentive package that also involves the state of Tennessee, Ryman Hospitality Properties, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. and the city’s event marketing fund.

Could Nissan’s battery plant be running out of juice? (Tennessean/Williams)
Just as electric vehicle startup Tesla starts work on a $5 billion battery “gigafactory” in Nevada, Japanese automaker Nissan reportedly has begun reassessing its own commitment to making EV batteries, and might even be considering shutting down the $1.4 billion-plus battery plant it opened in Smyrna just two years ago. Although Nissan officially denies that it is backing off of its ambitious EV program, which brought the introduction of the Leaf all-electric car in 2010, the Reuters news service reported that the automaker is “preparing to cut battery manufacturing.” Nissan now makes all of the batteries for its electric vehicles at plants in Smyrna and England.

 

 

 

OPINION

Editorial: The mechanism for appointing a new AG was disappointing (C. Appeal)
Tennessee Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey lost his partisan quest in August to have voters oust three Democratic justices on the state Supreme Court, but he has garnered a measure of revenge. Those three justices joined the court’s two Republican justices on Monday to appoint a Republican, Herbert Slatery, to an eight-year term as state attorney general. The move denied a second term to current Atty. Gen. Robert Cooper, a Democrat. By all accounts Cooper did a good job and his only sin was that he is a Democrat. If there were other reasons he was rejected, the public got cheated out of knowing, because the justices, after promising an open appointment process, made their final decision behind closed doors. After the justices’ decision, Ramsey, who is also lieutenant governor, issued this statement: “As the first Republican attorney general in Tennessee history, Herbert Slatery will be a strong advocate for the people of Tennessee and a vigilant defender of Tennessee’s conservative reforms. … I look forward to working with him to defend our conservative reforms and the legal interests of all Tennesseans.”

Editorial: Reading builds the foundation (Jackson Sun)
Reading to children is vital for their success. Studies have shown children who are read to from infancy through preschool have better language skills and a greater interest in reading when they start school, and thus are more likely to do well in all facets of formal education. Reading to children strengthens the bond between parent and child, which is important for a child’s early brain development, and powerful because young children see parents as the most important people in the world. The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging parents to get involved to help build important language, literacy and social skills. The academy hopes to reduce disparities between wealthier and low-income children, as well as between racial groups, by encouraging parents to read to their young children every day.

Free-Press Editorial: Partisan TVA board disquieting (Times Free-Press)
If the Senate confirms President Barack Obama’s most recent selections for the Tennessee Valley Authority board, its part-time members will for the first time be all Democrats. Residents of the Tennessee Valley should be perturbed but not surprised at this turn of events. Although the part-time board was created in 2005 when Republican George W. Bush was president, TVA never had a full, nine-member board filled by members who supported Republicans during his remaining three-plus years in office. Democrat Skila Harris, who was the last remaining member of the former three-member, full-time board, left in May 2008, nine months before Bush left office.