This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
A shot at higher education without debt is getting a big response from high school seniors. Thousands of students have applied for the Tennessee Promise scholarship. For many high school seniors, the cost of a college education stands in the way of their dreams. “My dream job is to become a businessman,” said Darren Cummings, a high school senior. Cummings is one of the 56,000 students applying for the Tennessee Promise, a statewide scholarship awarded for the first time to the class of 2015 that pays tuition for a community college or technical school. “When you can take this Tennessee Promise scholarship and go to a two-year free of charge, you’d be silly to get student loans ,” said Cara Stone, a counselor at Stratford High School.
Although the first deadline, Nov. 1, has passed, students who plan to participate in Tennessee Promise face several more deadlines for participaton in the program. State officials indicate that more than 56,000 high school students have applied for the program that will provide “last dollar” scholarships, so participants can attend two years of community college or technical school. Students may use the Tennessee Promise grant at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology or other eligible institutions that offer associate degree programs, officials said. A last-dollar scholarship covers tuitions and fees that other federal, state or institutional financial aid programs do not cover. Tennessee Promise is both a scholarship program and a mentoring program, state officials said.
Gov. Bill Haslam and fellow Republicans in the General Assembly are putting forward plans for how to select Tennessee Supreme Court justices under a constitutional amendment ratified by voters this week. Tuesday’s vote largely kept the current system in which appeals judges are selected by the governor and then stand for uncontested votes on whether to retain or replace them. Supporters said the amendment was necessary to clear up any lingering controversy over whether the judicial selection method conflicted with language in the state constitution that said justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.”
Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday issued an executive order setting up the latest entity that will recommend to him candidates for vacancies in the state’s trial and appellate courts. Haslam’s order, which came just days after voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution, creates the Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments and gives it 11 members, six fewer than its predecessor, the Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments. Those 11 will consist of three people each from the state’s western, middle and eastern divisions as well as two at-large members. As before, they will send Haslam a panel of three names to consider for bench openings. The governor’s choices will then have to be confirmed by the General Assembly.
Gov. Bill Haslam has announced the launch of a website that will give Tennesseans the ability to offer input on more than 2,000 education standards. The process will cover only two subjects for grades K-12, math and English language arts. Standards are the goals that students are expected to learn and master in a given subject area each year. More than 1,000 standards exist for English language arts, while upwards of 900 are defined for math. Both subjects encompass the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee adopted four years ago. Butch Campbell, Murfreesboro City Board of Education chairman, said during his years as an educator, standards were always reviewed near the end of the process.
International businesses have long been on Tennessee’s recruitment radar. Nissan North America and Volkswagen come to mind as the largest employers fitting the bill in the Volunteer State. But in February 2013, Bill Hagerty and the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development launched a new strategy to energize and boost the recruitment of international business to the state. “It’s got to be a significant component,” Hagerty, the department’s commissioner, told me this week of recruiting foreign companies to Tennessee. “The economy is becoming more and more global. … The states that understand this will do better in the long-run.”
For Madge Boggild the opening of the new $21.5 million bridge over the Tennessee River at Haletown, Tenn., brought her relationship with the crossing on U.S. Highway 41 full circle. Boggild was a grade-schooler when she rode over the Tennessee River in the bed of a Ford Model T truck when the first bridge over the river at Haletown was opened in 1929. In 2012, she rode across it again in the last vehicle to cross with its closure. On Friday, she drove the first vehicle to cross the 1929-era span’s 21st Century replacement as part of its official opening. That opening came more than a year after the project’s original completion date of August 2013.
Former state Rep. Barrett Rich is starting a new career in public service as a member of the Tennessee Board of Parole. Haslam announced the appointment of the Somerville Republican to the board in August, but it couldn’t take effect until after the Nov. 4 general election, when Rich’s term in the Legislature officially ended. He was elected in 2008 to represent the 94th District. A native of Fayette County, Rich is a former member of the Tennessee Highway Patrol. His appointment to the Parole Board is effective from November 5, 2014 through December 31, 2019.
State Republican legislative leaders want to cut the Tennessee sales tax rate from 7 percent to 6.75 percent. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, pre-filed identical bills this week calling for the cut to the state’s largest source of tax revenue. “It’s time to have a serious discussion about state revenue,” Norris said Friday afternoon. “Putting the sales tax on the table helps us frame the issue, I think. It will be more helpful in framing the issue, and having a healthy discussion.” In the last budget year, Tennessee earned about $7.2 billion from sales tax revenue, according to statistics from the Department of Revenue. A 0.25 percent reduction could represent hundreds of millions of dollars in lost state tax revenue, although state officials could not give an exact figure yet.
While some Republican state legislators want to eliminate one tax that affects about 125,000 individual Tennesseans and some 21,000 entities, two top GOP leaders say lawmakers should instead consider lowering one that would help millions. State House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, this week filed a bill that would cut Tennessee’s sales tax rate from 7 percent to 6.75 percent. The sales tax paid by everyone who buys items ranging from chewing gum and baby food to clothes and cars generated about $7.2 billion last year in revenue. Several lawmakers, meanwhile, intend to renew a push to eliminate the Hall income tax on stock dividends and bond interest, which is expected to generate about $264 million for state an local governments in the current budget.
Tennessee’s tax on income from stock dividends and interest on certain bonds would be phased out over three years starting in 2016 under a bill filed Thursday by state Sen. Brian Kelsey. The bill was filed after Tuesday’s ratification of Amendment 3 to the state constitution, banning any new state or local personal income tax on earned income — including wages and salaries — and any payroll tax measured by income. The amendment explicitly exempts and has no effect on the existing tax on stock dividend and certain interest income, called the “Hall income tax.” But Kelsey cited the amendment’s 66 to 34 percent approval and said, “Now it’s time to eliminate the Hall tax.” His bill would keep the Hall tax at 6 percent through 2015, cut it to 4 percent in 2016, 2 percent in 2017 and eliminate it in 2018. But it’s likely to put the senator on a collision course with Gov. Bill Haslam, who said last week the state can’t yet afford to abolish the tax. It generates about $270 million a year, and 5/8ths of the revenue flows to the state and 3/8ths to the city or county where the taxpayer lives.
The midterm election saw contrasting issues and candidates, particularly in Tennessee where an incumbent governor and U.S. senator were both re-elected while four amendments to the state Constitution were passed. There were no surprises in the re-elections of Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. Nationally, Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate in a series of defeats that saw the GOP take over five Democratic-held seats. And while that swing of power nationally is important to note, in Tennessee the news was focused more on ballot questions dealing with abortion, alcohol, games of chance, judicial selections and a state income tax.
Opponents of Amendment 1 are asking a federal judge to void the vote that amended the Tennessee Constitution to make it easier for lawmakers to restrict abortions. In a lawsuit filed late Friday in federal court, plaintiffs say the state ignored the plain language of the constitution, which says it can be amended by “a majority of all the citizens in the state voting for governor, voting in … favor” of the amendment. The plaintiffs want the judge to order the state to count only those Amendment 1 votes where the voters also cast ballots for governor. If that is impossible, they want the vote voided. Plaintiffs say the state allowed some voters to game the system by voting for the amendment and skipping the governor’s race.
A former Tennessee House of Representatives candidate says poll workers in Monroe County broke election law during early voting by distributing a misleading, politically slanted guide covering the four constitutional amendments on the Nov. 4 ballot. Pamela Weston, a Democrat who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the House District 21 post, filed a complaint with Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office Friday. In the complaint, Weston said poll workers at two early voting locations in Monroe County had given voters the guides when questioned about the amendments on the ballot from Oct. 16 to Oct. 22. In a phone interview Friday, Weston said the guide was written solely to influence voters. The worst examples were its instructions on Amendment 1, the so-called abortion amendment, and Amendment 3, the income tax amendment, she said.
The GOP takeover of the U.S. Senate has raised the stock of Republicans across the nation, but Tennessee’s position on Capitol Hill is one of the more envious. The Volunteer State has ranking representation in three of the top Senate committees, overseeing policy on education, infrastructure, health care, labor and foreign policy. Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, just elected to a third term, is in line to become chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — which has the largest jurisdiction of all Senate committees. He also is set to lead the appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. That means he will have some leverage to chip away at the Affordable Care Act, pour money into the Chickamauga lock and replace the No Child Left Behind Act, which Republicans have criticized as a government takeover of education. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker is plugging away at his second term and is in line to lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker said Friday he is not giddy about the new GOP-ruled Senate but has “a great sense of humility.” He said the first order of business will not be to push legislation through, but to get the Senate operating responsibly.
Two Tennessee Republican congressmen are hailing today’s announcement that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a new challenge to the Affordable Care Act. The justices will decide whether the law authorizes the Internal Revenue Service to approve tax subsidies aimed at helping millions of low- to middle-income people pay for health insurance through federally operated exchanges. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 151,352 Tennesseans had selected a private insurance plan through the federally operated exchange. That came after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam refused to set up a state-run exchange. It was not immediately clear how many of these are eligible for subsidies. The announcement drew praise from U.S. Reps. Scott DesJarlais and Diane Black.
Gordon Ball, who lost his bid for U.S. Senate Tuesday, has filed for divorce. The complaint filed in Knox County Chancery Court names his wife of 10 months, Marjorie Happy Hayes Peterson Ball, as the defendant. “I really don’t have any comment on it,” Ball said when contacted via mobile phone by the News Sentinel. “The campaign was very stressful and we’re getting a divorce.” On Tuesday Ball, a Democrat, lost his challenge to incumbent U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, by almost a two-to-one margin. Both men are from East Tennessee; Alexander is a former governor from Maryville, Ball is a multimillionaire attorney living in Knoxville.
Since the Common Core’s creation in 2009, forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core as a set of educational standards to teach in schools. Despite being recommended by the federal government, these standards are increasingly facing scrutiny and disapproval from the American public and politicians across the aisle. Now that the midterm election cycle has come to a close and the presidential cycle has in many senses just begun, candidates have seized on growing public disapproval of the standards to garner votes and support. The issue is unique in the fact that Democrats have joined Republican candidates in bashing the Core and completely opposing the standards. The Common Core was first developed during Janet Napolitano’s tenure as Governor of Arizona and chair of the National Governor’s Association as an initiative aimed at improving math and science education in public schools.
Attorneys in the same-sex marriage cases in four states, including Tennessee, will begin immediately drafting an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes the justices will take up the case in the current term. Regina Lambert, attorney for Knoxville plaintiffs Val Tanco and Sophy Jesty, said her colleagues in Tennessee and the other states agreed in a conference call Friday to file for appeal. Once it is filed, the states will have an opportunity to respond. If the Supreme Court does not take up the issue this term, it could be June 2016 before a ruling is made. “It’s just time, and during that time, people are living, as you heard Sophy and Val say, in uncertainty,” said Lambert.
President Obama will nominate Loretta E. Lynch, the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, to be the next attorney general, reaching outside his inner circle to fill a key post, the White House said Friday. If confirmed, Ms. Lynch, 55, would be the first African-American woman to be the nation’s top law enforcement official. Mr. Obama will announce her selection at a ceremony Saturday in the Roosevelt Room. He will be joined by Ms. Lynch and Eric H. Holder Jr., the current attorney general, who has announced his plans to step down. “Ms. Lynch is a strong, independent prosecutor who has twice led one of the most important U.S. attorney’s offices in the country,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said.
The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a new challenge to the Affordable Care Act, potentially imperiling President Obama’s signature legislative achievement two years after it survived a different Supreme Court challenge by a single vote. The case concerns tax subsidies that currently help millions of people afford health insurance under the law. According to the challengers, those subsidies are being provided unlawfully in three dozen states that have decided not to run the marketplaces, known as exchanges, for insurance coverage. If the challengers are right, people receiving subsidies in those states would become ineligible for them, destabilizing and perhaps dooming the law.
The state’s wrongheaded bias will cost us — in dollars, time and hearts. Especially after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Thursday closed the door on gay marriage in Tennessee by upholding an eight-year-old Tennessee constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and which does not recognize same-sex marriages from other states. The ruling will be a wasteful delay as we wait for what comes next. The U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 6 turned away appeals from states seeking to prohibit gay and lesbian marriages, choosing not to decide on same-sex marriage cases. But this 6th Circuit appellate ruling by three justices in a 2-1 division puts a new light on that stance: The 6th Circuit’s ruling veers away from more than 20 other appellate court decisions that favor supporters of same-sex marriage since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year
If it’s still possible to inject sanity into the marriage argument, maybe there’s a third way out there. Save marriage for the institution it is, between one man and one woman, and allow the individual states to craft civil unions with some of the benefits previously unavailable for those in domestic partnerships. As it is now, the status of marriage is likely heading for the United States Supreme Court, which would feel compelled to take up the case it rejected earlier this year because there now are differing opinions on its status handed down from various U.S. Circuit Courts. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said as much recently, indicating the pending ruling from the 6th Circuit — announced late Thursday afternoon — could add “some urgency” to the debate.
The Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion remains one of health care reform’s most hotly contested provisions. The arguments surrounding the expansion have largely focused on the economic and political implications of expanding Medicaid. While these ramifications are certainly worthy of meticulous debate, there are important medical ramifications of the Medicaid expansion as well. A recent Wall Street Journal article cites significant Medicaid backlogs in certain states, which could be made much worse by the Medicaid expansion. There are hundreds of thousands of people across the country who have signed up for Medicaid and have waited months for coverage.