This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam will begin his annual budget hearings at the state Capitol on Monday. Five agencies are scheduled to make presentations, including the Department of Children’s Services, which oversees a troubled Nashville youth detention facility that recently made national headlines because of rioting and escapes. Critics have said previous budget cuts contributed to problems at the Woodland Hills facility, such as staff reductions and low pay to workers. With state revenues expected to be tight, Haslam asked state departments in August to submit plans detailing how they would cut up to 7 percent of their budgets.
It turns out Kingsport Superintendent Lyle Ailshie isn’t the only local school district leader being talked about as the next Tennessee commissioner of education. Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie and at least one other Northeast Tennessee school chief, Greene County Director of Schools Vicki Kirk, have made at least one list of potential replacements for Kevin Huffman. Huffman resigned earlier this month after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam was re-elected Nov. 4 to a second four-year term. Huffman said he would return to the private sector. Yennie said he had not been contacted by anyone from the Haslam administration about the position.
Relay Graduate School of Education, a partner in a new undergraduate teacher training residency the University of Memphis plans to offer, has filed an application with the state to offer 11 master’s degree programs starting next summer. The university offered Relay free classroom and office space, at least initially. Instruction would be provided by a program dean whom Relay intends to hire, plus four or five adjunct professors. The Commercial Appeal obtained the 448-page Relay application through the Freedom of Information Act. Relay’s approval is central to the university’s plan to offer an alternative certification program geared to undergraduates entering their junior year. The university and the philanthropists envision attracting bright, dedicated students from other majors on campus and from schools around the nation who would be interested in teaching in the city’s high-need schools. Until it’s approved, university president David Rudd says he can say little.
In Tennessee’s incredible shrinking state Senate Democratic Caucus, it seems almost everybody can be a leader. It’s followers who are in short supply. After losing two seats in the Nov. 4 election, the once-mighty Democrats now hold just five seats in the 33-member chamber. The Republicans, meanwhile, expanded the supermajority that gave them absolute control of the Senate. Now the five Democrats — two veterans and three freshmen — have to sort themselves among the four elected caucus leadership positions. That leaves just one lone senator to be the follower of all that leaderly authority. Virtually no one is saying publicly what positions they’re seeking. The undisputed top dog of the caucus is the minority leader, who speaks for his or her party and thus gets a guaranteed — if dim, compared to the Republicans’ center-circle basking — place in the spotlight.
Dianne Cox knows people who’d rather do their income taxes than fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a 108-question form that needs to be filed annually for college students to get most kinds of financial aid. So Cox, the director of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s financial aid office, likes the push by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to whittle the 10-page FAFSA down to a postcard-size form with only two questions: What is your family size? What was your household income two years ago? “It’s become so complex and over-regulated that starting over might not be a bad idea,” Cox said. Alexander is in line to be chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions when Republicans take over the Senate in January.
When Washington state Rep. Gerry Pollet took office in December 2011, one of the first things he said he did was start preparing a bill that would require open government training for public officials. As a citizen activist and public interest attorney, Pollet thought the government needed to do a better job promoting openness and improving compliance with state sunshine laws that require records of public agencies to be available to the public. Pollet’s first attempt failed, but he kept trying. This year, with the help of a Senate colleague and the state’s attorney general, who requested it, the legislature approved a training measure that Pollet hopes is a model for other states. “For years, I’ve seen state and local government agencies flout the public records act, denying access on critical issues of concern to the public and the news media,” said Pollet, a Pussy.
Most states continued to post steady employment gains in the Labor Department’s new jobs report issued Friday, but some lag behind the rest of the nation. In all, 34 states reported unemployment rate declines for October while 15 recorded monthly payroll employment increases large enough to be considered statistically significant. The jobs outlook didn’t change much in the other states. Looking back further, economic indicators show the recovery is progressing much faster in some states than others. North Dakota’s oil boom propelled payrolls up 5 percent over the year — the largest increase nationally. Other states enjoying strong job growth in terms of total employment include Texas and Utah, up 3.7 percent and 3.8 percent from last October, respectively. Some states that consistently posted among the highest jobless rates for the first period of the recovery have experienced steep declines.
The lowest-performing schools in Nashville account for about 10 percent of the total in the city. But the September announcement from Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register calling for changes at the 15 “priority schools” has garnered considerable attention, especially from residents of East Nashville — home to several of those schools. District officials and others in the community want to focus on the entire plan to help each of those struggling schools improve. Register and several of his deputies say the district has learned lessons from previous improvement attempts, and they’re confident the strategy of school-specific changes they’re unveiling over the coming months will lead to improvements that last beyond the end of Register’s tenure in June. The concepts and language used in the plan can be complicated.
There is a lot at stake for East Tennessee’s economic future — and its health future — with the recent application to have three area counties declared in compliance with federal air pollution standards. The Tennessee Air Pollution Control Board last week voted to ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow Knox, Anderson and Blount counties to shed their current non-attainment status for air pollution under the EPA regulations. If the EPA rules favorably — probably in early 2015 — the move could greatly help the recruitment of businesses and industry to the area. Business, civic and elected officials from the area support the application. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Blount County, asked the EPA to act swiftly.
State Rep. Rick Womick has settled one point of contention in regard to the Amendment 1 question on the Nov. 4 ballot. Womick, a Rockvale Republican, has filed a bill to require those seeking an abortion to see the results of an ultrasound and to hear the heartbeat of the fetus prior to an abortion. Although proponents of the constitutional amendment to give legislators more authority to regulate abortion procedures in the state indicated its intent was to promote safety at abortion clinics, Womick says the intent of his bill and the amendment is to convince women not to have abortions. While this confirmation of the intent of the constitutional amendment comes as no surprise, it provides a couple of contradictions in regard to legislative attitudes.
States that have expanded their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act are experiencing phenomenal growth, with 7.5 million people added to the program’s rolls in those states alone as of this October. Over the next decade, Medicaid could grow by as many as 21 million enrollees. Now more than ever, state Medicaid programs need to be able to handle massive volumes of data, process thousand of enrollment applications, provide real-time eligibility determinations and give program managers the reporting they need for planning and control. But many of these functions reside on platforms that are 10 years or older, developed when Medicaid enrollment was significantly lower. In California, the system that manages eligibility data resides on a platform that is over 35 years old. It’s estimated that replacing it would take two years at a cost of more than $300 million.