This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam told an audience of university presidents and other educators Thursday his new scholarship program to provide two years of free community college for all high school graduates in Tennessee is already working. Of the 65,000 high school seniors in Tennessee, 56,000 have applied for the Tennessee Promise scholarships, which will be awarded for the first time to the class of 2015. The scholarships pay tuition for two years at a community college or technical school. “We feel pretty good out of the gate having almost 96 percent of our high school students apply,” Haslam said at a White House summit on expanding opportunities for college. The summit, hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama and billed as a College Opportunity Day of Action, brought together 140 college presidents and other education leaders as part of a White House effort to give more low-income students a shot at earning a college degree.
Tennessee’s decision to eliminate tuition at state two-year colleges was lauded Thursday by officials at the White House, where Gov. Bill Haslam promoted Tennessee Promise as an innovative way to make college more accessible. Haslam was one of several Tennesseans in Washington for President Barack Obama’s second College Opportunity Summit. The event showcased hundreds of educational institutions around the country that have set new goals to increase college participation and graduation rates. Tennessee Promise, which covers tuition at two-year colleges not already covered by other scholarship or aid programs, was the first program recognized at Thursday’s summit when Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, asked Haslam about it.
A new scholarship program that aims to support high-achieving local students was announced at a Walters State Community College news conference Tuesday. The Walters State Promise program is designed to help students achieve their educational goals by guaranteeing scholarships to those who excel academically, according to a news release from the school. “The college’s promise to area students is this: If you meet certain academic criteria, you are guaranteed a scholarship to attend WSCC that is above and in addition to the Tennessee Promise and other financial aid,” said WSCC President Dr. Wade McCamey. Beginning with the high school graduating class of 2015, the Tennessee Promise scholarship program will provide students with a last-dollar scholarship that will pay for tuition costs not covered by federal Pell grants, Tennessee’s Hope lottery scholarships or other funds, a news release from the college states.
As high school seniors are getting answers back from the colleges they have applied to, a group of volunteer tutors are about to guide another group of seniors through the complex process of stepping into higher education. The statewide nonprofit tnAchieves is working with the state’s Tennessee Promise program, a last-dollar scholarship that promises two years of free community college or a Tennessee college of applied technology, including fees, for all Tennessee high school graduates starting in the 2015-2016 academic year. This month, tnAchieves is wrapping up its training sessions for volunteer mentors. “The idea of the mentor program is to keep students on track,” said Claire Brulatour, the Memphis coordinator for tnAchieves. “In order to keep the scholarship they have to meet deadlines.
Tennessee’s Public Safety chief maintains that the use of sobriety checkpoints by state law enforcement is an important tool that deters intoxicated driving despite the department’s acknowledgment that roadblocks don’t net many arrests. Since Bill Haslam won his first term as governor in 2010, there’s been a 147 percent increase in DUI arrests in Tennessee, according to Bill Gibbons, a former Shelby County prosecutor who was tapped four years ago by Haslam to lead the Department of Safety and Homeland Security. During his department’s budget presentation to the governor and his administration’s finance staff Wednesday, Gibbons described the increase as “really pretty dramatic.” “As of the end of October we had 6,670 DUI arrests by troopers; that should be around 8,000 by the end of the year,” Gibbons said. As of Dec. 4, THP DUI arrests had climbed to 7,776, according to Safety Department figures.
Another state agency has confirmed it is launching an investigation into Tennessee IDs sold to undocumented immigrants. The business selling the IDs was exposed by the Channel 4 I-Team last month. The Identity Crimes Unit, made up of Homeland Security officers and state troopers, said it is investigating the IDs, which look similar to previous Tennessee drivers license. This is the second government agency to investigate the IDs. The Alcoholic Beverage Commission said it was investigating after the I-Team uncovered the IDs were used to purchase alcohol. Outgoing state lawmaker Joe Carr made it clear what he believes should happen to the company making the IDs and to the owner of the business. “It should be shut down immediately,” Carr said. “She should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The Tennessee Department of Transportation is re-examining an intersection on Highway 109 after two fatal accidents over the past two years. Highway 109 runs from Gallatin to Portland and is a four-lane highway. The most recent TDOT study shows it is traveled by over 12,000 people a day. The intersection of Highway 109 and Old Highway 109 is particularly dangerous according to people who live nearby. “You have to be careful because people come down that hill and you don’t know how fast they’re coming,” said Nils Johnson who told News 2 he passes through the intersection at least 4 times each day. “It’s a life threatening situation here,” Johnson said. Earlier this year, two Portland High School students were killed and two others critically injured when their car was hit by a semi-truck at Old Highway 109.
A Portland woman has been charged a practice called “doctor shopping,” visiting multiple doctors in a short period to obtain painkiller prescriptions. Amanda Preston, 35, faces charges of six counts of fraudulently using TennCare to obtain hydrocodone by doctor shopping and five counts of obtaining the painkiller by fraud, according to a news release from the state Office of Inspector General. “Doctor shopping and using TennCare as payment carries stronger penalties because state tax dollars are being used to pay for drugs intended for distribution or abuse,” Inspector General Manny Tyndall said in the release. “We appreciate and value the hard work of the health-care providers across the state and their efforts in helping us develop these cases.” TennCare fraud is a Class E felony carrying a sentence of up to two years in prison.
State Rep. Judd Matheny says his dog caused him to crash his car into a gift shop in Tullahoma. The Tullahoma News reports that Matheny’s car careened through a parking lot and into Martha’s Flowers and Gifts on Monday morning. Matheny said his dog had jumped into the front seat of his 2005 Mercury Grand Marquis and that the lawmaker tried to brake but mistakenly hit the gas. The shop was open, but police say nobody was injured. Matheny in 2012 mulled a challenge to House Speaker Beth Harwell for the chamber’s top leadership post after complaining of being marginalized in the ceremonial No. 2 position as speaker pro tempore. He ended up abandoning that challenge but was defeated in his bid for another term as speaker pro tem.
A recent report from the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth says the state needs to invest more in early childhood education. The study released this week recommends expanding the state’s voluntary pre-K program to all at-risk Tennessee children. The program has not been expanded since 2008. Established in 1999, the program has 935 classrooms serving about 18,500 children. The commission says research shows pre-K programs help children develop the cognitive, social and emotional skills they need to learn. The report also urges Gov. Bill Haslam to expand Medicaid in Tennessee so that children can receive health care. According to the commission, about 80,000 children are eligible for TennCare – the state’s Medicaid program – but aren’t covered. Child care advocates believe they would receive coverage if the expansion occurs.
President Barack Obama is visiting Nashville next week to discuss his recent executive actions on immigration in a stop that will shine a spotlight on one of the nation’s fastest-growing immigrant populations. The president, who will make his second trip to Davidson County in less than a year, will deliver his remarks Tuesday at Casa Azafran, an immigrant community center on Nolensville Pike that opened two years ago. His visit comes two weeks after he issued an executive order to provide temporary legal status and work permits to more than 5 million immigrants who are in this country illegally. Seventeen states have joined together in a federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Obama’s action, but Tennessee is not among them. “With the number of foreign-born residents more than doubling over the past decade, Nashville has actively worked to welcome new Americans,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
In health policy circles, they are called “super-utilizers,” but the name isn’t meant to connote any special powers. Just the opposite. They are people whose complex medical problems make them disproportionately heavy users of expensive health care services, particularly emergency room treatment and in-patient hospitalizations. The cost of treating them is huge: Just 5 percent of Medicaid’s 68 million beneficiaries account for 60 percent of the overall spending on the program. Using a provision of the Affordable Care Act, many state Medicaid agencies are trying to diminish use of medical services by super-utilizers by better managing their care. The goal is to not only reduce costs, but to achieve better health outcomes for these patients.
Employees and retirees of the Tennessee Valley Authority have mounted an online petition campaign to try to convince the federal utility to replenish its underfunded pension program. In their appeal to Congress and the TVA board, petitioners are urging TVA to put more money into the TVA Retirement System, which actuaries estimate has promised $4.8 billion more in benefits than what the fund now has in reserves. Robert Stalvey of Spring City, one of nearly 400 persons who have signed the petition since it began on Monday through the online platform change.com, is worried about his TVA pension. “TVA board members are robbing the funds collected from the rate payers for the pension plan for other funding,” Stalvey complained on the social media site. “This is the same as stealing and should be stopped.”
More than 100 Y-12 retirees gathered Thursday alongside Scarboro Road, not far from the plant where they once worked, to express their displeasure with some of the changes to their health benefits and vent their frustration over pensions that are losing purchasing power and other issues. “We’re losing money every day. No cost-of-living increases,” said Felix Wooten, who retired from Y-12 in 1995. “We’ve only had one adjustment since I retired.” Earlier this year, Consolidated Nuclear Security — the government’s new managing contractor at the Oak Ridge plant — announced a number of benefit changes that are impacting retirees as well as much of the current workforce. The changes and impacts vary with the individual, but Betty Hatmaker, who worked at Y-12 for 34 years and helped organize Thursday’s protest, said the pre-65 retirees were probably hurt the most.
Kirkpatrick Elementary School has the “greatest need” and should go to a charter school operator in order to help improve the struggling East Nashville school, according to Metro Nashville Public Schools. Metro announced its decision Thursday, after weeks of anticipation from the East Nashville community. Director of Schools Jesse Register recently said Kirkpatrick and Inglewood elementary schools were the finalists for a takeover by charter operator KIPP. Thursday he said Kirkpatrick was a better fit for conversion. “Initially, what I hope happens is the conversation changes. Up to now, it’s been ‘which one will be selected?’ ” Register said Thursday afternoon. “Where I hope the conversation will go now is ‘Why is this a great choice for Kirkpatrick?’ ” The district determined Kirkpatrick specifically needed more help than Inglewood.
It was nearing tipoff Thursday night, but Madison Middle School boys basketball coach Marketo Days needed to deliver a message. Parents and teachers had packed a nearby room to plead for the survival of their school, one of two in the area facing a possible charter school takeover led by the state-run Achievement School District. Days took the microphone and went face to face with ASD superintendent Chris Barbic. “I think you jumped the gun a little too early because you have people here at this school who give everything that they have,” shouted Days, standing a foot from Barbic. “We love this school, and we want it to stay exactly how it is.” Days echoed the sentiment of parents who also spoke at Neely’s Bend Middle School on Thursday evening. During simultaneous meetings with more than 200 people at each, ASD officials heard parents, teachers and students demand that their schools be left alone.
Remember last month when AT&T announced its fiber expansion plans were paused? That’s no longer the case. The latest Nashvillians can glean from the AT&T gigabit roller coaster ride is that fiber is back in the pipeline. According to a letter sent to Federal Communications Commission on Nov. 25, fiber is back on the docket. “AT&T still plans to complete the major initiative we announced in April to expand our ultra-fast GigaPower fiber network in 25 major metropolitan areas nationwide, including 21 new major metropolitan areas,” Robert Quinn, Jr., an AT&T executive, wrote in the letter. Weeks ago, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said the fiber plans would be halted because of uncertainty tied to potential net neutrality regulation urged by President Obama, disappointing the Nashville consumers who had welcomed the news months earlier that their city was among expansion destinations.
What does the face of prescription drug abuse look like? In the state of Tennessee — where local epidemic numbers rank second in the nation and surpass alcohol abuse — it’s the face staring back at us in the mirror, across the dinner table, in the grocery aisle, at church and the office. Prescription drug abuse is plaguing our families and communities. Research shows that 221,000 adults in Tennessee used a prescription drug for nonmedical purposes in the past year. Of those, more than 69,000 are addicted to opioids and will require treatment. Questions arise: “How did this happen?” “Do I know a prescription drug abuser?” “What can we do to stop this?” Centerstone treated more than 4,300 clients across Middle Tennessee for prescription drug addiction last year.
Support for after-school programs is increasing, and we commend those efforts to provide opportunities for students in the hours after the “official” school day has ended. Tennessee officials are working to increase the number of school systems that are providing after-school programs, and Murfreesboro and Rutherford County school systems already are providing access to such programs. State Education Department and other stakeholders last month announced creation of a network of policymakers, educators, parents and business leaders to increase the number of after-school programs in the state. The Murfreesboro School System for a number of years has provided the Extended School Program for students. Rutherford County Schools cooperates with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Rutherford County to offer such services.