This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam has unveiled several proposals intended to support Tennessee teachers. The Republican governor discussed the proposals on Tuesday at the annual conference of Learning Forward, an association devoted to advancing professional learning for student success. They include adjusting the way teachers are evaluated, aligning state academic standards with assessments, providing educators with more information and feedback on state assessments and improving teacher communication and collaboration. The proposals reflect input Haslam received following an academic standards review process, ongoing statewide meetings with educators and an education summit in September.
Gov. Bill Haslam wants to drop the amount that student achievement and growth on state tests factor into a teacher’s employment evaluation when Tennessee moves to a new state test in 2016. New proposals Haslam announced Tuesday include cutting the amount that student success and value-added data factor into a teacher’s annual evaluation while aligning what is taught in class with what appears on the state’s standardized test by creating a new test. “Educators are vital to continued progress in Tennessee, and we want to make sure we’re supporting them in meaningful ways and giving them the tools they need to lead their classrooms, schools and districts,” Haslam said in a news release.
Gov. Bill Haslam unveiled proposals to reduce the pressure on Tennessee teachers caused by the state’s move to tie their job performance evaluations to how students perform on tests. One plan is to ask the state legislature in January to temporarily scale back the percentage of the evaluation tied to student test results during the first two years of a more stringent testing program that begins in the 2015-16 school year. Currently, 35 percent of an educator’s evaluation is based on student performance on state testing. Educators worry that state requirements will force school districts to make decisions on teacher hiring, placement and pay based strictly on student performance on state assessments. The governor’s plan would: Adjust the weighting of student academic growth data in a teacher’s evaluation so that the new state tests in English language arts and math will count as 10 percent of the evaluation in the first year, 20 percent in 2017 and 35 percent in 2018 and thereafter.
Tennessee teachers talked this fall, and the governor says he listened and has proposed changes to address their major concerns. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam Tuesday afternoon unveiled proposed initiatives to support the state’s teachers in response to direct feedback from educators across the state, including a proposal that temporarily would lessen the impact of student test scores on teacher evaluations. A news release from the governor’s office said the proposals reflect input that the Republican governor — who is about to enter his second four-year term — received during statewide meetings with more than 150 educators, as well as those that came out of an education summit he co-hosted with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, in September.
Gov. Bill Haslam told Tennessee Farm Bureau leaders Tuesday the struggle for economic development “is different and more challenging in our rural areas” but steps are underway and he will keep rural development a top priority of his second term. The governor also said Farm Bureau leaders met with him recently about the need to maintain and improve the state’s transportation systems, including waterways, short-line railroads and local roads and bridges. The backing of the politically powerful statewide organization will be important if he asks lawmakers to approve more transportation funding, probably through a fuel tax increase or restructuring that takes into account the increasing fuel efficiencies of vehicles.
The Tennessee Board of Regents and Nissan have broken ground for a new $35 million training center in Smyrna. The board is building the 150,000-square-foot-plus center near Nissan’s Smyrna Vehicle plant. The facility will operate as an extension of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology campus at Murfreesboro, but the TCAT-Murfreesboro and Nissan will occupy it jointly. The center was included in the fiscal year 2014 budget as part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent by the year 2025. The center is scheduled to be completed in 2016. It will offer a variety of training programs, including automotive technology, mechatronics, welding and other programs related to advanced manufacturing.
As Nissan’s local manufacturing plants continue to grow, the automaker has teamed with the Tennessee Board of Regents to build a $35 million education and training facility adjacent to the Smyrna assembly plant. An extension of Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Murfreesboro, the center will prepare workers for jobs in advanced manufacturing including engineering, robotics and manufacturing maintenance. Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan joined Nissan Monday to break ground on the more than 150,000-square-foot facility. “Nissan’s success in Tennessee for more than 30 years is due in large part to our ability to recruit and retain a quality workforce of more than 12,000 employees working at the company’s operations in Smyrna, Franklin and Decherd,” José Muñoz, Nissan executive vice president, said in a statement.
The Tennessee Board of Regents will build a $35 million education and training center for advanced manufacturing jobs across the street from Nissan’s Smyrna campus. The auto maker is chipping in to help build the 150,000-square-foot facility — an extension of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology campus in Murfreesboro — and will be a tenant at the building, which is expected to open in late 2016. The center will provide training programs aimed at preparing workers for engineering, robotics and manufacturing maintenance jobs. “Nissan’s success in Tennessee for more than 30 years is due in large part to our ability to recruit and retain a quality workforce of more than 12,000 employees working at the company’s operations in Smyrna, Franklin and Decherd,” said José Muñoz, chairman of Nissan North America.
Nissan North America and Tennessee have partnered to build an education and training center neighboring the automaker’s assembly plant in Smyrna. The training center, scheduled to open in late 2016, will be more than 150,000 square feet, Nissan said in a news release Tuesday. It will operate as an extension of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology’s Murfreesboro campus. The center aims to develop skilled workers for Nissan’s Tennessee manufacturing operations and will offer advanced manufacturing training. “Nissan’s success in Tennessee for more than 30 years is due in large part to our ability to recruit and retain a quality workforce,” José Muñoz, executive vice president, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and chairman, Nissan North America, said in the release.
Nissan North America and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology broke ground Monday afternoon on a “groundbreaking project,” Gov. Bill Haslam said. The new $35 million training and education center will provide training programs aimed at preparing workers for jobs in advanced manufacturing such as engineering, robotics and manufacturing maintenance. It was developed through a partnership with the state and Nissan North America to ensure a steady stream of quality workers. “Tying the training and skills that our colleges are teaching directly to current workforce needs will help more Tennesseans qualify for good-paying, high-quality jobs,” Haslam said during a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the building of a new TCAT training facility across the street from Nissan’s Smyrna manufacturing facility.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a longtime critic of the United Auto Workers’ efforts to organize their first foreign automaker in the state and region, is questioning the process by which the union qualified under a new labor policy at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. Haslam told The Associated Press after a Farm Bureau speech in Franklin on Tuesday that he wants all major labor decisions at the Volkswagen plant made through secret ballots and not by counting union membership cards. Volkswagen announced on Monday that an independent auditor had verified that the UAW had signed up at least 45 percent of workers at the plant, qualifying the union for the top tier of the new labor policy guaranteeing access to plant facilities and to regular meetings with management.
The Bureau of TennCare has hired consulting firm and Big Four auditor KPMG to help decide whether to discard the state’s uncompleted $35 million Medicaid eligibility computer system. The uncompleted computer system has been an ongoing issue for TennCare, which has faced federal criticism from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as well as a class-action lawsuit alleging that the agency is unable to process applications in a timely and compliant matter. TennCare’s former eligibility system was not compliant with new Medicaid regulations created through health care reform, and the agency sought to modernize the eligibility determination system in 2012. Virginia-based technology firm Northrup Grumman won a $35 million bid to create the new system, which was supposed to be operational “no later than January 1, 2014,” according to the state contract.
As “Nashville” heads to Memphis for its winter season finale, the state’s top economic development official said he believes the public investment in the television show has paid off. Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty said the popularity of the ABC drama may have been the tipping point in helping Nashville achieve the it-city status bestowed by an array of national media publications. And Hagerty said state budget observers shouldn’t read into the fact that the department didn’t include incentive dollars for “Nashville” in its recent budget presentation to Gov. Bill Haslam. Hagerty said the department has ongoing conversations with representatives from the show and typically makes a supplemental request in the spring. The winter finale episode airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on ABC.
The story on how much money ABC’s “Nashville” might get from the state of Tennessee looks to have enough twists and turns and cliffhangers to be worthy of the prime time soap opera itself. Yesterday, I reported that the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and its commissioner, Bill Hagerty, presented its next fiscal budget to Gov. Bill Haslam. By law, the TNECD budget includes $2 million in recurring funds each year for film and TV productions — and, for the proposed 2015-16 budget, that $2 million is all that is in the budget for film and TV projects. “Nashville” is the primary existing project receiving incentives, and, in previous budgets, significant amounts were awarded to the show far above the base of $2 million. As I reported, just because the 2015-16 budget only includes $2 million, it doesn’t necessarily mean the prospects of a highly incentivized production of “Nashville” are bleak. TNECD’s budget is now in Haslam’s hands, where it can undergo additions and other changes, and then it’s the state Legislature’s turn, where it can be altered further. Today, Clint Brewer, TNECD’s assistant commissioner, Communications & Marketing, confirmed that the final script on incentives for “Nashville” has not yet been written.
Tennessee residents who lost their homes to foreclosure with Ocwen Loan Servicing will receive a check this month for approximately $1,100 as a part of the National Ocwen Settlement, says the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. The payments will total $2.6 million for Tennessee. The agreement with Ocwen settled state and national findings that Ocwen services led to illegal foreclosures. Ocwen is one of the nation’s largest loan servicers. More than 2,000 Tennesseans will receive payments through the settlement, covering those who lost their homes to foreclosure between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2012. The settlement also covers loan servicers Ocwen acquired including Litton Loan Servicing LP and Homeward Residential Holdings LLC (previously known as American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc. or AHMSI).
House Speaker Beth Harwell faces a tea party challenge from Rep. Rick Womick as House Republicans vote Wednesday on whom to nominate to lead the lower chamber of the Tennessee General Assembly. Harwell is a former professor and state Republican Party chairwoman from Nashville who was first elected speaker in 2010. She has worked to build a broad coalition in the House and is a close ally of Gov. Bill Haslam. Womick, an airline pilot from Murfreesboro, has called Haslam a “traitor to the party” because supporters targeted fellow Republicans in the August primary for disagreeing with the governor on Common Core education standards. Womick has drawn the support of the Tennessee Firearms Association in his bid to oust Harwell.
State delegates are full of holiday jeer over nearly $2 million in bonuses awarded to Erlanger Health System executives last week. They voiced concerns Tuesday about their trust and faith in the hospital’s board of trustees to Hamilton County officials during an annual breakfast meeting. The hospital trustees voted Thursday to give 99 managers at the health system $1.7 million in bonuses after the hospital turned a profit for the first time in three years. That includes a $234,669 bonus for President and CEO Kevin Spiegel – which brought Spiegel’s pay this year to $914,669. “I wore my Christmas Grinch tie on purpose,” state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, told a room full of county elected officials. Gardenhire, along with state Sen. Bo Watson and Reps. Gerald McCormick and Mike Carter, are considering ways to make their appointments on the Erlanger Board of Trustees more accountable – although they offered no definite plans Tuesday.
States that tax diesel fuel differently for railroads and trucks aren’t unfairly favoring one industry over the other, according to arguments the Supreme Court heard Tuesday. Alabama, Tennessee and several other states say they will lose millions in tax revenue if the court sides with the railroads and finds the system discriminatory. Much of that money goes to public education. “It’s a lot of money,” said Andrew Brasher, solicitor general in Alabama, where the case originated. Impact on the states’ budgets wasn’t mentioned during the hour of oral arguments. Instead, the justices wrestled with how to determine fairness, such as whether Alabama’s entire state tax code should be taken into consideration and whether railroads should be compared only to competing industries or to all businesses in the state. A ruling is expected next year.
This Christmas, a lump of charcoal is not the gift some Tennessee distillers want to see in their stockings, and it threatens to divide whiskey makers over the very essence and definition of one our state’s most recognizable exports. For around 150 years, the words Tennessee Whiskey have meant one thing: You take bourbon fresh from the still and then filter it through sugar-maple charcoal before you seal it up in a new, charred, white oak barrel to age. It’s quite simple, and for decades that was the accepted definition through handshakes and likely the clinking of glasses over sawdust floors. It was essentially a marketing ploy to distinguish our product as something distinctly different from that other juice being made up north in Kentucky. Among the distillers who held to this gentleman’s agreement were Jack Daniel, who claims to have first embraced this particular use of charcoal filtering that’s called the Lincoln County process, along with George Dickel and Charles Nelson.
Tennessee is one of 18 states that will split $226 million in federal funds for pre-K expansion, according to an announcement ahead of the first White House Summit on Early Education Wednesday where an additional $330 million in private donations will be announced. Last October, Tennessee applied for $70 million in a joint application that would fund additional classrooms in Memphis and Nashville. The award means up to $35 million over four years will flow to Shelby County where it will be used in classrooms managed by Shelby County Schools, Bartlett and Millington municipal systems, the Achievement School District and private preschools. Metro Nashville Public Schools will receive an equal amount.
President Barack Obama lauded the work of Nashville city and community members in welcoming immigrants Tuesday in a major national speech advocating for his recent actions on immigration reform. Speaking at Casa Azafran, a 2-year old community center in South Nashville that serves many immigrants, the president said Nashville’s booming immigrant population is evidence national immigration reform is needed. “Without an actual law, an actual statue passed by Congress, it’s true that a future administration could do something that I think would be very damaging,” Obama said. “Nobody is going to have a path to actual citizenship until we get a law passed.” There are an estimated 124,000 undocumented immigrants living in Tennessee illegally, with as many as 50,000 in Nashville.
President Barack Obama pushed his recent immigration actions at a stop in Nashville Tuesday as he called the city a role model for other communities. “Nashville is leading the way in getting this conversation right,” Obama said at a town hall meeting at the Casa Azafran community center on Nolensville Pike, which provides social services to immigrants. Taking off his suit jacket, Obama opened up an informal discussion with members in the audience after his formal remarks. The president praised Casa Azafran’s work “welcoming immigrants to the community,” calling Nashville one of the important “gateways” for new immigrants coming to the United States. Why Nashville for the visit? Because of the city’s growing immigrant community, he said.
President Barack Obama arrived in Nashville Tuesday afternoon to deliver remarks on immigration reform. Air Force One landed at Nashville International Airport just before 1:30 p.m. Obama departed the plane, accompanied by Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) and Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), a few minutes later. Obama stopped briefly to speak with students who had gathered to welcome him to Nashville for the second time this year. The president took the podium at Casa Azafran, a south Nashville community center, around 2:30 p.m. to give a brief speech on immigration reform. “Hola,” the president said as he took the podium. “Como esta?” Obama acknowledged that Nashville may appear to be an unlikely place to discuss immigration reform.
President Barack Obama visited Nashville Tuesday to discuss his recent executive action, where he praised the city on its efforts to help the growing immigrant population adapt to life in the U.S. Air Force One landed at Berry Field Air National Guard Base around 1:30 p.m. The President disembarked shortly afterward and was greeted by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. Obama was joined on Air Force One by Tennessee’s two Democratic congress members — U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper of Nashville and Steve Cohen of Memphis. President Obama then shook hands with several spectators who were awaiting his arrival before getting into his motorcade and heading toward Casa Azafran, a Nashville community center and hub of immigrant-related nonprofit organizations.
About 200 protesters and supporters have been gathered outside a south Nashville community center where President Barack Obama spoke about his executive action on immigration. Desert Storm veteran Karen Douglas drove from Clarksville to protest Tuesday. Standing behind barricades across the street from Casa Azafran and holding a homemade sign, she says she’s concerned that Obama’s action will make America less safe. Mayra Yu is a Mexican immigrant who is now a U.S. citizen living in Nashville. She came to thank Obama for the action that could protect 4 million immigrants from deportation but says she is sad that others will likely not qualify. About 60 people marched to the scene with signs that included “Black lives matter.”
“The U.S. Senate — including Senators Corker and Alexander — voted overwhelmingly to do what the president outlined today. House Republicans have refused to consider the Senate bill, but they have three more days to allow an up or down vote where it would pass with a large majority. Our community — including the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Lipscomb University, the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and local charitable family foundations — supports the goal of integrating immigrants into the wider community. We are a model for the country.” — U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. “He’s the voice that everybody wanted to hear. He’s the platform for me to be here. … There’s something special about him.” — Cesar Virto, a supporter who watched Obama’s motorcade arrive. Virto, who came here from Mexico with his family when he was 3, said Obama’s actions thus far have help him go from an undocumented immigrant to a legal resident of the country.
As U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder walked out onto the Lorraine Motel balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968, a group of protesters in the courtyard below turned toward him so he could see their signs, including “Body Cams on All MPD” and “Black lives matter.” Holder was on tour of the National Civil Rights Museum, and Paul Garner from the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center began to harangue him through a bullhorn. “You’re standing very close to the spot where Dr. King was shot down by a sniper’s bullet. I notice that we have snipers here today,” Garner said, referring to federal security officers who accompanied the visitors. Garner began to list demands, including an end to the drug war and private prisons.
Shortly before U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder left Memphis Tuesday, he gave a brief interview to The Commercial Appeal and a writer for the New Tri-State Defender. This transcript was edited for length and clarity. Question: Did you hear anything in your meeting with local officials that was unique, or was it an affirmation of what you were hearing other places? Answer: What I took from Memphis was that the desire for interaction between law enforcement and the communities they serve is there…. But the concern that they have — and I have, frankly — is that they might not have the resources to do it they way that they would like…. Having to take people away from community policing activities because of resource problems to answer calls that were coming in.
Twenty-two health centers in Tennessee will receive part of $546,000 in Affordable Care Act funding for their achievements as proven leaders in health care. The health centers receiving the awards have excelled in areas such as chronic disease management, preventive care and the use of electronic health records to report quality data. “This funding rewards Tennessee health centers that have a proven track record in clinical quality improvement, which translates to better patient care, and it allows them to expand and improve their systems and infrastructure to bring the highest quality primary care services to the communities they serve,” Sylvia Burwell, secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a press release. “With these funds, health centers in Tennessee will continue to provide access to high-quality, comprehensive primary and preventive health care to the patients that need it the most.”
In the first Senate roll call vote on TVA board nominations in nearly 25 years, the U.S. Senate voted 86-12 Tuesday night to confirm Democrats Ron Walter and Virginia Lodge to the Tennessee Valley Authority board. Walter, general manager of the Memphis CBS television affiliate WREG-TV, and Lodge, a Nashville business consultant who was previously commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services, won 5-year terms on the 9-member, part-time board that oversees TVA. Their confirmation will put the governing board for America’s biggest government-owned utility entirely under Democrats for the first time since TVA’s current board system was adopted by Congress a decade ago. Walter and Lodge succeed Barbara Haskew, a retired MTSU professor who lives in Chattanooga and is a Democrat, and Bill Sansom, the chairman of H.T. Hackney who lives in Knoxville and is a Republican.
The United Auto Workers on Tuesday outlined next steps at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant, including a plan to train up employees on works councils starting early next year. “We need to have it up and running in the first quarter,” said Gary Casteel, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer, about workshop-type classes that will tell how an American-style works council may function at the plant. The UAW, fresh off of gaining rights from VW on Monday for bi-weekly talks with top managers and regular plant access, also will press for recognition from the automaker, though it offered no timetable. “We don’t know what the pathway is for exclusive representation [of VW’s workers], but now we’re in discussions with the company and not outside looking in,” Casteel said.
Tennessee has one of the nation’s best highway systems, built and maintained without incurring debt. Unlike many states, Tennessee employs a “pay as you go” system. That system relies on fuel taxes — for all practical purposes user fees — to finance right-of-way purchases, new construction and maintenance. Fuel taxes at the state and federal levels have not kept up with inflation. Coupled with greater fuel efficiency in passenger vehicles, that has put this reasonable and fair system of paying for infrastructure projects in jeopardy. Gov. Bill Haslam should propose an overhaul for legislative approval when the 109th General Assembly convenes in January. With gas prices falling rapidly toward $2 a gallon, now is a good time for state and federal lawmakers to restructure fuel taxes as a long-term solution to infrastructure funding.
Gov. Bill Haslam has indicated that he is close to a decision on what to propose in regard to expansion of Medicaid in the state. Haslam, in a WPLN interview last week, described the process as “threading a needle.” The governor has to win support of the federal government since federal dollars will pay for such an expansion fully at the outset and then for 90 percent of it. He also has to win support of the General Assembly since it enacted a law during the most recent session that gives it power to veto any agreement that Haslam reaches with the federal government. As Haslam noted in the interview, most, if not all, of the Republican legislators campaigned on the basis of opposition to the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare whose provisions would fund the expansion.
Gov. Bill Haslam piqued our interest, along with 330,000 uninsured Tennesseans, on Friday when he said he would have a plan to expand Medicaid by Christmas. Imagine facing another Christmas, and a Tennessee winter, with no health insurance. What a grand Christmas present it would be to receive the hope of health insurance on the horizon. As we know all too well, the best presents never fit under the tree. We would like to thank the governor for considering the livelihood of our citizens — the working poor, in particular — who cannot afford health insurance. Though we are disheartened it has taken so long to reach the point of making a decision, we are encouraged he has taken the time to talk with the nine Republican governors who have expanded Medicaid for low-income folks in their states.
We trust that Gov. Bill Haslam and state legislators were listening carefully last week when University of Tennessee president Joe DiPietro told the governor and state finance officials that the university’s business model — declining state appropriations, increasing costs and spiraling tuition — is “broken” and is jeopardizing the school’s mission. It was an important message for those attending Haslam’s higher education budget hearings. If the governor and the legislature cannot or will not begin taking action, Haslam’s effort to increase the number of college graduates in the state is in danger of taking a credibility hit, and rising tuition will make it harder for students and their families to afford college.
Failed federal entitlement programs are characteristically enacted under the guise of well-intentioned policy goals. Unfortunately, they often end up failing to achieve those good intentions, and fall prey to abuse — and one such federal program in Tennessee appears to be the latest example that fits the bill. The 340B Drug Pricing Program, originally designed to make prescription drugs more affordable for low-income patients, has instead devolved into a corporate welfare scheme, lining Tennessee hospitals’ pockets with millions intended for the state’s most vulnerable populations. Enacted in 1992, the 340B program allows hospitals serving a large percentage of low-income patients to purchase prescription drugs at forced discounts, typically between 25-50 percent, from pharmaceutical companies.