This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam finally has come up with a proposal to expand health care insurance to the state’s poorest citizens. We have criticized the governor for not expanding the state’s Medicaid program — TennCare — under stipulations spelled out in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. So, it is only fair that we give him a pat on the back for working with federal officials to come up with a plan that we hope will be approved by the General Assembly during a special legislative session early next year. Two things struck us about the deal Haslam worked out with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell: A lot of Republican politicians, including many in the Tennessee General Assembly, have taken a rigid stance against Obamacare and expanding Medicaid under the law’s guidelines.
Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd is a long-distance runner whose training, endurance and willpower enabled him to finish last year’s Boston Marathon minutes before the bombs went off. In recognition that Tennessee’s workforce needs those same qualities to compete with workers in other states and around the world, Gov. Bill Haslam last week appointed Boyd the state’s new commissioner of Economic and Community Development. Boyd, 55, brings a unique set of skills to the job, which entails recruiting new investments to the state, helping Tennessee companies expand and promoting economic growth. A graduate of the University of Tennessee and Oklahoma University, Boyd founded Radio Systems Corporation, which makes products such as invisible fencing for pets under such brand names as PetSafe and Invisible Fence, in 1991.
For a lot of students, the new year will bring the possibility of two years of post-secondary education for free, but Tennessee Promise, which is providing this opportunity, is as much a process as it is a promise. One of the goals of Tennessee Promise is to bring to post-secondary studies students who are the first in their families to extend their educations beyond high school. While these students will have to learn the content of their courses to continue in the program, they need to learn even before the program begins about the procedures and requirements of post-secondary institutions. Students’ applications for Tennessee Promise were only the first in several steps to qualify for the program. Failure to meet requirements prior to enrolling in the program will disqualify them from receiving funding from the program.
Opponents of abortion had a huge victory in November. By changing the state constitution, they overturned a court ruling that fourteen years ago had nullified mandatory counselling and waiting periods and strict clinic regulations. The passage of Amendment 1 was the state’s top news story of 2014 as voted on by reporters and editors of The Associated Press, AP member newspapers and broadcast subscribers. Other top stories included Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise. That’s a program to let graduating seniors attend Tennessee’s community colleges for free. Also among the top stories was the arrest of two men in the murder of Holly Bobo – a 20-year-old nursing student who disappeared from her rural West Tennessee home in 2011. Despite a massive search her remains were not found until September.
Gov. Bill Haslam has announced that 12 agencies from across the state are recipients of a statewide initiative to help residents get more education and training for jobs that are available in their communities. Haslam said in a statement that $10 million in grants were available from the Labor Education Alignment Program competition. Applicants had to represent a partnership between a local economic development agency, a community college, the local school district and at least two employers. The program is part of Haslam’s “Drive to 55″ campaign to help residents get an education or other training beyond high school.
Despite scoring low in overall health, Tennessee is one of the top-scoring in protecting residents against infection. Tennessee is one of five states tied for top score in Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s report, “Outbreaks: Protecting Americans from Infectious Diseases.” Along with Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia, the state achieved eight out of 10 indicators — the top score among the country. Arkansas had the lowest score at two out of 10. The report comes in response to the recent Ebola outbreak. “Over the last decade, we have seen dramatic improvements in state and local capacity to respond to outbreaks and emergencies,” said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of TFAH, in a statement.
It’s a complaint Tennessee transportation officials have heard over and over: Memphis gets neglected while Nashville reaps an outsize share of state highway construction dollars. That may have been true in the past, but not any more, state spending figures show. In the four years since Gov. Bill Haslam took office, the Tennessee Department of Transportation has obligated $664 million in Shelby County — nearly twice the $347 million committed in Davidson County. The money has gone mainly to big-ticket projects. Topping the list is the ongoing $109.3 million enlargement and modernization of the Interstate 40-240 interchange in East Memphis — the largest single contract awarded by TDOT. Another $46 million went to the widening of I-240 between Poplar and Walnut Grove — a project that is being completed this month, about a year and a half behind schedule.
A redesigned website for the Tennessee General Assembly features upgrades to bill tracking and video streaming functions. Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says the redesign is meant to make state government “more open, more transparent and customer-friendly.” The site last previously redesigned in 2008 has a new theme and layout that is meant to make it easier to find information about lawmakers and legislation. It is also designed to display and stream video to all major mobile devices. The new site offers users the ability to track as many bills as they want, up from the three-bill limit in the previous version. And the site will also highlight the latest action taken on a piece of legislation to try to clarify an often confusing process.
County trustees across Tennessee are trying to shore up a state tax relief program to avoid cuts that might leave low-income senior citizens and disabled veterans strapped at tax time. The state’s Property Tax Relief Program provides property tax rebates for senior citizens who make $28,000 a year or less; the disabled; veterans who are disabled from service and the surviving spouses of fallen soldiers. Residents apply at the local trustee’s office, and the state credits a portion of their tax bills. Gov. Bill Haslam has discussed plans to slash funding for the program next year from $33 million to $29 million, leaving the more than 150,000 poor and disabled enrollees to shoulder more of their property tax bills.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker has golfed with President Barack Obama, dined with him at a fancy restaurant and called him possibly the worst president in modern history. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has broken bread with the president at the White House, squabbled with him on national television about health care, accused him of Nixonian tendencies and blasted him for acting like a king. The two Tennessee Republicans’ sometimes-amiable, sometimes-argumentative relationship with Obama and his administration has at times read like a Facebook relationship status. It’s complicated — and about to get even more complicated when the senators become chairmen of two high-profile committees in the new GOP-led Congress.
Veterans across the Scenic City can look forward to a late Christmas present this year. Plans are on the drawing board and steps are being taken by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, to lease a 10,000-square-foot facility, allowing the clinic to expand its services within the next calendar year. “[The new space] is huge for us and our veterans,” said Christopher Marcus, manager of the VA’s Chattanooga Outpatient Clinic. “It is very needed.” Chattanooga’s clinic provides primary care for 14,600 patients, and 25,000 veterans in the Chattanooga area are enrolled for some type of services. Marcus said the leased space will allow the clinic to hire additional medical professionals and better serve veterans, while the existing 40,000-square-foot clinic is being expanded into a 100,000-square-foot facility, slated to open in 2020.
John and David Mkhitarian found a soft spot in Medicare’s defenses against fraud: Inspectors aren’t required to visit medical providers deemed to present a lower risk of fraud and abuse. So the cousins used exchange students to create some 70 bogus laboratories, clinics and physician practices, then enrolled the companies in the program with the stolen identities of doctors, prosecutors assert. Medicare paid out $3.3 million over about two years. Both Mkhitarians pleaded guilty to health-care fraud conspiracy. David was sentenced in September to seven months in prison, and John will be sentenced in February. Their case illustrates a vulnerability in the nearly $600 billion taxpayer-funded program: Vetting of new providers often is inadequate. An inspection of the Mkhitarians’ companies might have stopped the scheme before it started.
A brown, radioactive substance that was reportedly “ejected” from one of the emission stacks at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant has been mostly cleaned up, a federal spokesman said this week. The discharge was discovered in late October by members of the Y-12 environmental staff, who found brownish stains on the roof of the plant’s 9212 uranium-processing complex. Steven Wyatt, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Production Office, said the radioactive substance was a form of uranium. According to a Nov. 7 report by staff of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the abnormal stains were first noticed on the exterior of ventilation staff at 9212. The brown material was reportedly associated with the ventilation system for operations that dissolve uranium metal for processing.
Tennessee’s children should be prepared for college and careers when they graduate from high school. Unfortunately, they’re not. About 70 percent of the high school graduates who enter our colleges across the state aren’t prepared for college-level work. These students must complete additional remedial studies before they can begin earning college credit, so they are much less likely to graduate from college or complete their education goals. The gap in college preparation comes at a cost. Students and their families pay tuition for non credit-bearing remedial courses while the state and institutions invest scarce public resources into strategies to catch students up. The question is, why must our colleges spend time and resources to help students learn what they should have mastered in high school? It’s not because students can’t learn or teachers aren’t effective. The problem is our expectations have been too low.