January 15 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.

Shelby County Commission endorses Haslam Medicaid expansion plan (MBJ)
The Shelby County Commission has endorsed Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to expand Medicaid in Tennessee. By a unanimous 12-0 vote, with one abstention, the commissioners approved a resolution urging the state legislature to pass the proposed Insure Tennessee Medicaid expansion plan. Heidi Shafer recused herself from the vote, saying her position as chief marketing officer with Flinn Clinic could create a conflict of interest.

TDOT Prepares For Any Possible Precipitation (WTVF-TV Nashville)
Many people woke up to snow across Middle Tennessee Wednesday morning, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation put in work to make sure they’re ready if it happens again. Crews went on standby ready to put down brine – a mixture of salt and water that keeps the ground from freezing. Some of that mixture went on bridges, overpasses and other roads that are prone to problems. Many roads needed extra attention even without precipitation, according to those at TDOT. “There are two specific areas that always give us a little bit of trouble even if there’s no ice or snow predicted,” said Heather Jensen of TDOT. “One of those is Interstate 40 out toward the edge of Davidson County near Wilson County where the dam is located. If conditions are cold enough it will actually freeze.”

Weekend TDOT Work Could Mean Delays (WPTY-TV Memphis)
Get ready for more weekend delays. TDOT crews will once again be hard at work and it could mean big backups. Crews will be installing beams on the new flyovers and re-striping sections of I-240. The left lane of I-240 East at the interchange will be closed this weekend. So will exit 12b on I-240 East. Two lanes will also be closed across I-240 West. The work will be done beginning Saturday morning at 6:30 a.m. Lanes will reopen At 5:30 p.m. Sunday night.

Woman gets TennCare help — 6 days after her death (Tennessean/Wilemon)
Neva Holt stood in a kitchen for years whipping up coconut cake and patting out hamburger steaks — food she sold from her Lyles, Tenn., cafe that generated sales tax revenue for the state — but when she got old and needed nursing home care, Tennessee didn’t give anything back. She got kicked out of a nursing home because TennCare wouldn’t pay. The state’s Medicaid agency determined she didn’t qualify for coverage, contending she had owned land that she transferred to her grandchildren — assets that should have been used to cover the cost of a nursing home. The family appealed and ultimately had TennCare’s determination overturned this month. It was a hollow victory. Holt died at age 88 — six days before the decision came down.

Tennessee digitizing original historical maps for public (Associated Press)
Officials say the Tennessee State Library and Archives is digitizing original historical maps and making them available to a wider public. On Jan. 27, the State Library and Archives and the Nashville Public Library will host a presentation on the collection, “Historic Maps of Tennessee and Beyond: Digital Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.” Assistant State Archivist Wayne Moore will lead the discussion, which is free and open to the public. An initial collection of more than 100 maps has just been released, and they are being made available in the Tennessee Virtual Archive. The State Library and Archives will continue adding its maps to this digital online collection.

Disgraced former judge creates legal legacy (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Satterfield)
Nearly four years to the day a scandal rocked Knox County’s criminal justice system, the judge at its heart has rated a piece of legal history. The Tennessee Supreme Court in an opinion released this week used a case handled by disgraced former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner to set a precedent on handling future cases in which a judge must abruptly step down from the bench. The decision, which defines new boundaries for what was an obscure legal maxim known as the “13th juror rule,” comes just days after the anniversary of Baumgartner’s fall from judicial grace in January 2011 and represents the first tangible change in the business of dispensing justice directly linked to his addiction-fueled demise.

Senate Leader Thinks Lawmakers Should Rewrite Common Core Standards (WPLN)
The speaker of the state Senate says he wants to replace Common Core education standards, and he thinks state lawmakers are the right people to do it. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters Wednesday that the Senate Education Committee already has begun work on replacement standards that should be ready by the end of the legislative session. The Blountville Republican said the effort would work alongside a review launched last fall by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and the State Board of Education. But Ramsey added he does not wait for that review to be completed before taking up the matter legislatively. “Something’s got to happen,” Ramsey said.

GOP Leader Says Tennessee Lawmakers Will Approve VW Incentives (AP/Schelzig)
A top Republican in the Tennessee General Assembly expects his colleagues to approve the state share of a $300 million incentive package for Volkswagen despite misgivings over a “secret deal” for the United Auto Workers union at the German automaker’s plant in Chattanooga. House Republican leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga said Tuesday that while he understands some of his colleagues’ concerns about the union’s growing role at the plant, he doesn’t want to backtrack on deal struck by Gov. Bill Haslam last summer that is leading to a 2,000-job expansion at the factory.

Tennessee legislature will approve Volkswagen incentives (TFP/Sher)
House Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick predicted Wednesday that fellow lawmakers will approve the state’s $177.8 million portion of the incentive package for Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant expansion despite some Chattanoogan’s dismay over the company’s dealings with the United Auto Workers union. “I think Volkswagen’s handled the United Auto Workers’ issue horribly,” McCormick said. “However, the state’s made a promise and the state’s got to keep its promises. I think the state will keep its promises and it will approve the incentives it’s promised.”

General Assembly re-elects treasurer, comptroller (Tennessean/Boucher)
The Tennessee General Assembly returned the current state treasurer and comptroller to their roles in a vote Wednesday morning. As is required, the legislature must elect several constitutional officers. Treasurer David Lillard and Comptroller Justin P. Wilson faced no opposition, and both were chosen without any objection. Both thanked the General Assembly and pledged to continue their work to improve the state. This is the fourth time Lillard has been elected, first assuming the treasurer’s role in 2009. This is also Wilson’s fourth term as comptroller. There is little else on the General Assembly’s calendar this week before Gov. Bill Haslam’s inauguration Saturday.

Fellow Republicans Reluctant About Haslam’s Health Proposal (AP/Schelzig)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to offer health coverage to more than 200,000 low-income Tennesseans is getting a tepid response from fellow Republicans in the Legislature – so much so, that he has yet to find a Senate sponsor for his proposal. Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who is normally tasked with carrying bills in the governor’s legislative agenda, has yet to commit to sponsor the Insure Tennessee proposal. “We understand the concept, and the administration has put forth a plan that’s worthy of consideration, but what form that takes remains to be seen,” Norris said Wednesday. “I don’t think there’s much appetite for it, but I’m not quite sure what it is going to be yet.”

Senate majority leader unsure of Insure Tennessee plan (News-Sentinel/Locker)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s health insurance plan faces headwinds in the state Legislature, including indecision by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris about whether to shepherd the plan through the Senate. The governor’s Medicaid-alternative plan, called Insure Tennessee, was the focus of hallway discussions Wednesday as the Legislature re-elected state Treasurer David Lillard and Comptroller Justin Wilson to new two-year terms in their constitutional offices. Generally, the leaders of the governor’s party in the Senate and House of Representatives sponsor the governor’s legislative initiatives or parcel them out to other lawmakers with expertise in the bill’s subject while remaining co-sponsors of the bill themselves.

Key ally, Mark Norris, wary of Insure Tennessee plan (Times Free-Press/Sher)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to extend health coverage to 200,000 low-income Tennesseans is encountering problems among some fellow Republicans in the Legislature, with Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris saying he has yet to decide whether he will sponsor it. “I don’t know yet,” Norris said Wednesday. Majority leaders typically carry a governor’s package of proposals if they are of the same party. “We understand the concept and the administration has put forth a plan that’s worthy of consideration, but what form that takes remains to be seen,” Norris said. “Until that quickens into something concrete, I can’t say. I don’t think there’s much appetite for it, but I’m not quite sure what it is going to be yet.”

School attorney to legislators: Back off from school funding formula (TFP/Omarzu)
Don’t let Tennessee lawmakers oversimplify, tinker with — or scrap — the Basic Education Program, the formula under which public K-12 schools are funded. Instead, lawmakers should focus on fully funding the BEP, which only pays school districts for 10 months of health care, instead of a full year, and shortchanges teachers’ pay to the tune of $10,000 per year each. That’s the gist of a letter sent Tuesday to Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery by D. Scott Bennett, the attorney for school boards in Hamilton, Grundy, Polk and Coffee counties. “Rather than establishing the true cost of employing teachers across the state and funding the state’s full share of that cost, the General Assembly appears to be considering a wholesale revision to the funding formula,” Bennett wrote in his five-page letter.

Tennessee legislators set to spar on abortion regulations (WSMV-TV Nashville)
Passions ran high on the first day of the Tennessee General Assembly as women’s rights groups rallied against Amendment 1. The amendment, which passed last November, allows lawmakers to regulate abortion. Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) backed up the protesters. “We, as government people, don’t need to tell women what to do here with their health,” Kyle said. But supporters argued that their mission lies in safety and protecting women. They said “informed consent” does just that. “We believe in truth, and you can only make a good decision when you have facts and the truth,” said Rep. Debra Moody (R-Covington).

Shelby legislative delegation elects Rep. Camper as its new chairman (CA/Locker)
Shelby County’s state legislative delegation elected state Rep. Karen Camper as its new chairman, to succeed Sen. Reginald Tate, who was elected vice chairman. Earlier Wednesday, the full legislature re-elected state Treasurer David Lillard of Memphis and state Comptroller Justin Wilson of Nashville to new two-year terms in their constitutional offices. Both Republican officials were re-elected without opposition. The 19-member Shelby delegation — 14 House members and five senators from Memphis and suburban Shelby County — meets weekly in Nashville while the legislature is in session to focus on issues of importance to the county and its cities.

Two PACs fined over disclosure failures (Tennessean/Wadhwani)
State election officials have fined two controversial political action committees for failing to properly disclose donors and expenditures leading up the August primary and November general election. On Wednesday, Strong & Free Tennessee was fined $5,000 for its failure to disclose contributions to its PAC and expenditures to support Republican candidates running for state executive committees. The relatively obscure committees serve to elect the party’s chairman, and this year’s election reflected divisions in the state’s Republican party. The penalty also includes the group’s failure to disclose expenditures in support of two ballot measures: Amendment 1, which gives lawmakers more power to enact abortion regulations, and Amendment 2, which changes the process for selecting appellate judges.

What to Do in Memphis (New York Times)
Maybe even more Music City than its country cousin to the east, Memphis has strong affiliations with not one musical genre but three. It is the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, the cradle of soul and, though the blues weren’t born here (that distinction goes to the rural parts of the Mississippi Delta), it was the Memphis-based musician and “Father of the Blues,” W. C. Handy, who helped get those “lonesome songs” out into the world. But there is far more to Bluff City than blues and barbecue. A watermelon and feta salad can be found alongside great smokehouse meats; zydeco and indie rock are within earshot of soul; and up-and-coming areas like Cooper-Young are giving the city’s older haunts some stiff competition.

Alexander Expedites NCLB Fix, Identifies Testing As Big Sticking Point (WPLN)
In his first days as chairman of the U.S. Senate’s education committee, Lamar Alexander is following through on a pledge to fix the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. He’s set a goal of having a bill to vote on within a few weeks. The Tennessee Republican says there’s general agreement on some changes, like setting realistic goals. But he says there will be real debate on topics like standardized testing. “The question is are there too many tests? And who should be in charge of the tests? Who should decide what the tests should be?” Alexander said on the floor of the Senate Tuesday.

Southern conservatives do battle on immigration (Tennessean/Troyan)
A loosely affiliated group of Southern conservatives was the driving force behind Wednesday’s House votes to reverse President Barack Obama’s policies shielding some undocumented immigrants from deportation. Members of Congress from Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina wrote, sponsored and defended most of the immigration-related amendments to a funding bill that passed the House and now goes to the Senate. The Southerners celebrated Wednesday’s votes as a decisive repudiation of Obama’s actions giving legal status to some of the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. They were less concerned about whether their work survives the Senate or a threatened White House veto.

America’s College Promise proposal could impact Roane State (WATE-TV Knox)
The president of Roane State Community College believes a program aimed at expanding technical training through hands-on experience has many qualities highlighted by President Obama’s new education proposal. The America’s College Promise proposal could impact Roane State’s Mechatronics program and non-traditional students. If the America’s College Promise proposal becomes a reality, some community colleges may get funding to expand technical training programs. Americans who qualify, not just high school seniors, may get free tuition for the first two years at a community college.

IRS cuts taxpayer services as filing returns gets harder (AP/Ohlemacher)
The IRS is cutting taxpayer services to historically low levels just as President Barack Obama’s health law will make filing a federal tax return more complicated for millions of families. Got a question for IRS? Good luck reaching someone by phone. The tax agency says only half of the 100 million people expected to call this year will be able to reach a person. Callers who get through may have to wait on hold for 30 minutes or more to talk to a person who will answer only the simplest questions. “As we enter 2015, we are deeply concerned that taxpayers are receiving markedly less assistance from the IRS now than at any time in recent history,” said a report released Wednesday by agency watchdog Nina E. Olson.

Mega industrial park could be ‘gold mine’ for Sumner (Tennessean/Yankova)
A publicly owned mega industrial park would put Sumner County on the radar of more companies. That’s a proposal Sumner County Executive Anthony Holt made Monday to the county commission’s budget committee members, who unanimously agreed to look into the possibility. “This will have a positive effect on every community in Sumner County,” Holt said. “Now is the time to invest in our county.” The proposed industrial park would be located on an 800-acre to 1,000-acre property at the north end of Gallatin adjacent to State Route 109 and “very accessible” to Portland, Holt said. Portland is the county’s second largest industry hub after Gallatin.

Multi-million dollar expansion planned for Shelby County School (MBJ)
Construction on a 20-classroom annex building for Berclair Elementary is slated to start within the next few months.
A building permit valued at $3 million was issued Tuesday to Shelby County Schools for what was described as a new two-story elementary school. The site location was listed as 787 Stratford Road. Scott Steen, a facilities specialist for Shelby County Schools, said the building will replace the portables students and teachers currently use at Berclair “If everything goes right we should have substantial completion by February of 2016,” he said. The architect on the permit is Steve Landwehr.

Georgia: Deal urges dramatic action on transportation and education (Times-Union)
Gov. Nathan Deal urged lawmakers Wednesday to take dramatic action on transportation and education issues facing Georgia, proposing new powers to take over struggling schools but refraining from making any recommendation on how to pay for maintenance of the state’s transportation systems. “When confronting the challenges of 10 million people – challenges that can appear insurmountable – it’s easy to feel that the tools we’ve been given aren’t up to the task,” Deal said in an advance text of his State of the State Address.

Virginia: McAuliffe details vision for economic development (Times-Disptach)
After an inaugural year spent selling Virginia around the globe — and consuming stomach-churning, foreign delicacies to seal some deals — Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Wednesday made his sales pitch to the General Assembly. In his State of the Commonwealth Address, delivered to a joint session in the House chamber, McAuliffe urged lawmakers to support expanded investment in his economic development efforts and to continue to work with him on bipartisan reforms to education, transportation, veterans services and ethics. The Democrat also renewed his call for Medicaid expansion and for more gun control legislation — issues more likely to divide than unite the administration and the Republican-controlled legislature that must work together on how to close an additional $322 million budget gap.

West Virginia: Tomblin calls for unity in State of the State address (WV Gazette)
In a State of the State address that reminisced about his 40 years of public service as well as looked forward to West Virginia’s future, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called on legislators to set aside political differences and work together for the greater good of the Mountain State. “We must work together, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as West Virginians united for the common good,” Tomblin said Wednesday evening. “This is West Virginia, not Washington, and we work together to meet the challenges we face as a state.” With 43 new legislators, and the House and Senate in Republican control for the first time in 83 years, Tomblin addressed a decidedly changed Legislature in his fifth State of the State.


Columnist: TN health crisis needs policy, thought reform (Tennessean)
Tennessee needs health reform — both in policy and in popular thought — as it tries to tackle a crisis stemming from decades of its population making unhealthy choices, physicians and business leaders said Wednesday at the Nashville Community Health Forum. The state ranks in the bottom 10 in overall health outcomes, according to a UnitedHealth Foundation study. The state has been at No. 24 or lower for the last 20 years, said Rick Johnson, CEO of the Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness. “There really is a health crisis in this state,” said Dr. Jeff Balser, vice chancellor of health affairs at Vanderbilt University. Climbing out of the bottom of the rankings is imperative for the future of Tennessee — both for its citizens and for the state’s economic growth.

Columnist: Free community college plan for all noble, but misguided (Tennessean)
President Obama honored the Volunteer State with another visit last week by praising the Tennessee Promise and announcing that he wanted free community college for students nationwide. America’s College Promise, unveiled during Obama’s visit to Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville on Jan. 9, borrows from the Tennessee Promise in its intent to break down any economic barriers to receiving a college education. Nearly 29 percent of Americans holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census, and the Lumina Foundation reported last year that nearly 40 percent has at least a two-year college degree. A college education is essential for our residents to compete for and earn high- and higher-wage jobs. Seeking to broaden Americans’ opportunities is a noble aim.

Editorial: Expanding Community College Access (New York Times)
In the abstract, President Obama’s proposal for making community college tuition-free seems a reasonable response to a troublesome fact: The American work force is less educated than it needs to be at a time when most jobs in the new economy will require some college education. But for such an idea to work, states and localities that have been starving community colleges for decades will need to begin holding them to higher standards and commit to sustained financing instead of using the new federal money to dodge their own financial obligations. The president’s proposal deserves to be taken seriously by the public, state legislatures, municipal authorities and, of course, Congress, which will be asked to underwrite it.