This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Guest columnist: Insure TN represents Tennessee victory over Washington (Tenn)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal has gotten caught up in the national ambitions of out-of-state special interest groups, and honestly, it was probably predictable. What has been astonishing, however, is the seeming lack of credit Gov. Haslam has received for the significant policy concessions he was able to extract from Washington in winning approval of Insure Tennessee from the Department of Health and Human Services. These concessions could set a new course for Washington’s relationship with Tennessee and other states: a course characterized by cooperation and innovation, not coercion. Insure Tennessee includes several provisions that Washington policymakers have strenuously resisted until now.
Governor Bill Haslam Launches Healthier Tennessee Communities (C. Online)
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness CEO Rick Johnson, joined by representatives from nine cities and counties across the state, today launched Healthier Tennessee Communities, a coordinated initiative supporting physical activity, healthy eating and tobacco abstinence at the local level. The Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness has focused on developing and introducing effective tools for individuals, workplaces and faith congregations. Healthier Tennessee Communities takes a community-wide approach to improving Tennesseans’ health by engaging the local leaders of cities, towns, counties and neighborhoods.
Wacker plant powers up for 2015 start (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Pare)
Construction of Wacker’s new polysilicon plant is at its peak, with more than 2,500 workers on site raising the factory that officials plan to switch on later this year. “It will be the most advanced [polysilicon production] plant within Wacker and one of the most advanced in the world,” said Konrad Bachhuber, who heads the German chemical company’s operations in Bradley County. The plant’s full cost may hit $2.4 billion, making it the largest private construction project underway in Tennessee and one of the biggest in the Southeast.
Officials: Rutherford Co. offers model in developing mechatronics programs (DNJ)
School districts across the midstate, as well as those out of state, consider Rutherford County the blueprint for developing a public-private partnership designed to meet the needs of the area’s workforce. “In a short period of time, the joint effort between industry, government and the educational system is producing well-trained individuals at the high school and post-secondary level,” said Tony Morriello, president of Murfreesboro-based Southeastern Technology. Morriello said the company that specializes in individualized medical implants, as well as aerospace and automotive supplies, has found more talent from TCAT, Motlow and MTSU graduates and students since local stakeholders launched the focus on mechatronics.
Mental health clients, advocates fear cuts to case management services (TFP/Belz)
As she looks around her small apartment, Donna Robertson can relate almost every object she sees to her gratitude for a woman named Lindsay. Pinned to the wall is a motivational article bearing the headline, “Overcome excuses and meet your goals.” “Lindsay gave that to me,” Robertson, 61, says with a smile. Pointing at a photo of her 13-year-old grandson, Robertson talks about how “Lindsay helps me read his school documents right, and helps me make sure I’m not missing anything.” Even the fact that she lives in this apartment, she says, is a testament to Lindsay, who helped get her approved for voucher housing, and aided her fight to get a bottom-floor space, since Robertson has trouble getting up stairs.
Gibbons says THP has no DUI quotas (Johnson City Press)
Top Tennessee Department of Safety officials continue to deny allegations of DUI arrest quotas in the Highway Patrol, while frontline troopers continue to come forward — albeit anonymously — saying they are pressured daily to make more and more DUI arrests and threatened with a variety of repercussions if they don’t. Last week, THP Col. Tracy Trott said the troopers talking to the media about the agency’s goals are “disgruntled employees,” which is something found in every agency. Troopers agree they are disgruntled, but not because they’re being required to work. Instead, they’re disgruntled “because of the pressure. He’s trying to use enforcement goals to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. We’ve taken our priorities away from so much else,” one trooper said.
Cash rewards: Chattanooga State stipends under review (Times Free-Press/Hardy)
There are few secrets when it comes to salaries at Chattanooga State — everyone knows just about what everyone else makes thanks to an online database. But former President Jim Catanzaro quietly awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional compensation to select professors and administrators, a practice still in effect today. Stipends are a common practice for colleges and school systems, which often pay teachers more for coaching, sponsoring clubs or taking on other additional duties. Those stipends exist at Chattanooga State, but much of the college’s $400,000 in stipends is going to those at the top — sometimes to executives already making six-digit salaries.
Anthem cyber attack risks personal information of 1.1 million (CA/McKenzie)
The nearly 774,000 Anthem Inc. health plan consumers in Tennessee whose personal information has been put at risk by a cyberattack range from thousands of workers covered by their employers’ benefits to thousands of low-income families covered by government programs. They include nearly 247,000 people covered by the government-paid TennCare or Children’s Health Insurance Program that are managed by an Anthem subsidiary, Amerigroup. Social Security numbers for more than 105,000 children in those programs were stolen, as well as those of adults. Nationally, personal information of 78.8 million people, dating back up to 10 years, was lost to hackers in an attack that Indianapolis-based Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield reports discovering on Jan. 29.
Tennessee’s Supreme Court seeks to regulate media electronics (Times Free-Press)
Tennessee’s Supreme Court is proposing to add electronic devices such as cellphones, tablets and laptops to the list of equipment requiring a judge’s permission for news media to use in the courtroom. Media already must get judges’ permission to use some equipment, including cameras and recording devices. The Friday news release from the Supreme Court said the proposed revision “would add to the tools permitted by journalists.” “Transparency of court proceedings is an important part of maintaining an open government,” Chief Justice Sharon Lee said in the release. “These proposed changes embrace the tools used by the media to keep the public informed about what’s happening in our court system.”
With no lobbyist, Williamson school board weighs education bills (TN/Balakit)
After weeks of discussion, the Williamson County school board has narrowed its list of education-related bills it will publicly support or oppose. As the only school district in the state with no lobbyist to help track and advocate for certain state legislation, the school district drafted several resolutions on state bills. The board voted on resolutions supporting a bill concerning teacher evaluations and a bill that addresses a state education funding formula at a school board work session Thursday. It also voted on a resolution opposing a bill concerning special-needs students. The board unanimously voted to support a bill that decreases the percentage of student achievement data used in teacher evaluations in anticipation of a new state assessment in the 2015-16 school year.
Cooper questions Haslam, lawmakers on Insure TN failure (Tennessean/Boucher)
Sometimes Rep. Jim Cooper just has to chop some wood. Or do yoga. Yoga and wood-chopping work for the Nashville Democrat, who’s always been a runner, when he’s trying to work with others in Tennessee’s federal delegation. He recently told The Tennessean editorial board that collaboration is at times “one of the most challenging parts of my job” because it can be “extraordinarily frustrating.” But most recently, he’s been frustrated with the Tennessee General Assembly and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Specifically, with their work on Haslam’s controversial Insure Tennessee.
FBI investigates Tennessee road building giant for fraud (Tennessean/Rau)
The FBI raided the offices of a Williamson County construction company as part of an ongoing investigation into nine Tennessee Department of Transportation and two Metro Nashville Airport Authority contracts. The agents seized payroll records, contract files, work orders and computer hard drives from the College Grove offices of G&M Associates. Jones Brothers, one of the largest road contractors in the Southeast, and two of its affiliate companies are implicated in the investigation, according to a search warrant. Jones Brothers and the two affiliated companies, Mountain States Contractors and Hot Mix Asphalt, were allegedly involved in a scheme to fraudulently land government contracts intended for companies that promise to subcontract a certain percentage of the work to women- or minority-owned small businesses, the search warrant documents state.
Erlanger to get second dose of federal funds (Times Free-Press/Brogdon)
The Hamilton County Commission will vote next week to again help Erlanger Health System turn $10 million into $28 million by drawing cash from a federal pot. And despite anger from state lawmakers in December over the hospital’s board paying $1.7 million in bonuses for executives at the public health system, legislators say they aren’t getting involved in the upcoming money swap. Commissioners will vote on — and likely pass — a resolution this week that will allow the county to transfer $10 million of Erlanger’s dollars to the state’s TennCare program. This money move will allow Erlanger to draw $28 million from the Public Hospital Supplemental Payment Pool, a $100 million cache of federal funds aimed at helping public hospitals cover the cost of treating patients who can’t pay.
Shelby school board wrestles with budget woes (Commercial Appeal/Roberts)
One of the pieces of proof Tommy Elliott loved to use to illustrate how students rise to high expectations at Whitehaven Elementary was the Russian language program. “At the end of the year, we’d have elementary students outscoring high school students,” Elliott, the school’s principal, said. But a handful of years after Shelby County Schools rolled out Arabic, Mandarin and Russian, it abruptly shut down them down in elementary schools and most middle schools. It was part of the wrenching budget decisions the school board make last spring. Elliott was so heartbroken, he considered buying Rosetta Stone to keep Russian going, but even that would have meant other costs and there was no money for extras.
Editorial: Insist on strong laws governing open records (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
As Sunshine Week dawns, news from Washington and Nashville underscores the importance of this national effort to increase transparency in government. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s circumvention of the State Department’s email system raises legitimate questions about the security and documentation of official messages. Meanwhile, revelations that the state’s Advisory Committee on Open Government is not legally required to comply with the Tennessee Open Meetings Act is cause for concern. All citizens have a vested interest in holding their governments — local, state and national — accountable for their actions. Laws requiring meetings to be held in public and allowing access to government records are vital to the health of our democratic republic.
Editorial: Open government vital to all (Leaf Chronicle)
This is Sunshine Week, a time when journalists and other open government advocates celebrate the free flow of governmental information to the public, who pay for its creation and own it. The goal of Sunshine Week, started by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 is to give citizens the information needed to fully participate in their state, local and national governments. It is held in mid-March each year to coincide with President James Madison’s birthday, which is March 16. The application of the concept of sunlight, as in shining light on government action, is traced to a quote in 1912 by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies, who told a magazine: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
Tom Humphrey: State vs. local supremacy is more balanced (News-Sentinel)
Since Republicans gained control of the Tennessee General Assembly, there has been a marked tendency toward assertion of greater state control over local government affairs that, as critics have noted, stands in contrast to a tendency for deploring federal meddling in state affairs. In the current session, these tendencies continue. But just maybe there are some signs of moderation in the notion of state supremacy, at least insofar as dealings with local governments go. Or maybe a better phrase would be “a re-thinking of relationships,” given that moderation is a word that makes many members of the Republican supermajority cringe.
Guest columnist: Voucher system slights students in public schools (TFP)
A school voucher is a publicly funded credit or certificate whereby a student may be enrolled in a private school and apply the credit to tuition. So, why should Tennessee taxpayers care? 1. Vouchers use your money to help pay for a student to go to a private school that answers to private administrators, not you, the taxpayer. Public schools must answer to the people and are held accountable for the use of local, state and federal educational tax money. 2. The Tennessee Constitution specifically states: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” Nowhere in our constitution is the General Assembly directed to take taxpayer money and use it for a voucher system so parents can use public money to send their children to private schools.