This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Rising tuition rates are a familiar annual occurrence for colleges governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents, but this year the board is mulling its smallest set of hikes in a decade. The board’s Finance and Business Operations Committee met Thursday to discuss next year’s tuition within its system, which includes public schools like Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University and all of the state’s community and technical colleges. Officials are hoping to avoid raising tuition by more than 4 percent at any of the schools. Proposed tuition increases across the TBR system for the 2015-16 school year range from 2.3 percent to 4 percent, with an average hike of about 3 percent. The board hasn’t approved an average increase that low since at least 2006.
Sometimes a simple health fair can push people toward a lifesaving health change, health advocates say. “For someone to talk to a doctor face to face without having to make an appointment can be huge,” said Stacy Gardner, spokeswoman for Healthy Tennessee, a Nashville-based nonprofit that is hosting a free health fair in Chattanooga this week. Many people who attend the health fairs put on by the organization come for a range of screenings: blood pressure checks, blood sugar screenings, eye and hearing exams, diabetes risk assessments, and BMI checks.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will give the keynote speech during the Indiana Republican Party’s annual spring dinner June 18 in Indianapolis. It’s not quite the name some might have been hoping given that more than 20 Republicans are contending for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. “We are excited to hear from Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam during this year’s spring dinner event,” Indiana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Cardwell said. “Haslam is an outstanding leader who continues to make positive strides in his state. We look forward to hearing his words of encouragement as we gear up for November’s election and prepare for 2016.” The news release said Haslam secured the largest re-election victory in his state’s modern history.
Lynda Douglas thought she had a deal with Tennessee. She would adopt and love a tiny, unwanted, profoundly disabled girl named Charla. The private insurance companies that run Tennessee’s Medicaid program would cover Charla’s health care. Douglas doesn’t think the state and its contractors have held up their end. In recent years, she says, she has fought battle after battle to secure essential care to control Charla’s seizures, protect her from choking, and tube-feed and medicate her multiple times a day. “If you have special-needs children you would not want to be taking care of these children and be harassed like this,” Douglas said. “This is not right. No way, shape or form is this right.” State Medicaid programs across the country, which operate with large federal contributions, have outsourced most of their care management in recent years to insurance companies like the ones in Tennessee.
Tennessee smokers will begin paying more for cigarettes on July 1 under a bill signed into law last week by Gov. Bill Haslam. The 15 cents-per-pack increase is the first of three that will total 35 cents by July 1, 2017. The change is technically not a tax hike. What lawmakers have done is increase the minimum price mark-up over retailers’ “cost of doing business” for buying and selling a 20-cigarette pack. The minimum now is 8 percent, or 41 cents per pack. That minimum will rise in three steps to 15 percent, or 76 cents per pack, over two years, according to a legislative fiscal analysis. It’s an 85 percent increase in the minimum mark-up and its expected to sweeten retailers’ bottom lines by $129.22 million in year three, according to the analysis by the General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee.
Lawmakers and religious figures alike across Tennessee believe students need guidance, and the intervention of prayer is the best way to provide this. On April 24, Gov. Bill Haslam signed Senate Bill 202 into law, which states that those in the Volunteer state should pray for students on the weekend of Aug. 1-2. “Tennesseans are encouraged to pray for protection, guidance and peace, and for opportunities and blessings on the students of Tennessee,” it said. According to its organizers, it’s a call for members of the community to pray for students as they begin a new school year — not in the school, but from anywhere they can. Nearly passing unanimously, SB202 passed the state Senate 33-0 and the state House approved 95-2. G.A. Hardaway and Johnnie Turner, both Memphis Democrats, were the only two to vote against it.
Oklahoma’s governor this week approved a law extending to 72 hours the mandatory waiting period before a woman can have an abortion. Here in Florida, lawmakers enacted a 24-hour waiting period that requires two separate appointments — one for an ultrasound and information about fetal development and another for the actual procedure. These are just two laws in a surge of bills passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures this year that make it harder for women to have abortions. Arkansas led the nation with six new abortion-related laws, including one requiring minors to present a notarized consent from a parent and another saying that a woman more than 20 weeks along must be told that her fetus can feel pain.
After spending nearly $1.1 billion to clean up and compensate for its worst environmental disaster, the Tennessee Valley Authority is preparing to sell a portion of the land it restored over the past six years. TVA directors last week voted to sell nearly 77 acres of restored property along the Emory River where nearly 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash was dumped from a ruptured ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant in December 2008. The collapse of the TVA-built earthen dam spilled toxic coal ash over 300 acres, destroyed 40 homes and contaminated the Emory River. The Mother Nature Network ranked the Kingston spill as one of America’s worst man-made environmental disasters.
What does a triangle look like? “Like this,” responds a 4-year-old at Casa Azafrán who calls himself “Rockstar.” Jeremy, his given name, then holds up a Play-Doh triangle he made Thursday and gives a look, as if to say about the question, “that’s it?” “That’s easy,” Rockstar says. Tough questions are what Jeremy expects, in part, thanks to his pre-kindergarten program housed at nonprofit Casa Azafrán. Over the past year, three of Metro Schools’ early childhood programs — including the one at Casa Azafrán — have pioneered a curriculum that seeks to challenge youngsters and foster their curiosity so they are prepared for K-12 education careers.
Advocacy organizations and lobbyists have long wielded considerable influence in the Tennessee Legislature, but national groups are throwing their weight — and money — around freely five years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. There is nothing wrong with attempting to sway lawmakers — in fact, it is indispensable to democracy. But the lack of transparency and vicious tactics being employed by some groups, coupled with the apparently waning influence of Tennessee residents, are causes for concern. A four-day series of articles published last week as a joint effort of the state’s four largest newspapers delved into the world of influence peddling in Nashville. The results are unsettling. A democratic republic cannot exist without citizens and organizations informing elected leaders about issues and attempting to persuade them to vote a certain way. Private citizens send letters or make phone calls to legislators. Donors write checks to campaigns. Newspaper editorial boards publish opinions on legislation and candidate endorsements. Advocacy groups and organizations hiring lobbyists are no different.
Is a recent surge of activity by out-of-state organizations diminishing the influence of Tennessee voters and the independence of their elected representatives? There is no question that many Tennesseans share some or all of the goals of groups such as Americans for Prosperity, led by Kansas business moguls David and Charles Koch, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a mix of legislators and representatives of some of America’s largest corporations, just as some Tennesseans historically welcomed input from national labor organizations and their local chapters. But a series of articles on outside political influence, published here and in other major newspapers in the state this week, revealed some unsettling trends. Speaking to reporters from the state’s four largest news organizations, legislative leaders insisted that it was not out of fear of being defeated in the next election that they voted, for example, against Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to create a new health insurance plan for the working poor or for a new law that stripped the authority of local governments to ban guns in their parks.
Gov. Bill Haslam has signed everything the Legislature put on his desk this year, while the legislators have spurned his highest priority of the session and messed around with some of the secondary stuff he put before them. Probably the most notable affixing of the gubernatorial signature of the session came on the so-called “guns-in-parks” bill, for which Haslam had repeatedly declared distaste. He had been widely expected to let the bill become law without his signature, but wound up balking at even that symbolic gesture. In a somewhat lame statement, Haslam basically said he still didn’t like it, but, hey, the final version was a “vast improvement” over the original, so what the heck. No reason to annoy those members of the supermajority that he’s trying to get along with better, right? A veto could have delayed the effective date of the law for almost a year, since legislators would have had to wait until 2016 to come back into session and override. A few more months of letting local governments decide whether to let handgun carry permit holders pack their pistols in local parks, a notion the governor supports, would have been gained.