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November 14 TN News Digest

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

 

Haslam administration lays out pros and cons of state health exchange (NBJ)

The Haslam administration laid out some of its calculus today on whether to launch a state health insurance exchange under federal health reform, with the Republican governor saying he expects a decision by — but not before — a Friday deadline. During budget hearings this morning, Gov. Bill Haslam heard from officials with TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program slated to undergo major changes in the wake of federal reform pushing access to care for more people. Under the law, states can create their own exchanges on which people can purchase health insurance or come under a federally run exchange.

TN considers running health insurance exchange (Tennessean/Brown)

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday said state leaders are weighing whether the state will operate an online health insurance exchange or let the federal government do it. The exchange is a requirement of the Affordable Care Act reform law goes into effect in 2014. Under the reform, consumers and small businesses will be able to shop for insurance coverage on Internet-based exchanges. States are supposed to let the federal government know by Friday whether they plan to run the exchange themselves or use the one that will be created by the federal government.

Gov. Bill Haslam expects decision Friday on insurance exchange (Nooga)

With three days remaining until a federally mandated deadline, Gov. Bill Haslam said he will continue to weigh the pros and cons of implementing a state-run health insurance exchange until time no longer affords him the chance. Following the re-election of President Barack Obama, Haslam was left with a limited timeline to declare the state’s intention on how it will comply with a critical component of the Affordable Care Act. Either the state can create its own online clearinghouse for health insurance purchases, or it can defer responsibility to the administration.

Obamacare will cost Tennessee more than $1 billion in first 5½ years (CA/Locker)

The federal health reform law will cost the state up to $1.4 billion in its first 5½ years, most of which will be incurred even if Tennessee doesn’t create its own health insurance exchange or expand its TennCare/Medicaid program, TennCare officials said Tuesday. Gov. Bill Haslam must notify the federal government by Friday if he plans to create a state-level health insurance exchange or defer to a federally run exchange, which could cost the state even more in the long run and without any state control.

Haslam Fence-Sitting on Exchanges Until Final Hours (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam says he’ll be taking all the time he can to make a decision on setting up a state-based health insurance exchange. Republican governors around the country are split ahead of Friday’s deadline. A few folks like Rick Scott of Florida and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana say the exchanges were the idea of the federal government and it should be the one to run them. But several GOP governors reluctantly say states could do a better job. Haslam says he’s in the latter camp, though he’s still not made a final call.

Corrections Department won’t ask for more officers (Tennessean/Haas)

Despite years of audits saying that caseloads have become dangerously high, Tennessee won’t be getting additional parole and probation officers in the next year. The Tennessee Department of Correction on Tuesday gave an $850 million budget pitch to Gov. Bill Haslam as part of the administration’s ongoing budget hearings. The department’s proposed budget would include regular contract cost increases, in addition to more fundingfor more inmates coming into the system.

More tuition increases coming next year for TN public college students (CA/Locker)

Students at Tennessee’s public universities face tuition increases of up to 6 percent next fall and up to 3 percent at community colleges and technology centers, if the state legislature approves a $33.5 million increase in taxpayer funding for higher education, officials told Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday. The tuition increases could be more if the state appropriations portion of higher education’s budget request is not fully funded or if cuts of up to 5 percent are implemented. The governor asked every state agency to prepare contingency plans for 5 percent reductions in their budgets but said cuts — if they occur — would not be uniform across every agency.

Public Colleges Call for State Funding Turnaround (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Tennessee’s public universities say this is the year to stem the tide in budget cuts. The Board of Regents and University of Tennessee are asking for a $33 million increase in state funding. Any new money would represent a turnaround. Higher education has been on the losing end of state budget battles over the last 10 years, with funding cut by 30 percent. TBR chancellor John Morgan says there’s a limit to how much students can be asked to cover the gap. He blames this year’s enrollment dip – in part – on ballooning tuition.

School Vouchers Task Force Unspecific on Cost, Scope (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The governor’s task force on school vouchers says they should focus on students from poor families. But a draft report from the group stops short of pinning down some tough details. Next year lawmakers will likely take up vouchers, which would divert money out of public schools, so parents could instead pay private school tuition. The task force generally agreed a state vouchers program should vet schools getting money, as well as the results. But there was no agreement on how much money eligible students should get, or whether such a program should start out in only certain districts.

Task force members can’t agree on specifics of voucher program (CP/Zelinski)

A state task force charged with devising an ideal plan allowing parents to enroll their students in private schools on the taxpayer’s dime is still largely divided on the best way to go about it. At the group’s highly anticipated final meeting, the Opportunity Scholarship Task Force struggled to agree on the specifics of a program it plans to recommend to Gov. Bill Haslam to consider pitching to lawmakers next year. “It’s not a question of if we have more time, then we’re going to come up with the perfect solution,” said Kevin Huffman, commissioner of the state Department of Education.

Tennessee’s school voucher panel unsure of key issues (Times Free-Press/Sher)

Gov. Bill Haslam’s school-voucher task force recommended Tuesday to limit any would-be program to poorer students, but the group failed to reach consensus on several major details including how large a program Tennessee should have. The Republican governor’s nine-member task force held its final meeting. Over the course of two hours, members again sought to resolve long-standing issues that observers say are crucial to establishing any program that would divert tax dollars from public schools to private and religious schools.

Tennessee explores using school vouchers to pay for private school (CA/Roberts)

Poor families in Tennessee could be the first to use vouchers to send their children to private schools, based on recommendations Tuesday from a governor’s task force. The group said private schools would be expected to accept the vouchers as full payment. They also would have to prove they are high-quality schools. Vouchers could be in place by next fall. The task force is divided on how much the vouchers should be worth and if students eligible to use them must come from low-performing public schools.

Comptroller’s audit hits ECD administration of TNInvestco (N. Post/Whitehouse)

The office of Tennessee’s State Comptroller says that the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development’s administration of the state’s TNInvestco venture capital program “has serious and pervasive problems.” TNInvestco was launched in 2009 to provides tax credits to funds that in turn have invested in start-up and fast-growing companies to foster entrepreneurial activity. The recipients of tax credits were chosen by the state through an application process that required them to meet certain criteria in order to qualify.

Audit finds ‘serious and pervasive’ issues with TNInvestco program (N. Biz Journal)

An audit requested by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has found “serious and pervasive problems” at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development’s TNInvestco program. TNInvestco, which created a pool of venture capital through $200 million in tax credits, is a 10-year program approved by legislative Republicans but designed and pushed by the administration of Haslam’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. Recipients of the funds — meant to create jobs and promote entrepreneurship — were chosen through an application process.

Auditors blast $200 million TNInvestco program (Times Free-Press/Smith)

Most Tennesseans would be overjoyed to stumble upon $10,000. But when two checks for $5,000 each are found littered among a stack of yellowing papers on the desk of the former internal audit director for a major state agency, it’s cause for concern. “That’s not something we normally find,” said Deborah Loveless, assistant director of state audits. The misplaced checks were just one among of a host of financial and regulatory red flags discovered during a recent Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury audit at the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

Audit Finds Problems at TNInvestco (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The State Comptroller has found serious problems with TNInvestco. It’s a state-backed venture capital fund that’s pumped more than $55 million into nearly 80 firms. TNIvestco is supposed to turn small companies into business heavyweights with the help of taxpayer dollars, but a comptroller’s audit says the program isn’t accounting for the money it’s spent. That makes it difficult to know how many jobs have been created with the state funds. Companies are supposed to be reviewed every year. The audit says most of those reviews were one-paragraph memos without supporting documents.

October sales tax collections fall below estimates (Associated Press)

Tennessee Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes says the state’s sales tax collections for October fell below budgeted estimates. Emkes said Tuesday that October state revenue collections were $836.7 million. He said sales tax collections were $9.9 million less than the estimate for last month. However, gasoline and motor fuel collections were $3.8 million above the budgeted estimate of $72.4 million. Emkes said national economic indicators show the economy is very slow in its recovery, which is why he says the state needs to continue monitoring its spending and revenue patterns for the remainder of the year.

State offers options for Signal Mountain Boulevard work (Times Free-Press/Walton)

With a “right-sizing” attitude at TDOT, the prospect of spending $75 million to $114 million to add traffic lanes up Signal Mountain seems dim. But for about $10 million, local officials could solve a lot of problems — from rockfalls to washouts — on the existing Signal Mountain Boulevard, according to a technical study by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. “For $10 million you could do a lot to improve its safety and reliability,” Steve Allen, director of project planning for TDOT, told local transportation planners Tuesday.

Knox woman charged with TennCare fraud (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

A Knox County woman is accused of misrepresenting herself to the state in order to obtain TennCare health care insurance benefits. The state Office of Inspector General, assisted by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, on Tuesday announced the arrest of Rebecca Ann McCarty, 41, of Knoxville. An indictment accuses McCarty of three counts of TennCare fraud and one count of theft of property less than $10,000. Charges say that between December 2011 and May 2012, McCarty obtained TennCare medical assistance benefits by concealing certain facts that would have disqualified her for the TennCare program.

Senate Dems to Haslam: Get moving on health exchange (Nashville Biz Journal)

Democrats are calling on Gov. Bill Haslam to opt for a state-run exchange as Tennessee wrestles with how to implement federal health care reform. Haslam said again Tuesday that he’s still considering whether to have Tennessee create its own exchange or to have the federal government do it. He has said he favors a state-run exchange, but is awaiting additional answers. It’s also a well-known fact that some in Haslam’s Republican Party may make a fight out of the exchanges, opposing them as a part of President Barack Obama’s federal health care reform.

Lawmakers try to curb ticket resale abuses (Tennessean/White)

Supporters and opponents of a proposal that seeks to place new rules on the ticket resale market agree more than they disagree, providing some hope that the contentious battle can be resolved before legislation on the matter is introduced next year, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said Tuesday. “My take-away is I think there’s some agreement on some of these issues and I’m pleased to see that,” Commerce Committee Chairman Johnson said after a hearing of a joint study committee of the General Assembly on ticketing regulation in Tennessee.

Tennesseans Liberalizing on Liquor (TN Report)

Local citizens across the Volunteer State overwhelmingly voted to flip their towns from dry to wet this past election, with more than two dozen communities saying ‘yes’ to liquor stores or the sale of liquor in restaurants. Of 32 local referendums held last week to allow either package stores or liquor by the drink — or both — 25 passed. In some counties, the ‘yes’ votes were overwhelming. In Robertson County, for example, four cities approved alcohol sales: Coopertown, Cross Plains, Greenbrier and Orlinda. And in Hawkins County, Church Hill, Mt. Carmel and Rogersville approved liquor by the drink. From Pigeon Forge to McKenzie, liquor sales won over the voters.

TN’s secession petition gets no official support (Tennessean/Hall, Haas)

Apparently, one secession for Tennessee is enough. In one of those loopy online campaigns that tend to spring up in the age of the Internet, thousands of people disappointed by the election results broached the idea of breaking with the U.S. government through an online petition to a White House website. State officials don’t expect it to get much traction. People from at least 37 states had filed petitions on the White House’s We the People website by late Tuesday, asking to peacefully withdraw from the U.S. and start their own governments. They began springing up immediately after President Barack Obama won a second term last week.

Tennessee secession petition reaches threshold for White House response (Nooga)

The mission for the White House’s We the People online petition program is simple: “Giving all Americans a way to engage their government on the issues that matter to them.” Even if those issues include secession. On late Tuesday, a petition that formed only three days ago had gathered more than 25,000 signatures supporting the idea that Tennessee peacefully “withdraw from the United States of America and create its own, NEW government.” The 25,000-signature threshold is enough to merit an official response from the Obama administration. What a response would entail is not clear.

State gets ‘C’ grade on Premature Birth Report Card (News-Sentinel/Nelson)

When it comes to improving premature birth numbers, Tennessee finally delivered. March of Dimes announced Tuesday that the state has scored a C on its 2012 Premature Birth Report Card — up from the D and F grades it’s seen in recent years. “This is better news,” said Dr. Mark Gaylord, director of the neonatal department at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. “I know that doesn’t sound very impressive, but … five years ago the premature birthrate was 14 percent. Today it’s 12.8 percent. That’s a huge change in the health of babies in our state.”

Metro Council maintains lifetime health care for members (Tennessean/Garrison)

Heavily subsidized lifetime health care benefits for Metro Council members –– a controversial perk for earning one of the 40 elected seats –– will continue for the council’s future representatives as well as those currently in office. The Metro Council voted 23-14 Tuesday to defeat legislation on a third and final vote that would have ended or significantly reduced the benefit for future council members, depending on their number of years served. The vote saw council conservatives and progressives intermingled on both sides of the issue.

Former legislator Rep. Jim Cobb not guilty of assault (TFP/McMillian, Omarzu)

A Rhea County Circuit Court jury on Tuesday evening found former state Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, not guilty of assaulting a woman in a wheelchair who supported Cobb’s opponent in the Aug. 2 primary election. “The verdict speaks for itself,” said Cobb, who previously dismissed the misdemeanor assault charge as “politically motivated.” The decision came at 6:40 p.m. after about an hour’s deliberation at the historic Rhea County Courthouse in downtown Dayton, Tenn. Cobb turned himself in to the county jail on Oct. 3 after a grand jury indicted him.

Sen. Bob Corker says fiscal cliff won’t happen (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, said today the economy won’t tumble over the fiscal cliff at the end of the year Corker told CNBC the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, followed by automatic spending cuts in early 2013 “is just simply not going to happen.” He didn’t explain exactly how this would happen, but suggested the debt ceiling was a more important issue.

TVA power rates to rise next month (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Flessner)

Chattanooga motorists may be filling up for less, but the price of electricity will go up again next month due to higher fuel costs to generate power in the Tennessee Valley. The Tennessee Valley Authority said Tuesday that its monthly fuel cost adjustment for December will boost the price of electricity at the retail level in Chattanooga nearly 0.7 percent. For the typical Chattanooga household, the monthly fuel increase will boost power rates by $1.01 a month to $152.44, EPB Chief Financial Officer Greg Eaves said. The fuel cost adjustment is the eighth such monthly increase in the past nine months for TVA.

‘Nashville’ picked up for full season (Nashville Business Journal)

The national spotlight on Music City will continue to shine for a while longer, as ABC has ordered a full season of its ‘Nashville’ drama, Entertainment Weekly reports. ABC had initially approved filming for 13 episodes, while a full season represents 22 one-hour episodes. It’s the second bit of good news for ‘Nashville’ fans in less than a week. After losing viewers for every episode since its premiere, ratings were up for the show last week.

Smithson-Craighead Middle to Close, Charter Revoked (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Parents and students from Nashville’s Smithson-Craighead Middle School packed a district board meeting Tuesday night, asking for one more chance. The board ultimately revoked the school’s charter after three years of abysmal scores. The idea is for charters to perform better than the average school in the district. Far from it, Smithson-Craighead Middle – not to be confused with the elementary school – was one of the worst, ranking in the bottom five percent statewide.

School board votes to close one charter, passes on fighting state (CP/Zelinski)

The Metro school board took a pass for now on fighting the state of Tennessee over the $3.4 million state officials withheld from the district following the Great Hearts Academies saga. But in the wake of discussion over that long-running charter school issue, the board soon turned the charter spotlight on Smithson Craighead Middle School, voting 8-1 to close the school — open since 2009 — at the end of the year. Before a standing-room-only crowd at the Tuesday evening meeting, board members debated offering Smithson Craighead a probationary period, but in the end followed recommendations from district officials to close the school for ranking in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide.

Smithson-Craighead Middle School will close (Tennessean/Fingeroot)

The Metro Nashville school board on Tuesday decided to close one charter school and offered an olive branch to another, Great Hearts Academies, which was denied a charter in West Nashville three times earlier this year. With nearly 100 supporters of Smithson-Craighead Middle School on hand, the board decided to shut the poorly performing charter school’s doors after the current school year ends May 24. The only person to speak on behalf of Smithson-Craighead, which opened in 2009, was Director of School Programs Carolyn Baldwin Tucker.

Chattanooga area adults strive for GED, better jobs (Times Free-Press/Putman)

Skip Eberhardt can help people find a job. The problem is they’re not qualified to work. The 62-year-old former Spencer J. McCallie Homes resident said he received more than 70 calls in less than a month, all from people looking for work, but none of the job seekers had a high school diploma. To help, Eberhardt solicited help from five retired schoolteachers and professionals to start a GED program this week. Chattanooga College, in Eastgate Town Center, donated its space for the program. Eberhardt is aiming his program at students who may be more interested in getting technical training instead of college after getting their GED certificate.

Memphis City Schools rewarded for reducing truancy (C. Appeal/Kelley)

Memphis City Schools has reduced truancy 65 percent since the 2009-2010 school year, earning international recognition. But school officials are quick to credit their partners in a vigorous truancy prevention program for the success. Cooperation among schools, police, courts, prosecutors and social service agencies is responsible for the Innovative Program Award from the International Association of Truancy and Dropout Prevention, said Ron Pope, MCS director of student engagement. “Without all the parties playing together it couldn’t happen,” Pope said.

 

OPINION

Editorial: TN should take charge of its Affordable Care Act insurance market (NS)

Tennessee officials have until Friday to notify the federal government of their intentions regarding running the state’s insurance exchange under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The Republican lawmakers who run Tennessee — the GOP now has a “super majority” in both chambers of the Legislature as well as occupancy of the governorship, which makes state Democrats largely irrelevant — now face a politically difficult decision. They can implement a law they despise or allow the federal government to do it for them. As politically distasteful as Republicans might find it, they should move forward with a Tennessee plan, retaining control of how the law affects state residents.

Gail Kerr: Fairness in Ticketing Act would help cut down on fraud (Tennessean)

It’s the fan’s most frustrating moment. You’re dying to see a special show or game, and tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday. So you fire up your computer at 9:45 a.m., enter all the information, type in your credit card number and at 10 a.m., BOOM! You hit send. And the show is already sold out. What? The newly proposed Fairness in Ticketing Act would go a long way in fixing that. The law would still allow ticket scalping in Tennessee by individuals who can’t make Sunday’s game and want to sell their Titans tickets on Facebook. It would still allow people to buy and sell tickets outside of shows. But it would put a halt to the unfair practice of ticket brokers who use software, sometimes illegally, to hack into ticket selling websites and jump in front of you in line, scooping up large numbers of tickets.

Greg Johnson: Election Day results pretty hard to swallow (News-Sentinel)

First came the Great Recession, those awful years of agony that saw home prices drop, construction come to a standstill and businesses left to wonder if good times would ever return. Now, as some of those dark economic clouds begin to part, comes the Great Grief. About three of four Sevier County voters are dealing with PEDS. This Post-Election Depression Syndrome afflicted conservatives after Republican Mitt Romney beat that other guy last week 77 percent to 22 percent in Sevier County and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. — the husband of a Sevier County native — won by 81 percent to 22 percent. That other guy kept the White House and his party kept control of the U.S. Senate, even though Elizabeth Burchfield Corker’s husband retained his seat. But there’s another cause of the Great Grief for at least 1,132 Sevier Countians. Pigeon Forge approved liquor by the drink by 1,232 to 1,132.

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