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December 5 TN News Digest

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

Governor: Voucher program ‘should work all across the state’ (City Paper/Zelinski)

As Gov. Bill Haslam weighs whether to pitch his own school voucher program or let lawmakers take the lead by offering proposals of their own, he said any program that becomes law should be usable statewide. “I’m not ready at this point in time to say exactly what we’ll propose,” he told reporters after speaking in Franklin to the Tennessee Farm Bureau. “But there have been some folks who said, ‘Let’s just try it in Shelby or try it in Davidson,’ and I kind of feel like if we’re going to try a certain income level and require a certain thing of schools, it should work all across the state,” he said.

Haslam: TennCare Experience Guides Exchange Call (Associated Press/Schelzig)

Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee’s long experience in running an expanded Medicaid program is the reason it’s taking longer than most other states to decide how to comply with the new federal health care law requirements on insurance exchanges. Tennessee is one of 10 states yet to make a decision on whether it will run its own health insurance marketplace, let the federal government handle it or choose hybrid of the two. The deadline to decide is Dec. 14.

Haslam won’t rule out state health care exchange (Times Free-Press/Sher)

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday his struggle over whether to create a state-based insurance exchange under the federal health care law has everything to do with getting to the “right answer” and not politics. Tea party activists are expected to rally today against the state setting up its own Internet marketplace to help lower-income residents find insurance and let the federal government do it instead. “We literally are trying to do our homework the very best we can,” Haslam told Nashville Republican activists at their First Tuesday luncheon.

Gov. Haslam rebukes critics of Muslim aide (Associated Press/Schelzig)

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday issued his strongest defense yet of a Muslim aide who has been criticized for once working in the field of Shariah compliant finance. The Republican governor was asked after a speech to a Nashville Republican group whether he was incorporating elements of Islamic law into state government. Such criticism emerged after the Haslam administration earlier this year hired Samar Ali to work in the Department of Economic and Community Development. Haslam said Ali, an attorney who grew up in Waverly and was student body president at Vanderbilt, has done nothing to deserve criticism.

Haslam: Excluding campuses key to gun law deal (Associated Press/Schelzig)

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says the exclusion of college campuses is key to an agreement on a bill to allow employees to store their firearms in vehicles parked at work. The governor told reporters after a speech to a Nashville Republican group on Tuesday that he expects lawmakers to craft a compromise on the measure that was the subject of much discord earlier this year. The business lobby opposed the measure backed by the National Rifle Association on the basis that it intrudes on their property rights.

Guns in Parking Lots Debate Centers on College Campuses (WPLN-Radio Nash)

To exempt or not to exempt college campuses when it comes to storing firearms in cars – that’s one question dividing Republican lawmakers preparing to revive a so-called “guns in parking lots” bill. University police chiefs have united in opposition. But this week, talking to public college administrators in Northeast Tennessee, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey said like it or not his legislation is ready to go. Ramsey says he would entertain exempting schools, but he notes their parking lots are public places and that people already store guns in their glove compartments, just illegally.

Haslam, TDEC Announces Next Clean Tennessee Energy Grant Cycle (C. Online)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau today announced a second offering of the Clean Tennessee Energy Grants, totaling $2.25 million to fund energy efficiency projects for municipal governments, county governments, utility districts, and other similar entities across Tennessee. Funding for the projects comes from an April 2011 Clean Air Act settlement with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Under the Consent Decree, Tennessee will receive $26.4 million over five years to fund clean air programs in the state (at approximately $5.25 million per year).

As motorcycle deaths soar, feds say states’ hands tied on spending (TN/Haas)

As a nurse, Jamie Webb has seen the mangled riders rolled into the emergency room. And as a driver, she has watched as the tally of dead Tennessee motorcyclists has kept climbing on overhead traffic signs. “It’s a high number,” Webb, 27, said Saturday as she prepared to take a motorcycle safety course behind the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy. “I think it’s really scary — that many people.” Even though she grew up riding dirt bikes, her father encouraged her to take a safety course when she recently decided to start riding again. As of Tuesday, 133 people had died in motorcycle accidents in Tennessee this year, compared with 114 for all of last year, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Flu vaccines available for uninsured children (Associated Press)

Children covered by TennCare and children without insurance that covers the flu vaccine can get vaccinated at county health department clinics for only a small administrative fee. The Tennessee Health Department says children will not be turned away if parents cannot afford the fee. The flu vaccine is especially important for people at high risk for serious illness or death from influenza, which includes young children. Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner warned in a news release that it is very important for people who have not yet received an annual flu vaccination to get one right away.

City, county, state preparing for winter storms (Leaf Chronicle)

With temperatures above 70 degrees this week, it’s hard to think about snow being a problem anytime soon, but employees at the city, county and state governments are already stockpiling supplies for possible snow emergencies. There are three main tools for fighting slippery, wintery road conditions: a mixture of salt and water, called a brine, can be sprayed before the snow starts falling; salt can be spread directly on the road; and plows can be attached to trucks to physically remove the snow.

Bomb threats adding up at UTC (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Bunn)

For the third time this semester, a bomb threat forced the evacuation of several buildings at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Students, staff and faculty were evacuated from Holt Hall, the University Center, the Lupton Library, Grote Hall and Brock Hall, after school officials received a bomb threat just before 11 a.m. Tuesday. Emergency crews gave the all-clear at about 1 p.m. Emergency services personnel had to respond to a bomb threat at UTC in October and another one just last week.

UT develops app that promotes worker safety (News-Sentinel/Marcum)

A construction worker’s chance of dying from a workplace related accident is about 30,000 times greater than dying in a shark attack. That is one of the many odd comparisons in an online app that University of Tennessee staff members have put together to teach young people about workplace safety. UT’s Construction Industry Research and Policy Center and its Department of Industrial Systems Engineering teamed to develop the app Working Safely is No Accident, which is meant to teach young people ages 13-24 about workplace safety and health and to understand their rights in the workplace, said Ed Taylor, who headed the project.

University of Memphis faculty advances same-sex benefits (C. Appeal/Kelley)

Motions supporting equal benefits for employees in same-sex partnerships passed handily with little discussion Tuesday afternoon in a meeting of the University of Memphis’ Faculty Senate. The first motion, encouraging the Tennessee Board of Regents staff to evaluate the advantages of a University of Tennessee-Knoxville Faculty Senate resolution asking family benefits to be extended to employees in same-sex partnerships, passed by a vote of 33-0. Approved by a vote of 30-3 was a motion authorizing a five-member committee headed by Eddie Jacobs, Senate representative from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, to draft a resolution supporting benefits equality that would likely be reviewed by the Senate in February.

Former Tennessee attorney general appointed senior judge (C. Appeal/Locker)

Former Tennessee Atty. Gen. Paul Summers, a former district attorney in Somerville, has been appointed to a four-year term as a senior judge by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Senior judges are assigned on a temporary basis to any state court as needed, when the regular judges are sick, recuse themselves from hearing specific cases or are otherwise unable to preside. Summers, 62, was state attorney general from 1999 through 2006. He served as district attorney general for judicial district 25 — Fayette, Tipton, Hardeman, Lauderdale and McNairy counties — from 1982 to 1990 and then served from 1990 to 1999 as a judge on the state Court of Criminal Appeals.

State-run health exchange blasted (Daily News Journal)

Rutherford County’s legislative delegation opposes creation of a state-run health insurance exchange and wants to put the onus on the federal government next year for overseeing the Affordable Care Act. State lawmakers said Tuesday at a Chamber of Commerce legislative preview luncheon at the Town Centre that Gov. Bill Haslam should refuse to set up a state bureaucracy to run the program. Haslam faces a Dec. 14 deadline to decide whether to adopt a Tennessee exchange.

Tennessee lawmakers get pay raise (Memphis Business Journal)

Tennessee legislators will be paid $1,194 more per year in salary for the 108th General Assembly, Knoxville News Sentinel reports. The increase, of about 6.28 percent, is the first boost in lawmaker pay since 2008. Lawmaker raises are based on a 2005 law which calls for automatic pay hikes every two years, based on the increase in average state employee pay. The new base pay for a lawmaker is $20,204.

Kyle asks state education chief to mediate schools dispute (CA/Patterson, Roberts)

Suburban leaders look to 2014 for municipal school dreams Sen. Jim Kyle has asked Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman to mediate the schools dispute in Shelby County. Tuesday, Huffman told Kyle, D-Memphis, he would consider the possibility. Kyle mailed a letter to Huffman last Wednesday, a day after a federal judge ruled that the suburbs could not start municipal districts next year, saying the situation “requires an honest broker” and urging the Department of Education to step in.

Poll results: Let the feds set up Nashville’s health exchange (N. Biz Journal)

Tennessee is one of 10 states that have yet to declare whether they will set up a new state-run health insurance exchange as part of Obamacare or if they’ll allow the federal government to create and run the program. While Gov. Bill Haslam is still mulling his options — he has until Dec. 14 to announce his intentions — readers made their preference clear in a recent Nashville Business Journal online poll. Of 675 responses in the unscientific poll, 61 percent voted for “Let the feds do it. Tennessee didn’t ask for this.”

Tea Party Marshaling Anti-Obamacare Muster (TN Report)

Members of the Nashville Tea Party are planning a rally outside the state Capitol at noon Wednesday. Their hope is to put GOP lawmakers and Gov. Bill Haslam on clear notice that grassroots conservatives want Tennessee to disavow state-level cooperation and support for the federal health insurance exchanges outlined in President Obama’s healthcare overhaul. “We’re calling it the ‘Just Say No’ rally, and we’re trying to send a message to the governor,” said Ben Cunningham, leader of the Nashville Tea Party.

Tennessee’s constitutions take center stage (Tennessean/Haas)

As handlers with white gloves, flanked by state troopers, carried the fragile parchment outlining the very foundation of Tennessee, Appellate Court Clerk Mike Catalano summed it up best. “Elvis is in the building,” he said. On Tuesday, for the first time in the state’s history, all three original, handwritten Tennessee constitutions — from 1796, 1834 and 1870 — were brought out of storage to be put on public display starting Thursday morning. The priceless documents will be on display for only four days, offering a rare glimpse into the creation of the nation’s 16th state.

TN Democrats look for new leader amid differences (Tennessean/Sisk)

Tennessee Democrats have launched one of the most important leadership elections in their history, a race to chair the state party that they hope will set them on the road to recovery. The state party’s executive committee will vote late next month to select a new chairman, replacing controversial head Chip Forrester after four years at the helm. Candidates for the position are already campaigning. The chairman’s race comes amid dissention over the status of a party that once dominated the state’s political landscape but now can’t claim a single elected statewide office.

Corker Accuses States of Bilking Medicaid with Bed Tax (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who is an increasingly central character in the fiscal cliff drama, wants to end what he calls a “massive bed tax.” Hospitals say without it, some could be forced to close. This “fee” has propped up the TennCare system since 2010, producing $450 million a year. In the face of dwindling state budgets, hospitals tax themselves and get the money right back. But the accounting maneuver allows the state to draw down federal matching funds. Corker calls it a “gimmick” that is bilking the federal government, and he’s calling for the practice to be phased out.

Nurse Practitioners Step In Where Doctors Are Scarce (Stateline)

Most people in this rural logging area have only one choice when they need medical care: the Central Virginia Community Health Center. On most days, at least 200 people show up at the center seeking treatment for maladies ranging from sore throats to depression to cavities. The health center typically has four doctors on duty, but the clinical director, Dr. Randall Bayshore, says his staff would never meet local demand if it weren’t for the two nurse practitioners who provide the same care, to the same number of patients, as the doctors.

TVA board meets Monday to discuss quorum issues (News-Sentinel)

The TVA board of directors will hold a called public meeting at 9 a.m. Monday to address measures that can be taken in case the board lacks a quorum because of vacancies. The board will meet at Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters in Knoxville to consider contingency measures that will allow the TVA CEO to take care of some key business functions in the event the board does not have a quorum. The nine-member board has three positions vacant, plus the terms of Marilyn A. Brown and William Graves will end when the current session of Congress concludes at the end of December.

HCA gets $66M tax break for midtown Nashville towers (Tennessean/Garrison)

With only one dissenting vote, the Metro Council gave final approval Tuesday for a $66 million incentive package to healthcare giant HCA, paving the way for two soaring headquarters midtown high-rises and 1,750 new jobs in Davidson County. The council voted 34-1 Tuesday to sign off on a trio of incentives for the Nashville-based hospital chain to relocate two headquarters offices to the proposed West End Summit development project, delivering Mayor Karl Dean his largest economic development project so far in his second term.

Tennessee’s Christmas tree market hit hard by drought (Tennessean/Marsteller)

The ghost of this summer’s weather could haunt holidays yet to come for Tennessee’s Christmas tree growers. Record heat and abnormally dry conditions conspired to cause significant losses, especially among seedlings and saplings, local growers say. That could result in higher prices in the future, when those trees would have been hitting the market. “The drought sure made it rough this year,” said Wayne Pressler, owner of Kirkwood Tree Farm in Clarksville, who estimated he lost about half of his roughly 400 trees.

Nashville schools face sweeping changes (Tennessean/Fingeroot, Hall)

Four out of five lessons given in Metro Nashville classrooms aren’t good enough to keep students engaged. Only a third of the district’s students perform math on grade level. Fewer than half read on grade level. And the model teachers who could change all that seldom find an opportunity to pass along what they know, leading to vastly different student performance from classroom to classroom within a single school. But along with outlining those discouraging facts, a United Kingdom-based consulting firm began outlining a path for the district to improve.

Hamilton County school board eyes building priorities (Times Free-Press/Hardy)

Hamilton County Schools should move from reactive to proactive when coping with population growth across the county, school officials said Tuesday. Though recent school construction projects have tended to respond to problems like overcrowding after or while they’re emerging, school leaders say they now want to get ahead of such issues before they grow out of hand. “It’s much too important to let this wait until the last minute,” said Gary Waters, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services.

Calls Come to Change Schools Merger Process (Memphis Daily News)

As suburban mayors were scheduled to meet this week to talk over their options, the consolidation of all public schools in Shelby County that begins in August began to show signs of a shift. The shift might be to take at least some of the decisions about the schools merger out of the hands of just the countywide school board or to junk the process the board is using. The mayors of the six towns and cities have all indicated they intend to push on for their own school districts, although several have said it is highly unlikely they could form them and open them for classes by August.

Commission Approves Legal Fees in Schools Fight (Memphis Daily News)

A week after they won a major argument in the federal court fight over municipal school districts, Shelby County Commissioners approved Monday, Dec. 3, an additional $473,549 from its contingency fund to pay its legal fees in the lawsuit. And commissioners met with their attorneys privately after Monday’s regular session of the 13-member body. The commission filed the third-party motion contesting the constitutionality of the state laws permitting the school districts. U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled last week in favor of the commission on one of the three state laws referred to as the “school acts.”

 

OPINION

Free-Press Editorial: Just say ‘no,’ Gov. Haslam (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam claims that he is still undecided on whether to set up a health-insurance “exchange” under Obamacare. His decision will come soon — the federal government has given Haslam until Dec. 14 to decide. If Haslam needs advice on which way to turn all he needs to do is look out the window of his office in the Tennessee Capitol at noon today. Across the street at Legislative Plaza, hundreds of informed and concerned Tennesseans are expected to gather in opposition to a state exchange. At the rally, doctors, small business owners, state lawmakers, radio hosts, preachers, community leaders, students, retirees, members of groups such as the Chattanooga Tea Party and Tennessee Tax Revolt, and Tennesseans of every color, creed, background and political party will join in unison to beg Gov. Haslam not to force a federally controlled state exchange on Tennesseans.

Editorial: DCS should open records about child deaths (News-Sentinel)

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, already under intense scrutiny, is withdrawing into a shell of silence that is intolerable for a state government agency. The agency is refusing to provide case files on 31 Tennessee children who have died this year after coming into contact with DCS. The Tennessean has requested a review of the files multiple times, but DCS has only provided the Nashville newspaper with brief summaries of the cases. That is not enough. DCS must be more transparent in its handling of these cases so Tennessee residents can fully understand the issues involved and be assured the agency is addressing them.

Editorial: What awaits if young people have never worked? (Tennessean)

The job shortage that has hit the U.S. workforce has gone to another level, as a new report has found that teens and young adults are missing out on all-important “starter” experience, because entry-level jobs are being taken by displaced, older workers. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which administers the Kids Count program, released the policy report this week. The report finds that employment among Americans ages 16 to 24 is at its lowest point in 50 years. In Tennessee last year, fewer than 1 in 4 16- to 19-year-olds had a job, and only 60 percent of Tennesseans 20-24 worked in 2011. So even as most of the national focus has been on adult heads of households and how they could find a second career and continue to feed their families, a longer-term problem has emerged: What will the effect of never having worked be on this younger generation as it grows up?

Guest columnist: Reform can make a difference (Tennessean)

Over the past several months in Nashville, the term “charter school” has been synonymous with discord and controversy. What has been lost in the chatter is the emergence of several great charter schools, where student gains have been occurring at a stunning rate. With data for 2011-2012 now available, those schools deserve accolades for their wonderful work. Nashville Prep is a middle school in its second year of existence. Located downtown and serving a 97 percent minority and 85 percent economically disadvantaged student population, the average 2011 Nashville Prep scholar entered fifth grade at a third-grade level in all subjects. By the end of that school year, Nashville Prep posted the highest fifth-grade TCAP results of any open enrollment school in Metro schools in science, social studies and math.

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