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December 13 TN News Digest

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

Vanderbilt poll: Tennesseans happy with Gov. Bill Haslam (Tennessean/Sisk)

Tennessee voters support Gov. Bill Haslam, but they appear to disagree with his most recent decision on health care reform, according to a poll released Wednesday by Vanderbilt University. Haslam enjoys an approval rating of 68 percent, a poll taken for Vanderbilt about a month after the November election found. But a slight majority said Tennessee should run its own health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act.That answer differed from Haslam’s decision to leave creation of the online marketplace where Tennesseans will be able to shop for health coverage to the federal government.

Haslam defends state health insurance exchange decision (Daily News Journal)

Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday he believes Tennessee could run a health insurance exchange more efficiently than the federal government, but he opted against it because the feds wouldn’t offer the kind of partnership the state needs. Facing a Dec. 14 deadline to make a decision on Tennessee’s participation in the Affordable Care Act, the governor announced this week he would not initiate a state health exchange, which he terms a sort of cafeteria for buying coverage. “I think we could’ve done it better and cheaper, but in this arrangement where we were actually going to be partners with them … I just wasn’t convinced they were ready enough to have that kind of relationship,” Haslam said shortly after speaking at the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce Power Luncheon.

Tennessee losing chance to address special needs (Daily News Journal)

Tennessee’s decision against creating its own health-insurance exchange means missing opportunities to tailor health plans to meet the special needs of its population, some health care researchers and advocates say. Gov. Bill Haslam announced Monday the state would not create and run its own exchange, which had been an option under the landmark 2010 law known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. As a result, the federal government, more specifically the Department of Health and Human Services, will operate an exchange — or marketplace — to which Tennesseans who don’t have coverage from an employer or government program can turn to obtain coverage in 2014.

Nissan opens $1B Smyrna battery plant (Nashville Business Journal)

Nissan North America Inc. has officially opened its Smyrna battery plant, fueling production of its all-electric Leaf and setting the stage for as many as 1,000 additional manufacturing jobs largely in Tennessee. The Franklin-based division of the global auto manufacturer announced late today that the plant — a highly anticipated facility adjacent to its Smyrna vehicle assembly plant — has started production. Nissan said it is the largest lithium-ion automotive battery plant in the U.S., noting that it will contribute to production of the 2013 Leaf also slated for Smyrna.

Nissan Quietly Opens Smyrna Battery Plant (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Nissan says the first electric car batteries produced at its plant in Smyrna are ready to be charged up. The Franklin-based automaker announced the official opening of its new plant in Smyrna Wednesday with little fanfare. Nissan called off a grand opening ceremony last month. Instead, this week the automaker opted to send out a press release along with a company-made video. Engineer Darrell Scott says the plant feels more like a lab than a factory. “It kind of makes you feel like that, that you’re just in a top secret environment.”

Motorcyclist fatalities on the rise in Tennessee (Times Free-Press/Bradbury)

Mike Caron started riding motorcycles as soon as he turned 15 — and just three years later, he lost his first friend to a motorcycle accident. First, but not last. “I’ve lost many friends over the years,” the 53-year-old owner of American Motorcycles said. Most recently, he lost former Chattanooga police officer Terry Yates, who died in a motorcycle wreck July 30. “Even if you are extremely safe, you’re gonna go down,” Caron said. “It’s not if; it’s when. If you ride enough, you will go down.” The number of motorcyclists killed this year in Tennessee has reached 133 — already higher than the 114 killed in 2011, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

The Battle Over the James White Parkway Extension Heats Up (Metro Pulse)

Knoxville’s not a town that goes to public meetings. Even the most heated Knox County Commission debates have, at the most, 200 people. So when you get more than triple that number at a public meeting, especially one that starts at 5 p.m., right when most people are normally leaving work? Well, you know it’s a big deal. Such was the case last Thursday night, when supporters and opponents of a new highway through South Knoxville filled the auditorium at South-Doyle Middle School. The crowd ranged from college students to the elderly.

UT: No more funding aid for sports (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Boehnke)

Academics, state won’t bail out athletics No academic funding or state money will be used to bail out the University of Tennessee athletics department should sagging ticket sales and the cost of a multimillion-dollar coaching change cause another budget deficit, officials said Wednesday. “We’ve made a strong statement that we’re not using state funds to backfill athletics,” said Chris Cimino, vice chancellor of finance. “We’ve done all we’re going to do.” Last month, the school announced a three-year, $18 million reprieve in donations the athletics department makes to student scholarships, fellowships and discretionary academic funds.

Vanderbilt Poll Shows Support for State-Run Health Exchange (AP/Schelzig)

A majority of Tennesseans – including nearly three-quarters of those identifying themselves as Republicans – prefer a state-run health insurance exchange over one run by the federal government, according to a poll released by Vanderbilt University on Wednesday. The poll of 829 registered voters showed 53 percent favor the state-run marketplace, while 33 percent prefer the federal approach. Seventy-two percent of Republicans surveyed said they support the state-based approach to the exchanges required under the federal health care law, compared with 31 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents.

VU poll: Social issues matter more to legislature than public (City Paper/Zelinski)

Tennesseans think highly of the governor, but less so of the legislature, which is poised to take on a bundle of social issues low on the public’s totem pole, according to a Vanderbilt University survey released Wednesday. Topics like guns and other social issues are the least of the public’s priorities, the study found, while the economy ranks as the supreme issue, far ahead of the next two top issues of education and health care. “That’s what they need to focus on and they could end up losing popularity if they choose to focus on issues that the public doesn’t want them to,” said John Geer, Vanderbilt political science professor and co-director of the survey by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Tennesseans split over Medicaid growth (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)

Tennesseans are evenly split over whether the state should expand TennCare to cover more people under the federal Affordable Care Act, according to a poll released Wednesday by Vanderbilt University. Forty-seven percent of 829 registered voters surveyed said TennCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, should be expanded. But 46 percent, including nearly two thirds of Republicans, believe current eligibility standards should stay in place. The issue is one of several that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the GOP-controlled General Assembly are confronting.

VU Poll: Tennesseans favor state-run health insurance exchange (CA/Locker)

While President Obama and congressional Republican leaders struggle for a political solution to the impending “fiscal cliff,” Tennessee voters favor compromise to solve major problems over rigid ideology, according to the new statewide Vanderbilt University Poll. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed said they want state and federal legislators to work with members of the opposing party to solve problems while 22 percent said lawmakers should only pursue their own values and priorities, according to the poll released Wednesday.

Vandy poll: Tennesseans preferred state-run health exchange (N. Biz Journal)

A new poll from Vanderbilt University has found that a majority of Tennesseans wanted the state to create its own state-run health exchange and not, as Gov. Bill Haslam decided this week, allow the federal government to take charge of it. The findings are part of a poll, released today, that gives a snapshot of how registered voters in Tennessee feel about a variety of local and national issues. According to the poll, 53 percent of registered voters wanted the state to create and run its health insurance exchange as part of national health care reform, while 33 percent said they wanted the federal government to create and run the program.

Beavers Booted from GOP Senate Leadership Post (TN Report)

Senator Mae Beavers was ousted from her role as Republican Senate Caucus Treasurer today in leadership elections. The other Senate GOP caucus elections kept leaders in their roles, including Ron Ramsey, who will be the GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor and Mark Norris as majority leader. The new treasurer will be Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin. The caucus treasurer plays a key role, particularly in election years. That person has check-writing authority and can send campaign cash to key members fighting to keep their seats or snatch away Democratic ones.

House Democrats keep top leadership in place (Associated Press)

House Democrats have voted to keep their top leadership in place. Rep. Mike Turner of Nashville overcame a challenge from Rep. Johnny Shaw of Bolivar on Wednesday to maintain his chairman seat, and Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley was re-elected as minority leader without opposition.Also Wednesday, Senate Republicans voted unanimously for Sen. Ron Ramsey of Blountville to keep his Senate speaker position and for Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville to be re-elected as majority leader.

House Democrats grow caucus to increase leadership diversity (TN/Wilson, Sisk)

After withholding an intenral challenge for his post as Democratic Caucus Chairman State Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory called on Tuesday for House Democrats to unite in the next legislative session against a GOP supermajority. While most of the incumbent representatives returned to the caucus in some capacity, a handful of others took positions in a newly expanded leadership staff. Two-thirds of the nine leaders selected by the Democratic caucus Tuesday were part of the General Assembly’s Black Caucus, who now make up half of the Democrat’s 28-member caucus.

Democrats Keep Top Leaders in Place (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Democrats in the Tennessee House will stick with the status quo when it comes to their leaders. Caucus chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory fended off a challenge from Rep. Johnny Shaw of West Tennessee, who said he would bring a more cooperative spirit to the job. With reelection, Turner says he expects to be as fiery as ever. “Now is not the time to be shy. Now is not the time to shrink. Now is the time to be bold.” Democrats in both chambers return to the upcoming session with their numbers at historic lows.

House Democrats re-elect Turner chairman; Favors also elected (TFP/Sher)

The chairman of the House Democratic Caucus beat back a leadership challenge and a Chattanooga lawmaker won a leadership post Wednesday for the 108th General Assembly. Rep. Mike Turner, of Nashville, won a third two-year term in the No. 2 spot, though challenger Johnny Shaw, of Bolivar, was critical of his leadership. Rep. JoAnne Favors, of Chattanooga, was elected vice chairwoman without opposition. Favors initially planned to challenge House Whip Sherry Jones, of Nashville. But Favors said colleagues urged her to run for vice chairman instead.

Hamilton County takes wish lists to legislators (Times Free-Press/Harrison)

Hamilton County leaders have made their wish lists and checked them twice to present them to state lawmakers this morning. Today’s breakfast at the Chattanooga Choo Choo is an annual meeting between the local legislative delegation and local constitutional offices, including the county mayor, county commissioners, sheriff, the county clerk, the district attorney, the county registrar and Juvenile Court. Each will have several minutes to present items they hope state lawmakers will address in the upcoming legislative session.

Montgomery County leaders lobby for state legislation (Leaf Chronicle)

Local lawmakers mull over 2013 Legislative Agenda Folks in Montgomery County want their share of bacon from the state, and the County Commission has put together a menu for the local legislative delegation to serve up in the 108th General Assembly in Nashville. Members of the commission’s Legislative Liaison Committee, along with several other commissioners and county department heads, presented the 2013 Legislative Agenda to local lawmakers during a Wednesday evening reception at the Montgomery County Courthouse.

Fitzhugh ponders run in 2014 governor race (City Paper/Zelinski)

The 2014 race for governor is unofficially beginning as leading House Democrat Craig Fitzhugh considers a run for governor. Sources close to the minority leader told The City Paper the Ripley Democrat is planning to put his name on the ballot for the state’s top job. When asked directly whether he would run for governor, Fitzhugh said “I wouldn’t rule it out at all.” “I’ve got some experience, good, bad or otherwise. And feel like I understand the issues of this state, understand the budgetary process and just am concerned with some of the fundamentals of our state. Before we step too far back, we just need to keep things moving forward,” he told The City Paper Wednesday.

Citing 287(g) lessons, ACLU wants sheriffs to shun immigration program (TN/Haas)

The 287(g) immigration enforcement program disappeared two months ago in Davidson County, and now supporters and opponents are trying to define its legacy. Was it a successful program that deported repeat immigration offenders and kept the community safer? Or was it a divisive program that led to racial profiling and treated fishing and driver’s license violations as harshly as it did rape charges? Opponents are hoping a report released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee will persuade Rutherford and Knox county sheriffs to drop applications to join the federal immigration enforcement program.

Protesters call for Black to help end tax breaks for wealthy (Daily News Journal)

A group of Middle Tennesseans backing extension of middle-class tax cuts and an end to Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthy rallied in front of U.S. Rep. Diane Black’s office Wednesday. About 20 people gathered just off West Main Street near the Gallatin Republican’s district office, chanting slogans such as “Middle class first!” “I really want her to stop putting millionaires over the middle class,” said Rebekah Majors-Manley, a Bell Buckle resident and former StoneCrest Hospital nurse who traveled to Washington, D.C., last week with a group called Action to lobby Tennessee legislators.

States Faulted Over Teacher Pension Shortfall (Wall Street Journal)

U.S. states carry a total of about $325 billion in unfunded teacher pension liabilities, according to a report that says efforts by lawmakers to tinker with vesting periods or shave benefits are falling far short of the overhaul that is needed. The report, issued Thursday, gives a comprehensive state-by-state accounting of the problems facing teacher pensions. It concludes that recent pension changes—made by at least 22 states this year—haven’t helped much and, in some cases, have harmed teachers or taxpayers.

International Paper takes incentive package to remain in Memphis (CA/Maki)

International Paper settled with Memphis and Shelby County leaders on an incentive package that will induce the company to keep its headquarters in Memphis and expand. The deal will include 15-year tax breaks, or payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), on new and existing IP buildings, but not on corporate aircraft the company also wanted covered. The proposal is expected to be formally presented to the Industrial Development Board of Memphis and Shelby County on Wednesday. “We’re pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish,” said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

International Paper confirms Memphis expansion plans (Memphis Biz Journal)

International Paper Co. has reached an agreement for incentives that will keep the company’s headquarters in Memphis, and clear the way for a planned expansion. The company has filed an application for incentives to build a fourth tower near its Memphis headquarters at International Place. The company released a statement to MBJ that said: “After many constructive discussions with Mayors Wharton and Luttrell, along with county commissioners and city council members, International Paper filed its application with the Industrial Development Board, seeking support to bring more jobs to Memphis and to build an additional 4th tower on or near our Poplar Avenue complex.”

New municipal schools legal briefs reflect growing confidence (CA/Bailey, McMillin)

Briefs filed Tuesday by the Shelby County Commission and Memphis City Council reflect their growing confidence that U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays is poised to strike down all laws enabling new municipal school districts in Shelby County. The filings come just ahead of a settlement meeting with Shelby County’s six suburban municipalities scheduled for Friday, and represent the opening attempts to clarify those legal issues the judge left unsettled in a Nov. 27 order declaring unconstitutional one 2012 law, Chapter 905, that allowed for the creation of new municipal school districts in Shelby County.

School Board Actions Affect Merger Outside Merger Plan (Memphis Daily News)

Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools become a single consolidated school system in August with the start of the 2013-2014 school year. The countywide school board will get around to hiring a search firm to pick a merger superintendent at its meeting next week. And the goal is to pick a superintendent by mid-February. But the school board is already acting on recommendations from the two separate school systems that are reaching into the first year of the merger. And those recommendations are coming ahead of board action on critical recommendations specifically dealing with the merger from the consolidation planning commission.

 

OPINION

Editorial: Keep public informed on TennCare expansion (Jackson Sun)

Now that Gov. Bill Haslam has opted for Tennessee to let the federal government operate the insurance exchange required by the Affordable Care Act beginning in 2014, he faces the next challenge of deciding whether to expand TennCare. That will be an even tougher decision. The political unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act complicates each step of the process. Haslam has been careful to emphasize that his decisions must be based on what is best for Tennesseans, not on what is best politically. Still, the pressure is there, and that calls for extra effort by the governor to share his reasoning with the public, regardless of which option he chooses.

Editorial: Senators should allow vote on TVA board nominees (News-Sentinel)

Gridlock in Washington, D.C., has hamstrung the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Tennessee’s senators should show some leadership by pushing for the approval of board members nominated by President Barack Obama. The TVA Board of Directors this week gave extraordinary powers to the federal utility’s new chief executive, allowing Bill Johnson to have free rein over financial decisions because the board will lack a quorum without congressional action on the nominations. The board has nine members, but five positions are open by the end of the year. If they are not filled, the board will not have a quorum necessary to conduct business. One Obama nominee to the TVA board, Peter Mahurin of Bowling Green, Ky., has been in limbo since his selection in February.

Editorial: Another voice in schools talks (Commercial Appeal)

It’s fair and appropriate that Shelby County’s six suburban towns want to broaden the talks aimed at resolving the city-county schools consolidation impasse. And bringing one or two members of the unified school board into the discussion between the suburbs and the County Commission could change what has been a poisonous, combative atmosphere. The talks could focus on how all kids can thrive in a unified school district. The chatter about lawsuits, separate districts and racial divides might well die down. The suburbs couldn’t win in court with their efforts to set up separate municipal school districts by next August in order to avoid becoming part of the merged Memphis-Shelby County district. They have to try to reach some of their goals through negotiation at this point.

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