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February 11 TN News Digest

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

Transmission products maker expanding in Portland (Associated Press)

State economic development officials say auto transmission products supplier U.S. Tsubaki Automotive plans to expand its facility in Portland, adding 70 jobs in the process. The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development says the company’s expansion in Sumner County represents a $1.9 million investment. Tsubaki (soo-BAH-key) Automotive offers state-of-the-art power transmission products. The company supplies complete chain drive systems for engine and transmissions, including cam drives, balancer drives and oil pump drives.

Haslam aims for Medicaid recommendation before session ends (NS/Humphrey)

Gov. Bill Haslam says he intends to make a decision on whether to recommend expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee before the General Assembly concludes its 2013 session and is carrying on active discussions with federal officials with that decision in mind. “Any decision we make, I promise you we’re going to get the Legislature to approve,” Haslam told reporters after speaking to the Tennessee Press Association. “We’d love to decide that prior to their leaving. It just makes it neater.”

Haslam schedule empty after tough previous week (Associated Press)

Following a relatively tough week, Gov. Bill Haslam doesn’t have any public events scheduled for this week. The Republican governor’s media advisory for Feb. 9 through Feb. 15 says “no public events.” Last week, Haslam defended the resignation of the commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services, as well as dealt with legislation expected to be on the Senate floor Monday night that seeks to guarantee people with handgun-carry permits can store firearms in their vehicles no matter where they are parked.

Capitol Hill Conversation – A New Day at DCS (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Governor Bill Haslam’s DCS commissioner of two years resigned under mounting pressure over child death records. This week there is an interim at the helm – Jim Henry – charged with watching out for Tennessee’s most vulnerable children. Lawmakers described the job as “impossible.” Talking to newspaper publishers last week, Haslam defended his departed commissioner Kate O’Day, saying she inherited many of the problems that brought so much criticism. “DCS has been in existence for 16 years and they’ve had 16 bad years in a row,” the governor said.

New DCS chief plans scrutiny of child safety issues (Tennessean/Wadhwani)

Jim Henry, the new interim chief of the Department of Children’s Services, ended his first week on the job by appointing three top aides to examine child safety issues. Henry remains in charge of the state’s $800 million Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Tuesday he was named interim commissioner of the state’s $650 million child protective agency as well, after the resignation of Kate O’Day, who had come under fire for a series of problems at the agency.

DCS says children’s files under order for release are scattered (Tenn/Wadhwani)

Lawyers for the Department of Children’s Services say the agency’s files are so scattered in dozens of offices throughout the state that it would require thousands of miles of travel at great expense to produce records of children it served who later died. A week ago, the agency said it would cost $55,584.55 to provide the records to the media. That cost includes 14,000 miles of driving to hand-deliver copies, 9,000 photocopies, 600 rolls of white-out tape for redacting information and hiring a team of outside temporary paralegals to spend 600 hours redacting files.  

Franklin battlefield park supporters see rewards of longtime efforts (TN/Walters)

The national, state and local supporters of Franklin’s Columbia Avenue Civil War park will meet Wednesday at the future park site to commemorate the start of the city’s battlefield park project. Last year, donors raised $2.2 million in grants, donations and pledges to buy three Columbia Avenue parcels, including the centerpiece — a $1.8 million Domino’s Pizza restaurant and next-door retail center. The property sits at Cleburne Street and Columbia Avenue. During the Civil War, the property was farmland and was ground zero for the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864.

Harvest of visitors: Tennessee to survery growth of ‘agritourism’ (TFP/Benton)

A decade ago, most farmers weren’t interested in turning their farms into tourism operations. They didn’t imagine people wanted to hand-pick blueberries or look inside the guts of a dairy farm. But agritourism has grown, and state agriculture officials want to see just how much by updating a 10-year-old survey from the Center for Profitable Agriculture. Agritourism “is bringing people to the farm for an experience,” says Megan Bruch, marketing specialist with the University of Tennessee Extension’s Center for Profitable Agriculture.

A Push to Reset TN’s Judicial Playing Field (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says it’s time to redraw the boundary lines separating the domains of District Attorneys. At a press conference Monday, he’ll ask for buy-in from prosecutors and those on the bench. There are glaring disparities. For instance, Coffee County – with 53,000 residents – has it’s own judicial district. Rutherford County has five times the population but is lumped in with neighboring Cannon County. Ramsey says the imbalance leads to inefficient courts, so he’s proposing a reset for the first time in decades.

TN bill allowing loaded guns in parked vehicles nears quick vote (AP/Schelzig)

The guns bill that Tennessee lawmakers wish would just go away is up for its first floor vote today. The measure to allow people with state-issued handgun carry permits to store loaded firearms in their vehicles no matter where they are parked is once again putting the squeeze on Republicans torn between their allegiances to gun advocates and businesses interests. So far, the Second Amendment side is winning. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville and the sponsor of the upper chamber’s version of the bill, has cleared the path toward a quick floor vote.  

Gun bill expected to pass state Senate today (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)

Legislation granting handgun permit holders the right to take their weapons anywhere they wish — as long as the guns are kept inside a motor vehicle — may also put a new restriction on people who lack a permit, Gov. Bill Haslam suggests. The bill sponsored by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (Senate Bill 142) is virtually assured of passage on the Senate floor tonight, and House Speaker Beth Harwell has predicted it will be approved by the House as well. The House companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, faces its first committee vote on Tuesday.

Physician added to Erlanger’s board in bill (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Walton)

It appears doctors will get a guaranteed voting seat on the Erlanger Health System board of trustees after all. Final language of a bill to revamp the public hospital’s governance puts the hospital’s chief of medical staff on a nine-member board, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said Sunday in a news release. Someone “experienced in corporate compliance” will hold another board seat, according to the release. And the bill specifically directs the new board to ensure the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority “purchases goods and services at competitive prices, and avoid[s] conflicts of interests among the Board, management, and current or potential vendors.”

Proceeding carefully: Officials prepare for March liquor vote (NS/Balloch)

Sevier County election officials are taking extra care in preparing for the March 14 referendum for Pigeon Forge voters to decide if they want their town to have liquor by the drink. Or more precisely, if they want to keep it. Both sides in this contentious battle that seems to never end agree on one thing: The vote will likely be very close. Meanwhile, mixed drinks are being served at 11 restaurants that quickly obtained state licenses to serve them after liquor by the drink was approved in an earlier referendum — but before that referendum was voided by a judge.  

Middle ground on gun laws not from greater Chattanooga area (TFP/Carroll)

Last October, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor didn’t just get an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. He got the coveted 100, a rare perfect score: A+. So it rocked Capitol Hill last week when Cantor, the second-ranking House Republican, said in a CNN interview that he’s open to stronger background checks, signaling a bipartisan focus that could change the way Americans buy guns. Several House Republicans — some who identify as gun-toting hunters and sportsmen — followed suit.

101st unit returns after nine months in Afghanistan (Associated Press)

The last return flight for soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division arrived at Fort Campbell this weekend and marked the end of a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan for the brigade. About 65 troops from the 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment, landed at the post on the Tennessee-Kentucky line on Saturday night. The brigade was deployed as advisory teams in eastern Afghanistan that helped to transition combat operations to the Afghan army and police.

Seizing Medicaid Expansion as a Means to Reform (Stateline)

Just two states have governors who are physicians. Democrat John Kitzhaber of Oregon is an emergency room doctor. Republican Robert Bentley of Alabama is a dermatologist. Their states may have little in common, but the medically trained governors have embraced similar Medicaid reforms. Over the decades, Oregon has built a relatively generous Medicaid program and has been a bellwether for health policy experimentation. Alabama, like most other southern states, has run a barebones program with few optional benefits.

TriStar ER in Spring Hill ready to open (Tennessean/Page)

One of the results of a nearly three-year feud over whether Spring Hill was large enough to have its own hospital will materialize on Thursday. The new TriStar ER at Spring Hill will host a grand opening that day, and it will officially open to the public Feb. 18. Construction began in April 2012. The $15 million, 12-bed emergency room facility is an extension of HCA’s TriStar Centennial Medical Center, a 657-bed comprehensive facility in Nashville. The 24-hour, 10,768-square-foot, free-standing ER will be staffed by board-certified physicians and emergency care staff, and will create 35 new jobs, TriStar spokeswoman Kimberly Tiscione said.  

Hospitals push for TennCare expansion (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)

Cuts in federal Medicare payments to local hospitals would cost Hamilton County an estimated 7,500 jobs over the next decade and deal a $1.1 billion blow to the local economy, a hospital industry analysis shows. Statewide, the impact would be 90,000 jobs and $13.3 billion in economic losses, according to the analysis by the Tennessee Hospital Association. Hospitals are citing the figures as they step up pressure on Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the GOP-led Legislature to expand TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Residents of suburbs gather to vent about proposed budget cuts (CA/Callahan)

After more than 300 people spent two hours at Houston High School in Germantown Sunday afternoon discussing the funding crisis facing the new merged school district, a few themes emerged: No one at the forum spoke out for cuts to plug the funding gap, currently estimated from $90 million to $180 million. Some even said they would support an increase in property taxes to fully fund the new district, which will encompass both city and county schools beginning this fall. Everyone in attendance, it seemed, wanted current Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken to keep that job after the merger.

Shelby schools battle now awaits judge’s ruling (C. Appeal/McMillin)

Now that Shelby County’s six suburban municipalities have pulled out of negotiations for municipal charter school organizations, U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays must do something he’s been reluctant to since a suburban filing two years ago put schools lawsuits into federal court. That is, he must issue a ruling that will determine the future course of public schools in the county, and those involved in the legal battle expect it to be filed any day now. Mays has been kept apprised of the status of negotiations, and had indicated he would forestall issuing a ruling as long as it appeared a deal was possible.

Hawkins ACT scores say 9% college ready in all four subjects (Times-News)

Hawkins County’s 2011-12 11th-grade ACT scores were below the state average in every subject, but school leaders believe strong scores on the eighth-grade ACT Explore exams are indications of a brighter future. The Hawkins County ACT scores indicates that 9 percent of this year’s graduates who took the ACT exam as juniors during the 2011-12 school year met the state benchmark for college readiness in all four subject areas. The state average for college readiness in all four subjects is 16 percent.

Radical school consolidation plan faces Carter officials (Johnson City Press)

During the past several years when Carter County was planning and building a new jail, the county’s school system did not make any demands for new schools, and only two schools, Hampton Elementary and Cloudland Elementary have been built in the past 20 years. But now that the jail project is completed and with some long-term debt set to be paid off in the coming years, the building of new schools will once again become a topic of discussion.

Georgia: Georgia lawmakers eye Tennessee water again (TFP/Hightower)

Georgia state lawmakers are once again contesting their border with Tennessee in an effort to siphon Tennessee water across the state line. The Georgia General Assembly began work on a resolution earlier this month which, if passed, would lead to a proposal to Tennessee government: You give us access to the Tennessee River at Nickajack Lake, and we’ll acknowledge the current boundary as the official border. Tennessee lawmakers are dismissive of the latest ploy in Georgia’s ongoing quest to tap into the river.

  

OPINION 

Guest columnist: Vouchers offer path to better education (Times Free-Press)

Sitting in the crowded Tennessee House gallery as Tennessee’s Governor Bill Haslam gave his vision for the next year in the State of the State address, many of the remarks and primary focus was directed toward the needs of education in our state. Governor Haslam was clear that at all levels, reforms are not needed for the sake of change but to educate and equip students for growth in a high-tech world, in a demanding job market and in a lifetime requiring extended learning for career progress. The most controversial of the governor’s remarks have been attributed to his support of school vouchers.

Guest columnist: Judges protect job discrimination (Tennessean)

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed his name to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was not just providing all Americans with the equality of opportunity; he was taking Clorox to our national fabric in an effort to remove the stain of discrimination. The Civil Rights Act was a major coup for LBJ and the nation. A year earlier, Bull Connor had turned on the fire hoses, and four young Alabama girls fell victim to a church bombing. More telling, 31 days after the act became law, three civil rights workers were found dead in Neshoba County, Miss. In the almost five decades since employment discrimination was declared a violation of federal law, the battle for civil rights has drastically changed.  

Editorial: Jefferson officials should approve megasite funding (News-Sentinel)

The proposed industrial megasite in Jefferson County is facing a megavote today when the Jefferson County Commission meets in a special session to consider initial funding.The $442,000 appropriation would provide start-up funds for seeking megasite certification for the project. Commissioners should approve the funding and move forward with the project, which would put Jefferson County — and the region — in play as a location for a major automobile plant or other manufacturing facility. According to a study by Younger Associates, a certified megasite in Jefferson County has the potential to create 4,900 jobs and generate more than $2.7 billion for the regional economy each year.

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