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February 16 TN News Digest

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

TN rejects exchange partnership (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee won’t participate in a partnership with the federal government in establishing a health insurance exchange. In a letter to U.S. Health and Human Resources Secretary Kathleen Sebelius obtained Friday by The Associated Press, the Republican governor said the partnership model doesn’t address his concerns over what he called misguided federal polices, aggressive timelines and a lack of flexibility for the states. Haslam noted that he had the same complaints when he rejected a state-based exchange in December.

Haslam rejects federal partnership in running insurance exchange (CP/Zelinski)

Gov. Bill Haslam announced late last year he was uninterested in Tennessee running a health insurance exchange on its own but put in writing Friday that he will also pass on running the system in tandem with the feds. The governor said the U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services is still short on details about how managing the insurance exchange would work, he wrote in a letter to Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Friday. “Ultimately, the partnership option does not address the concerns I have about aggressive federal timelines, a lack of true flexibility for states and misguided federal policies,” read the letter.

State Awards Nearly $125K in Workforce Training Grants (TN Report)

Governor Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Karla Davis have awarded $124,713 in job training grants to eight companies across the state. Incumbent Worker Training grants assist employers with upgrading skills and avoiding layoffs for their employees. “If Tennessee is going to become the number one location in the Southeast for high-quality jobs, then we must offer a well-trained workforce to employers,” said Governor Haslam.

Hagerty Outlines Changes Made in Past Two Years (Memphis Daily News)

Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty says 2013 will see the administration of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam advance basic changes the administration made in the previous two years. Hagerty talked with the editorial board of The Memphis News this month about the retooling and decentralizing of the state’s jobs engine as well as the local debate about government incentives.

Former TN driver’s license worker gets 27 months for taking bribes (TN/Hubard)

A former Tennessee Department of Safety official apologized to a federal judge Friday for selling state driver’s licenses and said his history of a clean record and military service justified a lighter sentence.Larry Murphy, 54, was sentenced to 27 months in prison and will forfeit $69,500 for accepting money as a state official in turn for issuing driver’s licenses without administering the proper tests. Anny Castillo, 31, received three months in prison and nine months of home detention and will forfeit $42,500 for bribing Murphy and for selling U.S. birth certificates.

Meningitis outbreak: St Thomas tried to protect from lawsuits (TN/Wilemon, Roche)

Despite distancing itself from the clinic that bears its name, Saint Thomas Health still wound up as a legal defendant in the fungal meningitis outbreak. Saint Thomas tried to keep from being named as state officials prepared to alert the public about meningitis cases tied to tainted steroid injections at a pain clinic it half-owned. It asserted that the clinic wasn’t actually in its flagship hospital. But the first lawsuit against Saint Thomas Health accuses it of having concocted “the fiction of a corporate veil.”

Del Conca files for TDEC permit (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Donila)

Task force worried about emissions A new industrial plant opening in Loudon to produce tile will use the latest in sustainable manufacturing practices and will not be a major source of air contamination, the company said. Ceramica del Conca submitted its application to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation on Feb. 8 for a minor source permit for the facility, according to Raffaella Pierdominici, spokesperson for the company. At a recent County Commission meeting, members of the county-appointed Air Quality Task Force expressed concerns that they were not informed of any possible air contamination from the plant.

City quarry appeal denied by state supreme court (Times-Gazette)

Tennessee’s supreme court has refused to hear the city’s appeal surrounding a nine-year-old dispute over a rock quarry, putting a $10 million federal lawsuit against Shelbyville back into play. The council was informed of the decision during an attorney/client meeting Thursday afternoon, city manager Jay Johnson told the T-G. Last November, Shelbyville lost a state appellate case dealing with the efforts of Wright Paving Co. Inc., and Custom Stone LLC to place a quarry on L. Fisher Road, which has been the topic of lawsuits since 2005.

Knox Couty Commission to look into school election propsoals (N-S/Donila)

State lawmakers are looking into two issues that could drastically change the way residents elect local school leaders. Those decisions, however, could end up hinging on just how the Knox County Commission feels about the matter and whether there’s enough buy-in. The issues? Whether school board elections should become partisan contests and whether voters should elect a superintendent. “I feel that it’s important that a majority of the local officials support the bill before it goes forward,” said state Sen. Becky Massey.

Megasite, Medicaid discussed (Jackson Sun)

State legislators came to the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce on Friday morning with the latest news from the Tennessee General Assembly, as well as to hear the concerns of the people during CapitolTALK. State Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson; Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar; and state Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, addressed key issues such as education, the job market, gun control and the terms of the Affordable Health Care Act at the town hall meeting. Eldridge said Tennessee is one of the best-managed states in the country.  

City officials expect Lakeshore lands to become city property (News-Sentinel/Witt)

Knoxville officials are ignoring a bill filed by state Sen. Stacey Campfield as they engage in talks for the former Lakeshore Mental Health Institute site to become city property. On Thursday, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and former Mayor Victor Ashe criticized a bill filed by Campfield and state Rep. Steve Hall proposing that the choice land be sold at market value. On Friday, Eddie Mannis, Rogero’s deputy mayor and chief operating officer, told Knoxville City Council and staff at a budget retreat that the city expects to take over the property March 31.

Chattanooga voters will decide Charter changes (Times Free-Press/Hightower)

Chattanooga residents are being asked to give up the idea of a city band or the authority to throw petty criminals in the workhouse. You say Chattanooga doesn’t have a city band or a workhouse now? That’s the point, city officials say. They have placed a referendum on the March 5 ballot asking voters to update language in the City Charter. But they haven’t explained it well on the ballot, said Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, administrator for the Hamilton County Election Commission. Early voting for the Chattanooga mayor and City Council races began Wednesday and runs through Feb. 28.  

State cuts may impact adult school (Times-Gazette)

Bedford County is essentially in a competition with Warren County to maintain control of the adult education program, officials say, and Bedford County Board of Education could play a role in the decision. Tennessee Department of Labor’s Division of Adult Education, the state agency that oversees adult education, is going through a massive downsizing and reorganization, said Elaine V. Weaver, director of the Bedford County Adult Education program. The state is cutting the number of local directors like Weaver down to 46 from 87 to save on administrative costs.

Rep. Cohen reveals woman he tweeted was daughter (Associated Press/Johnson)

Memphis Democrat said many jumped to bad conclusion U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen has revealed he’s the father of the 24-year-old Texas woman he was communicating with on Twitter during the State of the Union address in an exchange that led some people to jump to a different conclusion. Cohen, who has never been married, said Friday that he decided to publicly acknowledge Victoria Brink as his daughter after bloggers and the media tried to make the exchanges appear salacious. Cohen’s message to Brink included a Twitter abbreviation for “I love you.”

Steve Cohen says Twitter exchange was with daughter (Times Free-Press/Carroll)

First, it was a family friend. Now, it’s his daughter. Sitting a stone’s throw away from President Barack Obama during the State of the Union, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., tweeted and quickly deleted messages to a young woman named Victoria Brink. Archived by The Sunlight Foundation, one Cohen tweet called Brink a “beautiful girl” and another said “ilu,” meaning “I love you.” In a previous interaction, the congressman encouraged Brink to “give me a good time” in an upcoming phone call.

Wage battle: Chatt reaction mixed to plan to raise minimum pay (TFP/Bradbury)

Liz Ragsdale works 35 hours a week at Sun Tan City and brings home a $560 biweekly paycheck, before taxes — and she earns $8 an hour, 75 cents more than the federal minimum wage. “I can’t imagine living off the minimum wage,” the UTC student said. “You can’t live off the minimum wage.” She hopes legislators agree to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union proposal to jump the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour and tie the rate to future increases in inflation. “I’d have more money, less credit card debt and less loans for school,” she said. “I think it’d be good.”

TVA committee meetings continue to be closed (Times Free-Press/Flessner)

Directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority will continue to get staff briefings and deliberate actions in private committee meetings “because it just works better that way,” TVA Chairman Bill Sansom said Friday. “If just your family is around the table at home you’re going to get different facts than if you have company,” Sansom said. “When we’re having dialogue with the employees of TVA, which we do big time in these committee meetings, the employees have to be comfortable telling us what is right and what is not and here’s what you need to think about. You’re not going to get that in an open environment.” 

Hamilton County Schools look beyond iPads for technology (TFP/Hardy)

While recent discussions among Hamilton County Schools leaders centered on putting iPads in the hands of all students, officials are now considering cheaper alternatives. With state tests moving to an online format next year, most Tennessee school districts will have to buy more computers or tablets and increase bandwidth capability. County officials announced Friday in a Board of Education technology committee meeting that two schools would pilot a version of the $150 Web-based ePortal tablet.

Student learning thrives in high-tech classroom (Commercial Appeal/Roberts)

Early afternoon math class at Presbyterian Day School looks unusually like a think tank. Wifi work stations are scattered around a large room. Boys of all ages are working individually or in groups. Some are sprawled across vinyl-upholstered cubes, others are lounging in black rubber “bungee chairs.” At one station, Philip Wunderlich, 12, is Skyping with a virtual tutor so familiar, he calls him Uncle Mark. “We have boys working from the second grade to the 9th grade level in this room,” says headmaster Lee Burns, surveying a room quietly abuzz with soft conversation and the muted glow of laptops, iPads and interactive whiteboards.

Security upgrade coming at two Rhea schools (Times Free-Press/Davis)

Doors at two Rhea County schools will be upgraded to include electronic locks to improve security, school board members decided this week. Director of Schools Jerry Levengood said Thursday that a review of security at county schools found that Frazier and Rhea Central elementaries had the least control over entry to their buildings. Installing electronic locks and video monitors on doors at the two facilities will allow school personnel to identify visitors before admitting them to the buildings, he said.

Knox school security review appears limited (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Satterfield)

A review of records made public Friday revealed that not only did taxpayers shell out more than $7,000 to fix alarm woes in Knox County schools, but the audit itself was far from the comprehensive check of security systems touted by administrators. The News Sentinel earlier this month revealed a brewing scandal over allegations of shoddy workmanship and fraud by a security firm that won the right in 2006 to outfit all of Knox County’s 88 schools with various security devices.

 

OPINION

Glen Casada: Let voters decide whether to allow grocery wine sales (Tennessean)

The current state law that limits wine sales to liquor stores is more than just antiquated — it goes against the principles of a free market. It stifles competition. It reduces consumer choice. In short, it protects the interests of a narrow group of businesses at the expense of a broader group of businesses. If the General Assembly tried to provide this kind of protection for other segments of the marketplace, there would be howls of protest from the four corners of the state. Imagine if we suddenly decreed that only independent florists could sell flowers, or that only car dealerships could sell batteries and windshield wipers. My point is that competition is the backbone of the American economy, and good businesses learn to adapt to new competitors. 

Editorial: Amendment banning income tax is bad policy (Commercial Appeal)

The thought of a state income tax in Tennessee is so onerous to citizens and legislators alike that there is no chance in the foreseeable future that the General Assembly would vote to create one. Yet state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, is pushing a bill to place on next year’s general election ballot a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban an income tax. The Senate approved the measure on a 26-4 vote Thursday. If the bill eventually passes in the House, it will go before voters. Previous attempts to create a state income tax have been disastrous. The public has no appetite for one and business leaders in Tennessee and across the country say a state income tax can stymie economic growth.

W. Thomas: So what if Cohen has daughter? He doesn’t know how to tweet! (CA)

There is but one thing that troubles me about the news that U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a confirmed bachelor, has a 24-year-old daughter. He doesn’t know how to tweet. Cohen, 63, was forced Thursday to tell the world that three years ago, he learned he is a parent — which is really no one’s business — only because he sent a message into the Twitterverse that he intended only for his daughter. Here’s the short version: Twice in 12 hours the Democrat sent a tweet that included “ilu” — I love you — to Victoria Elizabeth Brink, who is stunningly attractive. Cohen deleted the first tweet three minutes after it was posted when he realized it wasn’t private. The second took 15 minutes to erase, even though on the Interwebs, nothing is gone forever.

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