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March 4 TN News Digest

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

Capitol Hill conversation – reworking workers comp (WPLN)

State legislators begin the formal debate on a major overhaul to Tennessee’s workers comp system this week. The proposal from Governor Bill Haslam has been hashed out in meetings held over the last few months and now begins the journey through the General Assembly. Employers claim the current system is too costly, while injured workers complain it takes too long to get paid. The governor’s bill aims to solve both problems. “We’re creating a very pro-business, and pro-employee approach,” says Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland), who is carrying the workers comp legislation.

Exchange rejected; Medicaid decision looms (Knoxville News Sentinel)

Gov. Bill Haslam says rejecting the notion of Tennessee operating a health insurance exchange was a relatively easy decision, but a distinct one from whether the state will expand Medicaid under provisions of President Barack Obama’s health care law. The governor, in a speech at a Knoxville Chamber breakfast in late February, acknowledged that hospitals “are in a fix” because they agreed to a reduction in federal payments they receive for delivering care to indigent patients as part of the Affordable Care Law with the idea that Medicaid coverage would be expanded to cover more people living in poverty.

Governor’s Online University Proposal a Flop in Senate Committee (WPLN)

Republican lawmakers are second-guessing a $5 million venture by Governor Bill Haslam to create an online university for Tennesseans. Haslam introduced the proposal to bring a branch of Western Governor’s University to Tennessee during his State of the State address in January. It is part of a broader push to increase college completion rates. During legislative budget hearings, senators asked why such a program would cost $5 million. Knoxville’s Stacey Campfield pointed out the state’s colleges already offer classes online.

Lawmakers toy with reducing benefits, take home more than average worker (CP)

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are fond of saying they’re paid practically peanuts to serve as state legislators. Many drive for hours from all over the state to be in Nashville four days a week, work long hours to comb through legislation, meet with constituents, make appearances at events — then spend the nights away from their families sleeping in hotel rooms or rented apartments. But in reality, lawmakers take home more money as part-time legislators than most Tennesseans do in a year. Not to mention they get in on a handful of perks.

Fiscal restraints: Costs to keep many proposed anti-crime bills from passing (KNS)

NASHVILLE — While the state’s prison population is ballooning beyond budget projections, legislators are expressing growing frustration that the cost of incarceration — estimated in “fiscal notes” accompanying each bill — may block many new efforts to crack down on crime. “In my eyes … fiscal notes are what prevents us from giving due punishment to these perpetrators,” declared Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, after listening to testimony about sex trafficking involving minors. “In my eyes the cost of a bullet is 37 cents. The cost of a rope is less. And that’s the problem with our system.”

GOP lawmakers in Tennessee seek to back away from ‘fringe’ (Commercial Appeal)

NASHVILLE — Before a House vote to give final approval to a contentious firearms bill last week, Speaker Beth Harwell implored her Republican colleagues to ignore demands from what she deemed “fringe” groups to make major changes to the measure. The chamber took Harwell’s advice and passed the guns-in-parking-lots bill without any changes. Lawmakers have also in recent weeks drawn the line at proposals to bypass the federal government by allowing the creation an independent health care network and stopped a proposal to ban the enforcement of federal firearms laws in Tennessee.

Legislative notebook: ‘Meth precursors,’ testing teachers (KNS/Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — Legislation requiring a prescription to buy some cold medications has been stalled in a House subcommittee as lawmakers seek a middle ground between law enforcement officers pushing the proposal as a means to combat methamphetamine production and pharmacists opposing it as an unnecessary inconvenience to consumers.The bill (HB368) would apply to Sudafed, Advil Cold and other products containing pseudoephedrine, which is used in illegal production of methamphetamine.

Bill to make school board races partisan now dead (Knoxville News Sentinel/Donila)

State legislation that would give local governments the power to create partisan school board elections is dead. Sen. Becky Massey state Rep. Bill Dunn, both Knoxville Republicans, confirmed Thursday that because the Knox County Commission tabled a resolution to support the proposal, they will not present the bill, which they sponsored, before committee. “I think the plan is that maybe (the commission) will look a little more into it over the next several months, but I’m not going to do anything with the bill,” said Massey.

Drinking the Hemlock Kool-Aid (TNReport/Seibert)

It’s a snapshot moment that today seems reminiscent of the iconic Chicago Tribune “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. The December 2008 photo shows then-Gov. Phil Bredesen grinning, standing with then-Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber and the CEO of the new company that would take Clarksville – and Tennessee – into a new era of green energy economic development: Hemlock Semiconductor. Bredesen is holding high the local paper, the Leaf-Chronicle, featuring the sort of blaring headline normally reserved for announcing commencement of war hostilities, reporting natural disasters or heralding a home-team championship sporting victory.

Switchblades slice through legislature (WPLN)

Monday night the state Senate is expected to vote on striking down a ban on spring-loaded knives that open with the push of a button. The legislation also drops restrictions on blade length for any kind of knife. This is part of a national push by an organization called “Knife Rights,” which has been trying to repeal switchblade bans around the country. Sen. Mike Bell of East Tennessee says it’s about protection for those who don’t – or can’t – carry a gun.

Tennessee bill would require proof of meningitis immunization (Associated Press)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Legislation that would require incoming students at public higher education institutions to show proof of immunization against meningitis is expected to be on the Senate floor Monday. The measure, which was delayed from last week, is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley. Finney didn’t give a reason for the delay. Meningococcal meningitis can be spread through such contact as sharing drink bottles.

State legislation honors local student’s memory (Dyersburg State Gazette)

A bill currently working its way through the Tennessee General Assembly has great significance for one local family — and it may just save the lives of countless young adults. Less than a year after the death of Jacob Nunley of Dyersburg, his family is pleased to learn that legislation concerning meningitis vaccinations for college students may soon become law. Nunley, the 18-year-old freshman at Middle Tennessee State University who lost his life to bacterial meningitis in September, has left a touching legacy in the West Tennessee community — one that has inspired state legislators into action.

Madeline Rogero going to Nashville to support legislation (KNS/Witt)

Madeline Rogero doesn’t want the state to dictate how cities can deal with its contractors. The Knoxville mayor is in Nashville this week to let the General Assembly know she opposes a proposed bill, HB501, that would prohibit cities from asking their contractors to pay a prevailing wage to its employees. “We can ask them to pay the prevailing wage, which is often in excess of the minimum wage,” Rogero said. “They want to inhibit that.” Today and Tuesday the mayor will sit on the 34-member board of directors for the Tennessee Municipal League, meet with mayors from among the largest cities in the state, talk with Knoxville delegates in the Legislature and meet with Gov. Bill Haslam.

Wine-in-grocery-stores debate: claims vs. facts (Tennessean/Brown)

To hear one side tell it, if the state’s grocery stores sell wine, Tennessee will see more alcoholics, more underage drinking and the collapse of countless small liquor stores. The other camp predicts an economic shot in the arm, stoking wine sales to new highs and making Tennessee the purchasing destination for wine lovers who live near state borders. State lawmakers are debating yet again legislation that would allow food sellers to also sell wine. A bill cleared a state Senate committee last week — the most progress one has made since supporters began their most recent push.

Transition panel’s plan to merge schools: Path to success or tortuous route? (CA)

If the unified school board would just “implement the Transition Planning Commission plan” for merging Memphis City and Shelby County schools, a popular refrain goes, everything would be fine. The phrase popped up in a recent Commercial Appeal Viewpoint guest column by Christine Richards, an attorney who chaired the TPC’s human resources committee. It came up again in a recent status conference before U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on the topic of appointing a “special master” to light a fire under the school board, or at least monitor its progress on merging city and county schools by July 1.

KIPP national study shows significant gains in core subjects (CA/Roberts)

Fifth-grade math at KIPP Memphis looks like a study in free will. One minute, students are working busily at their desks, then over the next few, they pick up their work, one by one, and head to a back corner or stake out think space on the hallway floor outside. “Research shows that people can stay at attention about the age they are, plus two,” says principal Andrew Bobowski, watching the choreography from the sidelines. “These kids are 10 and 11; they generally can stay on task 12-13 minutes.” At KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), teachers weave movement into class to improve focus.

Some Hamilton schools plunge into brave new digital world on their own (TFP)

Amanda Thurmond’s fourth-grade classes haven’t touched a textbook in months. Vandana Taneja has never seen kids express so much joy from learning. And Donna Sellers’ students now are teaching her new things all the time. These and other teachers across Hamilton County are rewriting the rules of the classroom by incorporating tablets and smartphones into their everyday lessons. And schools are doing it largely on their own.

Nashville schools’ stakes are high for new academics chief (Tennessean/Garrison)

From his Bransford Avenue office, Jay Steele hears the skeptics — those who question his model for high school instruction and his ability to turn around a struggling school district, and his boss for not scouring the nation to fill the position he now holds. “I’m not shielded to any of that information or that criticism,” Steele said in an interview with The Tennessean one month after moving into his newly created position overseeing the curriculum at Metro Nashville Public Schools. The noise would be hard to miss.

Mentally ill offered new path for care (Times Free Press/Garrett)

Tennessee is among six states that do not allow outpatient commitment for the mentally ill. This means that parents with seriously sick adult children who won’t take their medication have had little option but to watch their sons or daughters deteriorate. But in 2012, after a decade of legislative lobbying, a pilot program was created in Knoxville to test assisted outpatient treatment. The program isn’t off the ground yet, but advocates hope to get it going this year. The goal is to make it a model that can be mimicked across the state, including in Chattanooga, where there is growing concern about the region’s capacity to care for its mentally ill.

Two detained in separate incidents on Y-12 plant property (KNS/Munger)

OAK RIDGE — Security continues to be the story at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, with two individuals detained in separate incidents over the weekend for trespassing at the sensitive government installation. On Saturday, a 39-year-old Oak Ridge man was charged with trespassing after allegedly riding his bicycle inside the boundaries of the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant on Saturday afternoon. Brent Lee, 110 Normandy Road, was cited and released by the Oak Ridge Police Department after being detained earlier by security officers at Y-12. Lt. Robin Smith of the police department said the charge was a misdemeanor.

Frank Munger: Y-12 embraces changeto secure future work (KNS/Munger)

Everybody tends to link the future of Y-12 to the Uranium Processing Facility, which potentially will be the biggest construction project in Tennessee history. The price tag for the new production center at the nuclear weapons plant has been estimated in the range of $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion, with operations supposed to come online around 2020. Y-12’s future is actually tied more to the work that’s assigned to the Oak Ridge plant, and that’s ever-changing.

Leisure traveler to be focus of Visit Knoxville’s strategy

The head of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau recently asked Kim Bumpas what it felt like to lag behind his city in tourism spending, a distinction that occurred for the first time last year. “Short-lived,” replied Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville. Visit Knoxville on Nov. 1 became the official convention and visitors bureau for Knox County and the city of Knoxville after a tumultuous period in which Gloria Ray, the founder and leader of the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp., was pressured into resigning amid critiscm regarding her salary.

Bumper crop: Sevier County planting the seeds for tourism renewal (KNS/Johnson)

Snow still stripes the top of Mount LeConte on cold days, but as spring draws nigh, outdoors lovers anticipate the mountains shedding their white, dormant hardwoods beginning to bud and verdant color returning to the Smokies. After surviving the hard freeze of the Great Recession, tourism officials in Sevier County are counting on warmer temperatures to bring blossoming business and the return of the green — green as in greenbacks from the wallets of guests from across the United States and around the world.

Spring Hill says Maury Co. owes thousands from GM in-lieu-of-tax payments (TN)

Officials here have put Maury County on notice that Spring Hill does not intend to forgive $122,274 worth of General Motors in-lieu-of-tax payments city officials believe are owed by the county. In 1985, as an incentive to land the Saturn plant, Maury County gave the automaker the ability to make in-lieu-of-tax payments instead of paying standard property taxes. GM pays more than $2 million a year in lieu of taxes to Maury County through a formal agreement, but that is less than half of what would be owed nowadays under the standard property tax arrangement.

 

OPINION

Editorial: Politicians’ lack of civility hurts those they serve (KNS)

On the evening of Feb. 21, Tennessee’s Republican governor and his two immediate predecessors — one from the GOP and one Democrat — engaged in a 90-minute panel discussion on “Balancing Civility and Free Expression” at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. It was a fitting location for a timely topic. Baker, the center’s namesake, was a paragon of civility during his years in the U.S. Senate. Statesmen of his stature, who could forge alliances with political opponents to pass needed legislation without compromising on their principles, are largely missing from Congress and the Tennessee General Assembly.

Editorial: Court helps state lead nation in reducing youth detention rates (CA)

Shelby County Juvenile Court has taken a lot of heat lately over how juvenile offenders are handled. While the problems are real, it should be acknowledged, also, that reforms the court has instituted regarding the detention of juveniles has helped Tennessee lead the nation in reducing the rate of juvenile detentions to its lowest level in 35 years. A story by Scripps Howard News Service writer Bart Sullivan in Sunday’s Viewpoint section documented programs in place to reduce the number youngsters detained in juvenile detention facilities, many for minor crimes. Tennessee showed the biggest change, with a 66 percent decline in confinement of juveniles, between 1997 and 2010.

Guest columnist: Authorizer would undo good reform (Tennessean)

In recent weeks, the topic of “school choice” and “education reform” has been dominating the news here in Nashville and throughout Tennessee. Unfortunately, this important issue often gets reduced down to arguments of “for” or “against” education reform, when in fact the question should be “what is the best way to reform our education system?” In the past decade, Democrats have worked with Republicans under the leadership of Gov. Phil Bredesen to pass common-sense, comprehensive reforms to our public education system. As a result, between 2002 and 2010, graduation rates in Tennessee improved at the highest rate of any state in the nation.

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