This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — TennCare officials have announced the open enrollment date for a program that helps with high unpaid medical bills for lower-income, elderly or disabled people. The TennCare Standard Spend Down program open enrollment will sign up 2,500 new applicants. Applications will be accepted beginning at 6 p.m. March 21 through a toll-free number, (866) 358-3230. The line will be shut down once 2,500 applications have been received. During previous open enrollment periods, it took only an hour to receive 2,500 applications.
A little-known state hotline designed to capture reports of suspected human trafficking and provide a lifeline to victims has gained new backers as officials ramp up Tennessee’s anti-trafficking efforts. Women’s organizations from across the state on Thursday joined with lawmakers and law enforcement officials to call attention to what they say is a fast-growing crime. In addition to the hotline, they also outlined a slate of 19 trafficking-related bills filed at the state legislature this session, which officials say could give Tennessee the nation’s most comprehensive laws on the issue.
NASHVILLE — With fewer than 100 calls made to the state’s sex-trafficking hotline since it was started 18 months ago, a coalition of women’s groups from Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis on Thursday launched a campaign to better publicize the program. Describing human trafficking, including that of underage girls, as “modern day slavery,” Ann Coulter of the Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga said, “Our focus is on getting this information about the hotline to the people out there who are most likely to run across one of these girls.”
Law enforcers, legislators and women’s groups in Tennessee want stiffer measures to fight sex trafficking. Hundreds of people are believed to be at risk in the state, but many police don’t feel trained to recognize it. The scope of sex trafficking in Tennessee has been hard to pin down, but TBI study two years ago found reports in almost every county. Director Mark Gwyn says anytime a minor has sex for money, they’re a victim, not a prostitute. In the case of adults, the difference is coercion.
NASHVILLE — Tennessee’s unemployment rate for January was 7.7 percent, a slight increase from the previous month. Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Karla Davis said Thursday that there are more than 2.8 million people employed in Tennessee. That’s the highest employment total for the state since December 2007. The unemployment rate for last December was 7.6 percent. The national unemployment rate for January was 7.9 percent.
The father of an 18-month-old Dickson County girl tried for three weeks while he was in jail to get the Department of Children’s Services to intervene before the abused child died Thursday, a family member said. The child’s mother also was in jail when her boyfriend brought Somara Smith to a relative’s house early Thursday morning already dead, TBI agents said. They charged Edward Benesch, 26, of 620 Rocky Drive in Dickson, with reckless homicide and child abuse.
Previous naysayers are coming around to the idea of expanding TennCare. Even while criticizing the Affordable Care Act, they say pulling more poor people into the state’s Medicaid program could have some upsides. Other Republican-led states have taken the leap, even as Governor Bill Haslam continues to weigh the pros and cons. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick says at first, all he could see was that after three years, the state would have to start picking up part of the tab.
Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives on Thursday said now is the time for liquor interests to strike a deal over wine sales in grocery stores rather than to vow to continue fighting over the issue. House Speaker Beth Harwell and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told reporters liquor store owners and distributors should not await the outcome of wine-in-grocery-store legislation before trying to negotiate other changes to Tennessee’s liquor laws. GOP leaders, who have used their political clout to get the bill moving after years of debate, said they will not champion new rules for liquor stores late in the legislative session.
NASHVILLE — The state Senate rejected an amendment Thursday that would have allowed local governments like Memphis and Shelby County to create secure photo identification cards acceptable for use under Tennessee law requiring certain photo IDs to vote. The discussion focused largely on the court-contested photo ID cards issued by the Memphis Public Library last year and on whether to allow state-college student IDs to qualify. But the underlying photo-ID legislation that the debate revolved around ended up being postponed for a week.
A proposal that would allow student identification from the state’s higher education institutions to be used for voting was delayed Thursday in the Senate amid questions about the validity of such IDs. The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro sailed passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee 8-0 earlier this week, but it ran into trouble on the Senate floor. Shortly after an explanation of the bill, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis proposed an amendment that would allow counties to decide if their libraries can be used to obtain photo identification to vote.
A Republican-led push to use college IDs to vote was held up on the floor of the Senate Thursday. Another GOP senator says there’s no need to expand the state’s voter ID law. This legislation comes from a Rutherford County lawmaker, home to the largest undergraduate student body in the state. And while Senator Bill Ketron refused to accept student IDs when the law was passed two years ago, he’s now had a change of heart. Senator Stacy Campfield of Knoxville has not.
NASHVILLE — When Sen. Mike Bell came to the Senate floor Thursday, he was armed with razor-sharp arguments and ready to rumble over his bill legalizing switchblades and all knives with blades over 4 inches in length. But in the end, the Rice-ville Republican easily sliced his way to success. The bill passed 27-3 without so much as a squeak from opponents and is scheduled to be heard next week in a House subcommittee.
NASHVILLE — The state Senate has approved and sent to the House a bill rewriting Tennessee’s knife laws to eliminate a prohibition against switchblades and to assure that knives with blades longer than 4 inches can be carried for self-protection. Current law makes possession of a switchblade a misdemeanor crime. Carrying a knife with a blade over 4 inches in length can be a felony if it’s “for the purpose of going armed.” Sen. Mike Bell, the Riceville Republican sponsor of the bill, says that carrying a knife for self-defense meets that definition, although current law also says a longer knife can be legally used while hunting, fishing, camping and for “other lawful activity,” a phrase not legally defined.
The Senate has approved legislation that seeks to lift Tennessee’s ban on switchblades. The proposal sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville was approved 27-3 on Thursday. The companion bill is scheduled to be heard next week in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. The bill would also end restrictions on carrying blades longer than 4 inches.
Fifty years after municipalities throughout Davidson County consolidated to form a central government, Mayor Karl Dean’s administration fears pending state legislation would gut Metro. At issue is a bill that cleared a House subcommittee Wednesday that would effectively grant Davidson County’s five satellite cities powers that all cities in Tennessee enjoy — including the ability to maintain their own courts, police forces and even their own schools, if they so desired.
Capitol Hill lawmakers are expected to decide next week whether to move forward on a plan to weaken the Metro Nashville government structure in the same year the county celebrates the arrangement’s 50th anniversary. The proposal, brought by a handful of cities in Davidson County, would allow towns falling under a metro form of government to provide their own services, like a court system, police service and public school system.
State Rep. Jimmy Eldridge has received criticism after a video was released showing a conversation Eldridge thought was private between him and two friends. In the video, which was recorded in a committee meeting room by the legislature’s streaming video equipment, Eldridge talks about a letter to the editor that was published in The Jackson Sun on March 1. The author of the letter criticizes Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers’ compensation reform package and opens the letter by asking, “Is there no end to the misguided efforts in the Tennessee General Assembly to punish workers who are injured on the job?”
More than a dozen proposals for Tennessee’s first judicial redistricting in nearly 30 years submitted by individual attorneys, district attorneys, public defenders and judges will be unveiled Friday. “The response we have gotten to our public call for judicial district maps is extremely encouraging,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in a statement to TNReport. “I would especially like to commend the Public Defenders Association as well as the Tennessee Bar Association for coming to the table and sharing their ideas.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The House has unanimously approved a bill to do away with a leash law for dogs and cats while being transported in Tennessee. Several members howled like dogs in jest as the chamber voted 96-0 on Thursday to pass the bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Pat Marsh of Shelbyville. The measure would whittle down the little-known law requiring a leash or restraint for any dog or cat in transport to only apply to animals that might have rabies.
Saying more openness is needed on the part of Tennessee policy makers, Rep. Susan Lynn has introduced legislation that would require the disclosure of all real property they own other than their primary home. The Mt. Juliet Republican’s HB 1063 would require all elected and certain appointed public officials, such as those on local and regional planning commissions or state boards, to disclose any real property owned by them, their spouses or any minor children living at home.
Waiting for her soldier at Chattanooga’s National Guard Armory on Thursday, Ramanda Dennison said the past year has been a “roller coaster.” Dennison’s husband, Sgt. Adam Dennison, 34, of LaFayette, Ga., was among 193 to return to Chattanooga after a yearlong deployment to the Middle East. Ramanda, 31, has gone through three deployments with her husband. Troops mustered at Camp Shelby, Miss., during the 2003 Iraq invasion, but that was a false alarm, called off. But the second, a 2007 deployment to Iraq, was real. And so were her fears.
Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre said he expects his coming fiscal year’s budget proposal to build on the academic gains of recent years through a focus on student instruction, teacher pay, schools security and technology. How much it all might cost, though, wasn’t up for discussion at a Thursday community forum to gather feedback from parents, teachers and administrators.
SPRINGFIELD — Years of frustration over segregation in Robertson County schools tumbled out as, one after another, parents and city officials took the microphone at a packed town hall meeting Thursday. Federal civil rights investigators with the departments of Education and Justice watched silently from the back of the Robertson County Senior Center, declining to speak to reporters. They leave town today after four days of school visits and interviews with district officials.
Bacon and sausage may make it easier to get kids to eat breakfast, but a study by a national group in favor of plant-based diets faults Memphis City Schools for large increases in the number of processed meats on its breakfast menus. In five years, MCS has increased the number of times it serves sausage biscuits and other salty, fatty meats from 20 to 84 percent a month, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
JAMESTOWN, KY. — Wolf Creek Dam stretches for more than a mile and holds back the largest reservoir east of the Mississippi. But at one point it was among the nation’s six most at-risk dams for failure. And although the dam is more than 100 miles from Nashville, a breach in the dam probably would mean flooding so severe it would surpass the historic May 2010 flood. “It would have been pretty devastating,” said Bill DeBruyn, the dam’s resident engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
A fast-growing Nashville marketing and media firm has laid off nearly 100 employees — about half the company’s workforce — because of the end of a U.S. Army National Guard program. Iostudio let 97 employees go in mid-February, state records show, ahead of the closing of a Nashville call center that supported the Path to Honor program. The Guard notified iostudio on Feb. 6 that the agency was ending the program on Feb. 23, the local firm said in a prepared statement.
If Congress does not intervene, five control tower employees at McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport will be unemployed as early as April 7, due to federal government cuts, according to an airport official. “We just don’t see any way out of it,” Steve Smith said Thursday. “But we’re trying to make a case.” Smith is the executive director at McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport.
Middle Tennessee’s housing recovery continues, but it slowed somewhat last month, according to figures released Thursday. February sales of existing homes rose by nearly 18 percent year-over-year, the Greater Nashville Association of Realtors reported in its latest monthly tally. There were 1,784 closings reported during the month, compared with 1,515 in February 2012.
SPRING HILL — The city’s former mayor and current mayoral candidate, George C. Jones, is suing the city of Spring Hill over its limit on campaign signs. A Spring Hill city code allows residents to display only one campaign yard sign, per political office, per lot. And one candidate cannot have more than six, 16-square-foot yard signs within the city, the ordinance says.
Charles Galbreath, an appeals judge, state legislator and defender of the downtrodden who was widely regarded as one of the most flamboyant power brokers of his generation, died Tuesday at his home in Nashville. He was 88. Mr. Galbreath, who went by Charlie, had been ill with Alzheimer’s disease and recently developed pneumonia, Joyce Galbreath, his wife of 63 years, said Thursday.
An ill-timed “Roll Tide” cheer late last year has ended a 40-year tradition of allowing local University of Alabama alumni to meet behind enemy lines. The University of Tennessee has allowed Alabama graduates to rent out a room in the UT visitor’s center for their monthly luncheons since the building was a faculty club in the early 1970s. But since 2006, the building on the corner of Neyland Drive and Kingston Pike has been used as the admissions office and the starting point for campus tours.
While it is understandable that lawmakers at the federal and state levels would want to be careful drafting the right response to last year’s meningitis outbreak, that should not mean they should lapse into inaction. And, more importantly, lawmakers should not take backward steps that will make the threat of tainted medications only worse. As a Tennessean report noted this week, members of Congress in November promised legislation that would clarify regulations surrounding compounding pharmacies and boost safety. Those promises came amid the drama of hearings, when lawmakers heard about the 48 people who died and the more than 720 who were sickened with meningitis caused by moldy steroid medicine.
Kate, Rick and I fell into one of those spontaneous after-church conversations that make my parish such a pleasant place, an essential place where our community comes to grow into family. Kate commented on my recent column on early childhood education. “Thank you for writing about preschool education,” Kate said. “I taught preschool and taught preschool teachers for years.” Since my column pointed to studies that show most gains made in pre-K and Head Start disappear by third grade, I thought, “Uh-oh.” Kate went on: “You told the truth. I’ve seen the good preschool education can do, but I’ve also seen the limitations.”
Cable giant Comcast, which closed out 2012 with a whopping $62 billion in revenue, more than 63 percent of which came out of the pockets of cable and Internet subscribers, now wants a $13 million subsidy from Tennesseans. That subsidy will come, not from taxpayers, but from almost everyone in the state who pays an electric bill. For years, the cable monopoly has been working to pass legislation that would give it unfettered and cheap access to power poles across the state. Rather than work together to craft some kind of compromise, cable has lobbied to strong-arm government to create yet one more gift from tax- and ratepayers in our state.
In North Carolina, a 100-year nightmare just ended when they passed legislation outlawing “forced municipal annexation.” For the residents of Tennessee, the nightmare continues. If you reside in an unincorporated rural Tennessee community, there is a good chance you will be “forcibly annexed.” One day you receive a letter welcoming you to a municipality, along with a tax bill and an estimate for “proposed” services. Additionally, you are now subject to elaborate codes and restrictions that will alter your life and environment forever. And this is done without a single vote by the residents. Forced annexation is a legal way for municipalities to extract revenue from your property.