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March 20 TN News Digest

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

 

Gov. Haslam to speak to Oak Ridge Chamber (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Gov.Bill Haslam will speak to the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce on March 26. Haslam will be the keynote speaker for the chamber’s 2013 Program of Work kickoff luncheon at the DoubleTree, 215 South Illinois Ave. The annual event marks the beginning of the chamber’s program year. During the luncheon, Haslam will present the Chamber’s Eugene Joyce Award. The Chamber’s Volunteer of the Year will be announced and former board members will be recognized.

DCS child abuse hotline cuts wait time, hang-ups (Tennessean/Gonzalez)

Improvements to Tennessee’s child abuse phone line have allowed more calls to be answered and dramatically decreased the time callers wait on hold — reversing trends that alarmed officials, child advocates and lawmakers last year. New data from the Department of Children’s Services show it usually took less than 40 seconds for a call to be answered during the past four months. That’s down from an average wait of just more than three minutes in 2012, and average waits of more than five minutes in the call center’s worst-performing months.  

Tennessee says nothing suspicious about Labor resignations (TFP/Sher)

A spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday it’s only natural that two top aides to Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Karla Davis quit at the same time she did this week. “The reason for Commissioner Davis’ resignation is stated in the release, and as you know, it is not uncommon when an executive resigns for members of the executive team to do so as well,” Haslam spokesman David Smith said in response to questions. Haslam officials announced in a news release on Monday that Haslam’s handpicked commissioner, Davis, was resigning “due to family reasons.”

Penalties could total $89 mil for businesses if TennCare not expanded (CA/Sells)

Tennessee businesses could pay up to $89.3 million in annual penalties related to the Affordable Care Act if TennCare is not expanded in the state, according to figures from Jackson Hewitt Tax Service. Employers with 50 or more employees will have to provide affordable health insurance coverage to their workers beginning in 2014. If they don’t, they face tax penalties, which can be up to $2,000 or $3,000 per employee. Jackson Hewitt’s study contends some Tennessee employees will be eligible for TennCare if it is expanded and would not be subject to the tax penalty.

Investors Warned Away from “Profitable Sunrise” (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The Tennessee Securities Division warns that an online investment scheme that seems too good to be true probably is. Profitablesunrise.com advertises short-term investment plans with rates of return ranging from about one and a half to almost three percent each day. But officials say the British company that runs the site isn’t registered to buy or sell securities, and the Tennessee addresses it lists are fake. Regulators discovered the potential scam when a customer in North Carolina tried to make an investment.

Tennessee seeks visitor input on Fall Creek Falls State Park (TFP/Benton)

Jim Phillips doesn’t whisper when he tells you he knows the “best-kept secret in the state of Tennessee.” It’s Fall Creek Falls State Park. “As far as accommodations and beautiful scenery, it is the best there is,” Phillips said with a confident nod to his wife, Nancy. The Jacksboro, Tenn., couple are frequent visitors who said they adore the park and its facilities. They were delivering woven baskets to Fall Creek Falls’ Park Inn on Tuesday. But Phillips grudgingly admitted that some of the rooms at his favorite inn need updates “like carpet, curtains” and “better TV reception.”

On UT campus, Sex Week generates little controversy (News-Sentinel/Nelson)

University of Tennessee’s Sex Week may be causing a controversy on Fox News and in Nashville, but there’s little to suggest UT students are concerned. “We’re grown-ups!” said sophomore Trenesheia Davis, who said she’s “very interested” in a lot of the programming scheduled for the weeklong event in April. Does it bother Davis that her student fees support Sex Week? No, she said. After all, student fees go to support the athletic programs, which don’t interest all students, she said.

Pellissippi State contributes $244M to annual regional economy (News-Sentinel)

Pellissippi State Community College continues to have a significant impact on the regional economy. Over the past five years, the college has pumped an average of $244 million each year into the local economy, a recent study shows. The 25th annual analysis of the economic impact of the college on the Knox and Blount county area reveals that the value of business volume, jobs and individual income amounted to about $1.22 billion in the 2007-2012 period, or an average of $244 million each year, Pellissippi State said in a news release.

Board: No action now on license of McCormack (Jackson Sun)

The Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee said on Tuesday that the group will not take any action on suspending or revoking attorney Clay McCormack’s license unless he is found guilty of charges in a federal indictment issued on Monday. McCormack was indicted by a federal grand jury on allegations that he used a scheme to fraudulently obtain loan proceeds from federally insured mortgage lenders, according to a news release sent out by U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton III on Monday.

Haslam’s school voucher bill up in Senate Ed (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. The legislation would limit the program to 5,000 students in failing schools in the academic year that begins in August and grow to 20,000 by 2016. The companion bill was approved 8-4 in the House Government Operations Committee on Tuesday and is headed to the House Finance Committee. A competing Republican-sponsored measure seeks to broaden the number of students by not limiting participation to low-performing schools.

Lawmakers Strip Bill to Allow Voters to Use College IDs (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

State lawmakers stripped out a provision today to let college students vote using IDs from public universities. The amended bill cuts off an argument currently before the state Supreme Court, by spelling out that a Memphis library card cannot be used to vote. The bill aims to tie up some loose ends over voter ID requirements passed a couple years ago. The state Senate approved a version this month to permit IDs from public colleges in Tennessee, while excluding cards issued locally, like library cards.

Conservatorships could get new rules on emergency cases, checks (TN/Roche)

The state Senate Judiciary Committee has unanimously approved a major rewrite of the state law governing conservatorship, including new provisions under which people can be placed under a conservator’s control without notice. The bill was approved on an 8-0 vote after a presentation by Stephen Cobb of the Tennessee Bar Association, which recommended the changes following hearings held over the past year across the state. Cobb told the panel that the hearings showed the ways emergency cases were being handled across the state varied widely and said some cases proved disturbing.  

Beer tax reform bill clears key TN House, Senate committees (Tennessean/Williams)

A measure to change the way Tennessee levies taxes on wholesale beer on Tuesday got approval of key committees in the state House and Senate. The Beer Tax Reform Act of Tennessee was approved by a 14-2 vote of the House Local Government Committee, and 9-0 by the Senate State and Local Government Committee.Now, the bill moves to the budget subcommittee of the House Finance Ways & Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration, said Rich Foge, president of the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association, which is pushing for the legislation.

Law enforcers want Tennessee gun law loopholes fixed (Times Free-Press/Sher)

Prosecutors, sheriffs and police chiefs are asking lawmakers to fix what they say are loopholes in Tennessee’s handgun-carry permit monitoring process. The Tennessee Public Safety Coalition says among other things, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the source of background checks, isn’t always getting the information it needs from local officials. Among other things, the bill would require psychiatric hospitals or other facilities handling involuntary commitments to notify court clerks of the action.  

Veteran seeks to limit police drones in Tennessee (Associated Press/Hall)

Tennessee lawmakers are preparing to take up a measure that seeks to restrict police agencies in the state from using unmanned drone aircraft and the sponsor is someone with experience piloting drones. It’s a hot topic both in Congress and on the state levels as the technology has rapidly outpaced regulations on the use of remotely piloted aircraft domestically. Currently, Tennessee law enforcement agencies are using drones only rarely. Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, is sponsoring the bill that is scheduled to be considered in a House civil justice subcommittee Wednesday.

Rep. DeBerry considers allowing for-profit charter schools in TN (Tenn/Fingeroot)

As a state lawmaker considers legislation allowing for-profit charter school companies in Tennessee, he is being urged to build in financial safeguards that would prevent abuses seen elsewhere.Rep. John J. DeBerry Jr., a Democrat from Memphis, plans to mull over the idea for at least another week before introducing any proposal, he said Tuesday. He wants to be sure any plan he offers would accomplish the goals he has in mind. “I don’t want to open the floodgates and turn them into just for-profit entities,” he said of charter schools.  

Wine bill delayed in Senate over cigarette sales (Associated Press)

Sen. Bill Ketron has delayed a final committee vote on supermarket wine so he can rewrite the bill to keep cigarettes from being sold in liquor stores. The Murfreesboro Republican said Tuesday that he still intends to move the bill to hold local referendums on whether to allow wine sales in grocery and convenience stores through the Senate Finance Committee as early as next week but that he then would put the measure on hold before receiving a full floor vote. The House version of the bill surprisingly failed in the Local Government Committee last week.

Eliminating Vanderbilt police would be mistake, Nash police chief says (TN/Haas)

Two of Nashville’s top law enforcers on Tuesday blasted a legislative proposal to eliminate Vanderbilt University’s police department over the school’s nondiscrimination policy. Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson and Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson visited The Tennessean’s editorial board to discuss legislative bills supported by a statewide criminal justice coalition. In the course of the meeting, the pair sounded off on legislation filed by Rep. Mark Pody and Sen. Mae Beavers that would strip Vanderbilt’s police force of its policing powers unless the school abandons a nondiscrimination policy for student groups. 

Municipal school district bill passes first legislative hurdle (CA/Locker)

The 2013 version of the state legislative push for new suburban school districts in Shelby County began moving Tuesday, with its sponsors predicting smooth passage. House Bill 1288 would allow creation of new municipal school districts by public referendum in any city in the state with at least 1,500 students. It won approval in the House Education Subcommittee, its first hearing since it was filed last month. “This opens it up statewide,” said Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, the House sponsor who now has gathered more than 50 co-sponsors for the bill — a majority of the 99-member House required to approve a bill there.

Counselor Discrimination Gets Cooler Reception in House (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

A proposed law meant to keep students in college counseling programs from having to treat gay patients breezed through the state senate last week. But the bill may find a cooler reception in the House. Heads of university counseling and social work departments pleaded with senators not to excuse students from seeing any patient based on their own religious beliefs. The proposal comes from the conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee. The group is responding to an incident in Michigan, where a Christian student was dismissed for refusing to treat a gay patient.  

Debate on reducing meth labs (Jackson Sun)

In 2010, law enforcement officials seized 2,082 meth labs and arrested 1,835 people on meth-related charges in Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force website. The western judicial district had a total of 338 seizures — 46 of those were in Madison County. State legislators have been discussing a bill that would require everyone to visit a doctor and get a prescription to purchase cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine, which is a key ingredient in making methamphetamine.

Poll results: Readers overwhelmingly support expanded wine sales (NBJ)

State lawmakers may be reluctant to open the door for expanded wine sales in Tennessee, but Nashville Business Journal readers in a recent online poll show no such hesitation. We recently asked our online readers, “Do you support wine sales in Tennessee grocery stores?” Of the 1,012 votes tallied in our non-scientific survey, 80 percent said yes. Sixty-six percent of respondents said, “Yes, each city and county should decide.” The bill considered by lawmakers this session — which was defeated in a House committee last week — would do just this, allowing communities with liquor-by-the-drink laws to hold local referenda on whether to expand wine sales to convenience and grocery stores.

Williamson healthiest Tenn. county, says report (Associated Press)

A new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute ranks the relative health of people living in Tennessee’s counties. The report — released Wednesday — lists Williamson County as the healthiest among the state’s 95 counties. The affluent county is immediately south of Nashville. At the opposite end of the rankings is Grundy County, on the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau. The ranking includes data on the rate of people dying before age 75, high school graduation rates, unemployment, limited access to healthy foods, air and water quality, income, and rates of smoking, obesity and teen births.

Nashville council OKs $1B in bond issues to fund projects (Tennessean/Cass)

Metro government will be able to issue more than $1 billion in debt to finance building and infrastructure projects after the Metro Council signed off on three resolutions Tuesday. The council had already approved the construction projects. Tuesday’s votes — each by a 29-4 count — will allow the city to retire short-term debt on some of the projects and initiate long-term financing for others. The first vote authorized issuance of up to $405 million in general obligation bonds, which are paid off with property taxes.  

Scott DesJarlais shrugs off abortion scandal, holds D.C. fundraiser (TFP/Carroll)

Powerful congressional Republicans shrugged off a lingering abortion scandal Tuesday, hosting a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., as he escalated his quest for a third term. Six prominent Republicans, including three House committee chairmen, facilitated a closed-door DesJarlais event at an upscale Capitol Hill restaurant Tuesday evening. DesJarlais and two aides declined to comment as they walked in the door, so it was unclear how much campaign cash surfaced. A few hours before DesJarlais allies gathered to dine and donate, one Republican leader praised the Jasper resident’s work ethic.

TVA checking sport fish this spring (Associated Press)

The Tennessee Valley Authority is conducting it annual sport fish survey. TVA began the count March 12 at Wilson Reservoir near Muscle Shoals, Ala. By May 9, the utility will examine the health and abundance of species such as black bass and crappie in nine TVA reservoirs, concluding at Douglas Reservoir, east of Knoxville. TVA biologists use mild electric shock to temporarily stun the fish and cause them to float to the surface. They are weighed, measured and counted and then are released. The agency notes the age, distribution and general health of each species.

TVA leader gives view of energy’s future (Bristol Herald-Courier)

New Tennessee Valley Authority CEO Bill Johnson gave keynote comments to the Rotary Club of Bristol Va.-Tenn. at the Bristol Train Station on Tuesday, including his view on the future of energy production and consumption. Johnson’s new tenure as the head of TVA coincides with one of the utility’s primary energy sources, coal, being a political hot button issue. “Part of the environmental work we are doing is cleaning up some of our energy sources,” Johnson said. “We’ve been a coal-centric company for a long time. Some of you may have noticed there’s a different political wind blowing about coal these days.”  

VW Chattanooga opens door to unionization (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Pare)

Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant may become the first auto factory in the United States to create a European-style works council to represent employees, and such a move could provide a foothold for the United Auto Workers in the South. “It looks like a done deal,” said Mike Randall, publisher of the industry trade magazine Southern Business and Development. Horst Neumann, VW’s board member in charge of human resources, said the automaker was in talks with the UAW about setting up a German-style labor board at the Tennessee plant.

Knox school board approves magnet theme change at Vine (News-Sentinel/McCoy)

Next school year, students who attend Vine Middle Performing Arts and Sciences Magnet School will be learning under a new magnet theme — STEAM, a combination of science and math with the arts across all subjects. On Monday night, in a specially called meeting, the Knox County school board approved changing the school’s magnet theme to STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Members, however, asked numerous questions about how the new theme would benefit students at the school, which has received failing achievement grades for several years in all subjects, according to the state’s report card.

Aitken steps down from helm of Shelby County Schools (C. Appeal/Kelley)

Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken is “not going anywhere, I’m vested in this community,” he said, but he also appreciated the decision by the unified Memphis and Shelby County school boards Tuesday night to buy out his contract. The decision was reached by the board in a 50-minute executive session, then announced to a capacity crowd in the Memphis City Schools Teaching and Learning Academy. SCS general counsel Valerie Speakman said Aitken would get a similar deal to that which accompanied Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash’s departure — a compensation package totaling $320,000.  

Aitken Buyout Approved (Memphis Daily News)

The contract of Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken has been bought out by the countywide school board at Aitken’s request. And it takes effect immediately. The board decision came after a closed session with the board’s attorneys for nearly an hour Tuesday, March 19. The buyout talks began at Aitken’s request and became public earlier this month. Aitken didn’t talk about specific reasons for seeking the buyout. “It has been a tough decision,” he told the board after they approved the buyout.

School Board Restructuring Plan Goes to Mays (Memphis Daily News)

On the way to U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays is a plan by the Shelby County Commission to convert the countywide school board to a 13-member single-district body effective Sept. 1. The plan approved by the commission Monday, March 18, includes district lines that are almost but not an identical match of the 13 single districts to be used in County Commission elections in 2014. If Mays approves, the commission would appoint six citizens to the added positions who begin serving Sept. 1.

Former Memphis mayor gets leases for charter schools (C. Appeal/Roberts)

Former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton will open six of his nine W.E.B. DuBois charter schools in Northside High and South Side Middle in the fall. Sites for the other three schools are undecided. The school board approved three-year lease agreements at Northside and South Side Tuesday, giving Herenton access to affordable space in city schools, but also definite addresses to launch his project. “The fact that we have been delayed in the decision-making on the site really delayed us in our recruitment,” Herenton said.

 

OPINION 

Editorial: Don’t crush deal on Medicaid while rushing session (News-Sentinel)

The Tennessee Legislature’s high-speed session might be moving a little too fast to suit Gov. Bill Haslam, at least when it comes to Medicaid expansion, but lawmakers are keeping the pedal to the floor this week with key committee votes on numerous bills. Two bills dealing with whether Tennessee should allow the expansion of Medicaid in the state as authorized by the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — one for it, one against it — are on the table. Haslam, whose administration has been delving into the pros and cons of the expansion, has flagged the bills, saying he is philosophically opposed to both.

Editorial: Sliver of silver lining in bad DCS news (Tennessean)

It seems that the bad news just won’t stop coming from the Department of Children’s Services. The department reported this week that it had under-reported the number of deaths during the past two years; it revised the 2012 number to 105 children who had some type of department contact who died during the year, up from the 73 previously reported. The revision sparked more consternation from legislators as they are embroiled in their review of DCS. As The Tennessean quoted state Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson: “Can we rely on these numbers? I don’t know. I hope we can. It’s strange to me that a big department with lots of professional help keeps having to change their report. Counting children should not be that hard. Counting dead children is an awful thing, but the department must do it right.” Absolutely. 

Gail Kerr: TN lawmakers must fund their tough-on-crime bills (Tennessean)

The state’s top law enforcement officials are asking state lawmakers once again to balance the “tension” between cracking down on criminals and paying for expensive new prison beds. The Tennessee Public Safety Coalition, which includes Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson, District Attorney Torry Johnson, sheriffs, chiefs and D.A.s from across the state, presented its legislative agenda Tuesday. Among their goals: Strengthen a legal crackdown on “pill mills” that overprescribe addictive drugs and close loopholes that prevent the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation from knowing when a person is supposed to lose their gun permit (for example, if they’ve been placed by a court in a mental hospital).  

Guest columnist: Tennessee’s children need counselors to do their jobs (Tenn)

“Ensuring that guidance counselors stick to their roles.” That’s how Tennessee state Rep. John Ragan justified his amendment to the latest iteration of state Sen. Stacey Campfield’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill (Senate Bill 234). And apparently, those roles are to discuss academic and career-related issues and nothing else. Rep. Ragan does point out that his amendment to SB 234 “does not prohibit conversations with students entirely” — as opposed to referring students for psychiatric care if they bring up mental health or lifestyle issues as proposed in the amendment. SB 234 would simply have school personnel “assume all the legal risk if they do so.”

Editorial: Positive move on MCS residency question (Commercial Appeal)

It is a feel-good moment when a lawmaker backs away from a hard-set position and shows the leadership to do the right thing. Shelby County Commissioner Steve Basar had that moment at Monday’s County Commission meeting when he proposed an amendment to the county’s residency ordinance that, if approved, will let current employees of Memphis City Schools continue to live outside the county after MCS merges with Shelby County Schools on July 1. MCS does not have a residency requirement for its employees. The county charter, however, requires employees of county government who were hired after Sept. 1, 1986, to live inside Shelby County.  

Frank Munger: When Y-12 breach was over, finger-pointing began (News-Sentinel)

There were various, unofficial reports of testy relations between B&W Y-12, the managing contractor at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, and WSI-Oak Ridge, Y-12’s protective force contractor, long before the July 28, 2012, security breach. But it would seem the gloves really came off after that event. There is evidence of that in B&W’s response to the federal government’s show-cause order, which threatened to remove the company as Y-12’s managing contractor following the break-in by Plowshares protesters.

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