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March 21 TN News Digest

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

 

Haslam opposes ban on Medicaid expansion (Memphis Business Journal)

Gov. Bill Haslam expressed his official opposition to a bill designed to block an expansion of TennCare this week. Haslam has said he wants to keep all options on the table while he decides on his recommendation to the state legislature, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. TennCare, the state Medicaid system, could be expanded under the Affordable Care Act. Haslam spokesman David Smith also noted the governor also opposes a bill that authorizes the administration to proceed with an expansion of the state Medicaid system.

Haslam: Chattanooga VW workers happy without union (Times Free-Press/Pare)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam weighed in Wednesday on reports that Volkswagen is talking with the United Auto Workers about the Chattanooga plant, saying workers like the current nonunion structure. “I would hate for anything to happen that would hurt the productivity of the plant or to deter investment in Chattanooga,” Haslam said in a statement. The Republican governor said Tennessee is a right-to-work state and that he has talked to a number of VW employees who are “very comfortable” with the way things are now at the factory.

Crossville celebrates new public health center (Associated Press)

Crossville has a new public health center. According to a news release from the state Health Department, Cumberland County’s new Community Health Center replaces an outdated clinic built in 1966. At 30,000 square feet, the new facility is more than twice as large as the former building. The Cumberland County Health Department provides primary care, immunizations, well child visits and health screenings, among other services. As a federally qualified health center, the clinic provides primary care services to all patients regardless of ability to pay.

Interim DCS commissioner rehires high-ranking director fired in Jan. (CP/Zelinski)

The newly minted state commissioner of the Department of Children Services is reversing a move made by his predecessor by hiring back a top employee recently shed from the department. Acting Commissioner Jim Henry has rehired Debbie Miller, formerly the agency’s executive director of family and child well-being. Miller returned Monday, said Molly Sudderth, spokeswoman for DCS. “The department had a recent vacancy and Commissioner Henry asked Ms. Miller to return. He has known her work for many years and respects her skills and experience in the area of child welfare,” Sudderth said.

Tennessee to take over Memphis auto inspections (Commercial Appeal/Loller)

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said Wednesday the state will take over operation of auto inspections in Memphis beginning July 1 and will initially limit inspections to motorists who live in the city of Memphis. Luttrell said he met earlier in the day with Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau to discuss options for how future inspections will be handled. The Memphis City Council voted in February to drop its vehicle emissions testing program, contending air quality is a county responsibility and shouldn’t be borne by city residents alone. Luttrell said the state will make that determination later.

University of Tennessee pulls Sex Week funding (Times Free-Press/Sher)

Hoping to quell a rising uproar among conservative legislators, UT Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek said Wednesday the campus no longer will use state tax or tuition funds for a controversial event called “Sex Week.” Cheek said in a statement he made the decision after reviewing the final agenda for the student-programmed event. “We support the process and the students involved, but we should not use state funds in this manner,” he said. University of Tennessee system President Joe DiPietro agreed, saying “some activities planned as part of Sex Week are not an appropriate use of state tax dollars.”

State funding pulled from UT Sex Week (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

State funding will no longer be available for the University of Tennessee’s Sex Week, campus officials announced Wednesday in response to growing criticism from lawmakers. The weeklong series of events and panel discussions planned for the UT’s Knoxville campus, beginning April 5, has drawn unwanted attention from some state legislators, who have questioned the use of public money earmarked for the program. Totaling $18,195, the bulk of the event’s funding — $11,145 — was expected to come from academic departments and programs, i.e. state funding.

STUDENTS RESPOND HERE. 

Open enrollment begins tonight for the TennCare Standard Spend Down (WTZV-TV)

Open enrollment begins tonight for the TennCare Standard Spend Down program. The program is available through a waiver to the Medicaid program for those with low-income. People with high, unpaid medical bills who are blind, disabled or a caretaker of a child who qualifies for Medicaid can also apply. More information on the Standard Spend Down program and more detailed eligibility criteria are available on TennCare’s website, or call 1-866-358-3230 to sign up.

Haslam’s School Voucher Bill Up in Senate Education Committee (AP)

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.

Kelsey Urges Expansion as Competing Voucher Bill Sidelined (WPLN-Radio Nash)

Tennessee lawmakers are poised to wrangle over the potential size of Governor Bill Haslam’s proposed school vouchers program. A competing bill was sidelined Wednesday. Haslam wants the initial vouchers rollout to be relatively small, targeting just poor students zoned for failing schools. But some lawmakers want access for lots more Tennessee families to pay private-school tuition using public-school money. A bill to that end just got pushed to the back burner, with the idea of including families making up to $75 thousand.

Haslam, Senate spar over school vouchers bill (Tennessean/Sisk)

State Sen. Dolores Gresham set aside her proposal to offer school vouchers to middle-class families in Tennessee, but she delayed consideration of Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan for vouchers as well. Gresham took her voucher plan, Senate Bill 1358, off the calendar of the Senate Education Committee, which she chairs, and she pushed back discussion of Senate Bill 196 for at least one more week. The Somerville Republican told reporters afterward that she was not dropping her proposal altogether, and an ally said he might offer it as an amendment to Haslam’s bill.

Gresham Scuttles Expanded Voucher Bill, Kelsey Vows to Keep Pushing (TNR)

Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham has backed down from a potential clash with Gov. Bill Haslam over the number of school vouchers that could be offered to Tennessee students. During a meeting of Gresham’s committee Wednesday, the Somerville Republican pulled her expansive voucher legislation, Senate Bill 1358, from the full committee’s discussion agenda and sent it to a general subcommittee typically reserved for bills destined for no further consideration. Gresham, however, also put off discussion on the governor’s scaled-back voucher legislation for another week.

Workers comp reform advances in state Senate (Tennessean/Marsteller)

A day after advancing in the House, Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers compensation overhaul plan did the same in the Senate. The Senate Government Operations Committee advanced Senate Bill 200 on a 6-1 vote along party lines today. Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, was the only dissenter. The committee’s other Democrat member, Sen. Thelma Harper of Nashville, was not present for the vote. The measure now goes to the Senate’s finance, ways and means committee, the final committee stop before a floor vote.

‘Copeland Cap’ May Get Makeover (TN Report)

An easily circumvented Tennessee constitutional provision aimed at compelling state government to live within its means is drawing renewed attention from lawmakers who say it hasn’t had its intended effect. The so-called “Copeland Cap,” a spending limit Tennessee voters approved for addition to the state constitution in 1978, requires the Legislature to restrict year-to-year government-expenditure growth to no more than growth in the state’s economy.

Per diem adjustments back on Senate track (Tennessean/Sisk)

A bill that would cut expense payments to Middle Tennessee lawmakers appears to be back on track in the state legislature after winning approval from a Senate committee on Tuesday. Senate Bill 107, which would eliminate hotel reimbursements for legislators who live near Nashville, was approved unanimously by the Senate State & Local Government Committee. The move came after one member dropped a proposal to make lawmakers who live farther away file receipts indicating how they spent money meant for hotel stays.  

Clandestine Video-Recording of Animal Abuse Spurs Bill (TN Report)

Legislation that would require individuals who record incidents of animal abuse to submit the unedited images to law enforcement within 24 hours is headed to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Brought by Rep. Andy Holt, an amendment to HB 1191 would make it a Class C misdemeanor punishable by fine only if someone fails to turn in a video or photographs taken of an animal being abused. Under Tennessee law, those found guilty of a Class C misdemeanor may be charged up to $10,000.

Mountaintop Removal Ban Killed in Tennessee Senate (Associated Press)

A measure to ban mountaintop removal coal mining in Tennessee is dead this session. The proposal sponsored by Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson failed in the Senate, Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday for lack of a motion. The legislation is similar to others that failed in the past. It would ban any mining that alters ridgelines more than 2,000 feet above sea level. Supporters call the measure the “Scenic Vistas Protection Act.” Opponents worry the proposal is a first step toward ending Tennessee coal mining.

Mountaintop mining bill falters in TN Senate (Tennessean/Sisk)

A bill that would have restricted surface mining at high elevations was killed for the year Wednesday in the Tennessee Senate. Legislation meant to prevent new “mountaintop removal” mining projects in Tennessee failed in the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee when members declined to take up the measure. The decision snuffed out any debate on the bill, despite a plea from its sponsor to hold a hearing on the measure. “I was hoping for at least a discussion,” said state Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson.

Coal mining opponents pledge to try again (Times Free-Press/Sher)

Legislative sponsors of a ban on new “mountaintop” removal coal mining vow to return next year after their Tennessee Scenic Vistas Mountains Protection Act measure died in a Senate committee Wednesday. Six Republicans on the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee refused to bring the bill up for discussion when Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson came to present the measure. Two of Finney’s fellow Democrats serve on the committee and could have moved and seconded the measure, forcing a hearing on the bill, which bans mining above 2,000 on ridges and mountains.

 Bill to Ban Mountaintop Mining Dies Without Discussion (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

An attempt to ban coal mining that destroys mountaintops has once again died in Tennessee’s legislature. A state Senate committee refused to even discuss the measure Wednesday. The bill has died several sessions in a row, and has come to attract shows of opposition at hearings by dozens of coal workers in hardhats. Democrat Lowe Finney said his version built in exemptions for underground mining and for existing permits. Even so, the nine-member committee chaired by East Tennessee Republican Steve Southerland wouldn’t hear about it.

Lawmaker-veteran seeks to limit police drones in TN (Associated Press/Hall)

Tennessee lawmakers are preparing to take up a measure that seeks to restrict police agencies in the state from using unmanned drones and the sponsor is someone with experience piloting the planes. 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 rarely. A House civil justice subcommittee on Wednesday pushed a vote on the proposal to next week.

TAC Air bill grounded until 2014 (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)

Legislation intervening in a dispute between TAC Air and the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority was grounded until 2014 in the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plain, told colleagues, “I don’t think any of us want tax dollars to be used to compete with the private sector.” But Niceley said, “I think we need a little time to cool this off” and put the measure off. TAC Air provides fuel and hangar space for private airplanes at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.

Grocery Wine Death Premature? (Metro Pulse)

A bill to allow wine sales in groceries was defeated in a House committee last week and declared dead. Very few people around the Legislature believe it. The evidence? The bill continues to move in the state Senate. If it is indeed dead in the House, they wouldn’t bother. The vote embarrassed Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, who advocated for the bill and voted to break a tie to get it out of a subcommittee. She cannot let the rejection stand. Harwell’s mother died last week and she has been dealing with personal issues.

Guns in Lots OK? Really? (Metro Pulse)

Pro-gun groups and legislators declared victory on passage of guns-in-the-parking-lot legislation which gives gun permit holders the right to keep a gun in their vehicles at work even if the employer objects. The secret to passage of the bill over the objection of the business lobbyists is not quite so obvious. Legislators admit that Tennessee is a Right to Work state. A proponent of the bill notes that your employer can fire you for chewing gum if he desires. So while Tennessee is on record as allowing gun permit holders to have a gun locked in their vehicle at the job site, the bill does not prevent job site owners from firing anyone who brings a gun on the premises if they don’t want them.

Concussion policy bill to be heard on House floor (Associated Press)

Legislation that would require schools and other organizations with youth athletic programs to adopt concussion policies is set to be heard Thursday on the House floor. The legislation is similar to laws passed in 42 other states and the District of Columbia that include provisions requiring students to be removed from an event if they show concussion symptoms like headaches, dilated eyes or vomiting. The Tennessee proposal in particular would require schools to adopt guidelines to educate coaches, school administrators, athletes and their parents about the symptoms and dangers of concussions.

Legislators pummel Bradley County sheriff (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Walton)

A parade of Tennessee lawmakers lined up Wednesday to pummel Bradley County Sheriff Jim Ruth for accusing them of being in the pockets of druggists and meth-makers. Probably the most forthright was Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster. “Mr. Sheriff Ruth, have the cojones to come to War Memorial 105 [her office] and look me eyeball to eyeball and tell me I’m on the take. It’s very offensive,” she said. Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, said people can — and do — say just about anything they want to about lawmakers with whom they disagree.

Big pharma makes its case to TN lawmakers (Nashville Business Journal)

A representative from PhRMA, the national trade group that represents most of the country’s largest pharmaceutical companies, is advocating today on behalf of the $300 billion dollar industry before the Tennessee Legislature’s House Health Committee. Jeff Trewhitt, senior director of public affairs at PhRMA, will tell legislators that the drug industry is a key economic driver in Nashville and across the state, largely through the clinical trials drug companies fund.

Brooks’ Goal: Doing the ‘Conservative, Right Thing’ (Memphis Daily News)

State Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, sees a simple, biblical guidepost for the lopsided Republican majority in the state House. “To whom much is given, much is required,” said Brooks, the assistant majority leader. With a 70-28-1 “supermajority” in the House and a similar majority in the Senate, Republicans clearly have the power to enact the laws they want. Now, they must choose wisely, Brooks said. From his viewpoint, that involves moving toward a “leaner, more-efficient government,” with legislators working to reduce the “size and the footprint” of government in people’s lives.

Attorneys general from South meet in Nashville (Associated Press)

State attorneys general from the South are meeting in Nashville this week to learn more about health care fraud and consumer issues affecting the military. The meeting will be held Thursday and Friday at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nashville. Thursday’s panels will focus on state Medicaid programs, pursuing health care fraud and prescription drug abuse. Holly Petraeus, from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is among those scheduled to speak on Friday about financial issues affecting troops and veterans.

Healthcare prices ‘shrouded in mystery,’ especially in Tennessee (CA/Sells)

Health care is one of the biggest chunks of the U.S. economy. But its prices are mostly “shrouded in mystery” to those who buy it, especially in Tennessee, which got a failing grade in a new national report on price transparency. Pressure is rising on the nation’s health care system to make its costs clearer to consumers, businesses and the government, especially as costs continue to rise and consumers are expected to pay for more of that cost out of their own pockets.

Federal appeals court questions $2.5M award in TennCare case (Tennessean/Allyn)

A federal appeals court on Wednesday questioned a sizable chunk of $2.5 million in legal fees a district court awarded to attorneys representing TennCare patients in a costly and protracted legal battle over how patients are treated on the state’s Medicaid program. In 2009, a federal district court awarded attorneys for the nonprofit Tennessee Justice Center $2.5 million for fees and expenses for legal services performed over more than three years. Attorneys representing the state called the award excessive and appealed.  

TVA beginning controlled burns at reservoirs (Associated Press)

The Tennessee Valley Authority is beginning its annual series of prescribed burns on public lands managed by the agency. According to a news release from the utility, burns in Alabama and Tennessee are planned near the following reservoirs: Chickamauga, Guntersville, Wheeler, Pickwick, Tims Ford, Kentucky and Bear Creek. TVA’s Bruce Schofield said in the release that the controlled burns are used to maintain and establish wildlife habitat and to reduce the thatch and leaves that help fuel wildfires.

Music City Center’s final design reduced retail, tweaked plans (Tenn/Garrison)

Stretching 19 acres and six city blocks, it stands alone in size and scale. And even before Music City Center will open in May, the $585 million facility, love or hate it, has emerged as one of the city’s iconic structures. But along the way, project leaders detoured slightly from plans city boosters first showed Nashvillians before the Metro Council voted on it. What was once conceived as 40,000 square feet of retail space along a revamped Korean Veterans Boulevard with the possibilities of restaurants, shops and other amenities is now pegged as administrative offices for the center’s staff.

Erlanger remake dies in Hamilton County Commission (Times Free-Press/Brogdon)

Hamilton County commissioners opted to pull the plug Wednesday on legislation to reform Erlanger Health System’s governing body. Despite passing the state’s House and Senate, and being signed last month by Gov. Bill Haslam, the private act needed six votes from the commission to live. It didn’t even get a motion at Wednesday’s commission meeting. State Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who helped birth the legislation and spearheaded it through the General Assembly this year, kept a civil tongue about the commission’s decision. ”

TJX gets $1 million tax break for distribution center (Commercial Appeal/Sells)

TJX Companies, Inc. got a five-year tax break Wednesday worth more than $1 million for an airport-area distribution center in which the company said it will invest $6.9 million and eventually employ 117. The Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) for Memphis and Shelby County unanimously approved the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal with the Framingham, Mass.-based company with little discussion of the matter. The company is the parent of popular American retail apparel and home furnishing stores TJ Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods and similar stores in Europe and Canada.

Ashland City Sawmill Fined for Overtime, Child Labor Violations (WPLN-Radio)

An Ashland City sawmill will have to pay out nearly $12,000 in fines and back wages, following an investigation by the US Department of Labor. Investigators say they found Tennessee Timber and Lumber employed a 14 year old to use a chainsaw and load scrap wood into a chipper. Federal law says only those over 18 can do such dangerous tasks. The probe also found the sawmill wasn’t paying workers overtime, but falsified payroll records to make it look like it did. Even doing that, the company only logged half the overtime the employees actually worked.

Bradley County panel to seeks funds for school needs (Times Free-Press/Leach)

Bradley County is expected to form a special committee to address funding options for a requested $14 million in renovations to Lake Forest Middle School and a recurring $750,000 technology budget to replace outdated school computers. On Wednesday, the Bradley County Finance Committee voted 3-2 to request that County Commission Chairman Louie Alford appoint the ad hoc panel, which will be comprised of county commissioners, school officials and a representative of the Bradley County mayor’s office.

Aitken Departs Post Without Board Opposition (Memphis Daily News)

In the end there weren’t any attempts Tuesday, March 19, to talk John Aitken into remaining as Shelby County Schools superintendent. Countywide school board members made no moves to call off a superintendent search process that now has no firm date by which to pick a schools leader. After a closed meeting for nearly an hour Tuesday with their attorneys, school board members unanimously accepted the terms of a buyout for Aitken that means his immediate departure less than five months before the first day of classes begins for the consolidated school system.

 

OPINION

Free-Press Editorial: Should distilleries be allowed to operate in Hamilton Co? (TFP)

Allowing distilleries in Hamilton County is a matter of economic liberty, business friendliness and common sense. There is no rational justification for preventing a product that is legally sold in Hamilton County from being produced in Hamilton County. It is no secret that if distilleries are allowed to operate in Hamilton County, Chattanooga Whiskey Co. will begin actually producing its whiskey in Chattanooga, instead of in a far-flung corner of Indiana, as it has to do now as a result of the current prohibition-era laws. Such a distillery would create local jobs, boost the area’s economy, increase local and state tax revenues, and draw visitors to Hamilton County.

Editorial: Programs on sex, drinking helpful for students at UT (News-Sentinel)

Talk of booze and sex at the University of Tennessee in recent days eclipsed the Lady Vols’ return to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, the NCAA’s snub of the men’s team and the beginning of spring football practice. First, on March 14, a task force on fraternity system reform released an 11-page report nearly six months after a night of drinking led to the hospitalization of a 20-year-old student. On Monday details of an upcoming student-organized Sex Week sparked outrage in the state Legislature and on Fox News. A casual observer could be forgiven for concluding UT is more like Faber College of “Animal House” fame than the top 25 research institution of its aspirations.

Editorial: Clock’s ticking on search for unified schools superintendent (C. Appeal)

Now that Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken has eliminated himself as a possible candidate to lead the new Shelby County merged school district, the push to find a superintendent becomes even more critical. That means each of the 23 members of the Shelby County unified school board must be willing to put aside any personal animus or mindset that could avert consensus on choosing a superintendent. The merged Memphis and Shelby County school boards Tuesday accepted Aitken’s request to buy out his contract. It had not been decided Wednesday afternoon whether the board will appoint an interim county schools superintendent.

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