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March 30 TN News Digest

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

 

Teachers to Help in Common Core Transition (TN Report)

The Tennessee Department of Education is enlisting the help of more than 700 teachers to help their peers navigate the transition to the Common Core State Standards. This year’s cohort will help lead 5 weeks of summer trainings on the Common Core math, English/language arts and literacy standards, reaching more than 30,000 teachers across the state. They follow in the footsteps of last year’s 200 coaches, who have spent this school year guiding their colleagues on the Common Core transition in math for grades 3-8.

Business groups optimistic about TennCare deal (Tennessean/Ward, Sisk)

Health care and business groups are putting their faith in Gov. Bill Haslam’s ability to hammer out a deal on TennCare. But there are no signs of a master strategy that could bring that bargain about or drive it through the legislature. After months of doom-saying, health care and business groups have held their tongues following Wednesday’s momentous announcement that the state would not start offering TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to 180,000 more uninsured Tennesseans.

Feds signal openness to Medicaid alternatives (Tennessean/Barton)

Responding to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and other state executives, the Obama administration said Friday it would allow states to experiment with alternative approaches to the Medicaid expansion called for by the 2010 health care reform law. The administration offered states guidelines under which alternative or “demonstration programs” could be established as a way of “providing flexibility in pursuit of our shared goals,” Cindy Mann, deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a prepared statement.

Report: Tennessee third freest state (Nashville Business Journal)

According to its annual Freedom in the 50 States study, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has named Tennessee the third freest state in the U.S. The center says the study determines if a state’s “policies promote freedom in the fiscal, regulatory and personal realms.” The study cites Tennessee’s low tax rates, low government debt ratio and the fact that the state’s government employment is relatively small as factors in the selection According to the Mercatus Center, the freest state in the union is North Dakota, while New York is the least free.

State Audit Finds $70M-Plus in Unwarranted Unemployment Payouts (TN Report)

Because of errors and fraud, the state of Tennessee issued $73.4 million in overpayments to people drawing unemployment benefits over the past six years, according to a new audit report. The problems threaten the integrity of the program, the comptroller’s office said in its report, released this week. Auditors found poor systems for detecting fraud, backlogs in claims handling, and “automated approval of claims” without verifying that employees qualified.

Tennessee overpays $73 million of jobless benefits (Times Free-Press/Sher)

Tennessee made more than $73 million in unemployment overpayments because of fraud and errors over the past six years, according to state auditors. The state comptroller’s review of various agencies’ compliance with federal requirements also found that people legitimately entitled to benefits didn’t get them on a timely basis because of backlogs in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Earlier this month, the department’s commissioner, Karla Davis, abruptly resigned with Gov. Bill Haslam’s office insisting it was due to “family” considerations and not pressure.

Audit Finds Massive Overpayments to TN Unemployed (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

A new audit says the state overpaid more than $73 million in unemployment benefits. Tennessee’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development has only been able to recover about 20 percent of the total. Collection agencies are trying to get back the rest. The audit also claims the overpayments led to delays and backlogs for applicants with legitimate claims. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he’s not surprised to hear of the mismanagement.

Audit: Tennessee overpaid $73M for jobless benefits (Memphis Business Journal)

Tennessee made more than $73 million in unnecessary unemployment payments over the past six years, according to a new state audit. The audit blames fraud and errors, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. The state comptroller’s audit also found that some people with legitimate claims to benefits did not receive them on a timely basis because of backlogs within the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which administers the $1.2 billion program.

Really big catch lands Nashville fishermen in hot water (Tennessean/Organ)

Spring brings blooming flowers, warmer weather and more Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officers patrolling state waters for fishing violators. They have already been busy. Four Nashville fishermen were cited this month for being in possession of 360 white bass over the state limit. The limit is 15 white bass per day per licensed fisherman. The quartet were in possession of 420. “This is probably the most serious rod reel poaching case that I’ve seen worked in Tennessee,” said WRA spokesman Doug Markham, who has had his job for 25 years.  

UT business college programs earn top ranking (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

For the third straight year, master’s degree programs offered by the University of Tennessee College of Business Administration are ranked among the best in North America. The dual master’s -degree program in engineering and business administration and the master’s in human resource management were both on Eduniversal’s 2012-2013 ranking of programs worldwide, the university announced. The HR degree program ranked 38th and the engineering-business administration program ranked 40th. 

TN House GOP leader opposes reviving wine bill (Associated Press)

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick says he favors a bill to allow wine to be sold in Tennessee supermarkets and convenience stores, but he opposes efforts to hold a revote in a committee where it narrowly failed. The Chattanooga Republican told reporters on Thursday that reconsidering the vote in the House Local Government Committee would set a bad precedent. McCormick and House Speaker Beth Harwell said they would prefer starting afresh next legislative session in hopes of changing laws that restrict the sale of anything stronger than beer to liquor stores.

GOP Leaders Warn Against Wine-in-Supermarket Revival (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

A deal on wine in supermarkets is still working its way through the state Senate, but the House has been silent since a narrow committee vote killed the bill two weeks ago. While there have been calls for the panel to reconsider, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick says it would be bad precedent “Every time somebody loses a close vote in a committee, they’re going to want to bring it back up if we start doing this,” he said. McCormick says reconsidering a vote should only be done in “extenuating circumstances.”

House GOP leader opposes wine bill redo (Memphis Business Journal)

Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said Thursday he would oppose efforts to revote on expanding wine sales in Tennessee this session, after it failed in a committee earlier this year, The Associated Press reports. A companion bill, which has since been amended to allow Sunday liquor sales, is progressing through the Senate; proponents had hoped the House committee would reconsider its vote this session. McCormick, who supports the effort to allow wine sales in grocery stores, said it would set a bad precedent for other measures that are defeated narrowly.

TN lawmakers seek power to select U.S. Senate nominees (A. Press/Schelzig)

During the last eight U.S. Senate primaries in Tennessee, an average of about 686,000 people have voted in each contest. Under a Republican proposal advancing in the state Legislature, the number of people picking nominees would drop to 132. The bill, set for a state Senate vote on Monday, would shift that nominating power from primary voters to state lawmakers of either party. “This is a way we can actually choose the candidate and make them more responsible,” said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who supports the plan.  

Bill ending U.S. Senate primaries in state has a shot (Times Free-Press/Sher)

A bill taking away Tennesseans’ ability to select U.S. Senate party nominees in primaries and hand the decision-making over to 132 state lawmakers has an even chance or better of passage, Republican state Senate Speaker Ron Ramey says. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, comes up for a state Senate floor vote on Monday. “If you’d asked me that in January, I’d have said no,” Ramsey told reporters this week. “If you ask me now, I think it’s at least 50/50.”

State Lawmakers Require Meningitis Vaccine for College Freshmen (WPLN-Radio)

Almost all incoming freshman will have to get one more vaccination to enroll in Tennessee’s public universities this fall. The immunization will fight bacterial meningitis, a sometimes deadly disease which has been found to spread easily in the close quarters of college dormitories. Mandating the meningitis vaccination had almost unanimous support from state lawmakers in the House and Senate. Representative Craig Fitzugh of Ripley is the Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Rep. Dunn questions legislative pace set by Speaker Ramsey (NS/Humphrey)

Some state legislators of both parties are criticizing the push to end the legislative session quickly, contending the rush has led to confusion and limited vetting of bills by lawmakers working long hours. House Calendar Committee Chairman Bill Dunn of Knoxville has become one of the first Republicans to criticize the rush to adjournment, first in a speech to the House Republican Caucus in which he said some colleagues were left “glassy-eyed” by listening to bill presentations hour after hour.

Lawmakers Cry Whoa Nelly at Lightning Pace (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Leaders of the Tennessee General Assembly set a goal of having one of the shortest legislative sessions in recent memory, wrapping up business by April 19th. But the pace has some rank-and-file Republicans grabbing for the reins. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has been cracking the whip, insisting the legislature’s work will merely fill the time allotted. He adds that creating more new laws isn’t necessarily a good thing. “If the speaker of the senate had to sit in on a committee and study 85 bills and sit there for six hours and try to do his work also, he may have a different view of how it’s going,” says Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), who raised concerns in a House Republican Caucus meeting Thursday.

Memphis leaders: Another Tenn. bill meddles with city affairs (CA/Locker)

State lawmakers passed a bill this week to ban cities and counties from requiring contractors, vendors and other local businesses to pay employees more than what’s required by state or federal law — an act that city officials say targets Memphis. Barring an unexpected veto by Gov. Bill Haslam, the bill will block enforcement of Memphis’s prevailing-wage and living-wage ordinances on all new city contracts and on existing contracts when they are renewed unless federal or state law specifically allows it.

TN child sex abuse numbers rise (Tennessean/Gonzalez)

New statistics showing more Tennessee children suffering repeat sexual abuse surprised state experts Thursday as they prepared for another year of detailed case reviews. The Second Look Commission, created by lawmakers to examine cases of children severely abused two or more times, will examine the cases of 295 children between June 2011 and July 2012, the most recent available snapshot. Of those victims, 71 percent suffered sexual maltreatment. The year before, the number of children suffering repeat sexual abuse was 44 percent.  

Metro, satellite cities reach compromise to avoid action over powers (TN/Garriosn)

Mayor Karl Dean and Davidson County’s satellite cities have reached a compromise that would head off controversial state legislation he feared would gut the concept of a unified, Metro government. In a letter sent to Metro Council members Friday, Metro Department of Law Director Saul Solomon outlined specifics of a four-year “tentative agreement” that clarifies the powers and functions of the county’s five satellite cities. Its approval is pending future votes by the council as well as the commissions of Berry Hill, Belle Meade, Forest Hills, Goodlettsville and Oak Hill.  

Metro reaches agreement with satellite cities, state will drop bill (City Paper/Hale)

Mayor Karl Dean’s administration said it has reached a “tentative agreement” with officials from Davidson County’s satellite cities that preserves “the heart and soul of what makes Metro great.” The agreement was announced in a memo to Metro Council members Friday afternoon. It comes several weeks after the emergence of state legislation pushed by a handful of the smaller cities within Davidson County that would have allowed such towns to provide more of their own government services.

Blackburn again finds herself in middle of political fray (City Paper/Hale)

It is not unusual for Marsha Blackburn to start her day on national television. Take for instance the early morning of Jan. 28, when the Republican congressman — her preferred title, as opposed to congresswoman — from Tennessee’s 7th District, which includes suburbs of Nashville and Memphis, joined MSNBC’s Morning Joe to discuss the budget, the debt and the role of women in business. At one point, host Joe Scarborough suggested that the average citizen just doesn’t care much about the national debt.

Diane Black joins call to limit birthright citizenship (Tennessean/Barton)

Amid all the talk in Congress about immigration, some Republicans continue to want to deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., is one of them. Although birthright citizenship is widely regarded as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, these lawmakers say the language of the amendment has been misinterpreted for 145 years. They say the issue is more important than ever because of the phenomenon of “birth tourism” on the West Coast, as well as undocumented immigrants who have children to make themselves harder to deport.  

Small airports around Memphis brace for tower closings (CA/Jones, Risher)

They’re not Memphis International Airport, but airports in Millington, Olive Branch and Jackson, Tenn., serve a steady stream of small planes, private jets and military aircraft. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over them, however, as the Federal Aviation Administration prepares to pull the plug on contractor-staffed air traffic control towers at 149 airports around the country. Facing tower closures April 21, at Millington, and May 5, at Jackson and Olive Branch, operators are warning of potential flight delays andpossible life threatening safety consequences. 

TVA cited for not testing nuclear parts (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)

Federal regulators have cited TVA with three more apparent violations at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant — this time over thousands of parts the utility purchased that are not documented as nuclear-grade quality. Tennessee Valley Authority officials and engineers then failed to maintain a quality assurance program to test and certify those parts as nuclear grade, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and TVA. Now TVA must hire a contractor and pay for 30 or 40 experts to backtrack at least 6,200 shipments and purchases of different parts — some already installed and some dating back to 1995.

Nashville getting another TV series (Nashville Business Journal)

Nashville will soon be featured in yet another TV series. The TNT cable network has ordered eight episodes of “Nashville Confidential,” a “docudrama that will go behind the scenes in the ‘Country Music Capital of the World,’ ” according to a news release. The show, “centering on some of Nashville’s most compelling power couples,” is set to launch early next year. Music City is currently being featured in ABC’s “Nashville,” currently in its first season.

Jobs gap hits Chattanooga region amid slow recovery (Times Free-Press/Pare)

Hixson resident Dennis Howard says he lost his job last week after working for Bunge Oils for 20 years, but he’s hoping to land work as an assembler for another company in the city. “It’s tough,” Howard, 55, said at a jobs fair. “Especially at my age.” Howard has more than his age going against him. Even though the recession officially ended three years ago, the slow recovery hasn’t come close to catching up on the number of jobs shed then, even as new entrants come into the workforce.

 

OPINION 

Marsha Blackburn: Tennessee can take lead in Medicaid reform (Tennessean)

The people of Tennessee received some welcome news this week when Gov. Bill Haslam announced that he would not pursue efforts to expand Medicaid. This is a fiscally responsible decision, and he should be congratulated for it. Gov. Haslam said during his speech before the legislature on Wednesday that he believes Tennessee can “be a model for what true health care reform looks like, reform that will take significant steps to save the state and the nation from the unsustainable path we are on now.” Ultimately, the Tennessee legislature will have the final say on whether the state expands Medicaid, and every indication shows that key legislative leaders understand the dangers ahead.

Editorial: It’s past time for Scenic Vistas Protection Act to become law (N-S)

For the sixth year in a row Tennessee lawmakers have killed a bill to prohibit coal mining that blasts the tops off of mountains and ridges — known as mountaintop-removal mining. Officially the Scenic Vistas Protection Act was deferred until next year in the House Agriculture Subcommittee. That action on March 20 occurred after a companion bill was killed without a vote in the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee. With the bill scheduled to come up again next year, it would be highly appropriate to appoint a task force to look into the issue and make recommendations for reasonable legislation. 

Ron Hart: STIMULUS MONEY: Where did all those promised projects go? (TFP)

Remember when Obama got his trillion-odd dollars of “stimulus money” which he and the Democrats breathlessly said we needed for “shovel ready” jobs to re-build roads and infrastructure? Please email me if anything of the sort got built in your town. Nothing got built in the cities where I spend time. Roads are bad in Atlanta. I recently drove though Buckhead with its bone-jarring potholes. Folks have to have SUVs there to survive the roads, some with potholes so big that you can bass fish in them after a good rain. When the stimulus bill was proposed, it was made to sound urgent. Politicians said it would bring “rigor” to the economy. It turns out it also brought mortis. So where did all that sweet stimulus money go?

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