May 20 TN News Digest

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

Haslam to highlight bills during ceremonial signings (News-Sentinel/Humphrey)

Gov. Bill Haslam officially signed scores of bills into law last week, ranging from a $32.8 billion state budget to an overhaul of liquor manufacturing laws, and this week he will take part in ceremonial signings on the road to focus attention on selected legislation. On Monday afternoon, the governor will travel to Sloan’s Grocery in Vonore for a ceremonial signing of a bill (HB193) reducing the state sales tax on food from 5.25 percent to 5 percent. The bill was part of the administration’s legislative package this year, given final approval by the Legislature on April 15 and officially signed on May 13.

REDI or not for higher ed: High school juniors get early start on college (J. Sun)

Milan High School junior Timberly Perry wasn’t familiar with the Regional Economic Development Initiative College Access Program before she stepped onto campus at the University of Memphis Lambuth. But Perry walked away with a better feel for what lies ahead after she picks up her diploma in 2014. “I didn’t have to come,” Perry said. “But I wanted to.” Perry was one of 197 high school juniors from Milan and Bradford who had the opportunity to speak with counselors from area colleges and universities.

Flash flooding hits Saltville, closes roads in Smyth, Washington Counties (H-C)

A rainy Sunday afternoon led to flash flooding in downtown Saltville and several closed roads in Smyth and Washington counties, officials said. “The water seems to be receding pretty well,” Smyth County Emergency Management Director Charles Harrington said around 7 p.m. Sunday, about two hours after the hard rains began. “We had two roads flooded and a few businesses in Saltville received flooding.” But, he said, the problem was more of inconvenience and not an emergency situation.

DCS faces challenges over medical maltreatment cases (Tennessean/Rau, Bliss)

Beginning on the day he was born six weeks premature last year, an East Tennessee infant had to fight just to stay alive. Born with an array of heart conditions — a hypoplastic right ventricle, pulmonary atresia and a ventricular septal defect — the baby had a shunt implanted in his heart to regulate the blood flow. Because of his courage and ability to flash a smile even as he battled pneumonia and complications from his heart problems, his grandmother nicknamed the boy “Little Man.” But in early June, the doctors and nurses caring for the infant began to question whether his mother was giving him proper care.

Operation Nighthawk checkpoints target seat belt violations (Tennessean/Qualls)

Drivers in Tennessee may have encountered more nighttime checkpoints over the past month — not aimed at motorists driving under the influence, but for violating the state’s “click it or ticket” law. The new seat belt checkpoint initiative, dubbed Operation Nighthawk, has coincided with a drop in seat belt-related fatalities. “Our numbers of citations are way up this year. I think it’s a 50 or 60 percent increase since 2012,” said Col. Tracy Trott of the Tennessee Highway Patrol. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security confirmed there were 40 unrestrained fatalities from April 1 through May 15 of this year.

Marion County bridge takes shape (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Benton)

The first concrete span of the replacement bridge over the Tennessee River on U.S. Highway 41 in Marion County looks as if it’s stretching to reach the other side. Tennessee Department of Transportation officials say the project is on schedule for 2014 completion, as the last of seven piers is nearly finished. The replacement bridge’s final pier “will be complete this week or next,” TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said. Crews are preparing to set the concrete beams on all the spans this summer, Flynn said.

Corporate, PAC cash left off campaign reports (Chatt. Times Free-Press/Sher)

Fifty-one legislative candidates last year failed to report a total of $145,875 in contributions from political action committees and corporations, according to a state watchdog agency’s check of campaign finance filings. Among them were two top House leaders. One, Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, sponsored a bill this year that critics charged would weaken current law by exempting corporations from having to report contributions. Another was one of the fiercest opponents of Casada’s bill, Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.

Murfreesboro debates use of traffic cameras (Associated Press)

A group in Murfreesboro has started a petition to end the use of red-light cameras, but police say the traffic enforcement measure has improved safety. Middle Tennessee State University student Axl David, who heads Citizens Against Photo Enforcement, says he plans to submit the petition to City Council after 1,000 people sign it. The group complains that the city uses the cameras to “shake down motorists for violations.” David says a majority of tickets are issued for split-second violations. “Our motivation is to get rid of the cameras,” David said. Police, however, have presented arguments for expanding the cameras.

Knoxville chips away at convention center debt (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Vines)

The city of Knoxville’s proposed 2013-14 fiscal budget shows the debt on the Knoxville Convention Center continues to decline, with final a payment still scheduled in 19 years. The debt at the end of the current fiscal year ending June 30 will be $123.5 million. In next year’s proposed budget, total principal and interest payments equal $9.4 million, city officials said. Operating costs for the center alone are budgeted at $5.3 million. The debt is paid for by a variety of sources, including “captured” state sales taxes that were established in special state legislation that provided the financing mechanism for the center in 1998.

Memphis’ capital budget includes road paving, sewers, planetariums (CA/Sells)

The Memphis City Council has so far heard the parts of the budget that run the city — salaries, benefits and contracted services. On Tuesday, council members will review the city’s capital budget, the part that deals with tangible stuff like roads, sewers, ambulances, police cars and buildings. Mayor A C Wharton’s proposed capital budget is $165.4 million this year. It will be paid for with $60.7 million in bonds, $48.8 million in federal and state grants and $35 million will come from sewer funds. The rest will come from other, local sources, according to the budget proposal.

Commissioners to receive $299.9M county school budget (Daily News Journal)

Rutherford County Schools officials are hoping for smooth sailing for a proposed $299.9 million budget plan as they head into a meeting with county commissioners Tuesday. The Rutherford County School Board will present its spending plan at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday during a meeting with the Rutherford County Commission’s Budget and Health and Education committees. Rutherford County Commissioner Jeff Jordan, a retired educator who chairs the Health and Education Committee, called the school system’s spending plan “a reasonable request.”

Smokies add beetles, canopy cages in fight against hemlock adelgid (NS/Simmons)

At the eastern end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, not far from Cosby, Tenn., are three 25-foot-tall hemlock trees enveloped in nylon that appear out of nowhere like circus tents in the middle of the forest. They’re called canopy cages. Six years ago the University of Tennessee and the U.S. Forest Service tested them at Blackberry Farm in Blount County, and now they’re being employed in the Smokies to help control the hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny, nonnative insect pest that has been killing the park’s hemlocks for more than a decade.

States Bank On Online Sales Tax (Wall Street Journal)

Congress hasn’t yet agreed to end tax-free shopping on the Internet, but some states already are planning how they’ll spend the money. Maryland and Virginia both passed transportation bills that counted on the revenue to avoid implementing future state gas-tax increases, which would kick in if Congress turns down the Internet-sales tax bill. In Missouri, residents could see a half-percentage-point cut on their personal income taxes if Congress approves it. And in the nation’s capital, two city council members recently suggested spending the estimated $49 million the District of Columbia would collect from online-sales taxes in 2014 on housing for the homeless.

Employers Eye Bare-Bones Health Plans Under New Law (Wall Street Journal)

Employers are increasingly recognizing they may be able to avoid certain penalties under the federal health law by offering very limited plans that can lack key benefits such as hospital coverage. Benefits advisers and insurance brokers—bucking a commonly held expectation that the law would broadly enrich benefits—are pitching these low-benefit plans around the country. They cover minimal requirements such as preventive services, but often little more. Some of the plans wouldn’t cover surgery, X-rays or prenatal care at all. Others will be paired with limited packages to cover additional services, for instance, $100 a day for a hospital visit.  

Music City Center grand opening brings acclaim (Tennessean/DeVille)

Thousands visit ‘phenomenal’ $585M facility Music City Center opened to much fanfare Sunday as thousands came to get a glimpse of downtown’s newest landmark. Visitors of all ages flocked to the center for grand opening events that included a free open house, tours and live music throughout the building as well as children’s activities in the exhibit hall. Activities wrapped up with music on the plaza featuring Phil Vassar and 10 Out of Tenn. City officials estimate more than 15,000 people attended the festivities.

Chattanooga to get more hotel rooms (Associated Press)

The Chattanooga market will add hundreds of hotel rooms in the coming year, following four years of booming revenues for its hotel industry. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports at least 728 hotel rooms under construction are to be added this year and next, citing Smith Travel Research. That amounts to an increase of about 7.5 percent in the supply of rooms in the market. “That’s a pretty stiff add,” said Bobby Bowers, senior vice president of operations at Smith Travel Research. That extra supply comes amid expectations for a busy summer tourism season but on the heels of a drop in demand so far this year.  

 

OPINION 

Editorial: Partnership needs support to attract low-fare carriers (News-Sentinel)

A regional public-private partnership aimed at bringing sustainable low-fare airline service to McGhee Tyson Airport took off last week, fueled by $650,000 in pledges. If successful, the effort should help boost tourism and aid in attracting and retaining businesses that rely on air travel. Similar regional approaches have paid off recently in Greenville and Charleston, S.C., considered market peers to McGhee Tyson, with the addition of carriers JetBlue and Southwest Airlines, according to the Knoxville Chamber. The mayors of Knoxville and Knox County are solidly behind the initiative.

Editorial: Eavesdropping on Internet Communications (New York Times)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a new plan to intercept Internet messages, calls and video chats. Instead of requiring companies like Skype and Google to build surveillance capabilities into their services as it suggested in 2010, the F.B.I. now proposes fining companies that fail to comply with court-ordered wiretaps. The new approach has met less opposition from other agencies, like the Commerce Department, than the earlier plan, which went nowhere because some officials worried that it would hurt innovation by imposing expensive and technically difficult requirements on start-up Internet-based communication services.  

Columnist: How to Legalize Pot (New York Times)

THE first time I talked to Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at U.C.L.A., was in 2002, and he explained why legalization of marijuana was a bad idea. Sure, he said, the government should remove penalties for possession, use and cultivation of small amounts. He did not favor making outlaws of people for enjoying a drug that is less injurious than alcohol or tobacco. But he worried that a robust commercial marketplace would inevitably lead to much more consumption. You don’t have to be a prohibitionist to recognize that pot, especially in adolescents and very heavy users, can seriously mess with your brain.