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May 22 TN News Digest

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

Haslam Named Co-chair of Nat’l Governor’s Assoc. Health Care Task Force (TNR)

As lawmakers at both state and federal levels of government look for ways to improve the quality of health care and reduce the costs of public programs, governors are developing innovative Medicaid programs and must retain flexibility to implement these measures. To assist in these efforts, the National Governors Association (NGA) today announced the members of a new Health Care Sustainability Task Force (Task Force). Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will serve as co-chairs of the Task Force.

Gov. Haslam named to governors task force on health care (Tennessean/Sisk)

Gov. Bill Haslam has been named co-chair of a National Governors Association task force on health care sustainability, an appointment that comes as the Tennessee Republican tries to hammer out a deal with the federal government on Medicaid expansion. The NGA tapped Haslam and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, to lead the group studying “innovative Medicaid programs.” Haslam is one of several governors who have expressed interest in expanding Medicaid by using federal funds to buy private coverage for the uninsured.

Haslam Signs Bill Criminalizing Abandonment of Mentally Disabled (TN Report)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today held a ceremonial bill signing of “Lynn’s Law,” or HB 531/SB 675, legislation allowing district attorneys to prosecute an individual who knowingly abandons a person with an intellectual disability. This bill makes it illegal for a person who has assumed responsibility for and is knowledgeable of another’s inability to care for him or herself to abandon that person. The law adds abandonment to the current statute that covers abuse, neglect or exploitation of an adult person or persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

‘Lynn’s Law’ signed into effect by Haslam (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Arnold)

It was nearly a year ago that a developmentally disabled 19-year-old was abandoned in a Caryville bar by her mother, hundreds of miles from their Illinois home. On Tuesday, state officials vowed to take steps to prevent Lynn Cameron’s experience from recurring. Gov. Bill Haslam signed “Lynn’s Law” into effect at the Caryville City Hall, making it a felony to knowingly abandon an intellectually disabled person. “Unfortunately, these things happen,” Haslam said after signing the bill into law.

Haslam Appoints New Heads to DCS, DIDD (TN Report)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced Debra Payne as the new commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) as Jim Henry becomes the permanent commissioner at the Department of Children’s Services (DCS). Payne currently serves as deputy commissioner of DIDD and Henry as the interim commissioner of DCS. “These two departments handle some of the state’s most difficult work concerning our most vulnerable citizens,” Haslam said.

Haslam names interim chief Henry to permanent DCS position (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam has named interim Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry to fill the post permanently. Henry was the commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities before he was appointed to Children’s Services upon the resignation of Kate O’Day in February. O’Day resigned while under fire for problems that included failure to keep track of how many of the children the department was supposed to be helping had died. Taking over the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities department will be Debra Payne, who is currently a deputy commissioner there.

Gov. Haslam confirms Jim Henry as permanent DCS commissioner (TN/Sisk)

Jim Henry, named as the temporary head of the troubled Department of Children’s Services in February, will now assume the role permanently, Gov. Bill Haslam announced Tuesday. Henry had held dual roles as interim commissioner of DCS and commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities since the abrupt resignation of former DCS chief Kate O’Day on Feb. 5 amid a growing series of controversies at the state’s child welfare agency. Replacing Henry at DIDD is Debra Payne, currently deputy commissioner at the agency.

Jim Henry named head of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (TFP)

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday named Jim Henry as the permanent head of the state’s troubled Department of Children’s Services. Henry has been working as acting commissioner after the abrupt departure in February of then-Commissioner Kate O’Day, whose department has been engulfed in controversies over inadequate protections for children, children’s deaths and questions about how investigations have been handled. Henry, a former state lawmaker, already was commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and has been holding down a dual role at Children’s Services as well as Intellectual and Development Disabilities, working to bring order back to DCS operations.

Interim DCS Chief Made Permanent (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The man appointed to temporarily head the embattled Department of Children’s Services will be there a while longer. Tuesday Governor Bill Haslam announced Jim Henry will become the permanent DCS commissioner. In his few months at the helm, Henry has been widely praised by Democrats and child advocates for listening to their concerns and improving record keeping. At age 67, Henry has said he’ll help the governor any way he can. “When he asks me to do something, I try to do it. I think I’ve got the energy and a little bit of knowhow.”

Haslam says coal keeps businesses in Tennessee running (Herald-Courier)

Coal keeps the businesses in Tennessee running, Gov. Bill Haslam told a group of coal officials and contractors here Tuesday afternoon. “We have good tax rates and a good regulatory environment, but when competing for jobs one of the biggest [points I emphasize] is the low energy rate,” he said during the second day of the annual Eastern Coal Council convention, held this year at MeadowView Convention Center in Kingsport. He pointed to Eastman Chemical Co., which employs thousands in Kingsport and uses energy to make hundreds of products.

Haslam sells Tenn. to coal executives in Kingsport (Times-News)

Tennessee doesn’t have many coal mining jobs, but Gov. Bill Haslam was selling the state to a room full of coal executives Tuesday. “We’re not blessed with quite as much coal or as much oil or natural gas as other folks are, but the little we have is an important part of our economy,” Haslam, a Republican, told members of the Eastern Coal Council on the final day of their annual conference. “We think it’s about 17,000 (energy sector) jobs in Tennessee…It enables us to be competitive with other folks in attracting industry who want low-cost reliable power.”

New Cut to TN’s Food-Tax Signed (TN Report)

Gov. Bill Haslam stopped off Monday at a Monroe County family-owned market and hardware store and put ink to a another reduction in the state’s food tax. Flanked by a number of East Tennessee Republican state lawmakers, the governor told a crowd of about two dozen locals that any tax cut on groceries benefits “all Tennesseans.” Last year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed an initial reduction on the state’s portion of the sales tax on groceries, lowering the rate from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent.

Haslam signs food tax reduction into law (Memphis Business Journal)

Monday Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed legislation to reduce the state sales tax on groceries .25 percent at a ceremony at Sloan’s Grocery in Vonore, Tenn. The state portion of the sales tax on groceries was 5.25 percent, now it is 5 percent. “We’re lowering taxes and balancing the state budget by managing conservatively, making strategic investments in our priorities and finding new ways to make government more efficient and effective,” Haslam said. The bill was introduced by the governor.

Haslam signs Food Tax Reduction Bill at Monroe County Grocery (C. Online)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam today traveled to Monroe County to sign legislation to reduce the state portion of the sales tax on groceries from 5.25 percent to 5 percent. Haslam held a ceremonial bill signing at Sloan’s Grocery in Vonore, Tennessee. In 2012, the General Assembly passed and the governor signed the first step in reducing the state portion of the sales tax on groceries, lowering the rate from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent. “We’re lowering taxes and balancing the state budget by managing conservatively, making strategic investments in our priorities and finding new ways to make government more efficient and effective,” Haslam said.

Haslam honored by Vietnam veterans during Clarksville visit (Leaf Chronicle)

Governor Bill Haslam was honored with a presentation flag during his visit to Clarksville on Friday, May 17, to take part in the groundbreaking for the new Montgomery County Tennessee State Veterans Home. The flag, flown over the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 17, 2011, at the request of Tenn. 7th District Congressman Marsha Blackburn, was given to Haslam by Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club representative A.J. Perrone on behalf of Haslam’s efforts to support recognition of Tennessee POW/MIAs.

VU poll: Support for Medicaid increases, Haslam’s approval steady (CP/Zelinski)

Support is on the uptick for expanding Medicaid and approval for the governor is holding steady despite upheaval in his administration over how child abuse cases are handled, according to a recent poll. Meanwhile, two-thirds of respondents said they are in favor of some sort of school voucher program, according to the Vanderbilt University poll conducted between May 6 and 13…Gov. Bill Haslam enjoys a 63 percent approval rating, down from 68 percent in Vanderbilt’s December poll, although the rating falls within the margin of error and is not statistically significant, said Geer.

Vanderbilt poll: Tennesseans oppose online tax (Associated Press/Schelzig)

A majority of Tennesseans oppose the state enforcing online sales taxes, though respondents were split on whether the current system is fair to local businesses, according to a Vanderbilt University poll released Tuesday. The survey also found that 60 percent support expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law, up nine percentage points from the last time the school polled on the issue in December. Gov. Bill Haslam announced in March that he would not accept $1.4 billion in federal money to cover about 140,000 of Tennessee’s nearly 1 million uninsured.

VU Poll: Support Growing For Medicaid Expansion In Tennessee (WPLN-Radio)

If Governor Bill Haslam were simply to go with what a majority of Tennesseans want, he would expand the state’s Medicaid program as envisioned in the Affordable Care Act. A Vanderbilt poll finds support has grown to 60 percent of respondents, up from less than half in December. “The data are compelling and – in this case – worth discussing,” says political science professor John Geer. Divided by party, a slim majority of Republicans still oppose Medicaid expansion, but a smaller number than just a few months ago.

Vanderbilt poll finds growing support for same-sex marriage (Tennessean/Sisk)

About half of Tennesseans support legal recognition of same-sex couples, an apparent shift in their views as states across the country have moved toward allowing gay marriage…. Vanderbilt also found that Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander remain popular 15 months before the Republican primary and 18 months before the 2014 general election, when both are up for re-election. Haslam’s approval rating among registered voters stands at 63 percent, despite a run of coverage that has included resignations by two top administrators and a federal probe into his family’s chain of truck stops.

TennCare expansion backed by most voters (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)

The majority of Tennesseans favoring an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program is now 60 percent, but most still don’t like the federal law that allows it, according to a new Vanderbilt University poll. The survey of 813 registered voters also found that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s job approval rating remains high at 63 percent despite turmoil over his administration’s handling of child abuse cases. Another finding: depending on how the question is asked, Tennesseans are conflicted on the issue of the state being able to collect sales taxes for online purchases.

Vanderbilt University Poll: Tennesseans favor Medicaid expansion (CA/Locker)

About 60 percent of Tennesseans support expanding Medicaid to cover more working Tennesseans without health insurance, up from 51 percent last December, according to the new statewide Vanderbilt Poll. Meanwhile, about 66 percent favor some type of program allowing taxpayer money for a voucher program at private schools. But that number is divided between 35 percent who favor limiting vouchers to low-income students in low-performing schools and 31 percent who favor an unlimited program in which vouchers are available to any student.

Huffman joins other ‘chiefs’ in letter supporting Common Core (TN/Fingeroot)

Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and education officials from several other states released an open letter this morning supporting the new Common Core standards and rejecting any call to delay the accompanying testing. The officials, all members of the Chiefs for Change education reform coalition, addressed their letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, but it also was released to the media. “As state education chiefs, we know firsthand how critical preserving and strengthening accountability is to raising the quality of our schools,” the letter stated.

DCS caseworker faulted by judge wasn’t disciplined (Tennessean/Wadhwani)

Caseworker faulted by judge still investigating child abuse claims A Department of Children’s Services caseworker who failed to follow agency guidelines admitted backdating paperwork after a teen’s death and provided testimony during a wrongful-death trial in 2012 that a judge called not very credible was never disciplined. The caseworker continues to investigate child abuse claims for the state agency, a review of DCS personnel files found. In November, DCS was found liable in the 2009 West Tennessee shooting deaths of Stevie Noelle Milburn, 15, and Todd Randolph, 46.

Holly Bobo’s family slams TBI over official’s tweet (Tennessean/Haas)

They accuse agency of ignoring their pain The family of missing Tennessean Holly Bobo on Tuesday accused the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation of ignoring their pain after what they call a “very inappropriate, very unprofessional” tweet by the agency’s spokeswoman. The tweet, by TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm, referred to a story on Saturday detailing the TBI’s criticism of a Brentwood nonprofit’s involvement in the investigation and WSMV-Channel 4 reports on the group’s findings. Helm posted a picture on Twitter showing The Tennessean’s story about the controversy with the caption, “Great way to start off my day and the coffee is brewing.”

State comptroller Memphis debt warning prompts City Council moves (CA/Sells)

The Memphis City Council accepted a set of corrective financial measures from the state comptroller Tuesday but not before asking Mayor A C Wharton to bring bold ideas to overhaul the administration’s proposed budget. A Monday letter from State Comptroller Justin P. Wilson warned Memphis officials about its fiscal condition, especially about a debt refinancing plan to defer some debt to about 2025. Wilson’s report ordered several corrective measures to receive his approval. Some steps are technical but the city needs to address its fiscal problems of low fund reserves, a declining tax base and budgetary imbalance, Wilson said.

Critical State Report Remakes City Budget (Memphis Daily News)

An April report from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury critical of city finances threw the budget season at City Hall into remake mode Tuesday, May 21. The bottom line for the budget is a remediation plan that will increase the city’s long term debt, force the city to use its reserves, and take reserves below the 10 percent level considered key with bond-rating agencies. “We were already going to have a bad budget year,” said council member Shea Flinn as he projected total debt of $63 million by 2019 on the debt from the fix.

Shelby County Tax Rate Endgame Takes Shape (Memphis Daily News)

To some it’s a calculation with no binding effect on what is to come. To others on the Shelby County Commission it is an indication that a county property tax increase is about to be railroaded through. The certified county property tax rate of $4.32 approved Monday, May 20, by the commission is an indication that the annual county budget season is reaching its end game. The commission’s debate over the action and the 8-3 vote is an indication of the discussion to come once the commission moves to set the Shelby County property tax rate next month.

Prosecutors: Lowe paid employees who didn’t work (News-Sentinel/Donila)

Ex-Knox County Trustee Mike Lowe and two of his former aides participated in a four-year “continuous larcenous scheme” in which the employees earned salaries and vacation time yet never actually showed up for work to do their jobs, according to documents recently submitted by prosecutors. The “Bill of Particulars,” filed in Knox County Criminal Court, mark the first time the state has said publicly what local politicos and officials have long suspected: Lowe kept two so-called ghost employees on the payroll, one of whom allegedly bilked taxpayers out of almost $200,000.

Nashville Tea Party Groups Rally To Protest IRS (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Around a hundred conservative activists protested in Nashville Tuesday over revelations the Internal Revenue Service singled out tea-party groups for extra scrutiny. Similar protests took place in Chattanooga and cities across the country. The event was largely symbolic, with the federal courthouse substituting for the IRS. In terms of a show of force, turnout was not bad, albeit a far cry from a few years ago, when a thousand or more filled legislative plaza to protest taxes and the healthcare overhaul.

Chattanooga Tea Party rallies against IRS (Times Free-Press/Brogdon)

Amid a cluster of nearly 50 local Tea Partyers holding handwritten signs emblazoned with anti-income tax and Libertarian slogans Tuesday, Barry Barsoumian held a sheet of white posterboard bearing a simple question in black marker: “Is this still America?” Barsoumian, 54, came to the United States in 1977. His family was fleeing Armenia, at the time part of the Soviet Union. “My father brought me to this country, because he was very anti-communist,” Barsoumian said Tuesday at a local Tea Party rally in front of the Chattanooga branch of the Internal Revenue Service on Uptain Road.

Knoxville Tea Party supporters protest IRS (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Lakin)

A lunchtime protest Tuesday outside the Knoxville office of the IRS drew about two dozen people of all ages. Members of the Knoxville Tea Party organized the rally at the steps of the John J. Duncan Federal Building on Locust Street, which houses the agency’s local office. The rally was intended as a protest against recent revelations of the IRS scrutiny of some conservative groups but was open to all comers, said James Arthur, vice chair of the Knoxville Tea Party. “The government is actively suppressing free speech,” Arthur said.

House vote sends Cumberland River fishing bill to Obama (Tennessean/Gang)

Congress took another step Tuesday toward blocking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from putting in place boating and fishing restrictions below Cumberland River dams. Following the Senate’s action last week, the House approved a measure preventing the Corps from following through on its plan for the next two years. When the Corps releases water from the 10 dams it operates on the Cumberland and its tributaries, the water immediately below becomes turbulent. Since last year, the Corps has worked on a plan to prohibit boats and anglers from getting too close, citing safety as its top priority.

Carr Adds Big Name Manager to Congressional Campaign (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

State Rep. Joe Carr has signed on a high profile campaign manager in his bid to unseat Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais. The primary race is heating up more than a year out from Election Day. Chip Saltsman is a guy Republicans want on their team. He led Mike Huckabee’s run for president. He’s worked on the campaigns of both of Tennessee’s senators and most recently helped put Chattanooga’s congressman in office. Carr says Saltsman brings “firepower and experience” to the campaign.

Supreme Court case similar to Hamilton County prayer lawsuit (TFP/Brogdon)

Local attorneys expect the U.S. Supreme Court to give a final “amen” to prayers in public meetings after the high court agreed Monday to hear a New York case. Whether that will be an expression of assent or a pronounced ending for government prayer is yet to be seen. Either way, attorneys Robin Flores and Steve Duggins say the outcome of the case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, will ultimately decide Hamilton County’s own prayer lawsuit. Flores is representing Thomas Coleman and Brandon Jones, who filed a federal suit in June 2012 to stop prayers before Hamilton County Commission meetings. Coleman and Jones say the prayers, which are majority Christian, blur the line between church and state.

Electronic Health Data Gaining Favor (Wall Street Journal)

More than half of U.S. doctors have switched to electronic health records and are using them to manage patients’ basic medical information and prescriptions, according to federal data set to be released Wednesday. The Department of Health and Human Services says it has reached a tipping point as it seeks to steer medical providers away from paper records. Advocates for electronic health records say they have the potential to make medical care safer and more efficient. In 2015, the federal government will start penalizing providers that haven’t begun using electronic health records in reimbursements they get for treating patients.

Midstate’s Technology Job Market Maintaining Strength (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Demand for tech workers in Middle Tennessee is holding steady, according to a new report from the Nashville Technology Council. The group looked at public job listings around the area. It found almost 840 open positions were advertised in the first quarter of the year. That’s basically the same as its findings for the same period last year. Many of the jobs are in the health care sector. 

Number of tech job openings not falling in Middle Tennessee, report shows (NBJ)

Technology-related job openings in the first quarter were consistent with previous quarters, according to a Nashville Technology Council’s report. There were 838 technology-related jobs advertised in the Middle Tennessee area in the first three months of the year, compared to 836 in the last quarter of 2012. In Tennessee, 1,225 tech jobs were advertised, according to the report. Filling tech jobs has been an ongoing focus for the tech council and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Rockwood plant to half its workforce (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Fowler)

Toho Tenax closing carbon fiber line He cautioned that a company downturn, or worse, loomed on the horizon. Hamstrung by a hefty tariff that he said didn’t make sense, Toho Tenax America Inc. president Rob Klawonn recently warned that his company could go out of business. While that isn’t occurring, Toho Tenax is slashing its work force in half and closing a production line, Klawonn said. By Sept. 30, 65 employees will be out of work, he said. The company is located in a 100,000-square-foot building in the Roane County Industrial Park.

Nashville’s new convention center sets challenge for Memphis (C. Appeal/Locker)

After nine years of discussion, controversy, planning and construction, Nashville’s mammoth, gleaming new $585 million convention center opened with two days of public events and concerts Sunday and Monday. The new Music City Center is three times bigger than the city’s existing convention center, which opened in 1987, and nearly 3½ times bigger than the Memphis Cook Convention Center that opened in 1974. An 800-room Omni Nashville Hotel under construction next door will open this fall and has already booked 250,000 room nights through conventions and meetings in the years ahead.

TN schools weigh cost vs. risk of storm safe rooms (Tennessean/Hall, Gross)

Beside Joplin’s temporary high school sits a field of concrete boxes with steel doors — bunkers trusted to guard students against 200-plus-mph winds like those that ripped their Missouri school apart two years ago today. At the new Joplin High, a 16,000-square-foot music room will serve as a better version of the same thing. After tornadoes leveled the same school twice — the first time in 1971 — district leaders accelerated plans to include safe rooms in all new school construction, Superintendent C.J. Huff said.

Memphis-Shelby school board leaning toward maintaining dress codes (CA/Kelley)

A proposal calling for no immediate change in how students dress in Memphis and Shelby County Schools generated a lively debate among unified school board members Tuesday night, but appeared to have considerable support on the 23-member body. The proposal, which could be approved by the board at its monthly business meeting next Tuesday, calls for a process under which schools could change to a more or less restrictive policy, on an individual school basis and with parental input, in 2014-15.

Suburbs Return School Districts to Ballot (Memphis Daily News)

As three of Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities locked in July 16 referendums on forming municipal school districts, there were indications of renewed discussions between the suburban leaders and Shelby County Commissioners on the terms of forming those districts. Aldermen in Millington, Arlington and Collierville gave final approval Monday, May 20, to referendum ordinances that would put ballot questions on the formation of the school districts to voters. Lakeland commissioners were expected to take the same action toward a July 16 referendum at a meeting Tuesday, with Bartlett and Germantown aldermen following on Thursday.

Rutherford County school budget passes first hurdle (Daily News Journal)

Rutherford County Schools Tuesday night cleared the first hurdle in the process of having its $299 million budget for fiscal 2014 approved, thanks to a 6-1 vote by the County Commission’s Health and Education Committee. The budget is $19.77 million more than the school system’s current plan. Its adoption would require a 4-cent increase on the county’s property tax rate of $2.4652 per $100 of assessed value. The school system’s proposed budget includes 131.8 new positions, with 62.1 designated for Stewarts Creek High, which opens in August in Smyrna.

Oklahoma: Search for survivors of massive tornado nearly complete (AP)

Helmeted rescue workers raced Tuesday to complete the search for survivors and the dead in the Oklahoma City suburb where a mammoth tornado destroyed countless homes, cleared lots down to bare red earth and claimed 24 lives, including those of nine children. Scientists concluded the storm was a rare and extraordinarily powerful type of twister known as an EF5, ranking it at the top of the scale used to measure tornado strength. Those twisters are capable of lifting reinforced buildings off the ground, hurling cars like missiles and stripping trees completely free of bark.

 

OPINION 

Frank Munger: Uranium Processing Facility still trying to catch up (News-Sentinel)

The designers of the Uranium Processing Facility are almost back to where they once were. According to Steven Wyatt, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the redesign of the multibillion-dollar UPF — one of the biggest government projects in the offing — is now about 70 percent completed. That reflects some progress since the big design effort was restarted last August. But it’s not quite back to where the original design was (75 percent) when it got scrapped because it wasn’t big enough to accommodate all the equipment and operational space needed for the uranium work at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge.

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