June 7 TN News Digest

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

Haslam stays above fray, political land mines (City Paper/Zelinski)

Gov. Bill Haslam appears to have the same uncanny ability to avoid lasting political controversies as the president whose pictures used to occupy the office at the governor’s residence. About a year into his governorship, Haslam still had pictures of President Bill Clinton displayed in his rarely used home office, likely relics from his Democratic predecessor Phil Bredesen, hinting at tales of past governor’s bonds with the former president. The Clinton pictures have since been put away, but Haslam has picked up the Teflon-like qualities of that president (whose approval ratings stayed high even after a Republican-led impeachment in the U.S. House).

Survey: 3 in 4 Tennesseans favor Common Core standards (News-Sentinel/McCoy)

A poll conducted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, found there is strong support for the implementation of the state’s Common Core State Standards and that awareness of the new standards continues to grow. Last school year, districts across Tennessee began implementing the standards, which are a more rigorous and detailed way of teaching to help students be better prepared for college and the workforce. Forty-six states have adopted the new standards.

Initiative warns about deceptive travel promoters (Associated Press)

Tennessee is participating in a national law enforcement initiative to warn consumers about deceptive travel promoters and timeshare resellers. The initiative is coordinated by the Federal Trade Commission and state Attorney General Bob Cooper announced Tennessee’s participation this week. Among the allegations are that some timeshare and vacation club companies are using misleading sales tactics to induce consumers into purchasing programs that have high maintenance fees, poor travel date and destination selection, and hidden costs.

DCS puts $34,000 price on new files (Tennessean/Wadhwani)

The Department of Children’s Services said this week that it will charge an estimated $34,952 to produce public records of children who died or nearly died during the past 11 months after having some contact with the child welfare agency. It is the latest five-figure price tag DCS has attached to releasing records and comes as part of an ongoing legal battle between the agency and a coalition of the state’s news organizations. Led by The Tennessean, the coalition filed suit against DCS in December. The newspaper and DCS return to court today.

Meningitis outbreak: Drugs from TN pharmacy tied to illnesses (TN/Wilemon)

Both bacterial and fungal contaminants have been detected in unopened vials of drugs made by Main Street Family Pharmacy, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Thursday, providing the first direct evidence the Newbern, Tenn., pharmacy is responsible for a new outbreak involving a widely used steroid medication. So far, methylprednisolone acetate from the pharmacy has sickened 24 people in Illinois, North Carolina, Florida and Arkansas. This is the same medicine previously made by Massachusetts-based New England Compounding Center that has sickened 745 people in the United States, with 58 deaths.

Niceley seeks to lower grocery tax through Internet tax revenue (NS/Humphrey)

State Sen. Frank Niceley has filed legislation that would use any new state revenue from out-of-state retailers to lower the current sales tax on groceries. Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, filed the bill, SB1424, on Tuesday for consideration during the 2014 legislative session that begins in January. In an interview, Niceley said he adamantly opposes legislation pending in Congress that would authorize states to collect sales taxes from their citizens buying products over the Internet or via mail order from companies located in other states.

Lawmakers, MADD Tout New Ignition Interlock Law (TN Report)

Members of Tennessee’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter were on Capitol Hill Tuesday to celebrate a new law that greatly expands the use of ignition interlock devices in the state. The legislation, House Bill 353, is set to go into effect on July 1 and will make Tennessee the 18th state in the U.S. to require anyone convicted of a drunk-driving offense with a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent or higher to use an interlock ignition system in their vehicle. Once installed, the breathalyzer system confirms the driver’s blood-alcohol is below the legal limit before allowing operation of the vehicle.

State Senate education committee to review Common Core standards (CP/Zelinski)

State lawmakers will review new Common Core education standards teachers are using in Tennessee classrooms in light of recent criticism of the system from conservatives. The state Senate Education Committee “will hear from critics from all ends of the political spectrum,” plus gather testimony from proponents and state education officials by this fall, read the release from committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham Thursday. “These are fact-finding meetings,” Gresham said in a news release. “We will look at all the factors as we review how this program is serving our students and helping us reach our academic goals.”

Metro seeks way to keep election services downtown (Tennessean/Cass)

Metro officials have worked out a plan so voters and candidates can continue to register to vote and qualify for elections at a city building downtown, though most of the Davidson County Election Commission’s staff would still move to Murfreesboro Road. Doug Sloan, deputy director of the Metro Planning Department, said the city has guaranteed the election commission space at the Metro Office Building, 800 Second Ave. S., its current headquarters, for voter registration and other direct services to voters and candidates.

Federal monitor: Detainees’ attorneys receive ‘woefully low’ support (CA/Warren)

A federal monitor hired to oversee reforms at Shelby County Juvenile Court said she’s observed improvement but is still concerned about deficiencies in a “momentous” area — the transfer of minors to adult court. Sandra Simkins, hired as a national expert on due process rights, pointed to challenges faced by defense attorneys — including untimely access to their clients’ files and only one investigator shared by 52 attorneys, according to a copy of her report released Thursday.

Corker Says He’s A Concerned Verizon Customer (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker says he’s a Verizon customer, and he’s not so sure he wants the National Security Agency keeping tabs on his call history. “The fact that all of our calls are being gathered in that way – ordinary citizens throughout America – to me is troubling. And there may be some explanation, but we all as citizens are owed that.” Corker, who is the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, penned a letter to President Obama asking for an explanation by Monday – even if behind closed doors – of how the information is useful for national security. However, some in the GOP have come to defend the White House. Republican Lindsey Graham says he’s “glad” the NSA is collecting call records, so long as it’s watching out for Islamic extremists. 

Greater Chattanooga area senators angry over data gathering (TFP/Carroll)

Tri-state U.S. senators on Thursday reacted with outrage to reports that the National Security Agency confiscates millions of Verizon phone records each day. But through their own votes, those same senators helped the NSA obtain the records. Several lawmakers appeared to be caught off-guard at the connection, with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., telling reporters he “never voted intentionally” for any bill that would allow the government to review “every phone call of every citizen of the country.”

U.S. Collects Vast Data Trove (Wall Street Journal)

The National Security Agency’s monitoring of Americans includes customer records from the three major phone networks as well as emails and Web searches, and the agency also has cataloged credit-card transactions, said people familiar with the agency’s activities. The disclosure this week of an order by a secret U.S. court for Verizon Communications Inc.’s VZ +3.46% phone records set off the latest public discussion of the program. But people familiar with the NSA’s operations said the initiative also encompasses phone-call data from AT&T Inc. T +1.56% and Sprint Nextel Corp., S +1.94% records from Internet-service providers and purchase information from credit-card providers.

Alexander’s bill would get rid of strings on schools’ federal funding (TN/Barton)

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander proposed legislation Thursday designed to remove the federal government from deciding whether local schools are succeeding or failing. “Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education has become so congested with federal mandates that it has become, in effect, a national school board,” Alexander said in introducing the bill “The best way to help 50 million children in 100,000 public schools learn what they need to know and be able to do is to fix that responsibility squarely where it belongs — on parents, teachers, communities and states.”

Tennessee Educators Push for Immigration Reform (Associated Press)

Twenty-one leaders of Tennessee’s colleges and universities have sent a letter to the state’s two U.S. senators urging their support for immigration reform that will allow more graduates to remain in the country after they finish their education. The letter dated Wednesday asks Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker to back a bi-partisan plan that would ensure foreign-born students educated in U.S. universities will have a clear path to work in this country after graduation.

Tennessee hospitals coping with readmission reduction mandate (Nashville Post)

Health care providers are coping with hospital readmission penalties as the list of offending conditions is set to rise. Those fines, assessed in the form of fewer Medicare dollars reimbursed to providers (mainly hospitals), are applicable to facilities that readmit patients with recurring problems within 30 days of original discharge. “The way it’s set up now, we can learn while the penalties are lower and establish systems and processes that directly deal with readmissions,” said David McClure, senior vice president for finance and Medicare for the Nashville-based Tennessee Hospital Association.

Planners Expect Glitches in Health-Exchange Sites (Wall Street Journal)

Teams of technology experts are racing to finish building government websites that will allow people to shop and sign up for health insurance this October. People involved in the effort say to expect some problems, at least initially. The functioning of the websites—which will enable people without health insurance to enroll in plans offered through a federal or state insurance exchange—will play a major role in determining whether the Affordable Care Act is deemed a success or failure, since the 2010 law’s prime objective was to bring coverage to those who lack it.

States Use Connections to Boost China Exports (Stateline)

One of every four rows of soybeans harvested in Iowa goes to China. That’s the kind of export business a lot of other states are trying to cultivate with one of the world’s largest markets. “We want to trade more, we want to sell more, we want to buy more and we want more of our people to come to Shenzhen and we want more of your people to come to California,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in April, capping a weeklong trade mission to China with a stop in Shenzhen, Southern China’s financial center.

TVA to limit river flow to help Riverbend (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Flessner)

With nearly 35 percent more rain this year than normal in the Tennessee Valley, TVA was spilling water through five of its mainstream dams on the Tennessee River Thursday, keeping those preparing for the Riverbend Festival with a bit of high water. But the flow of the river should slow today as boaters come downtown to enjoy the riverfront festival. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which controls the flow of the Tennessee River, expects to cease spilling water through the Chickamauga Dam today to limit the river flow as the festival opens this weekend.

Report questions $2 million in TVA costs (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Marcum)

TVA’s Office of Inspector General identified more than $2 million in potential savings, questionable costs and other financial red flags for the federal utility over the last six months, according to the OIG’s recently released semiannual report. The report also notes several areas where TVA could improve its operations and gives details on some fraud and abuse investigations the office conducted that resulted in prosecutions or disciplinary actions. OIG audits are of great benefit to TVA in controlling its costs, said TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield.

Meigs County clearing the way for industry (Times Free-Press/Flessner)

After losing several industrial prospects to other counties with better prepared sites, Meigs County Mayor Garland Lankford is determined to be ready for the next manufacturer looking for a plant site in Southeast Tennessee. “We’re gearing up to have four sites in our industrial park that are pad ready and can immediately accommodate the building of a new plant,” Lankford said Thursday during a groundbreaking celebration here. “We’re not going to be left out again.”

Riebeling on ABC’s ‘Nashville’ and the city’s old convention center (N. Biz Journal)

The recently passed Metro operating budget doesn’t include money set aside specifically for the “Nashville” show, but the city is open to discussing funding options, Finance Director Rich Riebeling said today. “What we’ve said before is if the show is going to be filmed here and the state is participating and there is a need for the city to participate, we’ll obviously take a good hard look at it,” he said, adding that he had not been directly involved in any recent discussions. “We obviously want to support the show being done here. It’s publicity you can’t quite put a value on.”

Williamson school board appoints secret committee to review textbook (CP/Kubis)

A Williamson County Board of Education committee has been formed to review a textbook after a parent filed a complaint against the geography textbook, telling officials it contained “blatant anti-Semantic rhetoric.” But Laurie Cardoza-Moore — who filed the protest at Centennial High School where her son is a student — says the school board is not following its policy by choosing to deal with the situation out of Franklin High School despite no one filing a written formal complaint there.

Knox teachers hone their technology knowhow (News-Sentinel/McCoy)

Twitter. Podcasts. QR codes. Those are just a few of the things that some Knox County teachers have been learning as part of a weeklong training that will help them implement personalized technology in their classrooms next school year. “We are the students this week,” said Ami Coleman, who teaches sixth-grade language arts and reading at West Valley Middle School. “I’m seeing the whole picture and I’m getting excited about changing my teaching. It’s exciting that we get to try this out before everybody else.”

 

OPINION 

Editorial: Haslam right to be cautious about revenue from bill (News-Sentinel)

It might be a common household sport to speculate on what a family will do if one of its members wins a multimillion-dollar lottery: new cars, new homes, paid-for college education and many other items. Thus, it isn’t very surprising that state lawmakers, governors and others in Tennessee and elsewhere are speculating on what they would like to do with a multimillion-dollar windfall from the Marketplace Fairness Act, the title of pending legislation in Congress. The Marketplace Fairness Act, approved by the U.S. Senate in May, will allow states to collect taxes from the sale of items on the Internet.  

Greg Johnson: TVA’s claim of power at low cost a myth (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Maybe it is the myth impenetrable by facts, impermeable to data, impervious to reality. Maybe the mantra has become ingrained in the psyche, imbedded in the subconscious and inbred in generations in the Tennessee Valley. This myth — “The Tennessee Valley Authority produces low-cost electricity” — is no longer exclusive to leftist defenders of FDR’s New Deal. Last week, the right’s favorite media outlet, Fox News, repeated the myth in a report on President Barack Obama’s proposal to explore the sale of TVA. “There is not a lot of appetite in the TVA service area to sell it,” Fox reported. “Residents like the reliable, low-cost electricity.”

Editorial: Achievement School District is helping the education reform effort (CA)

The education reform effort in Memphis is continuing in high gear with the announcement Monday that the Achievement School District will authorize nine charter schools to take over more city schools in the fall of 2014. The ASD was created by the state General Assembly to turn around the schools in the bottom 5 percent in achievement. It has five years to get students performing in the top 25 percent. Of the 83 schools statewide that fall into that category, 68 are in Memphis. The ASD is directly operating some schools and hiring charters to run others. The growth of ASD charters and private charters in Memphis has been a cause for alarm in some local education circles.

Editorial: Uncle Sam knows who’s talking to whom (Commercial Appeal)

What was thought to be domestic overreach by the George W. Bush administration in the name of national security now appears to be standard practice under the Obama administration. On Wednesday, London’s Guardian newspaper reported on a secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, itself a secret panel, authorizing the National Security Agency to collect the telephone records of Verizon’s U.S. customers, potentially 121 million subscribers. The three-month order, permitted through the Patriot Act, has been regularly renewed. It covers the phone numbers and locations of both parties on the call, its time and duration, and what are called “unique identifiers.”