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November 14 TN News Digest

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

W Squared to add 115 jobs in Brentwood (Nashville Business Journal)

Brentwood-based W Squared is investing $4 million to expand its operations in Williamson County, creating 115 new jobs, according to a news release. W Squared, a provider of business process outsourcing services, will add nearly 30,000 square feet to its location at 5500 Maryland Way. W Squared, founded in Brentwood in 2005, employs about 170 people at its Maryland Way location. “We are very excited about the continued expansion of W Squared. Over the years we have built an impressive client base, which includes many premier healthcare companies in Middle Tennessee,” W Squared President Tammy Howell said in a news release.

Haslam Announces Expansion of W Squared Operations in Brentwood (TN Report)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty, along with W Squared officials today announced the company will expand its operations in Brentwood, Tenn. W Squared will invest $4 million in infrastructure, including the addition of nearly 30,000 square feet to its location at 5500 Maryland Way, which is expected to open in late spring of 2014. Through this expansion, W Squared will create 115 new jobs in Williamson County in order to support a rapidly expanding client base and an increase in business nationwide.

Tennessee releases revamped school report card (Times Free-Press/Hardy)

Hamilton County Schools improved graduation rates this year, though data show only about a third of graduates were eligible for state-funded college scholarships. The Tennessee Department of Education released the 2013 Report Card, which shows an array of information — from graduation rates to test scores to school spending The county’s graduation rate, which measures how many ninth-graders finish high school within four years, improved from 81.2 percent last year to 84.5 percent in 2013. New this year, the report card shows how many students are eligible for Tennessee’s HOPE Scholarship for in-state colleges and universities.

Tennessee releases 2013 schools report card data (C. Appeal/Roberts, Smith)

The report card on the effectiveness of schools in Tennessee allows users for the first time to make personal comparisons between schools in one city or in dozens across the state. Users can quickly see how students performed on state tests in core subjects last spring at a district- and school level. They can compare the results to statewide results or another school district. The report card was released Wednesday and can be accessed at http://memne.ws/1ibaZ2P. “It’s a repackaging of data,” said Kelli Gauthier, spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

Knox County gets all As on state report card (Knoxville News-Sentinel/McCoy)

Knox County Schools is at the top of the class, according to this year’s state report, which was released this afternoon. The Tennessee Department of Education released the complete results from the 2013 state Report Card, which includes district and statewide data on a number of indicators, from student achievement and growth on standardized tests to attendance and graduation rates. For the first time in its history, according to the data, Knox County Schools made all As in academic achievement in mathematics, reading and language arts, science and social studies.

Knox and Loudon county school systems made the grade (News-Sentinel/McCoy)

It was cause for celebration Wednesday for Knox and Loudon county schools systems — which both for the first time since the state began releasing its annual report card in 2000, earned straight A’s in all four subject areas. The Tennessee Department of Education released the complete results from the 2013 state Report Card, which includes district and statewide data on a number of indicators, from student achievement and growth on standardized tests to attendance and graduation rates. Overall, the state received achievement grades of B’s in reading and science and A’s in math and social studies — an improvement from last years B’s in all four subjects.

Register: Metro Schools’ new report card shows ‘upward trend’ (Tenn/Garrison)

Metro Nashville Public Schools’ latest accountability report card from the state shows an “upward trend” in performance, Director of Schools Jesse Register believes. The Tennessee Department of Education Wednesday released its report card for 2013, which applies letter grades to all 141 school districts’ performance in math, reading, science and social studies based on performances from the 2012-13 school year. Metro showed improvements in two subjects on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, tests taken by students in third through eighth grades at the end of the year, and value-added data that tracks progress from one year to the next among students fourth through eighth grade.

Metro, Others Tout Results On Tennessee’s New Statewide Report Card (WPLN)

Results from Metro Schools are improving. That’s the takeaway the district is emphasizing in new district report cards out Wednesday statewide. The news comes on the heels of the announcement last week Tennessee is the fastest improving in the country. To show off Nashville’s report card, Schools Director Jesse Register actually crashed some educators’ conference to borrow the district’s board room. “Were you having a good time?” he asked them. In recent years, Metro’s average moved from all C’s and D’s to crack the world of B’s and a few A’s.

Panel suggest 3 candidates for appeals court (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam has been presented with a slate of three finalists for an upcoming vacancy on the state Court of Appeals. The Governor’s Commission on Judicial Appointments selected Memphis Chancellor Kenny W. Armstrong and attorneys Brandon O. Gibson of Jackson and Dorothy J. Pounders of Memphis from among the six applicants. Haslam created the 17-member panel through an executive order last month to largely mirror the functions of the Judicial Nominating Commission, which lawmakers allowed to expire in June.

Nominees for two Tennessee high court vacancies selected (C. Appeal/Locker)

A state panel nominated two Memphis judges and a Memphis attorney to a vacancy on the Tennessee Supreme Court that will occur next year with the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Janice M. Holder, also of Memphis. The Governor’s Commission on Judicial Appointments submitted the three nominees to Gov. Bill Haslam following a day of interviews and a public hearing in Nashville Wednesday. The Supreme Court nominees are Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Christopher B. Craft, 62; Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Holly M. Kirby, 57; and John Brook Lathram, 66, a partner in the Memphis office of Bass, Berry & Sims.

City, county awarded block grants (Crossville Chronicle)

The city of Crossville and Cumberland County have been awarded Community Development Block Grants totaling thousands of dollars, all earmarked for water line extensions and water system improvements. The announcement was made last week by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty. The dollars were included in $27 million in CDBG funds awarded statewide. Crossville received $500,000 for water system improvements to which the city must provide $176,000 in matching funds for a total of $676,000 in system improvements.

Haslam Weighs in on AMP Rapid Transit (WZTV-TV Nashville)

The governor weighs in on a controversial rapid transit system. Governor Bill Haslam is speaking out on the project Metro leaders hope to receive state funding for. The AMP would use center lanes to move passengers from East Nashville to West End. It would require local state and federal funding. Governor Haslam hasn’t made up his mind about the project. The total estimated cost for the AMP is around $170. Governor Haslam says so far he hasn’t seen a detailed presentation on the project. 

Audit critical of company hired to manage assets (Associated Press/Johnson)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says the state has benefited from a company hired to manage its assets, despite a comptroller’s report that suggests the company may have benefited from its own advice, creating a conflict of interest. The report released this week was from an audit of the state Department of General Services. It said amendments made to the contract with Jones Lang LaSalle allowed the company to “reap the benefits of its own recommendations,” creating a conflict of interest. The report noted that the original contract with JLL was $1 million.

Gov. Bill Haslam defends deal with Chicago company (Times Free-Press/Sher)

Gov. Bill Haslam is defending his administration from a new state Comptroller audit criticizing what occurred on the already-controversial real estate management contract with Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle. Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, the governor sought to brush aside findings in the audit, which covered a number of issues already raised in news accounts during a months-long controversy. The move to outsource state real estate management functions is saving taxpayers’ money, Haslam argued and is now considered a national model.

Haslam Administration Discredits Audit Of Real Estate Contract (WPLN-Radio)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is sidestepping questions over a state audit that found problems with an already-controversial real estate contract. Instead, he’s talking about how much money that contractor is saving the state. Jones Lang LaSalle was the winning bidder for a million dollar job advising the state on how to manage office space. That contract ballooned to more than $7 million. And ultimately, the Chicago-based real estate firm recommended a complete reshuffling, including the demolition of the historic Cordell Hull building.

Audit highly critical of state deal with Jones Lang LaSalle (Nashville Post)

The state comptroller’s office released an audit Wednesday morning highly critical of the Haslam Administration’s real estate management practices, finding that a contract with Jones Lang LaSalle to manage state assets was altered in a way that could benefit JLL. “We believe the first and second amendments also placed JLL in a position to offer the state advice and then reap the benefits of its own recommendations, creating an organizational conflict of interest,” the audit states, noting later that the changes “increase the risk that JLL may recommend unnecessary leases so that it can profit from them.”

Audit finds flaws with Tennessee’s job tax credits (Memphis Business Journal)

The state needs to do more to confirm that businesses are creating the jobs they promise in return for tax breaks, according to an audit from Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson. “The Department of Revenue’s management did not adequately document that tax audits related to the jobs tax credits and ultimately could not provide evidence that companies audited complied with state law,” Wilson said in an audit released this week, according to The Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Audit chides Tennessee over job tax credits (Times Free-Press/Flessner)

Tennessee’s tax collectors are not adequately documenting that growing businesses getting tax breaks from the state are generating the jobs they promise, a state audit suggests. Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson said the state’s jobs tax credit program may not have been implemented as intended. “The Department of Revenue’s management did not adequately document that tax audits related to the jobs tax credits and ultimately could not provide evidence that companies audited complied with state law,” the Comptroller said in a 48-page audit released Tuesday.

Audit Questions Big Haslam Administration Contract (WTVF-TV Nashville)

A scathing new audit suggests the Haslam administration may have mishandled a multimillion-dollar contract involving the state’s real estate. It confirms the findings of an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation. The audit concludes that administration paid a big corporation for advice that, in some cases, gave the corporation more ways to pocket taxpayers’ money. When the Haslam administration outsourced management of the state buildings, the winning bidder was a big Chicago-based corporation, Jones Lang Lasalle.

TN primed to be worst in nation for meth labs (Tennessean/Roche)

The head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation told top state officials that Tennessee is in danger of becoming the top state in the nation in meth lab production. Mark Gwyn, director of the TBI, issued the warning in a 30minute budget presentation to Gov. Bill Haslam Wednesday in which he said the state was primed for greater heroin abuse because drug dealers offering lower prices have taken control of the market from Asian competitors. “We’re headed to be number one this year in meth lab production,” Gwyn said.

TBI: TN’s Next Epidemic Is Heroin (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Heroin may be the next drug of choice for users in Tennessee. The head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation predicts pain pill addicts are looking for a new high. Tennessee leads the country in abuse of prescription drugs. Heroin is a natural next step, TBI director Mark Gwyn said Wednesday. “We’ve already got that base of people addicted to those opioids,” he told members of the Haslam Administration at an annual briefing. Gwyn predicts a spike in heroin use as pill abusers, “try to find that next level and as we try to squeeze in on the prescription drugs that are out there.”

TN developmental disabilities services could face further cuts (Tenn/Wadhwani)

On the heels of an audit critical of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities for not providing adequate services to people in its care, agency officials on Wednesday presented a budget plan for next year that could cut services even more. Department head Debra Payne outlined what a $15 million cut in state funds would look like for an agency that serves 8,000 state residents and has an additional 7,100 people on a waiting list for services. Cuts could include ending services to families caring for adults with disabilities at home and downsizing a program that investigates abuse and neglect.

Commissioner: Our prison system is under control (WSMV-TV Nashville)

The commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction said the state’s prison system is under control despite a series of Channel 4 I-Team investigations that revealed inmates’ wild behavior displayed on social media, threats to innocent people from inmates using cell phones and the firing of a correctional officer following recordings indicating he was making a deal to smuggle a cell phone into Riverbend prison. Commissioner Derrick Schofield also appeared to finally agree to an interview with the Channel 4 I-Team to address all our findings, but instead walked into the elevator after answering questions from reporters about his budget.

DCS posts documents relating to child deaths (Tennessean/Wadhwani)

The Department of Children’s Services will now post on its website documents relating to its internal investigations into the deaths and near deaths of children. The agency already has posted more than 3,600 pages of documents relating to the deaths or injuries suffered by 64 children in Tennessee during the last half of 2012. All identifying information has been redacted. The documents are available at www.tn.gov/youth/childsafety/data2012.html . Allowing the public to freely access the records, and at no cost, represents a sharp reversal from the agency’s position one year ago, when officials refused to make public any records related to child deaths or near deaths.

Sex trafficking reaches into rural towns (Tennessean/Sisk)

Sex trafficking has spread deep into Tennessee’s rural communities, a panel of experts said Wednesday, creating fresh challenges for efforts to stop the enslavement of women and children for sex. Studies by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation show that 17 of the 21 counties in the state where sex trafficking is most prevalent are categorized as rural. That finding contradicts assumptions that sex trafficking primarily involves foreign-born women living in cities, TBI special agent Margie Quin told an audience of about 100 who attended a Lipscomb University forum organized by The Women’s Fund of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

Audit finds late inspections of state school buses (Tennessean/Brown)

More than a third of school buses across Tennessee missed state-mandated annual inspection deadlines in recent years, according to a report by the state’s comptroller. The recent report found that 35 percent of school buses were inspected between one and 345 days late. That amounts to more than 3,500 buses that went without inspections for more than a year. “The department’s inability to inspect school buses and child-care vehicles annually increases the safety risks to school-age childrenand children in day care,” the comptroller’s office wrote in the report, which conducted an audit of certain operations of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security from June 2010 through April 2013.

Why can’t job seekers get through to the TN unemployment line? (WSMV-TV)

For years, job seekers have said they are running into big problems getting unemployment benefits from the state during a time when they can’t afford to wait. All along, the state has promised upgrades, and they say another one is coming. But the Channel 4 I-Team is asking why these problems haven’t been fixed after all these years. This isn’t the first time the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development has come under fire for this problem or been investigated by the Channel 4 I-Team. The unemployment claims system has been backlogged for years, and we’ve reported on the many people who can’t through to get help.

MTSU plants ginseng seeds for profit, to promote study (Daily News Journal)

Middle Tennessee State University broke ground and planted ginseng seeds Wednesday on its nearly 500-acre campus-run farm in Lascassas — a crop that officials said could bring in at least $13 per square foot. “Of course, you’ll have to use special conditions to grow it in a short period of time,” said Elliot Altman, director of the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research at MTSU. “But because of the value of ginseng, it’s worth it. “You can put that money in up front for those special conditions because it will pay off in the long run. With something like corn, I’d say, ‘No, it’s not worth the time.’”

Lawmakers request review of book selection process (Associated Press)

The heads of two legislative committees say the process for selecting books for state schools is flawed and needs to be fixed. Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell have sent a letter to the State Board of Education asking the panel to re-examine the list of books recommended to it by the Tennessee Textbook Commission. Earlier this month, the two Republicans and members of their committees heard testimony from parents who complained about the content of some books.

Republican lawmakers want re-examination of ‘biased’ textbooks (Tenn/Garrison)

Two top conservative lawmakers want the Tennessee Board of Education to re-examine last month’s approval of a list of social studies textbooks they say contain biased selections that are marred with inaccuracies. That request, made in a Nov. 6 letter from Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Mike Bell, R-Riceville, came at the conclusion of a two-day hearing last week on the Tennessee Textbook Commission’s process in reviewing books used in K-12 public schools. Under the current system, the textbook commission — a 10-member body made up of educators from across Tennessee, nine of whom are appointed by the governor — recommends the selection of textbooks that are then voted on by the board of education.

Wine-in-supermarkets proponents gear up for new Tenn. legislative push (H-C)

Proponents of selling wine in grocery stores are optimistic about their chances of getting legislation through the next Tennessee General Assembly. A bill to allow communities to vote on the issue by referendum failed in a House committee in March, but could be resuscitated in January, according to Jarron Springer, president of the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association. The association and its member grocers are gearing up for another round of debate. On Wednesday, Springer and Steve Smith, president and CEO of K-VA-T Food Stores met with the Bristol Herald Courier’s editorial board.

992 Tennesseans have selected a health plan on the federal exchange (NBJ)

The Obama administration Wednesday said that 992 individuals in Tennessee have selected a marketplace plan, as of Nov. 2. That represents about three percent of the 33,230 individuals in Tennessee who were included in completed applications. The figures were released in a larger report issued by Health and Human Services that shows 106,185 individuals across the country have selected a marketplace plan. Enrollment in the 15 state-run (and D.C.) marketplaces has outpaced enrollment in the 36 federally run marketplaces — 79,391 compared to 26,794 in the latter.

TN small businesses are punting on health care decisions (Nashville Biz Journal)

Like many small employers across the country, Tennessee businesses are punting their health care decisions to 2014, as the public exchanges and new rates are still being market tested. For now, small employers (those with 50 or fewer employees by definition under the new health care law), are choosing an early renewal option, locking in their current plan for the next calendar year early. “The only decision most employers have made is early renewal,” said Brian Haile, vice president of health policy at tax prep firm Jackson Hewitt.

Survey: Obamacare leading businesses to cut hours, keep staff below 50 (MBJ)

Health care reform already is leading many businesses to cut workers’ hours, hire part-timers or stay below the employer mandate’s 50-employee threshold. That’s according to a survey of businesses with 40 to 500 employees conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, and commissioned by the International Franchise Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Businesses of this size employ 25 percent of all Americans, the organizations noted. The survey is significant because it finds that these businesses already are responding to the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate, even though the Obama administration has delayed its implementation until 2015.

How bad was HealthCare.gov’s first month? Only 106,185 picked plans (NBJ)

Only 106,185 Americans selected health insurance plans through Obamacare’s exchanges in their first month, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Most of those individuals picked plans through the exchanges operated by 15 states and Washington, D.C. Only 26,794 people picked plans through HealthCare.gov, the glitchy marketplace operated by the federal government. Plus, many of these individuals aren’t actually enrolled in new plans yet; HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declined to reveal how many people have paid for a plan.

Only 106,000 Pick Health Insurance Plans in First Month (New York Times)

Just over 106,000 people picked health plans in the first month of open enrollment through the state and federal insurance marketplaces established by the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health secretary said Wednesday, a fraction of the administration’s initial estimate for enrollment during that period. Only about a fourth of the new enrollees — 26,794 — signed up through HealthCare.gov, the problem-plagued federal exchange, according to figures released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. A much larger number, 76,319, signed up through the 14 state-run marketplaces.

There’s a bigger obstacle to exchange enrollment than the website (NBJ)

As troubles continue at Healthcare.gov, calls have intensified in Washington to extend the open enrollment period beyond March 31, 2014, even from some Senate Democrats, one of whom is expected to drop a bill this week. Brian Haile, senior vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt, agrees with the calls for an extension, but not for the reason you might think. Speaking Tuesday to a group of small-business owners at a health care reform event hosted by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Haile called the website troubles a “sideshow.”

Budget Battle Breeds Dysfunctional Spending (Wall Street Journal)

The Oct. 16 deal that ended the shutdown kept the government funded at levels set by last year’s budget. For the Secret Service, that meant millions to protect presidential nominees—from 2012. This is the consequence of Washington’s budget dysfunction: Stopgap spending bills that keep the government running, passed by Congress in the absence of a comprehensive deal, often keep federal policies in place that no longer make sense. The Secret Service, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, isn’t going to dispatch agents in suits and sunglasses to shadow Mitt Romney, the losing GOP presidential candidate.

Cash-Strapped States Turn to Public-Private Partnerships (Stateline)

Still strapped for cash in the aftermath of the recession, states increasingly are partnering with private companies to build and maintain highways, prisons, water facilities, tunnels and even hospitals and schools. Since these partnerships began two decades ago, their popularity has increased to the point where today, two-thirds of the states have laws authorizing so-called “P3s,” and 24 states recently have considered legislation related to the partnerships, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Under the P3 strategy, private companies typically cover the upfront costs of projects, in exchange for the right to run the facilities and to collect tolls or other payments.

More aging Tennessee Valley Authority coal plants may be shuttered (TFP/Flessner)

King Coal may soon be dethroned as the Tennessee Valley Authority’s primary source of power. After stoking most of its power plants with coal for more than a half-century, TVA appears ready to shut down many of its oldest and least-efficient coal plants in the face of stricter environmental rules and less demand for energy. The federal utility has shut down a half-dozen units in the past two years and is studying options to shutter at least a dozen more. TVA expects to generate more power from nuclear plants than coal within the next three years.

Industrial Board looks ahead, with Hankook deal done (Leaf Chronicle)

With 1,800 new jobs secured over the next few years in an $800 million Hankook Tire investment that’s partly to its credit, the Clarksville-Montgomery County Industrial Development Board has already begun looking well into the future. That future may very well include buying more Montgomery County land to show industrial prospects – once again with a lot of help from, and faith shown by, city and county taxpayers. ‘A strong look at the future’ Wednesday morning in the IDB’s monthly meeting, board Chairman Don Jenkins said it’s time to look ahead to this possibility.

 

OPINION

Guest columnists: Haslam needs to embrace ACA for good of all Tennesseans (TN)

Almost 50 years ago, the United States recognized that a program to provide medical care for people lacking the financial resources is a responsibility we should share as a progressive, civilized nation. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act adopted by Congress in 2010 will permit many more struggling people and families to receive medical care. Predominantly funded by the federal government, it spreads the cost of medical care across all of us and helps assure that lower-income people will have an opportunity to receive lifesaving care. Tennessee needs to participate in this expansion. We are a kind and caring state with a deep sense of doing what is right.

Editorial: Deliberative process privilege danger to open government (N-S)

A recent Tennessee appeals court ruling explicitly established for the first time an exemption to the state’s Public Records Act for documents used by “high officials” in developing policy. The broadly written ruling could allow any government official to refuse to release just about any document to a citizen seeking to review them. The decision contains chilling implications for open government in Tennessee and should be reversed if reviewed by the state Supreme Court. The case originated in Davidson County, where in 2005 a man named Karl Davidson participated in a 77-day sit-in at the Tennessee State Capitol to protest cuts to TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

Editorial: Obama’s broken promise burns the insured (Tennessean)

The troubled rollout of health-plan enrollment under the Affordable Care Act hit home in Tennessee this week as it was learned that about 66,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee customers will not, in fact, be able to keep their current health insurance, as President Obama had promised. While some may complain about the insurer, make no mistake: This one is on the president. Blue Cross in Tennessee joins other health insurance companies around the country in having to deliver bad news that is not of their making.

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