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November 15 TN News Digest

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

Haslam names veterans education task force (Leaf Chronicle)

Gov. Bill Haslam announced Thursday the formation of a task force to evaluate how to best serve Tennessee’s veterans seeking a certificate or degree beyond high school. The goal is to better understand the obstacles veterans face in completing their education, and to work with them to overcome those obstacles and graduate, the governor said. The task force is charged with the following: • To identify common educational hurdles for transitioning veterans. • To research best practices to serve student veterans. • To make recommendations on improving opportunities for veterans to earn a certificate or degree beyond high school.

Haslam ensuring veterans’ opportunity for a higher education (WRCB-TV Chatt.)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is making sure more veterans returning home, receive a higher education. Haslam announced Thursday, a newly formed task force to evaluate how to best serve Tennessee vets when it comes to continuing education. The task force will focus on identifying common hurdles for transitioning veterans. And make recommendations on improving opportunities beyond high school. The task force is part of the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative.

TN Veterans Education Task Force Announced by Haslam (TN Report)

Gov. Bill Haslam today announced the formation of a task force to evaluate how to best serve Tennessee’s veterans seeking a certificate or degree beyond high school. The task force is charged with the following: To identify common educational hurdles for transitioning veterans; To research best practices to serve student veterans; And to make recommendations on improving opportunities for veterans to earn a certificate or degree beyond high school. “When the men and women who have served our country come home, we want them to be able to get a high quality, good paying job,” Haslam said.

Haslam has ‘frank’ talk with VW labor official (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)

Gov. Bill Haslam had a “frank and open conversation” today with a top German labor official who has voiced support for a works council labor board at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, a Haslam spokesman says. Spokesman David Smith said the governor met with Bernd Osterloh, who heads VW’s global works council, and other officials in Haslam’s state Capitol office. Haslam and fellow top Republican elected officials in the state, including U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Chattanooga, have voiced opposition to unionizing the Chattanooga plant. “The governor and they [Osterloh] had a a frank and open conversation,” Smith said in a statement.

Union vote at VW plant won’t affect decision to expand factory (AP/Schelzig)

A top Volkswagen labor official says a pending decision about union representation for workers at the automaker’s lone U.S. plant will have no bearing on whether the company will decide to add the production of another vehicle there. The world’s third-largest automaker, which is mulling whether to make a new SUV in Mexico or Tennessee, shocked Southern union foes by engaging in talks with the United Auto Workers about creating a German-style “works council” at the Chattanooga, Tenn., plant. Southern politicians say they fear a successful UAW organization of the Volkswagen plant would hurt the region’s ability to attract future investment, and that it could lead to the spread of organized labor to other foreign car makers.

Possible TennCare Expansion Still Work in Progress (Memphis Daily News)

The Tennessee lieutenant governor says it is a waste of time. The Memphis representative in U.S. Congress says it is overdue. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is still negotiating with the White House on a possible $1.4 billion expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee that could cover 140,000 uninsured Tennesseans under TennCare, the state’s version of Medicaid. Even if he reaches an accord with the Obama administration, Haslam has committed to taking any deal to the Tennessee legislature for approval as he runs a gauntlet of criticism from both opponents and proponents of an expansion fully funded by Washington in its first three years and 90 percent federally funded in the following three years.

General Services chief says contract could have been clearer (Tennessean/Roche)

The state General Services Commissioner says that in hindsight the handling of multimillion dollar controversial real estate management contracts could have been handled better. “We believe we could have been more clear,” said Commissioner Robert Oglesby, responding to reporters after a hearing on his proposed budget for the next fiscal year. “In hindsight you could always do things better.” The comments followed by a day a highly critical state audit on the contracts with Jones Lang LaSalle. The audit report focused on an initial contract which started out at $1 million but jumped to $7.65 million through a series of amendments.

State Prepares To Expand Questionable Contract – Again (WTVF-TV Nashville)

A day after a critical audit of a big state contract, the Haslam administration is making no apologies. In fact, NewsChannel 5 Investigates has learned that it may be about to give even more of your tax dollars to the company at the center of the controversy. Now, officials are circulating a $5.3 million expansion of the controversial contract with the real estate giant Jones Lang Lasalle. During budget hearings before the governor, General Services Commissioner Bob Oglesby made no mention of the just-released state audit — an audit that questioned the state’s deal with the Chicago-based corporation.

After Tough Audit, TN’s Real Estate Chief Responds (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Tennessee’s top government auditors found conflicts of interest in a deal that has resulted in a massive reshuffling of state offices. But those responsible for overseeing the private contract say they must agree to disagree with the audit. It’s not that unusual for a state department to dispute an audit finding in part, but General Services deputy commissioner Tami Robison has a categorical rejection. “We do not concur. You can quote me,” she said Thursday. Robison brought on the firm Jones Lang LaSalle to give advice on maximizing office space.

New State Architect Unconvinced Cordell Hull Has ‘Historical Value’ (WPLN-Radio)

The Tennessee Building Commission named a new state architect Thursday, and one of his first big tasks is deciding whether to tear down the 10-story Cordell Hull office building beside the capitol. At this point, he’s not convinced it has much historical significance. Real estate consultant Jones Lang LaSalle determined that the 60-year-old complex had fallen into such disrepair, it would be cheaper to tear it down and build something entirely new. “The argument that I’ve heard the historical commissions make is that it’s a good example of the type of architecture that was built at the time, which is true,” newly-named state architect Peter Heimbach said.

DCS posts records on child deaths (Associated Press)

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has begun posting records related to child death investigations on its website. The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/1bGTsdP) reports the agency has posted more than 3,600 pages of documents about deaths or severe injuries suffered by 64 children during the last six months of 2012. The move is a sharp contrast to the agency’s stance a year ago, when it refused to make any such records public. In response, The Tennessean and other media groups filed suit seeking the records.

Taxpayer watchdogs question cost of TN education conference (WSMV-TV Nash)

It’s hard to argue against investing in education in Tennessee, but the Channel 4 I-Team went undercover to find nearly $250,000 in spending in the state’s adult education program that’s raising the eyebrows of taxpayer watchdogs. When the Channel 4 I-Team did some digging, we learned some of the state employees who planned an adult education conference at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center thought it might not be such a good idea. And it seems they didn’t want you to find out about it.

University of Memphis wants to drop out-of-state tuition (Associated Press)

The interim president at the University of Memphis is advocating changes that include dropping out-of-state tuition, increasing enrollment and graduation numbers, and adding online course offerings. Interim President Brad Martin told The Commercial Appeal that he plans an “all hands on deck” meeting with university officials on Monday. He says the school will seek permission from the Tennessee Board of Regents to drop out-of-state tuition. “It would appear we don’t really generate any significant revenue from out-of-state tuition,” Martin said. “We want to be rid of it. If we had the power to waive it ourselves, we would have done so.”

TN death row inmate will get new sentencing hearing (AP/Barrouquere)

A Tennessee man facing execution for the 1987 killing of two Fort Campbell nurses on Thursday was granted a new sentencing hearing when an appeals court ruled he shouldn’t have been compared to “the devil incarnate” and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer at his second sentencing hearing in 1995. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled Ronnie M. Cauthern’s defense attorney did not properly investigate which family members would be willing to testify on his behalf and failed to pull together a coherent strategy to try to save his life. The court ordered Cauthern, 46, to be resentenced within six months or for the death sentence to be vacated.

Corker and Yellen converse about Feds stimulus measure (Commercial Appeal)

Janet Yellen told Sen. Bob Corker she would have the courage to prick any asset bubbles before they could damage the economy like in 2008. “No one, senator, no one who lived through that financial crisis would ever want to risk another one that could subject the economy to what we are painfully going through and recovering from,” Yellen said Thursday. She and the Tennessee Republican exchanged views during her confirmation hearing to head the Federal Reserve. Corker contended the Fed’s financial stimulus is “an elitist policy” that benefits the “the more well-off.”

TN Republicans assail Obama’s proposed health law fix (Tennessean/Barton)

Congressional Republicans from Tennessee on Thursday took turns lambasting President Barack Obama’s offer of an administrative fix for Americans wanting to keep their health insurance another year instead of shopping for new plans under the Affordable Care Act. House Republicans from the state said they were instead supporting a legislative fix offered by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. They disputed arguments from some Democrats that the Upton bill would allow the industry to continue offering policies that don’t cover pre-existing conditions or meet other goals of the 2010 health care reform law.

Obama allows insurers to keep selling old health plans – but will they? (NBJ)

President Barack Obama threw the hot potato of insurance cancellations back to health insurers. He announced Thursday that his administration will now allow insurers to continue offering their current policies to individuals next year, even if these plans don’t meet the Affordable Care Act’s requirements. It won’t, however, allow insurers to offer these old plans to new customers, a major difference between this administrative change to Obamacare and legislation scheduled for a vote Friday in the House.

BlueCross TN, others await details on Obama’s insurance fix (N. Biz Journal)

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is waiting for more details from the administration before offering information to consumers regarding President Obama’s announcement today that insurers can continue to offer health-insurance coverage next year for current policy holders that otherwise would be canceled. BlueCross, the state’s largest insurer, issued the following statement: “Since 2010, we’ve been committed to complying with the health care law. We’re continuing to monitor these developments to understand the president’s new direction.

TN healthcare consumers have questions after president’s update (WSMV-TV)

After weeks of frustration with the new healthcare website and outrage over plans being canceled, President Barack Obama is changing course, and many Tennesseans wonder if they will be able to get their old policies back. Obama said Thursday that insurance companies have another year to keep selling the policies that were about to be outlawed over not providing enough coverage. Blue Cross Blue Shield says the president’s announcement comes after the company has already created new policies for its 66,000 Tennessee customers that are legal under the Affordable Care Act.

States Insist on Third Grade Reading Proficiency (Stateline)

Educators have known for decades that learning how to read by the third grade is a critical milestone for children. Students who fall too far behind by the third grade rarely catch up. One recent study found that students who don’t read well by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Despite progress in some states, only 35 percent of fourth graders across the country are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released earlier this month. “I think it’s an outrage,” said Carol Rasco, chief executive officer of Reading is Fundamental, a children’s literacy nonprofit organization that distributes millions of books to needy children every year.

TVA to close 8 coal power plants in Alabama, Ky. (Associated Press/Loller)

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s board has voted to close six coal-powered units in Alabama and replace two in Kentucky with a natural gas plant. “This is a personal nightmare for me,” said Peter Mahurin, a board member from Bowling Green, Ky. “But I must support what I believe to be in the best interest of TVA’s customers.” Increasingly stringent environmental regulations and flat power demand have made it necessary to rethink how the nation’s largest public utility generates power, CEO Bill Johnson said at the Thursday board meeting in Oxford, Miss.

TVA to shut down more coal units; gas plant will replace Paradise (TFP/Flessner)

The Tennessee Valley Authority will shutter another eight coal units in Alabama and Kentucky and build a new natural gas plant in Kentucky as part of a new strategy to cut the share of its power generated by coal in half while doubling its gas-fired generation. TVA directors voted Thursday to shut down the newest unit at the Widows Creek coal plant in Northeast Alabama, all five units at the Colbert coal plant in Northwest Alabama and units 1 and 2 at the Paradise plant in western Kentucky. To replace the shut down of two of the three coal units at the Paradise plant, TVA plans to spend up to $1.1 billion to build a natural gas-fired plant at the Paradise site.

TVA board votes to slash reliance on coal (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Marcum)

TVA took another step away from reliance on coal Thursday, as its board approved the retirement of eight coal units at three fossil plants. Meeting in Oxford, Miss., the board unanimously approved a proposal to retire all five coal-fired units at the Colbert plant in Tuscumbia, Ala.; one of two units at Widows Creek in Stevenson, Ala.; and two of the three units at the Paradise plant near Central City, Ky. TVA will also build a natural gas-fired plant at the Paradise facility. The votes came after several people urged TVA to move from coal to use of greener energy sources. But Brent Yonts, a Kentucky state representative, urged TVA to keep the two coal units at the Paradise plant and protect 200 jobs there.

Less Coal, More Gas: TVA Votes To Shut Even More Coal-Fired Generators (WPLN)

As expected, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced Thursday that’s it’s shutting down several coal-fired power generators, but none are in Tennessee. TVA says it’s making more power than it needs. Excess capacity isn’t the only reason for the closures. TVA CEO Bill Johnson says many of the agency’s coal plants are more than 50 years old. Not only is it costly to maintain them, but TVA would have to spend even more to bring them in compliance with new clean air rules. “It’s our industry’s equivalent of the old saying about having too many eggs in one basket. So, we’ve been diversifying and will continue to in order to adapt to these changes around us. And this means our generating fleet has to look different than it has in the past.”

Bellefonte costs rise again (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Flessner)

The Tennessee Valley Authority may never need the power from America’s biggest unfinished power plant. But if TVA decides to finish its stalled Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Alabama, it will likely cost nearly twice as much as earlier estimates and won’t be financed by former Chattanooga billionaire Franklin L. Haney. TVA President Bill Johnson told TVA directors Thursday a new assessment projects that finishing just one of the two reactors would cost $7.4 billion to $8.7 billion. The earlier estimate was $4.9 billion. The numbers and the recent decline in TVA power sales mean there’s no need to finish Bellefonte anytime soon.

Register: Schools need to address social, emotional issues (Tennessean/Wilson)

Metro Nashville Director of Schools Jesse Register told school officials from across the country on Thursday afternoon that the best way to help Nashville students succeed isn’t to drill them. Instead, as he told members of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a more holistic approach is needed that includes development in leadership and service. Register gave the keynote speech at the collaborative’s cross-districts learning event, which will conclude in Nashville on Friday. Representatives from school districts from cities including Austin, Chicago, Cleveland and Oakland attended the event at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.

South Side Middle escapes state takeover with strong student gains (CA/Roberts)

South Side Middle School is a jubilant place these days. Beyond the victory its teachers and parents feel they won against Achievement School District takeover, there’s a sense in the trenches that the hometown teachers are done rolling over. The gains students made at South Side last year, deep in the heart of South Memphis, outshine many schools in Memphis, including those run by the ASD. South Side muscled up 10 and 15 percent gains in social studies and science, and made admirable 6 and 7 percent leaps in reading and math. Last week, the ASD changed its mind.

 

OPINION 

Editorial: DIDD isn’t serious about its mission (Tennessean)

Congress and the president are legendary for their skill at kicking the can down the road. But Tennessee government is showing that it knows how to shirk its responsibilities, too. Even after an audit by the state comptroller exposed the alarming status of services for Tennesseans under care of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, it appears that instead of meeting its obligations to more than 15,000 people who desperately need assistance, DIDD may cut back on care in 2014. In state budget hearings this week, DIDD Commissioner Debra Payne detailed how a 5 percent cut in DIDD’s budget, as Gov. Bill Haslam is asking each state department to propose, would play out.

Marsha Blackburn: Obama must honor health care promise (Tennessean)

For four years, President Obama repeatedly promised, “If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.” But we now know that this is not true for millions of Americans who are receiving policy termination letters. Every day my office receives letters from constituents letting us know they have been thrown off their current plan. Carolyn from Lyles recently contacted me about the letter she received explaining her current health plan was being canceled.

Editorial: A Health Care Fix (New York Times)

President Obama has come up with a modest fix for a self-inflicted political wound: his repeated — and wrong — assertions that Americans would be able to keep their health insurance plans if they wanted to under the health care reform law. The fix, which deals with the cancellations of individual policies, is far preferable to a destructive Republican bill that is expected to come up for a vote in the House on Friday and to a Senate bill sponsored by some Democrats. But it raises a few troubling questions, most of which cannot be answered quickly. The political danger Mr. Obama is trying to head off is widespread defection from the reform law by Democrats worried about their re-election chances in states where Mr. Obama is unpopular.

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