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December 5 TN News Digest

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

Haslam: Improving Higher Ed Access a 2014 Priority (TN Report)

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that while he hasn’t finalized the particulars of his legislative agenda for 2014, higher education will clearly be a focus. Haslam spent Tuesday in Murfreesboro talking up his administration’s efforts to encourage more Tennesseans to pursue an education beyond high school, emphasizing the importance of “higher ed” to economic development for the state. “Government has a real role. One of the roles is to prepare the workers for the workforce,” Haslam told reporters after his announcement of an equipment grant of $625,007 to the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Murfreesboro.

Local business leaders briefed on ‘Drive to 55’ (Times-News)

Wanted: 494,000 more Tennesseans with either a two-year or four-year degree in higher education by the year 2025. The goal was outlined Monday to about 50 business leaders at a Kingsport Chamber of Commerce meeting on Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive To 55” higher education initiative. Randy Boyd, a Knoxville businessman serving as Haslam’s point man to move the initiative forward, said the goal is almost like America’s decision in the 1960s to put a man on the moon. “It’s a decision of will,” Boyd, whose actual title is special adviser to the governor for higher education, said of the initiative.

Haslam: Skilled workforce vital for economy (Murfreesboro Post)

By 2025, more than 50 percent of the jobs in the state are expected to require some type of post-secondary degree, and that is why grants like the one to the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Murfreesboro are vital for the future, Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday. “Right now, only 32 percent of our population meets that requirement,” Haslam said while speaking to a crowd of more than 230 people during a Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce luncheon held at the Embassy Suites and Conference Center in Murfreesboro.

Haslam Announces $625,007 Grant for Equipment Funding (WGNS-Radio)

Governor Bill Haslam was in Murfreesboro on Tuesday. Prior to speaking at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, he met with State Representative Dawn White during a breakfast event. While in town, Governor Haslam announced a grant of $625,007 to fund equipment needed at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Murfreesboro. Haslam also spoke candidly about the role of local politicians… The governor proposed and the General Assembly approved $16.5 million in this year’s budget for equipment and technology related to workforce development programs at Tennessee colleges of applied technology and community colleges, part of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” effort to increase the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary credentials.

Amazon Shopper? Get Ready To Pay Tennessee Sales Tax On January 1st (WPLN)

Starting in January, Amazon will begin charging Tennessee customers sales tax for the first time. And while the online retail giant has been posting huge sales figures in recent quarters, the estimates for what the company will bring Tennessee is a little less eye-popping. State government has been missing out on an estimated $400 million a year in sales tax revenue from online purchases. But University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox says only a fraction of the missing money is a result of the industry leader. “So as important as Amazon is, there are a lot of other e-commerce sales out there.”

Tennessee Arts Commission’s public forum elicits strong opinions (TN/Gonzalez)

The Tennessee Arts Commission has asked for ideas about strengthening the arts in the state, and that’s just what it got Wednesday from an outspoken crowd in Nashville. Most of the more than 100 people who had gathered for a public forum at the Nashville Children’s Theatre had an opinion about the goods, the bads — and the future — of the arts community. The commission called the meeting, one of four statewide, to help it develop a new strategic plan. The plan gets revised every five years to chart the path forward for arts programs and funding statewide, and the next version is due in June.

TDEC: No way to ID dead animals from Morgan pet crematory (News-Sentinel/Lakin)

Pet owners around East Tennessee want to know whether their dogs and cats were among the carcasses dug up this week near the Elliott Pet Services crematory in Morgan County. “Needless to say, I’m not happy,” said Lawrence Beck, who says he hired the crematory to dispose of his foster kitten Hank in September. “I would imagine my pet is buried somewhere in there.” State officials say they’ll never be able to say for sure. “The animals we are excavating have been buried up to a year or more,” said Kelly Brockman, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

TN makes unprecedented push to execute 10 killers (Tennessean/Haas)

Never before has Tennessee asked to execute so many of the condemned. Officials here, believing they are free of the latest round of challenges to Tennessee’s death penalty, recently asked the state Supreme Court for execution dates for 10 death row inmates. One of those 10, Billy Ray Irick, is scheduled to die Jan. 15 for raping and killing a 7-year-old Knoxville girl he had been baby-sitting in 1985. An 11th man, Nickolus Johnson, whose execution was sought separately from the 10, is scheduled to be put to death April 22 for killing a Bristol police officer in 2004.

Tax Cuts Amid Budget Shortfall? (Metro Pulse)

Since the Republicans gained control of the state Legislature, they have cut taxes each session and annual revenues to the state have been cut by an estimated $200 million, but they may face opposition from the governor if they want to cut taxes again. The target for next session is expected to be the Hall Income Tax, a tax on income from dividends and investments, and it may set up a battle with the Republican governor. Gov. Bill Haslam was supportive of abolishing the gift tax and the inheritance tax and cutting the sales tax on food. But this year he has warned that TennCare (Medicaid) rolls are increasing as people are signed up during the Affordable Care Act implementation and there will have to be a major infusion of cash from the state.

Bredesen consultant Napolitan dead at 84 (Tennessean/Cass)

Joseph Napolitan, an internationally known political consultant — some say he even invented the term — and an adviser to most of Phil Bredesen’s runs for mayor of Nashville and governor of Tennessee, died Monday in Massachusetts. He was 84. Mr. Napolitan was a soldier, a newspaper reporter and a public relations executive before getting into politics in 1956 to help a mayoral candidate in Springfield, Mass., his hometown. Four years later, he joined John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, for which he tracked delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention and projected vote totals on election night.

DesJarlais active in influential GOP group (Daily News Journal)

Most U.S. House members from Tennessee, including U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, belong to an increasingly influential behind-the-scenes group that prides itself on staking out the most conservative of conservative positions. Once a week, six of the seven Republican representatives from the state come to a meeting on the ground floor of the Capitol that starts with a prayer and then launches into a robust discussion of how to accomplish conservative legislative goals. It’s known as the Republican Study Committee, and it has become so big — 175 of the chamber’s 232 Republican members belong — that the Republican leadership cannot afford to ignore it, even when its positions put the party at risk of falling out of step with the public at large, congressional experts say.

Drug-Cost Surprises Lurk Inside New Health Plans (Wall Street Journal)

Americans with chronic illnesses—who are expected to be among the biggest beneficiaries of the health law—face widely varying out-of-pocket drug costs that could be obscured on the new insurance exchanges. Under the law, patients can’t be denied coverage due to existing conditions or charged higher rates than healthier peers. The law also sets an annual out-of-pocket maximum of up to $6,350 for individuals and $12,700 for families, after which insurers pay the full tab. But depending on the coverage they select, some patients on expensive drug regimens could reach that level fast.

Medicaid Is Latest Health-Site Victim (Wall Street Journal)

States are warning that they may not process Medicaid enrollments from people who have signed up for the health program through the troubled HealthCare.gov site, raising the prospect that several hundred thousand low-income people who thought they had obtained insurance actually may not have it. The federal health-insurance site, which serves residents in 36 states, is designed to sell policies from private insurers. But some people who apply for coverage through the site discover they are eligible instead for Medicaid, the joint federal-state health-insurance program for the poor and disabled.

TVA to boost renewable power purchases next year (TFP/Flessner)

The Tennessee Valley Authority plans to let more sunshine into its mix of power generation next year, but one leading residential supplier of the solar power said he still feels like he is being left out in the cold. TVA announced Wednesday that it will resume purchases of solar, wind and other renewable power through its Green Power Providers program next month. But the federal utility is cutting what it pays for such power from 19 cents per kilowatthour this year down to 14 cents per kilowatthour in 2014. TVA officials said solar and wind generation is getting cheaper as their technologies mature and the agency is trying to expand its solar purchases within the same annual budget of roughly $25 million.

Knox County teachers vent on superintendent (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Witt)

Some teachers, parents and students called for the firing of Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre just days before his contract extension will be reviewed by the Board of Education. “I hope we have new leadership,” Lauren Hopson, a third-grade teacher at Halls Elementary School, told the News Sentinel moments after she spoke publicly during a regular school board meeting. She wore a red top like the 18 others who spoke Wednesday on classroom conditions. Hopson and others were backed by approximately 100 supporters, also wearing red shirts while sitting in the rows of the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building.

Vanderbilt study examining Nashville charter, magnet school attrition (TN/Garrison)

Graduate students at Vanderbilt University are wading into one of Metro schools’ mostly politically charged questions: Do Nashville’s charter schools really see more students leave before end-of-year testing than other public schools? And if they do, why is that? Comparing student attrition among Metro’s charters, magnet and zoned schools will be the most watched area that a trio of Vanderbilt University students is examining as part of an ongoing study and partnership with Metro Nashville Public Schools.

 

OPINION 

Editorial: Cyber sales going well; sales tax now ahead (Daily News Journal)

Cyber Monday was a hit this week with double-digit increases in online sales, but this week was the final Cyber Monday that will be sales-tax free for Amazon customers in Tennessee. Amazon, with fulfillment centers in Murfreesboro and other Tennessee cities, will begin collecting sales tax in Tennessee in January 2014. Although Amazon reached a sales-tax agreement with Tennessee in 2012, it will not go into effect until next month. Ironically, perhaps, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday not to intervene in questions about the legality of sales-tax collections in states in which online companies do not have physical presences.

Editorial: State veers from fiscal discipline (Tennessean)

Often we hear from economists and government analysts about how well-managed state government is in Tennessee, through administrations Republican and Democratic, for decades. While other states have risen and fallen — mostly fallen, into debt — the Volunteer State has been a steady engine of fiscal discipline and sparkling credit. But we have to wonder if that stability is about to get shaken. Amid competing forces of declining revenues, rising costs, downsized governmental agencies and outsized responsibilities for those same agencies, Gov. Bill Haslam says he will stick with his plans to cut taxes — plans that were made based on rosy forecasts of future revenues.

Editorial: Prescription-only pseudoephedrine? (Mountain Press)

Last month, during his budget presentation to Gov. Bill Haslam, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn said Tennessee was on its way to becoming the home of more methamphetamine labs than any other state. Gwyn said that limiting the availability of pseudoephedrine, an ingredient used to make meth, is the only way to stop the production of the highly addictive drug. There is no doubt that making pseudoephedrine, commonly known by the brand name Sudafed, a prescription drug would — at least initially — make it harder for meth cooks to get their ingredients. But it also makes it more difficult for regular users of the perfectly legitimate medicine to get it.

Joe Sullivan: Extra Credit: Student Achievement Gains—And Teacher Stresses (MP)

Tennessee’s student achievement gains on this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress are so remarkable as to almost be amazing. The NAEP assessment, often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” is given every other year to a sample set of fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading in all 50 states. Tennessee was the only state to make gains over 2011 in all four categories and its aggregate gains far surpassed those of any other state. In terms of national rankings, Tennessee jumped from 46th place to 32nd in fourth-grade math; from 41st to 31st in fourth-grade reading; from 44th to 33rd in eighth-grade reading; and from 46th to 43rd in eighth-grade math.

Frank Cagle: Pass/Fail (Metro Pulse)

The only state Supreme Court justice to ever be turned out by a retention vote still thinks it’s the best way to pick members of the high court. In fact, former Justice Penny White says she is Exhibit A that the retention system works and that appeals court justices are subject to a vote. White sided with the majority, 3-2, in overturning the death penalty in a particularly heinous crime in 1996. And she had the misfortune to be the only justice up for a retention vote that year—she had been appointed to the court two years before. Death penalty supporters like the Tennessee Conservative Union campaigned against her retention and the canon of ethics prevented her responding.

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