This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Crissy and I hope you enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday and had the chance to recharge and spend time with your family and friends. At the state level, our budget hearings had us looking ahead to the next fiscal year, but the holidays allow us to look back at what we’re thankful for. It’s at this point in time every year that I’m thankful for the Tennessee tradition of fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget. I believe this year will perhaps be our most difficult budget of the administration to date. Revenues are down, leaving most discretionary dollars taken up by funding the formula increases of the BEP and TennCare (and that’s without an expansion of Medicaid services).
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder announced December 7th, 2013 as Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. On December 7th, 1941, 2,390 American military personnel were killed and another 1,178 were wounded in an unprovoked attack by the Air and Naval forces serving Japan. The United States Congress, by Public Law 103 308, as amended, has designated December 7th of each year as “National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day” to recognize and honor brave heroes who died and demonstrate deep gratitude and admiration for their sacrifice.
According to retired Lt. Col. Jim Henderson, American flags should be flown at half-staff Saturday in honor of National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. Henderson said the observance is in accordance with U.S. Code Title 36, Chapter 1, Section 129, which said the president is requested to issue a proclamation per Flag Code section 7(m) for the flag to be displayed at half-staff during the day Saturday. In August, Henderson, of Lebanon, was reappointed historian for the Tennessee Department of the American Legion.
Gov. Bill Haslam has acknowledged that decreasing state revenues will make producing a new budget more difficult this year than any other he’s faced since taking office. But the governor, speaking to a Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Murfreesboro this week, said the tax cuts he’s supported in the past were intended to attract and retain capital in the state, and as such the right thing to do. “Businesses do look at the taxes they pay — it’s just a fact of life. And so, we’ve worked on making certain that Tennessee stays what it’s historically been: one of the lowest tax states,” Haslam said.
Growth in tuition is outpacing the growth in students enrolling in the state’s flagship institution in East Tennessee. The University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus is No. 1 on the Business Journal’s list of colleges ranked by enrollment, and the Chattanooga campus ranks third. UT’s Knoxville campus reported 23,596 students enrolled full-time for fall 2013, an increase of less than 200 students versus last year. In-state tuition per semester increased almost $1,000 during that time to $4,890. UT Chattanooga at No. 3 gained about 150 students for a total of 9,676.
Sumner County Schools Finance Director Amanda Prichard sat in her office in April and stared puzzled at a $127,000 check from the city of Hendersonville. It’s not often a school system is given money it didn’t ask for. But that’s what happened across Tennessee after several cities realized they owed their school districts a portion of the money collected from liquor-by-the-drink tax revenue. In some cases, the mistake went on for decades, resulting in millions in unpaid tax revenue to the schools. Now, cities across Middle Tennessee are trying to figure out how to pay back the debt. “This is an anomaly,” said Josh Jones, a legal consultant for the Municipal Technical Advisory Service.
A Meigs County woman has been charged with TennCare fraud for selling prescription drugs that were paid for by the Tennessee’s Medicaid program. Tonya Jillane Bunch, 39, of Decatur was arrested as part of a joint effort with the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office and the Office of Inspector General. Bunch is charged with TennCare fraud and sale of a schedule III controlled substance. According to the indictment, Bunch used TennCare healthcare insurance benefits to purchase a prescription for the painkiller Hydrocodone, part of which she later sold. TennCare fraud is a Class E felony, carrying a sentence of up to two years in prison.
A Criminal Appeals judge who pleaded guilty to a DUI charge in Knoxville last year has decided to retire. Judge Jerry Smith’s decision to step down comes as he faced a possible negative recommendation from the commission that evaluates judicial performance. A negative evaluation means a judge must face a contested election if he or she decides to run for re-election. A positive evaluation means a judge faces only a retention referendum where voters decide whether to keep the judge on the bench with a yes-no vote. A preliminary vote by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission was for replacement. The commission has not yet taken its final vote.
An appeals court judge who pleaded guilty in 2012 to a drunken driving charge has announced he won’t run for re-election next year. Judge Jerry L. Smith, a member of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, has told the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission that he will not seek another term in August, reversing an earlier request to be reviewed by the panel. The decision means the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, a nine-person group that weighs the job performance of appeals court judges, will drop plans to recommend against Smith’s re-election next year, a rare move that could have cost Smith his seat on the court.
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed that Maurice Johnson should have a new judge as he tries to overturn his three murder convictions in the 1999 Valentine’s Day triple slaying in Cleveland, Tenn. Johnson’s defense attorney and prosecutors both asked that Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy be removed from the case because her “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” according to court documents. The appeals court agreed in an order filed Nov. 18 and asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to appoint a new judge. Reedy had previously refused motions by Johnson and the 10th Judicial District Attorney’s Office that she recuse herself from the case. Friday, she said in a telephone interview that she respects the court’s ruling but can’t ethically comment on the case.
Education and money will be the top issues facing Tennessee’s General Assembly when it reconvenes in January, state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, said at a Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce event Friday at the Smyrna Town Centre. Balancing the state budget is a constant concern on Capitol Hill, but education has emerged as a flashpoint in recent years, members of the Rutherford County legislative delegation said. Along with Tracy, Republican state Reps. Rick Womick, Dawn White and Mike Sparks were on hand Friday afternoon to answer questions about the upcoming legislative session.
Security at the aging Maryville High School and general upgrades at other schools are among the plans for the new revenue that would be generated if a half-percent hike to the city’s sales tax is approved by voters Tuesday. The proposal amounts to a nickel more tax on a $10 purchase, and the money would be split between the city, which will use it for maintenance and infrastructure purposes, and the school system. It is expected to produce an additional $2.5 million. Mayor Tom Taylor said Maryville residents are “passionate about their schools” and “want the best system they can afford.
Shelby County Commission member Terry Roland says he is not in public service for the money. Commissioner James Harvey says he wouldn’t do the job for free. Commissioner Steve Basar believes the pay of elected officials, especially the county’s CEO, should be competitive with the private sector, while Commissioner Heidi Shafer thinks pay should take into consideration the income of the county’s residents. It’s up to the County Commission to set the pay for the mayor, sheriff, assessor, clerk, register and trustee. On Wednesday, the body’s general government committee will hold a third reading of an ordinance that sets the pay for these officials, in compliance with a 2009 change to the county charter that was approved by voters.
Just back from a whirlwind trip to the Middle East, Sen. Bob Corker said Friday he has no intention of sabotaging negotiations with Iran concerning the processing of nuclear materials but wants any deal to meet what he calls “baseline requirements.” Foremost among them, he said, is permanent cessation by Iran of all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. “Our fear is a diplomatic deal that sweeps things under the rug and then this ugly problem raises its head again in a few years,” the Tennessee Republican — and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — said in an interview.
The clock is ticking on several fronts for Knoxville lawyer Pam Reeves, who has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to be a federal judge but awaits a full Senate vote. As of Friday, the Senate was scheduled to take a holiday break Dec. 20. Politico.com, a Washington, D.C., political reporting service, said Democrats will take advantage of new Senate rules and confirm six of President Barack Obama’s most high profile nominations over the next two weeks. There was no word on U.S. District Court judge nominations at the local level.
The federal government said about one in four electronic transactions sent from the HealthCare.gov website to insurance companies in October and November could contain errors, raising concerns that some consumers who think they had picked a plan won’t be enrolled by Jan. 1. The issue involves the so-called 834 form, which is an electronic file sent from the federal health-insurance website to insurance companies after consumers pick a plan. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that oversees HealthCare.gov, had previously acknowledged problems with some forms but wouldn’t say how many were affected.
Mike Horrigan is a lifelong Democrat with heart problems who supports President Obama’s health care law because he expects it will help many people obtain better insurance, including himself. But under the new law, the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Horrigan’s coverage by a state high-risk insurance program was eliminated, then replaced by a more expensive plan. His wife’s individual plan was canceled for being substandard, then suddenly renewed — also at a higher price. So while Mr. Horrigan, 59, believes the law will improve health care in the long run, its short-term effect has been chaotic and trying for him and his wife, Kay.
The governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, released details on Friday of his proposal to use federal Medicaid funds to buy private health insurance for low-income people — a plan similar to one being carried out by Arkansas and considered by other Republican governors who oppose expanding Medicaid under President Obama’s health care law. Like the Arkansas plan, which the Obama administration formally approved in September, Mr. Corbett’s proposal would use federal funds available for expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to instead buy private coverage for an expanded Medicaid population, using the new online insurance marketplace.
The final chapter in the troubled existence of Tennessee’s Arlington Developmental Center has ended on a positive note. We say that because problems at the center for the intellectually disabled — and during some periods, those with extreme physical disabilities — resulted in the state working with advocacy groups to provide better care and assistance for those who could not function in society without various services. Wednesday, three years after the center closed, the U.S. District Court in Memphis ended 21 years of litigation over the ADC by finding that the state had complied with the terms of a settlement requiring it to help care for the center’s former residents through home- and community-based services.
Last month, decades into our work to retire or clean up our nation’s dirtiest and most dangerous coal-fueled power plants, the board of directors of TVA, the largest public power company in the country, voted to retire three of the worst polluting coal plants in the Southeast, the Widows Creek and Colbert fossil plants in Alabama and the Paradise Fossil Plant in Kentucky. We celebrate TVA’s decision to continue its transition away from coal after years of tireless advocacy and lawsuits by public interest groups, including Earthjustice, to force TVA to reduce air pollution and to address water pollution from its aging coal fleet. But our work is not done.