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December 11 TN News Digest

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

Editorial: New thinking about higher education is route to jobs (Jackson Sun)

Public attitude toward higher education is changing. Once thought to be limited to a select few who might pursue a broad course of general studies or perhaps entry into a profession, higher education today increasingly is called on to prepare people for today’s high-tech workplace. Gov. Bill Haslam clearly has embraced this concept as the key to building Tennessee’s workforce. Last week, Haslam announced a $625,007 grant to the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Murfreesboro. And that is only part of his overall commitment of $16.5 million to similarly enhance technical and industrial coursework at other Tennessee institutions.

Memphis trying to close unemployment gap (WHBQ-TV Memphis)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam admits closing the economic gap between “the haves and the have nots” is getting tougher. But while in Memphis today, Gov. Haslam praised efforts by Memphis companies who are working hard to fill their employment openings. My grandfather and those of his generation made it their mantra in life, “no matter what he does … a man has got to have a job!” Even today it can serve as a reminder that no matter how things change some things still remain the same. “Optimistic” and “festive” were bywords to describe the atmosphere at this year’s Greater Memphis Chamber’s annual chairman’s luncheon.

Greater Memphis Chamber pushing for job-ready grads (C. Appeal/Risher)

Greater Memphis Chamber will apply a newfound activist role to five “moon missions” including expanded technical training in public schools. Leaders of the chamber and its Chairman’s Circle envision high school graduates moving directly into jobs in advanced manufacturing, diesel mechanics, welding and other high-demand trades. The organization also promises a leadership role in expanding prekindergarten, connecting Mid-South green spaces, adding 1,000 new entrepreneurs in 10 years and developing a long-range plan for the region’s growth.

Editorial: Business leaders focus on skills gap (Commercial Appeal)

Here is something to try to wrap your mind around. There are an estimated 16,000 to 18,000 jobs unfilled at a time when more than 40,000 Memphis area residents are unemployed. Consider those numbers in the context of Memphis’ 28 percent poverty rate and a 19.9 percent rate in the eight-county metro area. Those jobs remain unfilled because of an occupational skills gap that a group of business executives think they can close with a focused and collaborative approach with local education and elected officials.

Governor Concerned With Memphis Spending (WREG-TV Memphis)

If the state of Tennessee was a business, Memphis would be its largest branch, so the success of the state depends on Memphis. Governor Bill Haslam said Tuesday he’s concerned about how Memphis is borrowing money. A few months ago, the Tennessee state comptroller warned the city it’s borrowing too much money, but Mayor A C Wharton wants the city council to approve even more debt — a $25 million loan to buy AutoZone Park. “The health of the city of Memphis as well as the health of the economy of the entire Mid-South is vitally important to us,” said Haslam.

Haslam to Sebelius: Fix The Problems (Politico)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam wrote to Sebelius yesterday to say that he won’t expand Medicaid “in the current environment.” Ongoing problems with the law’s implementation and the state’s cost-sharing requests could halt the state’s progress toward a Tennessee-crafted program, he suggested. —“Although we continue to believe the Tennessee Plan is the right approach for our state and hope you will grant us the flexibility to offer coverage … we recognize and are very concerned about the implementation failures of the Affordable Care Act and the law’s overall impact on consumers, providers, the health insurance marketplace and state and federal budgets,” Haslam wrote. He’s one of the last Republicans still undecided on Medicaid expansion.

Haslam offers alternative plan for federal Medicaid $ (WHBQ-TV Memphis)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who was in Memphis Tuesday, made his thoughts on Medicaid expansion known. In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Gov. Haslam said that he didn’t see a way to extend Medicaid coverage unless a special deal could be reached. His special deal would see federal money that the governor turned down as part of Obamacare used to subsidize private insurance and promote healthier lifestyles. “We believe in the idea of people having healthcare coverage,” the Republican governor said. “It didn’t address better outcomes.

Strategic plan made to grow agriculture, forestry (Associated Press)

Tennessee’s top agricultural leaders have developed a strategic plan to grow agriculture and forestry over the next decade. The plan was developed following a challenge by Gov. Bill Haslam a year ago to make Tennessee the No. 1 state in the Southeast in those areas. It highlights 27 action steps that focus on building production capacity and incentivizing the private sector through four major recommendations. They include expanding marketing opportunities for Tennessee producers and encouraging new production systems and agribusinesses, as well as increasing the scope and depth of a skilled and educated workforce through career, technical and higher education.

Henry: DCS gets tools for success (Jackson Sun)

Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry has committed to serving the once-embattled department for two years in order to create consistency in practices, improve accessibility and provide training and tools to help case workers perform their jobs better. Henry, along with deputy commissioners Scott Modell and Tom Cheet­ham, met with The Jackson Sun’s Editorial Board on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the changes they’ve made since earlier this year and what’s to come in the future. “It’s been an interesting start,” said Henry, who described the state of the department upon his arrival as “every bit the nightmare.”

Revenue for Lottery scholarships to cover grants to 102,000 students (CA/Locker)

Good news for Tennessee college students: Tennessee Lottery officials upgraded revenue projections for lottery-funded scholarships to record levels — more than enough to cover the scholarships this year for 102,000 recipients. Less than two years ago, after one down year for scholarship funding from the lottery, the state legislature was considering raising eligibility standards for Hope Scholarships, the main lottery-funded grant for students. But lottery sales have been on a roll ever since, and some lawmakers are talking about expanding the program.

State tax collections down $123.2 million (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)

State tax collections have totaled $123.2 million less than expected in the past four months and economists told state officials Tuesday that only modest improvement in revenue is expected in the coming year. Finance Commissioner Larry Martin reported that November state tax collections totaled $798.9 million — 3.99 percent more than in November 2012, but still $22.1 million less than projected when the current year’s state budget was enacted. The state budget is based on a “fiscal year” beginning July 1 and collections have been below estimates each month since it began.

Many Tennesseans Aren’t Even Looking For Jobs, State Economist Says (WPLN)

The percentage of Tennesseans working or trying to find a job is the lowest it’s been in more than a generation. At a meeting of the state funding board, economists’ jobs forecasts were hardly rosy. Unemployment rates count people who either have a job or are looking for one. But sometimes people give up; they quit even trying to take part in the workforce. What’s called the participation rate gives a sense as to how many. State Economist Robert Curry: “This accounts for people who are working plus people who are actively looking for work.

Though Revenue Growth Is Slowing, States See More Budget Stability (NY Times)

While states are continuing to see modest progress in their struggle to dig out from the 2008 recession, the era of chronic budget instability and wholesale service cuts appears to have ended, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Association of State Budget Officers. The rate of revenue growth in 2014, however, is expected to be significantly lower than in 2013, the report said. Of particular concern to budget officers was a falloff in the taxes that states are projected to collect this fiscal year, said the executive director of the association, Scott Pattison.

Meeting Many-Bears (Cleveland Daily Banner)

Many-Bears Grinder probably spends more time patiently, and graciously, explaining the origin of her name than the state commissioner’s busy Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs calendar actually allows. If not “the” most asked question of Gov. Bill Haslam’s state cabinet appointee, it is certainly one of the most asked. But she’s OK with it, as long as part of each conversation is dedicated to her deepest passion — veterans. Leading the state VA office since taking the oath in January 2011, one of Grinder’s principal roles — among many — is to oversee the needs of half-a-million veterans in Tennessee.

TDOT outlines plans for land acquisition, road widening in Hendersonville (TN/Lee)

Land and business owners along a stretch of Walton Ferry and Old Shackle Island roads in Hendersonville gathered last week to hear how the Tennessee Department of Transportation plans to acquire their properties for the realignment of an intersection that has plagued the city for decades. According to transportation specialist Jim Williams, three buildings at the intersection of Walton Ferry, Old Shackle and Gallatin roads will need to be removed. Those are Volunteer State Bank, Rhino Mart and Mosley Motor Co. Fifty other properties will lose some land in the project, which will include the widening of Old Shackle Island and Walton Ferry roads to five lanes from Imperial to Volunteer drives.

UT plans to replace six dorms in $234 million project (News-Sentinel/Boehnke)

The University of Tennessee plans to replace six residence halls over the next five years — a $234 million multi-phase project that officials say is the most expansive and expensive in school history. The new dormitories, all surrounding Presidential Court, make up the most recent piece of a roughly $1 billion campus overhaul that also includes a new student union, several new academic buildings, a parking garage, and two additional residence halls among other improvements. While the five-year timeline is aggressive, the new dorms and other facilities are a key piece in the university’s plan to improve student retention rates, said Dave Irvin, associate vice chancellor for facilities services.

MTSU signs pact with North China University of Technology (Daily News Journal)

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee has signed an academic exchange agreement with North China University of Technology that will allow the two institutions to exchange students and forge other academic ties. The agreement came as McPhee wrapped up his most recent visit to China Tuesday. Earlier in the trip, he was honored by the global organization of Confucius Institutes for MTSU’s work to strengthen educational and cultural ties between China and the United States. The pact signed by McPhee and NCUT President Wang Xiaochun focuses first on actuary sciences in the College of Basic and Applied Sciences, but allows for expansion in other academic areas.

Tenn. AG: Local governments can’t create anti-meth rules (Associated Press)

State Attorney General Bob Cooper says in a legal opinion that Tennessee law prohibits cities and counties from enacting their own ordinances controlling the sale of cold medicines used to make methamphetamine. The legal opinion released Tuesday comes as several municipalities have moved to require a doctor’s prescription to buy pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines in hopes of cracking down on meth production. Cooper said in the opinion that the General Assembly’s intent has been for statewide rules enforcing meth precursors.

Cities’ prescription laws to curb meth use are illegal, AG says (TN/Haas, Tamburin)

Cities and counties that have passed their own prescription-only pseudoephedrine laws did so illegally, according to a new legal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper. Cooper had been asked whether municipalities could pass their own local laws requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient for making meth, to combat the problem. Cooper’s opinion, dated Dec. 6, says that doing so violates state laws that give the Tennessee legislature the sole power to regulate such drugs.

Towns Can’t Legally Require Prescriptions For Cold Drug, Says Top Lawyer (WPLN)

Tennessee’s Attorney General says state law prohibits local governments from setting their own rules for buying medicines that can be used to make methamphetamine. Several communities recently passed local rules requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, which is a key ingredient in cold remedies like Sudafed or Mucinex D. The state already mandates that people buying pseudoephedrine show ID and purchase only limited quantities. Federal law mandates that it be kept behind the pharmacy counter In his opinion, Attorney General Robert Cooper says state legislature has reserved the right to regulate the sale of pseudoephedrine, leaving no room for further local restrictions.

Winchester police chief to enforce city’s meth ordinance despite conflict (TFP/Sher)

The Winchester, Tenn., police chief says he plans to keep enforcing his city’s ordinance requiring a doctor’s prescription for pseudophedrine-based cold medications despite Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper’s new legal opinion that the local anti-meth measure violates state law. Chief Dennis Young said in an interview Tuesday that he believes the city’s ordinance is on solid ground, regardless of Cooper’s opinion. “Our ordinance is in effect and it has not been challenged [in court], and as of right now we’re leaving our ordinance in effect,” Young said. “We have multiple legal opinions. … Until we get challenged on this and it’s adjudicated, it’s the law of Winchester.”

Fitzhugh calls Haslam letter to Sebelius a ‘farce’ (Tennessean/Wilemon)

A letter about Medicaid expansion that Gov. Bill Haslam sent to Washington this week is “simply the latest in a series of farces,” according to a leading Democratic state legislator…But the federal agency overseeing state Medicaid expansions as part of the Affordable Care Act welcomes continued dialogue with Gov. Bill Haslam, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said. “We welcome continued conversations with Tennessee about developing a state-based solution that meets both the state’s unique needs and the requirements of the Medicaid program, while providing much-needed coverage to thousands of Tennesseans,” said Fabien Levy, press secretary for the agency.

After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought (New York Times)

Two years after a Stanford professor drew 160,000 students from around the globe to a free online course on artificial intelligence, starting what was widely viewed as a revolution in higher education, early results for such large-scale courses are disappointing, forcing a rethinking of how college instruction can best use the Internet. A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, released this month by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.

Metro challenges state formula for schools funding (Tennessean/Garrison)

The Metro Nashville school district has taken aim at the state’s level of education funding, arguing that Davidson County has been shorted millions of dollars and setting the stage for what could be a broad-based assault on state funding levels by districts all over the state. The Metro school board voted unanimously Tuesday to ask Gov. Bill Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly to “adequately fund public education” in a way that would allow local districts to meet rigorous new academic standards. At issue is the state’s funding education funding law known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP, which the Metro board claims hasn’t been fully funded since it was overhauled six years ago under then-Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Shelby Schools approve Germantown deal (Commercial Appeal/Kelley)

The Shelby County Schools board approved the last of six agreements with suburban municipalities Tuesday night, setting the stage for six new school districts to open next fall. The deal with Germantown — calling for the city to receive five of eight campuses located within its city limits and to pay Shelby County Schools $4.265 million over 12 years — also cleared the way for SCS to begin planning for a school district with fewer students to educate going forward. The proposal was passed by a unanimous vote, with board member David Pickler describing his support as reluctant because the deal keeps SCS in control of Germantown Elementary, Middle and High schools.

High-value missing items from Shelby Schools add up to $6 million (CA/Roberts)

Watkins Uiberall, the school board’s external auditor, says the most valuable Shelby County Schools equipment that could not be accounted for in a recent audit is worth at least $6 million, according to depreciation charts. The firm calculated the value of every missing piece of equipment worth $5,000 or more, a critical first step for a school board trying to determine the value of assets in the newly merged district. It did not include items with losses of less than $5,000, including laptops and dozens of other items the district buys in large quantity. The next step is having principals in every school go back and search their buildings, outlying sheds and locked closets for the more than 54,000 pieces of equipment that outside auditor ProBar Associates could not account for.

 

OPINION 

Times Editorial: Gov. Bill Haslam wasting our time, money (Times Free-Press)

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has been reading too many GOP primers on “tell the lie long enough … .” This is the same Bill Haslam who joined up with other obstructionist GOP governors to turn down free federal money to expand Medicaid (TennCare in Tennessee) as part of the Affordable Care Act to cover an estimated 181,000 Tennesseans who won’t get coverage under the federal health care law, known best as Obamacare. That free money — our tax dollars — would pay 100 percent of the new cost to the state for three years and 90 percent of the cost thereafter. It’s “free” to Tennessee because certainly no one expects a tax refund just because Haslam chose to grandstand.

 

Clay Bennett Political Cartoon: “HaslamCare” (Times Free-Press)

 

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