February 10 TN News Digest

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

Editorial: Post-secondary education plans credit to governor (News-Sentinel)

Gov. Bill Haslam’s primary education initiative this year is his proposal to pay for every Tennessee high school graduate to go to a community college or technical school, but there is much more to his post-secondary school improvement plan. Speaking to News Sentinel reporters and members of the Editorial Board on Friday, Haslam elaborated on his various proposals and provided more details about Tennessee Promise, the ambitious scholarship program intended to provide more opportunities for Tennesseans to obtain a post-secondary education.

Gail Kerr: Haslam’s proposals help those who need it (Tennessean)

Gov. Bill Haslam last week proposed three things that will directly make the lives of Tennesseans better. Yes, they will cost money. They are worth it. The three pieces of legislation, which are key points in Haslam’s proposed budget, share this in common: If passed, they will help Tennessee’s children. First, Haslam wants to offer free tuition and fees at all two-year community colleges and technical schools anywhere in the state. This opens the doors of higher education to an entire population of high school seniors whose families cannot afford for them to go to college. It’s a key part of Haslam’s goal that by 2025, 55 percent of Tennessee’s eligible students graduate from college.

Gov. Bill Haslam proposes DCS funding increase (Tennessean/Wadhwani)

For the second year, the embattled Department of Children’s Services is getting budget help from Gov. Bill Haslam. The governor is proposing a $6.4 million state funding increase for the agency charged with investigating child abuse and neglect and running the state’s foster care system and programs for delinquent youth. The proposed budget increase would allow the department to hire 49 more child protective service workers and 40 family services caseworkers, buy 2,000 electronic tablets for caseworkers to use in the field, increase payments to foster parents and invest more in adoption programs.

When people with disabilities leave facilities, results can fall short (TN/Wadhwani)

Twin brothers Bill and Sam Gage were 6 years old when they were sent 250 miles away from home to live at Clover Bottom Developmental Center in Nashville. It took the men more than four decades spent in two institutions and one group home before advocates helped them win the right to return to their hometown of Selmer, Tenn. Now, at age 59, the Gages live together in a small, neat, one-story home with their dog Maddie, often sitting for hours side by side in matching brown recliners watching C-SPAN. “My brother and I have a disability and everything, that’s true,” said Bill Gage, his brother Sam nodding in the armchair next to him.

Cost of TN inmates’ interstate phone calls will drop (Tennessean/Roche)

Thanks to advocacy groups and a recent federal court ruling, the cost of interstate phone calls by inmates in Davidson County and throughout the state prison system will drop by more than 70 percent as of Friday. The rate drop is a result of new rules issued by the Federal Communications Commission. Though some of the FCC changes have been put on hold by a federal judge, the cut in interstate rates will be allowed to take effect. Alex Friedmann of Tennessee-based Prison Legal News said the cost of a 15-minute collect call for prisoners in Tennessee Department of Correction facilities will drop from $12.80 to $3.75.

Tennessee putting focus on STDs (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Harrison)

A question that’s usually too embarrassing to ask even family members has begun confronting drivers across metro Chattanooga. “Do YOU have Gonorrhea?” the billboards ask bluntly. “A simple test can tell.” The billboards, including 15 planned for Chattanooga over the next year, were commissioned by the Tennessee Department of Health as a part of a statewide public awareness effort focusing on sexually transmitted diseases and targeting metro areas across the state. It’s an important question to ask in this region, health officials say.

Two Hawkins women charged with TennCare fraud (Times-News)

Two women are charged in Hawkins County in separate cases involving TennCare fraud. One of the women is charged with TennCare fraud for obtaining prescription drugs using a fraudulent prescription, and the other person is charged with TennCare fraud involving “doctor shopping.” On Friday the Office of Inspector General announced the arrest of two women in separate cases. Whitney Leann Cooper, 25, of Rogersville, is charged with eight counts of fraudulently using TennCare to obtain a controlled substance by “doctor shopping.”

Harwell calls bill-limiting measure a success (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)

House Speaker Beth Harwell is hailing the success of a rule she initiated last year to impose a limit on the number of bills each state representative can file each year. At the same time, she also helped at least one legislator dodge the rule. In a news release, Harwell said House bill filings for the 108th General Assembly totaled 2,497 when the 2014 deadline for bill introductions passed last week, a 36 percent decrease from the 107th General Assembly. “This is excellent news, and proof the bill limit is working,” said Harwell in the release.

GOP bill could limit lobbying by Nashville, Williamson, other districts (TN/Garrison)

Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to put a new check on local school districts’ efforts to lobby the state legislature in a move critics contend is intended to mute opposing education viewpoints. The bill would give local legislative bodies — the Metro Council in Nashville, for instance, or the Williamson County Commission — the ability to “alter or revise” their school districts’ lobbying expenditures. Local school boards in Tennessee make their own budget decisions, but House Bill 229/Senate Bill 2525, sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, would create a new exception. “Taxpayer-funded lobbying takes money out of the classroom,” Durham said.

Bill stops Tenn police officers from helping in federal roadblocks (TFP/Walton)

An area lawmaker says Tennessee police officers shouldn’t be helping federal contractors hold roadblocks where they ask motorists for cheek swabs and blood samples as part of a national drunken- and drugged-driving survey. State Sen. Mike Bell’s bill forbidding law enforcement officers from taking part in the roadblocks passed the Senate unanimously and now rests in the House Criminal Justice Committee. The Riceville Republican, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he has no quarrel with the goals of the program, which is sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

U.S. Census data shows migration patterns in, out of Middle Tennessee (Tenn)

About twice as many people moved into Tennessee as left the state between 2007 and 2011, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data, re-shaping the makeup of Middle Tennessee. Census migration data published late last year showed Tennessee’s population was growing, but not quite as fast as in the past. The newest release, which came out last week, spells out who is moving and their specific destinations. It showed that wealthy Nashvillians were more likely to move to outlying areas, while those with lower incomes gravitated toward the city, exacerbating the wealth gap between Davidson and Williamson counties.

Tennessee teachers push back on evaluation process (Associated Press)

When Tennessee was competing for a half-billion dollars in federal education money, teachers agreed to allow the state to ramp up its use of student test scores for evaluating educators. But since winning the $500 million Race to the Top competition in 2010, teachers say the state has gone too far in using student test scores to assess their performance. Teachers say that isn’t what they signed up for when the state was competing for the prestigious and lucrative Race to the Top grant. They are now calling for legislation to place a moratorium on the use of so-called TVAAS scores until a special committee can review them.

Arnold Engineering and Development geared up for big testing year (TFP/Benton)

The next time you hear a sonic boom and spy one of the latest U.S. military jets streaking across the sky, you can give a little credit to some folks in Tullahoma, Tenn. Arnold Engineering and Development Complex at Arnold Air Force Base is nearly three months into one of its busiest testing years in some time. The U.S. Department of Defense is keeping Arnold hopping despite budget cuts to a facility that, at its peak years ago, employed about 4,500 people, officials said. “Last week was sort of a milestone week for us,” spokesman Jason Austin said Friday.

Congress Is Getting Tougher on the VA (Wall Street Journal)

Congress is poised to tighten its leash on the Department of Veterans Affairs over its response to what lawmakers say are management and medical errors, just as VA facilities are flooded with a new generation of injured troops. In a rare show of bipartisanship, top members of the congressional committees that oversee the VA are increasingly frustrated with the agency in the wake of incidents ranging from a patient’s death after an altercation with a nursing assistant in Louisiana to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers say these episodes reflect a lack of accountability at the 1,700 VA hospitals, clinics and other facilities.

Millions Trapped in Health-Law Coverage Gap (Wall Street Journal)

Ernest Maiden was dumbfounded to learn that he falls through the cracks of the health-care law because in a typical week he earns about $200 from the Happiness and Hair Beauty and Barber Salon. Like millions of other Americans caught in a mismatch of state and federal rules, the 57-year-old hair stylist doesn’t make enough money to qualify for federal subsidies to buy health insurance. If he earned another $1,300 a year, the government would pay the full cost. Instead, coverage would cost about what he earns. “It’s a Catch-22,” said Mr. Maiden, an uninsured diabetic.

Governors Pitch Novel Tactics to Create Jobs (Stateline)

As the U.S. economy gains strength and states are in their best financial position in years, governors are proposing unconventional tactics to create jobs, especially in health care and high-tech. The approaches range from luring more immigrants to Detroit; making western New York the center for genomic research; to paying off nursing students’ college loans in New Mexico. In crafting their proposals, many governors are trying to respond to a common complaint from employers: They are ready to hire, but can’t find workers with the right skills. “I talk to business executives almost daily about what they need to make their companies successful,” Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said in his State of the State address.

 

OPINION 

Editorial: Proposed uniform 911 fee bill is forward-looking (Commercial Appeal)

Because the 911 emergency phone number is such an important public safety weapon, a bill introduced by Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, to bring statewide uniformity to fees and 911 operations is good legislation. The bill, however, has one troubling aspect. It removes just about anyone connected with local emergency 911 communications districts from “(law) suit or liability for civil claims arising from the actions or omission of emergency communications district personnel in processing emergency calls …” The bill does not remove liability, however, for “recklessness and intentional misconduct in processing emergency calls.”

Steve Cohen: Outside groups behind anti-UAW push (Times Free-Press)

Over the last century, the American middle class grew — thanks in no small part to labor unions formed to represent the interests of the workers who drive our economy forward. They have been an important ally in the fight to ensure everyone who works hard and plays by the rules has a fair shot to succeed. But in recent years, the opportunity gap between hardworking Americans and the CEOs they often work for has exploded, making organized labor as important as ever. To preserve the middle class for our children, we must respect the right to organize. But at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant that right is not being adequately respected by outside groups.