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February 13 TN News Digest

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

Brookings breaks down Haslam’s higher education programs (N. Biz Journal)

At his State of the State last week, Gov. Bill Haslam introduced a new plan to make two years of community college or technical school free to Tennessee high school graduates, a proposal known as The Tennessee Promise. It’s among a series of programs he has introduced to address the state’s workforce development. Jessica Lee, a senior policy analyst for the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, recently highlighted the Tennessee Promise and other higher education policies from Haslam’s office. She called them “an innovative suite of proposals designed to improve access to higher education and better align the state’s institutions with the current and projected needs of industry.”

UT, Pellissippi sign student bridge agreement (News-Sentinel/Boehnke)

The University of Tennessee and Pellissippi State Community College finalized an agreement today that will allow more students to enroll in both schools at the same time, making it easier to transfer once they complete their associate’s degree. UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Pellissippi President Anthony Wise were scheduled to sign a memorandum of understanding that will widen and strengthen the already existing Volunteer Bridge Program. Founded in 2011, the invitation-only program that was extended to wait-listed students who applied to UT, 86 students have completed the program and another 38 are currently enrolled.

Health Dept. issues public health advisory on electronic cigarettes (CA/Locker)

The Tennessee Department of Health has issued a rare public health advisory urging caution on the use of electronic cigarettes and other electronic nicotine delivery systems, largely due to inadequate scientific information about their impacts on health and safety. The advisory also addresses concern about inadequate oversight of the manufacture of the products and about second-hand exposure to their vapors and emissions. “There is inadequate scientific information about the effects of using current electronic nicotine delivery systems to assure the public about the impact to safety and health.

OR Mall overhaul advances (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Fowler)

The state has crunched the numbers for a proposed overhaul of the nearly abandoned Oak Ridge Mall, and so far, they add up. State Comptroller Justin Wilson has given the state’s blessings to a tax increment financing plan for an ambitious $85 million project to demolish much of the nearly empty Oak Ridge Mall and build a mix of new retail stores, offices, residential units and a hotel in its place. It’s the final, official and required sign-off on the project after local governments and the Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board gave their thumbs-up last year Now underway: finding tenants for Crosland Southeast’s project.

Thousands of tax dollars wasted because no one looked at the bill (WSMV-TV)

Many utility customers across the state have received bills that are higher than normal this winter. But if your bill was 10 times the normal amount, wouldn’t you ask some questions? It turns out that was not the reaction at the state of Tennessee. The bills in question involve the Governor’s Executive Residence in Nashville, and officials simply paid them, costing taxpayers a lot of money. The water and sewer bills at the governor’s mansion had been running about $500 a month when, all of a sudden, they were $3,000 a month, $4,000 a month and even more. But it wasn’t the state’s finance people who caught the problem.

Alleged Rx drug sales result in TennCare Fraud charge (Times-News)

A Church Hill woman has been charged with TennCare fraud for allegedly selling prescription drugs paid for by the state’s Medicaid program. Earlier this week, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced the arrest of Brandi Gail Collins, 34, of Church Hill, after a joint investigation with the Church Hill Police Department. Collins is accused of obtaining prescriptions for the painkiller Oxycodone and Clonazepam, an anti-anxiety medication, while planning to unlawfully distribute a portion of the drugs. TennCare paid for the office visit during which the prescriptions were procured.

Lawmakers Grabbing Control Of Textbook Commission From Governor (WPLN)

The Tennessee legislature is trying to seize control of the state’s textbook commission over concerns about liberal bias. A bill passed an important hurdle in the Senate today over the objections of the Haslam Administration. Currently, the governor appoints all 10 members of the panel that authorizes every textbook used in the state. But the legislature wants authority over naming a majority of the commission. The power grab follows a campaign by activists to highlight instances of what they see anti-American and anti-Semitic bias in social studies books.

Sen. Jim Tracy moves to block Amp funding (Tennessean/Sisk)

The head of the Senate Transportation Committee moved to block funding for the Amp, introducing a measure Wednesday that would bar state money for some bus rapid transit projects. State Sen. Jim Tracy announced at a hearing on the state Department of Transportation’s budget that he would add language to an appropriations bill that would prohibit any spending on BRT services that use any portion of a state highway. The measure would keep TDOT and all other state agencies from spending state funds on the Amp, the proposed 7.1-mile BRT line from Saint Thomas West Hospital in West Nashville to Five Points in East Nashville.

TN bill calls for electrocutions if lethal injection unavailable (Tennessean/Sisk)

A bill filed in the Tennessee legislature would mandate electrocutions for all executions if lethal injection is unavailable. Senate Bill 2580, filed last week, would require the state to use the electric chair if a court strikes down lethal injection or if drugs needed to carry out the sentence are unavailable. Death-penalty opponents have challenged the humaneness of lethal injection, making some drugs harder to get, and the family of an Ohio man put to death in January has sued that state over the use of a substitute.

Panel OKs bill on in-state education for illegal immigrants in Tennessee (TFP/Sher)

Despite opposition from some members of his own party, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, on Wednesday persuaded a key panel to approve his bill allowing U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants living in Tennessee to attend public colleges paying in-state tuition rates. Among his arguments to reluctant fellow Republicans who dominate Senate Education Committee members? They need to vote yes from a “pure greed function,” Gardenhire explained as he led members through statistics showing college-educated children of illegal immigrant pay far more in taxes than they receive in government benefits.

Measure to Grant In-State Tuition to Children of Undocumented Immigrants (TNR)

A bill providing that American-born children of undocumented immigrants be eligible for in-state tuition at state-supported colleges and universities cleared the Senate Education Committee Wednesday on a 6-3 vote. Senate Bill 2115 provides that students who’re still legally dependents of their parents would be classified as residents of Tennessee and charged in-state tuition if they’ve been in the state for at least one year prior to college admission and either graduated from a high school in the state or earned a Tennessee high school equivalency diploma. During the hearing Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, questioned the fairness of the legislation.

TN legislators push balanced federal budget (Tennessean/McGee)

Tennessee’s legislative leaders have thrown their support behind a resolution calling for a balanced federal budget through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Such an amendment is possible under Article V of the Constitution, which requires 34 states to participate in a convention and 38 states to ratify the proposal. So far, 20 states have approved being part of a convention targeting a balanced budget. “If Congress and the president cannot or will not get the nation’s financial affairs in order, now is the time for the states to step in,” Speaker Beth Harwell said this week at a gathering hosted by the Tennessee chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Tennessee politicians band together for musicians (Memphis Business Journal)

If you’re looking for an issue that could bring together Tennessee politicians of all stripes, look no further than musicians. Today, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen, Jim Cooper and Marsha Blackburn — along with 29 other members of Congress — sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx about protecting musicians’ instruments on flights.“For any consumer, damaged or missing luggage can be a terrible inconvenience,” Cohen said. “But for musicians who rely on both their instruments and travel to earn a living, damaged or missing instruments can harm their ability to succeed and be detrimental to their careers.

Budding Obama-Haslam political relationship raising eyebrows (CA/Collins)

In a world filled with political odd couples, the bromance developing between President Barack Obama and Gov. Bill Haslam may not be the strangest alliance from the Mississippi to the Potomac. But in an era of hyperpartisanship, it is one that’s causing heads to turn and comes with mutual benefits and potential peril, particularly for Haslam. The latest sign of the bond between the Democratic president and the Republican governor turned up Tuesday night, when Haslam and his wife, Crissy, scored a coveted invitation to a White House state dinner for French President Francois Hollande.

Tenn. enrollment in health exchange up 66 percent (Associated Press)

Nearly 60,000 Tennesseans signed up for coverage under the federal health insurance exchange through January, a 66 percent increase since the beginning of year. According to nationwide statistics released Monday, 3.3 million people signed up from last Oct. 1 through Feb. 1. Of those who have signed up in Tennessee, adults ages 55 to 64 made up 33 percent of the total, while young adults between 18 and 34 made up 25 percent. Independent experts say that total needs to be closer to 40 percent to control costs. Seventy percent of enrollees selected the mid-level silver plan, while 16 percent chose the lowest bronze level.

Tennessee exchange enrollment climbs 65 percent (Nashville Business Journal)

The number of Tennesseans who’ve enrolled in a marketplace plan via the federal insurance exchange jumped to 59,705 as of Feb. 1, up more than 60 percent from 36,250 as of Dec. 28. According to the latest enrollment report from the Department of Health and Human Services, 3.3 million Americans have selected a marketplace plan during the first four months of the program, a 50 percent uptick from the total as of Dec. 28. In a note on the latest figures, Brian Haile, senior vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt, said the January uptick in enrollment likely stems from people’s low amount of available spending money in December because of expensive holiday shopping and high year-end debt, factors that prevent shoppers from buying new cars or tires or, in this case, health insurance, during December.

Healthcare.gov enrollments in Tennessee higher than national average (TN/McGee)

Tennessee’s enrollment rate in the federal health exchange was higher than the national enrollment growth rate in January, according to new federal statistics released Wednesday. In Tennessee, the federal government reported that 59,705 people had enrolled in Marketplace plans as of February 1. As of the last report, which covered through December 28, there were about 36,250 enrollees in Tennessee. That’s a growth rate of about 65 percent. However, enrollment in the federal exchange grew by 50 percent nationally in January. As of February 1, there are 3.3 million enrollees nationally.

NNSA chief: Y-12 incident involved 20 grams of enriched uranium (N-S/Munger)

The federal official who oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons complexes confirmed Wednesday that a mid-January incident at Y-12 involved the improper handling of two vials of highly enriched uranium, totaling 20 grams. Bruce Held, acting chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration, responded to questions about the incident during and after the opening session of the sixth annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit. The event is being held this week at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Va. Held said he’s still unable to discuss some details because of an ongoing inquiry into exactly what happened, but he characterized the uranium as being “improperly stored.”

Home Depot to hire hundreds in Nashville (Nashville Business Journal)

As part of its spring hiring push, retailer Home Depot is preparing to hire 260 people for its Nashville-area stores. Home Depot plans to hire 80,000 nationally, according to a news release. The local hires are for 13 stores. “Spring is our peak hiring season, giving us the opportunity to find some of the best associates who are passionate about customer service,” Tim Crow, Home Depot’s executive vice president for human resources, said in a news release. 

Home Depot to hire 180 in Knoxville (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Home improvement retailer The Home Depot said Wednesday it will hire 180 employees for its Knoxville stores as part of a corporate-wide effort to get ready for spring. The company plans to hire 80,000 workers nationwide for what is its busiest time of year. Students, retirees, veterans and reservists are encouraged to apply, Home Depot said in a news release. “For veterans and reservists interested in employment, The Home Depot’s online military skills translator can help match unique military skills to positions within the company,” the company said.

Corker says SUV vehicle will come without UAW (Times Free-Press/Flessner)

Volkswagen appears ready to add a second vehicle line and hire hundreds of additional workers in Chattanooga even if hourly employees at VW’s assembly plant vote against representation by the United Auto Workers, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Wednesday night as the unionization vote began. “I’ve had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new midsize SUV here in Chattanooga,” Corker said in a statement released Wednesday night.

Writing tests prep Memphis students for higher standards (CA/Roberts)

Everyday writing at Colonial takes edge off exam. If the private, edgy artist Edgar Degas had a pet, Colonial Middle seventh-grader Fallon Flowers is betting it would be an ostrich. As part of a writing assignment in art, so routine now at Colonial Middle School, she researched Degas and wrote what she learned, including her plucky argument for why he deserved an ostrich underfoot. “He is mean and has a private life,” Fallon said. “Ostriches are very aggressive, and they are very territorial.” Friday she will present her work to the class — her graceful, pastel rendition of the creature, complete with arching neck in the shades of pink that Degas loved so much, and her written argument.

 

OPINION 

Editorial: Community progress is tied closely to education (Jackson Sun)

A new report from the Pew Research Center should add to the public’s sense of urgency about improving public education. The report shows that the income gap between those with a high school education and those with a college education has more than doubled since 1965. Clearly, in the 21st century, post-secondary education is the key to community prosperity and achieving a middle-class income. The report shows that young college graduates between the ages of 25 and 32 who are working full time earn about $17,500 more than their high school graduate counterparts ($45,500 versus $28,000).

Editorial: Making College Pay (New York Times)

It seems logical: College graduates have lower unemployment and earn more than less educated workers, so, the thinking goes, the fix for today’s anemic growth in jobs and wages is to make sure that more people earn college degrees. But that’s a common misperception, deflecting attention from the serious work that has to be done to create jobs and improve incomes. A college education remains a path to more stable, higher-paying employment. The recent jobless rate for college graduates ages 25 and older was 3.2 percent, and their median pay at full-time, full-year jobs was $75,300 for men and $53,700 for women.

Editorial: State Legislature unwise to usurp executive power (News-Sentinel)

Not content with attempting to block the enforcement of federal laws and removing local control from cities and counties on some matters, some in the state Legislature’s Republican supermajority now want to undermine the authority of the governor’s office. This pattern of power-grabbing is in some cases futile — states cannot nullify federal laws, for example — but presents a danger to the system of checks and balances developed in the state for more than two centuries. State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, is sponsoring a bill that would require the governor to get specific approval from the Legislature for any move to lay off 50 or more state employees in any department or agency.

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