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May 16 TN News Digest

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

Haslam signs Promise bill at Fulton (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Boehnke)
Simmone Smith wants to be a photojournalist, and her path to get there will likely start with a community college. Especially now that it’s free. The Fulton High School junior will be among the first class of high school graduates across the state who will be able to take advantage of the newly signed law making community college free. “I would rather take the advantage while I can,” Smith said. “It’s going to be available and this is a great opportunity for all students. But I would like to indulge in this opportunity as well.” Smith was one of hundreds of students, Knox County school administrators, lawmakers and other local officials on hand for a ceremonial signing of the law by Gov. Bill Haslam.

Gov. Haslam signs ‘Tennessee Promise’ bill at Fulton High School (WATE-TV)
Gov. Bill Haslam was in Knoxville Thursday for a ceremonial signing of the “Tennessee Promise” bill at Fulton High School. The bill commits to providing two years of community college or a college of applied technology free of tuition and fees to graduating seniors on a continuing basis. “This is a bold promise,” Haslam said. “It is a promise that speaks volumes to current and prospective employers, and it is a promise that will make a real difference for generations of Tennesseans.”

Gov. Haslam signs ‘Tennessee Promise’ at Knox County high school (WVLT-TV)
Fulton High School students watched history happen Thursday as Governor Bill Haslam signed a landmark bill for better education. The governor is touring the state, ceremoniously signing his “Tennessee Promise” bill into law. Hundreds of students packed into the school’s auditorium to watch the signing of a bill that could send every one of these students to college. “It really touched me on the inside, because there’s a lot of people I know that are having trouble attending college and paying for it,” sophomore Devin Cullom said. “And it really helps out a lot.”

Haslam signs bill that gives grads two years of community college free (H-C)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam made a promise Thursday to his grandchild, expected to be born at any time, and all children across the state. Tuition and fees at any community college in the Volunteer State will be paid for all high school graduates starting in 2015 through a program called Tennessee Promise. “It’s a guarantee, because it’s funded with an endowment.” Haslam told a crowd of students at Sullivan Central High School. “If you are a high school junior or a baby born today, the Tennessee Promise counts for you.” The scholarship is a last-dollar scholarship. The state will pay any excess tuition after other financial aid, besides loans, has been utilized at the state’s community and technical colleges.

Gov. Haslam visits Sullivan Central for ceremonial signing of free tuition bill (T-N)
Sullivan County’s “Educate and Grow” last-dollar scholarship program got the credit as the foundation for a statewide initiative at Gov. Bill Haslam’s ceremonial “Tennessee Promise” bill signing on Thursday at Central High School. The Educate and Grow scholarship began giving free tuition to students attending Northeast State Community College more than 10 years ago. “The best part is this (Tennessee Promise) is modeled after the plan we’ve had in Sullivan County for awhile — Educate and Grow,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, told CHS students during the ceremony.

Governor Bill Haslam Makes Good On Tennessee Promise (WDEF-TV Chattanooga)
The t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted. It’s official. Starting next school year, every high school senior in Tennessee will have the opportunity to attend a 2-year community college completely free of charge. Reida Spitzner, an educator and parent, says, “I am excited. I think he’s doing a lot for education.” Spitzner is an educator at Lookout Valley Middle High School. She tells us her 20-year-old would have jumped at the opportunity. Spitzner adds, “She definitely would have, definitely would have went right into college.” Instead, she’s working and saving up money in order to attend a two year school.

Governor Haslam signs ‘Tenn. Promise’ at local school (WCYB-TV Chattanooga)
Helping high school graduates get the training they need is a top priority for Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. On Thursday, that dream became closer to being a reality after the governor was at Sullivan Central High School for a ceremonial signing of that bill. Graduating from high school can be an exciting time, but also a stressful time for some students trying to find money to move on to higher education. The ‘Tennessee Promise’ could be the help some have been looking for.

Haslam signs Tennessee Promise into law (WRCB-TV Chattanooga)
A bill to provide free secondary education to all high school graduates was signed into law Thursday by Governor Bill Haslam. The education program is called Tennessee Promise and education experts say it’s an incentive for students to perform better. The initiative is part of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” campaign to improve the state’s graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025. The governor has said the measure will help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state. The program will be paid for by using excess lottery reserve funds.

Tennessee April unemployment rate 6.3 percent (Associated Press)
Tennessee’s unemployment rate for April was 6.3 percent, the state’s lowest rate in six years. According to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the state’s unemployment rate has decreased from 8.3 percent to 6.3 percent over the past year. The current number of people unemployed is 192,000. That’s 11,700 lower than last month and the lowest since May 2008. The national unemployment rate for April was also 6.3 percent. State figures show that nonfarm employment increased by 2,400 jobs from March to April.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate drops (Nashville Business Journal)
Tennessee’s unemployment rate took a tumbled in April, falling to 6.3 percent, down from March’s revised rate of 6.7 percent. Tennessee’s decrease mirrored the nation’s, which also fell from 6.7 to 6.3 percent. According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the state’s unemployment rate has fallen from 8.3 percent over the past year. The national unemployment rate has fallen from 7.5 percent. The number of unemployed Tennesseans fell by 11,700 over the past month, reaching the lowest level since May 2008.

Jobless rate drops, but wages remain stagnant in Tennessee (TFP/Flessner)
Unemployment in Tennessee fell to the lowest level in nearly six years last month and, for the first time since 2011, matched the national jobless rate. Tennessee added 48,000 jobs in the past year to cut the state’s unemployment rate in April to 6.3 percent. But much of the decline in the jobless rate last month came from a decline in the number of Tennesseans in the labor force, not just from job additions. “We’re seeing many Baby boomers retire and there are still many discouraged workers giving up looking for work,” said William Fox, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate hits lowest point since 2008 (Daily News Journal)
Over the past year, Tennessee’s unemployment rate has fallen 2 percent to the a rate last seen six years ago, Tennessee Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips announced Thursday. The Tennessee preliminary unemployment rate for April is 6.3 percent, which is four-tenths of 1 percent lower than the 6.7-percent revised rate posted in March and equal to the national preliminary rate for April. The U.S. revised rate for March was also 6.7 percent. Over the past year, the national rate decreased from 7.5 percent to 6.3 percent.

Huffman talks standards, achievement gaps (Knoxville News-Sentinel/McCoy)
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told members of the National Urban League and its local affiliates that when the General Assembly delayed assessments to test students on new Common Core standards, it was a “terrible, terrible decision.” “We were as ready as any state in the country to give a new assessment that asks higher-quality questions, that asks more of our students, and ensures that our students were on track,” he said. “I think it’s going to slow us down.” He said the state is going through the process of choosing a new test, but even after that happens there will still be some who will say students aren’t ready.

Haslam discusses school funding reduction (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
Governor Bill Haslam responded to questions in Knoxville about a newly announced drop in state funding that’s set to impact the Knox County School system. Haslam visited Fulton High School Thursday afternoon to sign the “Tennessee Promise” into law. According to new estimates, funding from the state’s Basic Education Program, or BEP, dropped $2.9 million because of lower than expected revenues. Haslam says he agrees the late notice on new numbers has put districts in a bad position. He says a state commission comes up with this particular formula.

Tennessee Revenue Collections Continue to Improve (Associated Press)
Tennessee revenue collections are continuing to show signs of improvement, with April figures exceeding expectations. Finance Commissioner Larry Martin said in a news release on Thursday that overall revenues were $75 million more than the state budgeted for April, which reflects economic activity in the previous month. The state’s general fund exceeded expectations by $69.8 million. Corporate franchise and excise taxes were $4.9 million above the budgeted estimate for the month, and sales taxes were $4.8 million more than expected.

Gov. Haslam hints at Briggs endorsement (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)
Gov. Bill Haslam may make Knoxville’s Richard Briggs the first challenger of an incumbent state legislators to receive his political endorsement in a Republican primary — and he has come fairly close already. Briggs, a physician and Knox County commissioner, is opposing Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, in the Aug. 7 Republican primary. Haslam joined other Republican leaders last week in criticizing Campfield for likening “Obamacare” to the murder of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust in a blog post.

Commissioner: Tenn. DCS working to improve services, keep families together (JS)
“There’s no social worker in the state that gets up and thinks about injuring a kid,” Henry, who is head of the department, said. “Sometimes it’s the systems we have that cause us problems.” One of the changes Henry mentioned is that the department will purchase 2,600 tablet computers for field agents to use. “That will allow people to use their time better,” he said. An example of that, Henry said, would a situation where an agent could use the tablet to file case notes while sitting in court waiting for his case to begin.

State renews admissions to 3 nursing homes (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Department of Health is allowing new admissions to three nursing homes that were disciplined because of alleged inadequate conditions at the facilities. News releases from the department say suspensions of admissions have been lifted at Oakwood Community Living Center, a 50-bed nursing home in Dyersburg, and Ripley Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, a 144-bed nursing home in Ripley. A suspension of admissions also has been lifted for Golden Living Center Mountain View, a 132-bed nursing home in Winchester.

University of Memphis had more than 13,000 applications for fall semester (MBJ)
The University of Memphis just finished its spring semester, but the school is already preparing for an enrollment increase for the fall 2014 semester. According to recently released information, the University of Memphis has received 13,294 applications for the fall semester, an increase of 70 percent from Spring 2013. Of the applications, 10,221 are from first-time freshman, while 2,259 are from transfers. The number of first-time freshmen applications nearly doubled in 2014 to 10,221, compared to 5,272 in 2013.

Despite criminal record, drug scammer got state license (Tennessean/Roche)
The company at the heart of a nearly $60 million illegal prescription drug operation was able to get a Tennessee drug distributor’s license even though one of its principals had an extensive criminal record. Records show that Charles J. Edwards, 52, who recently pleaded guilty to mail fraud in federal court, has multiple prior arrests and has served time in prisons in Texas and Georgia. He pleaded guilty in 1993 to aggravated sexual assault and in 1994 was charged with indecency with a minor. Other charges against Edwards include theft and marijuana possession. A theft charge last year in Texas was dismissed.

Corker housing finance bill clears committee, with prospects uncertain (TN/Barton)
Sen. Bob Corker’s year-long quest to revamp the housing finance system cleared committee Thursday, but the Tennessee senator acknowledged he will need more support to get a Senate floor vote. By a 13-9 margin, the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee approved legislation that calls for a five-year phase out of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac). They would be replaced by a new Federal Mortgage Insurance Corp. to backstop private-sector home lending in a way similar to how the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. backstops banks.

ABC’s ‘Nashville’ accepts $8 million incentive package (Tennessean/Rau)
“Nashville” will be returning to Nashville. The ABC drama, which was renewed last week for a third season, will receive a combined $8 million incentive package from the state of Tennessee, Metro Nashville, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. and Ryman Hospitality Properties in order to keep the production filming in Middle Tennessee. The deal was struck after weeks of negotiations, serious flirtations with moving to Texas or Georgia and anxious waiting for news of renewal from ABC. The incentive package is lower than the Season 2 incentives, which totaled $13.25 million.

Selling Manufacturing to a New Generation (Stateline)
Manufacturers across the United States are targeting schools and colleges to let young people know there is more to manufacturing than pulling levers on an assembly line. “People still have the idea that manufacturing is a dirty dungeon place,” said Andy Bushmaker of KI Furniture, a maker of school desks and cafeteria tables in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The goal, Bushmaker said, is to get people to see manufacturing jobs as the high-tech, high-skilled and high-paying careers they can be in the second decade of the 21st century. Today’s manufacturers, whether they are making cars, airplanes, or iPhone parts, are looking for engineers, designers, machinists and computer programmers.

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