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July 16 TN News Digest

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

Editorial: VW puts more tread on Tennessee’s tires (Tennessean)
State officials and Chattanooga leaders have much to be proud of with the announcement of an expansion to the Volkswagen plant that will result in more than 2,000 additional jobs and represent a $600 million investment by the German automaker in Tennessee. It comes at a good time, when the economy is still slow to recover its footing and state revenues have fallen off. The details are highly positive: The 2,000 SUV assembly jobs will more than double the number of direct employees at the plant; plus 200 positions will be created for a research and development center, a first for the auto industry in the Southeast.

Volkswagen hints at more growth for Chattanooga plant (Tennessean/Williams)
As state and local officials celebrated Volkswagen’s decision to expand the company’s Chattanooga plant to assemble a new SUV, officials of the German automaker suggested that there’s more news ahead. During a homespun ceremony at the Hunter Museum downtown Tuesday afternoon, where VW officials originally announced exactly six years ago plans to build its U.S. plant here, Volkswagen’s top U.S. executive said the facility is under consideration to get even more vehicles. The plant, which opened in 2011, now makes only the Passat sedan.

How VW deal unfolded (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Flessner, Pare)
A deal to grow Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant by 1,350 more jobs became richer as talks progressed between the state and the automaker, which made it clear that it’s eyeing much more U.S. sales than it has garnered to date. That’s how, said Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam in Chattanooga on Tuesday, VW’s expansion of its plant here ballooned to 2,000 jobs, including 200 in what he termed a first-of-its-kind auto research and development center in the South “As long as you’re talking about expanding, let’s take a bigger bite now and include the R&D piece,” Haslam said negotiators told VW. “As they started talking business growth, we said ‘Why not sooner than later.’”

Volkswagen’s ripple effect throughout Chattanooga (WDEF-TV Chattanooga)
The Volkswagen expansion will create around two thousand good paying jobs for the area, and many know that means good things for Chattanooga. “The announcement by Volkswagen is really going to make this a boom town,” said Chattanooga Councilman Moses Freeman. The ripple of one announcement sent shock waves through Chattanooga’s business community, because of something called the multiplier effect. Councilman Freeman said great to see this happening. “It’s going to be a very positive influence on the economic revitalization and development here in Chattanooga.”

VW official: New SUV to be produced in Chattanooga is ‘a stunner’ (TFP/Pare)
Volkswagen Group of America chief Michael Horn on Tuesday said that the new sport utility vehicle the company will produce at its Chattanooga plant is “a stunner.” “You can be sure it will be top of the line,” Horn said at the Hunter Museum where officials talked about the company creating 2,000 more jobs at the factory as it aims to start producing the SUV by late 2016. Horn said that the concept vehicle it showed off at the North American International Auto Show in January 2013 has been refined. The new vehicle will have “a great design, be tops in safety, quality” and possess the technology Americans want, he said.

UBS commits $150K to Launch Tennessee to boost startups (Tennessean/Ward)
Swiss banking giant UBS has committed $150,000 over two years to Launch Tennessee to help create high-growth businesses in the state. As a part of the initiative, the bank’s employees will also serve as mentors to entrepreneurs. Robert J. McCann, UBS CEO of Wealth Management Americas, announced the partnership during a ribbon-cutting for the financial company’s new business solutions center at the downtown building now UBS Tower. Launch Tennessee is a public-private partnership focused on supporting economic development through entrepreneurship.

Tennessee has a drug problem (Memphis Business Journal)
Tennessee has a serious drug problem, though perhaps not with the kind of drugs that immediately come to mind. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta shows that the Volunteer State has more prescriptions for painkillers than any other state. Tennessee is tied with neighboring Alabama for the most pain pill prescriptions with 143 per 100 people. You read that right. There are more prescriptions for pain medication than there are citizens. The CDC defines prescription painkillers as opioid or narcotic pain relievers, including drugs such as Vicodin (hydrocodone + acetaminophen), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone), and methadone.

Tennessee Road Projects Could Face Cuts in August (Associated Press)
Tennessee has funding for 13 road-widening projects totaling more than $200 million, including a $15.6 million Shelby County project, waiting on whether Congress refreshes the federal Highway Trust Fund in August. Without Congressional reauthorization, federal transportation officials will start cutting money sent to state agencies on Aug. 1, which would set off cutbacks in states’ road projects. Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer told WBIR-TV in Knoxville (http://on.wbir.com/1ks2UW8) the agency has a list of projects it planned to launch in fiscal year 2014, but has pushed back to 2015 because of concerns about funding.

Tennessee health advocates criticize TennCare response (TFP/Harrison)
Health advocates in Tennessee and in the Southeast say they are “disappointed” and “troubled” by TennCare’s response to federal officials about problems with the state’s Medicaid application system. TennCare officials released a strongly worded response to federal officials on Monday evening, taking issue with federal criticism that TennCare Director Darrin Gordon described as “greatly exaggerated.” The original federal letter from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that Tennessee has failed to meet all but one of seven federal requirements to get a new eligibility system up and running under the Affordable Care Act.

Report: Safety commissioner uses TN Highway Patrol as chauffers (CA/Humphrey)
Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons is chauffeured by state Highway Patrol officers in commuting between his Nashville office and his Memphis home, reports Nashville station WTVF-TV. Typically, he has two officers involved — one driving him halfway to Memphis in the commissioner’s car with the other in a patrol car following behind. Then the driving trooper drops Gibbons off at Exit 108 on Interstate 40 and returns to Nashville with the officer who had been following. On one trip reporter Phil Williams says the troopers were clocked at better than 80 mph.

State working to protect service members from getting scammed (WSMV-TV Nash)
Men and women in uniform make great sacrifices for their country, and now the state of Tennessee is taking extra steps to protect them from fraud here at home. Shady businesses can prey on soldiers who often don’t know how to fight back or don’t have the time. The state attorney general’s office has issued a new consumer guide with information on how service members can fight unfair business practices. In one recent case, more than 4,000 Fort Campbell soldiers were overcharged for computers that were sold at a mall kiosk.

Tennessee has record year for lottery sales (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Education Lottery Corp. has had a record year with $1.4 billion in sales for fiscal year 2014. According to the lottery, this year’s sales provided more than $337 million for targeted education programs. Those include college scholarships and grants, after-school programs for children and an initiative to make schools more energy efficient. In all, the lottery has provided more than $3 billion for education since ticket sales began a decade ago. It has funded more than 800,000 grants or scholarships since 2004. More than 100,000 grants or scholarships were awarded just in the past academic year.

Carr lent money to supporter’s company (Tennessean/Sisk)
State Rep. Joe Carr lent a company affiliated with a prominent supporter $200,000 in campaign funds last year — a transaction that campaign finance experts said appears to be extremely unusual. Life Watch Pharmacy, a Nashville company led by venture capitalist and conservative fundraiser Andrew Miller, was given the sum last year and paid it back this spring, the Carr campaign said Tuesday after updating filings with the Federal Election Commission. The campaign, Joe Carr for Senate, received $9,564.54 in income off the loan. Campaign finance records show that Miller gave a total of $5,200 in contributions to Carr for the 2014 election cycle last June, the maximum allowed.

Woman pregnant while making, taking meth gets 151 months (N-S/Boehnke)
A federal judge Tuesday handed down a harsher sentence to a member of a methamphetamine manufacturing ring because she was eight-months pregnant at the time she helped cook and sample the drugs. In what may have been the first sentencing case of its kind, Lacey Weld, 26, of Dandridge received a 12-year, seven-month prison term after pleading guilty last year to conspiring to cook meth. Her lawyer, John Eldridge, said he plans to appeal U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan’s decision to apply a sentencing guideline that added prison time for putting a minor — Weld’s unborn child — at “substantial risk” while making meth.

Gov. Haslam: Pilot Flying J agreement good for company (Associated Press)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says the truck stop company he co-owns can start putting the fraud investigation behind it after it struck a deal with prosecutors to pay a $92 million fine and acknowledge that employees cheated customers. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Tennessee announced the company has agreed to pay the fine in an agreement signed Friday. Haslam is not involved in Pilot Flying J’s day-to-day operations of the company that is co-owned by his brother, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

Council Hears Alternatives to Health Insurance Cuts (Memphis Daily News)
Memphis City Council members fielded several plans Tuesday, July 15, for alternatives to health insurance cuts approved by the council last month. But leaders of the police and fire unions were not among those making an alternative proposal at the committee session, the first in a series of what amount to public hearings. At the main council session later Tuesday, Memphis Police Association director Mike Williams urged the council to put a city-wide referendum on the ballot this year to increase the local option sales tax rate by half a cent. “You put it on there and we’ll go get it approved,” Williams said.

Blackburn, Black argue against lifting abortion restrictions (Tennessean/Barton)
A bill to roll back state restrictions on abortions drew the fire of two Tennessee Republicans on Tuesday. “This legislation would jeopardize and nullify hundreds of laws that protect both mothers and their unborn children,” testified Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood. “Abortions not only pose serious physical health risks, but endanger a woman’s mental health as well,” added Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin. Their comments came as the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Women’s Health Protection Act. The bill, which has 124 cosponsors in the House and 35 in the Senate, is an attempt to strike back at state laws passed in recent years making it more difficult for abortion clinics to stay in business and for women to have access to the procedure.

Scott DesJarlais ad hits airwaves, slams Jim Tracy (Times Free-Press/Sher)
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais went up with his first television ad on Tuesday that touts his conservative record and slams his GOP primary challenger, state Sen. Jim Tracy, as a supporter of Common Core education standards who “tried to make gas taxes automatic.” The move comes as both candidates in the 4th Congressional District Republican primary filed second-quarter campaign finance disclosures with the Federal Election Commission. The embattled South Pittsburg physician reported $184,505 cash on hand as of June 30. Between April 1 and June 30 he raised $45,484 and spent $59,335, including $9,500 on polling. The $70,000 television ad buy was purchased after the reporting period.

Congressional candidate Wamp’s work status raises questions (TFP/Brogdon)
If 3rd District congressional candidate Weston Wamp has been on paid leave from Lamp Post Group — as a founding partner said early this month — he could find himself in an election finance nightmare. Money that he was paid for times he wasn’t working could be counted as a campaign contribution, said Larry Nobel, a lawyer for Campaign Legal Center and former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. “When you are a doing a job that is a regular job that has defined duties, and you aren’t doing it, it’s a campaign contribution,” Nobel said. “It could also even be an illegal contribution,” he said, because corporations can’t make political donations to candidates.

House Passes Interim Fix for Highway Trust Fund (New York Times)
The House on Tuesday easily approved a short-term fix to the nearly depleted federal highway trust fund, as the prospects of hundreds of thousands of job losses and stalled road construction in August overwhelmed the protests of conservative groups that opposed the bill. The 367-to-55 vote was more grudging than it appeared. Democrats, led by President Obama, denounced Congress’s failure to pass a multiyear transportation bill that likely would have needed tax increases to fund the nation’s infrastructure needs. Conservatives — and some liberal Democrats — called the funding mechanisms for the $11 billion House bill gimmicks that masked the true cost.

TVA ranked 9th in nation for green power sales (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Valley Authority is one of the top 10 utilities for green power sales. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory ranked TVA at number nine nationally for 2013. In addition, the city of Oak Ridge was designated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first Green Power Community in the Southeast. That’s based in part on participation in TVA’s Green Power Switch program. According to the utility, Green Power Switch gives consumers and businesses the opportunity to buy blocks of electricity generated by renewable resources like solar and wind.

FedEx considering Wilson County for distribution center (Tennessean/Humbles)
Global shipping giant FedEx Corp. is considering opening a large-scale operation in Wilson County that could bring a substantial number of jobs to Middle Tennessee, multiple sources say. Mt. Juliet Commissioner Jim Bradshaw said Memphis-based FedEx is looking along Interstate 40 near Beckwith Road. Several other sources have confirmed in recent weeks that the delivery giant is considering Wilson County, along with other sites in the U.S. Jack Lowery is the majority owner of about 63 acres along I-40 near Beckwith Road that was recently rezoned by Mt. Juliet for industrial use.

Is Volkswagen preparing for a union in Chattanooga? (Tennessean/Williams)
Perhaps signaling that Volkswagen is about to accept the United Auto Workers union into its Chattanooga plant, the German automaker has named its top labor official – global works council Chairman Bernd Osterloh – to the board of directors of Volkswagen Group of America. After the VW workers in February narrowly defeated a bid by the UAW to unionize the plant, Osterloh vowed to keep the new SUV from Chattanooga unless a German-style works council was established. The automaker has such worker-management councils in nearly all of its plants worldwide; they allow salaried and hourly workers to help shape policies in the workplace other than pay and benefits.

School Board approves revised budget (Ashland City Times)
The Cheatham County School Board approved a $45.6 million budget for the 2014-2015 school year on Thursday — just three days after rejecting it. The revised budget includes using $433,665 from the fund balance to balance the budget. A one-percent pay raise for all school employees is also included. Voting for the budget were Brian Chase, Michele Collins, Dan Moore and Dianne Proffitt. Tim Williamson voted no, and Willy Johnson was absent. The budget will now be presented to the Cheatham County Commission for approval. The board originally approved the budget in June, but had to re-vote on it at the July 7 meeting after the commission reduced the school district’s portion of the property tax rate by one penny — or $68,912.

North Carolina: Governor Leaving ‘Door Open’ to Medicaid Expansion (Governing)
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said he’s “open” to Medicaid expansion to cover 500,000 low-income people in his state, but the first-term Republican also insisted on first getting together a plan to manage what have become yearly cost overruns in health care. McCrory, who served as the mayor of Charlotte for 14 years, made his remarks during an interview with Charlotte’s NPR affiliate. While he’s never outright rejected expansion, his comments — coming after a National Governors Association meeting during which he spoke with federal health officials — are the strongest he’s yet made on the possibility of going forward.

 

OPINION

Editorial: House plan on highways irresponsible (USA Today)
Perhaps nothing better illustrates congressional irresponsibility more than the temporary highway funding measure pending in the House. The bill would fund highway construction by allowing companies to sock away less money for their workers’ retirement. Companies would pay more in income tax, as their pension contributions are non-taxable. And that additional revenue would be used to keep the Highway Trust Fund from going broke, at least until the end of May. That’s right. The House wants to undermine the long-term viability of private pension plans and increase the chances that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. would be called on to partially bail out some of these plans.

Editorial: Highways Need a Higher Gas Tax (New York Times)
About 10,000 motorists die each year because of inadequate road conditions, and millions of other Americans waste large portions of their lives stuck in traffic or stalled trains. The enormous cost to society of poor infrastructure grows every year, and most of the blame can be placed directly on a Congress that refuses to collect and spend enough money to fix it. On Tuesday the House made the situation worse with a sad excuse for a highway funding bill: A 10-month measure that keeps spending at an inadequate level and does not address the dwindling revenues that keep producing all-too-familiar cliffhanging crises.

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