September 18 TN News Digest

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

Haslam announces competition for $10 million in development grants (AP)
Gov. Bill Haslam has announced a new statewide initiative to help residents get more education and training for jobs that are available in their communities. Haslam says the Tennessee Higher Education Commission is accepting applications from partnerships across the state for $10 million in grants from the Labor Education Alignment Program. Applicants must represent a partnership between a local economic development agency, a community college, the local school district and at least two employers. The program is part of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” campaign to help residents get an education or other training beyond high school. He says that will allow them to “get better jobs and create better lives.” The competition for grant money is open through Nov. 17. Applicants can apply for up to $1 million. (SUBSCRIPTION)

Governor launches $1M grant competition (Memphis Business Journal)
As part of his Drive to 55 initiative, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has launched the Labor Education Alignment Program competition, a state effort focused on increasing opportunities for Tennesseans to obtain a certificate or degree beyond high school aligned with the needs of the workforce in their communities. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission will administer the program and is currently accepting applications from local organizations looking to create new programs or acquire equipment that will help train potential workers. The LEAP program is being funded by $10 million that was included in the state’s 2014-15 budget. Organizations can apply for grants worth up to $1 million. The application process will run until Nov. 17.

Gov. Bill Haslam launches workforce grants program (Tennessean/Stroud)
Gov. Bill Haslam has launched a competitive $10 million grant program to enlist the help of education and community groups in better preparing Tennesseans for the workforce. The Labor Education Alignment Program, administered by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, will be accepting grant applications for new programs to help fill gaps in the workforce through Nov. 17. Applicants can apply for grants of up to $1 million. “Our goal with the Drive 55 is to encourage more Tennesseans to obtain a certificate or degree beyond high school, so that they can ultimately get better jobs and create better lives,” Haslam said in a statement. “The LEAP competition will create partnerships between employers and higher education institutions that will be an important step in making this goal a reality.”

Local goal: all 1,850 seniors to apply for TN Promise (Tennessean/Yankova)
Sumner senior Austin Wike was planning to attend the University of Tennessee. The Tennessee Promise program changed his mind, especially with a tight financial situation at home. After applying for the new program, Wike plans to study business or economics for two years at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin for free before continuing his education at UT. And he does not see going to a community college as a disadvantage “at all.” “It’s actually an advantage because I won’t get distracted by the big party scene at a big school,” said Wike, 17, who lives in Gallatin and attends Merrol Hyde Magnet School in Hendersonville.

Haslam, Bredesen urge passage of Amendment 2 in November (N-S/Vines)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and his predecessor, Phil Bredesen, said Wednesday a proposed constitutional amendment on the selection of appellate court judges provides clarity and accountability that is needed to keep the state’s judicial system fair and impartial. Amendment 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot is close to the way Tennessee governors have operated for decades in selecting judges for the appellate courts and state Supreme Court, with the judges later facing a retention election. With the amendment, the state Legislature would confirm or reject future gubernatorial appointees. Opponents feel the current state Constitution says all judges are to be popularly elected — and they want to keep it that way.

Haslam, Bredesen team up to promote Amendment 2 (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
Governor Bill Haslam made a trip to Knoxville to promote Amendment Two on the upcoming November ballots. The Republican governor teamed up with former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen to talk about the selection of state judges. They also wanted to educate people about what Amendment Two even is. They say if Amendment Two doesn’t pass, it would put all 29 appellate judges on the ballot every election and also could bring in out-of-state interest groups looking to ‘buy’ state courts and influence the selection of judges. It’s an item that both Bredesen and Haslam agree on– showing some bipartisan support.

Volkswagen kickstarting expansion for SUV (Times Free-Press/Pare)
Volkswagen’s $900 million expansion to build a sport utility vehicle at its Chattanooga plant is off and running, with new construction to the factory’s body shop, assembly finish area and technical center up first. “Speed is of the essence,” David Calfee, VW’s manager of construction planning, told about 30 builders and others at a pre-bid conference Wednesday. VW plans to construct at least 213,000 square feet of new space in the first part of the project. There’s also an alternative to add another 43,000 square feet to the body shop if company officials so choose. In total, that’s nearly half of the 538,000 square feet the automaker plans to add to its 2 million-square-foot factory in Chattanooga.

Tennessee gets mixed grades in national education report (M. Biz Journal)
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has released the fourth edition of its Leaders & Laggards series, “A State-by-State Report Card on K–12 Educational Effectiveness.” The report examines education systems through 11 critical areas, including academic achievement for low-income and minority students, post-secondary and workforce readiness and parental options. In its national overview, the report singles out Tennessee for “more academic achievement improvements than any other state in the country between 2011 and 2013.” The report notes former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s school reform agenda and current state Gov. Bill Haslam’s expansion of charter schools.

Haslam’s wait-and-see on pre-K could stretch longer (Tennessean/Garrison)
Though Gov. Bill Haslam might apply for a federal prekindergarten grant, he’s still waiting for findings from an ongoing study before deciding whether to pursue expanding Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program with state dollars. That means he’s likely to be in wait-and-see mode for another year – perhaps even much longer. State education officials sent a notice of intent last week to apply for the competitive federal Preschool Development Grant, which could be as much as $70 in federal funds over four years for pre-K expansion in Tennessee as part of $250 million dangled to states overall. The deadline to formally apply is Oct. 14.

Haslam, legislative speakers call education summit (Associated Press)
Gov. Bill Haslam says a summit convening in Nashville is meant to review the ongoing education overhaul in Tennessee and plan for the future. Thursday’s event titled “Progress of the Past, Present and Future” will involve elected officials and representatives from 24 organizations focusing on K-12 and higher education. House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey are also expected to discuss education changes in Tennessee. Ramsey told reporters earlier this week that he will talk about school choice, which will likely open the door for discussion about vouchers.

Unclear If Common Core Will Be Discussed At Haslam’s Education Summit (WPLN)
Governor Bill Haslam’s office is being vague about the details of Thursday’s education summit, an event announced more than two weeks ago. A Haslam spokesman said the gathering is expected to cover the state’s history of education reform and current data on Tennessee’s progress. But the administration has not disclosed a list of speakers, nor what specific topics will be discussed. Haslam said the summit will include a variety of perspectives on topics that interest people who follow education issues. “So this is a chance to get a lot of people together and have a discussion that’s not meant to be final in any way,” Haslam said.

MTSU retooling financial aid to boost graduation (Associated Press)
Middle Tennessee State University is changing its financial aid package to encourage students to graduate in four years. The university announced on Wednesday that it will supplement the Hope Lottery Scholarships of incoming students who stay on track to graduate. The school will pay $500 to Hope scholarship students after each of their first two years. The school also will pay what it calls a “Finish Line Scholarship” to graduating seniors. That scholarship will return any tuition increases the student paid over the four years. In addition, MTSU will begin guaranteeing Transfer Academic Scholarships to all qualifying students from the state’s 14 community colleges.

McPhee reveals new financial aid packages (Daily News Journal)
Middle Tennessee State University will supplement HOPE Lottery Scholarships of incoming students who stay on track to graduate in four years — and pay a Finish Line Scholarship to graduating seniors that will return any tuition increases over that span. Both initiatives, which apply to students entering the university this fall, are part of the MTSU Student Success Advantage, which President Sidney A. McPhee announced in Chattanooga on Wednesday on the first leg of the six-city True Blue Tour, according to a university news release. This effort is part of MTSU’s overall “Quest for Student Success” initiative, a series of reforms launched last year to boost graduation and retention rates through changes such as course redesigns, enhanced advising and new student data tracking software.

TDOC no longer ‘supervising’ dead felons (Tennessean/Haas)
The Tennessee Department of Correction doesn’t appear to be “supervising” dead felons anymore. A state audit released on Wednesday followed up on a host of problems identified at the agency over the past two years, including the discovery in 2012 that at least 82 dead ex-inmates were being actively supervised by parole officers. The audit found that the agency has fixed a good number of the problems identified, but still has work to do. “We’ve made significant progress while continuing to supervise offenders and not compromise public safety,” said TDOC spokeswoman Neysa Taylor. “Some of the systems the department has put in place take time to demonstrate significant results but we are pleased with the amount of progress the department has made and continues to make.”

Family and friends of inmates visit with TDOC officials (Jackson Sun)
A relative of an inmate paused before asking a few questions to officials from the Tennessee Department of Corrections. He said his loved one is incarcerated but is in an educational program. He was there to see what he could do to help. The individual was one of several who visited with officials from the Tennessee Department of Corrections, which held a Family and Friends Forum at the National Guard Armory in Jackson on Wednesday. Officials from the department included chief of staff Bill Gupton; corrections chief of staff Chuck Taylor; Jason Woodall, the deputy commissioner of operations; assistant commissioner Tony Parker; Bobby Straughter, assistant commissioner over probation, parole and field services; Wes Landers, chief financial officer and Marina Cadreche, interim assistant commissioner for rehabilitation services.

University of Memphis ranks 2nd from bottom in library funding (CA/Roberts)
The University of Memphis libraries, including the $27 million Ned R. McWherter Library, are funded at such a bare-bones level, its membership in the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries is in danger, according to the group’s leader. The U of M ranks next to last in funding among 37 major research universities in the Southeast and has for several years, according to the association’s criteria. Only the University of Alabama-Birmingham is lower. “The University of Memphis is on probation due to funding issues,” ASERL executive director John Burger said. “I can’t say much more. We are working with the administration. We have had some productive conversations with them. We expect to resolve the issues in the next few months.”

Two charged with TennCare fraud in Weakley Co. (Jackson Sun)
Two people are charged in Weakley County with TennCare fraud related to allegedly selling prescription drugs paid for by the state’s health care insurance program, according to a news release. The Office of Inspector General today announced the arrest of Oswaldo Rodriguez, 46, and Crystal R. Lecrone, 25, both of Dresden. They were charged separately by a Weakley County grand jury. Rodriguez is accused of using TennCare to obtain Neurontin, a drug used in certain cases for extreme pain management. Lecrone is accused of using TennCare benefits to pay for her prescription of the painkiller hydrocodone. After obtaining the prescriptions, both Rodriguez and Lecrone resold a portion of the pills to an undercover agent, the release said.

Slatery seeks to protect consumers, fight fraud (News-Sentinel/Balloch)
Building cordial relationships with the state’s legislators and commissioners, and a continued focus on fighting Medicare fraud and protecting that state’s consumers, are at the top of the list of things that Herbert Slatery says he wants to accomplish as the state’s newly appointed attorney general. Slatery, 62, was named to the post by the Tennessee Supreme Court. He has been serving as chief legal counsel to Gov. Bill Haslam. Slatery was in Knoxville on Wednesday with former governor Phil Bredesen, drumming up support in favor of a “yes” vote on the upcoming statewide ”Amendment 2” referendum. Asked how he would differ from his predecessor, Robert Cooper, Slatery said, “I think I will do it differently, which is not to say better.”

What businesses can expect from a new GOP attorney general (N. Biz Journal)
Herbert Slatery, Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief legal counsel, got the nod from the state Supreme Court this week to become Tennessee’s next attorney general. What can the business community expect from Slatery? Gif Thornton, a Nashville attorney at Adams and Reese who represents the Tennessee Bar Association, said Slatery will bring “consistency and predictability” — two keys the “business community looks for in the judiciary.” “[Slatery] is a seasoned professional,” Thornton said. “He’ll interpret the law consistently, clearly and predictably.” Slatery, the first Republican to fill the position in nearly 150 years, will replace Bob Cooper, a Democrat who drew fire during a contentious judicial retention campaign this August.

Johnson announces Highway Safety grants for county (Leaf Chronicle)
Representative Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) announced that Montgomery County would be receiving grant awards totaling more than $535,000 to support highway traffic safety efforts as part of the Governor’s Highway Safety Office. “The purpose of these grants is to help keep families safe on Tennessee’s roadways, said Representative Johnson. “Having safe roads is critical in making Tennessee a better place to live, work and raise a family,” Johnson said. “These grants will support the efforts of highway safety agencies and advocates to reduce the number of people killed and injured in traffic crashes in Tennessee each year.”

Income tax opponents rally for Amendment 3 (Tennessean/Wilson)
Supporters of a state income tax ban in Tennessee got a lift during a campaign rally on Wednesday night — at least one that a 200-foot airship could muster. The blimp, emblazoned with a “Create a Great State” slogan, stopped at the Woods Amphitheater at Fontanel to support Amendment 3, which would place a permanent income tax ban in Tennessee if approved by voters in November. “The biggest thing was making sure we could get it into this field,” said Travis H. Brown, a Missouri author and tax policy advocate who helped land the aircraft and wanted to stop in Tennessee to support the amendment. More than 100 people came to the Whites Creek music venue to voice their opposition to an income tax, something state officials have long embraced.

Is it a debate? Alexander, Ball to appear together at Farm Bureau forum (TN/Cass)
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who was noncommittal in recent weeks about debating Democratic challenger Gordon Ball, said Wednesday that he’ll appear with his rival at a forum in Cookeville next month. “I have accepted an invitation from the Tennessee Farm Bureau for a candidate forum at Tennessee Tech University,” Alexander said. “This will be a good opportunity to remind Tennesseans that my opponent is just one more vote for Barack Obama’s agenda, and that a vote for me is a vote for a new Senate majority that will lead the country in a different and more conservative direction.” Ball also plans to attend the event, spokeswoman Trace Sharp said.

Alexander, Ball to appear at candidates’ forum (Commercial Appeal/Collins)
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander refused to debate his opponents in the Republican primary, but next month he’ll share the stage with Democratic challenger Gordon Ball. Alexander said Wednesday he has accepted an invitation by the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation to appear at a meet-the-candidates forum on Oct. 16 at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville. “This will be a good opportunity to remind Tennesseans that my opponent is just one more vote for Barack Obama’s agenda, and that a vote for me is a vote for a new Senate majority that will lead the country in a different and more conservative direction,” Alexander said. Ball also has agreed to appear at the event, said his spokeswoman, Trace Sharp.

Looking for Lamar Alexander (Memphis Flyer)
Gordon Ball, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator, was in Memphis last week, and he sat down for a lengthy interview on his campaign and his hopes for an upset victory over incumbent Republican Senator Lamar Alexander. As Ball noted, Alexander had eked out his renomination on August 7th, polling slightly less than 50 percent of the total vote in a Republican primary in which he was opposed by state Representative Joe Carr, a Tea Party supported Middle Tennessean, and George Flinn, the multi-millionaire Memphis physician/businessman. Carr, who finished strong with 40 percent of the total vote, had gone unmentioned for most of the primary campaign, Ball noted, but toward the end of the race, Alexander had begun making formal attacks on his main challenger by name.

Jim Cooper breaks with Obama on aid to Syrian rebels (Tennessean/Cass)
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper voted Wednesday against President Barack Obama’s plan to train and arm Syrian rebels to take on Islamic State terrorists, saying it “could embroil America in another endless war.” Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, went against the Democratic president. But a bipartisan coalition of House members, including 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats, supported the legislation, which passed on a 273-to-156 vote. In a lengthy statement that he entered into the Congressional Record, Cooper said he didn’t think the proposed amendment would work. He noted that it’s only scheduled to last 90 days, a fact he said America’s enemies would laugh at. “Unfortunately for us, our enemies do not measure action by the clock, but by the calendar,” Cooper said. “They outwait or outlast us.”

Area lawmakers split on funding bill that OKs arming Syrian rebels (TFP/Sher)
Tennessee Republicans and Democrats forgot about party and split every which way on Wednesday as the Republican-controlled U.S. House voted on a spending bill that also gave the Obama administration approval and money to train and arm Syrian rebels. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., voted for the resolution as did three of his fellow Tennessee Republicans — Rep. Diane Black, Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Rep. Phil Roe. They were joined by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. Opposing the bill were Republican Reps. John Duncan and Stephen Fincher. Joining them in voting no was Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat. The bill ensures the federal government will continue to operate beyond the Sept. 30 end of the government’s fiscal year. But a temporary funding provision on President Barack Obama’s plan to tackle the self-styled extremist Islamic State in the Middle East was included.

‘I am so inspired,’ Michelle Obama tells kids at St. Jude (Associated Press/Sainz)
First lady Michelle Obama visited with young patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis on Wednesday, telling them she was inspired by their focus and courage as they battle life-threatening diseases. Obama was making her first visit to St. Jude as first lady, following in the footsteps of Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton. She chatted with the patients in an activity room and participated in a question-and-answer session. The first lady’s plane was delayed by about 1 ½ hours due to a maintenance issue, but the children patiently waited for her, working on an art project. St. Jude is considered a leading researcher of cancer and other life-threatening diseases that affect children.

Dobie relaunches ‘Nashville Banner’ (Nashville Post)
Veteran Nashville journalist Bruce Dobie announced today he will relaunch the Nashville Banner — the venerable afternoon daily that ceased publication in early 1998 as the Internet was beginning to forever alter the American newspaper industry. On his new Banner website — which Dobie recently purchased — Dobie notes that Forrest Shoaf, a former Cracker Barrel CFO and general counsel, will serve as chairman of the board of the LLC created for the venture. In addition, Sherrard & Roe attorney and ex-Metro Councilman Chris Whitson will provide legal assistance. Former Tennessean Publisher Craig Moon, with whom Dobie recently attempted to purchase the morning daily, in not involved.

Roane Board of Education cuts budget by $1 million (News-Sentinel/Fowler)
It was a difficult chore and leaves Roane County Schools with diminished fund balances, but the Board of Education made $1,017,000 in cuts to its new budget after County Commission rejected its request for a 9-cent property tax hike, Schools Director Gary Aytes said Wednesday. The board’s cuts leaves the school system with an even bigger upcoming dilemma — the expected need to cut $3 million from its budget next fiscal year unless new revenue flows in, Aytes said. Along with making up money extracted from rainy-day funds, Roane County school officials have been told to expect a 15-percent hike in health insurance premiums that will take an estimated $500,000 bite out of the budget, the director said. The school system has been hard hit by a decrease in state funding based on a study of its “fiscal capacity to pay,” Aytes said.