November 7 TN News Digest

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

Gov. Haslam creates judicial appointment council (Tennessean/Barnes)

Tennessee voters elected Tuesday to give the governor power to appoint judges for trial and appellate courts, and Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t wasting any time establishing a council that will recommend candidates for vacancies. Haslam created an 11-member Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments on Thursday, an action that follows approval by state voters on Tuesday of a constitutional amendment establishing a method for selecting judges of the Supreme Court or any intermediate appellate court in the state. “This council will allow us to select men and women of the highest caliber to ensure a fair, impartial and independent judiciary,” Haslam said. “The people have spoken in approving the constitutional amendment, and Tennesseans can feel confident about our judiciary under this process.”

Website will allow review of academic standards (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam has unveiled a website where Tennesseans can review and comment on the state’s current K-12 academic standards. The standards set grade-specific goals that define what students are expected to know and be able to do by the end of a given grade or course. Last month, Haslam laid out a process for a public review of the standards in English and math following an education summit that he co-hosted with the speakers of the House and Senate. Academic standards are typically reviewed in Tennessee every six years. The current standards are now in their fourth year. However, with discussion in Tennessee and across the country about Common Core state standards, Haslam said it’s time to take a fresh look.

Haslam launches website for public input on Common Core (Tennessean/Garrison)

Tennesseans now have a website where they can review all of the state’s Common Core standards, applaud what they like and vent any frustrations and complaints they might have. Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday unveiled a website, https://apps.tn.gov/tcas/, that is a central piece of a formal public review he kicked off last month on Tennessee’s Common Core standards, which have phased into classrooms since 2010 but have faced an increasing backlash ever since. “Tennessee is making historic progress in academic achievement, and this discussion is about having the best possible standards as we continue that important work,” Haslam said in a statement.

Haslam introduces academic standards review website (Leaf Chronicle)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today unveiled a website, https://apps.tn.gov/tcas/, where Tennesseans can review and comment on the state’s current K-12 academic standards. Academic standards set grade-specific goals that define what students are expected to know and be able to do by the end of a given grade or course. There are more than 1,100 for English language arts (ELA) and more than 900 for mathematics in Tennessee. Every Tennessean now has the opportunity to go online, review the more than 2,000 individual ELA and math standards, and provide specific feedback about them. “Tennessee is making historic progress in academic achievement, and this discussion is about having the best possible standards as we continue that important work,” Haslam said.

Tenn Higher Education Commission chief Richard G. Rhoda retiring (TFP/Walton)

After 16 years as executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Richard G. Rhoda is stepping down at the end of the year. Gov. Bill Haslam made the announcement in a news release this week. The agency coordinates functions of the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents systems, which collectively consist of nine universities, 13 community colleges and 26 technology centers. “Rich has dedicated his career to higher education in Tennessee and has served the state well for more than 40 years,” Haslam said. “He has been a great partner in our Drive to 55 as we’ve put a focus on and resources toward more Tennesseans earning a certificate or degree beyond high school.”

Haslam administration pays out $1M in settlements (Associated Press)

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has paid out $1 million in secret settlements related to moving state employees around downtown Nashville. WTVF-TV reports (http://bit.ly/1uBkIHS) that it obtained the confidential settlement agreements with the owner of an office building and moving service through state open records laws. The records show that the state agreed to pay the owner of the L&C Tower $900,000 after it canceled a lease there, and $100,000 to Sanders Moving after the state decided to shift work to another moving company. According to emails obtained by WTVF, state employee Kurt Herron raised concerns that “we’ve already broken several laws” related to the moving company switch.

Tennessee Lawmakers Readying New Abortion Restrictions (AP/Loller)

With the passage of a constitutional amendment that gives Tennessee lawmakers more power to restrict abortion, they are planning to do just that. Although Tennessee has some restrictions, the state lacks the mandatory counseling and waiting periods that are in place in all eight states that share its border. That’s because in 2000, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the constitution protected abortion. With the constitution now amended, lawmakers say they are preparing to introduce a host of new laws. Proposals include counseling, waiting periods, new clinic regulations and ultrasound requirements. Abortion rights advocates say the changes are likely to make abortions more difficult and expensive to obtain but likely won’t shut off access entirely.

With state income tax now banned, lawmaker eyes killing another tax (TFP/Sher)

A Tennessee lawmaker, whose constitutional amendment banning a nonexistent state income tax won easy voter approval this week, now wants to kill a tax that actually is on the books. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, announced Thursday that he has prefiled a bill that would phase out the state’s Hall income tax on unearned income derived from stock dividends and certain bonds over a three-year period. But unlike the income tax ban, which dealt with potential taxes on wages and salaries and was approved by voters on Tuesday, the Hall income tax indeed does exist. And Kelsey is running headlong into Gov. Bill Haslam, a fellow Republican, on the issue. While no fan of the Hall tax, the governor nonetheless opposed an earlier effort to eliminate it during the last legislative session.

Senator files bill to implement new judicial appointment system (N-S/Locker)

Two days after Tennesseans repealed their right to elect appellate court judges, state Sen. Brian Kelsey filed legislation to implement a new system of appointment of the judges by the governor for full eight-year terms upon confirmation by the state Legislature. Voters would only get a direct vote on the judges if they choose to seek new eight-year terms, at which time they would face “retain” or “reject” votes by voters statewide, under provisions of both the constitutional Amendment 2 that won voter ratification Tuesday and the legislation Kelsey, R-Germantown, filed Thursday to implement it. Voters would get a quicker chance to retain or reject a judge appointed to fill an unexpired term: he or she would appear on the next statewide August election ballot for a retention vote on the remainder of the regular eight-year judicial term.

Senator’s bill would phase out Hall income tax (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Locker)

Tennessee’s state tax on income from stock dividends and interest on certain bonds would be phased out over three years starting in 2016 under a bill filed Thursday by state Sen. Brian Kelsey. The Germantown Republican said he filed the bill after Tuesday’s ratification of Amendment 3 to the state constitution, which bans any state or local personal income tax on earned income — wages and salaries — and any payroll tax measured by income. The amendment allows the state’s existing 6 percent tax on stock dividend and certain interest income to continue, commonly called the “Hall income tax.” Citing the overwhelming 66 percent to 34 percent approval of Amendment 3, Kelsey said, “Now it’s time to eliminate the Hall tax.”

Womick seeks state House speaker’s job (Daily News Journal)

State Rep. Rick Womick announced tonight that he’ll be running for speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. A resident of the Rockvale community southwest of Murfreesboro, Womick said he’ll be competing Dec. 10 to unseat a fellow Republican, incumbent Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, to lead the House in the 109th General Assembly. “Right now our current leadership starting with the speaker is not representing the elected representatives in the Tennessee General Assembly,” Womick said during a phone interview. “Instead they have been more inclined to represent the interests and the desires of the governor. We need new leadership that is going to represent the people of the state because this is their House and not the executive branch.”

Briggs is holding two offices, for now (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Witt)

Richard Briggs is holding two elected offices in Tennessee: county commissioner and state senator. “State legislators begin their terms immediately upon election,” Blake Fontenay, communications director for the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State wrote in an email. “In fact, the new members are already listed on the General Assembly’s website. They will take the oath of office the second Tuesday in January.” Briggs, a sitting Knox County Commissioner from West Knox County, won the Tuesday election for the 7th District seat in the Tennessee State Senate in unofficial returns. Who will replace Briggs in Knox County remains uncertain. And how that will be done is unclear too.

Tenn’s premature birth rate up slightly, short of national average (N-S/Boehnke)

Two-week-old baby Charlotte weighed fewer than four pounds and was swaddled in a incubator with a feeding tube down her throat when her parents left her with nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit Monday evening. When the couple returned the next morning to the University of Tennessee Medical Center, Charlotte had gained weight and lay in an open crib, free of tubes. She came home Thursday. “It was a complete shock. I was almost in tears,” said Charlotte’s mother, Mary Thompson. “It was so exciting.” The March of Dimes on Thursday released its state-by-state 2014 Premature Birth Report Card, which showed Tennessee’s premature birth rate ticked up slightly over the past year to 12.6 percent, above the national average of 11.4 percent and the national goal of 9.6 percent.

Corker hits fellow Republicans over immigration (Associated Press/Schelzig)

Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker on Thursday criticized members of his own party for launching political attacks against those trying to overhaul immigration laws. “I get really frustrated with people on my side of the aisle who say that anything you do on immigration is amnesty,” Corker said after a speech to civic groups in Columbia. “I saw it play out in these congressional races, where people were actually trying to solve the problem, and the only word people used was amnesty.” Corker challenged audience members to raise their hands if they believed the government would “round up 12 million people and take them back where they came from.” When no one raised their hand, Corker argued that it is incumbent on elected officials to address the issue.

Court Upholds Marriage Bans in Four States (New York Times)

A federal appeals court in Ohio upheld on Thursday the right of four states to ban same-sex marriage, contradicting rulings by four similar courts and almost certainly sending the issue on a rapid trajectory to the Supreme Court. The much-anticipated decision, written by Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton, an appointee of George W. Bush, overturned lower court rulings in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee that were in favor of same-sex marriage. “This is the circuit split that will almost surely produce a decision from the Supreme Court, and sooner rather than later,” said Dale Carpenter, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Minnesota. “It’s entirely possible that we could have oral arguments in coming months and a Supreme Court decision by next summer.”

Tennessee gay couples’ hopes now rest with Supreme Court (Tenn/Barchenger)

Doug Hagler and Frank Moore have wanted to marry for 15 years. A court ruling Thursday upholding Tennessee’s gay marriage ban hasn’t changed that desire. In fact, the Nashville couple sees a silver lining in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowing gay marriage bans in Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky. The ruling increases the chances the U.S. Supreme Court will finally weigh in and decide the issue once and for all. “When that happens, I think it’s going to be a blanket decision,” Hagler said. Those backing traditional marriage called the 6th Circuit’s ruling a victory. But they, too, said the battle over the issue isn’t yet over. The court’s Thursday decision diverts from four other federal appeals courts that have ruled in favor of gay marriage.

Gay marriage ban upheld (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Wiseman)

In a break with appellate opinions around the nation, a federal court on Thursday struck a blow to the expanding acceptance of same-sex marriage in a ruling that upheld bans on such unions in Tennessee and three other states. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati concluded in a 2-1 decision involving cases from Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan that states have the right to set rules for marriage. The decision all but guarantees U.S. Supreme Court review. “It’s tailor-made for the Supreme Court to intervene,” said Pierre Bergeron, a Cincinnati attorney who runs a blog following the appellate court’s movements. The Supreme Court decided “not to decide” on gay marriage cases last month, saying it will likely only intervene in the case of a split of authority.

Tennessee couple disappointed about gay-marriage ruling (N-S/Boehnke)

Attorneys in Tennessee’s same-sex marriage case expressed disappointment Thursday in the decision by a federal appeals panel to uphold bans in four states, including here. The decision from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals breaks ranks with other courts that have struck down anti-gay marriage laws — setting up the prospect of a Supreme Court review. “It is completely inconsistent with dozens of federal court decisions … that have ruled over the past year that same-sex couples and their children are entitled to the same dignity and legal protection as other families,” said Regina Lambert, attorney for the Knoxville plaintiffs in the case, in a statement to the News Sentinel.

TN Doesn’t Have To Recognize Same-Sex Marriages (WPLN-Radio)

A federal appeals court has upheld bans on same-sex marriage in several states, including Tennessee, inspiring strong emotions from advocacy groups — disappointment from those supporting gay marriage and praise from those pushing to prevent it. More specifically, the Sixth Circuit decided Tennessee is allowed to not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The ruling could have changed Nashville resident Jason Stalcup’s marital status. Stalcup and his partner tied the knot in Vermont last December to get federal benefits, but their marriage has no legal status in Tennessee. Stalcup, who volunteers for the Tennessee Equality Project, says he wasn’t entirely surprised by the court’s ruling, because some of the judges were known to be fairly conservative. But he says the ruling was frustrating to read.

Veterans Affairs Chief Calls Culture Change Key to Improving System’s Care (NYT)

Robert A. McDonald, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, spoke with reporters on Thursday about changing the culture of an agency that is still trying to recover from the scandal over delays in care at V.A. hospitals that was uncovered in May. Since then, he said, wait times for doctor visits at the hospitals across the country have gone down. Mr. McDonald said that at the department’s medical center in Phoenix — where delays in care contributed to the deaths of several patients — wait times have gone down by as much as 37 percent. Using that and other figures, he hopes to show that change is coming. “Changing culture is one of the most important things a leader can do, particularly coming out of a crisis situation,” he said.

TVA boosts CEO pay (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Flessner)

TVA President Bill Johnson, already the highest-paid federal employee in America, will be eligible to boost his cash compensation by more than $1 million this year. TVA directors Thursday unanimously voted to raise Johnson’s salary and performance pay after the 60-year-old attorney met all of TVA’s targets for 2014. TVA Chairman Joe Ritch said Johnson, who was paid a total compensation package in fiscal 2013 valued at $5.9 million in cash and retirement benefits, is still underpaid for his performance. Ritch said Johnson, a former Progress Energy CEO recruited to TVA two years ago, was paid in the bottom quartile of top utility CEOs in the private sector, and TVA needs to pay a competitive salary to keep top talent. “We could have hired someone for less, but I don’t think we’d be getting the results that we are at TVA if we had,” Ritch said.

TVA board approves base salary raise for CEO Bill Johnson (N-S/Marcum)

The TVA board Thursday approved a 4.7 percent raise to the base salary of CEO Bill Johnson, which combined with potential incentives could net him earnings of $3.9 million in fiscal year 2014. Also Thursday, the board heard a report on its options for the Shawnee Fossil Plant under an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Kentucky and others. TVA will have to decide by the end of the year whether to install pollution-control equipment on two coal units there, convert them to burn biomass or close them. Board member Barbara Haskew, chair of a committee that looked at TVA compensation, told the board that compared to other CEOs within the utility industry, Johnson’s compensation is near the bottom.

TVA Boss, Already The Highest Paid Federal Employee, Gets A Raise (WPLN-Radio)

The Tennessee Valley Authority is defending giving Bill Johnson, its top executive, a $1 million compensation raise. Johnson is the highest-paid federal employee in the country. TVA Board Chairman Joe Ritch’s argument boils down to: you have to pay big for top talent. And the TVA was sorely in need of someone with Johnson’s experience, he says. “We could go get someone for much less,” Ritch said at a press conference after the TVA’s Board meeting on Thursday. “But in my view, we are still underpaying our CEO. So, I do not apologize for what he makes. And I can’t apologize to those that misunderstand how we calculate our pay and what value he brings to the organization.” With the agency’s more than $20 billion in debt, the Obama administration floated the idea to sell its stake in the TVA in order to “mitigate risk to taxpayers.”

TVA makes final payment on original investment (Times Free-Press/Flessner)

Eighty-one years after Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal utility has made the final scheduled payment to repay the $1 billion investment taxpayers made to build America’s biggest government-owned utility. TVA has made payments of $10 million to $20 million a year – plus interest – to the U.S. Treasury since 1961. The final $10 million payment came in September, swelling TVA’s total payments to Uncle Sam to more than $3.6 billion over the past half century. “This may be as close to a mortgage-burning milestone as you can have in the federal government,” TVA CEO Bill Johnson told the TVA board here Thursday.

Erlanger bond rating outlook improved (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Belz)

Moody’s Investors Service has changed Erlanger Health System’s outlook from “negative” to “stable,” a sign of the hospital’s ongoing financial recovery. The outlook is a marked contrast from summer of 2013, when the public hospital’s bond rating was downgraded during a period of financial turmoil and tumultuous leadership changes. Erlanger is seeking to issue $70 million in new bonds and to refinance existing bonds at a lower interest rate. The new debt would help the hospital with three massive expansions: Turning Erlanger East into a full-service hospital; building a new ambulatory center for women and children; and creating a new orthopedic center. In 2013, Erlanger’s bond rating was downgraded from Baa1 to Baa2, and Moody’s determined that the hospital’s outlook was “negative.”

Decisions on school closures, charter conversions delayed (Tennessean/Boucher)

Metro Schools won’t announce the final steps in its plan for changes to its lowest-performing schools until May, weeks before Director of Schools Jesse Register is set to retire. The district unveiled a “priority schools decision timeline” Thursday afternoon that outlines goals for when proposed goals will be completed. The timeline shifts goals into a “near-term” and “longer-term” framework. All of the near-term goals are happening according to schedules or deadlines already established by the district, and are slated for completion before the end of January. Register will still announce some proposals in January as he promised, including individualized turnaround plans for the 13 lowest-performing schools.

 

 

 

OPINION 

Times Editorial: Election redux: The aftermath (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

It wasn’t a wave. It was a tsunami. Republicans won the Senate, increased their majority in the House and now hold more than half of the nation’s governorships. All this just a year since Sequester and Shutdown brought Congress’ approval rating down to around 7 or 8 percent. What in the world happened here, and how in the world can the world be saved? Answer: Moving us forward will be done only by people who really want to govern — not just grandstand on partisanship. On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning when Mitch McConnell delivered his lets-meet-in-the-middle victory speeches, he said: “We have a duty to do that.” We hope he means it. But it’s important to note that leaders can’t wait to govern until Christmas morning when they are deliriously happy with all their new toys. Governing is something leaders must do all the time.

Free-Press Editorial: … And Another Thing: The Cost Of Votes (Times Free-Press)

Good to be the incumbent Third District Congressman Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, elected to his third term in the United States House of Representatives on Tuesday, had raised more than 10 times that of his Democratic opponent, Mary Headrick, according to the candidates’ Oct. 15 Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings. That’s not surprising, considering he’s the incumbent, but the challenger’s vote came a good deal cheaper. Considering only the Oct. 15 numbers, Fleischmann raised $1,488,636, eclipsing the $1,412,229 he raised in the entire 2012 cycle, and spent $15.30 per vote for his 97,319 votes, while Headrick raised $117,841 and laid out $2.18 for her 53,963 votes. For people who won’t earn in their lifetime what the incumbent raised, those figures are staggering, but they’re slightly less than the average price of winning or being re-elected to the U.S. House in 2012, which was $1,689,580, according to an analysis by MapLight.org compiled from FEC data.