November 30 TN News Digest

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

Gov. Bill Haslam: What’s wrong with nice? (Tennessean/Boucher)

No, Bill Haslam doesn’t mind getting into a political fight. At least, he says he doesn’t. No, the Republican who won his two gubernatorial elections by a combined 80 percentage points doesn’t know if he’ll run for office again. But in the meantime, no, he’s not too nice to continue governing Tennessee or to lead the nation’s Republican governors. “Ever since I first ran for mayor in Knoxville, people go, ‘Well, you don’t seem to be tough enough to do this job.’ I’d come back and say, ‘Look at the result,’ ” Haslam said in a recent interview with The Tennessean. “There’s not one style that works or doesn’t work,” he said. “I think what doesn’t work is when you try to be something you’re not.”

After-school programs give youth educational boost (Associated Press/Johnson)

As Tennessee strives to stay at the forefront of student academic improvement, some education advocates say the hours after the last bell rings could be crucial to maintaining that edge. Last month, the state Education Department and other stakeholders announced the creation of a network of policymakers, educators, parents and business leaders to increase the number of after-school programs in Tennessee. The programs are commonly known for helping out parents who may not be able to pick up a child from school right after classes end. Advocates say they can also boost initiatives Gov. Bill Haslam has launched to encourage students to attend college and compete in the workforce.

Newborn testing delays rife in Tennessee (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Belz)

Testing a newborn’s blood for disease is a process that must operate like clockwork. Within 24 hours after a baby is born, the child’s heel must be pricked and pressed against a little sheet of filter paper. That little paper must be packaged and shipped quickly enough to arrive at a lab in Nashville within two days, state rules say. There it will be tested for two dozen conditions, including genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia. Without such tests — and without quick turnaround times for results — some swift-acting disorders can cause disability or even death within the infant’s first few weeks. But only a quarter of Tennessee hospitals’ samples are actually meeting the state’s deadline, and nearly half are delayed as long as four to nine days, according to new data compiled and released by the Tennessee Department of Health.

Legislators to get pay hike (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)

State legislators are getting a $681 increase in their annual base salary for the 109th General Assembly, along with a $10-per-day hike in their daily expense allowance, according to Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration. At the same time, some lawmakers — the 35 who live within 50 miles of the state Capitol — will see their expense allowance reduced under a law enacted last year that did not take effect until after this year’s elections. In the 108th General Assembly, legislators received a base salary of $20,203 per year. That amount will increase to $20,884 for the 109th General Assembly under state law that raises lawmakers’ pay in line with a formula tied to increases in state employee compensation over the past two years, Ridley said. State employees got no general pay raise this year, but a 2013 bump upward in their compensation triggered the $681 annual base salary increase for legislators. Also during the 2014 session of the 108th General Assembly, all legislators received a “per diem” expense allowance of $188 for each day spent on legislative duties, a figure revised annually. That amount will increase to $198 per day during the 109th General Assembly, Ridley said.

Tennessee’s compensation for defense attorneys on low end of scale (CA/Bryson)

Court-appointed defense attorneys in Tennessee haven’t gotten a pay raise in 20 years, with some earning less than half as much per hour to try a murder case than an expert witnesses hired to testify. While flat compensation rates have long been a point of contention for local defense attorneys, the Tennessee Bar Association recently reissued its call for a change to the state’s fee rates — which remain among the lowest in the nation. “This affects the most vulnerable people in the community, the people without resources who have a hard time getting their cases investigated and adjudicated fairly,” said attorney Josh Spickler of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.

Aide to Tennessee congressman knocks Obama kids (Associated Press)

An aide to a Tennessee congressman has apologized for a Facebook post criticizing President Barack Obama’s daughters. U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher’s communications director, Elizabeth Lauten, told The Commercial Appeal (http://bit.ly/1y91o6d ) her comments about Sasha and Malia Obama she know “can see more clearly just how hurtful my words were.” Lauten posted on Facebook that the girls were “coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department” and needed to dress and behave more appropriately as she commented on their appearance at their father’s traditional pardoning of two Thanksgiving turkeys this week.

Suit on Health Law Puts Focus on Funding Powers (New York Times)

In mounting the latest court challenge to the Affordable Care Act, House Republicans are focusing on a little-noticed provision of the law that offers financial assistance to low- and moderate-income people. Under this part of the law, insurance companies must reduce co-payments, deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs for some people in health plans purchased through the new public insurance exchanges. The federal government reimburses insurers for the “cost-sharing reductions.” In their lawsuit, House Republicans say the Obama administration needed, but never received, an appropriation to make these payments to insurance companies. As a result, they contend, the spending violates the Constitution, which says, “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”

Fiber fight: Broadening broadband Gig City touted as model (TFP/Flessner)

In a growing number of cities, high-speed Internet is seen as another essential utility, like water, sewers, roads or electricity. If cable and phone companies don’t provide faster web service, more municipalities say they want to do it themselves as municipal electric utilities have done in Chattanooga, Tullahoma, Tenn., and Dalton, Ga. “Broadband service is rapidly becoming a vital asset for a community and, just like turnpikes or airports, it may be that a broadband initiative is the kind of public-private partnership that we may need,” Aldona Valicenti, chief information officer for the city of Lexington, Ky., said during a recent visit to Chattanooga. “We’re very much looking at that.” As a model, many cities from around the globe are looking at Chattanooga and the first citywide gigabit-per-second broadband service developed in the western hemisphere, built by the city-owned EPB. Delegations from more than two dozen cities across North America, Europe and Asia have come to the self-proclaimed “Gig City” over the past couple of years to see the power of high-speed broadband.

Texas: Will Texas Meet Budget? It Is All in the Math (New York Times)

A small group of Texas legislators will meet this week to decide how much they think the state’s economy will grow in the next two years. The growth rate adopted two years ago was 14.5 percent. Two years before that, it was 5.2 percent. This year, the Legislative Budget Board will choose from four growth forecasts ranging from 11.68 percent to 15.71 percent. This is dry stuff, but it carries a potent political charge. Whatever number is picked will effectively set the upper limit on state spending in the next budget, which lawmakers will write during the session that begins in January. It is known as the cap, and the phrase to watch for is “busting the cap” — what lawmakers and others call it if and when they exceed the spending limit, or think about it, or want to block some program that would force them to spend beyond it. Busting the cap is a matter of getting enough lawmakers — two-thirds, in fact — to vote to spend more than is allowed to keep pace with the state’s adopted growth limit.