December 27 TN News Digest

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

Is There A Way To Predict How Many TN Promise Students Will Graduate? (WPLN)

In just a few weeks, students who applied for free community college — and almost every high school senior in the state did — will have their first mandatory Tennessee Promise meeting. This will give a better indicator of how many students are serious about enrolling in community college next fall, but it won’t give a prediction of how many students will end up graduating. According to one calculation from the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 11 percent of community college students graduate in Tennessee, which doesn’t bode well for the future of Tennessee Promise. But graduation rates are a fickle thing. Do you include students who are only taking one class a semester? How about students who transfer to a four-year school? Do you count students who get certificates instead of degrees? And how quickly do you want students to graduate — two years? Four years? Six? It turns out, if you play around with those variables, the predictions fluctuate wildly.

Common Core debate to continue (Daily News Journal)

Common Core State Standards again will be among the top items on the General Assembly’s agenda, and bills already in place to discontinue Tennessee’s participation in the standards program and related testing. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, Senate Education Committee chairman, and Mike Bell, R-Riceville, Senate Government Operations Committee chairman, have filed legislation to form a Tennessee Standards Commission that would recommend changes to the State Board of Education. Under the proposal, Tennessee’s current memorandum of understanding for Common Core standards in English language arts and math would be negated. “First and foremost, this legislation is committed to the highest standards to keep our students moving forward,” Gresham said in a statement.

TDOT spends more on transportation projects in Memphis (Tennessean)

State spending figures show Memphis has gotten more funding for transportation projects over the last four years than Nashville. The Commercial Appeal reports the Tennessee Department of Transportation has obligated $664 million in Shelby County in that time period compared to $347 million that’s been committed in Davidson County. TDOT spokeswoman Nichole Lawrence said the agency seeks to be fair to all areas of the state. “We try to look at all regions and see where the need is,” she said. In the past, there were complaints that Nashville got a larger portion of transportation funds. Greater Memphis Chamber official Dexter Muller credited Gov. Bill Haslam, who promised Memphis residents during his 2010 campaign that they would no longer feel neglected, noting his wife, Crissy, grew up in the Bluff City.

15 crashes convince TDOT to construct traffic signal (Johnson City Press)

A high number of crashes at the quirky State Route 36-North Roan Street/Mountain View Road intersection has convinced the Tennessee Department of Transportation it’s time to construct traffic signals at the site. From 2010 to present, 43 crashes have occurred at the intersection, with 15 coming this year alone. The majority of crashes occurred during daylight and under clear conditions. “The (Johnson City) Traffic Division did their study, and there were a number of factors, including crashes, that showed traffic signals are warranted,” Police Chief Mark Sirois said Friday. On Dec. 18, city commissioners approved an agreement with TDOT in which the state will construct the signals and the city will maintain them. Commissioners requested a report after concerns were aired about the dangers at the intersection.

Change in 911 fees goes into effect Jan. 1 (Tennessean)

A new state law passed last April goes into effect Jan. 1, and you’ll notice the change in your phone bill. The Tennessee General Assembly passed the 911 Funding Modernization and Transition Act of 2014 on April 25, and it establishes a uniform 911 surcharge rate for businesses and residences that have landlines and those who use mobile phones, according to a news release from the Sumner County 911 Communications District. The new and old 911 surcharges are: •Residential landline: New charge, $1.16; old charge, 65 cents. •Business landline: New charge, $1.16; old charge, $2. •Cellular surcharge: New charge, $1.16, old charge, $1. The new uniform rate accounts for adequately funding for advancements in technology needed to provide 911 to Tennesseans, especially considering fewer people are using landlines, according to the release.

Clear view of Smokies confirms air quality is improving (News-Sentinel/Blackerby)

Don Barger doesn’t need to consult empirical data for confirmation that air quality in East Tennessee has improved dramatically in recent years. Barger, southern regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said spectacular views of the Great Smoky Mountains on his way to work from Norris to Knoxville in the mornings are evidence enough. “We’ve got our mountains back,” said Barger, whose NPCA serves as an environmental park-protection organization. Barger said faraway points in the Smokies, like 6,593-foot-elevation Mt. LeConte, are more often than not almost crystal-clear on his morning drive in. That wasn’t the case just a few years ago, when smog, haze and pollutants often shrouded the mountains. “I call it an integral vista,” said Barger, referring to views that are integral to the enjoyment of the park.

Tennessee delegation asks for hospital funds extension (Times Free-Press/Belz)

Nine members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation are appealing to federal officials for an extension of funds to help hospitals care for tens of thousands of low-income patients. The lawmakers say they plan to use the extension to find a “permanent solution” to Tennessee’s chronic problem of having to reapply every single year for the millions in funding that hospitals say is crucial to their bottom line. All states participate in the federal funding program, which is known as the “disproportionate share hospital” fund, or DSH. But because of the wording of a 1994 waiver that created the TennCare program, Tennessee is now the only state in the nation that requires a year-by-year renewal of the program.

Some States See Budgets at Risk as Oil Price Falls (New York Times)

States dependent on oil and gas revenue are bracing for layoffs, slashing agency budgets and growing increasingly anxious about the ripple effect that falling oil prices may have on their local economies. The concerns are cutting across traditional oil states like Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Alaska as well as those like North Dakota that are benefiting from the nation’s latest energy boom. “The crunch is coming,” said Gunnar Knapp, a professor of economics and the director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Experts and elected officials say an extended downturn in oil prices seems unlikely to create the economic disasters that accompanied the 1980s oil bust, because energy-producing states that were left reeling for years have diversified their economies.

A Bipartisan Push to Limit Lobbyists’ Sway Over Attorneys General (NY Times)

In state legislatures and major professional associations, a bipartisan effort is emerging to change the way state attorneys general interact with lobbyists, campaign donors and other corporate representatives. This month, during a closed-door meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General, officials voted to stop accepting corporate sponsorships. In Missouri, a bill has been introduced that would require the attorney general, as well as certain other state officials, to disclose within 48 hours any political contribution worth more than $500. And in Washington State, legislation is being drafted to bar attorneys general who leave office from lobbying their former colleagues for a year.

Auditors find Bechtel overbilled TVA for nuclear work (Times Free-Press/Flessner)

One of the biggest nuclear contractors for the Tennessee Valley Authority overbilled the federal utility by more than $2.4 million for work at TVA’s unfinished plants, according to audits recently completed by TVA’s inspector general. Bechtel Power Corp., which is helping TVA finish a second reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant and previously performed engineering work at the unfinished Bellefonte Nuclear Plant, submitted bills to TVA for ineligible labor, travel, and housing expenses as part of more than $580 million of non-craft work conducted by the contractor and its partners, TVA inspectors said. TVA Inspector General Richard Moore said Bechtel overbilled TVA for $923,231 in labor hours and payroll additions, $938,928 in ineligible or unsupported relocation and travel bills and $204,336 in improper subcontractor costs at the Watts Bar nuclear plant near Spring City, Tenn.

ORAU’s contract due to expire; DOE plans to seek bids (News-Sentinel/Munger)

Oak Ridge Associated Universities has been a government partner in Oak Ridge since the 1940s, but ORAU might have to put up a fight to retain its existing role with the U.S. Department of Energy. The contract for managing DOE’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education is due to expire at the end of 2015, and DOE spokeswoman Claire Sinclair confirmed the federal agency intends to put the contract up for bids. The current contract was awarded on Jan. 1, 2006, with a five-year base contract and an option for another five years, and Sinclair indicated federal regulations require DOE to seek competition at the end of this contract period. The value of the work over the past 10 years exceeded $2 billion.




Guest columnist: Industrial hemp promising for Tenn. economy (News-Sentinel)

Industrial hemp is now a legal crop in Tennessee. Last spring the Tennessee General Assembly voted overwhelmingly, 88-5 in the House and 29-0 in the Senate, to authorize the cultivation and production of industrial hemp. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law on May 17. Industrial hemp is about economic development and jobs, and has no value for recreational use. Tennessee legislators are high on hemp because of its great potential value as an environmentally sound, sustainable crop from which thousands of products can be manufactured. For the past 80 years hemp cultivation has been illegal in the United States. That changed when the federal Agricultural Act of 2014 authorized states to move forward with hemp research and pilot projects. The first efforts were last year in Kentucky, which the Drug Enforcement Administration attempted to stop by seizing certified seeds being imported from Italy to get crops going.