December 29 TN News Digest

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

Guest columnist: Insure Tennessee merits support and approval (Tennessean)

After nearly two years of vacillating and cat-and-mouse game playing, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has announced his administration will pursue a modified Medicaid expansion plan authorized by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Under the ACA, the state-option Medicaid expansions are 100 percent federally funded through 2017. The federal share decreases incrementally in subsequent years. Buoyed by Republican successes in mid-term elections, Haslam’s own landslide re-election and 70 percent approval rating, and public opinion polls showing a clear majority of Tennesseans favor the expansion, the governor apparently concluded it was safe to act. Better late than never.

The fight over the city’s financial future will continue in 2015 (CA/Connolly)

The battle over city finances has not ended. The Memphis City Council went through months of frequently bitter debate in 2014 that culminated in two definitive cost-saving votes: a June 17 decision to cut many retiree health insurance subsidies and another vote Dec. 16 in favor of creating a new, more limited retirement system for new hires and those with less than 7½ years of service. Now the 13 City Council members and Mayor A C Wharton’s administration have only a brief respite before the mid-April start of next year’s budget season, when the fights begin again in earnest. People in government expect difficult sessions. Several factors contribute to the government’s financial woes.

Health coverage remains a mixed bag (Tennessean/Wilemon)

The Tennessean has followed how the Affordable Care Act has affected representatives of six key groups since people could first obtain health insurance on the federal exchange. Four of these representatives are still without coverage either by choice or by circumstance. The penalty for being uninsured, which was just $95 for a single person this tax year, will more than triple in 2015. Single people and families face penalties of $325 per person ($162.50 for a child) or 2 percent of household income, whichever is greater. However, the law provides for hardship exemptions. One of those hardships is being determined ineligible for Medicaid because your state didn’t expand its program. 50-somethings Angela Woods was determined to get signed up for Obamacare in 2013.

ACA faces key court test over its future (Tennessean/Fletcher)

After surviving one previous challenge in the Supreme Court and numerous rounds of legislative opposition, the future of the federal Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, may hinge on a technicality in a case to be argued at the country’s highest court on March 4. The impact of the decision could ripple from living rooms to hospital waiting rooms. The case is challenging the use of tax subsidies on the federal exchange, and could jeopardize how people in 36 states, including Tennessee, pay for insurance bought on the federal exchange using tax subsidies under Obamacare. The central question in King vs. Burwell is whether health insurance on federal or state exchanges is eligible for tax incentives or whether tax incentives — which make insurance affordable for about 121,000 people in Tennessee — are only available on state exchanges.

Environmental groups question TVA’s landfill expansion plans (N-S/Willett)

The site of a Tennessee Valley Authority landfill in Kingston is pockmarked with sinkholes and not suited for the long-term storage of waste from coal combustion, according to environmentalists opposed to an expansion of the facility. TVA has filed with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation for a major permit modification for a Class II landfill permit for storage of gypsum waste, fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, cinders and clinkers generated by the Kingston Fossil Plant. At least a half dozen groups, including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Tennessee Clean Water Network, the Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, expressed concerns last week that the karsts and sinkholes under the landfill could allow the waste to migrate to the Clinch River.

New TVA board members sworn in (Associated Press)

The nation’s largest public utility has sworn in two new board members. The Tennessee Valley Authority recently swore in Virginia Lodge of Nashville and Ronald Walter of Memphis. They are filling the seats of board members Barbara Haskew and Bill Sansom, whose terms expired in May. TVA serves 9 million people in parts of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. The utility also provides flood control, navigation and land management for the Tennessee River system and assists utilities and state and local governments with economic development.

Critics question tax-break practices in Chattanooga (Times Free-Press/Brogdon)

The Chattanooga Industrial Development Board approved a $500,000 tax break for the expansion of an 87-year-old Chattanooga company recently, and that has left some residents questioning whether tax relief designed to bring growth to the area should be given to companies that already have deep roots. The city and county governments approved the eight-year payment in lieu of tax agreement for an $18.1 million expansion at Southern Champion Tray last month, and the IDB put the final OK on the PILOT on Dec. 15. Southern Champion Tray, which opened in 1927, is one of more than a dozen established local companies that have been granted PILOTs for expansions since 2008, according to Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce records from July 6.

School board calls on state for $12 million more annually (TFP/Omarzu)

Christmas is over, but Hamilton County’s school board still hopes to get the gift of about $12 million in additional money from the state of Tennessee, which would boost the state’s annual contribution to about $145 million. At its Dec. 18 meeting, the board of education voted unanimously to ask the state to fully fund the Basic Education Program, the formula under which state education dollars are allocated to Tennessee schools. Hamilton County’s resolution cites the annual Nov. 1 report by the state’s Basic Education Program Review Committee. The top two recommendations in the 153-page document are for the state to contribute more to local districts for teachers’ salaries and to pay school districts’ full cost for 12 months of insurance premiums, instead of the current 10 months.

Collierville STEM club provides hands-on learning (Commercial Appeal/Pignolet)

With their cardboard tubes sufficiently duct-taped together and one end of the chute elevated, the Tara Oaks Elementary students were ready to take their very own roller coaster for a test drive. “See if you can fix it or change it before you do your test,” fourth-grade teacher Julia Stock Carpenter told the students. The two teams of about 25 students each huddled back around their creations, searching each nook and cranny for a spot where a marble might get stuck traveling town the pipeline. Satisfied they had done their best, a countdown was initiated and a student dropped a marble down each tube. A distinct clacking sound made its way down the tubes before coming to a stop somewhere in the middle.





Guest columnist: LEAD provides schools same services with better results (Tenn)

LEAD Public Schools, founded in 2007 and now serving nearly 1,700 students across Nashville, has a well-earned reputation for focusing on doing the good, hard work for students and families who need us the most. Through recent events and political maneuvering, our reputation has been questioned, resulting in misinformation, and I am compelled to present the facts clearly. Under the State of Tennessee’s evaluation system, Neely’s Bend and Madison Middle Schools are “Priority Schools,” ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state. They need radical transformation. Neely’s Bend, as noted by existing staff, has been neglected by Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) for years. MNPS’s Academic Performance Framework, the tool used by the Board of Education to evaluate all schools, confirms the state’s evaluation.