January 7 TN News Digest

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

Haslam’s 2nd inauguration theme is ‘Together for Tennessee’ (Associated Press)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam plans for his inauguration to a second term include an outdoor ceremony, a dinner and ball and tours of the state Capitol and governor’s mansion. The Jan. 17 swearing-in ceremony will be held on the plaza across the street from the state Capitol in Nashville. State Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee is scheduled to administer the oath. The theme of the inaugural events is “Together for Tennessee.” Haslam in November won 70 percent of the vote against nominal Democratic opposition to carry all 95 counties of the state. He says goals for his second term include job creation, education and more efficiency in state government.

Details unveiled for Gov. Haslam’s inauguration (Commercial Appeal/Locker)
Ever wanted to attend an inauguration? Gov. Bill Haslam’s inauguration to a second term is Jan. 17 and the ceremony is free and open to the public, along with tours of the recently renovated Tennessee State Capitol and the governor’s residence. OK, so it’s not a presidential inauguration with all the pomp and circumstance, attended by scores of thousands packing the Capitol Mall in Washington. It’s a more intimate, manageable affair. The several hundred Tennesseans who will gather on Nashville’s War Memorial Plaza across from the State Capitol will see the ceremony without having to queue up in the pre-dawn cold and stand for hours to watch on big TV monitors.

MTSU, Blackman High partner on new Collegiate Academy (Tennessean/Hudgins)
Blackman High and Middle Tennessee State University kicked off their spring semesters by announcing a partnership that will allow a select group of students to earn college credit at no cost. University President Sidney McPhee, Rutherford County Director of Schools Don Odom and Blackman High Principal Leisa Justus signed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday morning to seal formally the partnership for Blackman’s new Collegiate Academy, which debuts this fall. The cost will be covered by a dual-enrollment grant from Tennessee Lottery funds, McPhee said. Academy juniors and seniors in good standing with the program and who meet MTSU’s entrance requirements will be eligible to earn six hours of college credit.

Tennessee traffic deaths fall to 961 in 2014 (Tennessean/Meyer)
State officials point to increased traffic enforcement efforts as a major contributor to Tennessee’s three-year drop in traffic fatalities. Commissioner Bill Gibbons of the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security said early numbers show that 961 people died in crashes in 2014, which is a 3.4 percent decrease from the 995 traffic-related deaths in 2013. Gibbons announced the state’s preliminary numbers Tuesday during a news conference at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. “That’s 961 too many. We don’t want there to be any traffic fatalities,” Gibbons said. “But the good news is we’re moving in the right direction. That 961 figure is the second-lowest since 1963.

Tennessee’s traffic death toll drops (Commercial Appeal/Locker)
There were 961 deaths on Tennessee’s streets and highways in 2014, the second lowest number of traffic fatalities in the state in more than 50 years and a 3.4 percent decrease from the 995 traffic deaths in 2013, according to preliminary figures released Tuesday by state officials. The 961 deaths represent Tennessee’s second-lowest vehicular death toll since 1963 and the fifth time that traffic deaths have dipped below 1,000 since that year. Bill Gibbons, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, and John Schroer, commissioner of the Department of Transportation, announced the preliminary statistics and the state’s strategic highway safety plan for 2015 on Tuesday. The 2014 traffic-fatality numbers include vehicular deaths reported by all Tennessee law enforcement agencies.

Tennesseans May Face Gas Tax Double Whammy (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
Lawmakers in Nashville and Washington, including Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker, have been talking about raising the gas taxes on both the state and federal levels. A double whammy might not sit well with drivers, but Commissioner John Schroer, the state’s top transportation official, says the need for more money cannot be ignored. He says the approximately $650 million that Tennessee brings in annually soon will be enough only to keep the state’s roads patched up — without any new construction projects. With that in mind, Tennessee leaders shouldn’t let talk in Congress of raising the federal gas tax keep them from considering a state hike as well.

UT medical school eyes Nashville expansion (Tennessean/Tamburin, Wilemon)
The University of Tennessee Health Science Center is laying the groundwork for a dramatic expansion of its medical training program in Nashville. The Memphis-based institution is looking toward “a major construction project” that would bring more aspiring doctors to Middle Tennessee, according to a statement from UTHSC Chancellor Steve J. Schwab. The goal is to put a satellite campus in Nashville as part of its partnership with Saint Thomas Health. It would go on six acres adjacent to Saint Thomas West Hospital, where the university is looking to invest as much as $40 million once it receives the proper approvals.

Tennessee one of ‘high intensity’ states for flu (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Nelson)
Knoxville, a “flu capital” of the country? While that tag line has been making the rounds on social media and marketing materials, there’s really no way to crown one city “capital” of influenza for a given season, health officials say. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measures flu activity through a complex surveillance system, and “the collection and reporting of hospitalization data to CDC varies somewhat from state to state,” said Shelley Walker, assistant Director, Communication and Media Relations for the Tennessee Department of Health. But there’s no question flu is rampant here, as in most of the rest of the country. As of the week, Tennessee is among 43 states experiencing “widespread” levels of flu activity and among 29 with “high intensity” of flu, Walker said.

If There’s A Seatbelt Law For Tenn School Buses, Who Gets A Ticket? (WPLN)
The Tennessee Highway Patrol has some unanswered questions about a proposed law requiring seat belts on school buses. After two buses collided in Knoxville last month, killing two students and a teacher’s aide, legislators immediately began calling for lap restraints. There’s a whole debate over whether children are safer strapped to their seats in a bus. Department of Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons says he’s not convinced seat belts would have saved lives or prevented injuries in the Knoxville tragedy. “Actually, in that particular situation, a seatbelt would not have been helpful – in fact – could have made the situation worse,” Gibbons says. Because one bus flipped on its sides, dozens of children would have been hanging from their harnesses. There’s a separate conversation about the sheer cost of retrofitting or buying new buses.

Legislative showdown over Insure Tennessee nears (Tennessean/Cowart)
The 109th Tennessee General Assembly convenes in Nashville on Jan. 13, 2015. The largest issue facing the new Assembly will be the fate of Insure Tennessee, the bold move by Gov. Bill Haslam to secure the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for Tennessee without embracing its controversial twin, “Obamacare.” As the fateful days approach, let’s look at the key players. The Insure Tennessee coalition of supporters includes virtually every health care and insurance trade association in Tennessee, including the Tennessee Hospital Association, the Tennessee Medical Association and numerous for-profit health care companies. A very important supporter is the Tennessee Business Roundtable, led by former BellSouth executive Charlie Howorth. The Business Roundtable is composed of Tennessee’s largest private employers and generally engages only on major issues of significant import to the state’s business environment and economy.

Legislators to weigh VW incentives; OK not given in light of UAW gains (TFP/Pare)
State legislators from Hamilton County stopped short Tuesday of predicting that the General Assembly will approve incentives for Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant expansion in the wake of United Auto Workers gains at the factory. “I start with a jaundiced view,” said state Rep. Mike Carter about the incentives estimated at nearly $300 million, a large chunk of which is to come from the state. Action on the VW incentives, negotiated last year by Gov. Bill Haslam and state economic development officials, is expected to come during the upcoming legislative session and with a backdrop of UAW activity at the plant. “There will be discussions about additional incentives to Volkswagen,” said state Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, in a meeting with Times Free Press reporters and editors.

Tennessee lawmakers to seek AG opinion on Erlanger bonuses (TFP/Belz)
The backlash over Erlanger’s Health System awarding bonuses to its top managers appears to be ramping up as local lawmakers ready for the state legislative session. Hamilton County delegation members said Tuesday they plan to ask the state attorney general whether the public hospital’s trustees violated the open meetings law when they discussed paying out $2.7 million in performance-related bonuses during two closed meetings before they publicly voted on Dec. 4. And the repercussions could extend beyond the Chattanooga hospital, lawmakers said during a roundtable discussion with Times Free Press reporters and editors. Delegation members said Erlanger’s decision has now “clouded” their view of Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to expand Medicaid and also spurred a bill that could remove public hospitals’ special strategic exemption to open meetings law.

Cooper lauds new FAA rule allowing instruments as carry-ons (Associated Press)
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper is lauding an announcement by the Federal Aviation Admiration that a new rule will allow musicians to carry instruments on board airplanes instead of making them check them in the cargo hold. Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, says he and Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander have long pressed for more protections for musicians on planes. Cooper says the new rule will help them avoid risk of damage or loss of their instruments by storing them in overhead bins or beneath seats. The new rule goes into effect on March 1 and applies to scheduled and charter flights operated by U.S. carriers both domestically and abroad.

Rep. Jim Cooper gets House speaker vote (Tennessean/King)
It didn’t take long for Gwen Graham to assert her independence. On Tuesday, her first day as a member of Congress, the daughter of former Florida Gov. Bob Graham voted against Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California as House speaker. In doing so, she made good on a campaign pledge to seek a new, more bipartisan direction on Capitol Hill by choosing someone she views as more of a bridge-builder. That someone was Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, a low-key, moderate Democrat from Nashville, Tenn. Graham was the only House lawmaker who voted for Cooper, who wasn’t seeking the speaker’s post anyway. “He meets my criteria as someone who can be bipartisan,” Graham said as she walked to the House floor Tuesday to be sworn in.

Fincher pauses, then votes to re-elect House Speaker Boehner (C. Appeal/Collins)
U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher was silent the first time his name was called Tuesday during the vote to re-elect U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. Given a second chance to vote a few minutes later, Fincher found his voice — and voted to return Boehner as speaker. The 8th District Republican said he was hoping his silence during the first round of voting would send a message. “With no other candidate in the race gathering enough support to challenge Mr. Boehner, I paused on my vote for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives during the first round of the vote,” Fincher said in a statement released by his office. “I want to send a clear message that I expect our leadership to have a strong commitment to conservative principles.”

Excitement building for presidential visit (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
Secrecy surrounding President Barack Obama’s visit Friday to the Knoxville area has done little to dampen the excitement over the first presidential visit here in nearly 10 years. Mayor Madeline Rogero said Tuesday she has received an invitation to the event at Pellissippi State Community College, but only knows details about the president’s trip that have been publicly reported, “We’re getting a lot of calls and emails from people who are excited about President Obama coming to Knoxville,” Rogero said. “It’s always exciting for a community when a president comes, regardless of your party affiliation.” Pellissippi State officials, meanwhile, declined to offer details about the time of the event or in which campus building it will be held. While many logistics have yet to be released by the White House, local arrangements are underway.

States Go Beyond Federal Law to Protect Pregnant Workers (Stateline)
Decades after a federal law banned discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace, some states are providing additional protections to pregnant workers who want to stay on the job. After Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, many state legislators thought the problem had been solved. But as the number of women in the workforce has increased—and more of them have stayed on the job through their pregnancies—they have encountered obstacles not covered by the federal law. Recent federal court rulings that have sided with employers who support a narrow interpretation of the law have added fuel to efforts in state capitals. “Women should not have to choose between being a mother and having a job,” outgoing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois said in August when he signed that state’s Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

VW may build 5-seat SUV in Chattanooga (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
A new concept for a 5-seat sport utility vehicle that Volkswagen is expected to show off next week at the Detroit auto show could be made in Chattanooga, according to The Wall Street Journal. The sportier 5-seat version of a midsize SUV the German automaker is to start making in Chattanooga next year could be assembled in the city as soon as 2017, the newspaper reported Tuesday. A car magazine reported last month that VW was looking at unveiling the concept SUV at the auto show and also considering variants of the Passat, which is made in Chattanooga. VW is investing another $900 million in the development of the 7-seat SUV and has plans to employ 2,000 more people in Chattanooga, with production to start in 2016.

Maine: Maine’s State Colleges Lose Hit the Skids (Wall Street Journal)
Maine’s public university system is on the verge of flunking. In the past few years, many other public colleges have picked up the pieces from the recession, benefiting as state budget pictures have improved. They also have poached other states’ students and built revenue streams online or with new programs. But the University of Maine System is in a worse position than ever before. Enrollment across its seven campuses has fallen by double digits in the past decade, and population projections remain grim in the state with the nation’s oldest median age. The relatively small system is staring down a projected annual budget deficit of $90 million by the 2019-2020 academic year as costs keep rising, tuition remains frozen and faculty oppose cuts to academic programs.

OPINION

Editorial: States’ cuts in higher ed funding are hurting ability of students (CA)
The story out of the nation’s capital on the front page of The Commercial Appeal Tuesday declared that students are paying more of the cost of attending public universities than are state governments. That is a shift that is making college less affordable, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. That is not new news in Tennessee, where cuts in higher education funding has flipped the ratio of funding for public higher education over two decades from 70 percent state appropriations and 30 percent student tuition to nearly 70 percent tuition and 30 percent state appropriations. Pair that fact with yearly increases in tuition and fees, and college has become a very expensive endeavor for young people seeking a degree.

Editorial: State-mandated exam not best civics approach (Daily News Journal)
At the same time that the state Legislature is getting ready to debate what should be standards for education in the state and who should develop those standards, proposed legislation would throw another standard into the mix. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga has filed a bill to require high school seniors to pass a civics exam before they receive their diplomas. Under McCormick’s proposal, high school seniors would take an exam similar to the test that immigrants must take to become naturalized citizens. While the bill would allow students unlimited opportunities to pass the test and only a grade of 60 to pass it, passage of the measure only would complicate the standards debate.

Editorial: New regulations on stormwater clean and green (News-Sentinel)
New stormwater regulations that go into effect in Tennessee this year should help filter pollutants and reduce the chances of flooding associated with new construction projects. While development costs could increase for some projects, the benefits for the community will be manifold. Handling stormwater is one of the chief concerns for developers and for a project’s neighbors. Runoff is a major source of pollution in Tennessee streams and inadequate stormwater systems can lead to flooding, as is the case in the Cedar Bluff area of Knoxville. Developers and nearby residents sometimes clash over runoff issues. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation developed the “green infrastructure” requirements with guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.