January 10 TN News Digest

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

Editorial: Insure Tennessee Expansion Brings Wellness Over Time (M. Daily News)
The problem with wellness initiatives is our definition of the health care coverage issue in America. Politically the issue is defined as one of cost and who pays it. Obesity rates and other statistics on our health as a population center come into play when we are on the side of the wall where we talk about the burden on public and safety net hospitals. That discussion intensifies and becomes urgent when those hospitals are facing new funding crises. Obviously these wellness numbers impact the cost of health care. But in our positions on the Affordable Care Act – for, against and confused – the focus is again on cost and lacks a sustained connection to the state of our health as a population.

Tennessee’s Health Problem (Memphis Daily News)
For years, the concept of “wellness” or “preventive health” measures has been the “eat your vegetables” mantra of a growing national discussion on health care that has focused primarily on the cost of such care and who should pay for it or try to control it. The concept turns out to be the most critical piece of Tennessee’s long-debated move to accept a version of a Medicaid expansion. The “Insure Tennessee” plan outlined in December by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam also looks to be among the most critical tests of wellness initiatives. “What we’re doing is making certain that whether you are the user, that you have incentives toward making healthy choices, or you’re the provider, that you are focused on outcome-based care,” Haslam said in Nashville on Dec. 15 as health care executives from across the state stood behind him.

Bill Frist: Bill Frist supports Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan (Tennessean)
Medicaid expansion has been a contentious topic since the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision holding mandatory state participation was unduly coercive. And the arguments against expansion are well-founded: Does the federal government really have enough money to fund this? What happens if the money runs out? We have tried this before and it was too expensive! This last point sounded especially loudly in Tennessee; just ten years ago over 170,000 disenrolled from TennCare. However, we have seen first hand that healthcare costs are a zero sum game. Removing insurance does not remove disease. Shifting costs away from the state in the form of insurance coverage only moved these expenses to hospital systems, which continue to provide emergency coverage to all Tennesseans regardless of insurance as required by federal law.

Online school offering scholarships for Tennessee adults (C. Appeal/Roberts)
WGU Tennessee, the online school for adults who want to finish a bachelor’s or master’s degree, is offering ten $10,000 scholarships to new enrollees. The scholarships will be awarded based on academic record, financial need and readiness for Western Governors University, the college Gov. Bill Haslam made available to Tennessee residents in 2013. Nearly 2,000 people have enrolled. WGU was founded in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors. In Tennessee, it offers more than 50 accredited programs in four career fields: education, business, information technology and health professions. Most majors cost less than $3,000 per semester. Scholarship applicants must be Tennessee residents.

Tri-Cities leaders come together to discuss 2015 session issues (Herald-Courier)
Leaders from Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport came together Friday to talk about legislative issues that will affect Northeast Tennessee residents in the upcoming session of the Tennessee General Assembly. Twenty years ago, leaders of the three cities established a joint legislative policy so they could provide a unified voice on issues of importance to the region’s state lawmakers. This year, those issues include education, economic development and prescription drug abuse, which they hope legislators will make a priority in 2015. Pete Peterson, city manager for Johnson City, spoke about education and the financial troubles that can affect students.

Alexander pushes bill to makes sales-tax deductions permanent (NBJ)
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is once more sponsoring legislation to make state and local sales tax deductions permanent for individuals’ federal tax filings. The Tennessee Republican’s bill, cosponsored with Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), seeks to set in stone a provision in the federal tax code to allow residents in states with no income tax, such as Tennessee, to deduct sales-tax payments from their federal income taxes. Such a deduction has been extended on a temporary basis five times since 2004, most recently in December 2014. Alexander cosponsored a similar bill in 2014 to make that provision permanent.

Tennessee Promise can work nationally, Pellissippi officials say (N-S/Witt)
Black auto grease and grime is faintly visible under David Wright’s fingernails. He has the round, calloused fingertips of one who works with his hands. If not for Pellissippi State Community College and the assistance he got through TnAchieves, Wright said he wouldn’t be an automotive technician. Wright graduated from William Blount High School in 2009, and received help lining up scholarships through the program to get on the waiting list at Tennessee Technology Center at Knoxville. On the day he graduated, he stepped into a full-time job. President Barack Obama was at Pellissippi Friday to steal a page from the program modeled on TnAchieves, now called Tennessee Promise, with the goal of making such training available nationally. Wright was asked to come to the talk. He sat near Obama during his remarks. “I’m a success story,” Wright said.

Obama proposes publicly funded community colleges for all (Associated Press)
President Barack Obama on Friday proposed to bring the cost of two years of community college “down to zero” for all Americans, an ambitious nationwide plan based on a popular Tennessee program signed into law by the state’s Republican governor. However, the idea and its $60 billion federal price tag over 10 years would have to make the grade with a Republican Congress that is showing little appetite for big new spending programs. Obama, who plans to push the issue in his Jan. 20 State of the Union address, argued that providing educational opportunity and creating a more skilled U.S. workforce shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

Obama unveils college program, touts industry hub (News-Sentinel/Boehnke)
President Barack Obama swept through East Tennessee on Friday afternoon, where he marveled over a 3-D printed sports car, announced a new high-tech manufacturing hub and touted the state’s free community college program as a model he hopes to implement across the country. Before a standing-room-only crowd at Pellissippi State Community College outside Knoxville, Obama unveiled plans to invest $60 billion over the next 10 years to make tuition free for as many as 9 million community-college students nationwide. The idea, he said, was inspired by Tennessee Promise, a similar program that started in Knoxville and last year expanded statewide. Obama dubbed his proposal “America’s College Promise.”

President Obama announces free college plan in Knoxville (Daily News Journal)
In announcing his plans creating free access to community colleges and technical training centers, President Barack Obama admitted to following the Tennessee Promise blueprint. “There’s a lot of good stuff happening here,” the president told those at Knoxville’s Pellissippi State Community College, where the America’s College Promise plan was formally revealed Friday afternoon. President Obama called the initiative one of his most important State of the Union proposals. “In a few weeks, I’m laying out the plan. I hope Congress approves it,” he said. The Tennessee Promise program was adopted as part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, designed to boost the number of state residents with college degrees to 55 percent by 2025.

ETN lawmakers oppose Obama’s community college plan (News-Sentinel/Collins)
U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander might have traveled aboard Air Force One with President Barack Obama to Knoxville on Friday, but that doesn’t mean they are backing his plan to offer two years of free community college to students across the country. Corker, a Chattanooga Republican, told reporters traveling with Obama he doesn’t think a big federal program is the best way to expand community college. Corker said he favored local and state efforts, such as Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise scholarship program. “You’re always better off letting states mimic each other,” he said. The right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is “for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done,” said Alexander, a Maryville Republican and the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

GOP Support For Obama’s Free Community College Plan Lukewarm So Far (WPLN)
As President Obama announced his free community college plan in Knoxville on Friday afternoon, he was joined by top Republican lawmakers. But this doesn’t necessarily mean Obama’s proposal is getting bipartisan support. Obama applauded Gov. Bill Haslam for implementing a statewide program, called Tennessee Promise, to pay community college tuition for all graduating high school seniors. The president also highlighted a similar initiative in Chicago. “If a state with Republican leadership is doing this, and a city with Democratic leadership is doing this, then how about we all do it?” he said. “Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it. Because in America, quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few.”

Lawmakers praise TN Promise, not sure it can work for all (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
“The buzz about Tennessee keeps growing, and nothing creates a stir like the president coming to town!” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam about this historic day in Knoxville. The governor greeted President Barack Obama on the tarmac at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base Friday, and rode in the motorcade to Pellissippi State Community College’s Hardin Valley campus, where he took the stage to speak about Tennessee Promise. Tennessee Promise is a new scholarship program in the state that provides two years of community or technical college to graduating high school seniors absolutely free of tuition and fees. In addition, it pairs students with adult mentors to help them through the process. 58-thousand graduating seniors applied for it in its first year.

Ramsey: Obama no help to Tennessee Promise (Times-News)
President Obama’s visit to Knoxville to propose publicly funded community college available to all Americans “sure doesn’t help” the Tennessee Promise program, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Friday. “(Obama’s) timing could not have been worse — period,” Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in a meeting with members of the Times-News Editorial Board. The Tennessee Promise program offers free community college tuition — paid for with lottery funds — to graduating high school seniors. Ramsey and Republican members of Congress charge the federal government can’t and shouldn’t pay for a nationwide tuition-free program, which Obama has billed “America’s College Promise.”

Obama: Republicans, Democrats can work together on college plan (TFP/Tamburin)
President Barack Obama said Friday that “incredible strides” made by Republicans in Tennessee inspired a prominent prong of his domestic agenda heading into the end of his second term. Obama visited Pellissippi State Community College to unveil a proposal to provide community college tuition-free for students across the country. The national plan borrows heavily from the Tennessee Promise program that was backed by Gov. Bill Haslam and the General Assembly last year. “Tennessee is at the forefront of doing some really smart stuff,” Obama said during his remarks, delivered in the school’s Lamar Alexander Arts & Sciences Building. “We’ve got some proud Tennesseans who can take some credit for the great work that’s been done.”

Knoxville celebrates award of $250M composites research hub (Associated Press)
President Barack Obama’s proposal to emulate Tennessee’s free college tuition program on a national scale may have failed to impress Republicans attending his Knoxville speech on Friday. But a separate announcement awarding a $250 million manufacturing innovation hub was a cause for celebration. The Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Advanced Composites will be made up of 122 companies, nonprofits and research institutions anchored by the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. The hub is the fifth of eight to be awarded in federal competitions. The innovation center will conduct research on advanced composites like carbon fiber that are stronger and lighter than metals.

Institute will make stronger manufacturing materials in Knoxville (TFP/Flessner)
The University of Tennessee will lead a new manufacturing institute dedicated to developing lighter weight and stronger materials for new manufacturing products. President Barack Obama announced the institute Friday as the newest among what will eventually be 45 regional hubs being established across the country to promote 21st century manufacturing in America. The Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Advanced Composites in Knoxville will involve 122 partners, including Volkswagen of America. “We’re working to grow the jobs of tomorrow through a national network of manufacturing hubs,” Obama said during a visit to the Knoxville institute.

Knox County man charged with TennCare fraud (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
Authorities on Friday arrested a Knox County man on charges of doctor-shopping for prescription medication and using TennCare to pay for the pills. Agents of the state Office of the Inspector General and Knox County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Edward Page, Jr., 50. Page was charged with four counts of TennCare fraud by doctor shopping and four counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud. Page allegedly visited various healthcare providers within a short time period to obtain the same or similar controlled substances, using TennCare to pay for either the clinical visits or the prescriptions. Authorities said TennCare fraud, a felony, carries a sentence of up to two years in prison per charge.

Negotiations in Memphis school funding fight will continue Jan. 16 (CA/Connolly)
A day of formal negotiations to resolve an education funding dispute between the city of Memphis and Shelby County Schools ended about 4 p.m. Thursday, and talks will continue Jan. 16, said Allan Wade, a lawyer representing the city. He said he couldn’t characterize the progress or lack of it. “Only thing I can tell you is we didn’t terminate the discussion,” he said. Tens of millions of tax dollars are at stake in the dispute, which dates back to a 2008 City Council vote to withhold some funding for local schools. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton recently worked out an agreement with school officials under which the city would pay a total of $43.3 million in cash and credits over 13 years.


Guest columnist: Sway Tennessee’s lawmakers via civic participation (Tenn)
My colleague Marcia Prouse and I were among the hundred or so citizens who entered Legislative Plaza Tuesday, just a few blocks south of the Capitol building in downtown Nashville, to sit for a couple of hours and learn about Tennessee state government. We’re both new to town – she most recently from California and I from Florida – and the briefing by veteran lobbyist Stewart Clifton gave us some essentials on what we need to know as the General Assembly reconvenes on Tuesday. Aside from basic trivia, such as, that there are 99 representatives and 33 senators and how a bill becomes a law, key headlines for me were the following: • Get to you know your legislators • Develop a long-term relationship with them • Learn and understand the process This all leads to why civic participation is essential.

Guest columnist: Tennessee tax system needs work (Times Free-Press)
When the Times Free Press reported on Dec. 29 the county school board’s unanimous vote asking that the state fully fund the Basic Education Program, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga replied: “We would love to fully fund the BEP. But the money’s not there.” But to paraphrase the Gershwins’ lyric, “That ain’t necessarily so.” The BEP is intended to ensure proper funding for K-12 schools, thus the board’s request for $12 million over the current allocation of $133 million. McCormick’s dismissiveness aside, state officials must look beyond the status quo. Budgets are all about needs, priorities and funding but Tennessee’s tax system complicates all three.

Free-Press Editorial: Two years of free college! But somebody has to pay (TFP)
What a magnanimous guy! The Affordable Care Act and now this. President Barack Obama wants to offer qualified students two free years of community college education. What a caring, generous, concerned leader! He is, that is, until you look beyond the high gloss of his “America’s College Promise” proposal. Without even full details, which won’t be revealed until after Obama’s State of the Union address later this month, the price tag for the program announced Friday at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville was said to be $60 billion over 10 years. The generous federal government, though, which would have to borrow more money from China to pay for the program, would share the burden with the already strapped states, which would pick up a fourth of the tab. There are also a few caveats.