January 14 TN News Digest

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

Editorial: Details reveal state insurance plan’s promise (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

The Haslam administration released more details last week about the governor’s Insure Tennessee program to expand health care coverage to the working poor and other low-income Tennesseans. The public dissemination of the state’s Medicaid/TennCare waiver application provides more insight into a proposal that will be the focus of a special legislative session that begins Feb. 2. While the waiver application does not answer all questions legislators might have about the program, there should be enough information to make most of them comfortable with the proposal before the special session begins. Insure Tennessee is Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to expand health insurance coverage to low-income citizens as allowed under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

LaunchTN reports 2014 investment growth of $276M (Nashville Post)

Launch Tennessee officials today announced that investments measured by the public-private partnership totaled more than $276 million in 2014. The number can be attributed to programs like TNInvestco and the INCITE Co-Investment Fund, according to a release. Compared to 2013 figures, the amount invested represents a 31 percent increase. According to the release, LaunchTN’s investment goal for the state’s early-stage companies is $1 billion by 2017. The INCITE Co-Investment Fund, managed by LaunchTN, was created with funds received through the U.S. Treasury’s State Small Business Credit Initiative, according to LaunchTN. INCITE’s $30 million fund helps attract and leverage private sector equity investments in Tennessee businesses.

Launch Tennessee reports 31 percent growth in 2014 early-stage investments (NBJ)

Launch Tennessee, a public-private partnership designed to foster economic growth in the state, invested more than $276 million in early stage companies in 2014, a 31 percent jump from 2013, according to a news release. The group, led by CEO Charlie Brock, is aiming to reach $1 billion in early stage investments by 2017. “We are tremendously proud of the progress made across the state in strengthening Tennessee’s entrepreneurial landscape in 2014,” Brock said in the release. “We aim to build on our success and continue to be a key driver of business and innovation in Tennessee and throughout the southeast for years to come.”

$2B wind power project gets state approval (Memphis Business Journal)

Wind energy in the state of Tennessee just got a big push forward. The Tennessee Regulatory Authority has approved a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity to Plains & Eastern Clean Line LLC, which will allow the company to operate as a transmission only public utility in the state. Plains & Eastern Clean Line is planning a 700-mile electric transmission project that will deliver wind energy from the Oklahoma Panhandle region to utilities and customers in Tennessee, Arkansas and other markets in the Southeast. The project’s goal is to provide affordable, renewable energy to more than one million homes annually, create construction jobs in Tennessee and help reduce air pollution.

Progress made on TennCare records request (Tennessean/Wilemon)

The Tennessean and TennCare made progress Tuesday toward settling the status of an open records request related to documents and emails pertaining to problems state residents have had applying for Medicaid coverage. The agency has agreed to begin producing records on a weekly basis beginning as soon as Friday, or no later than Jan. 20. “We appreciate the positive and collaborative approach on the heels of our last request and look forward to getting this information from the department so the newspaper can report on the details,” said Robb Harvey, The Tennessean’s lawyer.

UTC unveils new sexual misconduct policy (Tennessean/Wilemon)

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga hosted a student meeting Tuesday to garner input on a new sexual misconduct policy.  The school instituted an interim policy that went into effect Jan. 5 and more strictly codified standards of consent, University Spokesman Chuck Cantrell said. Cantrell said all UT campuses are revising their codes of conduct as it relates to sexual misconduct.  The meeting Tuesday sought student input and drew heated comments from some students who condemned the administration’s handling of sexual misconduct cases.

Tennessee lawmakers convene 109th General Assembly (A. Press/Schelzig)

Tennessee lawmakers convened the 109th General Assembly on Tuesday amid abortion rights protests inside the state Capitol. Republican Rep. Beth Harwell of Nashville and Sen. Ron Ramsey of Blountville were re-elected as speakers of the House and Senate, while about 60 protesters outside the chambers shouted into a bullhorn, banged drums and chanted. The protesters inside the Capitol had split off a much larger demonstration to oppose new restrictions after the approval of a constitutional amendment in November that gave state lawmakers more power to regulate abortions. “They want to force women to have ultra sounds and extra medical procedures done,” said protester Alex Harned, a Nashville massage therapist.

Ramsey, Harwell officially re-elected as session begins (Tennessean/Boucher)

As expected, Tennessee state lawmakers overwhelmingly chose Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey to stay atop the Senate and Speaker Beth Harwell to keep her leadership position in the House. The House and Senate officially re-elected the leaders Tuesday moments after the General Assembly officially convened for the state of a new session. Both leaders were expected to keep their positions after Republican caucus meetings in December. Ramsey, R-Blountville, faced no challenge within the caucus, and easily returned to his seat thanks in part to the GOP controlling 28 of the 33 Senate seats. Harwell, R-Nashville, faced a challenge from Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, in late 2014, but the Tea Party-aligned lawmaker was handily defeated in a caucus election.

State legislature begins work Tuesday (WSMV-TV Nashville)

State lawmakers returned to the Tennessee Capitol Tuesday to begin work. There are a number of developments to be watched in the weeks and months ahead for the 109th General Assembly. One of the most controversial could be new regulations for abortion. After a constitutional amendment vote, lawmakers now have more power to regulate the procedure. One bill, which has already been filed, would require women to get ultrasounds before abortions. On the first day of the legislative session, women’s rights protesters made their voices heard as they marched from Legislative Plaza to the Capitol. A dozen women rallied outside the House and Senate chambers, chanting as lawmakers entered the hallway.

Gas taxes, wine sales, education, and more, TN lawmakers kick off 2015 (WMC-TV)

Tuesday, January 13 marked the start of the 2015 legislative session in Tennessee, and state lawmakers are already busy trying to get their agenda turned into law. There are five major issues state lawmakers are trying to tackle this year. If they succeed, you might see major changes in the coming months. 1 – Abortion Restrictions. Voters passed Amendment One during the November election. The amendment allows state lawmakers to place restrictions on abortions and abortion facilities. Some lawmakers have already proposed restrictions like mandatory waiting periods and regular inspections of all abortion clinics.

Tennessee lawmakers to vote on treasurer, comptroller (Associated Press)

A joint session of the Tennessee House and Senate is scheduled to vote Wednesday on new terms for two of the state’s constitutional officers. Comptroller Justin Wilson and Treasurer David Lillard are up for their fourth two-year terms. Wilson, Lillard and Secretary of State Tre Hargett were each first elected in 2009 after Republicans gained control of the Legislature. Hargett is in the middle of a four-year term so doesn’t have to stand for re-election Wednesday. Wilson is a Nashville tax attorney who as an aide to then-Gov. Don Sundquist was a prominent supporter for a failed effort to impose a state income tax in 2002.

GOP leader backs Insure Tenn, says House votes aren’t there yet (TN/Boucher)

A leading Republican in the state House is backing Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to expand health coverage in the state, but doesn’t think there are the votes to pass the plan in the House at the moment. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he understands the Insure Tennessee health plan is controversial, but argues it’s a common-sense way to use federal funds to cover services and provide better care. “It’s a government program and we’re expanding it. And as Republicans, we don’t like to expand government programs period,” McCormick said Tuesday afternoon. “But then you go back to the common-sense part of this … really the only practical way to provide these services in another way is to expand the Medicaid program.”

Medicaid expansion may contract (Politico)

Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion is under renewed assault in the states even as the health law faces threats in Washington from the Supreme Court and a Republican Congress….In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam may have figured out a way to squelch concerns about a revenue crunch. The state’s hospitals have agreed to foot the bill as the federal payments scale down. Haslam’s alternative plan “generally seems to be in line with recent CMS approvals,” wrote Joan Alker of Georgetown’s Center for Children and Families after he released details last week. With a special session devoted to Medicaid scheduled for February, Tennessee is one of the few states where the momentum favors expansion.

How To Make Uninsured Healthy? Haslam Suggests Paying Them (WPLN)

Governor Haslam’s proposal to offer health coverage to 200,000 uninsured Tennesseans is already getting a wary look from state lawmakers. One part of his proposal is to use vouchers to help low-wage workers buy coverage from their employers. But what if you employer doesn’t offer insurance? Or you don’t work? And you don’t qualify for Medicaid?

Hundreds rally at Capitol for abortion rights (Tennessean/Wadhwani)

Hundreds of abortion rights advocates rallied in downtown Nashville Tuesday morning as lawmakers reconvened for the first day of legislative session this year, in a show of opposition to proposed abortion restrictions. In chilly weather, protesters gathered at the Tennessee Tower to listen to speakers pledging to fight legislative efforts to restrict abortion access, before walking en masse around the legislature and then up the steps of the state Capitol. They carried signs that said “Keep your politics out of my uterus,” “Politicians make crappy doctors” and “Women are watching.” Betsy Speed carried a sign that said “We stand united. We vote.”

Abortion challenge: Women protest changes to law in Nashville (TFP/Sher)

The abortion debate made a dramatic entrance Tuesday during the Tennessee General Assembly’s opening day as protesters took their opposition to proposed new restrictions directly into the state Capitol. With shouts of “My body. My choice,” a group of some 60 mostly female protesters made their way to the first floor of the Capitol with about 20 or so of them later making their way to the second floor where House and Senate members were being sworn into office for the 109th General Assembly. But they did not get inside the respective House and Senate chambers and official proceedings weren’t interrupted. Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville and Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville were re-elected without opposition in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

Views on abortion clash as Tennessee legislature opens (News-Sentinel/Locker)

The Tennessee Legislature opened its 2015 session Tuesday while abortion-rights demonstrators chanted loudly just outside the House and Senate chambers. Their shouted chants, accompanied by a loud drum beat, were clearly heard inside the chambers as lawmakers re-elected Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville. The outcome of those elections was never in doubt given the huge Republican majorities. Harwell won 98-0, with all 26 Democrats joining 72 Republicans in voting for her. One GOP representative from Chattanooga was absent. Ramsey won 30-0 with three Democrats abstaining — Sens. Lee Harris and Sara Kyle of Memphis and Jeff Yarbro of Nashville.

Amid Abortion Protests, Tenn Lawmakers Return For Raucous First Day (WPLN)

With a bang of her gavel, Rep. Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) opened the 109th General Assembly and was unanimously elected to a third term as speaker of the state House of Representatives. The real drama was in the lobby outside the chamber, where dozens of protesters – some with signs and drums – rallied against plans to impose new restrictions on abortion. Chanting slogans such as, “Keep your laws off my body,” they sought to discourage lawmakers from pursuing regulations such as a 48-hour waiting period and tougher licensing requirements for abortion facilities.

Busy new legislative session routine inside, lively outside (WBIR-TV Knoxville)

Tennessee lawmakers kicked off the largely symbolic start Tuesday of the 109th General Assembly with a bounty of bills to consider and a parade of protesters marching outside. Republican Rep. Beth Harwell of Nashville and Sen. Ron Ramsey of Blountville were re-elected as speakers of the House and Senate. And that was about as substantive as it got inside. On the streets, however, hundreds of protesters who want the Legislature to stay away from adopting new abortion restrictions this session shouted into a bullhorn, banged drums and chanted. The protest, the brainchild of a group of University of Tennessee students, first gathered at the government office building Tennessee Tower with speakers pledging to fight legislative efforts to restrict abortion access.

Legislative Session Begins (WZTV-TV Nashville)

Rarely does the Tennessee General Assembly get a welcome back like they received Tuesday. A large crowd of pro-abortion rights supporters rallied outside the capitol and for a time inside it as well against the possibility of new abortion restrictions being passed. Uju Oraendu was among them.   “I feel like women should have safe accessible ways to get abortions,” said Oraendu. Abortion is one of many issues that are going to attract attention this year and one of the biggest is also the first on the list. Lawmakers will take a two week break before returning February 2nd to debate Governor Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan. It would expand Medicaid to 200,000 people who can’t qualify for Obamacare.

Sparks seeks lower textbook costs (Daily News Journal)

State Rep. Mike Sparks hopes to bring down textbook costs by prohibiting professors at public colleges from mandating that each student uses books they’ve written. “That’s a conflict of interest,” the Republican lawmaker from Smyrna said during a recent phone interview. “I don’t think it’s right for a professor to profit off a student.” The Tennessee General Assembly will begin their 2015 legislative work by convening at noon today at the Capitol in Nashville. Sparks said he wants the lawmakers to examine why the cost of textbooks keep rising. “My research shows they have increased over 800 percent the past 30 years and 82 percent the past 10 years,” said Sparks, adding that many students face paying $800 to $1,200 per semester on textbooks at a time when the debt for loans to pay for college education has climbed to $1 trillion.

Lamar Alexander starts No Child Left Behind rewrite (Tennessean/Troyan)

The U.S. Department of Education would no longer be able to pressure schools to adopt certain tests or academic standards under a proposal released Tuesday night by the chairman of a key Senate committee. Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said his first task as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is to rewrite the federal law for K-12 public schools, which expired in 2007. He introduced a draft proposal Tuesday to kick off meetings with Democrats and Republicans and a series of public hearings in the coming weeks. Alexander’s ideas take direct aim at the authority of the Education Department, the agency he led under former President George H.W. Bush.

Alexander bill returns school testing, accountability decisions to state (N-S/Collins)

The federal government’s involvement in student testing and school accountability would be greatly curtailed under draft legislation U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is circulating as a starting point for fixing the Bush-era No Child Left Behind school-reform law. States would be required to set high standards to measure student achievement, but the federal government could not dictate what those standards would be or require states to submit their standards for review or approval. Public schools would no longer have to conform to a federal mandate of yearly progress, but states would have to establish accountability systems to measure whether schools are meeting prescribed standards.

TN congressman proposes bill to collect police data (WMC-TV Memphis)

A Memphis congressman is pushing for a way to keep track of deadly encounters with police. U.S. Representative Steve Cohen spoke to Chris Hayes Tuesday night on MSNBC and said his bill would give a clear picture of just how often lethal force is being used across the country. Cohen is proposing a bill that would close what he says is a federal loophole in national statistics. His bill would require all police departments to give the Justice Department demographics of both victim and officer for collection every time deadly force is used. It would also require agencies to report justification for any use of deadly force. Cohen says getting those details are very important.

Sales tax changes are coming, sooner or later (Tennessean/Loftis)

The National Retail Federation will continue to push hard for the new Congress to pass a long-debated measure that would require online retailers and remote sellers to collect sales taxes in all states where they sell, regardless of whether they have a physical presence there. The retailers think the Marketplace Fairness Act would level the playing field between Main Street brick-and-mortar stores and those that operate in cyberspace. If this particular bill (or another similar piece of legislation) ever passes, it would have huge impact on certain businesses in Tennessee who sell out of state. While the law is mainly directed to online retailers, it applies to any business with remote sales.

Fort Campbell backers lobby for base in D.C. (Tennessean/Troyan)

Fort Campbell could be spared from severe downsizing if Congress stops using automatic, across-the-board spending cuts to reduce the federal debt, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Tuesday. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told Tennessee and Kentucky advocates for Fort Campbell he doesn’t question the post’s vital national security role. But he said that role may not insulate the base from at least some cutbacks planned by the Pentagon without a larger budget deal. “We need your help … to find a better way to reduce the deficit other than cutting the military, which has been cut a lot in the last few years,” said Thornberry, a leading voice in Congress on military issues. The Army is on track to reduce its troop strength from 522,000 soldiers to 450,000 or less, depending on how Congress handles the military budget. B

In Some States, Tax Cut Promises Collide With Budget Realities (Stateline)

Many newly elected and re-elected Republican governors stormed into office pledging to cut taxes.  Now, in the face of lower than expected revenues, some are in a predicament that might remind movie buffs of the 1972 film “The Candidate,” in which Robert Redford’s character won a U.S. Senate seat only to ask, “What do we do now?” Some governors are being forced to reconsider their tax cut promises, while others are contemplating budget cuts to bring state balance sheets into equilibrium. Most states are in better fiscal shape this year than in the recent past, but in 20 of them, revenues for the current fiscal year are coming in under projections, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO).

Cracking Down on Skipping Class (Wall Street Journal)

Skipping class undetected for a game of ultimate Frisbee might become a thing of the past as more universities adopt mandatory-attendance policies and acquire high-tech trackers that snitch when students skip. At Villanova University, student ID cards track attendance at some lectures. Administrators at University of Arkansas last semester began electronically monitoring the class attendance of 750 freshmen as part of a pilot program they might extend to all underclassman. And at Harvard, researchers secretly filmed classrooms to learn how many students were skipping lectures. moves reflect the rising financial consequence of skipping too many classes and, consequently, dropping out. More than four in 10 full-time college students fail to graduate in six years.

Y-12 achieves compliance on DOE order, but not without pain (N-S/Munger)

For the first time in years, the Y-12 and Pantex nuclear weapons plants have achieved compliance with a Department of Energy order that governs the amount of money that federal contractors can spend on employee benefits. The celebration was muted, however, because many employees and retirees had their benefits reduced to reach the milestone. Y-12 retirees have been particularly outspoken, holding rallies to protest the changes in their health care packages and blasting DOE and its contractor on social media. “It’s a tough pill for anyone to swallow because you get accustomed to a certain level of benefits,” Jim Haynes, the president of Consolidated Nuclear Security, said in an interview last month at Y-12. “But it’s part of the financial discipline that we have to meet, and employees are adjusting.”

TVA still searching for cause of seepage, sinkhole at Boone Dam (Herald-Courier)

Water is still seeping at Boone Dam and the cause has yet to be determined. Workers discovered a sinkhole at the dam, located on the South Fork of the Holston River, in October. Further investigation led to the detection of seepage at the toe of the dam. The Tennessee Valley Authority accelerated the annual drawdown at Boone Lake and lowered the water an extra 10 feet so engineers could conduct a detailed study and investigation of the sinkhole and seepage. The drawdown was completed in November and TVA has been at work drilling at the dam since that time. Boone Dam has two portions, a concrete portion with the steel gates on the right and the powerhouse on the left.

Sumner County Leaders Planning For Future Economic Development (WSMV-TV)

Sumner County commissioners are taking the first step to attract new economic development to the area. At Monday’s Budget Committee meeting, commissioners approved spending $250,000 to study a piece of land that could be a potential site for a large, industrial business. The Gallatin site is 800-1,000 acres in size, and is located near Highway 109 and existing railroad tracks. Supporters of the project said the location is ideal to attract a major company and jobs to the area. “I can’t begin to tell you what the future will be like in 10 years if this project is completed,” said Jerry Foster, a Sumner County Commissioner and member of the Budget Committee.

Indiana: Pence calls for balanced budget amendment in State of State (Indy Star)

Gov. Mike Pence proposed a balanced budget amendment to Indiana’s constitution during his State of the State address Tuesday night. Pence also used his annual speech before the Indiana General Assembly to renew calls for increased education funding and to tout the state’s record on job creation. But the surprise of the night was his call for a balanced budget amendment. “A balanced budget requirement in the constitution of the state of Indiana will assure Hoosiers that today and tomorrow, Indiana will spend wisely, protect our state from an economic downturn, and unlike Washington, D.C., we won’t bury our children and grandchildren under mountains of debt,” Pence said. He said Indiana is “remarkably” one of just a few states without a balanced budget requirement in its state constitution.

New Jersey: Christie’s National Aspirations Underlie State Speech (NY Times)

As Gov. Chris Christie delivered his State of the State address on Tuesday, it sounded less like the valedictory of a presidential hopeful on his way to bigger and better things than a defensive move by a politician anticipating the shots that could be leveled against him. Speaking in the ornate Assembly chamber full of local and state dignitaries, Mr. Christie seemed largely to be addressing, or pre-empting, criticisms — from Democrats, but also from fellow Republicans in a field of White House aspirants that becomes more crowded by the week. “It has become fashionable in some quarters to run down our state,” the governor said dismissively.

Oklahoma: Fallin says OK cannot continue to be worst in health (News OK)

In her inauguration address, Gov. Mary Fallin said there are three areas that Oklahoma must resolve to make a priority: educational attainment, over-incarceration and health. Oklahoma’s health has long been failing. For the past several years, Oklahoma has ranked among the worst in the nation for high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and a long list of other health issues. As Fallin pointed out in her speech: “We are too good of a people to allow ourselves to continue to be the worst state in the nation for prescription drug abuse, or for one-in-10 Oklahomans to have diabetes, or for the state to be ranked seventh-worst in the nation for obesity and sixth-worst in smoking rates,” Fallin said Monday afternoon.

Wisconsin: In ‘state of the state’ speech, Scott Walker unveils road map (J-S)

After a year of turning a state surplus into tax cuts and then winning re-election, Gov. Scott Walker laid out a road map Tuesday for the bigger campaign and financial challenges that may lie ahead, promising to merge state agencies to hold down spending. The governor is studying a run for the GOP presidential nomination even as a more somber state budget outlook has shifted his focus at home from tax cuts to spending decreases. In his 24-minute speech, Walker slipped in a few references to his White House ambitions, including veiled swipes at potential rivals and even a piece of foreign policy, calling for solidarity with the journalists and others murdered by terrorists in France last week.

OPINION 

Frank Cagle: Set school standards on state, local levels (News-Sentinel)

John Forgety has been a classroom teacher, a school principal and a superintendent of schools. He would appear to be more familiar with the state’s education system, and what works, than most of the people who have been leading school reform — people who have never taught in a classroom and who have no experience as a school or school system administrator. The retired educator is now a Republican member of the state House of Representatives from Athens, and he has pre-filed House Bill 3. You may remember that 80-odd members of the House voted to delay further implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Numerous House members ran for re-election last year opposing “Obamacore.”