February 4 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 healthy plan for state businesses (News-Sentinel)
When Gov. Bill Haslam kicked off the special legislative session on his Insure Tennessee plan on Monday, he used sound reasoning and an appeal to lawmakers’ compassion to dismantle all plausible objections to his health care proposal. Still, that is no guarantee of passage. The governor’s speech to a joint session of the General Assembly emphasized that Insure Tennessee would extend health insurance coverage to some 280,000 low-income residents at no cost to the state. As debate over the proposal plays out this week, East Tennessee legislators should remember his words, tune out the frenzied cries of “Obamacare,” ignore the possibility of political retaliation from out-of-state interest groups, and do what is best for their constituents — pass Insure Tennessee.

Haslam’s Insure Tennessee gets day in the sun (Tennessean/Boucher)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s controversial health care plan, Insure Tennessee, had its day in the sun Tuesday. State lawmakers can decide if the plan faces its day of reckoning Wednesday in what will be a turning point for the special legislative session. In several House and Senate committee meetings, the Haslam administration and state hospital executives made their pitch for the plan, which aims to provide an estimated 280,000 low-income Tennesseans with federally funded health care. While the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a tea party-aligned think tank, made its case against the plan — the word “Obamacare” came up frequently — most of the people who appeared before the committees throughout the day supported the plan.

Work Begins on Insure Tennessee Plan (Memphis Daily News)
The first House session of the Tennessee legislature’s special session begins Wednesday, Feb. 4, after committee work on the only piece of business before the General Assembly – the Insure Tennessee Medicaid expansion proposal. By next Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will be back in the well of the House to deliver his State of the State address to legislators one week after he addressed them jointly in the same chamber to make the case for Insure Tennessee. The date is already on his calendar and that of legislators.

Legislature opens its review of Haslam health plan; outcome uncertain (CA/Locker)
State lawmakers began their formal review of Gov. Bill Haslam’s health insurance plan for the working poor Tuesday, as opponents and supporters from across the state crowded into the legislative office building and committee hearings to show their views. No votes were taken as two different House committees and one Senate committee reviewed the plan, called Insure Tennessee. House Republicans, who hold a 73-26 majority, plan to caucus Wednesday after the Finance Committee completes its review of the plan, to determine if there are enough votes to pass the bill in the House. “I honestly don’t know whether we have the votes yet,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville. “

Nashville chamber: Tell lawmakers to say ‘yes’ to Insure TN (Tennessean/Fletcher)
The Nashville Chamber of Commerce is throwing its support behind Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee and urging members to contact their elected official in support of the plan. The Nashville chamber told members that Insure Tennessee, a health-care expansion plan, would boost business in the state as well as “generate new spending into the state’s economy and create incentives for healthier lifestyles which leads to greater productivity and helps businesses remain competitive,” in an email “Make Your Business Voice Count” campaign Tuesday.

House floor votes there for Insure Tennessee, Gerald McCormick says (TFP/Sher)
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, today told House Insurance and Banking Committee members this morning that the House floor votes are there for passing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal but their panel is key to whether it gets there or not. McCormick, who is carrying Haslam’s resolution, told the panel’s members “this committee is the one committee, quite frankly, that we have challenging numbers. And if we don’t get out of this committee, this bill doesn’t pass. The other members don’t get a chance to vote for it on the floor.” He said he believes “we’d have the votes to pass it comfortably” on the House floor.

Harwell, Ramsey Remain Neutral Ahead Of Voting On Medicaid Expansion (WPLN)
The heads of the Tennessee General Assembly are refusing to make a case for Governor Bill Haslam’s Medicaid expansion. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he’s trying to be as “neutral as possible.” “I’ve been asked to be a little more persuading than I have [been] by the governor,” Ramsey told a group of small business leaders Tuesday. “That’s not where we need to be on this. This is not something where it doesn’t really matter so I’ll twist somebody’s arm. Each individual needs to make up his mind where he is on this.” Ramsey did say he balanced committees with equal numbers of lawmakers who he thought would support and oppose the Insure Tennessee plan in order to further debate. House Speaker Beth Harwell is more often an ally of the governor, but even she has remained on the fence, saying she’s not yet convinced the plan to insure 280,000 Tennesseans has adequate cost controls.

Chairman: 10 against Insure TN plan in key House committee (Tenn/Boucher)
The chairman of an influential House committee says he doesn’t support Gov. Bill Haslam’s controversial health plan, and believes at least nine other members of his 20-member committee also opposed the plan as of Tuesday morning. House Insurance and Banking Committee Chairman Steve McManus, R-Cordova, said that vote tally reflects where his committee stood before the Haslam administration and House Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, made their pitch for Insure Tennessee in an information session Tuesday. While he said McCormick’s passion could help sway some votes, McManus said he isn’t sure it’s enough to convince his committee to support the proposal to extend federally funded health insurance to at least 280,000 low-income Tennesseans.

Insure TN plan hits fierce opposition from Republicans (TFP/Sher)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan appeared in deep trouble Tuesday with the governor’s signature issue facing what could be insurmountable opposition from fellow Republicans in two key House and Senate committees, lawmakers said. Legislative opponents say they hope to deliver a death blow to it today, the third day of the special session Haslam called to win approval for his plan to use federal Medicaid dollars to extend health insurance to 280,000 to 300,000 low-income Tennesseans. After listening to nearly three hours of testimony Tuesday in the Senate Health Committee from top administration officials and the Tennessee Hospital Association, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, an opponent, said in an interview that he “believe[s] there are six ‘no’ votes in that committee.

Insure Tennessee and more: HCA’s take on health care’s hot-button issues (NBJ)
As Tennessee’s legislature kicks off its Insure Tennessee special session, Nashville’s hospital companies have a vested interest in what happens. Medicaid expansion, whatever form it takes, means more covered lives and, most likely, more revenue for giants like HCA, Community Health Systems and LifePoint Hospitals. Appropriately, then, the first full day of the special session is taking place the same day HCA Holdings Inc. (NYSE: HCA) released its fourth-quarter and year-end earnings. For now, HCA’s benefits from Medicaid expansion are fairly small; the company operates in only five states where the program has grown.

Tea Party Activists Make Show of Force Against Insure Tennessee (WPLN-Radio)
Scores of tea party activists turned out at the state Capitol today, hoping to pressure lawmakers to vote down Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee health plan. In an event organized by the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers-backed libertarian group, protesters clad in red T-shirts overflowed committee rooms as lawmakers launched hearings on Haslam’s plan to extend health coverage to more than a quarter million low-income Tennesseans. “We are here in mass to show what the people of Tennessee want – or what we don’t want – exactly,” said Sharon Schoenfeld, a Sevierville woman who bused in as part of a group of 50 activists from East Tennessee.

Beth Harwell offers chairmen to prepare alternate Medicaid plan (AP/Schelzig)
House Speaker Beth Harwell said Tuesday that she has offered to have her committee chairmen draw up an alternate proposal for Gov. Bill Haslam if his Insure Tennessee plan appears to be headed for defeat in the ongoing special legislative session. Harwell told a conference organized by the National Federation of Independent Business and the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association that it’s not yet clear whether the governor’s proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans will gain enough votes to support. Harwell said her colleagues are not yet convinced that the governor’s proposal to require copays, incentives for healthy lifestyles and revisions to the way medical procedures are reimbursed to hospitals will reverse the Medicaid drain on state finances.

Harwell offers to prepare Medicaid expansion alternative (News-Sentinel/Locker)
State lawmakers began their formal review of Gov. Bill Haslam’s health insurance plan for the working poor Tuesday, as opponents and supporters from across the state crowded into the legislative office building and committee hearings to show their views. No votes were taken as two different House committees and one Senate committee reviewed the Medicaid expansion plan, called Insure Tennessee. House Republicans, who hold a 73-26 majority, plan to caucus Wednesday after the House Finance Committee completes its review of the plan, to determine if there are enough votes to pass the bill in the House.

Tennessee to receive millions from national $1.38B settlement (M. Biz Journal)
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today announced a $1.38 billion settlement with Standard & Poor’s Tuesday, with Tennessee slated to receive $25 million. The settlement — which involved the U.S. Department of Justice, 18 states and the District of Columbia — settles allegations that S&P misled investors when it rated finance securities leading up the 2088 finical crisis. ” Standard & Poor’s claimed that its ratings were objective, but as the states alleged, the company allowed its business interests to influence those ratings to the detriment of our national economy,” Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in a news release.

TBI seeks help identifying ring found near burned body (Tennessean/Miller)
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is asking for the public’s help in identifying a ring found near a burning body that was discovered in Adams Sunday morning. The TBI was called to assist the Robertson County Sheriff’s Office with the investigation after firefighters with the Adams Fire Department found burning human remains while responding to a fire call in a field near Highway 76 West close to the Montgomery County line. Authorities have not identified the victim at this time, but investigators hope someone will recognize the ring found near the body, according to the release issued Tuesday by the TBI.

Farmers can learn about marketing products at ‘boot camps’ (News-Sentinel)
Growers who want to participate in farmers markets can learn more about what it takes at six Farmers Market Boot Camp Workshops this month in Tennessee. Specialists from the University of Tennessee Extension, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency will teach the workshops. Topics include food safety regulations, liability risk, meat sales guidelines and more. Cost is $20, including lunch. Space is limited; register at least five days in advance.

TN tests smart parking lots with real-time parking space information (TFP/Benton)
Big-rig truckers’ smartphones soon can help them find parking space along the Interstate 75 corridor in East Tennessee with the opening of a couple of new, high-tech research sites to study the feasibility of providing real-time parking information to truckers on the road. The Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have teamed up on the project, dubbed SmartPark. It consists of one study site already opened on the northbound side of I-75 at the rest area near the 45-mile marker south of Athens, Tenn., and another developing site at northbound mile marker 23 south of exit 25 in Cleveland.

New teacher training program at University of Memphis on hold (CA/Roberts)
The role a new private master’s degree program will play in a residency for aspiring teachers at the University of Memphis was delayed briefly after faculty and citizens asked pointed questions Tuesday. “We are postponing the announcement we planned for this afternoon until we can get more faculty input,” Dr. David Rudd said after a public meeting about the plans, the first since he announced plans last fall for a yearlong residency using university resources and $24 million from philanthropists to build a pipeline of teachers prepared to succeed in low-performing schools here.

House speaker says Tenn. gas tax increase unlikely this year (Associated Press)
House Speaker Beth Harwell says that Tennessee lawmakers are unlikely to take up a gas tax increase during this year’s legislative session. Speaking to a joint conference by the National Federation of Independent Business and the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association on Tuesday, Harwell said lawmakers are interested in discussing ways to “broaden the base” of transportation funding to make up for losses from vehicles with better fuel mileage and electric cars. But the Nashville Republican said she doesn’t expect an increase to be enacted this year.

Crowe files bill to allow hotel-motel tax increase (Johnson City Press)
State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, has introduced legislation that would allow Johnson City the right to raise the hotel-motel tax from the current 5 percent maximum to 7 percent. Senate Bill 195 was the direct result of conversations at a Dec. 29 meeting in which city commissioners directed immediate concerns to state legislators, including Crowe, and state Reps. Micah Van Huss R-6th, and Matthew Hill, R-7th. If passed, the bill would apply only to “home rule” cities — Tennessee municipalities operating under their own charters. “I’ll be meeting with the representatives of the 13 home rule cities, and hopefully everyone can get on the same page,” Crowe said from Nashville Tuesday. “We would not be passing a bill that sets the amount of the tax; we would just be changing the language in the law that would allow cities to make that call.”

Sparks questions some tax incentives for job creation (Daily News Journal)
Companies obtaining tax breaks should directly employ a vast majority of their year-round workers, state Rep. Mike Sparks said recently. “It shouldn’t be 20 percent full time and 80 percent temporary,” the Smyrna Republican said. “It should be 80 percent full time and 20 percent seasonal and temporary. To me, it’s just the right thing to do. We are not talking free market here. Once companies start getting tax incentives and tax abatements, the free market is off the table. They should be held accountable. I just want to start the discussion.” If the Sparks bill were to become law, it could change the way the Rutherford County Industrial Board offers property tax breaks to companies promising to bring jobs here by opening or expanding operations.

Routine prayer in Tenn. Senate turns against “tyrannical” federal overreach (AP)
A normally routine prayer in the Senate on Tuesday turned out to be anything but when a minister and activist bemoaned what she called “tyrannical” overreach from Washington. The prayer wasn’t unprecedented in dabbling into politics but stood out in how vigorously it veered in that direction. It came a day after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam convened a special session to discuss his plan to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans. Many fellow Republicans in the Legislature are dubious about the plan because it relies on funds available under President Barack Obama’s health care law. June Griffin, pastor of the American Bible Protestant Church, an independent body in Dayton, Tennessee, was invited to speak by Republican Sen. Frank Niceley, an opponent of the governor’s plan. Before praying, Griffin asked for prayer requests, and a legislator asked that she pray for lawmakers as they decide whether to approve the governor’s proposal, which could be voted on as early as this week. Griffin began her prayer with a petition for the welfare of the state, before launching into a tirade about overreach by the federal government.

State raps how grant funds used in Rockwood visitors’ center (N-S/Fowler)
This Roane County city now has its own visitors’ center and museum, located at 241 West Rockwood St. But getting to that point included changes in its proposed location, some small-town bickering and several concerns expressed by the state about how its $15,000 in grant money for the center was spent. When it came to the project, “We were probably way overambitious,” said John C. Evans, president of Rockwood Revitalization Inc., created to boost downtown economic development. But bottom line, says Evans, “The state’s good. I’m good. We’re all happy. I don’t understand the big issue.”

Teachers get wider support in MTSU poll (Daily News Journal)
Tennesseans are giving wider approval of the state’s public school teachers, even as their evaluation of state and local schools aren’t as consistent, according to data from the most recent Middle Tennessee State University poll. While 65 percent of the 600 people polled said they trust the work of public school teachers, organizers described the approval ratings as a mixed bag for local and state schools when the results of the education section of the MTSU Poll was released on Tuesday. The education portion of the survey was conducted as debate continues about education issues across the state, said MTSU Poll director and journalism professor Ken Blake.

Roe to limit time in Washington while family member copes with illness (JCP)
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe announced Tuesday that a member of his immediate family faced a “very serious illness,” forcing him to limit his time in Congress while he supports his family. “All offices will remain open, and my staff will continue working on behalf of East Tennesseans and to ensure constituents with new and previously opened cases receive assistance,” he said. “My family and I appreciate your thoughts and prayers, and we ask for privacy and your continued support as we work through this together as a family.” In the statement, the former Johnson City mayor did not identify which member of his family was ill.

Feb. 15 deadline spurs efforts to reach out to the uninsured (CA/McKenzie)
Freddie Conner wasn’t aware of the technology-supported network of organizations and volunteers that had helped steer him to the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center to see about getting health coverage. Conner, 53, said he was asleep in the back seat of a car one night when acquaintances robbed five stores, but he was convicted at age 18 with three others. As a felon since then, he said his best job was working as a mechanic until the owner of the garage died. Homeless and using crutches one recent Saturday after tripping over carpet during the holidays, he said he’s never had health insurance. “I’m getting up in age and I need something,” Conner said.

Labor group critical of UAW seeks recognition at VW’s Chatt. plant (TFP/Pare)
A labor group rivaling the United Auto Workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant has submitted the names of workers to the automaker with hopes to qualify for limited organizing rights. The American Council of Employees has offered as members the names of at least 15 percent of plant workers. If approved by VW, the group could convene monthly with human resources officials, hold regular on-site ACE meetings and post announcements at the factory. Late last year, the UAW went through the same procedure, and auditors determined that UAW had gathered signatures from at least 45 percent of the plant’s blue-collar workers.

Sullivan schools’ TCAP scores reflect good growth, some problem areas (H-C)
Sullivan County school system’s District Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction Robin McClellan recently updated the county’s Board of Education on the achievement results of the district’s 2014 TCAP scores after the implementation of new Tennessee State Standards curriculum and the Response to Instruction and Intervention model. The scores show good growth and some problem areas, she said. “Our state has even acknowledged that we’ve been moving toward these standards that are lofty for our students and so in the past we taught SPIs [State Performance Indicators] that were disjointed,” she said.

Wisconsin: Walker’s Wisconsin Budget Has a National Message (NY Times)
Gov. Scott Walker, a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination, on Tuesday proposed a new spending plan for Wisconsin that relies on borrowing and spending cuts, including deep reductions to state universities, and steers clear of tax increases. Mr. Walker called for drug testing for people applying for some public assistance; the merging of several state agencies and the elimination of 400 state jobs, some of which are vacant; and an end to a cap on students’ attending private schools with taxpayer-funded vouchers.


Guest columnist: Health of 200,000 Depends on Gov’s Proposal (MDN)
As a nurse serving Tennesseans for over 32 years, I know intimately what sickness looks like, and what it takes to build a healthy life. One of the most important things to ensuring the health and wholeness of our communities is access to affordable health insurance. Last month, Gov. Hasalm proposed a plan to make affordable health care a reality for more than 200,000 Tennesseans. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity to secure healthy futures for our family members, friends, and neighbors. Haslam’s plan, called Insure Tennessee, will help Tennesseans who cannot qualify for TennCare and don’t make enough to afford insurance.