February 6 TN News Digest

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

Poll: 79 Percent Approve of Tennessee’s Free Tuition Plan (Associated Press)
A new poll by Middle Tennessee State University shows overwhelming support for Gov. Bill Haslam’s program to make community college and technical schools free for upcoming graduates. The poll found that 79 percent approve of the program known as Tennessee Promise. The poll showed 12 percent against it, 8 percent were unsure and the rest gave no answer. The polling data was released at the annual Associated Press-Tennessee Press Association legislative preview session. President Barack Obama traveled to Knoxville last month to unveil a proposal for a similar plan for students across the country.

In Tennessee, Haslam says no gas tax hike this year (Times Free-Press/Sher)
Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday that while officials “need to do something on the gas tax,” he doesn’t see pushing for any increase until next year when he can show lawmakers exactly how the new revenue would be used for state transportation needs. Haslam told editors and publishers at the Tennessee Press Association’s winter meeting in Nashville that his thoughts on whether to seek more funding were colored by several considerations. “No. 1, were we ready to do it?” Haslam said. The governor said there would be “heavy lifting” for him and his staff on his Insure Tennessee program, which was killed in a Senate committee in a special legislative session Wednesday, as well as on education issues in the regular session that begins next week.

LaunchTN inks partners for regional pitch competition (Nashville Post)
Launch Tennessee on Thursday said it has signed up three partners for the 36|86 Southern Series, a startup pitch competition that will be held around the South this spring and culminate at the state-backed group’s inaugural 36|86 conference. The stops on the Southern Series will include Atlanta Tech Village in Atlanta (April 2), Disruption Corp. in Arlington, Virginia (April 7) and ConvergeSE & The Iron Yard in Columbia, South Carolina (April 15). Ten startups will pitch at each event and the winners will advance to the 36|86 conference in Nashville in June to compete for a grand prize of $36,000.

LaunchTN creates Southeast pitch competition series (Tennessean/McGee)
Launch Tennessee has created a series of entrepreneurship events ahead of its 36|86 conference in June, partnering with three Southeast startup-oriented organizations: Atlanta Tech Village, Disruption Corp. in Arlington, Va., and ConvergeSE & The Iron Yard in Columbia, S.C. Dubbed the 36|86 Southern Series, the three events will take place in April to highlight companies being built throughout the region. Pitch competitions will take place at each event, with winners advancing to the 36|86 conference at Nashville’s Marathon Music Works, where the top company wins $36,000.

Launch Tennessee plans ‘Southern Series’ as prelude to summer conference (NBJ)
The public-private economic development group Launch Tennessee has announced plans for three regional events to be held in April as a prelude to this summer’s 36|86 conference in Nashville. As part of “The Southern Series,” three groups of 10 startups will pitch at events in Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina. They’re competing for the chance to pitch again at 36|86 for cash prizes, including $36,000 for the winner. “We are seeking the top southeastern entrepreneurs, pure and simple,” LaunchTN CEO Charlie Brock said in the release.

Princeton Review names UT Knoxville to list of ‘Colleges That Pay You Back’ (N-S)
Attending the University of Tennessee will pay you back, according to the Princeton Review. The campus made the 2015 list, “Colleges That Pay You Back: The 200 Best Value Colleges and What It Takes to Get In,” released Tuesday as the Princeton Review’s newest book and online resource. The list is an expansion of the annual “Best Value Colleges” and aims to help parents and students address concerns about paying for college as well as having a job after graduation. UT Knoxville was on the best value list in 2014. Colleges and universities on the Princeton Review’s newest list were selected for “return-on-education” ratings in three areas: academics, affordability and career opportunities. Factored in were cost, financial aid, student debt, graduation rates, alumni salaries and more.

UT partners with Kingsport schools to offer advanced degrees for teachers (T-N)
The Model City’s school board gave formal approval Thursday night to a joint educational venture with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The two-year program, to be held in Kingsport and be scheduled around the Kingsport City Schools’ calendar, will offer advanced educational degrees to teachers from Kingsport City Schools and possibly other local school systems. The Board of Education voted 5-0 to approve the program, which UT approved Jan. 26. The program will start soliciting students either today or Monday and begin offering classes in the fall.

Anthem data breach reaches TennCare, maybe others (Tennessean/Fletcher)
Amerigroup, a company owned by health insurer Anthem that is a TennCare operator, was part of a cyber attack on parent Anthem that likely exposed up to 80 million people nationwide. Anthem, based in Indianapolis, and formerly known as Wellpoint, disclosed late Wednesday that its computer systems had been breached and that unidentified hackers had accessed information of current and former members, such as their names, birthdays, medical identification or social security numbers, as well as contact information including street addresses and email addresses. Employment information, including income data, is thought to be among the information accessed.

Anthem: Hackers potentially compromise millions of records (USA Today)
Millions of Anthem health insurance customers woke Thursday morning to an e-mail from the company telling them hackers had gained access to the company’s computers and that their names, birthdays, Social Security numbers, addresses and employment data including income might have been stolen. “Anthem will individually notify current and former members whose information has been accessed. We will provide credit monitoring and identity protection free of charge so that those who have been affected can have peace of mind,” Anthem President and CEO Joseph Swedish said in the e-mail.

Defeat of Insure Tenn. leaves Haslam frustrated (News-Sentinel/Locker)
Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday he was frustrated by the legislative defeat of his health plan for the working poor, especially because an “extraordinary” coalition of business leaders and employers had supported it. Legislative approval this year is unlikely without a change in the mindset of lawmakers, he said, because the deal is based on the federal Affordable Care Act, and there’s little chance federal officials can make further concessions and still be in compliance with the ACA. The governor told a Nashville meeting of the Tennessee Press Association Thursday that the agreement he hammered out with federal officials over 21 months was the market-oriented approach he thought the Republican-dominated Legislature wanted.

Defeat of Insure Tenn. leaves Haslam frustrated, embarrassed (AP/Schlezig)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam insists he’s not giving up on his Insure Tennessee proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income people in the state, though he says he doesn’t have any specific plans for resurrecting the measure this year. Haslam told editors and publishers attending a Tennessee Press Association luncheon in Nashville on Thursday that he was frustrated by the measure’s defeat, surprised by lawmakers’ level of mistrust of the federal government and embarrassed by the number of times he called U.S. Health and Human Resources Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell to hammer out the failed deal.

Haslam: ‘Embarrassing’ to fail on Insure Tennessee (Tennessean/Boucher)
Many of the political components needed to pass the controversial Insure Tennessee health plan were falling into place as Gov. Bill Haslam headed into a special session this week. Hospitals and chambers of commerce endorsed the plan. A recent poll showed Haslam had an 86 percent approval rating among Republicans in the state, and he has a GOP supermajority in the House and Senate. He and his staff spent “thousands” of hours working with federal health officials on the plan to expand federally funded health insurance to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans. But he couldn’t wrangle the key component: state Republican lawmakers.

6 of 7 Who Killed Insure Tennessee are on State Health Plan (A. Press/Schelzig)
Six of the seven Republican senators who voted to kill Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans are enrolled in the state government health plan. The state-insured senators include Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, according to records obtained by The Associated Press under state open records laws. During a committee debate, Gardenhire had declared that he uses private insurance. The Senate Health Committee voted 7-4 on Wednesday to defeat Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal that Haslam said would have brought $2.8 billion in federal money into the state at no costs to the taxpayer.

Government health care perk enjoyed by almost all TN lawmakers (WKRN-TV Nash)
While Tennessee state lawmakers Wednesday decided overwhelmingly to stop the Insure Tennessee health care plan for nearly 300,000 low income Tennesseans, almost all of the lawmakers have access to state-subsidized medical coverage. Figures from the Tennessee Legislative Administration office show 116 lawmakers out of the 132-member House and Senate are signed up for one of several plans that provide state government subsidized medical coverage. According to records in the legislative administration office, the state of Tennessee covers 80 to 60 percent of the lawmaker’s health care plans.

Lawmakers Spar Over Their Own Taxpayer-Provided Health Coverage (WPLN)
Six of the seven lawmakers who voted to defeat Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee health care proposal are receiving taxpayer-subsidized coverage of their own. That has some of Insure Tennessee’s supporters upset. Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) said it’s ironic. Many skeptics of Insure Tennessee are willingly accepting state-provided coverage for themselves. “We need to ensure that everybody in Tennessee has affordable coverage,” Yarbro said, before members of a Select Senate Health and Welfare committee voted 7-4 to reject Insure Tennessee. Yarbro’s line of argument during the hearing touched a nerve with Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga).

Insure Tennessee: Failure by Politics and Procedure (Memphis Daily News)
The momentum that killed the Insure Tennessee proposal and ended the special session of the Tennessee legislature Wednesday, Feb. 4, was fueled by ideological opposition to the Affordable Care Act and President Barack Obama. And that was expected by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. But State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R- Collierville) said after Wednesday’s tumultuous events on Capitol Hill that the legislation was also brought down by a lack of critical details, unanswered questions and a rush to a special session with its exact purpose trailing the move to win approval in a week’s time.

Defeat of Insure Tennessee casts uncertainty statewide (Memphis Biz Journal)
The defeat of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan was met with disappointment across the state. But the most powerful words came from U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen, D-TN, who, among other things, called the defeat “Foolish, foolish, foolish. Sad, sad, sad. Sick, sick, sick.” “This vote is foolish because it leaves $1 billion in federal funds each year on the table that could have helped keep hospitals open, boosted our economy, and improved our citizens’ health,” Cohen said in a prepared statement.

Insure Tennessee failure a cautionary tale, experts say (TFP/Sher, Belz)
Gov. Bill Haslam said from the start that trying to approve a plan to expand Medicaid in Tennessee would be an uphill battle. But many, including Haslam, still thought it had a shot. To national Medicaid reform experts, the plan showed plenty of credentials to pass conservative muster: A popular Republican governor — the president of the Republican Governor’s Association — backed it. Hospitals promised to pick up the tab once federal government reduced its funding. “Market-driven” mechanics, like premiums and health-based incentives, were built into the plan. The business community gave it a hearty endorsement.

After Effort To Insure Tennesseans Through Obamacare Fails, What Next? (WTVC)
Over a quarter-million Tennesseans have no idea where their health insurance is coming from. Governor Bill Haslam was wanting authorization from lawmakers to proceed with an agreement with the federal government to extend coverage using the affordable care act to 280-thousand low-income Tennesseans. His plan failed quickly. The governor says he is unsure of what to do next, after fellow Republicans swiftly defeated his Insure Tennessee proposal in the Legislature. The special session of the legislature that he called this week was over, almost as quickly as it began.

Legislative end of plan dashes hopes for health care cost relief (CA/McKenzie)
Na’Kenya Myers falls in the Affordable Care Act’s gap for health coverage in Tennessee, earning too much in a guest services job to qualify for TennCare but too little get subsidized health insurance on the Healthcare.gov marketplace. Myers, like 63-year-old James McKinley, on Thursday turned to the Church Health Center for health care they couldn’t otherwise afford. “Thank God for them,” Myers said. “If it wouldn’t have been for them, I wouldn’t have any care.” If Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee health care plan had survived in the state legislature a day earlier, Tennesseans in the gap could look forward to health coverage.

Leaders weigh in on Insure Tennessee defeat (Tennessean)
Here are some of the quotes and statements from leaders across the state and in Washington, D.C., about the defeat of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal, or SJR0001 as it was filed in the Senate, in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee: •Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey: “Governor Haslam’s hard work and passion on Insure Tennessee has been made clear this week. While many questions have been answered during this special session, several questions remain unanswered. Ultimately, the absence of a clear, written agreement between the federal government and the State of Tennessee made passage impossible.

Responses to Insure Tennessee’s Early Termination (TN Report)
Medicaid expansion is dead in the Volunteer State. And it isn’t likely to get resurrected any time soon. On Wednesday afternoon, the Tennessee Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee voted 7-4 to kill Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” plan, which he and his advisers designed as a “market-based” program to provide health coverage to around 300,000 Tennesseans using Medicaid expansion funding through the Affordable Care Act. Haslam described “Insure Tennessee” as an innovative “third way” to furnish health insurance to the not-so-well-off. The governor had hoped his policy offering would satisfy both the Obama administration and the Republican supermajority controlling the Tennessee General Assembly.

Sen. Crowe: Lack of assurance led to vote against plan (Johnson City Press)
Johnson City Sen. Rusty Crowe, chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, said Wednesday he cast his vote against the bill because its sponsor, Sen. Doug Overbey, could not secure assurances from the federal government that the defining portions of Insure Tennessee would be honored. “Doug (Overbey) went back and met with leadership and the governor’s office, and they tried to get some sort of information from the federal government that they would approve and honor our plan if we passed it,” Crowe said. “He couldn’t get that. Doug (Overbey) considered running an amendment that said we could move forward with it, but nothing would be finalized until we get a written document from the federal government. When he came back and said he couldn’t get that assurance, he decided to not run that amendment.”

Local family: Insure TN was our only option for healthcare (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
An East Tennessee military family said Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan was their only option for health care – and now that option is gone. Despite weeks of anticipation and two years of planning, a state Senate committee Wednesday killed the bill within minutes. The 7-4 vote in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee left many families looking for other options. For example, Andrew Tucker was released from the military last August with a severe knee injury and post-traumatic stress. But, that’s not all. His wife, Amanda, suffers from chronic scoliosis.

Proposed bill would mean tougher penalties for animal fighting (WSMV-TV Nash)
One of the biggest fights at the Tennessee State Capitol is between animal rights activists and agriculture. Activists have tried to come up with stiffer penalties for cruelty, while the Agriculture Committee kills the bills before they ever get an open vote. The Humane Society of the United States proposed new animal fighting legislation on Thursday. Any spectators at a dog fight or animal fight would be fined up to $2,500. The current fine is just $50. Anyone who brings a child to an animal fight would face an additional fine. But chances are the legislature will never get a chance to vote on the bill. It must first make it through a committee.

Bill would use traffic camera revenue for scholarships (Associated Press)
Democratic state Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis has filed legislation that would use revenue from municipal red light cameras to send students to college. Harris said the proposal filed this week will create a new scholarship opportunity for students. Under the proposal, all revenue generated by new red light camera contracts after July 1, 2015, would go to the Drive to College scholarship. According to a report by The Commercial Appeal, red light cameras have generated $3.1 million in camera-related fines in Memphis alone, but the Arizona-based contractor earned $4.8 million.

Senate clerk funds travel to conferences with taxpayer money (WSMV-TV Nashville)
The Channel 4 I-Team has uncovered that Tennessee taxpayers have been footing the bill for a legislative staffer to travel almost every month to places all over the country. Tennessee Chief Senate Clerk Russell Humphrey traveled to Alaska, Arkansas, Minnesota, Nevada, Louisiana and Washington, DC, in just under seven months to attend conferences. It cost taxpayers $9,000 to send Humphrey across the country, in addition to his $176,000 salary. Ben Cunningham, who heads a Tennessee government watchdog group, said travel like that is excessive.

Tennesseans like state political leaders better than federal ones, poll shows (TFP)
New statewide poll figures show Tennesseans rate their state government leaders better than their political leaders in the federal government. Gov. Bill Haslam has a 64 percent approval rating, a 17-point increase from a year ago, according to a Middle Tennessee State University poll released today. However, Tennesseans were not as satisfied with the performance of the General Assembly, the poll showed. Forty-nine percent approve of the job state legislators are doing, with 25 percent disapproving.

Open Records Advocate: Citizens Have Tougher Time Than Media (AP/Burke)
Denial of public records, excessive fees to find out what the government is doing, violations of open meetings law and long delays in getting information are some of the problems open records advocates find in Tennessee. News media routinely face hurdles in getting information to report to the public but ordinary citizens have it 10 times worse, said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. She made the comment during the annual Associated Press-Tennessee Press Association legislative preview session. Fisher told the story of a widow who was charged $1,000 just to see the case file involving her husband who had been shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy. Ordinary citizens or the media aren’t the only ones kept in the dark.

Teachers union sues over use of scores in evaluations (Tennessean/ Balakitm)
Tennessee’s largest teachers union filed a lawsuit against the governor and state education commissioner Thursday challenging the use of state assessment scores in certain teacher evaluations. The Tennessee Education Association says the state’s teacher evaluation system, which incorporates yearly gains in state test scores, is unfair to teachers who teach non-state-tested subjects such as art. The TEA filed the lawsuit to end the use of state assessment scores in the evaluations of teachers of non-state-tested grades and subjects. State assessments test third- to eighth-grade students in math, science, English and social studies.

Lawsuit Attacks Teacher Evaluations Based On Students They Don’t Teach (WPLN)
Tennessee’s largest teachers union is taking another swing at statistics being used to make pay and tenure decisions. In a third federal lawsuit, the union is challenging use of so-called “value-added” scores to evaluate teachers in subjects like art and music, who don’t have test data related to their own students. It’s not just special areas. In fact, most public school teachers in the state don’t have testing data specifically related to students they teach. In those cases, school-wide figures are used instead. This lawsuit filed by the Tennessee Education Association names a physical education teacher at Nashville’s Gra-Mar Middle School who didn’t get a bonus because of her school-wide scores.

Teachers sue state over bonuses, raises (WSMV-TV Nashville)
Tennessee faces a lawsuits from its teacher over the controversial way they receive bonuses and pay raises. The Tennessee Education Association filed its third lawsuit over the value-added assessment system. That system factors students’ test scores into their evaluations, which are directly linked to pay raises and bonuses. The TEA said many of those tests are in subjects those teachers may not teach. They claimed the act is unconstitutional and a violation of the 14th Amendment. In the past, the state said the system is a way to motivate teachers to raise the state’s low test scores.

Lawsuit Challenges Tennessee’s Use Of Standardized Test Scores (WTVF-TV)
The state’s largest teachers union has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s use of standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. The lawsuit filed Thursday in Nashville said more than half of the public school teachers in Tennessee receive evaluations that are based substantially on standardized test scores of students in subjects they do not teach. The Tennessee Education Association and other plaintiffs want the practice stopped. The TEA has long argued that the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS data, shouldn’t be relied upon because it’s a statistical estimate and could lead to a flawed evaluation of a teacher.

Lamar Alexander urges more nuclear power production, research (Tenn/Troyan)
Nuclear power would gain a more prominent role in the nation’s energy policy under an agenda announced Thursday by Sen. Lamar Alexander, new chairman of the Senate panel that directs government spending on energy projects. Alexander, a Republican starting his third term, said he wants more nuclear power plants built, more government spending on energy research and speedy decisions on where to store the nation’s nuclear waste. With the GOP’s takeover of the Senate, Alexander heads the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which gives his longtime advocacy of nuclear power a national platform.

Alexander: Uranium Processing Facility funding has ‘strong’ support (N-S/Collins)
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Thursday there is strong bipartisan support in Congress for funding the proposed multibillion-dollar Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex, but the actual funding might be less than what the Obama administration is proposing. “The uranium facility is the largest federal construction project in the United States,” the Maryville Republican said. “Barring some sort of catastrophe, I would expect Congress to appropriate regularly several hundred million dollars a year for the next seven to 10 years until it’s completed.”

Nashville school board interviews 3 firms for director search (Tenn/Gonzalez)
The selection of a search firm to direct Metro Schools’ hunt for a new leader will depend heavily on the individual interviews Board of Education members have with each firm this week. That’s mainly because presentations by the firms Thursday at Vanderbilt University’s Seigenthaler Center were condensed into introductions akin to a round of speed dating. Each in attendance — PROACT Search; Ray and Associates; and Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates (HYA) — had about 20 minutes to present their capabilities. The three had similar scripts touching on the process, the firm’s ability to work in a state with open sunshine laws and its ability to recruit a varied pool of candidates.

Erlanger trustee riled by Boyd’s comments (Times Free-Press/Brogdon)
Erlanger Health System trustee Jennifer Stanley denounced a Hamilton County commissioner Wednesday for comments she described as “unfounded and irresponsible.” From the dais at Wednesday’s commission meeting, Commissioner Tim Boyd raised concerns over Stanley’s recent reappointment to the hospital board, citing an attorney general’s opinion that trustees’ decision to grant $1.7 million in bonuses to 99 executives should not have been discussed privately. Those comments were not new. Boyd and Commissioner Joe Graham both tried to stall Stanley’s appointment last month until the legal opinion was filed. But on Wednesday, Boyd took a different tack.

East Tennessee manufacturers in expansion mode (News-Sentinel/Kimel)
Tennessee’s manufacturing sector has been riding a wave of good news recently. Manufacturing employment grew by 1.3 percent in 2014, President Obama announced a new manufacturing innovation hub in the Knoxville area, several companies announced local expansions. Here’s how the area’s major manufacturers did last year according to the Knoxville Book of Lists, which ranked them by employment. Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex continues to hold the top spot with 7,000 employees and contractors — more than twice the number of the next company on the list.

OPINION

Editorial: Senators who killed Insure Tennessee turned backs on working poor (CA)
Never mind the most bizarre moment in the Tennessee General Assembly’s special session this week, when a minister who had been invited to deliver a prayer urged legislators not to extend health care coverage to 280,000 of the state’s working poor. We’re accustomed to the comic, but sad, material provided by the General Assembly, which cannot resist a chance to make our state look backward and arrogant. No, it was the end of the day Wednesday that really mattered, and what a sad spectacle it was when the Senate Health and Welfare Committee defeated Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee program, a TennCare expansion plan that would be financed primarily with federal Medicaid funds.

Free-Press Editorial: Smelled Like Obamacare (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
Let’s face it. Tennesseans don’t like Obamacare. They heard the promises; they saw them broken. They couldn’t keep their insurance plan. They couldn’t keep their doctor. Their insurance premiums did rise. Boy, did they. Anything that smacked of the president’s health plan, they didn’t want. So when Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to access federal Medicaid dollars was announced in December, despite the hard work that was done to make it Tennessee specific, to allow some workers to join their workplace plans, to require from others the personal responsibility people say insurees should have, they weren’t buying. It took 21 months for the governor and his administration to put the Insure Tennessee plan together.

Joe Pitts: Insure Tennessee ‘special session’ ends with a thud (Leaf Chronicle)
By now you have read and heard the Special Session of the Tennessee General Assembly ended with a resounding “thud” Wednesday. The “Extraordinary Session” was convened to hear the Insure Tennessee proposal, a plan that would extend critical health care coverage to more than 250,000 Tennesseans who cannot afford health insurance. The Insure Tennessee plan was defeated in the Senate Health Committee Wednesday afternoon, and according to procedure, it was immediately withdrawn from the House of Representatives. We did not get a chance to vote on the measure. Let me be very clear right up front. I supported the Insure Tennessee plan by Gov. Bill Haslam.

Editorial: Agencies that serve developmentally disabled need more certainty (DNJ)
Economic uncertainty became an all too common condition for many during and in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and some organizations in the community to cope with that condition. In this case, organizations such as Journeys in Community Living and the Stones River Center, which serve people who are developmentally disabled, are unsure about their futures because of state budget uncertainties. Gov. Bill Haslam requested information about an overall 7 percent budget cut from the state Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities that helps to fund the local centers, and the state budget is not yet in its final form.