February 7 TN News Digest

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

Haslam says gas tax proposal won’t be ready until 2016 (Associated Press)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee needs to “do something” about its tax on gasoline, but that he won’t be in a position to make a proposal until next year. Haslam told publishers and editors at a Tennessee Press Association luncheon on Thursday that the best that could be hoped for this legislative session would be “a Band-Aid on the funding side” that wouldn’t address fundamental shortages in the way the state pays for road building and maintenance.

Haslam says he won’t propose gas tax hike this year (News-Sentinel/Locker)
Gov. Bill Haslam said he won’t ask the state legislature for a motor-fuel tax increase this year, ending months of speculation on the issue. The governor said Thursday that although the state needs more money for its transportation network, he hasn’t fully developed the case for it yet. For months, the governor, state Transportation Commissioner John Schroer and others have talked about the need for new transportation revenue. “We need to do something on the gas tax,” he said Thursday in response to a question at the Tennessee Press Association.

Governor Says He’ll Turn Attention To Education (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
As Governor Bill Haslam licks his wounds from the defeat of his Insure Tennessee health proposal, he’s making plans to tackle another tough subject. Haslam has had far more success in the education arena. Now he hopes to preserve those victories. The governor doesn’t get much time to rest. Just days after state lawmakers killed his proposal to expand Medicaid, he returns on Monday to the House chamber, where he’ll deliver his annual State of the State address. Haslam seemed to hint at what he’ll be talking about when he used a speech in Nashville to shift the topic from Insure Tennessee to education.

Haslam Faces Next Challenge: Education (Memphis Flyer)
WHAT’S IN A NAME? On Thursday, a day after the defeat in a Senate committee of Insure Tennessee, his Medicaid expansion proposal, Governor Bill Haslam addressed members of the Tennessee Press Association at the DoubleTree Hotel in Nashville. Haslam did not speak directly, in his remarks Thursday, to the issue of how various negative memes associated with the names of “Obama” and “Obamacare” had tainted his “Insure Tennessee” proposal beyond repair. But he offered some candid reflections to TPA members on how matters of nomenclature had become an obstacle in pursuing the matter of educational standards — his next battlefront and a subject to which he devoted marginally more time Thursday than he did to the “Insure Tennessee” debacle.

MTSU Poll: Governor, General Assembly gain support (Daily News Journal)
Gov. Bill Haslam and members of the Tennessee General Assembly both have increased support from state residents since last year, according to Middle Tennessee State University poll data released Thursday. From 2014 to 2015, Haslam’s approval went up 17 points to 64 percent, according to a release about the MTSU Poll. His current approval rating is the highest ever recorded in the biannual poll. Lawmakers in the state House and Senate also gained a 5-percent bump in support from year to year, though data from the poll suggested that Republicans account for the majority of their 49 percent approval rating.

Tennessee Promise can be used at Austin Peay (Leaf Chronicle)
There’s a lot of buzz these days about Tennessee Promise and going to college for free. Tennessee Promise is a good option as a last dollar scholarship for high school students in Tennessee covering tuition and mandatory fees at Tennessee community colleges and colleges of applied technology. Another option for high school students interested in taking advantage of Tennessee Promise would be to use the scholarship at a four-year university such as Austin Peay. Austin Peay is one of only two state universities where high school students can take advantage of Tennessee Promise by enrolling in one of its associate degree programs.

Regents leader says funding needed for state education goal (N-S/Slaby)
Fully funding the outcome-based formula for education is the top item the Tennessee Board of Regents is asking for from the state, said John Morgan, the board’s chancellor. “There is a lot we can do better, and we are,” Morgan said. But, he said implementing programs that improve outcomes need added resources from the state. “It’s essential,” Morgan said. That’s why Morgan hopes Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget proposal includes TBR’s support of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s recommendation to increase state appropriations to TBR colleges and universities by $18 million, as recognition of outcomes at those schools.

Medicaid plan vote spurs calls for action among health professionals (JCP)
At an East Tennessee State University-organized gathering of Tennessee health professionals and officials Friday at Johnson City’s Millennium Centre, the failure of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Medicaid expansion plan this week in the General Assembly was a common thread wound through many of the speakers’ addresses. In a presentation of the poor health statistics produced by the state of the last two decades, Rick Johnson, CEO of the Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness, said some factors governing the wellness of state residents are outside the control of individuals and certain groups, alluding to the bill’s unceremonious death Wednesday in a Senate committee.

Trifecta of cuts would hurt disabled (Tennessean/Wilemon)
Pat Medlin works unpacking deflated basketballs and sending them down an assembly line to be inflated. She tells corny jokes, has a crush on a boss and looks forward to her paychecks. She is a functioning member of society despite having an intellectual disability. Medlin lives a normal life because of the support she receives from state-funded programs — a support system that inspires her to look forward to each day at age 70. But those programs face budget cuts. So do the facilities that take care of people unable to live on their own. And so do the mothers who dedicate their lives to disabled children. This trifecta of proposed budget cuts has people like Tonya Copeland worried.

$30 million housing project targets UTC students (Times Free-Press/Green)
Hoping to capture students from both the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Chattanooga State Community College, a Virginia-based developer plans to build a 600-bed apartment complex on vacant property at 1428 Riverside Drive, near the future extension of Central Avenue. The site is immediately across from the Riverside Business Center, where CSL Plasma is located. Wes Bradley, president of University Housing Group, said the company has eyed Chattanooga for some time and at one point even explored rehabilitating the old Chattanooga Bank building downtown for student housing.

Want to visit the Tennessee State Capitol? Can’t on weekends (CA/Locker)
In Nashville for the weekend and want to tour your historic State Capitol, which Union troops occupied and where the vote ratifying women’s suffrage nationwide took place? Forget it. The Tennessee State Capitol is locked tight and closed to the public on Saturdays and Sundays. If you can’t arrive well before 4 p.m. on weekdays, you’re out of luck until Monday morning. Among the eight states bordering Tennessee, only two others close their state capitol buildings to the public on weekends: Georgia and Mississippi. The other six — Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia — are open for self-guided or guided tours on Saturdays.

TWRA Safe Boating Course coming up this month (Times-News)
It’s cold outside but boating weather is coming. Eventually. Best be ready when it gets here. Again this year, the Tri-Cities Boating Club (Johnson City Sail & Power Squadron) is hosting the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s Tennessee Safe Boating Course. The course on responsible boating will be held Tuesday, Feb. 24 and Thursday, Feb. 26 from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Northeast State Community College Library Building (Room L-106). The two-night course is free of charge, but there is a $10 fee for the TWRA exam. The Type 600 Boating Safety Exam Permit can be purchased at any hunting/fishing license vendor and must be brought to the Thursday, Feb. 26 class.

TN Supreme Court may consider electric chair (Tennessean/Barchenger)
Tennessee Supreme Court justices decided this week that they can bypass the Court of Appeals and hear a challenge to the state’s second method of execution, the electric chair. If the state’s highest court agrees to hear arguments and then reverses a lower court ruling, it would quash the inmates’ pending challenge and uphold electrocution as a method of execution. But it would not mean the end of legal challenges. The court could rule that no inmate can challenge the electric chair as unconstitutional until that inmate knows the execution will be carried out in that manner. Tennessee’s primary execution method is lethal injection.

Tennessee Republicans Weigh Closed Primaries, Despite Public Opposition (WPLN)
Tennessee’s open primary system might soon become a thing of the past. Republicans meet Saturday to discuss whether voters should be required to register their party affiliation. Such a shift would end decades of practice in the state Their gripe is with so-called “crossover voters,” in this case Democrats, who switch parties in the primaries. Some activists in the Republican Party believe they’ve been diluting their votes, so the state GOP has called a special meeting to deal with their complaint. Top officials are remaining neutral.

City wary of Hall tax repeal bills (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Boehnke)
Threats by state lawmakers to repeal Tennessee’s Hall tax keep Jim York awake at night, the city’s finance director told Knoxville City Council members Friday. That’s because the state sends $37.50 of every $100 collected in tax on investment and dividends income back to the city where the taxpayer lives. In Knoxville, that revenue accounts for about $5 million, or 2.5 percent of the city’s $205 million budget. “Obviously it’s still a sizeable hole,” York said after the council’s annual budget retreat at the Knoxville Convention Center. “When you take a look at our expenditures, it’s salaries, fuel, utility. If you look at where to cut, I would say there’s not a lot of fluff in this budget.”

TVA says tritium releases rise within Watts Bar Nuclear Plant (TFP/Flessner)
TVA’s production of a key nuclear weapons component at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is expected to boost tritium levels within the plant above its prescribed limits this year even before the utility decides whether to more than double its production of the radioactive material. TVA insists that the elevated levels of the radiated water within the plant presents no problems, but critics continue to object to TVA’s growing production of the military material within a civilian nuclear plant. In a letter sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and released this week, TVA says it expects its production of a bomb material for the military will boost tritium levels within the reactor core above the authorized annual levels sometime later this year.

Harvard-educated teacher can’t be principal in Tennessee (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
Ashley Croft’s teaching resume reads something like this: Bachelor’s in education from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Master’s in educational leadership from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Six years of teaching experience, including having won the Tennessee Education Association’s 2013 Outstanding Teachers of the Year award. Despite the credentials and experience, Ashley Croft can’t become a principal in Tennessee — not under the state’s licensure process. Since 2009, the state allows only for principals to graduate from an approved in-state college or university master’s program. Out-of-state applicants must have at least three years of experience as a principal to receive a license. For Croft to advance her career, she will have to leave.

Kellogg mulls plant closing amid union fight (Commercial Appeal/Risher)
A Memphis cereal plant could be on the chopping block if Kellogg doesn’t win concessions from workers, the company says. Kellogg said this week it could be forced “in the very near future” to announce a shutdown of at least one of its four U.S. cereal plants. The Memphis plant was rocked by a nine-month lockout that ended last August. A judge ordered 200 workers restored to their jobs while allegations of unfair labor practices by Kellogg proceed through administrative channels. The breakfast food maker, facing sagging cereal sales, posted a statement on its website earlier this week warning about a plant closing.

OPINION

Free-Press Editorial: Fix teacher evaluations (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
Should the evaluation of some Tennessee public school teachers be judged substantially on the standardized test scores of students in areas in which they do not teach? Absolutely not. Do all teachers, regardless of what they teach, bear some responsibility for the school’s overall test score? Yes, but not a lot. Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed legislation that would change teacher evaluations, in one measurement, by lowering the weight of Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System data in nontested subjects from 25 to 15 percent, but Tennessee’s largest teachers union is not waiting on legislative remedies. On Thursday, it filed a federal lawsuit that challenges how the state uses standardized scores to evaluate teachers.

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.

Jim Cooper: Lawmakers take Tennessee backwards with Insure TN vote (Tenn)
Our state legislature made a terrible mistake. Every Tennessean will suffer because Governor Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan was defeated. Our legislature turned down a $900 million gift from the federal government, money that could have boosted our state’s economy. This boost was completely free to state taxpayers because of Haslam’s shrewd negotiations. Insure Tennessee was better than free because it would have brought home federal tax dollars that Tennessee is now giving to other states—including Republican states—that already accepted Medicaid expansion. Retrieve our money!

Bill Frist: New Tennessee telemedicine law grows health care access (Tennessean)
Despite the promises of the Affordable Care Act, the rollout of the health law has only enforced what we feared to be true: Access to health insurance does not equal access to health care. A 2011 Center for Disease Control study showed that 80 percent of adults who visited the emergency room and weren’t admitted did so because they didn’t have another provider to turn to. At about $1,500 per visit, the ER makes for expensive and inefficient non-emergency care. Walk-in retail clinics and urgent care centers bridge some of the gap, but clearly not enough. By 2025, the problem will have grown to a shortage of at least 50,000 physicians. The solution, surprisingly, is not to train more doctors. Instead, it is time to change the way we deliver care by harnessing modern technology.