February 9 TN News Digest

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

Haslam to give State of the State address on Monday (Associated Press)
Gov. Bill Haslam will deliver his annual State of the State address to the Tennessee Legislature on Monday evening. The address comes a week after a special session in which the Republican governor failed to pass his proposal to extend health insurance to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans. Haslam said a day after the proposal’s defeat that his next challenge will be to keep Tennessee’s rigorous education standards while abandoning the “worthless” brand of Common Core despised by groups ranging from teachers to tea partiers. Common Core is a set of English and math standards that spell out what students should know and when.

Haslam To Face Lawmakers For First Time After Insure Tennessee Defeat (WPLN)
Gov. Bill Haslam steps back into the lion’s den this evening, when he delivers his annual State of the State address. The governor has hinted he may turn the topic from last week’s defeat of his ill-fated Insure Tennessee health care proposal to education. Haslam faces a potential mutiny from lawmakers over Common Core education standards. The governor wants the legislature to step back and leave fixing Common Core to teachers and experts. The State of the State also gives the governor a chance to outline his spending priorities. Haslam has said little on that front, though he has set a long-term goal of raising pay for teachers. The speech could offer up a surprise or two.

UTC chancellor in line for bonus (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Omarzu)
The University of Tennessee has to be more efficient and the chancellors who run its campuses may need to make cuts, because state funding has flat-lined and UT can’t keep relying on increases to students’ tuition and fees. That’s the picture UT President Joe DiPietro painted Wednesday during a speech to Chattanooga Rotary Club members. Belt-tightening at UT already has begun. Faculty and staff went without an across-the-board pay increase this year for the first time since 2011. UT students this year saw tuition and fees increase, including a 6 percent tuition hike at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

New round of gun bills filed in Legislature (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)
As the Legislature resumes its regular session, lawmakers are facing a raft of bills dealing with guns, ranging from the new-to-Tennessee idea of exempting firearm purchases from sales taxes to revival of efforts to let handgun permit holders carry their weapons in local parks. The “Second Amendment sales tax holiday” is proposed by state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and state Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown. Niceley said SB206, modeled after similar laws in Mississippi and Louisiana, would “give hunters a little bit of a break” at a time when ammunition prices “have gone up outrageously” and with an increase in the cost of hunting and fishing licenses approved by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission taking effect later this year.

Lawmakers look to tighten rules on ‘communications’ accounts (N-S/Humphrey)
Two freshman Knoxville legislators propose to end the long-standing practice of allowing lawmakers to transfer money from their taxpayer-funded “constituent communications” accounts to colleagues and to stockpile funds in the accounts. Sen. Richard Briggs and Rep. Martin Daniel, sponsors of HB215, have personal experience with the law as it stands now. Both men defeated incumbents in the August 2014 Republican primary who made transfers to other lawmakers as lame duck legislators before their terms expired in November. The funds transferred by former Sen. Stacey Campfield and former Rep. Steve Hall would otherwise have been deposited in the accounts of Briggs and Daniel under current law.

Drug testing of welfare applicants yields few positives (Tennessean/Wadhwani)
Six months after the rollout of a controversial law to drug-test people applying for public benefits, only a small fraction of low-income Tennesseans seeking financial assistance have tested positive for illegal drugs. Thirty-seven of 16,017 applicants for the Families First cash assistance program between July and December tested positive for illegal substances, according to the Department of Human Services. Another 81 lost their chance to receive benefits because they discontinued the application process at some point between the time they were required to fill out a three-item drug screening questionnaire and completing their application. Opponents of the new rules say that they single out poor people for drug testing over other recipients of federal benefits — such as veterans, college students getting low interest loans or farmers with crop subsidies.

Ketron: CSX open to Murfreesboro-Nashville passenger rail study (Tenn/Wilson)
SX Corp. may be open to determining whether it could build a passenger rail line on land it already owns between Murfreesboro and Nashville, according to conversations state Sen. Bill Ketron says he recently had with a company official. The company is willing to see whether it owns enough right of way space on its existing lines between the two cities to accommodate an additional line, Ketron said. In a statement, a CSX spokeswoman did not confirm the conversation or whether the company had any desire to expand passenger service in the region. The statement cited the Nashville area as a “high-density freight route and a key interchange point” on its rail system.

Tennesseans can’t picture Corker in Oval Office (Times Free-Press/Sher)
If Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker decides to run for president in 2016, it appears the former Chattanooga mayor’s first task will be persuading fellow Tennesseans to vote for him, according to a new poll of 600 Tennessee adults. Just 11 percent of those surveyed in the Middle Tennessee State University poll said Corker should run. Forty-one percent think he shouldn’t. Another 46 percent, a plurality, said they were undecided and 2 percent wouldn’t say. Pollsters included Corker’s name among a host of national would-be candidates. The poll, conducted Jan. 25-27 of adults ages 18 and older, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

In States with Looser Immunization Laws, Lower Rates (Stateline)
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory this month about an ongoing measles outbreak, with more than 102 cases in 14 states so far. The highly contagious disease can cause severe health complications, including pneumonia, encephalitis, and death. By 2000, measles had been nearly wiped out in the U.S., with fewer than 60 cases per year – most connected with foreign travel. Public health officials declared victory, the result of effective state-based immunization campaigns requiring kids to be vaccinated before they enter public schools. Since then, however, the number of cases has risen along with the number of parents who have received religious or philosophical exceptions to state rules. In 2014, there were at least 23 outbreaks and more than 600 cases.

Can Schools Combat Weak State Vaccine Laws? (Governing)
As a measles outbreak that originated in Disneyland draws greater attention to state laws that allow exemptions from vaccinations, some school districts are taking steps to keep unvaccinated students out of classrooms temporarily. But public school districts that want to tighten vaccination rules to bolster prevention are out of luck, experts say. Every state requires inoculations from diseases such as measles and whooping cough before students enter school, but all of them allow medical exemptions for cases such as weak immune systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Additionally, 48 states allow for exemptions on religious grounds and 20 allow exemptions for personal reasons, a far broader category.


Editorial: Legislative leadership roles could aid county, state (Daily News Journal)
Success of the Republican Party in taking control of the U.S. Senate has resulted in Tennessee’s two senators taking leadership roles on Senate committees. The state’s senior senator, Lamar Alexander, now is chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Alexander has announced that his first task as committee chairman will be to work to rewrite the No Child Left Behind act enacted during the George W. Bush administration. Alexander already has begun hearings on the proposed rewrite. The state’s junior senator, Bob Corker, will be chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, which is one of the Senate’s most powerful committees.