February 11 TN News Digest

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

Editorial: Education getting dollars it deserves in Haslam’s budget (News-Sentinel)
Gov. Bill Haslam advocates giving a boost to K-12 and higher education funding in the $33.3 billion spending plan submitted to the Tennessee General Assembly. The governor outlined his budget proposal during the annual State of the State address before a joint convention of the Legislature on Monday. His education proposals would propel the state toward the ambitious goal of his Drive to 55 initiative by improving access and funding. Higher education would receive $27.5 million more next year under Haslam’s proposal. The new money would fully fund the state’s landmark performance-based funding formula for colleges and universities for the first time.

Editorial: Proposed budget reaffirms Gov. Haslam’s commitment to education (CA)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, after having to renege on some increases in education spending last year, now is proposing a whopping $167.1 million increase in education spending for the new budget year that begins July 1. The legislature gets to craft the final state spending plan, but it is refreshing to see that the governor is committed to pumping more money into education. If lawmakers go along with the governor’s education spending proposal, the only drawback we can see is whether that level of spending can be sustained. The proposal was part of the $33.3 billion budget package Haslam presented to legislators Monday night.

Times Editorial: State of the state budget (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s $33.3 billion budget for fiscal 2016 includes planned pay increases for both K-12 teachers and higher education employees, along with $165.8 million worth of infrastructure commitments for Volkswagen’s planned expansion here in Chattanooga. But it also recommends spending cuts of $200 million in a number of other areas — including the elimination of 559 state employee positions. Boldly, the plan fully funds the state’s Complete College Act at $25.7 million and will change how colleges and universities are paid. Rather than paying for each enrolled student, institutions will be rewarded for moving students toward graduation.

Free-Press Editorial: Budget ‘enviable,’ not perfect (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
Chances are Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam knew he had the money to put where his mouth was in the State of the State address to the General Assembly Monday night. The governor, for the second straight year, promised public school teachers pay raises. Last year, when state revenue collections tanked, he had to forego the increases. This year, the raises are technically 4 percent, though a disclaimer should warn as in a tax preparation television ad, “your raise may vary.” If he were to pull the rug out from teachers this year, there might be mutiny. Similarly, Haslam’s budget also fully funds the Complete College Act, which lost funding last year with the revenue shortfall and forced hefty tuition increases.

Gov. Haslam’s Revenue Modernization Act draws praise, study (TFP/Sher)
Republican state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said Tuesday he’s willing to give a fair hearing to Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed “Revenue Modernization Act,” which the Republican governor says is necessary to address inequities between in-state and out-of-state businesses on some taxes. “If it’s about leveling the playing field and it’ll make sure that out-of-state businesses are paying what they’re supposed to be paying now, I’m all for it. But,” Ramsey emphasized, “I’ve not seen any details.” Haslam pitched the proposal to the General Assembly Monday night in his State of the State address. He said it stemmed from his administration’s examination of why last year’s business tax collections fell off a cliff last year.

Proposed budget increases please UT officials (Commercial Appeal/Locker)
After last year’s disappointing withdrawal of a planned budget increase for Tennessee’s public colleges and universities, University of Tennessee officials say they are pleased with the substantial increases proposed for next year by Gov. Bill Haslam. Officials from both the University of Tennessee and Board of Regents systems say they expect to hold student tuition increases for the 2015-16 school year to the zero to four percent range suggested in December by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission on the condition the governor was able to fully fund the budget THEC requested.

Local educators hopeful over Haslam’s call for teacher raises (Johnson City Press)
City and county administrators have heard Gov. Bill Haslam’s plans for higher teacher salaries before, but despite the letdowns they’ve faced in previous years, are holding out hope. “I’m extremely pleased that he’s willing to budget this once again,” Director of Washington County Schools Ron Dykes said. “I hope he maintains the gantlet of budgetary cuts and priorities.” The gantlet to which Dykes is referring is in reference to the past cuts that have resulted in teacher’s pay remaining flat since 2011, which Dykes says serves as one of the biggest resources to improve education by bringing in the best educators available.

Haslam’s teacher pay plan results in support, skepticism (Daily News Journal)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal this week to increase teacher pay by $100 million generated mixed reactions of support, uncertainty and skepticism from local school officials. “I am certainly pleased the governor appreciates the good work of our teachers not only this year but for past years, especially with the disappointment experienced last year with the shortfall of state revenues,” Rutherford County Board of Education Chairman Wayne Blair said during a Tuesday phone interview. The teacher pay raise would be part of a $170 million improvement in K-12 education, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

State employees get information about buyout program (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Department of Human Resources has sent an email to all state employees about a voluntary buyout program. Gov. Bill Haslam mentioned the program during a budget presentation earlier this week. According to the email, only those employees determined eligible for the buyout will be invited to participate in the program. Each department and agency is working to determine what classifications will be considered eligible. A website, telephone line and email address have been established to update and inform people about the program, as well as give them an opportunity to ask questions.

State cuts avoided for programs which help disabled (Daily News Journal)
Local organizations like Journeys in Community Living were relieved Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed budget avoided cuts to state programs they were concerned could hinder or shut them down. The governor’s proposal announced during his State of the State speech on Monday restored funding for several elements of the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Development Disabilities to levels from the last fiscal year. Haslam had previously asked each state department to prepare 7 percent cuts during the budget process.

Cuts target services to mentally ill (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Nelson)
With a little help, Jeremiah Williams can live in an apartment, work and ride the bus to appointments — even though the people he sometimes hears talking to him aren’t really there. At 33, Williams has learned ways to manage the paranoid schizophrenia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder he was diagnosed with at age 14, along with ways to tell when the medication isn’t working. Williams said he’s tried more than 30 medications and has more than 10 psychiatric hospital stays (and a few jail stints) in his past. What stands between him and that outcome now is vigilance — and his case manager, Michael Brasuell. Brasuell, Helen Ross McNabb Center’s adult intensive case management team leader, keeps a close check on Williams, watching for any sign of a mental-health crisis.

Baby doesn’t get vaccine, lands in hospital after TennCare delay (Tenn/Wilemon)
Ashley Rochester watched as nurses switched out IV bags on her daughter, worrying if the baby girl was going to be OK and wondering how she got lost in the TennCare system. The child, River DeBoard, had come down with rotavirus, an intestinal virus that causes severe diarrhea in children and can result in death. Fewer children get sick with it since a vaccine was introduced in 2006, but River didn’t get that protection. “It was bad,” Rochester said. “She got real bad dehydrated. I think she got a total of three or four bags of fluids through an IV. It wasn’t until halfway through the third bag that she started peeing on her own.”

LaunchTN plans pitch events ahead of conference (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
Launch Tennessee has created a series of 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. Pitch competitions will take place at each event, with winners advancing to the 36|86 conference in Nashville, where the top company wins $36,000. “We are seeking the top Southeastern entrepreneurs, pure and simple,” LaunchTN CEO Charlie Brock said in a statement.

Chattanooga State kicks off search for president (Times Free-Press/Healey)
The search committee charged with selecting the new president of Chattanooga State Community College convened for the first time Tuesday. The first step to finding a successor for Dr. Jim Catanzaro — Chattanooga State’s longtime president who retired in December amid controversy — began with a forum moderated by Dr. Betty Asher, a partner with Greenwood/Asher & Associates Inc., a Florida-based executive search firm hired by the Tennessee Board of Regents to help with the process. Many were interested in the proceedings, with more than 70 faculty, staff and students from the college in attendance. Several took to the microphone to share the qualities they wished to see in the school’s new leader.

Tenn. Supreme Court evacuated for white powder in letter (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Supreme Court building has been evacuated after an employee there opened a letter containing an unidentified white powder. Nashville Fire Department spokesman Brian Haas told reporters two other people came in contact with the substance when the letter was opened on Tuesday. The building was cleared around 4 p.m. Since then, Haas said the employees have been decontaminated and don’t have any symptoms, and that initial tests of the substance indicate “no credible threat.” He said it’s been sent to a state lab for further tests.

Powder found at Supreme Court building not hazardous (Tenn/Meyer, Boucher)
Tests determined the suspicious white powder found inside an envelope at the Tennessee Supreme Court building Tuesday was not hazardous. The powdery substance will be sent to a state lab for more testing, said Brian Haas, Nashville Fire Department spokesman. “At this point, all tests have come back negative for the powder that was inside the building, which means we don’t believe there’s a credible threat,” Haas said. Authorities evacuated the building at about 3 p.m. after an employee on the fourth floor opened an envelope and the powdery substance spilled onto her hands and clothing, said Lt. Bill Miller, spokesman for the Tennessee State Highway Patrol.

Harwell supports Haslam’s budget for teacher pay hikes (News-Sentinel/Vines)
Harwell supports Haslam’s budget for teacher pay hikes Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell told Knoxville Rotarians on Tuesday that she supports aspects of Gov. Bill Haslam’s $33.3 billion state budget proposal that provides pay increases for teachers yet eliminates 436 employees and puts jobs at a prison and teen facility in the private sector. “He took money out of two departments (prisons and Children’s Services) in putting more money into education,” the Nashville Republican said in a speech to the Rotary Club of Knoxville at the Marriott hotel.

Tennessee Virtual Academy pleads with lawmakers to stay open (Tenn/Malakit)
Hundreds of parents, students and educators visited the state Capitol on Tuesday to advocate for Tennessee Virtual Academy, an online public school set to close this summer because of low student academic gains. Former state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman ordered the closing of the low-performing school last July. The school must make significant academic gains this year to remain open. The Tennessee General Assembly also would have to renew the Virtual Public Schools Act, which allows online virtual schools in Tennessee. School administrators and staff say the state’s Department of Education has unfairly ordered the closing of the school, citing hundreds of other public schools in the state that have not been ordered to close despite having similar low academic gains.

Statewide Cyber School Looks To Tenn Legislature For Second Chance (WPLN)
A cyber school that operates statewide is looking for a savior in the Tennessee legislature, and they might find one. Several lawmakers are voicing support for the Tennessee Virtual Academy, despite an order to shut down because of poor performance on standardized tests. “We are going to do everything we can to keep the Tennessee Virtual Academy going, and I am going to work in the Legislature to keep it open next year,” Rep. Dennis Powers (R-Jacksboro) told parents, according to a news release. Dozens of parents are mingling with legislators this week, asking for a reprieve.

Tenn. superintendents seek to keep higher standards intact (AP/Johnson)
A majority of Tennessee’s school superintendents want to see a review process of the state’s Common Core academic standards fully unfold before lawmakers try to change the standards. The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents announced Tuesday that it’s sending a letter signed by 114 state superintendents and school district directors to all members of the General Assembly, asking them not to change the standards this legislative session. Common Core opponents in Tennessee want to repeal the current standards and replace them with ones developed at the state level. Several lawmakers have proposed bills that seek to do that.

Tennessee educators ask for stability in standards (Times Free-Press/Sher)
Most Tennessee school superintendents want state lawmakers to back off from making changes this year to the state’s K-12 academic standards and instead give Gov. Bill Haslam time to complete his current review. On Tuesday, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents released a letter signed by 114 of 141 school district leaders calling for a timeout. Today, a House subcommittee is scheduled to hear a bill that would establish a new process for reviewing state education standards, which have been replaced with Common Core. Haslam’s review process, due to be complete in 2016, shares some similarities but wouldn’t see full implementation until the 2017-2018 school year.

School superintendents ask Legislature to leave standards alone (N-S/Locker)
Most of the school superintendents across Tennessee have signed a letter asking state legislators to hold off changing the state’s public K-12 academic standards until a standards review process set up by Gov. Bill Haslam finishes its work next year. The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, or TOSS, presented the letter signed by 114 of the superintendents of Tennessee’s 141 school districts Tuesday at the State Capitol. The signers, including Knox Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre, represent districts that school 850,000 students, 86 percent of the state’s public school students.

Tenn School Superintendents To Legislators: Hands Off Common Core (WPLN)
Nearly 90 percent of Tennessee’s school superintendents have signed a letter asking for legislators to stay the course on Common Core. They say a change in classroom standards would be a “huge blow to the morale of educators.” There are a couple of bills that would rewrite the benchmarks for what students should learn in each grade. One, from the chair of the Senate Education Committee, would effectively void Common Core and start from scratch. Trousdale County director of schools Clint Satterfield says that’s a bad idea, especially with the first standardized testing associated with Common Core starting next year.

GOP lawmaker wants to make Bible official book of Tennessee (Associated Press)
Freshman Rep. Jerry Sexton wants to add the Bible to the state symbols of Tennessee. According to the Republican’s legislation, the Holy Bible would be “designated as the official state book.” It’s unclear how the proposal would meet a provision in Tennessee Constitution that states that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” Tennessee has several state songs such as “Tennessee Waltz” and “Rocky Top.”

Tennessee Senator Takes Hard Line Against Anti-Vaccination Debate (WPLN)
Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander used a hearing of the Health Committee – which he chairs – to debunk the link between autism and vaccines. The discussion on the “Reemergence of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases” just happened to coincide with an outbreak of measles largely blamed on falling vaccination rates. On Tuesday, Alexander questioned an often-cited study by Andrew Wakefield from a 1998 report in Lancet. He asked Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control what she would tell a parent who ran across the article. Dr. Schuchat: One thing we know is that vaccines don’t cause autism. Sen. Alexander: So, you would say to the parent that that article was just flat wrong? Dr. Schuchat: That’s right. Sen. Alexander: And that numerous studies have shown that that was wrong? Dr. Schuchat: That’s right.

TVA: Rate discounts for industry spur investments in TN Valley (TFP/Flessner)
The Tennessee Valley landed an extra $35 billion of business investment over the past five years with the help of TVA rate discounts and economic development assistance, the utility says. TVA counts an extra 300,000 jobs from such investments and calculates that the lower power rates it has offered for new and existing businesses have cost, on average, less than $1,600 per job. “I’ve worked in this area for about 25 years, and I can say this is probably the most effective program that I have seen,” Tennessee Valley Authority President Bill Johnson said. In fact, cost-of-service studies indicate that had TVA not retained or captured the major power users through its incentives, other customers would have had to pay more to absorb the fixed costs of the agency’s operations not covered by the expanded industrial load.

TVA plans to change the way it prices electricity (Times Free-Press/Flessner)
After revamping its pricing structure four years ago for the first time in two decades, the Tennessee Valley Authority is again preparing to alter the way it prices the electricity it produces. The latest change, which will be implemented in October, will continue TVA’s attempt to better reflect how the cost of generating power fluctuates depending on the time of day and year. In 2011, TVA replaced its previous end-use pricing schedule that charged customers simply on how much energy they consumed each month. In its place, TVA adopted a demand-and-energy pricing system that sets prices based both on how much power is consumed and when it is consumed.

ORAU gets $3.47M fee from DOE (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Munger)
In its annual performance evaluation from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, Oak Ridge Associated Universities earned high grades — A- in three categories and B+ in three others — and received a total management fee of $3,466,768. ORAU, a consortium of more than 100 research universities, manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education for the federal agency. “ORAU’s performance met expectations in contributing to DOE mission goals,” Johnny Moore, the Oak Ridge site manager who oversees the government contract, said in a Feb. 3 letter to ORAU President Andy Page. The contractor received 94 percent of the maximum fee available ($3,688,051).

It’s even more official: Google Fiber gets state franchise certificate (N. Biz Journal)
Google Fiber has received a certificate of franchise authority from the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, ensuring the gigabit Internet provider’s previously announced plans to expand its network to Nashville won’t be stymied by that regulatory barrier. Google, which included Nashville on a list of potential expansion cities almost exactly one year ago, filed its application for a franchise certificate back in November. The certificate, granted Feb. 9, gives Google Fiber the authority to offer cable and video service in Nashville as well as to “construct, maintain and operate facilities through, along, upon, over and under any public rights-of-way.”

OPINION

Guest columnists: Higher standards essential for high school students (Tenn)
Tennessee’s higher ed leaders support higher standards Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam made a significant investment in the future of Tennesseans when he signed the Tennessee Promise program into law. This program, which offers future graduates of any Tennessee high school the opportunity to receive two years of community or technical college tuition-free, will surely open doors for thousands of young men and women to get the training they need to start their careers and find good-paying jobs. Already, more than 58,000 current high school seniors – more than 90 percent – applied for the program, reflecting the intense desire and interest that exists in pursuing some form of training or education after high school. And they are smart to do so.

Mark Green: Solutions after Insure Tennessee (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee admirably provided a spotlight on the need to help the working poor access health care in this perilous economy. There are no low-cost health care alternatives for many reasons, and fixing the problem will require at least a two-pronged approach. Our current Medicaid program has no incentives for patients to save. Until we get costs in TennCare under control, any advancement of the program is a mistake. Tennessee is laden with health care innovators. When our state and federal laws that hinder their innovation are removed, prices will go down. Creative incentives for TennCare patients to save and getting government out of the way of innovators will do much to solve the problem.