February 13 TN News Digest

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

Greg Johnson: Haslam displaying needed competence (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
As the orator took to the podium, one humble scribe leaned toward the television, anxiously anticipating, silently praying for the words to come that would affirm his belief. The man joked about speaking so much, so often over the past few weeks. As the leader ticked off accomplishments, your earnest journalist told his leg to stop bouncing, for he knew not if the leader would deliver. “All that work (to accomplish all those things) starts with a state government that is up to the task,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in his State of the State address this week. “That means a customer-focused government that recruits, retains and rewards the best and brightest employees to serve.”

Gov. Haslam’s Budget Would Extend Tennessee Promise (Inside Higher Ed)
Tennessee’s governor, Bill Haslam, this week unveiled several higher education proposals as part of his budget plan. He included $1.5 million for a pilot program to offer a version of the state’s free community college scholarship to adult students. Qualifying adults will be more than halfway to an associate degree in previously earned credits, said Mike Krause, the executive director of the Tennessee Promise program. Like traditional-aged students, they would get two years of free tuition at community colleges. Haslam, a Republican, called for another $1.5 million for adult students to receive similar scholarships to attend one of Tennessee’s 27 colleges of technology.

Editorial: Common Core standards get key support (Commercial Appeal)
Opponents of the Common Core State Standards for public school students are threatening to stall academic progress all over the Mid-South, but it’s encouraging to see defenders raising their voices, too. Now is not the time — not that there ever will be a time — to risk reversing the academic gains that have been made in Tennessee, for example, since tougher standards enacted with the Tennessee Diploma Project in 2008. Since 2010, the state’s academic standards have also included the Common Core, a rigorous grade-by-grade list of tasks students are expected to master and knowledge they ought to have acquired.

Gov. Haslam signs law named after Blount County teen killed in crash (WATE-TV)
Nearly two years after a Blount County teen’s death, a bill bearing her name is now law. Gov. Bill Haslam Tuesday signed the measure dubbed “Amelia’s Law” for Amelia Keown, 16, who was killed in an August 2012 crash on Highway 411. The other driver who was also killed, John Perkins, had drugs in his system at the time. Perkins had been let out of prison early after serving four years of a 12 year sentence. Since the tragedy Amelia’s family has been urging lawmakers to tighten up the parole rules for convicted felons.

Volkswagen now accepting applications for Tennessee academy (A. Press)
Volkswagen is now accepting applications for its three-year apprenticeship program at its plant in Chattanooga. The German automaker will select 12 apprentices each for its automation mechatronics and car mechatronics programs. Run in partnership with Chattanooga State Community College, the apprentices alternate classroom and laboratory instruction with paid work experience at the Volkswagen plant. Upon graduation, the company extends apprentices conditional employment offers. The new automation class will be the third since Volkswagen created the program in 2010, and the second focusing on car mechatronics.

UT sex misconduct policy to become final (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Slaby)
The University of Tennessee is one step closer to an official policy on sexual misconduct, relationship violence and stalking. A task force of UT students, faculty and staff held its last meeting Thursday to revise the policy before a final draft is given to Chancellor Jimmy Cheek by Feb. 20. “We tried first and foremost to make it easier to follow, clearer,” said Jenny Richter, who led the task force. Richter is UT’s Title IX coordinator and interim director of the Office of Equity and Diversity. Once the revised policy is given to Cheek, he and his cabinet will review it and likely finalize it quickly, said Margie Nichols, vice chancellor for communications.

House Majority Leader Believes Tennessee Voucher Plan Has a Shot (AP/Johnson)
A top state House lawmaker says he believes a proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee may pass this year after failing in the past two legislative sessions. Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga spoke to The Associated Press on Thursday, a day after legislation that gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school passed the Senate Education Committee on a 5-1 vote. Two committee members were present but didn’t vote. The measure is similar to one proposed last year by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, which passed the Senate but failed in the House after attempts to expand its eligibility.

Democrats try to resurrect Insure Tennessee (Tennessean/Boucher)
State Democrats aren’t ready to give up on a plan to provide hundreds of thousands of low-income Tennesseans with federally funded health insurance. Democratic leaders in the state Senate and House introduced legislation Thursday that would revive Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee or allow the state to push forward with traditional Medicaid expansion. “If we’re not going to come up with an idea, at the very least we need to get out of the way,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.

Democrats haven’t give up on Insure Tennessee (Times Free-Press/Sher)
Democratic leaders are trying to revive Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan that died in last week’s special session of the GOP-dominated General Assembly. Democrats have a series of measures that include the initial resolution authorizing the plan and a bill to let Haslam proceed on his own without lawmakers’ approval. A third measure would allow some part-time state workers to join the same state taxpayer-supported health plan that most lawmakers as well as full-time employees are on. “We may not all agree on the right approach, but we can’t sit by and do nothing,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, told reporters at a news conference Thursday.

Democrats Hope To Resurrect Insure Tennessee (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
Democrats are attempting to bring back Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee health care proposal, but the plan to offer health coverage to more than a quarter million Tennesseans continues to face extremely long odds. A week after a Senate panel killed Haslam’s proposal to expand Medicaid on its first vote, Democrats are filing legislation meant to reopen the debate. Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) says lawmakers inserted themselves into the question last year by passing the so-called Stop Obamacare Act, which required Haslam to seek the legislature’s approval before expanding Medicaid, as called for under the Affordable Care Act.

State Democrats propose bills to revive Insure Tennessee (Nashville Biz Journal)
State Democrats in the General Assembly were incensed with the speedy death of the governor’s Insure Tennessee proposal last week. On Thursday, Democratic lawmakers put forward legislation to resurrect Insure Tennessee and also bring full Medicaid expansion to the table. State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, has introduced two senate joint resolutions and one bill aimed at doing so. The first resolution would allow Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to pursue his Insure Tennessee proposal in the regular General Assembly session. The second aims to authorize full expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, according to a news release.

Ramsey: Complications killed Medicaid expansion (Commercial Appeal/Locker)
State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey acknowledged Thursday that his initial enthusiasm for Gov. Bill Haslam’s health insurance plan for the working poor cooled as more questions arose about its details in the seven weeks between the plan’s unveiling in December and its defeat in a Senate committee last week. Ramsey, R-Blountville, echoed Haslam and state House Speaker Beth Harwell in saying he doesn’t expect the Insure Tennessee plan to be considered again by the General Assembly before it adjourns for the year in late April. Democratic legislative leaders said later Thursday, they plan to try to resurrect the governor’s plan even though their party is a minority in the House and Senate and Democrats cannot pass the plan on their own.

LifePoint CEO sounds off on Insure Tennessee failure (Nashville Business Journal)
At the start of his company’s fourth-quarter earnings call Thursday morning, Brentwood-based LifePoint Hospitals CEO Bill Carpenter joined the chorus of Nashville health care leaders reacting to the death of Insure Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan for Medicaid expansion in Tennessee. “That was, to say the least, disappointing, not just for LifePoint and other hospital operators here, but for our state,” Carpenter said. “Rural hospitals are essential to the health of their communities, and keeping hospitals viable and strong is crucial to a state’s health and well-being,” as well as its economic development.

Bill could make more eligible to be TN principals (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
The story of a Metro Schools teacher’s struggle to become a principal despite having an out-of-state advanced degree has helped inspire legislation addressing the Tennessee Department of Education’s licensure process. Freshman state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, filed a bill Wednesday that restricts the state board from denying licenses for principals who graduated from a university or college from outside of the state. Clemmons had heard of the issue through his campaign, but used the story of teacher Ashley Croft’s struggles to attain a principal license despite having a master’s in educational leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to garner support for the bill.

Bill takes aim at union labor pacts (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Brogdon)
Some Chattanooga officials say a Memphis-area state senator’s efforts to dissolve union agreements with city workers amounts to an attack on municipal employees statewide. At a news conference Thursday, City Councilman Chris Anderson introduced a proposed resolution asking his fellow council members to formally denounce state Senate Bill 123, drafted by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. Anderson says that, among other things, the legislation could negatively affect up to 3,000 workers in Chattanooga alone.

Bill would put ceiling on local bond powers (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Locker)
Concerned about long-term public debt for big projects like the Memphis Fairgrounds redevelopment, freshman state Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis has filed a bill to require voter approval when a Tennessee city or county issues bonds totaling at least 10 percent of its annual operating budget. Currently, city councils and county commissions in Tennessee can approve bond debt of any size without seeking voter approval, by majority votes of their local governing boards. Harris, a Democrat who was on the Memphis City Council until last month when he resigned after winning election to the statehouse, said the bill is needed to give the public input on major projects requiring long-term debt and to require officials to justify such spending to their taxpayers and constituents.

Bill would give undocumented immigrant children in-state tuition (TFP/Sher)
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, says he believes his plan of letting some undocumented immigrants pay in-state tuition rates to attend Tennessee public colleges and universities may fare better in the Legislature this year than in 2014. “I think in the Senate it will pass,” Gardenhire said. “I think in the House it will pass — if we can stay focused on what the real issue is. And the real issue is if we’re going to get to the governor’s Drive to 55 [target], then we have to have that segment of population highly educated.” Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative calls for 55 percent of Tennessee adults to have a college degree or certificate by 2025.

Tennessee leaders join fight against hunger (Johnson City Press)
To restock the state’s food banks, Tennessee’s lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, attorney general and members of governor’s cabinet came together Jan. 16 at War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville to pack 50,000 meals for hungry. Their Campaign Against Hunger event was hosted by the General Assembly bring attention to the impact of hunger has on the state’s fiscal wellbeing at the opening of this year’s legislative sessions. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said food insecurity has been shown to be closely related to problems including an increased risk in of chronic diseases and impairment of the psychological and cognitive abilities of both children and job seekers.

Dems blast Republicans for designating St. Elmo Ave. as Ronald Reagan Hwy (TFP)
Historic St. Elmo Ave. will soon get a few new signs, and some of the people who live there are ticked. According to state emails, the Tennessee Department of Transportation will put up signs designating the road that connects St. Elmo to Georgia as Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway. At a community meeting in January, County Commissioner Joe Graham broke the news to the community group. It was not well received, and Graham found himself on the defensive. Graham said Thursday he was only the messenger and had nothing to do with the renaming. Although he did purchase the $300 signs with his County Commission expense money.

County schools official meets with Sen. Alexander (Daily News Journal)
Rutherford County Board of Education member Aaron Holladay was one of nearly a dozen people to hear first-hand Sen. Lamar Alexander’s plans surrounding the reauthorization of a federal education law. The proposed bill will replace the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first adopted in 1965. ESEA evolved into the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which Tennessee was granted a waiver from in 2012. In September, the state’s waiver was extended another year. The law has not been reauthorized since 2007. Holladay, of La Vergne, serves as the county school board’s designee to the Federal Legislative Network.

TVA nears first large-scale solar buy (Associated Press/Loller)
The Tennessee Valley Authority has taken steps toward its first large-scale purchase of solar electricity. The TVA Board on Thursday voted to authorize CEO Bill Johnson to enter into a 20-year contract with NextEra Energy for an 80 megawatt solar facility in northern Alabama that officials said offers the most competitive solar pricing they have seen. The facility will be built near TVA’s Colbert Fossil Plant, which TVA is retiring in 2016. Johnson said the location will allow the solar facility to take advantage of the existing transmission system. The vote was taken in Chattanooga at the TVA’s quarterly board meeting. During a public comment period before the meeting, several people asked the board to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.

TVA finds first utility-scale solar generator to supply green electricity (TFP/Flesner)
The first utility-scale solar farm will be built to power the Tennessee Valley Authority in Alabama by the sister company of another Southern utility. TVA directors Thursday approved a 20-year lease with Next Era Energy Resources — an affiliate company with Florida Power & Light — to buy the power generated by an 80-megawatt solar farm planned on nearly 600 acres in Lauderdale County in Northern Alabama. At the same time, the TVA board also agreed to spend $340 million to buy another combined-cycle, gas-powered plant in Mississippi. The solar generation in Alabama, which New Era expects to begin operations by 2016, represents the biggest single solar generation site to be built in the Tennessee Valley.

OPINION

Times Editorial: The heat for Insure Tennessee’s failure just beginning (TFP)
The protest sign was stark — but accurate. “Blood on Todd’s Hands,” it read. The protester held the sign during a mock funeral here in Chattanooga to show anger and opposition for the vote that killed Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans. The sign alluded to the fact that state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and six other Republican senators killed the proposal in a committee without allowing the full legislature an opportunity to debate and vote on the proposal. Gardenhire and Republican senators Mike Bell, of Riceville; Brian Kelsey, of Germantown; Frank Niceley, of Strawberry Plains; Kerry Roberts, of Springfield; and Health Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe, of Johnson City are the most to blame for the fiscally foolish and inhumane rejection of health care access already paid for by Tennesseans.

Editorial: Briggs-Daniel bill would end abuse of fund transfers (News-Sentinel)
Freshmen lawmakers at times have sound ideas for improving the image and practices of the people who make Tennessee’s laws. Their colleagues should welcome their insight, especially when it is forged from personal political experience. State Sen. Richard Briggs and Rep. Martin Daniel, both Republicans elected last year to represent Knoxville districts, are proposing an end to the lawmakers’ practice of transferring funds in their constituent communications accounts to other legislators who might need the money at election time.

Glen Casada: House Bill 159 protects Tennessee from activist judges (Tennessean)
Contrary to Ms. Megan Barry’s claim in The Tennessean, House Bill 159, which I filed this week in the Tennessee General Assembly, does not prevent any individual city, town, municipality or county from receiving federal prekindergarten dollars if the state has not applied for those funds on behalf of all local governments. The legislation actually does the opposite — it keeps Tennessee from having to automatically apply pre-K funding statewide if an activist judge or court rules it must do so. In other words, if a court were to rule it unlawful for only select municipalities to apply for and receive pre-K funding, the dispersing of those dollars by the state of Tennessee to those select local governments would be illegal.