February 14 TN News Digest

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

Haslam opts not to cut disability budget (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Belz)
Organizations that provide care for the developmentally disabled breathed a sigh of relief this week when Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s announced budget did not include proposed cuts that advocates had called a “critical threat.” At the beginning of this budget season, Haslam asked each state department to come up with 7 percent reductions to their budgets. For the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, that translated to a 2.75 percent cut to a Medicaid waiver program that pays providers; a 4 percent cut to “intermediate care facility services” designed for the most medically fragile cases; and elimination of a program called Family Support services, which helps needy families pay for everything from wheelchair ramps to doctor visits. Organizations across the state — including Orange Grove Center and Open Arms Care in the Chattanooga area — rallied to protest the cuts. But when Haslam unveiled his budget this week, not only were most of the department’s proposed cuts avoided, it also received an increase in its waiver funding.

Students seeking free community college face application deadline (CA/Roberts)
Tennessee Promise, the scholarship that provides two years of free community college, faces one of the biggest litmus tests of its young life this weekend. By midnight Sunday, students who intend to take advantage of the free ride must have completed the 130-question application for state and federal financial aid. As of Feb. 3, 60 percent of the 6,081 students still in the running were done. “There has been a pretty significant push in the last week. We’re hoping there will be a nice uptick next Friday when we get the new data,” said Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, one of a dozen or more players in the effort to increase Shelby County’s completion rates.

Want Tennessee Promise? First, Scale The Federal Financial Aid Form (WPLN)
This weekend marks an important deadline for high school seniors applying for the Tennessee Promise scholarship: If they want to stay eligible for free community or technical college, they have to fill out a federal financial aid application by Feb. 15. It can be a burden filling out the FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Families have to detail their financial status, such as how much they make and what their assets are. Margot Fosnes, president of the Robertson County Chamber of Commerce, is a Tennessee Promise mentor. Her task is to remind six high school students to fill out the FAFSA by Sunday.

LaunchTN wins $250.000 grant (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
The Blackstone Charitable Foundation has awarded Launch Tennessee (LaunchTN) a $250,000 grant as part of its support for non-profit groups that strengthen entrepreneurial ecosystems and support high-growth entrepreneurs. This is the third year that LaunchTN has been an Innovation Grants recipient. Previous awards were used to launch The TENN and Specialist Programs. This grant will help fund LaunchTN’s flagship 36’86 conference as well as The 36’86 Southern Series. 36’86’s mission is to become the annual meeting place to celebrate Southeastern entrepreneurship and innovation.

Holiday sales tax collections bolster Tennessee revenues (Associated Press)
Tennessee’s general fund tax collections in January were $214 million higher than projected in January on strong consumer spending over the holiday season and unexpected corporate tax payments. The tax collections reflecting economic activity in December bring the state’s total revenues to $323 million more than expected through the first half of the budget year. Sales taxes grew 7.8 percent in January, the highest rate in 33 months. Finance Commissioner Larry Martin says the reduction in the jobless rate and lower gas prices helped spur spending.

Improving economy spurs Tennessee revenue bonanza (Times Free-Press/Sher)
Tennessee tax collections in January roared past projections by $219.5 million in January, fueled by better-than-expected consumer holiday spending, low gas prices and corporate earnings, according to officials. It was the best showing in nearly three years. “January sales tax collections, reflecting consumer spending that occurred during December, posted the largest monthly growth rate we’ve experienced for the past 33 months, and we recorded our strongest second quarter growth since 2006,” said state Finance Commissioner Larry Martin in a news release.

Commissioner McQueen comes home (Leaf Chronicle)
Candice McQueen took a walk down memory lane Friday morning. McQueen, the newly appointed Tennessee Commissioner of Education, walked the halls of her alma mater, Northeast High School, recalling good memories, and visiting classrooms to interact with students and teachers. When McQueen, who was then known as Candice Hunter, was a senior in 1992, she was one of the Top 20 graduates, a member of the National Honor Society, assistant editor of the student newspaper and voted ‘Best All Around’ by her classmates. She returned 23 years later with a goal to make all Tennessee schools a better place to teach and learn. McQueen stopped in Clarksville-Montgomery County to kick off her statewide tour of Tennessee’s school systems.

Sedgwick steps up for University of Memphis program (Memphis Biz Journal)
A program that helps adults complete their college education has received a boost from Sedgwick Claims Management Services. The Memphis-based company has made a $300,000 commitment over three years to the Finish Line Program, which encourages students who have dropped out after earning 90 or more credit hours to return to school to finish their degrees at low or no cost. “Our collective future in Memphis — and beyond — depends on an educated workforce, and we see our support of the Finish Line Program as an investment in helping people realize their dreams of academic achievement and professional success,” said David North, president and CEO of Sedgwick.

Buffalo Valley woman charged with TennCare fraud for illegal narcotics (H-C)
A 53-year-old Buffalo Valley woman has been arrested for TennCare fraud for allegedly “doctor shopping” to get multiple prescriptions of narcotic painkillers. Betty Ann Hale, of Rock Springs Road in Buffalo Valley, has been indicted by the Putnam County Grand Jury on four counts of TennCare fraud, and she was arrested this week on those felony charges. According to the indictment, she used TennCare benefits to fraudulently obtain prescriptions for narcotic painkillers when other healthcare providers had provided her with similar prescriptions within 30 days prior.

Tenn. Supreme Court to hear challenge of electric chair law (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear a legal challenge over a law allowing the state to electrocute death row prisoners if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. The challenge is part of a lawsuit filed by 34 death row inmates over Tennessee’s death penalty protocols – both lethal injection and electrocution. The state wants the court to dismiss the challenge to electrocution protocols because none of the inmates are currently scheduled to die by electrocution. The new electrocution law was meant to jumpstart the state’s stalled execution process, but it opened the door to new legal challenges. The hearing is scheduled for May 6 in Knoxville.

TN Supreme Court agrees to hear electric chair case (Tennessean/Barchinger)
The Tennessee Supreme Court will decide whether a death row inmate can challenge the state’s back-up method of execution: the electric chair. The court agreed to take the case — which stems from a Davidson County Chancery Court battle — on Friday. Arguments are set for May 6 in Knoxville. The state says that inmates who are challenging the electric chair as unconstitutional cannot do so because none of the inmates is facing that method of execution. A group of 34 inmates previously challenged the state’s primary protocol, lethal injection, and then added a challenge to the electric chair when it was deemed a back-up method.

TN Supreme Court lets faith-healing conviction stand (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed the conviction of an East Tennessee woman for child neglect for failing to seek treatment for her daughter’s fatal cancer. Jacqueline Crank had claimed she was innocent because she relied on prayer to heal the girl. Crank was sentenced to probation after her 15-year-old daughter died in 2002. In Tennessee it is a crime to fail to provide medical care to children, but there is an exception for those who rely on prayer alone for healing. The exemption applies only to faith healing performed by an accredited practitioner of a recognized church or denomination.

High court upholds mom’s conviction in faith-healing case (N-S/Satterfield)
Using a Loudon County case as a backdrop, the Tennessee Supreme Court on Friday upheld for the first time a parent’s right to choose faith over medicine — even if a child dies as a result. “This is a case of first impression,” Justice Gary R. Wade wrote in the court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of Tennessee’s Spiritual Treatment Exemption Act. The ruling comes in a 13-year court battle over the death of 15-year-old cancer-stricken Jessica Crank in Loudon County after her mother, Jacqueline Crank, spurned treatment in favor of faith healing.

Ramsey’s initial support for health plan waned as new details emerged (CA/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 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, however, they plan to try to resurrect the governor’s plan even though their party is a minority in both the House and Senate and cannot pass the plan on their own.

Common Core is Working – So Kill It (Memphis Daily News)
Common Core determines what Tennessee’s K-12 students should know and when they should learn it, yet like many other issues it has become a political pariah, especially for the state’s Republican leaders. The Common Core State Standards Initiative was announced in 2009, a national education plan sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers – not, as many believe, by President Obama or the U.S. Department of Education. Its intent is to set “unified expectations’’ for K-12 students.

Explosions, booze, cockfighting among odd TN bills (Tennessean/Boucher)
The ability to legally shoot stuff that explodes. The inability to buy booze if you’ve had three or more DUIs. And potential criminal charges for parents who keep bringing their kids to cockfights. These proposals are but a few of the quirky, odd or downright bizarre bills Tennessee lawmakers proposed before the bill-filing deadline Thursday. The casual observer might think most of the more than 1,500 bills are relatively mundane: many tweak state code for clarifications, alter zoning requirements, honor achievements or otherwise enact routine changes. But there are always a handful of bills that raise a few eyebrows.

Kelsey bill on municipal unions draws ire from leaders (CA/Brodgon, Poe)
Union officials in Memphis and City Council members in Chattanooga assailed state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s proposed legislation to dissolve union agreements with city workers. At a news conference Thursday, Chattanooga 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.

Budgeting bill hopes to eliminate exception for Washington County (JCP)
An enigmatic exception to a state budgeting law singling out Washington County could be changed this legislative session in one of several bills originating locally. Filed shortly before Thursday’s bill deadline by Sen. Rusty Crowe and Rep. Micah Van Huss, the simple bill would delete a subdivision of the statute regulating county budget amendments, giving Washington County the ability to move money more easily between budget line items within departments. “This statute exempts only Washington County from making these line item adjustments,” County Mayor Dan Eldridge said Friday.

Womick not seeking to end Medicaid (Daily News Journal)
State Rep. Rick Womick said the intent of his Medicaid bill he’s withdrawing had nothing to do with ending the federal health-care funding in Tennessee at this time. The Republican lawmaker said his intent for the caption bill to modify an existing law was to oppose any attempt by Gov. Bill Haslam to bring Insure Tennessee back up again in an attempt to expand Medicaid, which is called TennCare in this state. Womick’s bill as it was presented on the Tennessee General Assembly website suggests the legislation was intended to end the existing Medicaid, which provides federal funding to pay for health care for qualifying low-income residents.

Shelby County Commission still pushing for Insure Tennessee (CA/Moore)
Shelby County Commission members said it’s unlikely they’ll convince state legislators to reconsider Gov. Bill Haslam’s health insurance plan for the working poor, but they still intend to try. During a special session of the legislature this month, seven Republican lawmakers on a state Senate committee killed Insure Tennessee, the alternative-to-Medicaid plan Haslam negotiated with President Obama’s administration. County Mayor Mark Luttrell has said that without the federal money the health insurance plan would have brought into the state to pay for indigent medical care, the Regional Medical Center will face a $70 million funding hole that county taxpayers must fill, possibly with a 10 percent property tax increase.

Alexander focused on rewriting No Child Left Behind law (Tennessean/Troyan)
Two Republican senators from Tennessee and South Carolina, buoyed by their party’s new majority, are teaming up to expand school choice as part of a rewrite of federal education law. An early Senate draft of a K-12 education bill already includes a proposal to let federal money for lower-income students follow the students to the public school of their choice. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Tim Scott say they expect more and broader possibilities to also be on the table. Giving parents more choice on where to send their kids to school — and using government money to facilitate such transfers — could be one of the most controversial elements of this year’s attempt to rewrite the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

NRC advisers endorse work at Watts Bar (Times Free-Press/Flessner)
A panel of outside nuclear experts who reviewed construction of TVA’s newest nuclear reactor concluded that the plant is safely built and TVA is adequately addressing fire and flooding concerns raised by the Fukushima Dauiichi accident in Japan nearly four years ago. But nuclear critics charge that the new reactor being built at Watts Bar may still end up being the most expensive reactor ever built with power costs nearly 25 percent higher than TVA’s current generation. The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safety said in its final assessment of the unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant that TVA has adequately addressed all of its key questions about equipment, safety systems and operation.

Report: TN charter schools outperform other states (Tennessean/Allison)
Tennessee’s charter schools rank among the highest-performing public schools in the state and outperform other states’ charters, according the recently released State of the Sector Report. Issued by the Tennessee Charter School Center, the review used data-based findings to highlight strong academic performance within the school systems for the 2013-2014 academic year. The 35-page report includes research from sources such as the Center for Research on Education Outcomes Foundation at Stanford University, Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee Department of Education and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


Guest columnist: Haslam gains leverage with Insure Tennessee rejection (Tenn)
Insure Tennessee did not receive legislative approval. What happened and why? Gov. Bill Haslam developed Insure Tennessee to improve access to medical insurance for Tennesseans whose income is too high for Medicaid but not high enough for other federal subsidies. From a statutory viewpoint, Insure Tennessee was part of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, made optional by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case. It was also distinct, contemplating the use of financial incentives and disincentives to encourage healthy behavior and to promote cost consciousness by beneficiaries.

Columnist: Shameful Seven inspire political parable (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
The Rev. June Griffin’s mean-spirited opening prayer set the tone for the special legislative session earlier this month to consider Insure Tennessee. Inspired by a confidence of self-righteousness and under the conviction of a narcissistic god, the minister of hate gave her congregation the “divine” cover for what would unfold. Griffin insisted that the people of Tennessee are “downtrodden” victims of the “wicked courts from on high.” To turn the tables, she implored her would “Moses-like” leaders to defeat Insure Tennessee and thus refuse health care to over 280,000 Tennesseans. With marching orders thus blessed, the state Senate Health and Welfare Committee set about their business of being dutiful listeners and obedient servants for Griffin, the Americans for Prosperity and the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Editorial: Public interest loses to judicial overreach, bad bills (Tennessean)
The public’s right to view its records is under siege in Tennessee. In the past month: •A judge enacted an overly broad order to seal “all evidence” in a highly scrutinized rape trial involving two former Vanderbilt University football players without even holding a hearing to discuss the public interest or considering less restrictive measures. •Tennessee General Assembly members already have introduced nearly two dozen public-records-related bills — 80 percent of which propose creating further barriers between our citizens and their access to government documents by enacting new exemptions and fees. Tennesseans do not benefit from government in the shadows in any branch of government, be it executive, legislative or judicial, or at any level, be it state or local.