February 19 TN News Digest

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

Haslam suspends rules to help trucks as winter storm lingers (Tenn/Gonazalez)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam issued three executive orders late Wednesday in response to the state’s ongoing winter storm. His orders, which follow a state of emergency declaration, address the delivery of food supplies, heating fuel and agricultural items. Haslam ordered the suspension of federal hours that limit the hours that commercial vehicles may drive, specifically for those carrying food, heating fuel and chicken feed. He cited “extreme delays in the transportation of feed and chickens for the poultry industry.” Drivers who notify their companies that they need rest will be given 10 consecutive hours off, the orders state. Haslam also suspended size limitations on trucks carrying hay, noting that Tennessee is the fifth-largest provider of hay.

Haslam: ‘No doubt’ storm will have economic impact (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
Gov. Bill Haslam told 10News on Wednesday it’s clear this week’s statewide ice storm is hitting people’s pocketbooks. It’s too early, however, to say what that figure will be, he said. “There’s no doubt it will have an impact,” Haslam told anchors Robin Wilhoit and John Becker in a live phone interview this afternoon. “For Tennessee, this is an incredibly prolonged period of weather challenge.” Haslam said he fears small businesses in particular may end up suffering because of the effects of debilitating ice and snow, such as power outages and road closures. All of Tennessee’s grand divisions have been hit by the week’s weather, the governor said.

Temperatures To Turn Too Cold For Salt Just As Road Crews Begin Work (WPLN)
Sun, a lull in precipitation, and lots of work by road-clearing crews finally have Middle Tennessee’s interstates clear and mostly dry. Now, the Tennessee Department of Transportation is turning its attention to state highways. But after several days of freezing temperatures spokeswoman B.J. Doughty says there’s only so much that can be done. “Some of those routes, especially out in some of the rural areas where there’s not a lot of traffic, they’re going to be frozen solid,” Doughty says. “We don’t have a magic bullet for that.” On the interstates, TDOT was able to quickly treat and plow before the ice became so thick. There is still plenty of salt and calcium chloride solution to use on roads, but only when it’s not too cold: salt stops working when the temperature drops below 20 degrees or so.

Cold weather claims 2 more victims in Tennessee (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency is reporting two deaths due to hypothermia, bringing the total number of confirmed weather-related deaths across the state to six. The agency said the cold weather was a factor in the deaths of a 48-year-old man in Shelby County and a 63-year-old man in Hamilton County, both hypothermia victims. Since the storm hit Monday, there have also been four weather-related deaths from motor vehicle crashes: a 30-year-old man in Knox County; a 38-year-old woman in Overton County; and a 34-year-old woman and her 10-year-old son in Williamson County.

State Fire Marshal offers tips to prevent fires (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
The State Fire Marshal’s Office is reminding residents to keep fire safety in mind as hazardous, subzero temperatures grip the state, officials said. According to a news release from the Fire Marshal, brutally cold weather can drastically increase fire risks during what is already a peak season for residential fires. Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak said it is crucial to make fire safety a priority in and around homes to avoid the devastation that can accompany frigid temperatures.

Tennessee House cancels rest of week due to ice, snow (Associated Press)
The Tennessee House of Representatives has canceled committee meetings and its Thursday floor session amid icy and snowy conditions around the state. The 99-member House delayed its Wednesday morning session until the afternoon so lawmakers could make it to the Capitol in Nashville. But leaders decided to forgo the rest of their scheduled activities as conditions were not expected to improve until later in the week. Just 24 of 33 members of the Senate were able to make it to the floor session in Nashville on Wednesday morning, but that was enough for a quorum.

Tennessee State House adjourns over freezing weather (Times Free-Press)
Ice, snow, freezing temperatures and the threat of more prompted the state House to adjourn this afternoon. “We will adjourn until [next] Monday rather than Thursday,” Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga said as the 99-member chamber convened with many representatives absent due to the weather. “Give you all a long weekend.” Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, agreed, noting “the leadership thought this would be the best avenue to take.” The Senate, which convened earlier today, plans on holding committee hearings and adjourn Thursday morning in their floor session. The House had 81 of 99 members show up today. The Senate had 24 of 33 members.

Federal aid not expected for Nashville snow and ice (Tenn/Garrison, Boucher)
Metro Nashville officials don’t expect to receive federal emergency aid to help cover costs associated with this week’s snow and ice that has crippled much of Middle Tennessee. Meanwhile, the state of Tennessee is still tallying up statewide costs for a weather event that prompted Gov. Bill Haslam to declare a state of emergency. According to officials from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, damages would need to total at least $8.9 million in Tennessee in order to even qualify for presidential disaster declaration. That includes overtime, any damage to roads or electrical infrastructure and other costs accumulated by counties or state agencies.

TN’s Task: Turn ‘Free Community College’ From Rallying Cry Into a Success (HEC)
Amanda Raven Smith wants to go to college. But she doesn’t want to have the same experience as her father, who spent decades paying off student loans for a degree he couldn’t afford to finish. “I had been planning on it,” she said, “but didn’t have a way to do the funding.” So on a Thursday evening in January, Ms. Smith, a senior at Columbia Central High School, in Maury County, Tenn., was one of some 600 students who attended a meeting at the school. The objective: to learn about the Tennessee Promise, the program guaranteeing that the state will cover tuition and required fees for two years of community or technical college for Ms. Smith and every other graduating high-school senior in the state.

Tennesseans for Student Success group’s spending supports governor (TFP/Sher)
A new advocacy group with deep pockets and close ties to Gov. Bill Haslam is spending big bucks defending his stance on maintaining Tennessee’s K-12 education standards, Federal Communications Commission television station filings show. Since Dec. 29, Tennesseans for Student Success, a nonprofit group headed by Haslam’s 2014 campaign manager, Jeremy Harrell, has spent $137,000 broadcasting a 30-second spot in the Nashville and Knoxville media markets, according to a Times Free Press review of Tennessee-based television stations’ political advertising files. The ad even aired on Nashville NBC affiliate WSMV-TV during the Super Bowl.

Tennessee tax collections run $344M ahead of estimates (Tennessean/Boucher)
Holiday sales and lower gas prices are the latest boosts to a Tennessee economy that’s provided nearly $344 million more in state tax collections than expected midway through the financial year. That’s 6 percent more than expected after six months of the budget year, thanks in part to one of the strongest January tax collections in years, said Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin. “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,” Martin said in a recent news release.

Improved SmartWay map guides Tennessee motorists (Tennessean/Gonazlez)
Tennessee’s new real-time road conditions map rolled out quietly this winter and has provided fast information about icy highways, crashes and even this week’s interstate closures. In December, the Tennessee Department of Transportation debuted its new SmartWay traffic Web app, now available for desktop computers and mobile devices. It’s online at https://smartway.tn.gov/traffic for desktop and available for mobile device download from Apple and Google Play. TDOT, which developed the app internally, said the new technology now allows live streaming video from cameras along interstates in Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville.

Lawmaker Says Proposal Would Recognize Bible’s Unique Place in Tenn (WPLN)
The state lawmaker behind an effort to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee doesn’t think the proposal is unconstitutional. But first-term Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) believes Tennesseans should recognize the Bible’s unique place in the state’s history. Critics of Sexton’s proposal, House Bill 615, argue it violates both the Tennessee Constitution and the federal Bill of Rights. But the East Tennessee Republican says his bill simply promotes the Bible’s historical significance and its importance to the Founding Fathers. “It’s just a recognition of a book. It, in no way, is establishing any kind of a religion. … You know, if I was in Utah, then I think you could make a case for the Book of Mormon, because they certainly have a lot of history there.”

Cohen announces funding for HIV treatment (Associated Press)
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen says Shelby County is receiving more than $5.6 million in federal funds to help care for people living with HIV. Cohen said Wednesday that the funding comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program. The program helps local governments provide HIV-related services to more than a half-million people who do not have sufficient health care coverage or financial resources for coping with the disease. In a statement, Cohen says the HIV and AIDS epidemic continues to plague the 9th Congressional District. He says thousands of Memphis residents are living with the illnesses.

HHS: 229K Tennesseans signed up on federal health insurance marketplace (NP)
About 229,000 people in Tennessee signed up for health insurance plans through the federal marketplace in the exchange’s second year, according to numbers released by the Department of Health and Human Services Wednesday. On a conference call held by HHS, marketplace CEO Kevin Counihan said the department was “very pleased with enrollment in the key southern region.” Enrollment in Tennessee increased about 51 percent from last year to 229,093 people, up from 193,207 at the beginning of February. The marketplace closed this past Sunday, although certain individuals who were not able to complete their enrollment will be eligible for extensions. About 70,000 of the state enrollees were in the Nashville, Franklin and Murfreesboro areas.

229,093 Tennesseans sign up for ACA coverage (Tennessean/Wilemon)
A total of 229,093 Tennesseans signed up for coverage on the health insurance marketplace during open enrollment, which ended Sunday, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Some in Nashville waited until the very last minute. “We had everybody under the sun suddenly on Sunday realizing it was the last day,” said Jackie Shrago, a volunteer with Get Covered Tennessee. “I’m glad they realized it was the last day because we got an awful lot of them signed up.” She and other volunteers manned desks at the Lentz Public Health Center, where she estimated they assisted about 100 people.

Health care enrollment up, but challenges still loom (Times Free-Press/Belz)
With Affordable Care Act marketplace enrollment numbers up from last year in both Tennessee and Georgia, the new system for buying health insurance seems to have moved past “flash-in-the-pan” and more toward “fixture” status. But legal and political uncertainty over the marketplace’s future in both states means that no one — enrollees, advocates and health insurers alike — can get comfortable quite yet. Sunday was the busiest day ever for HealthCare.gov sign-ups, as a surge of shoppers rushed to buy health insurance plans before the midnight open enrollment deadline, federal officials said Wednesday.

More than 44,000 in Memphis shop on health marketplace (CA/McKenzie)
More than 44,000 people in Memphis bought health coverage offered through the federal Health Insurance Marketplace by the Feb. 15 deadline, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday. The Memphians were among 229,093 Tennesseans who selected a health plan during the open enrollment period for the marketplace established by the Affordable Care Act. Nashville, with more than 69,000, enrolled more consumers than Memphis. Knoxville had about 29,500; no figure was released for Chattanooga.

Power companies urge conservation during cold snap (Times-News)
With temperatures expected to dip into the single digits — and possibly onto the negative side of the thermometer — power companies are asking all consumers to conserve energy. Arctic air combined with snow and ice will deliver the cold temperatures. As a result, power demand is expected to reach record peaks with Thursday predicted to be near the highest total energy day in Tennessee Valley Authority history. TVA asks for customers to reduce all nonessential electric use, such as appliances, dishwashers and dryers until peak demand, most likely on Thursday, has passed.

Coke gets go-ahead on PILOT (Memphis Business Journal)
The Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis & Shelby County approved a 15-year retention PILOT for Coca-Cola Refreshments USA Inc. The company is planning to invest more than $10 million to expand its Memphis warehousing and distribution operation. Now that the tax incentive, which is expected to create more than $27.3 million in new tax revenue for Memphis and Shelby County, has been approved, Coca-Cola now can move forward on its plans to build the new facility at 4770 Southpoint Drive. Coca-Cola would create 50 jobs and retain 317 jobs in Memphis.

EDGE approves $3.5M tax break for Coca-Cola (Commercial Appeal)
The Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis and Shelby County has approved a 15-year, $3.5 million tax break for a Coca-Cola distribution plant in Memphis. Atlanta-cased Coca-Cola Refreshments USA Inc. plans to consolidate its distribution operations in a leased facility at 4770 SouthPoint Drive while maintaining its manufacturing operation on South Hollywood in Memphis and another in West Memphis. The company plans to relocate 317 jobs from its Memphis plant to the distribution center and move 50 jobs there from West Memphis.

Coca-Cola Awarded Incentives to Stay, Expand in Memphis (Memphis Daily News)
The city-county Economic Development Growth Engine has awarded Coca-Cola Refreshments USA Inc. a 15-year tax break Wednesday, Feb. 18, to consolidate distribution operations in Memphis and West Memphis, Ark., into one facility in Memphis. Coca-Cola is considering relocating 317 employees from 499 Hollywood St. to a 266,800-square-foot space at 4770 Southpoint Road and to unidentified locations in Arkansas and Mississippi. The company, which also would add 50 new positions, would maintain manufacturing operations on Hollywood.

Illinois: Governor Rauner Proposes Spending Cuts in Budget Speech (WSJ)
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner on Wednesday proposed cutting billions of dollars on everything from pension benefits to state university funding in a plan he said would start stabilizing the state’s troubled finances. The plan comes as Illinois looks to reverse years of fiscal problems that have left it with the lowest credit rating among the 50 states, billions of dollars in late bills and a pension shortfall of more than $110 billion. Mr. Rauner, a Republican, ran on a platform last fall of overhauling state government and defeated Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

OPINION

Editorial: Tennessee lawmakers should resist passing abortion laws (Tennessean)
While abortion rights are no longer protected under the Tennessee Constitution, legislators should be cautious about passing any bill that restricts a woman’s right, under federal law, to terminate her pregnancy. In fact, they should consider tabling all action on the 12 bills that have been filed in the 2015 General Assembly session until they fully research whether their proposals would pass constitutional muster. Legal challenges against state restrictions or regulations across the nation, an active lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s Amendment One and a recent opinion by Attorney General Herbert Slatery III should be weighed heavily in that research.