February 21 TN News Digest

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

Gov. Haslam says national college program not best approach (N-S/Collins)
Gov. Bill Haslam applauded President Barack Obama on Friday for trying to give more Americans a shot at a college degree, but he said putting in place a national program to offer two years of free community college may not be the best approach. “States can come up with their own methods to do things like this,” Haslam said during a State Solutions Conference in Washington. “I think the idea he obviously has is right. But let states figure out how to do it.” Obama’s proposal, launched last month during a presidential visit to Knoxville, would give two years of free community college to students who enroll in programs that meet certain academic standards and who maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average and show steady progress toward completing their degree.

RGA chair: GOP well-positioned for 2016 (Politico)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said the 2014 election results prove that GOP gubernatorial candidates can compete in any state — regardless of its political leanings. But he declined to set a high watermark for Republicans, who control 31 governor’s mansions and have a favorable map over the next two years to add more. “I don’t know that number,” he said. “We were shocked — I shouldn’t say shocked — we were pleasantly surprised to get to 31 this year.” Haslam spoke to POLITICO at the Fifth Annual State Solutions conference in Washington on Friday. He said the party’s newly elected governors are proving the GOP can win more than the stereotypical “white, southern, suburban areas.”

Death toll from winter weather rises to 18 in Tenn. (Associated Press)
Tennessee officials say the number of deaths caused by winter weather has risen to 18. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency reported Friday afternoon that Knox County leads the state with four deaths, including three caused by a house fire and one caused by a motor vehicle accident. There have been three deaths in Shelby County. In all, the agency reports hypothermia has led to nine deaths. Five people have died in vehicle crashes related to the weather, and one dialysis patient was unable to get treatment. Snow, sleet and freezing rain have accompanied sub-freezing temperatures in Tennessee this week. Much of the state is under a winter storm warning.

Freezing rain causes slick, slushy roads (Tennessean/Meyer)
Roads are slick and slushy due to Friday night’s freezing rain, but above freezing temperatures are just hours away. The thermometer at Nashville International Airport read 30 degrees at about 10 p.m., said Scott Unger, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Nashville. “The above freezing temperatures are in southwest Tennessee right now,” Unger said. “That freezing line is creeping further and further northward.”… Tennessee Department of Transportation crews were out salting roads Friday and since the temperature was above 20 degrees, the salt was working, said Heather Jensen, TDOT spokeswoman. “The salt is actually having an effect,” Jensen said.

Flooding possible after dangerous winter weather week (Tennessean)
Snow and freezing rain Friday capped off a dangerous week in Tennessee, with winter weather blamed in at least 18 deaths and hundreds of car accidents across the state. While Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said there appears to be “light at the end of the tunnel,” state emergency officials are warning there’s a chance that snow, mixed with new rain, could lead to flooding. “People need to stay vigilant on the upcoming weather and be prepared to do what is necessary to protect their own safety,” Nashville Fire Department Chief Ricky White said Friday afternoon.

Winter storm’s death toll rises to 18, TEMA says (Tennessean/Cowan)
The winter storm savaging the region has claimed 18 lives in Tennessee, the state’s emergency management agency announced late Friday afternoon. That number, as of earlier in the afternoon, had been 17, and in the morning it was 11. Most of the deaths were the results of crashes or hypothermia, though a 67-year-old Hickman county man, a dialysis patient, died after he was unable to get treatment, and three people in Knox county were fire victims, according to the release. The agency said in its 1 p.m. storm update that Tennessee was still in a Level III State of Emergency.

Snowfall sows chaos on Chattanooga’s access roads (Times Free-Press)
Though no major roads have been reported closed by the Tennessee Highway Patrol, all the major access roads surrounding Chattanooga have wrecks reported. “Many counties in TDOT’s Region area 2 have had 2 inches of snow fall over the past two hours and many routes are snow-covered and hazardous,” said Jennifer Flynn, TDOT spokesperson. “Drivers are urged to use caution if they have to travel or better yet, just stay home until the weather improves so our people can continue salting and plowing operations.” TDOT is working to keep Interstates clear. Once that is complete, they will move to state routes. All routes are open, but many are covered with patches snow and ice, Flynn said.

Slick roads create havoc in West Tenn. (Jackson Sun)
Friday was another treacherous day on West Tennessee roads, with law enforcement reporting multiple crashes and cars sliding in the afternoon and evening. “Hopefully by daylight, it’ll be melted,” Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. Brad Wilbanks said. But, he said, “You’ve gotta slow down. The road you’re on may be clear, but the road you’re turning on to may not be.” As of Friday, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency had reported 18 weather-related deaths in the state since the winter storms began early this week. Of those 18, four deaths have been in car accidents, while many of the others have been hypothermia related. Rena Camp, 64, was killed, and Phillip Camp, 65, was injured in a one-car accident Friday morning in Benton County.

Chain saw brigade: Volunteers help with Roane cleanup (News-Sentinel/Fowler)
Volunteers armed with chain saws were out in force Friday in Roane County because scores of trees toppled by Monday’s ice storm were still clogging numerous rural roadways. With another round of ice and snow forecast for Friday night, Roane County Road Superintendent Dennis Ferguson described the situation as a “dang mess.” An estimated 1,000 trees fell onto roadways. “Our guys who were here then say it’s worse than in 1993,” said Tony Brown, deputy road superintendent, referring to a massive March blizzard that year that wreaked havoc throughout Tennessee. County Mayor Ron Woody gave the go-ahead Thursday to purchase chain saws and other cleanup items and said members of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency toured the county Thursday.

Officials warn: Don’t be fooled by ‘beer jacket’ (Tennessean/Cowan)
It may sound funny but the consequences are not, state agencies warned Friday: Relying on a so-called “beer jacket” could kill you. “That warm feeling from alcohol is basically heat leaving your body, as alcohol and some other drugs make it harder for your body to retain and regulate heat,” Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner said in a news release. Which means alcohol and certain drugs increase the risk of hypothermia. The department of health and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency issued the news release as the region braced for more winter weather and freezing temperatures.

TDOT worker describes close call with truck (WVLT-TV Knoxville)
There are risks that come with any job, but working on roadways where cars travel 88 feet per second is especially dangerous. A TDOT worker realized that first hand when he was nearly it by an out of control truck Tuesday. The video, captured by a Knoxville police dash cam, shows a truck skidding on the ice, crossing the highway median and barely missing David Leake. “Snow will fly off the front of the truck. That was me pushing off with my right hand,” Leake said, adding, “I had about a second or half second to react.” But Leake said he is trained to do just that. Leake is part of help, a highway instant response program. And he is constantly out on heavily traveled highways.

McMinn Co. woman charged with TennCare fraud (WRCB-TV Chattanooga)
A Monroe County woman is charged in both McMinn and Monroe Counties with TennCare fraud involving doctor shopping, or using TennCare to go to multiple doctors in a short time period to obtain prescriptions for controlled substances. The Office of Inspector General assisted by sheriff’s officers in McMinn and Monroe Counties, arrested 28-year-old Tiffany V. Kaeppner of Athens. Kaeppner is charged in a McMinn County indictment with three counts of TennCare doctor shopping and three counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud. After those charges were disposed of, she was transported to Monroe County, where she is accused of one count of the same charge.

Tenn. Legislature wants to keep insurance information secret (AP/Schelzig)
Republican lawmakers still seething about the release of their enrollment in the state’s health care plan want to keep further coverage information from being made public. The Legislature’s administrative director Connie Ridley, who serves at the behest of the Republican leadership, has warned members that more details about their taxpayer-subsidized insurance could come to light even though she argues the information should be covered by federal medical privacy laws. “I wanted to make clear that the release of this data was not authorized by the General Assembly,” Ridley wrote in memo to members after The Associated Press published a list of lawmakers on the state plan. The contents of the memo were first reported by The Tennessean newspaper Friday.

UT workers rally against Haslam benefits proposal (News-Sentinel/Roark)
Tom Anderson provides for his family ‘paycheck to paycheck’ and now fears he might have to pay double for health insurance. Anderson, a facilities services worker at the University of Tennessee, joined UT students and other campus workers as they protested Friday against a bill to cut state workers’ health benefits. The protest, organized by the United Campus Workers and UT’s Progressive Student Alliance in conjunction with United Students Against Sweatshops, was held in response to Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed changes to state workers’ health benefits. About 100 people from the various groups turned out for the joint rally in front of the Haslam College of Business.

Tenn. political leaders put off gas tax talk despite needs (AP/Schelzig)
Political leaders in Tennessee agree on the growing need to bolster funding for road building and maintenance, but there’s little consensus about how go about doing it. Tennessee’s 21.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax hasn’t been raised in 25 years, and a recent study by the state comptroller found the state’s fuel taxes are insufficient to maintain existing infrastructure and meet long-term transportation needs. While Republican Gov. Bill Haslam recently acknowledged that “we need to do something on the gas tax,” he has indicated he won’t introduce any legislation on the subject this year. Tennessee’s combined state and federal funding for highway spending was the lowest in the country at $283 per person in 2008.

Cohen attacks Giuliani’s comments about Obama (Commercial Appeal/Collins)
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen says he’s tired of hearing people question President Barack Obama’s patriotism, so he defended the president Friday — and ended up causing a stir himself. The Memphis Democrat slammed former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on Twitter after Giuliani said this week he doesn’t believe Obama loves America. Cohen was referring to the Three-Fifths Compromise between delegates from southern and northern states during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The compromise outlined the process for states to count slaves as part of the population to determine representation and taxation by the federal government. The reference to slavery caused a sensation, with some people defending Cohen’s remarks and others accusing him of injecting race into the debate. The Washington Post called Cohen’s tweet “a good demonstration of how not to elevate the political debate.” Cohen said the three-fifths comment was just a metaphor to make a point. “I’m just tired of people questioning the president about his religion, about his birth, about his patriotism,” he said. “It all to me is inappropriate. And the president of the United States deserves better. I believe most of (the criticism) comes down to race.”

Erlanger’s new Regional Operations Center is state of the art (TFP/Coleman)
After eight months of construction, Erlanger Regional Medical Center on Friday unveiled a new, high-tech control center officials say will make for better patient care. The $1.6 million Erlanger Regional Operations Center, or EROC, was scheduled to go online at 8 a.m. this morning. State-of-the-art technology means the new center is ground zero for emergency medical services communications, EMS dispatch, Life Force helicopter operations and patient placement within the hospital. “This is the most advanced communications center in the country right now,” Erlanger President and CEO Kevin Spiegel said.

Kentucky: KY governor: On union matters, we’re no Tennessee (AP/Schelzig)
In an unexpected shot across the bow of his GOP neighbors to the south, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear has a simple message on labor and economic development for automakers looking to build new plants: We’re not Tennessee. The Democrat is touting Kentucky’s neutrality on labor matters as “a positive sales point,” particularly in contrast to the turmoil in Tennessee, where Republicans have pulled out all the stops in what may yet be a losing effort to keep the United Auto Workers from gaining collective bargaining rights at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga. Similar unionization efforts are underway at a Mercedes plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

OPINION

Editorial: Release Tennessee legislator health plan records (Tennessean)
There is a compelling reason for why media companies, such as The Tennessean, and other organizations want to know which state lawmakers accept taxpayer-funded health plans. It comes down to these principles: fairness, equity and sincerity. The votes of seven Tennessee senators on a special committee this month killed Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal, which would have used federal Medicaid dollars to cover 280,000 working poor people across the state who can’t afford health insurance. The opposition centered around a rejection of the Affordable Care Act, and fears that: •The federal government couldn’t live up to its promise of paying for Insure Tennessee (100 percent through 2016, 90 percent thereafter); •Haslam couldn’t live up to his promise of it not affecting Tennessee’s budget (despite the Tennessee Hospital Association agreeing to pick up the remaining 10 percent of the bill starting in 2017); and •The program couldn’t be shut down at the end of its two-year pilot status, despite federal assurances that the state could do just that.