February 22 TN News Digest

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

Students see brighter futures through Tennessee Promise (Tennessean/Tamburin)
For Gov. Bill Haslam, Tennessee Promise is a program that could be the cornerstone of his legacy. For leaders across the country, it’s a road map whose successes or failures could guide years of higher education policy. For thousands of students here, the scholarship program offers a ray of hope. Supporters say a tuition-free ticket to community college will grab the attention of teenagers who never thought higher education was possible for them. For some of the 58,000 applicants, that has proven to be true. College had been a pipe dream for Justin Short, who was raised by a single mother in a small town 90 minutes northeast of Knoxville. Money was just too tight. So, he decided against it. Instead, he planned to enlist in the U.S. Air Force right after high school. But when he read about Tennessee Promise in his local paper, those plans changed.

Follow five TN Promise students through the year (Tennessean/Tamburin)
This month The Tennessean is introducing five students who will be featured throughout the year as they make their way through the first year of the Tennessee Promise program. TAHJ TURNLEY, 17 Brentwood Tahj Turnley is different. And he likes it that way. He wakes up at 5 every morning to make sure he has time to iron his uniform before heading to Benton Hall Academy in Franklin. When he hangs out with friends at Opry Mills, he’s more likely to change into a button-down and bowtie than a T-shirt and jeans. He and his friends sometimes test new dance moves as shoppers pass by. (He’s taken classes in ballet, ballroom and tap dancing.) But things weren’t always this way.

Level 2 state of emergency declared (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
The impact of this week’s cold weather has caused a major disaster in Tennessee, according to a Tennessee Emergency Management Agency news release. Gov. Bill Haslam and TEMA Deputy Commissioner David Purkey elevated the state of emergency to a Level 2 designation as of 3 p.m., Saturday. The elevated status means a major disaster has exceeded the capabilities of local governments to handle relief efforts, requiring state and federal help. Attributing to the designation were the snow and ice storms that hit the state overnight Friday and into Saturday. The heaviest impacts are in the Cumberland Plateau area with damage reports and power outages widespread in Cumberland, Fentress, Overton, Putnam and White counties, the release says.

Haslam raises emergency level after snow, ice causes accidents (TFP/Healey)
Snow and ice over Friday night wreaked such havoc on roads and power lines across the state, causing so many accidents, outages, and road closures, that Gov. Bill Haslam declared a Level II emergency, which is considered a “major disaster.” The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said in a release Saturday that more than 50,000 customers in 12 counties lost power, and more were expected. The Volunteer Energy Cooperative also reported that 38,000 customers in its 17-county service area were without power Saturday, almost 20,000 of whom were in Cumberland County.

Tennessee has elevated to a Level II state of emergency (News-Sentinel)
Gov. Bill Haslam has accepted the recommendation of TEMA Deputy Commissioner David Purkey to elevate to a Level II-State of Emergency due to major impacts to infrastructure, power and roads as a result of the overnight snow and ice storm and the current heavy rain in the state. A level 2 state of emergency is described as an event that will likely exceed local capabilities and require a broad range of state and federal assistance.

State of emergency elevated as conditions worsen statewide (Daily News Journal)
Tennessee elevated its state of emergency Saturday afternoon as road conditions worsened as rain moved through much of the state Gov. Bill Haslam accepted the recommendation of Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Deputy Commissioner David Purkey to elevate to a Level 2 state of emergency, according to a TEMA news release. The state of emergency was elevated just after 3 p.m. after officials determined the need for state and federal assistance. “The (State Emergency Operations Center) received reports of major impacts to infrastructure, power and roads as a result of the overnight snow and ice storm and the current heavy rain in the state,” the release stated.

Rain turning roads slick in Tennessee, flood watches issued (Associated Press)
Rains and above-freezing temperatures throughout much of Tennessee are causing flooding and slick roadways. Gov. Bill Haslam elevated Tennessee on Saturday to a higher level state of emergency, meaning hard-hit areas may be eligible for state and federal assistance. Power outages spiked from less than 10,000 Saturday morning to 50,459 by the afternoon. About 33,000 of the electrical outages are in Cumberland and Fentress counties. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency says the melting snow and ice combined with one to three inches of rain was increasing the potential for flash flooding Saturday.

Winter storm’s death toll rises to 21 (Tennessean/Cowan)
State officials announced that three more deaths had been confirmed as weather-related fatalities late Saturday night, bringing the storm’s toll to 21. Most of those deaths were the results of hypothermia, a Tennessee Emergency Management Agency list said, and have taken place in counties around Tennessee since Feb. 16. The majority of the remainder died in car crashes, though a 67-year-old Hickman County man died after he was unable to get dialysis treatment and three people in Knox County were fire victims. Crews around the state continued to clear debris and repair power outages Saturday, while in some counties, service providers scrambled to provide shelter.

TEMA warns of potential flash flooding (Associated Press)
Rains and above-freezing temperatures throughout much of Tennessee are causing flooding and slick roadways. Melting snow and ice combined with 1 to 3 inches of rain has increased the potential for flash flooding, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said Saturday. The National Weather Service issued a flood watch for parts of East Tennessee through Monday and all of Middle Tennessee through Sunday morning. About 8,800 electric customers in seven counties were without power at noon, including about 3,600 outages in Franklin County. Officials said windy conditions could create more outages on Saturday.

Rain floods Harding Academy, authorities keep an eye on rivers (CA/Connolly)
A steady drenching of rain Saturday morning, accompanied by above-freezing temperatures, helped wash away ice from the preceding days but caused a whole new set of problems as flooding soaked Harding Academy in East Memphis and brought the Loosahatchie River to flood stage. A total of 1.71 inches of rain fell between midnight and early afternoon, according to the National Weather Service gauge at the airport. Phil Baker, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said that while 1.71 inches isn’t an unusually large amount of rain, “when you combine it with the ice melt, it does put a little bit more strain on the smaller creeks.”

In Tennessee history, how does this storm stack up? (Tennessean/Cowan)
When the winter weather pummeling the region prompted Gov. Bill Haslam to declare a major disaster Saturday, bumping up the state of emergency in Tennessee to Level 2, it may have left residents wondering how this storm stacks up against other weather events in the state’s history. But that’s sort of a tough question to answer, said Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Dean Flener. “It’s very difficult to compare one disaster to another,” he said. Each time a state of emergency is declared, it’s in response to a unique set of challenges. And the state of emergency level reflects more an accumulation of costly damage — debris to be cleared from roads, power outages — than specific conditions in the moment.

Proposed mental health cuts baffle area officials (Johnson City Press)
While wintry weather has been a cause for concern in Tennessee of late, a proposed cut in the Bureau of TennCare’s operating budget has health care professionals, advocates, legislators and law enforcement personnel concerned the state’s mental patients could be left out in the cold. The proposed 2016 fiscal year budget calls for a $30 million reduction — $10 million in state funds and $20 million in matching federal funds — in Level 2 Case Management Services, which funds outpatient care for the mentally ill in Tennessee. With Level 2 Case Management, case managers are responsible for helping mental patients function in their daily lives by performing such tasks as monitoring medication intake, helping to find employment and coordinating routine activities like paying bills and buying groceries.

Public defenders criticize, prosecutors applaud potential law change (CA/Bryson)
A law meant to ensure Tennessee counties fund their prosecutors and public defenders offices at roughly the same rates is on the legislature’s chopping block, a move touted as long overdue by prosecutors behind the movement but lamented by public defenders as a potentially dangerous blow to justice Shelby County would see by far the greatest impact from any changes to the 23-year-old law, nicknamed the “75 Percent Rule,” which requires Tennessee counties to give public defenders at least 75 percent of whatever funding they give to prosecutors. The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office released a statement Friday strongly condemning House Bill 241 and Senate Bill 1324, saying they “would dismantle fiscally sound legislation” that “helps ensure fairness” in an adversarial justice system.

Haslam, Cohen clash over Tennessee Promise program (News-Sentinel/Collins)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise program so intrigued the White House that President Barack Obama decided to use it as a model for a similar program on a national scale. With Haslam looking on, Obama announced in January his proposal to give two years of tuition-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 make steady progress toward completing their degree. But U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, is unimpressed with Haslam’s Tennessee Promise. It’s a false promise, he says, one that will destroy another program — the Hope lottery scholarship — set up more than a decade ago to give scholarship money to academic achievers.

Bill would launch determined attack on human trafficking (Jackson Sun)
The U.S. would create a $1.5 billion international fund to combat human trafficking, under bipartisan legislation put on a fast track this week by Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. The End Modern Slavery Initiative Foundation would use public and private money to finance anti-trafficking programs in places where men, women and children are trapped in lives of forced labor or sexual servitude. An estimated 27 million people are victims. Details vary from country to country, but human trafficking enslaves people in brothels, on fishing boats, and in mines, factories, and private homes around the world. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to pass the legislation on Wednesday.

Watts Bar unit shuts down (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
Plant operators at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn., shut down the reactor Saturday when a problem was discovered in the condenser that helps convert steam back into water in the feedwater system on the non-nuclear part of the plant. The Unit 1 reactor ceased generating power about 11 a.m. Saturday and will remain offline while TVA employees try to figure out what caused a loss of a vacuum in a part of the condenser. TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said there was never any danger to the public or plant personnel but operators manually shut down the reactor when they saw the condenser problem.

Hamilton County school board to explore suing Tennessee (TFP/Omarzu)
Brown vs. Board of Education launched U.S. school desegregation in 1954. The attorney for the Hamilton County Department of Education cited the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday night as an example of what might happen if the local school board joins a larger lawsuit to get the state to fully fund its Basic Education Program (BEP), the formula it uses to fund public schools. “I liken it to Brown vs. Board of Education,” attorney D. Scott Bennett said, referring to the court’s second Brown ruling in 1955, in which it called for desegregation to proceed “with all deliberate speed.” “I think we may have reached the point … this time [for a court] to say, ‘Fund this with all deliberate speed,'” he said.

OPINION

Tom Humphrey: Is pay-raise plan too businesslike for government? (News-Sentinel)
In his recent State of the State speech, Gov. Bill Haslam got a bipartisan standing ovation when he declared next year’s budget would include almost $100 million for a 4 percent teacher pay raise. There was a contrasting silence when he laid out his plans for state employee pay raises. Indeed, some legislative leaders — notably including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent — have publicly expressed misgivings about one novel aspect of the proposal. That provision basically amounts to taking from the state’s most senior employees and giving to those most favored by the “performance-based and market-driven” evaluation system for 40,000 or so state workers in accord with repeal of the state’s civil service law in 2012.

Editorial: Bills would keep citizens in dark on public records (News-Sentinel)
Three bills now pending in the Tennessee Legislature would combine to cripple the public’s access to government records. One would make citizens pay to see official documents. Another would prevent the public from reviewing state employee performance evaluations. The third would shield from scrutiny the organization that regulates school sports statewide. The bills’ sponsors and other lawmakers should reconsider these proposals in the context of transparency and accountability. One bill being pushed by the Tennessee School Boards Association would allow state and local government agencies to charge citizens a fee to inspect documents and require that a request to view records be made in writing.

Craig Fitzhugh, Sara Kyle: Tennessee should embrace paid family leave (Tenn)
Tennesseans may be surprised to learn that the United States stands alone among developed countries in failing to provide any paid time off for workers with a new baby or a seriously ill family member who needs their care. While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) signed into law 21 years ago provides unpaid leave, helping many workers keep their jobs, it fails to cover almost 40 percent of workers. Tennessee’s own parental leave law similarly only covers large employers and only provides unpaid leave. Many workers covered by these laws can’t afford to use them because they can’t afford to go without pay. That means parents are robbed of crucial time with a new child, or forced to lose income or even a job when a daughter undergoes cancer treatment or an aging mother suffers a stroke.

Steve Dickerson: Tennessee can make strides on domestic violence (Tennessean)
This year our General Assembly has a chance to take a major step forward in protecting victims of domestic violence from repeated abuse. Protecting victims is just one part of ending domestic violence, but an important part. Domestic violence is a scourge in our community. On average, every 20 minutes, an act of domestic violence occurs in Davidson County, and Tennessee has one of the 10 worst records for domestic violence in the nation. In 2013, 26 percent of the homicides in Davidson County were a result of domestic violence and, according to data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, 51 percent of the crimes against persons in Tennessee are a result of domestic violence. In the United States, more than 15 million children are exposed to domestic violence.