February 26 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 tours winter storm damage on Cumberland Plateau (WKRN-TV Nash)
As Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam looked over the damage from a crippling ice storm on the Cumberland Plateau, thousands of people were starting to get their power back on. As of midday around 30,000 were still left in the cold. One of the lucky ones in hardest hit Cumberland County, just outside of Crossville, was retiree Thurston Lee. “The power came on last night about 10:30 p.m.,” he told News 2 as a landscape crew cleared hundreds of limbs and burned them in his front yard. “We could not move for three days,” Lee added. “I have been all over the world in the Navy, and this is the worst I have seen.”

LaunchTN, Pando resolve dispute (Tennessean/McGee)
Launch Tennessee and PandoDaily have resolved their dispute concerning their upcoming conferences. LaunchTN has signed an agreement reaffirming that the TechCrunch editors moderating its upcoming 36|86 tech and entrepreneurship conference will be just that and nothing more. “These interviewers will be present, along with a roster of other luminaries from the startup world,” LaunchTN said in a statement. “Members of the press come to cover important trends on startups, tech and culture in our region. To date, we have extended complimentary press passes to Forbes, Silicon Prairie News and TechCrunch, among others.”

Tennessee lags in labor participation (Tennessean/McGee)
Tennessee has long been hovering near the top of the list for unemployment rates. Now, there is a new metric that should cause concern for the state’s workforce. The state’s labor force participation rate, or the percentage of people working or looking for work, ranks 44th. The rate is 58.4 percent, compared to 71.7 percent in No. 1 North Dakota, according to an analysis by Express Employment Professionals based on December data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration regularly announces corporate expansions as he touts Tennessee’s business-friendly reputation. Tennessee was recently named “state of the year” for two consecutive years for company relocations and expansions.

‘Unusually high number of potholes’ this winter (Times Free-Press/Omarzu)
It’s been a great winter in the Chattanooga area — for potholes. “They’re everywhere, man,” city Public Works Administrator Lee Norris said. “It’s that time of year.” This winter has produced an “unusually high number of potholes,” Norris said, thanks to repeated freeze and thaw cycles and a lot of precipitation. Potholes form when moisture seeps into the pavement, freezes, expands and then thaws, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. That weakens pavement, TDOT says, and traffic loosens it even more until the asphalt eventually crumbles and pops out. It’s hard to properly patch asphalt this time of year, Norris said, since area asphalt plants only produce “cold patch” material good for temporary repairs.

UT releases four years’ worth of data on sex assaults (News-Sentinel/Slaby)
Reports of sexual assault involving University of Tennessee students jumped by 80 percent in the space of a year from 2013 to 2014, statistics released by UT show. The revelation came Wednesday as the university released four years of data about sexual assaults between students — on campus and off campus. The release marks the first time such data about students, regardless of the location, has been released, said Karen Simsen, UT spokeswoman. The statistics cover reports of student-on-student sexual assault from 2011-2014. The data is different from data cited under the federal Clery Act, which reports any sexual assaults on campus, regardless of whether students are involved.

State Takes Action Against House Flippers (WTVF-TV Nashville)
Last spring, NewsChannel 5 Investigates exposed the dangers of buying a flipped house. Now, state regulators have taken disciplinary action against the men responsible for the problems we first exposed. NewsChannel 5 showed how the kitchen ceiling of a home in Madison completely collapsed, just months after Maria Stapleton moved in. “Just one fell swoop, it was done,” Stapleton said last May. “Just fell down?” we asked. “Just fell.” “The whole ceiling?” “The whole ceiling,” Stapleton said. She had bought it from a house flipper who had purchased the home in foreclosure and then renovated it. The caved-in ceiling was just one of several major problems she told us she found in the house.

Elkton man charged with TennCare fraud (Leaf Chronicle)
An Elkton, Kentucky, man was arrested Tuesday after being indicted by the grand jury on insurance fraud charges. Rene Gonzalez, 44, is charged with obtaining TennCare in February 2011 for himself and his children by “fraudulently representing that he and his children lived in Tennessee,” according to the indictment. Between February 2011 and August 2013, Gonzalez obtained medical assistance services and benefits totalling more than $10,000 for himself and his children, the indictment said. The Office of Inspector General investigated the case, and Gonzalez was indicted in November 2014, but served the indictment Tuesday.

Broadband battle: FCC, Legislature square off over EPB bid (TFP/Flessner, Malek)
Tennessee is leading the nation in the share of people with access to high-speed gigabit Internet service, which is now offered by five municipal electric utilities and soon will be offered by Google Fiber in Nashville. But outside of those areas, only about half of rural Tennesseans have access to what the Federal Communications Commission calls broadband service needed for online education, telecommuting or most telemedicine services. Municipal utilities like EPB in Chattanooga want to widen their broadband footprint by extending their fiber-optic service outside of their current service territories, where local governments request the service. But to do so, EPB and other municipal providers will need help from either the Tennessee Legislature in Nashville or the FCC in Washington, D.C., to lift a 15-year-old restriction on where they can expand their fiber-optic networks.

Beer battle on tap in Legislature (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Locker)
Tennessee’s wholesale beer distributors are pushing legislation that would ban beer brewers from buying or owning their own distributorships in the state — a move aimed at Anheuser-Busch and its multinational owner InBev. Anheuser-Busch InBev says the bill runs counter to the free-enterprise principles espoused by lawmakers. Beer wholesalers argue that it protects competition by maintaining the state’s “three-tier” legal system of financial firewalls between the manufacturing, distributing and retailing of alcoholic beverages. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, jumped its first legislative hurdle Wednesday, winning approval in the House Local Government Subcommittee.

Repeal of ‘Intractable Pain Act’ Slated for Senate Vote (TN Report)
After 14 years the Tennessee General Assembly is looking to do away with the state’s Intractable Pain Act of 2001, also know as the “Pain Patient’s Bill of Rights.” The 2001 law — sponsored by former Sen. Roy Herron, who later served as the Tennessee Democratic Party’s state chairman — passed the Senate with 31 votes in favor, and none against. The House agreed to the Senate version 95 to 2. Despite passing the legislature with near-unanimous support, the bill was returned unsigned by Gov. Don Sundquist. The repealing legislation, Senate Bill 157, is sponsored by Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma. Passed unanimously out of the Senate Health an Welfare Committee last week, it is scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor Thursday.

Casada to rewrite bill aimed at pre-K (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
State Rep. Glen Casada, R- Franklin, plans to rewrite a bill that would take aim at federal grant money allocated for local governments. Casada removed House Bill 159 from a Local Government Subcommittee hearing Wednesday because he said the bill’s intent has been misunderstood. He plans to bring the proposal back in a number of weeks. “I will talk with an attorney and present it so it is understood,” he said on Wednesday. The bill was drafted to address federal pre-kindergarten money, which was recently awarded to Shelby and Metro school districts. Many districts statewide felt slighted when Gov. Bill Haslam applied for $70 million in federal money for pre-K programs.

Senate panel backs new judge for 19th District (Leaf Chronicle)
The 19th Judicial District is one step closer to having another judge to serve Montgomery and Robertson counties after the state Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously supported a bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville. “The growth in Montgomery County, along with Robertson County, supports an additional judge. With weighted caseload studies reflecting the counties’ significant needs we were able to win unanimous support of the committee,” Green said. The 19th Judicial District is currently served by three circuit court judges and one chancery court judge: Judge Ross Hicks, Judge Bill Goodman, Judge John Gasaway, and Chancellor Laurence McMillan, respectively. Each of the 31 judicial districts of Tennessee that serve all 95 counties has a circuit court and a chancery court with judges elected on an eight-year cycle.

State Takes Step Toward Letting Conventioneers Carry Cocktails (WPLN-Radio)
Tennessee lawmakers have given initial approval to make it easier for Nashville’s downtown convention-goers to carry around alcoholic beverages. A House subcommittee passed a measure Wednesday that would allow people to have open containers on a one-block stretch outside between the Music City Center, Omni Hotel and Country Music Hall of Fame. Rep. Bill Sanderson says he’s proud of the business the convention center brings to Nashville, so he wants to help them out in any way possible. “We don’t want to stand in their way, that’s for sure.”

What backup plan? Tennessee bill would help kill Affordable Care Act (NBJ)
In the months since the Supreme Court decided to hear the King v. Burwell case challenging federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, industry experts and players — while acknowledging that a pro-plaintiff decision would have far-reaching consequences— have generally expressed confidence that some sort of workaround will be found should the court rule subsidies cannot be offered to the majority of Obamacare enrollees. The case challenges the legitimacy of subsidies for individuals who purchase insurance through federal exchanges. Tuesday, in a letter to Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell made a statement challenging the assumption that the administration has a backup plan should it lose.

Muslim Group Fears Bill Could Be Used To Seize Houses of Worship (WPLN-Radio)
A pair of Middle Tennessee lawmakers has filed a bill to let state officials seize property they believe has been used for terrorism. That has a group that represents Muslims concerned their houses of worship could be targeted. State Rep. Judd Matheny (R-Tullahoma) and state Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) have introduced legislation that would give state and local investigators the power to seize assets from suspected terrorists. The FBI already can confiscate property from suspected terrorists, even before they have been found guilty.

Muslim group: Rep. Sheila Butt’s Facebook post racist (Associated Press)
The nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization Wednesday urged Tennessee Republican leaders to repudiate what it considers a racist Facebook post by a GOP state lawmaker. Republican Rep. Sheila Butt’s Facebook post said, “It is time for a Council on Christian Relations and an NAAWP in this Country.” She was commenting on a Jan. 26 open letter from the Council on American-Islamic Relations urging potential Republican presidential candidates to reject Islamophobia and reach out to American Muslim voters. Butt said she did not recall what day she put the remark on Facebook. It has since been deleted. CAIR said the name “National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP)” has been used by several white supremacist organizations, and that the “NAAWP” is an apparently racist twist to the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. Butt, who is white, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that “NAAWP” stands for the “National Association of Advancement for Western Peoples,” and said her post has been misinterpreted.

Butt Criticized By Muslim Group Over Facebook Comment (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
The Council on American-Islamic Relations is criticizing a Middle Tennessee lawmaker for comments she made on Facebook about ethnicity and religion. Representative Sheila Butt (R-Columbia) called for the creation of a Council on Christian Relations and a NAAWP. Butt says the acronym was intended to stand for a National Association for the Advancement of Western Peoples that would play a role similar to CAIR and the NAACP. “And my post was to say the Christian Coalition, people from our own culture – every race, gender, religion – should have a seat at that table,” Butt said Wednesday. “That we have not been active, as Christians, as women – as some of these other organizations.”

Renderings: Dean unveils $100M flood-protection project for Nashville (NBJ)
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean doesn’t think the city’s next mayor should have to worry about the prospects of a flood hitting downtown. Today, he unveiled a $100 million plan to keep that from happening. In a news conference today, Dean said Metro Water Services will build a flood wall along downtown’s west bank of the Cumberland River, at an estimated cost of $13 million. The most expensive part of the plan is a storm water pump station that would cost nearly $65 million. “I look at this downtown flood protection system as an insurance policy,” Dean said Wednesday. “We’re going to pay a premium so we can reduce our risk of catastrophic flooding in the heart of our city.

Nashville Floodwall Sold As ‘Insurance Policy’ For Downtown (WPLN-Radio)
A $100-million floodwall project unveiled Wednesday would be the costliest flood prevention effort in Nashville history. The plans are a response to the 2010 flood, when the Cumberland River engulfed part of downtown. Metro Water Services would borrow the money for construction and pay it back over the next few decades through water and sewer bills. City officials say a rate hike will not be required in the short term. “I look at this downtown flood protection system as an insurance policy,” Mayor Karl Dean said. “We’re going to pay a premium so we can reduce our risk of catastrophic flooding in the heart of our city. We’re making an investment in our downtown that will pay for itself with the protection it will provide.”

Lamar Alexander teams with Vanderbilt head in D.C. (Tennessean/Tamburin)
Sen. Lamar Alexander is collaborating with the leader of Vanderbilt University in an effort to reshape federal regulations on thousands of colleges and universities across the country. Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos traveled to Washington, D.C., Tuesday to testify before the Senate education committee, which Alexander chairs. During his testimony, Zeppos said complying with an overabundance of federal regulations costs his university $146 million every year. “Put another way, this equates to approximately $11,000 in additional tuition per year for each of our 12,757 students,” Zeppos said in his prepared remarks. Zeppos was co-chair of a task force commissioned in 2013 by a bipartisan group of senators, including Alexander, to recommend changes to government regulations on higher education.

Lawmakers want to know Obama committed to fight Islamic State (NS/Collins)
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Wednesday lawmakers want some assurance that President Barack Obama is fully committed to fighting the Islamic State before they grant him the authority to use military force. “All of us need to have confidence that the administration is truly committed to achieving the stated goals they have laid out,” Corker said as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened the first in a series of hearings on Obama’s use-of-force request. Obama sent the new war-powers resolution to Congress earlier this month, asking for permission to use military force against militants who have overrun parts of the Middle East and threaten attacks on the United States.

OPINION

Editorial: AG Slatery puts legal arguments over agendas (News-Sentinel)
On the job less than five months, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery is displaying the independence of legal thought that citizens should expect from the state’s top lawyer. The state Supreme Court appointed Slatery to the position in September instead of retaining former Attorney General Bob Cooper. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey had called for Cooper’s replacement during a bitter and expensive battle to remove three justices appointed by Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Ramsey contended that Cooper was too liberal. Slatery, former chief legal counsel to Gov. Bill Haslam, had the Republican bona fides to satisfy Ramsey and other conservatives. He also has placed a greater emphasis on legal arguments than political opinion, as he should. That can cut both ways, as conservatives and liberals alike are discovering. One of Slatery’s first acts as attorney general was to join 24 other states in a lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration. Ramsey and other critics had blasted Cooper for not joining in a similar lawsuit claiming the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional — an odd complaint in light of the fact that the states lost in the U.S. Supreme Court.