February 27 TN News Digest

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

Tennessee exports hit record $33 billion in 2014 (Tennessean/Alfs)
Exports from Tennessee companies set a record in 2014 for the fifth consecutive year, hitting $33 billion statewide. According to information released by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Tennessee exports in 2014 increased 2.2 percent over the previous year and 61 percent over 2009. The state helped the U.S. hit an all-time record for goods and services exports in 2014: $2.35 trillion. That compares with $2.3 trillion in 2013 and $2.2 trillion in 2012. The leading export category in Tennessee last year was transportation equipment, which accounted for $7.4 billion of the $33 billion. Other leading sectors were computer and electronic products ($5.3 billion) and chemicals ($5 billion).

Tennessee exports high record $33 billion (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Collins)
Exports from Tennessee companies hit a record $33 billion last year, the White House said Thursday as it announced steps to open more foreign markets to American goods. Growth in the export of goods from Tennessee was part of a larger trend that saw 26 states achieve record export levels. Nationwide, exports of goods and services hit an all-time high of $2.35 trillion. Exports have been a key driver in the nation’s economic comeback and are critical to economic growth and job creation, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said during a briefing with reporters.

Governor’s office offers reward for information in 1997 murder case (TFP/Healey)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s office is offering a $10,000 reward for information in the 1997 execution-style slayings of Chattanooga brothers Sean and Donny Goetcheus. The Hamilton County District Attorney General’s Office Cold Case Unit made the announcement Thursday, saying the reward is for information leading to an arrest or conviction in the murders. Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said his office made use of a state law that permits the governor to use funds to help try to solve cases.

Haslam announces reward in Savannah murder case (Jackson Sun)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced a $10,000 reward from the state for information leading to the apprehension, arrest and conviction of the person or persons who committed, attempted to commit or conspired to commit the murder of Otylier Callens in September 2010 in Hardin County. “We believe someone out there can be helpful to authorities in this case and encourage anyone with information to contact local authorities so those responsible can be brought to justice,” Haslam said. Callens, who was 80 years old at the time of her death, was killed in her home at 80 Ryan Street in Savannah.

Education commissioner continues tour to visit teachers (Associated Press)
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candace McQueen is continuing to reach out to teachers across the state. She is scheduled to visit several schools in West Tennessee on Friday as part of her Classroom Chronicles Tour, an effort to connect with 10,000 teachers by the end of the 2015-16 school year. The commissioner is also planning a teacher roundtable on Friday to have a more in-depth conversation with teachers. A former educator and teacher of teachers, McQueen says she never feels far from the classroom. McQueen was sworn in to office last month.

UT Board of Trustees endorses plan for big changes at school (AP/Burke)
Faced with a projected $377 million funding gap over 10 years, the University of Tennessee has put together a plan that could mean some tough choices ahead for the school and its students. On Thursday, the UT Board of Trustees endorsed a plan presented by President Joe DiPietro that would increase revenue but could mean big changes. Under DiPetro’s plan, the university is going to take a hard look at realigning low-performing programs or potentially shuttering them. “I can’t say how likely that is,” Gina Stafford, a spokeswoman for the UT system, said of the possibility of closing some programs.

UT president: System headed toward $377M funding gap (Tennessean/Tamburin)
The head of the University of Tennessee said Thursday that the system of schools will have to take dramatic, possibly controversial action to combat a snowballing shortfall in funding. In a speech to the university system’s board of trustees, UT President Joe DiPietro said budget experts predicted that the funding gap would grow to $377.4 million by 2025 if nothing was done. That’s a sharp jump from the $155 million gap DiPietro predicted last fall. DiPietro said chancellors at UT’s schools across the state would take steps to fix their “unsustainable slash broken budget model” in the next few years. To meet that challenge, he said, the chancellors might consider boosting out-of-state enrollment, shuttering programs that aren’t profitable and optional retirement buyouts for some employees.

UT President Gives Marching Orders To Cut Costs (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
University of Tennessee’s president outlined his plan to close a funding gap at a Thursday meeting of the UT Board. Since December, Joe DiPietro has said Tennessee’s higher education institutions run on a broken business model. That’s because they depend on a certain level of funding from the state — or raising tuition to make up the slack when state appropriations don’t come through. DiPietro said administrators on each campus must identify specific ways of cutting costs, including eliminating or restructuring certain degree programs or majors. He suggested it’s time to rethink who pays for services offered by outreach programs like agricultural extension offices. DiPietro also set a goal of doubling the percentage of students who come from out-of-state, since they pay higher tuition.

UT trustees support DiPietro’s funding plan (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Slaby)
An increase in out-of-state students is just one option in a plan to fix the “broken” funding model for the University of Tennessee. UT President Joe DiPietro revealed options to cut costs and increase revenue to the university’s board of trustees at the full board meeting Thursday in Memphis. Board members endorsed the plan which starts with fiscal year 2016 and is for the next two budget cycles. “We stand ready as a board of trustees to support you … we know you’re going to successful with this,” Brian Ferguson, vice chairman of the board, told DiPietro. DiPietro stressed that the university is not in financial ruin. However, he said by adding costs of deferred maintenance and costs of closing the salary gap for employees, previous estimates of the future the funding gap grew.

UTC, Cleveland State reach dual-admissions pact (Times Free-Press/Omarzu)
Officials at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have thought for years about creating dual-admissions programs with area community colleges. They got motivated to make the thought a reality by Tennessee Promise, the state’s new guarantee to cover the cost of two-year community or technical college for all high school graduates. UTC Chancellor Steven Angle and Cleveland State Community College President Bill Seymour had planned to meet this morning to sign a dual-admissions agreement to ensure smooth transfer for Cleveland State students to UTC. Becaue of the weather, the event will be rescheduled.

DiPietro: UT trustees ‘satisfied’ with sex assault policy (News-Sentinel/Slaby)
University of Tennessee trustees are pleased with the system’s approach to preventing and dealing with sexual assault, UT President Joe DiPietro said Thursday. “The trustees are satisfied we’re taking the right steps,” he said. “In my mind, one sexual assault is too much.” DiPietro said the trustees received an email sent Wednesday to students and staff on the Knoxville campus that included four years of data for Knoxville only about sexual assaults between students on and off campus — numbers released for the first time. Although members of the board told DiPietro they appreciated receiving the email, the statistics were not discussed at the board’s meetings Wednesday and Thursday in Memphis.

Former Fentress doctor faces TennCare fraud, theft charges (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
A former Fentress County doctor faces 40 counts of TennCare fraud and two counts of theft for writing illegal prescriptions for controlled substances, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Vijaya Patibandla, 68, was arrested Thursday in Valley Stream, N.Y., where he was living. The investigation into Patibandla began in August 2009. He practiced in Jamestown, according to the TBI. Many of his patients were TennCare recipients, according to a TBI release. From November 2007 to December 2010, according to the TBI, agents found that he was writing “illegal prescriptions for controlled substances while charging TennCare for patients’ visits to get the prescriptions.”

Ron Ramsey: GM incentives may have been ‘mistake’ (Associated Press/Schelzig)
State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said Thursday that it may have been “a mistake” for Tennessee to subsidize the development of the General Motors plant in Spring Hill because it has a United Auto Workers union contract. The Blountville Republican’s comments came as GOP lawmakers seek assurances from Volkswagen that the German automaker will remain neutral on labor issues at its assembly plant in Chattanooga. Volkswagen officials visited the Capitol a day earlier to meet with legislators considering a $166 million incentive package to add production of a new SUV at the plant.

VW woos lawmakers (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says Volkswagen officials told him this week the German manufacturer is remaining “neutral” in its dealings with the United Auto Workers and labor issues at its Chattanooga plant. “I think I was assured yesterday that they told me they want to stay neutral. I said, ‘OK, that’s all I’m going to ask for,'” Ramsey told reporters Thursday. The speaker said he and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, the Senate speaker pro tempore, met with top VW officials Wednesday. Christian Koch, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America’s Chattanooga operations, and David Geanacopoulos, the group’s executive vice president for public affairs and general counsel, came to the state Capitol to meet with legislators, including some Chattanooga lawmakers highly critical of the UAW’s effort to unionize the Chattanooga plant and Volkswagen’s handling of the issue.

Ramsey: Senate will pass voucher bill, but not Kelsey’s (Tennessean/Boucher)
The state Senate will almost assuredly approve a measure this year to allow school vouchers in Tennessee. It won’t be the bill pushed by state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, though, said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. And the reason for that is simple, argued the Blountville Republican. “Ask the governor. That’s between him and Brian Kelsey,” Ramsey told reporters Thursday morning. In a statement, Gov. Bill Haslam spokesman Dave Smith didn’t mention any rift between Haslam and Kelsey. “In working with advocates on the issue, we have said that we could fund legislation in a budget amendment that was in line with what we have proposed in the past.

Tennessee clergy to voice support for educational choice (Associated Press)
A group of Tennessee clergy has planned a news conference at the state Capitol Thursday morning to voice support for educational choice. The coalition is expected to present the governor and state lawmakers with petitions from Tennesseans who support empowering parents through educational choice legislation, such as a proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee. That measure gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school. The voucher proposal passed the Senate Education Committee earlier this month and is similar to one proposed last year by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Memphis ministers back voucher bill that lawmakers say may pass (CA/Locker)
A group of Memphis ministers traveled to the State Capitol Thursday in support of a school voucher bill that legislative leaders say may be headed for passage this year after years of failure by voucher advocates. Vouchers allow per-pupil taxpayer funding for public schools to travel with a student to pay tuition at private schools. The bill that lawmakers say is most likely to pass would limit the vouchers to low-income children — those who qualify for free or discounted school lunches — who are zoned to attend low-performing public schools.

House Black Caucus: Butt should lose leadership role (Tennessean/Boucher)
House Black Caucus Chairwoman Brenda Gilmore said House Speaker Beth Harwell told the caucus Thursday that she wouldn’t remove Rep. Sheila Butt from her leadership position after Butt made a Facebook post lawmakers and others are calling racist. Gilmore, D-Nashville, said she was “very disappointed” Harwell didn’t agree to remove Butt from her position as majority floor leader or ask Butt to apologize. “And it really just left me with a heavy heart because I feel like even though formally she did not place Rep. Butt in that position, but as the leader and president of this General Assembly for the House of Representatives, she is a woman of great influence, just by her sheer position,” Gilmore said.

Tenn Black Caucus: GOP lawmaker should be removed from her position (TFP)
The Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus on Thursday called on Republican Rep. Sheila Butt to apologize for what they said was a racist Facebook post, and said she should be removed from her leadership position. In a speech on the House floor, Butt defended her comments, saying the First Amendment allows people to speak their minds. GOP leaders later indicated their support for her. Butt’s post said, “It is time for a Council on Christian Relations and an NAAWP in this Country.” It was a comment 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.

Black Caucus wants Butt stripped of position over Facebook post (NS/Locker)
The Legislature’s Black Caucus on Thursday called on state Rep. Sheila Butt to apologize and to be removed from her House Republican leadership position for a Facebook post in which she said it’s time for “an NAAWP in this Country.” Butt, R-Columbia, is Republican floor leader, elected in December by the 71-member House GOP Caucus. It’s seventh in ranking in the party’s House leadership. When reports of her since-deleted Facebook comment from last year surfaced this week, she said she intended the “WP” in NAAWP to mean “western people,” not “white people.” But that acronym has had racial connotations in the past. After leaving the Ku Klux Klan, former Louisiana politician David Duke incorporated the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a takeoff on the NAACP acronym for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Butt took the floor of the House on Thursday and said she was disappointed that her comment was “misunderstood” and that she never intended to offend anyone. But she said stands on her First Amendment right to free speech.(SUBSCRIPTION)

Bob Corker’s anti-slavery effort advances (Tennessean/Troyan)
Legislation that would create a $1.5 billion global fund to combat human trafficking won unanimous approval in a Senate committee Thursday, almost certainly guaranteeing a smooth path to becoming law. “We’re getting ready to have a profound impact on people, the 27 million who are in slavery,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the bill’s lead sponsor, said after the vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Corker is the chairman. The nonprofit End Modern Slavery Initiative Foundation would finance efforts around the world to rescue victims of human trafficking and prosecute the offenders. The U.S. would contribute $250 million over seven years.

TH’s Congressional Dems Take Opposing Stances On Netanyahu’s Speech (WPLN)
When the Israeli prime minister gives a controversial speech to Congress next week, only one of Tennessee’s two Democratic representatives will be there. The controversy comes from House speaker John Boehner inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to talk to Congress about Iran’s nuclear program — without consulting the president. That’s put Democrats in a tricky situation. Some, like Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), are refusing to attend the speech. In a statement this week, Cohen lambasted Netanyahu’s appearance as “inappropriate” and “political theater,” despite Cohen’s personal support for Israel. But Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville is taking a different stance.

Dam seepage to keep Boone Lake low ‘for at least the next year’ (Times-News)
The Tennessee Valley Authority announced today that water levels at Boone Lake will remain lower than normal as TVA addresses recurrent sediment seepage near an earthen embankment of Boone Dam. “The safety of downstream communities, industries, the public and our employees is our top priority,” said John McCormick, vice president of Safety, River Management and Environment. “Boone Lake is an important part of the recreational and economic fabric of the area and we recognize the impact of keeping the lake low through the all-important summer months,” he said.

Boone Lake drawdown leaves local businesses high, dry (Johnson City Press)
While TVA crews work this summer to plug the source of a leak in Boone Dam’s earthen foundation, marina and restaurant owners around the waterway will try to hold back the tide of escaping revenues. In a press conference Thursday, TVA Vice President of Safety, River Management and Environment John McCormick revealed finding and repairing seepage around the hydroelectric dam would likely keep the Boone Reservoir at its current level for at least a year. That’s 10 feet below normal winter levels and 30 feet below summer levels.

Shelby schools streamline payments, earn bonus (Commercial Appeal/Roberts)
In 10 months, Shelby County Schools earned $215,817.67 by offering to pay vendors through a virtual credit card. The company gets paid quicker, the district has a longer “float time,” plus it gets a 1 percent rebate on the sale. In tight times, it feels like a windfall. The school board celebrated the victory this week with a giant check from Regions Bank and congratulations from David Lenoir, Shelby County Trustee. “Anytime we can find money that helps the schools and the students, we celebrate that,” Lenoir said as he and Regions officials presented the check. Essentially, the card works like this: After SCS makes a purchase, the store is alerted by e-mail that the payment is ready.

KIK Custom Products slates year-end closing for Memphis mill (CA/Risher)
Memphis will lose about 280 manufacturing jobs by year’s end with the announced closing of a Third Street consumer products plant. Concord, Ontario-based KIK Custom Products informed its workers’ union this week of plans to cease production this fall and close by Dec. 31. “We’re working with our union partners on a smooth transition,” assistant general counsel Catherine Johnston said. “The plant has been losing money for many years, and that’s been happening despite our efforts to improve it.” The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents an estimated 200 workers at the plant, is negotiating severance terms for workers, Local 984 president and business manager Terry Lovan said. Lovan said he wasn’t sure of the justification for closing.


Editorial: State lawmakers flaunt hypocrisy on health care (News-Sentinel)
State lawmakers’ complaint about their enrollment in the state’s health care plan becoming publicly known represents hypocrisy of the highest — or, in this case, the lowest — order. Republican lawmakers upset over the disclosure also say they want to keep additional information about their health care coverage from being made public. The lawmakers’ taxpayer-funded health insurance might not have been an issue in most legislative sessions. However, legislators invited the scrutiny during this year’s special session on Gov. Bill Haslam’s alternative to the extension of Medicaid as allowed by the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. To his credit, Haslam painstakingly worked for two years to develop a plan to provide health care insurance to 280,000 Tennesseans who desperately need it.

Bob Corker: We can end human slavery once and for all (Tennessean)
It isn’t often splashed across the front pages or the nightly news. It isn’t something everyone even realizes exists today in the 21st century. But it’s destroying lives and tearing apart families across the globe. It is modern slavery and it is more pervasive than ever in our history. I believe we can end it. Despite the fact that slavery and human trafficking are illegal in every corner of the world, they exist in more than 165 countries, including our own, and thrive most where enforcement is weak. The time has come for the United States, as the beacon of freedom, to lead a bold vision for eradicating this insidious practice that preys on the most innocent among us. But to do that, we need to understand the plight of victims and why this crime goes unpunished in so many places.