March 2 TN News Digest

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

NWS: February ice storm the worst in 20 years (Tennessean/Buie)
February brought the worst ice storm to hit Middle Tennessee in two decades, according to the National Weather Service, with the Cumberland Plateau being hit the worst. “Power outages were common in many parts of the Midstate as freezing rain turned to glaze on power lines, trees and roadways,” said a news release sent out by National Weather Service Meteorologist Bobby Boyd. “Temperatures were below zero at several locations with single digits common from the 17th to the 20th.” Boyd said the temperatures dropped low enough to make last month the coldest February in 37 years.

Winter storms take a toll on area in terms of lives lost, dollars spent (N-S/Coleman)
The cost of the four winter storms that have pummelled East Tennessee since Feb. 16 has been steep in terms of lives lost, overtime hours worked and dollars spent. Thirty-one people have died from weather-related causes since then, state and local officials said — including four people in Knox County, two in Claiborne County, two in Campbell County, one in Roane County, one in Sevier County and one in Hamblen County. The death toll broke 30 last week with the discovery by Hamblen County authorities of the body of Douglas Farison, 53, in his home Wednesday. An autopsy found he died of hypothermia, officials said.

Haslam allows time to debate business tax changes (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
Having embraced state tax cuts during his first term, Gov. Bill Haslam has decided to try enhancing revenue as his second term begins. The lead administration bill (SB603), the “Revenue Modernization Act,” is fairly technical. Business groups are reviewing it — some may benefit and some may suffer — and that will have an impact on whether lawmakers OK what some are labeling a tax increase. “Broadly, the legislation protects and grows the state’s tax base by leveling the playing field between out-of-state companies and Tennessee businesses,” says an administration memo. “It protects local businesses from the unfair competition that happens when out-of-state businesses do not pay their fair share of taxes.”

Haslam Says Common Core a Standard, Not Ideology (Memphis Daily News)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said the Tennessee legislature’s discussion and coming vote about the state’s public education standards is “critically important.” And while Haslam has said several times that the term for those existing standards – Common Core – has become too politically charged to continue to be used, he added last week in Memphis that the standards under review are “very specific academic oriented standards.” “This is not curriculum,” he said Thursday, Feb. 26. “It’s not ideology. It’s what we’re expecting kids to know.”

‘Tech cities’ fuel start-up success throughout TN (Tennessean/Brock)
Tennessee has a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, and that’s no accident. From a diverse pool of talent up through venture-capital partners and a strong accelerator network, we’ve put into place a solid framework for innovation. But no matter how good things are, they can always improve. And one way that happens is by making sure that we do everything we can to foster technological innovation throughout the state. That’s why LaunchTN was thrilled with Google’s announcement that it was bringing Google Fiber to Music City. It’s going to be a game-changer for innovators in Middle Tennessee.

Requiring arbitration under TN court review (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
The Tennessee Supreme Court is considering a case that could significantly affect the enforceability of arbitration clauses in contracts governed by Tennessee law. In Berent v. CMH Homes Inc., the installment contract for the sale of a mobile home included a provision requiring the parties to submit to mandatory, binding arbitration of all claims arising from or relating to the contract. The contract provided for exceptions to the mandatory arbitration clause, but for the seller only: Specifically, the seller could file a lawsuit to enforce its security interest in the property or seek injunctive relief related to the home. The Tennessee Court of Appeals held in February 2014 that the mandatory arbitration provision in the contract was unconscionable, and therefore unenforceable. The legal doctrine of unconscionability allows one party to a contract to avoid its enforcement if there were elements of procedural inequity in the contract’s formation and, as a result, its terms are substantively unfair.

Tenn. leaders put off gas tax talk despite needs (Associated Press/Schelzig)
While political leaders in Tennessee agree on the growing need to bolster funding for road building and maintenance, there is little consensus about how to 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. And 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.

Lawmaker challenges death row defenders office (News-Sentinel/Humphrey)
Sen. Ken Yager contends the state agency that defends death row inmates has stepped outside legal boundaries by using taxpayer dollars to seek more information on the people and drugs used in executions while challenging a law that sets up electrocution as an alternative to lethal injection. Yager, R-Harriman, was Senate sponsor of a bill enacted last year that calls for execution by electrocution if courts invalidate the state’s current lethal injection process. In a specially arranged appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, the senator charged that the Office of the Post-Conviction Defender is “acting outside the scope of its duties.” Yager, who chairs the Senate State and Local Government Committee, initially raised the issue in a letter to committee.

Bill would legalize killing protected buzzards (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)
A state Senate committee has voted to legalize the killing of black buzzards in Tennessee even though they are protected under federal law. Approval of SB204 by the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee came after Charles Hord, executive vice president of the Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association, described how the vultures are killing newborn calves across the state and Sen. Paul Bailey displayed photographs showing buzzard damage at his Jackson County home. “They’re not only destroying livestock. They’ve begun destroying personal property,” said Bailey, R-Sparta. He said the black buzzard attack, which homeowner James Meadows and his family discovered after returning from a weekend vacation, caused damage totaling more than $25,000 as estimated by an insurance adjuster — more if uninsured damage was included.

Capitol Hill Conversation: Tenn Legislature Wades Back Into Islam Issues (WPLN)
Issues related to Islam have resurfaced in the Tennessee General Assembly. Last week, it was outcry over a GOP lawmaker’s month-old Facebook post suggesting Western people need their own lobbying group to compete with Muslim groups. There’s also pending legislation to break up concentrations of immigrants and a bill that Islamic activists believe could lead to the seizure of mosques. “I think that this is something that just waxes and wanes through the years, and I think a lot of it is driven by the news,” WPLN state capitol reporter Chas Sisk says. “Underlying it all is that there’s a significant number of legislators in Tennessee who are concerned about the influence of Islam and the state’s growing Muslim population.”

In God Micah Van Huss trusts and he thinks Tennessee should, too (J. City Press)
The first four words of the Bible are “In the beginning, God … ” And that’s enough information for state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, to propose an addition to the the Constitution of Tennessee that would recognize absolute governance by the Christian god rather than the government. And it’s to that very god that Van Huss beseeches passage of the resolution. ”I’m praying about it,“ Van Huss said. The joint resolution would acknowledge a higher power giving rights and laws, rather than democratically elected officials. “We recognize that our liberties do not come from governments, but from Almighty God, our Creator and Savior,” is the passage Van Huss has proposed be added to Article I in House Joint Resolution 71.

As Common Core Testing Is Ushered In, Parents and Students Opt Out (NY Times)
On Monday morning, a few hundred students will file into classrooms at Bloomfield Middle School, open laptops and begin a new standardized test, one mandated across New Jersey and several other states for the first time this year. About a dozen of their classmates, however, will be elsewhere. They will sit in a nearby art room, where they will read books, do a little drawing and maybe paint. What they will not do is take the test, because they and their parents have flatly refused. A new wave of standardized exams, designed to assess whether students are learning in step with the Common Core standards, is sweeping the country, arriving this week in classrooms in several states and entering the cross hairs of various political movements.

Y-12 unions taking wait-and-see approach on contract talks (News-Sentinel)
A year ago, while B&W Y-12 was still the government’s managing contractor at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, the collective bargaining agreement for many of the plant’s union workers was extended for another year and will now expire on June 22. The extension was designed to give the incoming contractor – Bechtel-led Consolidated Nuclear Security, which took over on July 1, 2014 – more time get to develop a relationship with labor leaders before negotiating a long-term contract with the Atomic Trades and Labor Council. The council an umbrella group that represents more than a dozen unions and 1,500 workers at the plant.

OPINION

Candice McQueen: How revised teacher evaluation measure has changed (Tenn)
This week legislators debated Governor Haslam’s plan to respond to educator feedback regarding Tennessee’s four-year-old teacher evaluation system. There’s been some confusion around the details of the plan, so I’m writing to clarify points and share the overall intent. Every student has individual and unique needs, and each student walks through the school doors on the first day at a unique point in their education journey. It’s critical that we understand not only the grade the child earns at the end of the year, but also how much the child has grown over the course of the year. Tennessee’s Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, provides educators vital information about our students’ growth.

Editorial: Fantasy-fueled ‘no-go zone’ bill is unnecessary (News-Sentinel)
Dreamers build castles in the air; two Tennessee lawmakers are building “no-go zones” in the Volunteer State. Both are fantasies, but only the latter could result in a state law. State Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, and state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, are sponsoring legislation that would authorize the attorney general to investigate complaints about possible no-go zones and take steps to force compliance with the law. The bill is obviously aimed at Muslims, though they are not mentioned by name in the bill. Bigotry, however it is disguised, remains bigotry.