March 9 TN News Digest

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

Editorial: Tennessee Promise applicants should continue to qualify (DNJ)
Qualification for free enrollment in two free years of post-secondary education continues, and more than 38,000 seniors still are eligible for the inaugural year of the Tennessee Promise program. Tennessee Promise officials indicate that 65 percent of students who applied for Tennessee Promise completed the long Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, and they also noted that this have may been the most difficult part of the qualifying process. Rutherford County was in line with the state average rate, officials said, with 63 percent of applicants completing the FAFSA form. A total of 1,623 seniors in Rutherford County still are eligible for the Tennessee Promise program.

MTSU to provide guidance to 2-year college students (Associated Press)
Middle Tennessee State University is providing some guidance to community college students interested in attending its four-year institution. MTSU President Sidney McPhee recently announced that university administrators, academic counselors and admissions team members will be at seven two-year state institutions from March 17 to April 16 to counsel students seeking guidance about the university’s programs and services. There will also be workshops to help students who wish to declare dual admissions status.

UT’s President Wants To Change Tenure (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
Some professors at the University of Tennessee are not happy with a recent statement from their president. While presenting a plan to save costs and increase revenue, Joe DiPietro told the UT board he wanted to review the system’s tenure process, including how it evaluates tenured professors and how it fires the bad ones. “The reality is, the post-tenure review processes that we currently have is not very effective,” he said. To many professors, the concept of tenure is nearly sacred. Once they’re tenured, which can take six or seven years, they can’t be fired without adequate cause — for example, misconduct or multiple years of unsatisfactory work.

TN State Departments pitch Budget Proposals to House Committees (C. Online)
Over the last several weeks, state departments have presented their budget proposals to the various legislative committees within the House. The presentations allow legislators to hear directly from executive branch officials and get important questions answered before voting on the overall state budget, which is typically one of the last items of business before the General Assembly adjourns for the year. While other pieces of legislation make their way through the committee process, these hearings will continue until the end of the month, at which point all state agencies and departments will have finished their presentations.

Haslam Forced To Bend As State Workers Attack Merit Pay Plan (WPLN-Radio)
A plan from Gov. Bill Haslam to pay state workers for their performance is running into opposition, including from fellow Republicans. That’s already led the governor to backtrack on one of the proposal’s most controversial parts. The plan to bring merit pay to state government is the latest in a string of civil service reforms suggested by Haslam since taking office four years ago. The proposal is meant to build on 2012 legislation that set up a system to grade every worker in state government annually. This year’s plan, House Bill 647, would give workers who score highest the biggest raises. There’s just one catch: Haslam wants to pay for these raises by doing away with longevity pay — bonuses almost all state workers get each year to reward them for staying with the government.

Tennessee Lawmakers Tap Dance Around The Word ‘Temp’ (WPLN-Radio Nash)
The Haslam administration is trying to strengthen controls on corporate subsidies while not coming down too hard on the increasingly common practice of hiring employees through temp agencies. It’s become the norm in manufacturing for workers to start out on the payroll of a staffing firm. The question is whether those jobs should still qualify for automatic state incentives, at least at the same rate. Right now, they do. “Under current law, [the state] has to incentivize a temp agency at the same rate as they would incentivize a permanent employee,” Rep. Tilman Goins (R-Morristown) told a House subcommittee, which unanimously approved a bill written by the administration that gives the state more discretion.

Gardenhire’s school voucher bill moves in Tennessee House this week (TFP/Sher)
After clearing two legislative panels last week, a bill that would let low-income parents with children in failing public schools use taxpayer dollars to attend private institutions faces its next test this week. The voucher bill is scheduled to come up Tuesday in the House’s full Education and Administration Committee. Last week, the measure cleared the panel’s subcommittee on a 7-1 vote following a sometimes emotional debate. Its Senate companion, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, zipped through the Education Committee on an 8-0 vote last week with little debate. It’s dubbed the “Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act,” and various versions of the bill have foundered in past years in House committees.

Hotel-motel tax proposals advance in House (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)
A House subcommittee that last year killed all bills authorizing new or increased hotel-motel taxes for city and county governments has changed course for 2015 with new members and a new chairman in place. The House Local Government Subcommittee last week approved hotel-motel tax bills for Columbia and Fayetteville in Middle Tennessee that were virtually identical to measures rejected last year. At the same meeting, some members criticized a hotel-motel tax “reform” bill pushed by the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association (HB951) and sponsor Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, took it off notice — typically a sign that it faced failure if put to a vote.

Open meetings laws don’t apply to TN transparency panel (A. Press/Schelzig)
A panel of experts assembled to offer advice on transparency issues is not subject to the state’s open meetings law. At least that’s the opinion of Ann Butterworth, who heads the Comptroller’s Office of Open Records Counsel. She made the finding in response to an email activist Ken Jakes’ request for more information about a recent teleconference held by the 14-member Advisory Committee on Open Government. “Is that not ironic that the very office that holds the responsibility of seeing that the citizens have access is involved in blocking access?” Jakes said. Jakes wanted to know more about the school board association’s representative on the panel urging support of legislation seeking to allow agencies to charge for records searches taking longer than an hour.

Juvenile Court seeks beds to keep kids out of detention (C. Appeal/Moore)
On any given day, a child goes to Shelby County Juvenile Court after fighting at home with a parent or sibling. The kid might just need a place to calm down, but could easily wind up locked in detention with some of the county’s worst juvenile offenders. “It’s an unfortunate, ugly truth that there is a lack of beds here, especially in a city this size, for children that shouldn’t be in detention,” said Dennis Fleming, social services vice president at Porter-Leath, the non-profit organization for children and families. Shelby County has four beds at Porter-Leath (two for girls and two for boys) to accommodate kids who can’t go home but shouldn’t be detained. Experts all say those aren’t enough.

Calif. man arrested trying to enter Y-12, ORNL (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Munger)
A 24-year-old California man was arrested Friday evening after reportedly seeking entry to a Y-12 facility and then later at a security portal at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. According to a report released by the Oak Ridge Police Department, Rishi Chatterjee Malakar of Fremont, Calif., was detained by police for investigation and subsequently interviewed by special agents of the FBI and the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General. He was arrested on a charge of driving on a suspended license. Police responded to a call at Y-12’s New Hope Center at about 6:22 p.m. Friday “after a male was found attempting to enter the building via a rear door,” the report stated.

Sullivan EMA, TVA mapping access routes to lowered Boone Lake (Times-News)
The Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency is working with the Tennessee Valley Authority and other agencies to adapt response strategies for medical emergencies and other incidents on Boone Lake this year, Director Jim Bean said last week. Contacted by the Times-News after TVA announced the lake will stay at its current extra-low level throughout the coming season, Bean said that news mainly led to two focus points for his agency at this point. The first: make sure emergency responders will know the best entry or exit points from the drawn-down lake. The second: a higher alert in the coming months at the two other lakes in the county — where recreational use is likely to increase while Boone’s level is 30 feet below its usual summer level.

Textbooks only part of equation when teaching to new standards (J. City Press)
An unfavorable national review of math teaching materials claims many of the most popular publishers don’t meet the requirements for the new Common Core State Standards, but Johnson City Schools administrators say textbooks are only part of the equation. In a study released last week, EdReports.org, a nonprofit organization tasked by its board of directors and funding sources to review the quality and usability of teaching materials purported to be aligned with the Common Core State Standards, gave failing grades to many of the country’s largest and most popular textbook publishers. According to the organization’s groups of reviewers, chosen from willing educators and administrators, 17 out of 20, or 85 percent, of the selected math textbook series did not, alone, adequately provide students with the instruction needed to reach the benchmarks defined by the new education system.

OPINION

Guest columnists: State’s higher ed leaders support higher standards (J. Sun)
Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam made a significant investment in the future of Tennesseans when he signed the Tennessee Promise program into law. This program, which offers future graduates of any Tennessee high school the opportunity to receive two years of community or technical college tuition-free, will surely open doors for thousands of young men and women to get the training they need to start their careers and find good-paying jobs. Already, more than 58,000 current high school seniors — more than 90 percent — applied for the program, reflecting the intense desire and interest that exists in pursuing some form of training or education after high school.

Editorial: EPA must finish Smokey Mountain Smelters cleanup (News-Sentinel)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted an initial emergency cleanup at Knox County’s only Superfund site that ended three years ago, but since then little progress has been made to finish the job. The federal agency has an obligation to the people living in this economically disadvantaged area of South Knoxville to get the cleanup back on track as soon as possible. Smokey Mountain Smelters has been a danger to the community since it opened in 1979. Since it shut down in 1994, abandoned to time and the elements, the huge, crumbling smelter building became what is known in legal terms as an attractive nuisance for children in the area. A slag heap on the property leached toxic heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the soil and an unnamed tributary of Flenniken Creek.