March 11 TN News Digest

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

UT grad programs make US News Top 10 (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Slaby)
Three graduate programs at the University of Tennessee are in the Top 10 for their programs at public universities, according to the latest U.S. News and World Report graduate rankings. Among public universities, UT’s nuclear engineering program ranked fourth, the supply chain management program ranked fifth and clinical law training ranked eighth. Nuclear engineering and supply chain management were also in the top 10 for all universities — in fifth and eighth place, respectively. Clinical law training came in at 16th for all universities. The 2016 rankings were released Tuesday and compare more than 1,900 graduate programs at private and public institutions.

As Demand for Welders Resurges, Community Colleges Offer Classes (NY Times)
Ryan Gassett had already put in a full day, moving heavy boxes and furniture for $15 an hour, when his introductory welding class began at 10 p.m. By the time he arrived at Lone Star College north of Houston, the highway toll collectors at the exit for the school had closed for the night and the campus janitors were mopping bathrooms. The graveyard-shift course was not his first choice, Mr. Gassett, 19, explained, but “there were no other openings.” So he took what he could get. In recent decades, welding — like other blue-collar trades that once provided high-school graduates with a reliable route to the middle class — seemed to have about as promising a future as rotary phones.

Former Halls mayor Sammie Arnold receives Lifetime Achievement Award (S-G)
Sammie Arnold, Jackson-area resident with local ties was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Madison County Republican Party at the annual Reagan Day dinner held at Union University on Feb. 28. The Reagan Day Dinner is an annual meeting of the Madison County GOP to recognize its party leaders. Gov. Bill Haslam was the keynote speaker at the event and presented a commemorative bust of President Ronald Reagan to Arnold for his many years of dedicated service to the growth of the Republican Party in Madison County and the state of Tennessee. Haslam also presented awards to Jay Bush as Republican Man of the Year, and to Kathy Blount as Republican Woman of the Year.

Ice then rain create perfect storm for potholes (Leaf Chronicle)
Two long bouts of ice and snow followed by rain and warming temperatures are creating what the Tennessee Department of Transportation is calling “a worst-case scenario” for potholes across Middle Tennessee. “We are finding plenty of potholes to patch throughout the city,” Clarksville Street Department Director David Shepard said Tuesday as a steady drizzle continued to blanket the region. “When it’s raining like this, they kind of develop daily.” The back-to-back ice storms in February and March made matters worse than usual this year. As moisture gets into weak spots or cracks in the pavement, it freezes and then thaws, causing portions of pavement to pop out.

Nursing home officials charged amid abuse investigation (News-Sentinel)
Two health care administrators have been charged with records tampering amid an ongoing state investigation into a claim of abuse at a Loudon County nursing home, authorities said. Anita Wilmoth, 55, and Freda Jo Morton, 52, both were booked into the Loudon County Jail and released on their own recognizance Tuesday on charges of tampering with government records and failure to make a report, according to a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation news release. The TBI’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit is investigating a report of abuse at Baptist Health Care Center, a nursing home and assisted living center in Lenoir City. Morton is the director of nursing at the facility.

THP Colonel responds to troopers’ claims of DUI quota (Johnson City Press)
As sure as some state troopers are that a DUI arrest quota exists in their agency, the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s leader is adamant there is no such requirement. THP Col. Tracy Trott said in a phone interview Monday that if there is a DUI quota for state troopers, he isn’t doing a good job at enforcing it because nearly 30 percent of all state troopers didn’t have a single DUI arrest in 2014. Trott supports that by providing a list of 580 troopers who made one or more DUI arrests in 2014. “That means 280 troopers did not have a DUI arrest at all,” Trott said, adding that he believes it’s a “small group of disgruntled employees,” who have talked to the Press.

Court: State does not have to release execution team names (AP/Loller)
The Tennessee Supreme Court says the state does not have to turn over the names of its execution team to the attorneys of death-row inmates who claim Tennessee’s lethal injection and electrocution protocols are unconstitutional. The attorneys have said they need the names of the people who will carry out Tennessee’s executions – including the pharmacist who will prepare the lethal injection drug – to determine whether those people have proper qualifications. “We have seen vivid examples of botched executions throughout this country in the past year, and last week Georgia spent thirteen hours debating whether or not to execute a woman with drugs that were obviously adulterated,” attorney Kelley Henry wrote in a response to the Tuesday ruling.

Court: Executioner IDs not relevant, not releasable (Tennessean/Barchenger)
Tennessee does not have to release the names of executioners, pharmacists or medical staff involved in executions, the state Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday. The court overturned two lower-court decisions that said the names should be released, according to terms of a protective order, to attorneys representing a group of condemned inmates who are challenging the state’s death penalty protocols as unconstitutional. In a 21-page opinion, Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins wrote that the information was not relevant to the inmates’ challenge. He specified that the challenge was to the written protocol, not how it was actually applied by an execution team.

Tennessee Supreme Court Says Executioners’ Names To Remain Private (WPLN)
Tennessee does not have to reveal the names of people involved in its executions, according to a state Supreme Court ruling announced Tuesday. Lawyers for death row inmates asked the state to release the identities of the physicians, pharmacists and executioners involved with lethal injection. A lower court agreed, but Tennessee’s highest court reversed that decision. The fight over identities is part of a larger case challenging use of lethal injection, saying it’s cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court contends those names are not relevant to that lawsuit.

Tennessee House Advances Guns-in-Parks Bill Opposed By Haslam (AP/Schelzig)
A bill seeking to strip city and county governments of the power to ban guns at local parks, playgrounds and athletic fields is advancing in the Tennessee House. The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Harrison of Rogersville was approved by the House Civil Justice Committee on Tuesday. “We’ve had seven years of people with gun carry permits all across the state – in state parks, local parks, Little League games – and there’s not been any problems,” Harrison said. “So this would just make it consistent across the state.” Harrison said the bill would eliminate confusion among people with state-issued handgun carry permits about where they can legally be armed.

Guns-in-parks, other gun bills advance (Tennessean/Boucher)
Tennessee lawmakers didn’t meet a gun bill they didn’t like Tuesday, approving every gun-related legislation that went to a vote. Although many gun-related bills were delayed and could ultimately fail, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved measures to allow guns in parks, guns in trunks of cars parked at schools or universities, guns at property used by but not owned by schools and targets that explode. None of the proposals faced much trouble from the nine-member committee: Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris and Sen. Sara Kyle, both D-Memphis, opposed the guns-in-parks, guns-in-trunks and guns-at-school-properties bills, but each proposal had at least six votes in support.

Committee delays bill to ban TN health exchange (Tennessean/Fletcher)
State Sen. Brian Kelsey’s bill to prohibit Tennessee from setting up a state-run health insurance exchange has been delayed in a Senate committee. Kelsey drafted the bill to pre-empt the state from setting up a health insurance exchange in case the U.S. Supreme Court rules that tax subsidies for health insurance are only available on state exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. The bill, SB0072, was unexpectedly rolled for two weeks to March 24 in the Senate Commerce and Labor committee Tuesday. The bill was not debated or presented. Kelsey did not immediately respond to email or phone inquiries about the reasons for the deferral.

Bipartisan bill may stop use of speed, traffic-light cameras in Tennessee (TFP/Sher)
Sen. Todd Gardenhire and an unlikely group of allies believe this could be the year state lawmakers force Tennessee cities’ to halt use of traffic-light and speed cameras. The conservative Chattanooga Republican joined in a news conference Tuesday with a self-described liberal Senate Democrat, Lee Harris of Memphis, and a rural Republican, Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden, to promote their “Tennessee Freedom from Traffic Cameras Act.” The bill would block any new municipalities from starting programs and prevent existing cities from renewing contracts. Their bill is scheduled to come up today in the Senate Transportation Committee and House Transportation Subcommittee.

Unlikely trio out to stop traffic cameras (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Locker)
Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden has picked up an unlikely pair of legislative colleagues supporting his effort to ban red-light and speed enforcement cameras in Tennessee: Sens. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. “I think this is bipartisan,” Harris said. “I think that Democrats and Republicans across the state in many quarters agree that these things are a scourge and we need to do something about them. Speaking of Rep. Holt, we couldn’t be more different on many issues. I’m a very proud liberal Democrat and he’s a very proud conservative. I’m from an urban center and he’s from a less urban center. I think he has a farm and I’ve never been on a farm. But when it comes to red-light cameras, we can find common ground.”

Lawmakers Want To ‘Free’ Tennessee Of Red-Light Cameras (WPLN-Radio)
A group of Tennessee lawmakers is trying again to unplug red-light traffic cameras. Opponents argue the devices have failed to live up to promises. But the measure, which backers are calling the Tennessee Freedom From Traffic Cameras Act, faces long odds in a legislature that has rejected past attempts to put an end to their use. About a dozen communities have red-light cameras, including Murfreesboro, Chattanooga and Memphis. The Tennessee Freedom From Traffic Cameras Act would force those cities to wind down their current contracts. The measure would also ban unmanned speed cameras and traffic devices that collect cell phone or GPS data.

A Year After Pseudoephedrine, Tenn Could Restrict Another Cold Medicine (WPLN)
Another cold medication may soon be a little bit harder for Tennesseans to get a hold of, after the state Senate voted unanimously Monday to ban sales of certain kinds of cough syrups to minors. The medicines, which include brands such as Robitussin DM, Mucinex DM and Tanafed DXM, will remain on store shelves. But purchasers will be asked to show ID, especially if they’re under 30. Gallatin Republican Ferrell Haile said drug companies sought the change. They believe teenagers, in particular, are abusing DM medications.

Subcommittee passes ‘Right to Try’ medication bill (Tennessean/Wilemon)
Legislation that would allow Tennesseans with incurable diseases access to experimental medicines not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is one step closer to law. A House subcommittee referred Tennessee Right to Try Act to the full Health Committee on Tuesday — one week after Kurt Altman with the Goldwater Institute advocated for its passage. Six states have already passed “right to try” laws, and similar legislation is moving through 29 other states, Altman said. The bill would prohibit a licensing board in the state from taking punitive actions against doctors who prescribe the investigational drugs. However, it would not mandate that insurers provide coverage for the investigational drugs.

Expanded health coverage for autism bill fails in legislature (Tennessean/Boucher)
One of the three freshmen Senate Democrats is upset with a Senate committee — including a veteran Senate Democrat — that decided against discussing a bill that would have required insurance coverage for an autism therapy experts describe as the most effective. Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, said she was disappointed no one moved to discuss the bill in the Senate Commerce and Labor committee. “This is a sad day for families in Tennessee who are affected by autism,” Kyle said. “I’m just real disappointed that we have a committee system, yet it seems like it’s a pattern that some bills are not being heard and talked about…”

Bill to expand coverage for children with autism fails (Associated Press)
Legislation that would have expanded health coverage for children with autism has failed this session. The measure sponsored by Democratic Sen. Sarah Kyle of Memphis failed in the Republican-majority Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Tuesday for lack of a motion. The legislation would have made applied behavioral analysis available to all children with autism up to age 16. Sponsors say it is one of the only evidence-based practices proven to be effective for all children with autism, and it can make the difference between independent or supported living.

Backers of autism insurance bill stunned at lack of hearing (C. Appeal/Locker)
Advocates of a bill to expand health insurance coverage of treatments for autism spectrum disorders expected difficulty winning legislative approval but they expected to at least be given a hearing in committee on why they favor the bill. They were stunned Tuesday when no member of the nine-member Senate Commerce and Labor Committee would make a motion to recommend the bill’s approval — a prerequisite for a brief hearing before the panel. Current Tennessee law requires health insurance policies that provide benefits for neurological disorders to provide coverage for treatment of autism spectrum disorders for children up to age 12.

Judge: $750k limit in tort reform unconstitutional (Tennessean/Barchenger)
A Hamilton County judge has ruled a state law limiting payouts for non-economic damages in most civil cases at $750,000 is unconstitutional. The 2011 Tennessee Civil Justice Act, also known as the Tort Reform Act, set the cap and was part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s jobs package. Hotly debated before it passed in the General Assembly, the limit on so-called “pain and suffering” damages meant to make Tennessee a competitive destination for businesses while also providing protections for individuals. Monday’s ruling by Judge W. Neil Thomas was the first time a judge has weighed in on the law, according to Kathryn Barnett, managing partner at Morgan & Morgan in Nashville.

Feds: More than 231,000 Tennesseans enrolled in health care (Associated Press)
Figures released Tuesday show that more than 231,000 Tennesseans have enrolled in the federal health insurance marketplace passed into law at the urging of President Barack Obama. Federal health officials say 82 percent of those consumers who got insurance through Healthcare.gov qualified for an average tax credit of $213 per month to help them pay their premiums, and 34 percent of those enrolled are under the age of 35. Federal health officials say nearly 11.7 million have enrolled in similar health plans across the country. There are an estimated 280,000 low-income Tennesseans who lack insurance and who do not qualify for a subsidy to help pay for coverage on the federal exchange.

New Obamacare enrollment numbers for Tennessee released (N. Biz Journal)
Tennessee’s Obamacare enrollment total for 2015 is up to 231,440 consumers, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced today. More than half of this year’s enrollees are new to marketplace coverage. The state’s total last year was just above 150,000. Nationally, enrollment has climbed to 11.7 million, as of Feb. 22. This year’s open enrollment period technically ended Feb. 15, but consumers who encountered technical glitches were offered brief extensions. According to HHS, 82 percent of enrolled Tennesseans qualify for subsidies that make their plans more affordable.

Residents to TVA: Level with us (Bristol Herald-Courier)
Boat owners who say their boats are suspended 12-15 feet in the air and aggravated property and business owners filled an open house held Tuesday by the Tennessee Valley Authority to discuss Boone Dam issues and resulting low lake levels. Hundreds turned out at Daniel Boone High School for TVA’s first community meeting to inform the public about the issues. TVA announced at a media briefing in February that lake levels will be 30 feet lower than normal summer levels for at least a year while work is being done to repair sediment seepage at the dam that was discovered in October. A sinkhole was also found and has been repaired. TVA officials are still unsure when repairs will be completed and what impact those repairs and low lake levels will have on businesses and residents. Randel Taylor owns property at the lake in Blountville and said he has two boats sitting in lifts 12 feet in the air, which he can do nothing about. He said he was disappointed with Tuesday’s meeting.

TVA Boone Lake public forum draws mixed reactions from community (JCP)
Tennessee Valley Authority’s community event to answer questions and hear suggestions from the community left members of that community divided on the information gleaned from the session. Hundreds flocked to Daniel Boone High School in Gray Tuesday afternoon as the Tennessee Valley Authority hosted a community open house event to discuss work at Boone Dam and the drawdown of Boone Lake. In late October 2014, TVA announced Boone Lake would be drawn down to its winter levels ahead of schedule to investigate the seepage of water and sediment from underneath the dam’s earthen embankment.

Metro Schools gives Haslam 30 days to talk school funding (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
Metro Schools isn’t joining the other three large-sized Tennessee districts to gather information that could lead to litigation against the state for adequate education funding — yet. The Metro Nashville Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to instead give Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration 30 days to discuss plans about how to boost Basic Education Program funding. The measure, pitched by board members Anna Shepherd and Will Pinkston, will send Director of Schools Jesse Register to speak on behalf of the district, where he will then report back by April’s board meeting.

School board votes to approach Haslam over education funding (WSMV-TV Nash)
The Metro School Board decided against suing the state over education funding. Board members went over their plan during their meeting on Tuesday night. Instead of exploring a lawsuit, the board unanimously voted to approach Gov. Bill Haslam about the underfunding with the hope of striking a multi-year agreement to fully fund the district under the Basic Education Program, or BEP. School leaders throughout the state said they are upset at what they called “several years” of education funding shortfalls. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Metro Director of Schools Dr. Jesse Register have asked the board not to pursue a lawsuit. They both stressed patience.

Loudon school board talks teacher pay, Common Core (News-Sentinel/Willett)
Improving teacher pay and adjusting to proposed changes to the Common Core program were among the topics covered at the Loudon County school board’s annual Gatlinburg retreat over the weekend. School board members, principals, teachers and other school staff used the event as an opportunity to share ideas for improving the system, according to board Chairman Ric Best. “Over the three years I’ve attended this retreat, we’ve been able to improve the process by adding more break-out sessions,” he said. Board member Bobby Johnson Jr. said the break-out session allowed him to spend quality time with principals and administrators.

Oak Ridge Schools seeking $2.7m more for raises, new employees (N-S/Fowler)
The city school system is asking for $2.7 million more in funding next fiscal year to cover 3 percent raises for employees, make up a $658,306 deficit and hire eight new full-time employees. The proposal, revealed Tuesday to members of the City Council’s budget committee, could require up to the equivalent of a 23-cent city property tax increase to fund and follows a fiscal year when schools asked for a 37-cent tax hike and received nothing. While school employees didn’t receive a local pay hike last year other than so-called step raises for teacher longevity, city workers were given 2 percent raises.

SEC Tournament to spur massive downtown spending (Tennessean/McGee)
Students and alumni are traveling from across the region to cheer on their teams at the SEC basketball tournament and will spill the contents of their wallet at downtown Nashville bars, restaurants and hotels throughout the five-day event. This week marks the first of 12 SEC tournaments scheduled in Nashville in the next 12 years, a contract Nashville landed in 2013. Each March, through 2026, the city will turn into Basketballville, drawing thousands of visitors, athletes and camera crews to Bridgestone Arena. “We are really excited about the opportunity to offer not only the venue of Bridgestone Arena but the entertainment, the hospitality, all the things Nashville has to offer,” said Mark Whitworth, SEC associate commissioner.