March 19 TN News Digest

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

Snack company bringing nearly 300 jobs to Kingsport (Times-News)
A Vancouver-based specialty snack foods company plans to establish its U.S. headquarters in Kingsport later this year through a $22 million investment in a new manufacturing facility and the creation of 273 new jobs. Pure Foods, Inc., – a maker of gluten-free snack foods – plans to establish its U.S. headquarters in an existing 83,000 square foot building in the Gateway Commerce Park off Interstate 26. The manufacturing facility will serve markets primarily in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Clay Walker, director of NETWORKS – Sullivan Partnership, made the announcement Wednesday morning during a called meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

Superintendents and Haslam to meet Monday (Tennessean, WBIR-TV)
Superintendents from four of the largest districts in the state will meet Monday with Gov. Bill Haslam to discuss the Basic Education Program, a Metro Nashville Public Schools staff member confirmed. Gov. Bill Haslam said to reporters earlier this week that he expects to meet with superintendents on Monday to discuss education funding in the state. Plans have since been solidified. Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre will be there along with superintendents from Metro Nashville Schools and Hamilton and Shelby counties. The group is meeting as part of a resolution by Nashville’s Board of Education to give Haslam and Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen 30 days to discuss plans for the program.

Teacher evaluation bill advances in House (Tennessean/Balakit)
A bill that would gradually phase in the use of test scores from a new state assessment in teacher evaluations passed the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday with no objections. Gov. Bill Haslam proposed the legislation to help educators as the state prepares to administer a new state assessment. TN Ready, a Common Core-aligned test, will replace the state’s Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program next year. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, sponsors the bill. Student growth data, derived from yearly changes in student TCAP test scores, comprises 35 percent of teacher evaluations.

Adventure tourism districts may create new path for jobs (Tennessean/Yankova)
A state law to promote tourism may soon make it easier to attract businesses and encourage expansions in Sumner County. The Tennessee Adventure Tourism and Rural Development Act of 2011 enables counties and municipalities to create districts, where newly located or expanded existing businesses can received a $4,500 tax credit for each job they create. County and city leaders are exploring the option, but in order to meet the law’s qualifying April 15 deadline, the county and governing bodies of cities wanting to participate have to move fast. Qualifying businesses vary, although they have to be part of the hospitality industry. Businesses that offer adventure-related activities such as zip lining, horse or motorized trail riding, kayaking and mountain biking would qualify and so would hotels and restaurants. Gas stations would not qualify.

Flu back for Round 2 (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Belz)
At least two Hamilton County children have died from flu-related complications this season, joining the toll of the largest number of flu-related pediatric deaths Tennessee has seen since the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, state officials said. So far, nine Tennessee children have died from the flu this season, health officials have confirmed. “The flu hit Tennessee hard this year, and we’re not completely out of the woods yet,” said Dr. Kelly Moore, director of the Tennessee Department of Health immunization program. “We are still reporting influenza activity.” Most hospitalizations this season were from Type A flu, which includes the H3N2 strain. But that strain has largely tapered off and been replaced by a wave of the Type B flu strain, which is typically less severe, doctors say.

Bill seeks to strengthen academic standards review process (AP/Johnson)
Legislation that seeks to strengthen the governor’s review process of the state’s academic standards is raising questions about whether an additional recommendation committee is necessary, and who will be on it. The proposal sponsored by Republican Rep. Billy Spivey of Lewisburg advanced out of a House education subcommittee Wednesday. The measure would keep the state’s current standards, which include the controversial Common Core state standards for English and math. It also would make law a public review process of the standards created by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. The governor’s process has two committees and advisory teams for those committees to review the higher standards aimed at improving schools and students’ competitiveness across the nation.

Lawmakers Say They’re Close To A Plan To Replace Common Core (WPLN-Radio)
Tennessee lawmakers appear to be closing in on a plan to address Common Core education standards, but they’re keeping their solution under wraps. Lawmakers have been trying for weeks to figure out how to deal with Common Core, the controversial education standards they adopted five years ago. But because the issue has grown radioactive politically, Tennessee lawmakers are being circumspect about what they have in mind, even at a time when they’re being criticized for working behind closed doors. At a hearing on the issue Wednesday, Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) delicately tried to get a colleague, Rep. Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg) to confirm the status of the plan, without giving away too much of what they contain.

Bill to change principal licensure process advances (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
A bill making changes to the principal licensure process easily made its way Tuesday out of the House education subcommittee. House Bill 904 is partly inspired by the story of a Metro teacher who can’t become a principal despite getting her master’s degree from Harvard University. The bill would prevent the State Board of Education from denying teachers a principal license if they graduated from an out-of-state university. It moves onto the full committee floor. “They can look at any other factors for the determination, but not simply because they are from out of state,” said state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a freshman legislator from Nashville.

Voucher Bill Lets 120,000 Special-Needs Students Attend Private School (WPLN)
Both the state House and Senate began advancing a proposal Wednesday that gives any student with an Individualized Education Plan the option to take the federal, state and local money that would be spent on them and attend a private school or alternative program. They could even be homeschooled and use the money for tutors and special therapy. Roughly 14 percent or 120,000 students in Tennessee have IEPs, as they’re commonly known. Personalized learning programs are required under federal law for 14 categories, including learning disabilities, hearing trouble and speech impairment.

Ministers And Students Urge Lawmakers To Reconsider Insure Tennessee (WPLN)
Lawmakers haven’t had much to say about Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee health care plan since voting it down in early February. About 30 protesters — many of them college students and clergy — rallied in the center of Legislative Plaza Wednesday to try to change that. Haslam said his proposal would have extended health coverage to a quarter-million low-income Tennesseans, paid for by the federal government. But a Senate panel shot it down, arguing it might cost the state billions of dollars each year. Rev. Matt Steinhauer, a Lutheran minister from Lebanon, believes that was a mistake. He hopes to appeal to lawmakers’ religious convictions.

State Override of Local Guns-in-Parks Bans Gaining Momentum (TN Report)
At least one bone of contention gun-rights enthusiasts have developed with rules governing public possession of firearms in Tennessee looks like it might get alleviated this year. Tennessee has since 2009 allowed gun-carry permit holders to come armed into state-owned parks and natural areas. However, locally owned public recreation lands were another matter. Whether or not the right to carry for firearm licensees was extended to local parks was left to local politicians and law enforcement. That might no longer be the case if legislation that’s moving along in both chambers of the General Assembly ends up passing this year.

Capitol Report: House subcommittee kills guns-on-campus bill (CA/Locker)
A House subcommittee on Wednesday killed a bill that, as it was amended in the state Senate, would have allowed students to keep guns in their cars on public college campuses in Tennessee. Without the Senate amendment, House Bill 481/Senate Bill 70 sought to clarify existing Tennessee law that allows a “non-student adult” to have a gun in a private vehicle on school property as long as the gun is not “handled.” The new bill would have added an explicit provision allowing handgun-carry permit holders to transport and store a firearm or ammunition in their vehicle while on or using a parking area owned, used or operated by any school.

Handgun Carriers In Tennessee Could Get Lifetime Permits (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
Tennessee’s half-million handgun permit holders might soon have the option of carrying for life. The proposal was one of a few gun bills Tennessee lawmakers advanced Wednesday. Rep. John Holsclaw (R-Elizabethton) says lifetime gun permits would be more convenient. Instead of spending $115 on a permit that expires after five years, they could pay $750 and get one that’s good for life. “I know you get busy like I do sometimes. You get this stuff and set it aside. I’d rather pay the money and have a lifetime (permit) and not have to worry about it again.”

Bills to limit or ban traffic cameras advance in Tennessee (CA/Locker)
Legislation to ban unmanned red-light and speeding enforcement cameras in Tennessee is moving in the House but the Senate is moving on a compromise that would only curtail their use rather than ban them. The Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday amended the traffic camera bill to replace its ban on using the cameras for issuing citations with these restrictions: Unmanned speed-enforcement cameras could not be used to issue a citation to a driver unless the vehicle is traveling at least 15 mph in excess of the posted speed limit. No citation could be issued through a red-light camera unless the camera records evidence that the signal has at least six second of yellow caution light.

Right to Try law would be no miracle cure (Tennessean/Wilemon)
Marty Nord does not expect a miracle cure if Tennessee gives her the right to try experimental drugs for Lou Gehrig’s disease. Her disease has progressed to the point that she uses a wheelchair and relies on a device to help with breathing. Nevertheless, she supports a Tennessee bill that would allow doctors to prescribe medicines not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — legislation being pushed by the Goldwater Institute, an organization that advocates for personal freedoms over federal regulations. Eight states have now passed “Right to Try” laws.

Exemption in ‘Tenn Whiskey’ law raises legal flags (Associated Press/Schelzig)
An embattled state law establishing legal requirements to market spirits as “Tennessee Whiskey” could run afoul of both the U.S. and state constitutions for carving out a special exemption for a single distiller, according to a new legal opinion from state Attorney General Herbert Slatery. The state Legislature in 2013 excluded Kelso-based Pritchard’s Distillery from the law passed at the behest of Jack Daniel’s that for the first time established rules for which products could label themselves as Tennessee whiskey. Those rules codified what is known as the “Lincoln County Process,” which requires whiskey to be filtered through maple charcoal before being aged in unused charred barrels made out of oak. The filtering requirement makes up the principal difference from making bourbon. Distiller Phil Pritchard gained his exemption after arguing that he shouldn’t have to follow a charcoal filtering requirement because it does not follow the technique used by his grandfather.

Bill would undo sprinkler requirements (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)
Despite an emotional plea from Knoxville’s fire marshal, a state Senate committee has approved legislation that will repeal all local government ordinances that now require sprinkler systems in townhomes built to house three or more residences. “We know that fire sprinklers save lives. Yet here we are talking about relaxing the code on a proven method of saving lives,” Knoxville Fire Department Assistant Chief Danny Beeler told the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday. Beeler recounted his personal experience — “I’ve seen too many bodies,” he said at one point, voice cracking — as a firefighter and as an investigator of more than 60 fire deaths over a 27-year career.

Speaker calls for ‘pre-meeting’ transparency (Associated Press/Schelzig)
House Speaker Beth Harwell is calling for an end to secrecy in legislative ‘pre-meetings.’ According to a memo obtained by The Associated Press, the Nashville Republican urged committee chairs to establish an “open door policy” to the meetings about pending legislation. Harwell’s memo comes a day after the AP and the state’s four largest newspapers reported that at least 10 of 15 House committees were holding pre-meetings without public notice about times or location. Some were also explicitly barring the media and the public from attending. Supporters argued the pre-meetings allow free-flowing discussion about bills without lobbyists, the media or parliamentary procedure.

Beth Harwell asks committee leaders to open secret ‘pre-meetings’ (Tenn/Boucher)
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, is asking the leaders of House committees and subcommittees to end the practice of holding secret pre-meetings. Harwell sent the request Wednesday in a memo to chairmen and chairwomen. The memo comes a day after The Tennessean, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Knoxville News Sentinel and The Associated Press published reports of the closed-door “pre-meetings.” “With regards to the pre-meetings that some committees choose to have in order to ensure this process continues to move efficiently, I respectfully request two things: that these meetings be announced, and that you have an open-door policy,” Harwell wrote in the memo.

Secret meetings now open in Tennessee (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)
Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell on Wednesday asked heads of House committees and subcommittees to throw open the doors on their secret “pre-committee” meetings. “I respectfully request two things: that these meetings be announced, and that you have an open-door policy,” Harwell wrote in a memo sent to the chairmen. The Nashville speaker noted that some committees already are open but noted “concerns have recently been raised, and I would like to ensure the process is open and accessible.” Harwell’s directive came a day after the state’s four largest newspapers, including the Times Free Press, as well as The Associated Press, collaborated in a joint examination of the practice. Reporters found at least 10 of the House’s 15 standing committees engage in holding unannounced meetings to discuss pending bills prior to their public presentation in committees and subcommittees.

Harwell wants all pre-meetings announced, open (Nashville Post)
The day after news spread that House committee chairs conduct secret weekly “pre-meetings” to discuss legislation before they appear before committees, House Speaker Beth Harwell called for the practice to stop Wednesday. Harwell, who was quoted in various news accounts yesterday saying she defers to committee chairs to decide whether to host “pre-meetings,” asked in a memo to House committee and subcommittee chairs that “these meetings be announced, and that you have an open door policy.” According to Harwell’s office, committees have met in open for 88 hours and 30 minutes so far this session and more than nine hours on the House floor this year. But how much time the full or partial committees have met in legislators’ offices and around conference tables behind closed doors to hash out the particulars of a bill is unknown as 10 out of 15 committees hold “pre-meetings” weekly.

Sponsor withdraws bill to allow motorcycle lane splitting (Associated Press)
A proposal to allow Tennessee motorcyclists to ride between slow-moving cars has been withdrawn by the Senate sponsor. Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Tracy of Shelbyville said the measure was withdrawn Wednesday by fellow Republican Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald. California is the only state that allows motorcycles to travel between traffic lanes. A recent study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, on behalf of the California Highway Patrol and the state’s Office of Traffic Safety found the practice generally poses no more danger than riding a motorcycle unless the motorcyclist is riding 10 mph faster than surrounding traffic.

Business tax attorney sues Finance & Administration Commissioner (TFP/Sher)
A prominent business tax attorney on Wednesday filed suit against state Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin, charging his department violated Tennessee’s Open Records Act by refusing to provide him detailed information used to develop Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed “Revenue Modernization Act.” In his complaint, attorney Brett Carter is asking a Davidson County Chancery Court to compel the state to disclose withheld records immediately. Both the House and Senate Finance committees are poised to consider the bill next week. The suit says the refusal and the bureaucratic and legal run-around Martin has gotten constitute a “willful violation of the Open Records Act.”

Alexander blasts Anthem’s response following cyber-attack (TFP/Belz)
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander on Wednesday sharply criticized leaders of health insurer Anthem, decrying the company’s delayed response to a cyberattack that affects 770,000 Tennesseans — many of whom may still be unaware their data has been compromised, a report to his Senate committee has revealed. More than a month after a “highly sophisticated” cyberattack on Anthem was revealed Feb. 4, the majority of the 80 million people affected nationwide have yet to be notified that personal data like Social Security numbers, birth dates and employer information may have been compromised, said Alexander. He is chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which has investigated the breach.

3M to spend $18M remodeling, expanding Clinton site (News-Sentinel/Fowler)
The 3M Company, which earlier bought the former Food Lion distribution center, has obtained a building permit for some $18 million in upgrades and renovations to the facility, along with a 45,000-square-foot addition. The new building will house processing equipment for the first of three products that 3M employees will initially make in the facility, Clinton Building Official Curtis Perez said. He said the company hasn’t disclosed what it will make in Clinton, but company officials have told him they’re on a fast track to begin production.

Nike and Impact Innovations get thumbs up on tax breaks (CA/McKenzie)
Nike Inc. won a tax break extension Wednesday for spending with woman- and minority-owned companies. The Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis and Shelby County agreed to retain a tax break on property and equipment at Nike’s Shelby Drive facility for two more years. EDGE, a city-county economic development agency, also approved a tax break for a company that plans to bring gift-wrap making back to Memphis. Nike’s extension traces to Jobs Plus, a program that adds two years to the PILOT tax break, or payment in lieu of taxes, based on spending with minority- and women-owned firms during the life of the PILOT.

OPINION

Editorial: Closed legislative committee meetings are the height of hypocrisy (CA)
The lawmakers voters elect to represent them on Capitol Hill in Nashville can sometimes forget who they are working for. It is not for themselves. It is for Tennessee residents. Tennesseans have a right to expect legislators to carry out the public’s business in public. When General Assembly committee chairmen, and by extension members of committees, discuss the public’s business in secret, they are violating the public’s trust, along with jeopardizing their credibility. Closed meetings raise suspicions about backroom deals. Tuesday, the state’s four largest newspapers, including The Commercial Appeal, and The Associated Press reported about the creeping trend of secret committee discussions regarding pending legislation, something that is prevalent in the House of Representatives, but not in the Senate.

Editorial; Secret meetings disgrace to constituents (Jackson Sun)
This week it was reported that at least 10 of 15 committees in the Tennessee House of Representative have regularly held secret “pre-meetings” in which they discussed legislation. The public wasn’t informed about the meetings or invited to attend. Kudos to Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who sent House GOP leader Gerald McCormick the letter that actually called this out. “Our committees publicly debate each bill and do not meet in private before a meeting to discuss outcomes,” Ramsey wrote in the letter. There is no excuse for the closed pre-meetings. We are disappointed in the way House Speaker Beth Harwell has handled the situation. On Tuesday, she acknowledged that she knew about the practice of secret meetings, but simply didn’t do anything about it.