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March 23 TN News Digest

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

Meeting with leaders may be Haslam’s last chance to avoid lawsuit (TFP/Sher)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s expected meeting today with the heads of Tennessee’s four largest school systems could be his best — and last — chance for avoiding a lawsuit over state education funding, school board members say. In fact, Hamilton County school board member Jonathan Welch said the local district — one of seven that have authorized litigation — could file suit this week unless there’s agreement today over pumping new money into the state’s Basic Education Program. “I think the motion that our board [approved] stated the lawsuit would be filed unless the governor had a plan endorsed by the General Assembly to meet the BEP Review Committee recommendations.” Welch said “the potential to keep dialogue open is really at stake” in today’s meeting.

Metro Schools board members expect BEP plan from Haslam (Tenn/Gonzalez)
Metro Schools officials expect to see a framework on how to address funding inadequacies in the Basic Education Program from Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. The governor will meet with superintendents from the four largest districts in the state on Monday, giving him a chance to hash out the details. Three of those districts have threatened to sue the state. “What I am looking for is (the administration) to own up to the fact that at state level they are underfunding us,” said board member Anna Shepherd. “They need to detail a time line, and that they are going to fix this.”

Truck fee bill unconstitutional, Tennessee attorney general says (Associated Press)
State Attorney General Herbert Slatery has opined that proposed legislation to impose new fees on trucks traveling Tennessee highways is unconstitutional because the levies would apply disproportionately to trucks owned by out-of-state companies. SB354, introduced by Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, and Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, is entitled the “Public Highway Maintenance Act of 2015.” It would impose a new 13-cents-per-gallon “surcharge” on diesel fuel and a “highway maintenance fee” of 2.85 cents per mile traveled within the state for each commercial motor vehicle weighing 60,000 pounds or more.

House subcommittees to wrap up work this week (News-Sentinel/Humphrey)
Most state House subcommittees plan to hold their final meetings of the 2015 session this week, which means that hundreds of bills pending in the panels will either advance to the next step or quietly die. A review of scheduled for the subcommittees seeking a shutdown indicated the House State Government Subcommittee has the longest list of pending votes with 84 bills on notice for Wednesday’s meeting. They range from Gov. Bill Haslam’s move to abolish longevity pay for state employees — a measure (HB647) that the administration has agreed to revise substantially in hopes of eliminating objections from several lawmakers — to a bill (HB615) that would proclaim the Holy Bible as Tennessee’s official state book.

Tennessee House to debate abortion ultrasound bill this week (Tenn/Boucher)
A proposal that would require ultrasounds before any abortion is one of several abortion bills set for debate this week at the Tennessee General Assembly. he ultrasound bill from Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, is headed to a House committee this week. Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, also plans to push forward with an amendment that would enact mandatory counseling — called “informed consent” — and a 48-hour waiting period between the time a woman seeks an abortion and when she can go through with the procedure. The measures come in the wake of Tennessee voters adopting a constitutional amendment in November that nullified a 15-year-old state Supreme Court ruling and opens the gates to abortion restrictions.

Will Opening Doors On ‘Pre-Meetings’ Affect How Lawmakers Operate? (WPLN)
Last week we learned from news reports that members from 10 out of 15 standing House Committees were holding “pre-meetings” — get togethers behind closed doors before public committee meetings. Shortly after the story broke, House Speaker Beth Harwell called for an immediate end to the secrecy.

Ramsey blocks effort to ban fund transfers (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Humphrey)
At the request of Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, state Sen. Richard Briggs has shelved an effort to block transfers of taxpayer funds from one legislator to another in “constituent communications” accounts use to pay for direct mailings to voters. In contrast, House Speaker Beth Harwell has decided to stop the transfers, acting on her own, for state representatives, according to a spokeswoman. Ramsey will continue to decide on a “case-by-case basis” whether to allow state senators to shift money from one account to another, according to a spokesman. The speakers’ moves come with bills pending in the General Assembly to both authorize and to prohibit shifting the taxpayer funds from one lawmaker to another.

Effort continues to revive Insure Tennessee (News-Sentinel/Vines)
Petitions signed at potlucks, churches and marches held throughout the state are being coordinated by the Tennessee Justice Center, which is trying to get the Insure Tennessee program back before the Legislature this year after a Senate committee killed it in February. The thinking is a majority of legislators support the program if they can just get a chance to vote on it. Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal would use federal dollars to provide insurance for about 280,000 low-income people who are unable to take advantage of the federal Affordable Health Care Act or qualify for Medicaid or TennCare. One strategy is to provide information to those in the districts represented by senators who voted against it that tells the number of uninsured people, the hospitals at risk of closing, the percent of the population in poverty and number of uninsured veterans.

Tenn. lawmakers stay connected in digital-era Congress (C. Appeal/Collins)
U.S. Reps. John J. Duncan Jr. and Steve Cohen are on opposite ends of the digital divide. Duncan, a Knoxville Republican, doesn’t e-mail or text and relies on aides to tweet on his behalf. He prefers talking to colleagues and constituents over the phone instead of communicating with them through cyberspace. “I’m from the old school, I guess,” he said. Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, is an e-mailer and serial tweeter whose musings have sometimes made the national news. He carries a government-issued BlackBerry, an iPad and a personal iPhone. Duncan is the exception and Cohen is the norm in the digital-era Congress, where many lawmakers carry more than one mobile device and can often be spotted pecking away on their smartphones in committee meetings or even high-profile events like the annual State of the Union address.

Congress to Weigh a Plan to Protect Medicare Fees and Children’s Insurance (NYT)
Lobbyists will descend on Congress this week as lawmakers near a bipartisan agreement to finance health care for the oldest and youngest Americans, by revamping the payment of doctors under Medicare and by extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The agreement, negotiated by Speaker John A. Boehner and the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, would repeal a Medicare formula that threatens to cut doctors’ fees each year. In its place, Congress would establish an “incentive payment system” to reward doctors who receive high performance scores from the government. Scores would be based on factors like the ability to keep patients healthy while controlling costs. Passage of the legislation would be a significant accomplishment for Mr. Boehner.

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