March 24 TN News Digest

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

Haslam meets with urban districts about school funding (AP/Johnson)
Gov. Bill Haslam met Monday with representatives of the school districts in Tennessee’s four largest cities to discuss their grievances about state funding and told them that he’s working on short-term and long-term plans to address their concerns. Haslam is hoping to avert a lawsuit seeking to direct more funding to urban areas. “We’re going to be proactive about … trying to see what are those things from the funding side that can affect better outcomes,” the Republican governor told reporters following the meeting. He was accompanied by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and the four representatives spoke to reporters following the meeting.

Haslam, four urban school superintendents talk school funding (N-S/Locker)
Superintendents of Tennessee’s four urban school districts talked Monday with Gov. Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen about what the school chiefs contend is the inadequacy of state funding for public education, particularly for their large districts. The six state and local officials emerged from the closed meeting in the governor’s office and jointly told reporters the meeting was the opening dialogue in a process they hope will avoid a court battle that could take years before resulting in more state funding. The school boards for the Knox, Shelby and Hamilton school systems voted to either authorize or explore a possible lawsuit against the state over school funding.

Haslam tasks McQueen with looking into schools funding (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will have the chance to assess how the state should approach education funding adequacy. Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that McQueen is being tasked over the next several months with speaking to every superintendent statewide about the funds their districts need in the short- and long term. The announcement came after directors from the four largest school districts in the state met with Haslam to discuss underfunding in the Basic Education Program, or BEP, the state’s formula to provide for the basic education of each child. Haslam and the superintendents from Metro Nashville, Knox, Hamilton and Shelby school districts left the meeting with only positive remarks.

Hamilton Co. Schools chief ‘pleased’ with meeting on education funding (TFP/Sher)
Gov. Bill Haslam and the heads of Tennessee’s four largest school districts are hopeful their meeting on Monday begins a discussion on education funding that can avert a possible lawsuit by school boards in Hamilton County and at least six other districts. But whether the school chiefs’ bosses — local school boards in Hamilton and elsewhere — go along remains to be seen. Haslam, state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and the four school chiefs, including Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith, met in the governor’s office for an hour Monday afternoon to discuss the urban school leaders’ contentions that the Basic Education Program funding formula is not adequate.

Tennessee Promise mentors lead the way (Tennessean/Tamburin)
Carol Paskewitz was late. She had been in the hospital on March 9 for an X-ray after falling while trying to clear ice from her air conditioning unit. But before the results came in, Paskewitz rushed to Gallatin High School for her second meeting with a group of students she is mentoring through the Tennessee Promise program. She made it to the crowded school cafeteria by 5:45 p.m., a stack of notes in hand — and a hospital ID tag still wrapped around her wrist. Soon after, she was walking six students through the college application process in the short staccato of a seasoned teacher. Paskewitz, 73, is one of thousands of Tennesseans who are guiding the first generation of Tennessee Promise students hoping to go to community college tuition-free this year.

Alisa White inaugurated as APSU’s 10th president (Leaf Chronicle)
Alisa White’s smile could not be contained Monday morning as she accepted the charge to lead Austin Peay State University and uphold its proud traditions, build upon the achievement of her predecessors and give her best efforts to continue the university’s success. The inauguration of White, Austin Peay State University’s 10th president, was held Monday morning in APSU’s Mabry Concert Hall. The historic event was filled with music, speeches and praise of White, who began her tenure as president on June 30, 2014, following an extensive nationwide search.

Reporting of rapes increased on Tennessee campuses in 2014 (Associated Press)
Reports of rape on Tennessee’s college campuses increased significantly in 2014, while total crime reporting was down year-over-year. According to statistics released by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the number of forcible rapes reported by Tennessee schools jumped from 26 in 2013 to 46 last year. The TBI did not offer an explanation for the increase, but it comes at a time when awareness of rape on campus is high. Campus authorities said the increase could be the result of new policies that make it easier for victims to report rapes and a greater willingness of campus administrators to include rapes that were reported anonymously or secondhand.

Rape reports up 77% at Tennessee campuses; crime down (Tennessean/Tamburin)
While crime on college campuses in Tennessee continued a steady decline in 2014, the number of reported rapes jumped 77 percent, according to a report released Monday. But some experts believe the statewide spike in rapes and sexual assaults is a positive sign that more victims feel comfortable coming forward. Forty-six rapes were reported at Tennessee’s colleges and universities in 2014, up from 26 in 2013, according to the annual “Crime on Campus” report from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Advocates who work with victims of sexual assault say the jump does not necessarily mean that more rapes are taking place, just that more people are reporting them to law enforcement.

TBI numbers show drop in crime on campuses in state (News-Sentinel/Slaby)
Reports of sex offenses on the University of Tennessee campus increased, while overall crime on campuses in the state decreased, according to the 2014 Crime on Campus report by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The annual count of crimes on all campuses in the state was released Monday. TBI found a 6.3 percent decrease in crime on campuses in 2014 compared to 2013. That included a decrease of 34.1 percent for burglary and 34.9 percent for DUI offenses in the same time. The TBI numbers are crimes that happened on university property with a police report filed, said Emily Simerly, UT police deputy chief. Statewide, rape on campuses increased from 26 in 2013 to 46 in 2014.

Sexual assault reports up at Rhodes, other state colleges (C. Appeal/Callahan)
In 2013, Rhodes College reported three sexual assaults on campus, two of which were rapes. In 2014, that number jumped to 17 assaults, 11 of which were rapes. That mirrors a statewide trend as the number of sexual assaults reported on college campuses increased by 78 percent last year, according to the annual Campus Crime report released Monday by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. In 2013, 50 incidents were reported at the state’s 93 schools, with 25 of those classified as rape. In 2014, that rose to 89 incidents, with 46 of them rape, according to the TBI.

TBI: Sex offenses, burglaries down at MTSU (Daily News Journal)
Crime as a whole is down at Middle Tennessee State University, according to statistics released Monday by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The annual Crime on Campus report compiles information submitted to the TBI by the state’s colleges and universities through the Tennessee Incident Based Reporting System. According to the 2014 report, an overall decrease in crime was seen at the state’s higher education institutions. MTSU reported no homicides, two sex offenses and four robberies during 2014. Noticeable drops occurred in reported thefts, aggravated assaults, vandalisms and liquor-law violations.

Advocates say rise in assault reports at colleges ‘positive sign’ (TFP/Hardy, Belz)
A dramatic spike in the number of sexual assaults reported at Tennessee college campuses over the last year is a positive sign that more public awareness and aggressive school policies are encouraging more victims to come forward, sexual assault advocates say. In the last year, sexual assaults reported at colleges statewide increased 75 percent — from 51 incidents in 2013 to 89 in 2014, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s annual crime on campus report, which was released Monday. Reported on-campus rapes increased from 26 to 46.

Teen escapes from DCS custody at Columbia market (WSMV-TV Nashville)
Maury County authorities are searching for a teenager who escaped Department of Children Services custody on Monday afternoon. The 17-year-old boy slipped away when his transport vehicle stopped at B.J.’s Market on Bear Creek Pike around 1 p.m. The boy, who was not identified, was last seen wearing a blue DCS jumpsuit and was still in shackles and handcuffs.

Emails Reveal State Employees Told Not To Tell Public About Glitches (WTVF)
When the Department of Safety and Homeland Security launched its new driver license computer system last month, there were some glitches. But state officials told employees, in emails obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, not to tell the public about the problems. The new computer system was two years in the making and was finished on budget at $30 million. But when it went online in mid-February, some employees did not seem ready. On March 3, we found people waiting for hours at the drivers license reinstatement center on Murfreesboro Road. Security personnel tried to calm nerves as people were told to come back the next day.

Bid to Revive Tennessee Medicaid Expansion Moving in Senate (AP/Schelzig)
An effort to revive Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal is advancing in the state Senate. The Senate subcommittee on TennCare voted 3-2 on Monday to recommend a resolution sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville that would grant Haslam the power to strike a deal with the federal government on Medicaid expansion. The governor’s plan to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans was defeated in a Senate committee in a special session in February.

Insure Tennessee may return with some tweaks (Tennessean/Wilemon)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal may get a second chance. The Senate Health and Welfare Subcommittee on TennCare recommended Monday a bill that would bring the proposal back, but the legislation faces major hurdles. It made it through the subcommittee by a 3-2 vote and some tweaks. Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, added three changes to address concerns expressed by fellow legislators when the proposal died during a special session called by the governor in February.

GOP medical marijuana bill has oils, legal growing (Tennessean/Boucher)
Marijuana legally grown, processed and given for treatment at the recommendation of a doctor in Tennessee could become a reality if lawmakers approve a new Republican-led initiative. The chances of changing current law aren’t fantastic: Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, put the odds of the General Assembly approving his limited medical marijuana plan this year at “50-50, plus or minus 5 percent.” The anesthesiologist argues the science behind the need for medical cannabis oil is more concrete. “The data is improving every day. I’ve read 50, 60 papers and abstracts, and it looks like 60 percent plus of those have some sort of beneficial effect,” Dickerson said.

CBD oil bill advances in Tenn. House (Times-News)
A bill allowing seizure patients access to cannabis oil as an alternative medicine cleared another hurdle this week as it passed unanimously in the full Criminal Justice Committee in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The bill, introduced by Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, would redefine marijuana by removing the requirement that cannabis oil containing cannabidiol and less than nine-tenths of 1 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol be transferred, dispensed, possessed or administered as part of a clinical research study to be in legal possession. “The committee members were positive about the bill so I am hopeful it will pass just as easy with the other committees,” said Ellen McCall, a Greeneville mother who is advocating for the passage of the bill to help her seizure-stricken daughter, Penelope.

Tenn. Republican marijuana bill: Eat it or rub it on, but no smoking (WKRN-TV)
A Tennessee medical marijuana bill drawn for the first time by Republican state lawmakers will be unveiled Tuesday in a House subcommittee. “This is not going to be a bill that allows for the smoking of marijuana,” said Republican sponsor Sen. Steve Dickerson, who is also an anesthesiologist. “It’s going to be a bill that allows for the purification of the oils, specifically CBD, which is cannabidiol. It is not a psychoactive medication.” Instead of smoking it, Sen. Dickerson says the measure would allow cannabis to be ingested or applied externally through oil, or its vapors used like an asthma inhaler.

Tennessee lawmakers pass guns-in-parking-lots update (AP/Schelzig)
The state Legislature on Monday passed a bill allowing workers to sue their employers if they are fired for storing guns in cars parked on company lots. The Senate passed the measure on a 28-5 vote, and the House later followed suit on a 78-14 vote. The state in 2013 enacted a law to give handgun-carry permit holders the right to store their firearms in vehicles on company lots regardless of their employers’ wishes. But an attorney general’s opinion later found that while the law decriminalized the actions of those who ignored posted gun bans on private property, employers could still terminate workers for violating company firearms policies.

Tennessee Senate, House approve guns-in-trunks bill (Tennessean/Boucher)
Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly overwhelmingly approved bills to dissuade employers from firing employees for storing guns in a car trunk while at work. The Senate passed the measure by a 28-5 margin, with the House approving the bill by a 78-14 margin. Democrats in both chambers opposed the bill, but that opposition means little logistically to the GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate. Supporters argue that if an employee is fired for the sole reason of having a gun stored in his or her car trunk, that employee has cause to file a lawsuit. “The employer cannot (fire you) simply because you have a permit or a gun in your car,” said Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and a former judge in general sessions court.

Bill gives gun-carry permit holders right to sue employers (C. Appeal/Locker)
State lawmakers on Monday night approved and sent to the governor a bill giving employees with handgun-carry permits a right to sue employers for sanctioning or firing them for keeping guns in their cars on company-owned parking lots. The bill is a follow-up to a law the Tennessee legislature passed two years ago that allowed workers with carry-permits to keep guns in their locked cars on employer-owned lots despite company policy to the contrary. Gun advocates said that alone was not enough to prevent employers from sanctioning or firing them. Senate Bill 1058 won a 28-5 vote in the Senate and the House followed moments later on a 78-14 vote, sending the bill to Gov. Bill Haslam, who has not signaled any opposition to it.

Swingers clubs limited by state lawmakers (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
Private clubs for sexual swinging won’t be allowed to locate within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, daycares or parks in Tennessee. The state Senate and House each voted resoundingly for the new law Monday night, without a single vote in opposition. The bills still must be signed by Gov. Bill Haslam to become law. The state law would give Nashville double protection against swingers clubs. Last week, Metro Council passed a zoning change with a similar intent, blocking private clubs from properties zoned for office uses. Both measures target the efforts of The Social Club, a Nashville swingers club, which planned to move into a former medical office at 520 Lentz Drive in Madison, a property adjacent to Goodpasture Christian School.

New Bill Targets Aggressive Panhandling In Nashville (WTVF-TV Nashville)
If you’ve ever been threatened or felt threatened by a panhandler you’ll like a bill in the State Senate, which targets aggressive panhandling. It’s the first state law of its kind. If the bill passes, for the first time there will be a state law carrying jail time if a panhandler touches you, blocks your path or follows you if you don’t want to give them money. On Broadway you’ll find plenty of people like, Robin Bernard, playing a guitar on a sidewalk. Bernard calls himself a street musician, and has been performing on the streets of downtown Nashville for years. A bucket next to him is for cash donations, but Bernard doesn’t call himself a panhandler.

Legislators Reject Plan That Put Public Defenders’ Funding At Risk (WPLN-Radio)
Tennessee lawmakers have scuttled a bill that public defenders believed would have jeopardized their funding. The move came after Republicans and Democrats alike said they fear tipping the scales of justice too much toward prosecutors. The decision means Tennessee will continue with a 22-year-old law that says for every dollar local governments give to prosecutors, they have to give public defenders 75 cents. The rule is meant to maintain a balance between the two sides in court proceedings. Prosecutors believe the requirement has kept them from hiring new lawyers and staff, such as advocates for domestic violence victims.

Homestretch Approaching for 2015 Legislature (TN Report)
The General Assembly is beginning to wind down for the year. Many subcommittees are holding their final calendars this week, and so it is make-or-break time for several controversial pieces of legislation that’ll likely get shelved for the year of they don’t move this week. On Monday, the Tennessee Senate Health & Welfare Committee will be holding a special subcommittee to hear TennCare related legislation. Included on this calendar will be a measure to repeal the requirement that Gov. Bill Haslam receive legislative approval for any expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, several requests that Haslam seek out waivers to expand Medicaid to specific populations, resolutions authorizing the governor to expand TennCare in a few ways and a resolution requesting that the federal government approve a block grant for the state to expand its existing Medicaid program more flexibly.

AAA fights to keep helmet law in Tennessee (Associated Press)
AAA motor club wants to put the brakes on proposed legislation that would allow many motorcyclists to ride without a helmet. Currently, Tennessee law requires all motorcyclists to wear a helmet. But a bill that will be going to committee on Tuesday would allow anyone who is 21 or over who has health coverage, as long as it’s not through TennCare, to be able to legally ride without a helmet. Anyone over the age of 21 on TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program for the poor, would be required to wear the head protection.

Dell closing Nashville unit, laying off 96 (Tennessean/Ward)
Dell Inc. is shutting down a customer support unit in Nashville that serves clients that have global operations, a move that will idle 96 employees. The layoffs would be effective next Wednesday, the Round Rock, Texas-based computer maker said in a notice to the state. Dell spokesman David Frink said work the global service desk handles will be transferred to employees at other company locations worldwide. “We continually review our operations in an effort to remain competitive and determine where we can add the most value to customers,” he said. “We’ll continue to make prudent business decisions over time.”

Dell laying off nearly 100 locals (Nashville Post)
Dell executives have notified the state that they plan to lay off nearly 100 people next month as part of a realignment of some of the company’s service desk functions. In a filing submitted last week, Dell said 96 locals will lose their jobs in the coming weeks. The Tennessean reports that the workers are based just south of Nashville International Airport and work with multinational companies. Employees working with U.S. companies are not affected, a spokesman said.

Dell to shut down Nashville unit (Nashville Business Journal)
Texas-based computer maker Dell Inc. is laying off nearly 100 Nashville employees. According to a notice sent to the state, dated March 18, Dell will lay off 96 workers, effective next month. The full notice is available here. The Tennessean reports that Dell is shutting down a customer support unit that services clients with global operations. Local Dell employees that support North American customers are not impacted by the cuts.

Schools looking to add $20 million to budget (Daily News Journal)
An additional $20.425 million may be necessary to operate Rutherford County Schools next year, but most of that will go to payroll and new technology required for testing. The proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 calls for $327.241 million in expenditures, up 6.7 percent from the current budget of $306.8 million. Of the $20-plus million increase Director of Schools Don Odom said is needed, $14.3 million will go to salaries for more than 4,900 employees. Included in the salaries are a 2.6 percent cost-of-living increase and a 1.34 percent step increase based on years of service. Another $3.14 million will go to the purchase of new computers required for online assessments for students in grades 3-12.

OPINION

Editorial: Sprinkler bill would cost lives, should be killed (News-Sentinel)
The lives of many Tennesseans could be put at risk if a bill passes that would outlaw local ordinances requiring sprinkler systems in new townhouse projects. The bill is touted as a measure to alleviate a “competitive disadvantage” in the construction industry, but that doubtful benefit for homebuilders is not worth the potential cost in human lives. Sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, the measure would repeal all local ordinances statewide requiring sprinkler systems for townhouse developments of three or more units. A recently added amendment would allow local governments to reinstate sprinkler requirements, but only with a two-thirds vote of the jurisdiction’s governing body.