March 26 TN News Digest

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

Tennessee rolls out scholarships to get adults back in school (C. Appeal/Roberts)
Roland Rayner, longtime director of the two Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology here, is in for one of those leap-of-faith moments this weekend when he opens Saturday for an event that could significantly expand enrollment. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the two schools, plus 25 others across the state, will be open for tours, career advising and a sales pitch Gov. Bill Haslam’s office hopes will bring thousands of adults back to school. Through Tennessee Reconnect, the state will pick up all tuition or fees not covered by the PELL grant or the Wilder Naifeh Technical Skills grant for adults who want to earn or finish a degree.

Task force examines Tennessee sentencing laws, recidivism (Associated Press)
A task force formed by Gov. Bill Haslam to examine Tennessee’s sentencing structure and look at ways to reduce the state’s high recidivism rate is scheduled to meet Thursday in Nashville. It will be the group’s fourth meeting since its formation last year as part of the administration’s overall effort to reduce crime and improve public safety. The panel will develop recommendations to give to the Governor’s Public Safety Subcabinet by June 2015. The subcabinet has partnered with the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, which is helping to review sentencing and correction policies and practices in Tennessee.

Tennessee Governor’s Report – Staying Ahead Of The Curve (Business Facilities)
When Tennessee received one of the largest allocations from the federal Race to the Top educational reform program—the state got $500 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s national effort to upgrade teaching standards and student performance—Gov. Bill Haslam saw much more than an opportunity to lift reading and math scores in grade schools across the Volunteer State. He saw the cornerstone of a foundation for Tennessee’s future.

State agency denies Brentwood ER plans (Nashville Post)
The Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency voted Wednesday to deny separate TriStar Southern Hills Hospital and Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital certificate-of-need applications to build freestanding emergency departments in Brentwood. In a simultaneous review by the agency, the two health systems debated the merits of their respective plans to build an eight-room freestanding ED on Old Hickory Boulevard near Interstate 65. Both hospitals reported heavy utilization of the existing emergency rooms.

TriStar vs. Saint Thomas: Neither can build new emergency department (NBJ)
There will be no new emergency department in the Brentwood area. The Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency rejected competing applications from both TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center and Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital to build satellite emergency departments near Old Hickory Boulevard and Interstate 65 in southern Davidson County. The projects, priced at $11.3 million for TriStar and $6.8 million for Saint Thomas, were proposed for sites less than a mile apart.

Hackers attempt to shut down TN.gov (WSMV-TV Nashville)
An Internet hacker who has already successfully shut down several government websites has now made an attempt on Tennessee. It’s unclear if it’s a person or group, but whoever is using the Twitter handle Vikingdom2015 has been lurking online and shutting down government websites. “Usually when they attack a website, they’ll do what’s called a distributed denial of services, which means they’re just bombarding the website with traffic coming from all directions and just overloading it, essentially taking it down,” said Eric Near, with Dynamic Edge IT Consulting. The hacker took down several government websites in Maine and a news station’s website, presumably for reporting the problem. The hacker then went online to brag about it, essentially taunting the victims.

Senate panel advances Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal (AP/Schelzig)
A revived version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans on Wednesday cleared its first full Senate committee. The Senate Health Committee voted 6-2 to advance the Insure Tennessee proposal to the commerce committee, where it is expected to face difficult prospects. Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has predicted that the measure won’t make it to a full floor vote. The resolution would allow Haslam to draw down $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid money over the course of the two-year pilot program. State hospitals have agreed to cover the state’s $74 million share.

Insure Tennessee survives committee vote (Tennessean/Wilemon)
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee passed Insure Tennessee legislation Wednesday evening by a 6-2-1 vote. Senate Joint Resolution 0093, which would authorize Gov. Bill Haslam to proceed with plans to use federal dollars to help working people buy into employer-sponsored health plans and expand Medicaid eligibility to poor Tennesseans, now goes to the Commerce and Labor Committee. The resurrection of the governor’s plan this week comes after it died during a special session Haslam called in February when the bill didn’t survive its first committee test. This time around, amendments have been added to address legislators’ concerns.

Beer bills advance, gun bills die (Tennessean/Boucher)
As state lawmakers sense the end of the legislative session drawing nearer they must decide the fate of controversial bills that have piled up during the year. They approved and killed a slew of noteworthy bills Wednesday. Here’s a quick roundup of their decisions on a few notable bills: ADVANCED No more passengers drinking in cars: A bill that would repeal Tennessee state law that allows a passenger to drink alcohol in most vehicles advanced through the House State Government Subcommittee. It heads next week to the full House State Government Committee. Funding for pre-k programs: Davidson and Shelby counties recently received federal funds for prekindergaten programs after the state applied for the fund on their behalf.

Bill to Allow Charges for Public Records Searches Fails (Associated Press)
A bill seeking to allow government agencies to charge for public records searches has failed in the House. Rep. Steve McDaniel announced Wednesday that he was taking the measure off notice for the year. The Parker’s Crossroads Republican said he has asked the Comptroller’s Office of Open Records Counsel and the 14-member Advisory Committee on Open Government to hold hearings on the proposal and to make recommendations by next year’s session. Current law allows charges for copies but not for the time spent collecting and redacting documents.

House Panel OKs Bill to Let Tennessee End Pre-K Funding (Associated Press)
A House subcommittee has advanced a bill to allow Tennessee to cancel federal pre-kindergarten funding if a court were to rule that the program must be offered to all of the state’s 4-year-olds. The House Local Government Subcommittee on Wednesday advanced the measure despite the objections of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. Shelby and Davidson counties have been awarded $70 million in federal money to expand their pre-K programs over four years. House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin said his bill would halt those payments in the event that a judge ruled that the rest of the state would be required to offer universal pre-K.

Bill would let parents initiate school reform process (Tennessean/Balakit)
For the second year in a row, the state legislature is reviewing a bill that would enable parents to initiate major reforms at a low-performing public school. Advocates say this bill gives parents leverage to reform a school when local school boards are unresponsive. Critics say the measure, commonly known as the parent trigger bill, has the same school reform processes that matches what the state and local school districts already have. The bill would enable parents of students enrolled in a public school in the bottom 10 percent to petition their local school board to reform their school in three ways. Parents can petition to convert their school into a charter school or reform the school with a “transformation” model or “turnaround” model.

Tennessee school voucher bill scheduled for Senate vote (Associated Press)
Legislation that would give parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor Thursday. The proposal is sponsored by Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga. It’s similar to a measure Republican Gov. Bill Haslam proposed last year that failed. The governor also failed to pass voucher legislation in the previous session. Under Gardenhire’s proposal, eligibility would be opened to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent.

Legislation to Require K-5 Students to Participate in PE Class (Associated Press)
Students in kindergarten to fifth grade would have to participate in a physical education class at least twice a week under legislation advancing in the House. The proposal sponsored by Republican Rep. Roger Kane of Knoxville was approved on a voice vote in a House education subcommittee on Wednesday. Currently, school districts must integrate a minimum of 90 minutes of physical activity per week into the school day for elementary and secondary school students. Kane’s proposal would be in addition to that.

Bill Would Require Citizenship Test for Tennessee Students (Associated Press)
Tennessee students would have to pass the U.S. citizenship and immigration services’ civic test before getting a high school diploma under legislation advancing in the state House. The measure sponsored by Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga was approved on a voice vote in a House education subcommittee on Wednesday. The legislation is similar to other measures being proposed across the country. In order to pass, the Tennessee bill requires students to answer at least 60 percent of the questions correctly.

Tennessee senator espouses ‘sacred right to be stupid’ (Associated Press)
A bill seeking to do away with Tennessee’s motorcycle helmet requirement has failed in the state Senate. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Kerry Roberts of Springfield, argued that it should be up to any adult rider with private health insurance to decide whether to ride without a helmet. In Roberts’ words: “I happen to think he’s stupid if he rides a motorcycle without a helmet, but that’s one of our sacred rights: to be stupid.” The measure received a 4-4 vote in the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

Pared down Tanja’s Law goes back to Senate (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Jett)
A plan to punish police K-9 killers is one small step from becoming real. In the end, the bill that once threatened to saddle such criminals with a murder charge will have duller teeth than original headlines suggested. The minimum punishment for intentionally killing a police animal — be they dog, horse or any other species — will be an extra six months in prison. The potential fine is also going to increase from $10,000 to $50,000. The bill is named “Tanja’s Law” after a 2-year-old Dutch shepherd who died from a gunshot wound in June while serving the Walker County Sheriff’s Office. That crime carries a punishment of 1-5 years in prison right now.

Sparks backs red-light camera ban (Daily News Journal)
The fate of a bill to ban red-light cameras will be part of a yet-scheduled hearing on traffic legislation, a House committee agreed Wednesday. Sponsoring state Rep. Andy Holt said after appearing before the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee that he will not back down from his bill and consider accepting a compromise in the Senate version of the legislation that would require at least six-second yellow lights at red-light camera intersections, such as the six in Murfreesboro. “That’s the Senate,” said Holt, a Republican from Dresden in West Tennessee. “We’re the House. We make our own decisions on our bills. My intension from the beginning is an outright ban, and that’s what I’m continuing to pursue.”

Tennessee Legislature To Further Study Casino Bill (WTVF-TV Nashville)
Tennessee legislators have taken the first preliminary step of bringing casinos to the state. Rep. Jason Powell, a Democrat from the 53rd district, sponsored a bill that would allow casino gambling in the state, with proceeds supporting education, as well as, gaming addiction programs. Rep. Powell said voters will ultimately decide how many casinos would be built, where the casinos would be located and how the revenue would be spent. “For me, this is all about keeping revenue in Tennessee to help K-12 education,” said Rep. Powell. “We are talking about a lot of money that could potentially help our schools.” Rep. Powell said in addition to supplying funding for education, casinos could bring more tourism dollars to the state.

Medical Pot Bill Punted to Summer Study (TN Report)
For at least a decade members of the Tennessee Legislature has been snuffing out attempts to make cannabis legal for medical uses, and this week they did it again. On Tuesday, Criminal Justice Subcommittee of the House of Representatives sent the latest medical marijuana legislation to summer study, commonly a legislative proposal graveyard. Sherry Jones’s “Medical Cannabis Access Act” — House Bill 561 — sought to allow Tennesseans suffering from certain chronic and terminal maladies to use cannabis to treat their illnesses. Some of the ailments for which Jones’s legislation sought to specifically allow doctors to prescribe marijuana include cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, ALS, Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease.

Bill Restricting Police Asset Forfeiture Advances, But Support Tepid (TNR)
If the cops don’t arrest you, they shouldn’t be able to take your stuff. That’s the basic idea behind a measure that appears to have bipartisan support in the Legislature. It was sketched out by lawmakers involved with the “Civil Asset Forfeiture Caucus” that was initially convened last week by Republican Blountville Rep. Timothy Hill. However, while House Bill 1096 ultimately passed the lower-chamber Civil Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday, it floundered briefly as a result of indications by Hill that the legislation hasn’t been completely “worked out.”

Students rally for Gardenhire in-state tuition bill (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
An estimated 150 undocumented students from Tennessee rallied on Legislative Plaza on Wednesday in support of legislation that would grant state high school graduates in-state tuition rates at public colleges regardless of their immigration status. As an organizers shouted “tuition equality,” the group responded “Now!” They later went into Legislative Plaza to talk with lawmakers. legislators. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis. As amended, it would allow any Tennessee high school graduate with at least four years in Tennessee, at least a 21 on their ACT and 3.0 GPA to attend a public college or university at in-state tuition rates.

Do’s and don’ts of Tennessee’s new social media law (Tennessean/Rodgers)
If your employees are using company technology to access their personal social media accounts, can you ask them for their usernames and passwords? Not anymore. The Employee Online Privacy Act of 2014, which went into effect the first of this year, provides clear guidelines to help employers navigate the numerous scenarios involving employees’ personal Internet activity. Don’ts Tennessee employers and their agents can no longer: •Request or require an employee or applicant to disclose a password to his or her personal Internet account, such as Facebook, Twitter or a personal e-mail account. •Compel an employee/applicant to add the employer to the contact list associated with the Internet account. For example, you likely cannot require an employee or applicant to “friend” you on Facebook.

Knox County Superintendent ‘Surprised’ By Hamilton Co. Suit (AP/Johnson)
The superintendent of Knox County Schools said Wednesday that he’s surprised Hamilton County and six Chattanooga-area school systems filed a lawsuit against the state over funding after what he thought was a productive meeting with the governor. Superintendent James McIntyre, Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith and the superintendents for Metro Nashville and Shelby County schools met with Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday to discuss their grievances about the state’s school funding formula.

BEP lawsuit like ‘suing taxpayers for tax increase’ (TFP/Sher, Hardy)
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick charged Wednesday that a multi-county lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s funding of public education as inadequate really amounts to “suing the state’s taxpayers for a tax increase.” “I think it’s better for everyone to work together on this rather than sue each other,” said the Chattanooga Republican. “I think they’ll end up hurting the kids, suing the state and suing the state’s taxpayers for a tax increase…” School boards in Hamilton and six nearby counties filed the suit Tuesday. Less than 24 hours prior, the heads of the state’s four largest school systems, including Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith, met behind closed doors with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and discussed problems with the state’s Basic Education Program funding formula.

Child poverty, obesity muddy Davidson’s health report (Tennessean/Fletcher)
Davidson County is in the midst of an economic boom and, in many ways, a cultural renaissance, but the state’s capital lags its neighbors in several important health factors, according to a county health rankings report. In Davidson County, 29 percent of children — nearly one in three — live in poverty, according to a new county health rankings report from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The state average is 27 percent while the counties surrounding Davidson come in at less than 20 percent. Williamson County has the lowest incidence of child poverty in the state with 7 percent.

States Consider Awarding Lottery Winners Something Else: Anonymity (NY Times)
If you are lucky enough to win the lottery here, there is one thing you are virtually certain to lose: your privacy. Like most of the 44 states with lotteries, North Carolina considers the identities of winners of large prizes to be a matter of public record. But this year, in which winners already have come forward more than 40 times to claim awards that the state later publicized, lawmakers have considered whether the winners should be allowed to collect their money without having their names disclosed.

BlueCross gets most Obamacare signups in Tennessee (TFP/Flessner)
While BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee once again captured the majority of marketplace signups during open enrollment on the exchanges this year, new competition resulted in lower market share for Tennessee’s biggest health insurer. BlueCross announced Wednesday that it had taken 70 percent of market share for those on the exchange. Last year, the Chattanooga-based company dominated with 86 percent of the state’s market for those signing up for new plans offered through Obamacare. During this year’s enrollment, BlueCross faced new competition from health insurance cooperative Community Health Alliance, which had the lowest premiums on the market this year. Despite that, BlueCross gained 53,540 members during enrollment this year.

 

OPINION

Editorial: Compromise on standards for academics wise (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
Tennessee’s elementary and secondary school students emerged as big winners last week when Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey announced that a compromise had been reached that retains the state’s academic standards. The deal will allow a review initiated last year by Gov. Bill Haslam to continue. Short-circuiting the governor’s review process, which includes numerous educators and lawmakers, would have been a grave error. The compromise demonstrates that at times the Legislature can show restraint even when some members insist on intervening prematurely on an issue. While some lawmakers have been itching to scuttle the standards because they include the Common Core State Standards for math and English, educators from across the state rallied to prevent the worst.

Editorial: Early College High School great for kids (Jackson Sun)
It was announced this week that ninth-graders in the Jackson-Madison County School System will have the opportunity to enroll in Early College High School beginning this fall. We think this is a great opportunity for high schoolers to get a head start on a possible college or technical career. We also encourage parents to have their children apply. The deadline to apply is April 15. Student and parent interviews for those selected will take place April 20-24, and the final selections will be determined by May 8. There will also be two parent/student information meetings. One will be held today at 6:30 p.m. in Ayers Auditorium at Jackson State Community College.

Editorial: Fee bill dies: An open records victory for citizens (Tennessean)
We can all breathe a collective sigh of relief now that a bill that would have charged Tennessee citizens for merely wanting to inspect public documents is dead – at least for this year. The Tennessee State House version (HB 315) was taken off the calendar on Wednesday by its sponsor, Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads. There had been no action on the companion Senate version of the bill (SB 328), sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, since Feb. 11. That’s good news, but all citizens should urge their lawmakers to reject any efforts to restrict the public’s access to its own records. This legislation could always come back next year.

Columnist: Is ‘Getting Rid of Public Schools’ Legislature’s Goal? (M. Daily News)
Are Tennessee’s public schools headed for extinction? Not if it’s up to Memphis teachers. A group from Shelby County recently packed a House committee meeting room at the Legislative Plaza in an effort to turn back bills they consider damaging to their profession and the future of public education. They couldn’t stop the panel from approving legislation to add teachers to the Little Hatch Act, prohibiting them from campaigning for public office on school time. But they feel their presence might impact a voucher bill to provide public funds to low-income students in struggling public schools so they can attend private institutions.