March 27 TN News Digest

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

Tennessee Reconnect pays tuition for adults at tech colleges (Tenn/Tamburin)
Adults looking to become a nurse, mechanic or day care teacher will have a chance to get tuition-free training this year at one of Tennessee’s technical colleges thanks to a new pot of state funding. The Tennessee Reconnect grant will cover eligible adults’ tuition at any of the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology. All 27 TCAT locations will host open houses Saturday to answer questions and offer tours to anyone who is interested. State lawmakers signed off on the Reconnect grant last year when they approved Tennessee Promise, which allows eligible high school seniors a tuition-free ticket to one of the state’s 13 community colleges.

Tenn Reconnect program guarantees tuition-free technical training (TFP/Omarzu)
Stuck in a job you don’t like? Looking for a career change? Want to earn more money? If you’re a Tennessee resident who’s at least 24 years old, a new state program called Tennessee Reconnect will send you — tuition-free — to one of Tennessee’s 27 Colleges of Applied Technology, such as the one at Chattanooga State Community College. The new program is even open to those who already have a degree. “You get a second chance,” said Jim Barrott, director of Chatt State’s TCAT. “And within a year, you can have a degree that will get you a job.”

TCAT open house aims to attract adults to Tennessee Reconnect (N-S/Slaby)
Tennessee Reconnect has the same message as Tennessee Promise, but this time for adults, organizers said. It’s about making college possible. “This is the shot. This is the opportunity,” said Mike Krause, executive director of Drive to 55 in the Office of Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee Reconnect allows financial aid-eligible adults to attend any Tennessee College of Applied Technology tuition-free. Earlier this year, Haslam announced the initiative, which starts in fall 2015 and is a last-dollar scholarship that covers remaining tuition and mandatory fees after other financial aid is applied.

Sign-up for Tennessee Reconnect grant scheduled for this weekend (Times-News)
Most Tennesseans 24 and older who missed out on after-high school education are getting a second chance, starting this fall. And if they qualify and follow through, the certificate or diploma earned will be free and take less than two years. This weekend, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology Elizabethton and TCATs across the state, including the one in Morristown, are giving adults the opportunity to sign up for the Tennessee Reconnect grant to attend free of tuition and fees beginning in the fall of 2015. At the TCAT Elizabethton, the sign-up event will be 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at the main campus, located at 426 Highway 91 North, across from the Elizabethton Municipal Airport.

Haslam to continue school funding discussion despite lawsuit (Associated Press)
Gov. Bill Haslam says he’s not going to let a lawsuit several East Tennessee school systems filed against the state over funding derail the administration’s efforts to address grievances about the state’s school funding formula. Hamilton County and six Chattanooga-area school systems filed the lawsuit on Tuesday, a day after the superintendent of Hamilton County Schools and superintendents representing Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville met with the governor to discuss their concerns. The state’s four largest cities have argued that the funding formula, known as the Basic Education Program, is not adequately funded, and they threatened to sue.

Haslam says he’ll keep working on BEP (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)
Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday he was both “surprised” and “disappointed” that school boards in Hamilton and six nearby counties sued the state over state education funding one day after he met with the superintendents of Tennessee’s four largest systems. “Sure I was surprised from the discussion we had had,” Haslam told reporters. “And disappointed. Because I don’t think that’s how you solve problems. Because we really are making an effort to address that situation.” Haslam said “nobody can say we had a budget that ignored education.

Haslam undaunted by difficult prospects for Insure Tennessee (AP/Schelzig)
Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday that he is willing to risk a second defeat of his Insure Tennessee proposal to highlight the need for improving health standards in the state. The Republican governor told reporters after a prayer breakfast at Lipscomb University that the more often lawmakers take up his plan, the more chances his administration has to quell concerns about the proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans by drawing down $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid funds. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all for it to be discussed every chance that it gets to be discussed,” Haslam said. “Obviously we’re hoping it passes, but if it doesn’t pass, there’s still that much more airtime for the issue and for people to understand it.”

Haslam has hopes for revived Insure Tennessee (Times Free-Press/Sher)
After watching his Insure Tennessee plan belly-flop in last month’s special session, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says he’s encouraged that a version now being pushed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers cleared a major hurdle this week. “We still have a very difficult path, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up at all,” Haslam told reporters Thursday. “One of our hopes is that the more chance this has for discussion, the more some of the objections and questions that people had can be answered.” In a 6-2 vote Wednesday night, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved a resolution allowing Haslam to proceed with his proposal.

Fate of Insure TN still uncertain (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Locker)
The ultimate outcome of this week’s surprise resurrection of Insure Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s health insurance program for lower-income working Tennesseans under the federal Affordable Care Act, is uncertain at week’s end, lawmakers of both parties agreed. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said Thursday he still has concerns with the bill despite three amendments added in a Senate committee intended to ensure that Tennessee can withdraw from the alternative Medicaid expansion program whenever it wants. “Yes I still have lots of concerns with the bill, the same concerns I had to begin with. The biggest fact of all is, nothing is in writing as far as a signed contract like I’m used to dealing with in my real estate business,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey says he won’t interfere with second life of Insure Tennessee (N. Post)
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he still has the same concerns about a plan to expand health coverage to low-income Tennesseans, but adds he won’t meddle with a Democrat bill fighting its way through the Senate. The measure, which mirrors the governor’s Insure Tennessee plan, won approval by the Senate Health Committee on Wednesday in a 6-2 vote and is now set for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing next week. In a special session held earlier this year, lawmakers in a specially assigned Senate Health Committee rejected Insure Tennessee on a 7-4 vote. “Nine members of Commerce Committee, I can honestly say I have not influenced them one way or another, nor did I [do so] in special session,” Ramsey told reporters Thursday. “Members need to vote their conscience based upon the facts that they hear and we’ll see what happens in Commerce. I couldn’t predict right now.”

Crowe changes vote; Insure Tennessee plan moves forward (J. City Press)
State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, changed his tune Wednesday and voted for the implementation of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee program — after voting against the move last month. The vote was 6-2 with Crowe, the committee chairman, voting for the resolution to allow implementation of the plan. That resolution now moves to the Senate Commerce Committee. Insure Tennessee, the governor’s original proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income citizens remains alive. However, the plan faces tougher scrutiny ahead. Crowe said amendments made to the pilot program were key in his decision to change his vote.

New state economic development director maps out ambitions (M. Biz Journal)
Randy Boyd stepped into his new role as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development in January. Boyd brings with him entrepreneurial experience backed by high-energy. He founded and built Knoxville-based Radio Systems Corp. , which makes pet products like invisible dog fences, into a company with $350 million in annual sales. Last week, I sat down with Boyd for an interview, hours before his office and Nissan North America officials announced a $160 million expansion in Smyrna.

Davidson, Williamson counties have state’s lowest jobless rates (Tenn/Barnes)
Out of 95 counties in Tennessee, seven Middle Tennessee counties, including Davidson, have the lowest unemployment rates in the state. Davidson, Williamson, Wilson, Sumner, Robertson, Rutherford and Cheatham counties have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. Cheatham is ranked ninth lowest at 5.4 percent. Robertson is ranked eighth lowest at 5.4 percent. Wilson and Sumner tie for fourth place at 5.1 percent. Rutherford is in third place at 4.9 percent. Davidson is the second lowest at 4.8 percent, and Williamson has the lowest rate in the state at 4.3 percent. Tennessee’s average unemployment rate dropped to 6.6 percent in February but is still more than a percentage point higher than the nation’s 5.5 percent unemployment rate.

Davidson sees unemployment rate dip below 5% (Nashville Post)
Davidson County saw an unemployment rate of 4.8 percent in February, down from 5.4 percent in January. According to statistics the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development released today, Davidson registered the lowest February unemployment rate of the state’s four major metropolitan areas. For February, Knox County recorded a 5.1 percent jobless rates, down from 5.7 percent in January. Hamilton County (Chattanooga) had a February rate of 5.9 percent, a decrease from the January mark of 6.6 percent. The Shelby County (Memphis) February rate was 7.2 percent, a dip compared to the 8.1 percent January figure. Tennessee’s preliminary unemployment rate for February was 6.7 percent, xxx from the 6.7 percent revised rate of January.

Rutherford County’s jobless rate drops below 5 percent (Daily News Journal)
Rutherford County’s unemployment rate fell to less than 5 percent in February, according to the monthly county unemployment rates. The county’s jobless rate came in at 4.9 percent last month, data from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said. The rate was 5.5 percent in January. The county’s labor force grew 0.3 percent from 146,860 to 147,370 in February while the number of workers grew by 1,400 to 140,170. At the same time, the number of unemployed fell by 880 to 7,210, which accounts for the dramatic improvement in the unemployment rate. In January, the county added 650 jobs but the number of people looking for work increased by 1,200, according to the Department of Labor.

Memphis unemployment rate shows improvement across region (M. Biz Journal)
The Memphis MSA showed broad improvement across all of its regions in February. The overall unemployment rate across the region decreased from a revised mark of 7.9 in January to a preliminary 7 percent rate in February. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development segments out Memphis-area data into five regions: Shelby, Fayette and Tipton Counties in Tennessee; Crittenden County in Arkansas; and Tunica, DeSoto, Tate and Marshall Counties in Mississippi. The largest improvements were in the Arkansas and Mississippi sections, where the unemployment rate dropped by 1.1 and 1.2 percent, respectively, over previous year’s levels.

February unemployment rate dropped (CA/Evanoff, Clarke, McKenzie)
Employment surged in Greater Memphis, sending the jobless rate down to 7 percent in February, the lowest reading for the month in seven years. Nearly 23,000 more residents in the metropolitan area were working compared to February last year, when the area unemployment rate measured 7.9 percent, Tennessee’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported. The jobless figure, regarded as a broad barometer of the economy, signals the Mid-South’s slog out of the severe 2008-2009 recession finally may be easing. Not since the 1990s’ boom have 23,000 residents here found jobs over the course of a year.

Jobless rates drop across Chattanooga region in February (TFP/Flessner)
Unemployment dropped last month across the Chattanooga region to one of the lowest levels in seven years. The jobless rate in the six-county metropolitan Chattanooga area fell to 6 percent in February, a full percentage point below the comparable, non-seasonally adjusted jobless rate of 7 percent for the United States as a whole. Even metro Dalton, Ga. — one of the nation’s hardest hit areas during the Great Recession — showed a major drop in unemployment. Dalton’s 7.1 percent jobless rate in February was down 0.8 percent from January but still above the U.S. and statewide averages. Dalton had the lowest unemployment rate last month since the summer of 2008.

Tennessee hits Powerball streak with 3 winning tickets sold (Associated Press)
It’s been a lucky week for Powerball ticket buyers in Tennessee with the third big win announced in less than a week. Tennessee Lottery officials say the latest winning Powerball ticket is worth $2 million, and it was purchased in Nashville. The ticket matched five of the six numbers drawn in Wednesday’s Powerball drawing. The win comes on the heels of Saturday’s winning Powerball drawing, which hit the jackpot of $50 million for a winner who purchased a ticket in Harriman. Somebody who purchased a ticket in Hohenwald also won $2 million in that same drawing. Lottery officials say the latest winning ticket was purchased at Rosie’s Market in Nashville.

House Agrees To Hand Teachers Slight Relief From Testing Pressure (WPLN-Radio)
Teachers in Tennessee are on track to get some temporary relief from the pressure of testing. The state House of Representatives has approved a plan put together by Gov. Bill Haslam to change the weighting of test scores for two years. The governor says the break is needed while the state replaces the TCAP with a new standardized test. The plan, House Bill 108, temporarily rewrites Tennessee’s teacher-evaluation formula. Teachers are usually measured using a three-year rolling average. For the first year, the bill would place more weight on old scores.

Tennessee lawmakers approve bill to merge EDGE, CRA (Commercial Appeal/Poe)
A bill that would allow the Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis & Shelby County to merge with the city and county’s Community Redevelopment Agency is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam for final approval. The Tennessee House voted 95-0 Thursday, following the Senate’s 32-0 vote March 19, to amend the Community Redevelopment Act of 1998 just for Shelby County to allow CRA to restructure its board and term limits to match EDGE’s strucuture. Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, and Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, sponsored the bill.

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 on Monday. The proposal sponsored by Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga was to be heard on Thursday, but the sponsor delayed the vote. The legislation is similar to a measure Republican Gov. Bill Haslam proposed last year that failed. Under Gardenhire’s proposal, eligibility would be opened to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent.

Law Would Mean Hiring Too Many Temps Could Jeopordize Tax Breaks (WPLN)
Governors in Tennessee will soon have the power to withhold economic incentives to companies that hire too many temporary workers. The state legislature on Thursday approved a measure, Senate Bill 86, that would give the Department of Economic and Community Development more flexibility in awarding job tax credits. Officials in Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration deny the legislation responds to any particular situation. But the measure does follow complaints about the long-term reliance on contract labor by the automaker Nissan and other companies.

Tennessee Bans Sales Of Some Cough Syrups To Minors (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
Tennesseans will soon face more restrictions on cold medicines, after lawmakers voted Thursday to ban sales of some cough syrups to minors. The medicines, which contain the drug dextromethorphan and include brands such as Robitussin DM, Mucinex DM and Tanafed DXM, will remain on store shelves. But buyers will have to show ID, especially if clerks think they’re under 30. Officials worry that teenagers, in particular, are drinking DM cough syrups to get high.

State gun bill still on upward trajectory (Johnson City Press)
On Wednesday, Jonesborough Rep. Micah Van Huss asked the House’s State Government subcommittee to roll his much-anticipated bill designating the Barrett Model 82A1 rifle as the official firearm of the state into 2016. But delaying consideration of the bill isn’t the final round for the proposal. Upon the request of the subcommittee’s chair, Bill Sanderson, Van Huss said he will file a resolution, rather than a bill, in the coming weeks to address the topic. “The chairman asked that it be in a different form,” Van Huss said Thursday by telephone. “We’ll be bringing it back up in the next couple of weeks.” The bill, which the resolution should mimic, would have made the .50-caliber semiautomatic sniper rifle a symbol of Tennessee, adding it to a list that includes the mockingbird as the state bird and the tulip poplar as the state tree.

Harwell to again co-chair national leadership initiative (Associated Press)
House Speaker Beth Harwell will once again co-chair the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Right Women, Right Now initiative. The committee announced the reappointment of the Nashville Republican this week. Harwell will be joined by new co-chairs Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan. In the 2013-2014 election cycle, Right Women, Right Now recruited hundreds of women nationwide to run for state-level office and elected 138 new Republican female candidates. Since its creation in 2012, the group has elected 222 new female candidates to office.

Bill would give TN special Medicaid funding (Tennessean/Troyan)
Tennessee hospitals would share an additional $53 million a year in federal Medicaid funds under a special provision of a major health care bill that passed the House on Thursday and goes to the Senate. If the measure becomes law, Tennessee will no longer be the only state in the nation ineligible for the extra funding intended to help reimburse hospitals for providing care to people that aren’t able to pay. The Tennessee-specific provision was endorsed by the Tennessee Hospital Association and the entire Tennessee congressional delegation. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that adding Tennessee to the formula — known as disproportionate share or DSH — would cost about $500 million over 10 years. The formula also requires $27 million in matching funds from the state of Tennessee, for a total of $80 million a year for the state’s hospitals.

Alcoa gets DOE grant to expand (Associated Press)
The Department of Energy is reviving a vehicle loan program it pledged to retool after criticism it funded flops and wasted taxpayer money. The department announced Thursday it has reached a conditional, $259 million loan agreement with aluminum manufacturer Alcoa. The money will be used to fund an expansion of an Alcoa, Tenn., facility that manufactures high-strength aluminum used in fuel-efficient cars. The loan is the first issued from the department’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program in four years, and comes a year after Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz had promised to revamp the program.

NNSA official cites $80M savings on Y-12/Pantex contract (News-Sentinel/Munger)
Consolidated Nuclear Security, the contractor that last year took over management of the Y-12 and Pantex nuclear weapons plants, has not publicly revealed how it plans to save the government more than $3 billion — as promised — over the next decade. But a federal official indicated there already has been about $80 million in documented savings. The Government Accountability Office this week released a report questioning the total costs and potential savings of the competition that combined the management of Y-12 in Oak Ridge and Pantex in Amarillo, Texas, under a single contract. CNS, a corporate partnership headed by Bechtel National, won the hotly contested $22 billion federal contract and assumed responsibility for plant operations on July 1, 2014.

Trouble For State-Run District As Another Charter School Pulls Out (WPLN-Radio)
A fourth charter operator has pulled out of an agreement to takeover a low-performing school as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. This cancellation has a particularly personal sting for the ASD’s superintendent. YES Prep is walking away, after more than a year of legwork. The Houston-based charter operator was supposed to take over a Memphis middle school one grade at a time starting in the fall. But headwinds kicked up. For instance, Shelby County Schools now refuses to cooperate with takeovers unless the charter assumes responsibility for an entire school at once. YES Prep’s Bill Durbin says his model doesn’t work like that.

TQL to invest $1M in Knoxville office, create 100 jobs (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
Total Quality Logistics, a Cincinnati-based transportation services company, announced today it will spend $1 million to open a Knoxville sales office that is expected to add at least 100 jobs over the next five years. “We are extremely pleased to open a second location in Tennessee,” TQL President Kerry Byrne said. “We anticipate big things from this office. Its location at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains, combined with its highway accessibility and local talent pool, make it a perfect fit for our needs.” TQL’s Knoxville office is expected to open in July in the First Tennessee Building downtown. The company is already looking to fill positions here.

Music City Bowl brought nearly $20 million into Nashville economy (Tennessean)
The 2014 Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl brought $19.7 million directly into Nashville’s economy, officials reported Thursday. The bowl, one of the city’s biggest annual events, has produced nearly $270 million in economic impact over the 17 years of the game. The bowl also yielded $13.6 million in additional value via media exposure, according to data provided by Sponsorship Science, a third-party organization. That number is nearly double last year’s total and is attributable to the new 12-year deal with ESPN and the high-profile matchup between Notre Dame and LSU.

OPINION

Guest columnist: Insure Tennessee Deserves Second Look (Times Free-Press)
Our legislators should give Insure Tennessee a second look and, this time around, give it the green light. We need it. Two years ago, Gov. Bill Haslam announced that, because the Affordable Care Act was so flawed, he was rejecting that law’s option to expand Medicaid. He promised, however, to work hard on an alternative plan that would be true to conservative principles and meet Tennesseans’ health care needs. The governor is as good as his word. He announced in December that he had won critically important concessions from the Obama administration. Our state will use federal money that had been slated for Medicaid expansion to instead cover people with a new, tailored-for-Tennessee program designed by the governor and his staff.