April 1 TN News Digest

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

Knoxville automotive plant expanding, creating 202 jobs (News-Sentinel)
Automotive parts supplier Hicks Plastics expects to create 202 new local jobs with a $10.4 million expansion of its West Knoxville manufacturing plant, according to a Tuesday announcement. The Michigan-based company, which produces automotive lighting components, is expanding its Knoxville operations to be closer to SL Tennessee, which manufactures vehicle head lamps and tail lamps. “We recognize that companies have a lot of choices when it comes to doing business and we work hard every day to create the kind of environment that encourages growth, allowing us to continue our efforts to become the No. 1 location in the Southeast for high quality jobs,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in a news release Tuesday.

Haslam requests $30 million for teacher insurance (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget amendment to fund an extra month of teacher health insurance is being called a positive step for Tennessee. Haslam announced Tuesday he is requesting $30 million in recurring money to fund 11 months of insurance for teachers. The state pays 45 percent of health insurance premiums for 10 months, meaning local districts and teachers statewide are left with the brunt of insurance costs. “This is a good day,” said Jim Wrye, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Gov. Haslam adds money for teacher insurance to budget proposal (TFP/Sher)
A Hamilton County school board member who led the effort to sue the state for more school money welcomed news Tuesday that Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing to put more money into paying for teacher insurance. “I think that’s a good development that shows he’s listening, and it’s a small step in the right direction,” Signal Mountain school board member Jonathan Welch said. “We’ll see where it leads.” Haslam said Tuesday he is proposing to add $30 million to increase state funding of health insurance for teachers in his proposed 2015-2016 budget.

Gov. proposing budget amendment (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Munger)
Gov. Bill Haslam is asking legislators to spend $120 million to build a long-delayed new Tennessee State Museum to replace its current cramped quarters in the basement levels of a state office building in Nashville. Since 1979, the museum has shared space at the bottom of the high-rise James K. Polk Building with the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The museum has artifacts stored in warehouses that it cannot display for lack of space. Its board is trying to raise $40 million from private donors to supplement the taxpayer funding to build a large building along the Bicentennial Capitol Mall north of the State Capitol. The total project will tally about $160 million.

Gov. Haslam proposes $120M for new state museum (Commercial Appeal/Locker)
Gov. Bill Haslam is asking legislators to spend $120 million to build a long-delayed new Tennessee State Museum to replace the institution’s current cramped quarters in the basement levels of a state office building in Nashville. Since 1979, the museum has shared space at the bottom of the high-rise James K. Polk Building with the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The museum has artifacts stored in warehouses that it cannot display for lack of space. The museum board is trying to raise $40 million from private donors to supplement the taxpayer funding to build a large building along the Bicentennial Capitol Mall north of the State Capitol.

New Tenn State Museum Green Lighted, Thanks To Extra Tax Revenue (WPLN)
An unexpected surge in business tax collections may go to build a new Tennessee State Museum —in its first ever dedicated home. Governor Bill Haslam proposed using $120 million to get started on a building that’s been mired in the planning stage for years. As recently as earlier this month, state lawmakers asked why it’s taken so long to move forward with a new museum. The state’s repository for artifacts has been around since 1937, moving from the War Memorial building to the basement of the Tennessee Performing Art Center for the last three decades. “We were surprised,” says longtime executive director Lois Riggins-Ezzell. “The timing is just right.”

Haslam proposes $120M for new state museum (WSMV-TV Nashville)
A new state museum may now get the $120 million in funding it needs for construction. The proposal for the new Tennessee State Museum is part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s amended budget. The new museum would also require $40 million in private funds from fundraising efforts. The new museum would be built at the corner of Jefferson Street and Rosa L. Parks Boulevard. Along with other new capital projects, it would need approval by the legislature. Haslam plans to file his budget amendment next week.

Haslam withdraws effort to end bonuses for current workers (AP/Schelzig)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is withdrawing his effort to remove longevity bonuses for current state employees after running into staunch opposition in the Legislature. As part of his late-session budget amendment introduced on Tuesday, Haslam now only wants to apply the change to new workers hired by the state. State employees currently qualify for an annual bonus of $100 for each year of service – up to a maximum of $3,000 – paid out as a lump sum on the anniversary of their start date.

Haslam speaks at Tennessee Prayer Breakfast (Daily News Journal)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam appears at the Tennessee Prayer Breakfast on March 26 at Lipscomb University. The keynote speaker was Gary Haugen.

Tennessee still paying dead, prisoners jobless benefits (Associated Press)
Dead people, prisoners and state employees are on the rolls of those receiving unemployment benefits in Tennessee, in spite of repeated warnings that the state is improperly paying out tens of millions in jobless claims. Those were among the findings of a state comptroller’s office audit released Tuesday that said the unemployment benefit system made overpayments of $98 million in the past six years. It estimated a backlog of payments could balloon that figure to $171 million. Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development officials took issue with that estimate and other findings in the audit. Officials said in an email that they have overpaid $165 million in the past six years but have been able to collect $71.5 million of it and continue to pursue the money.

School voucher bill passes in Tennessee House panel (Times Free-Press/Sher)
A plan to help Tennessee students move from failing public schools to private ones moved ahead Tuesday in the state House but included a provision delaying implementation should it become law. The debate over the school voucher bill struck sparks between Democrats and Republicans in the House Government Operations Committee, but the measure ultimately was approved and sent onto its next step, the Finance Committee. The Government Operations panel amended the bill to delay the Haslam administration from making any rules regarding the vouchers until Jan. 1. That effectively puts off issuing any vouchers until fall of the 2016-2017 school year.

Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan fails again in committee vote (AP/Johnson)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans failed again Tuesday, voted down by a key Senate committee a month after it was defeated in a special legislative session. The Senate Commerce Committee voted 6-2 against the measure on Tuesday. One committee member abstained from voting. Following the special session, the proposal had been resurrected on a 6-2 vote in the Senate Health Committee. However, prospects for passage this last time were slim, even though Haslam tried to make his case with individual committee members.

For Insure Tennessee backers, hope is lost again (Tennessean/Boucher)
The singing, the chanting and the yelling were already gone from the lobby of Legislative Plaza. But Tracy Foster remained, sitting quietly with tears running down her face. The Clinton, Tenn., resident suffers from a litany of health problems, including bladder cancer. Foster said she doesn’t qualify for Medicaid and can’t work because of her illness, but she thought a controversial measure making its way through the Tennessee General Assembly would at last offer the health insurance she needs. Instead, Foster was one of hundreds of advocates to watch lawmakers snuff out the newly rekindled hope for Insure Tennessee, a plan to provide hundreds of thousands of low-income Tennesseans with federally subsidized health care.

Despite hundreds of supporters at Capitol, Insure Tennessee dies again (TFP/Sher)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed Insure Tennessee plan flopped for a second time Tuesday in a Senate committee and that’s thrown the House effort into confusion with two top supporters disagreeing over whether to try to move it today in a subcommittee there. Six Republican Senate Commerce Committee members voted no and only two — including the committee’s lone Democrat — said yes on the resurrected and retooled plan to use federal Medicaid dollars under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). It sought to extend insurance to an estimated 280,000 Tennesseans, including nearly 19,000 in Hamilton County.

Senate committee votes against Insure Tenn plan (Commercial Appeal/Locker)
Republicans dealt Gov. Bill Haslam’s health insurance plan for up to 280,000 uninsured, working Tennesseans a potentially fatal blow for the year Tuesday in a Senate committee where only two members voted in favor and six voted against it. The plan’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, told the Commerce Committee just before it voted: “I think if you vote no today, it ends the conversation for this year. I ask you to keep the conversation going.” But the plan failed on the 2-6 vote, despite an amendment by Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, that sought to allay concerns by imposing strict conditions on its implementation.

Insure Tennessee Stopped After Surprise Revival (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
State lawmakers have turned back a second attempt to implement Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee health plan, but supporters say they will keep up the push, regardless. Hundreds of Insure Tennessee backers jammed Legislative Plaza Tuesday in the hope that lawmakers might be persuaded to embrace it at last. The rally came after Haslam’s proposal to extend Medicaid coverage to more than a quarter-million Tennesseans was given a surprising second life. But the Senate Commerce Committee rejected the program on a 6-2 vote.

End of the Line for ‘Insure TN’ (TN Report)
An attempt to revive Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to use Obamacare funding to finance health coverage for nearly 300,000 Tennesseans has once again been shot down in a state Senate hearing. Most of the Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee proved in no mood to move a resolution to the upper-chamber Finance Committee that would have authorized Haslam to launch “Insure Tennessee” after the U.S. Supreme Court hands down a decision this summer on the legality of government subsidies in federally run Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges. Senate Joint Resolution 93 was sponsored by Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville and was defeated on a 6-2 vote.

Insure Tennessee fails in Senate committee, again (Nashville Business Journal)
Insure Tennessee met a familiar fate on Tuesday. The Senate Labor and Commerce committee voted down a joint resolution that would have given Gov. Bill Haslam the power to negotiate with the federal government his plan to expand health care coverage to more than 270,000 low-income Tennesseans. In a February special session, the governor’s Insure Tennessee proposal also failed in a Senate committee. Tuesday’s vote came after the plan was revived in the Senate Health Committee last week.

Insure Tennessee dies for a second time (Nashville Post)
The Tennessee Senate Commerce and Labor Committee voted down Gov. Bill Haslam’s Medicaid expansion plan Tuesday afternoon in a 2-6-1 vote. It was the second time legislators killed Insure Tennessee this year. Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville had filed a bill to resurrect the plan a week after the original legislation died during a February special session. The second resolution passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee last week, but failed to make it to the Senate Finance Committee. The resolution included amendments to the bill attempting to alleviate concerns raised by opponents during the special session. Amendments included a “lockout period” of six months, after which coverage would drop for enrollees who failed to pay their premiums, as well as requiring documentation that Tennessee could drop out of the plan without penalty by the federal government.

Another defeat for Insure Tennessee, and still no floor vote (C. Appeal/Veazey)
When it was over Tuesday afternoon, when the state Senate committee dealt Gov. Bill Haslam’s health insurance plan a second — and for this year, a potentially fatal — blow, the scores of supporters who packed the committee room reconvened in a Legislative Plaza lobby. They sang — “We Shall Overcome,” “I Will Trust In The Lord.” They prayed. Some of them cried. And they listened to a tall man wearing a clerical collar, a Lutheran minister from Lebanon named Matt Steinhauer. “We did not get heard as we should have,” Steinhauer told them, to applause. “The argument has been made, the objections have been answered, but they still said no,” he said, and their response grew louder. And then, his crescendo: “I am so angry,” he said, his voice rising. Suddenly, he didn’t have to “speak up,” as he had been asked to do a few minutes earlier. He smiled and asked for prayer. “I do not do anger well,” he said.

Uber, Lyft requirements advance in General Assembly (Tennessean/McGee)
Tennessee legislators advanced a bill Tuesday that would authorize ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft statewide and nullify municipal laws regulating their services. The bill, garnering support from Tennessee insurance agents, establishes requirements for Uber and Lyft on insurance and background checks and relies on the companies to self-regulate. It passed in the House Insurance and Commerce and the Senate Commerce and Labor committees. “It would bring consistency to the laws all across the state,” said state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who sponsored the bill. “It provides for proper safeguards from an insurance perspective and proper safeguards for consumers. It simplifies the process for everyone.”

Abortion ultrasound bill withdrawn (Associated Press)
A bill that originally sought to require ultrasound images be shown or described to women seeking abortions in Tennessee has been withdrawn for the year The House Health subcommittee was poised Tuesday to send Rep. Rick Womick’s bill to a study committee after the legislature adjourns for the year. But the Murfreesboro Republican instead persuaded the panel to reschedule the bill for the subcommittee’s first meeting of 2016. Womick had proposed an amendment to give the patient the option to view the ultrasound before undergoing the procedure. Several committee members expressed concern about a 24-hour waiting period that could conflict with other legislation seeking to establish a 48-hour waiting period for abortions.

Womick postpones his ultrasound bill (Daily News Journal)
State Rep. Rick Womick responded to questions today about his bill pertaining to ultrasounds prior to abortions by postponing consideration until 2016. The Tennessee House Health Subcommittee agreed to schedule the bill to the first calendar next year. “This is all about ultrasounds and mothers being given the opportunity to see an ultrasound prior to an abortion,” Womick told the committee before asking for his bill to come back up next year. Womick, a Republican from Rutherford County’s Rockvale community southwest of Murfreesboro, faced questions from state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, about whether his bill would place a burden on women seeking an abortion.

Ultrasound Abortion Bill Gets Lukewarm Response In Tenn Legislature (WPLN)
A state representative from Rutherford County has withdrawn a bill that would have required doctors to show women an ultrasound of their fetus before getting an abortion. Lawmakers said they were concerned about a technicality of the bill, but it hasn’t had much support from the start. Anti-abortion advocates have said for months that they wanted to pass certain specific laws this legislative session: requiring a waiting period between seeing a doctor and having the procedure, making abortion clinics become licensed surgical centers and requiring doctors to tell women certain information. The ultrasound bill that Rep. Rick Womick (R-Rockvale) introduced was not on that list. So he didn’t seem too surprised when he couldn’t rally strong support, because of the lack of support from Republican leadership. “Even though they promised me two years ago this would be a priority bill, they reneged on that and decided to go on three other bills,” he said after withdrawing the bill in a House subcommittee meeting. “Which is fine, but I’ll be back next year.”

Lundberg’s ‘Pass the Bottle’ bill fails again (Times-News)
Tennessee state Rep. Jon Lundberg’s latest attempt to advance his so-called “Pass the Bottle” legislation failed on a voice vote Tuesday in the House State Government Committee. For about a half dozen years, Lundberg has filed this bill to extend the state’s open alcohol container law to passengers in a motor vehicle. Lundberg, R-Bristol, had modified the bill to exclude passengers in vehicles for hire or in the living quarters of a house coach or house trailer, or passengers in a vehicle being operated by a chauffeur. The state’s current open container law violation carries a $40 fine. Officials from the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) and Tennessee Highway Patrol testified in support of the bill. And, again, Lundberg made the argument before the committee that because his bill hasn’t passed, Tennessee is missing out on millions of federal highway dollars.

Marijuana Decriminalization Push Set for First Full Committee Hearing (TN Report)
Nashville Democrat Harold Love wants to eliminate the possibility of jail time for people caught by police possessing a small amount of marijuana. But that’s tantamount to “legalization” in the eyes of House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman William Lamberth. Love’s House Bill 873, a measure to decriminalize the possession and “casual exchange” of up to an ounce of cannabis, passed out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on a voice vote last week. It’s up for a full Criminal Justice Committee hearing on Wednesday. Despite having a fiscal note indicating it would save the state $1.26 million from incarceration costs, Lamberth, a Cottontown Republican, expressed objections in the subcommittee hearing. The former prosecutor took issue with the fact that the legislation “legalizes, in all circumstances, marijuana.”

Medical marijuana bill advances in House (Daily News Journal)
Legislation allowing Tennesseans diagnosed with terminal and other illnesses to use medical marijuana passed its first hurdle in the state House Tuesday. The House Health Subcommittee approved the bill sponsored by state Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, through voice vote without dissent or debate. The proposal will be sent to the full committee for consideration. If approved, the legislation would allow those with terminal illnesses to be prescribed marijuana administered through gel tab pills or a patch, Williams said. Those illnesses include stage II, III or IV terminal cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease and certain forms of epilepsy, Williams said.

Advocates sobered by medical marijuana bill language (Leaf Chronicle)
They didn’t have to pass it to find out what’s in it, but some advocates of medical marijuana were wondering if passing the Republican version was worth the wait after the legislation made it to the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives on Tuesday. The Leaf-Chronicle received a PDF copy of the legislation early Tuesday morning. In some ways, the bill – HB1284 in the House and SB1248 in the Senate – breaks new ground for conservative lawmakers in the state in terms of what medical conditions warranted medical marijuana (MMJ) treatment, what parts of the marijuana plant were considered usable and in the types of acceptable drug delivery methods, like vaporization.

Court clerks could settle for late fees under proposed bill (TFP/Wiseman)
Court costs money. To help make it go, courts charge fees, fines, taxes and jail costs to people who file suit or appear before judges. Many times, those people can’t afford to pay off those costs. Outstanding payments can stack up and stretch on for years. “Sometimes you’re chasing after amounts that are not going to be very collectible,” Juvenile Court Clerk Gary Behler said. A bill that’s set to go before the General Assembly today aims to make that collection easier. Co-sponsored by Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, House Bill 52, which in the Senate is known as Senate Bill 19, would allow criminal or general sessions court clerks to accept a partial lump-sum payment of outstanding court costs.

Public hospitals across Tenn oppose bill restricting closed meetings (TFP/Belz)
Public hospitals across Tennessee are quietly fighting a bill that would tighten restrictions on their ability to hold private meetings — local lawmakers’ response to Erlanger Health System’s closed-door discussions to award $1.7 million in executive bonuses last year. “They’re fighting it tooth and toenail,” said state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. Gardenhire said hospitals across the state have contacted him to protest the bill. “They just don’t want sunshine,” he said, referring to the state open meetings rule known as the Sunshine Law.

Local officials find guns-in-parks bill ‘frustrating’ (Commercial Appeal)
The controversial guns-in-parks bill is scheduled to arrive on the state Senate floor Wednesday, and some officials in Germantown and Shelby County took a dim view of the proceedings. When the Tennessee legislature approved guns in state and local parks in 2009, it allowed city councils and county commissions to “opt out” of the state law and continue to ban firearms in parks under their control. But the bill the Senate will consider, which was approved by the state House of Representatives Monday, would allow people with handgun-carry permits to go armed in any local park in Tennessee, regardless of local bans.

Girl Scouts have milk and cookies with legislators at Tennessee Capitol (TFP)
Girl Scouts from across Middle Tennessee visited the Tennessee State Capitol as part of Girl Scout Day on the Hill March 25. During their visit, the girls learned how state government works by participating in a mock vote in the Tennessee General Assembly, according to a news release. Rep. Susan Lynn. R-Mount Juliet, Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Legislative Librarian Eddie Weeks spoke to the girls about women suffrage and the important role the girls play as future leaders, the release stated.

Judge denies open records lawsuit against Haslam (Associated Press)
A tax attorney who sued for the release of records from Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration related to a $350,000 analysis of business tax collections in Tennessee said Tuesday that he likely will appeal a judge’s denial of his lawsuit. Attorney Brett Carter had filed the lawsuit in chancery court alleging a “willful” violation of the Tennessee Open Records Act over the state finance and revenue departments’ refusal to disclose details about how they decided to draft the Revenue Modernization Act that Haslam has proposed to lawmakers this year. But Chancellor Carol McCoy on Monday denied Carter’s lawsuit after reviewing some of the requested materials in chambers.

OPINION

Editorial: Tennessee lawmakers pander to NRA on gun bills (Tennessean)
Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell has made clear with the guns-in-parks bill passage in her chamber that the General Assembly is all about pandering to the NRA. The House vote, without debate and questions, occurred Monday before the NRA convention next week. That the law could take effect before the convention instead of the usual July 1 date is clear indication of this favoritism. It’s amazing how quickly legislators can move when beholden to deep-pocketed special-interest. It’s comical that the state is stripping away local control for cities that wish to make and enforce gun regulations and then refuse to give money to remove signs that will make it seem as if local ordinances banning guns will still exist. This vote comes as no surprise.

Free-Press Editorial: Keep guns out of parks (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
Chances are, in the next 10 years, there will be an opportunity for someone to legally protect herself, for someone to legally protect his family or for several someones to legally protect nearby children with a gun in a park, playground or ball field in Tennessee. But is that chance, in which a gun may not have been produced to create danger in the first place, worth the possibility of various scenarios in parks, playgrounds and ball fields over the same time where guns may be pulled in anger, in family disputes or over drug deals? That is what is at risk if the Tennessee Senate passes a bill that would override local bans on guns in those locales.