April 7 TN News Digest

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

Haslam touts plan to pay adults’ tech college tuition (Tennessean/Tamburin)
Gov. Bill Haslam wants to invest millions of dollars in a program that he says will put thousands of adult Tennesseans through college and into higher-paying jobs. Haslam’s latest effort to encourage college completion, the Tennessee Reconnect grant, offers eligible adults the chance to get tuition-free training at a technical college starting this fall. In remarks Monday, Haslam said the grant could be a boon to as many as 8,000 people in its first year. The state will pay only tuition and fees that aren’t covered by existing grants and scholarships — a last-dollar model similar to Haslam’s celebrated Tennessee Promise initiative.

Legislators consider broader tax for online retailers (Tennessean/McGee)
Tennessee legislators are considering a bill initiated by Gov. Bill Haslam that would tax out-of-state companies based on their economic presence in Tennessee, a measure that targets online retailers and software companies. At present, out-of-state companies pay a business tax only if they have a physical presence in Tennessee. Under Haslam’s Revenue Modernization Act, companies that do what the state considers to be substantial business in Tennessee will owe a business, franchise and sales tax. The bill puts Tennessee more in line with 30 other states and adapts to a retail environment in which transactions are increasingly made online, according to the Tennessee Department of Revenue.

UT: educated workforce most important in $1.6B impact (News-Sentinel/Slaby)
The University of Tennessee Knoxville’s economic impact on the state is a high return on investment for state lawmakers, UT leaders said Monday. The campus had a $1.6 billion impact on the state economy in the 2013-14 academic year, according to a new study from UT’s Center for Business and Economic Research. The study showed the impact created about 33,000 jobs both at UT and indirectly through university spending, and about $125 million in tax revenue with $188 million in state funds. “The state has made a very good investment in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and we’ve taken that investment very seriously,” said Chancellor Jimmy Cheek.

Study: UT a billion-dollar moneymaker (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
A University of Tennessee Knoxville study puts a dollar figure on the university’s statewide annual economic impact – $1.6 billion. UT officials on Monday discussed the study conducted by UT’s Center for Business and Economic Research. The figure includes more than $1 billion last year in payroll and benefits as well as goods and services. In addition, campus events such as football and basketball games create another $281 million in spending. For example, people who come in from out of town eat out, rent hotel rooms and often shop while they’re here, adding money to the local economy.

Tornado touched down in Williamson County, damaging homes (Associated Press)
A tornado touched down in Williamson County damaging some roofs and outbuildings, snapping trees and blowing a carport down a hill. The Tennessean reports the National Weather Service designated the Friday afternoon tornado an EFO — the smallest rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale. Meteorologists said it touched down between 5:22 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., reaching wind speeds of up to 85 miles per hour. Its damage path was 5.6 miles long and 75 yards wide. The tornado touched down intermittently in the Kingfield community of western Williamson County before moving east. It was still west of Franklin when it lifted.

EF0 Tornado Hit Wind Speeds Of 85 MPH In Williamson County (WTVF-TV Nash)
Officials with the National Weather Service confirmed a tornado touched down in Williamson County. A storm survey conducted Sunday after storms moved through Friday showed a small EF0 tornado touched down intermittently in the Kingfield community then moved eastword just north of Leiper’s Fork. Those with the NWS said the tornado lifted just west of Franklin. NWS officials said the tornado hit wind speeds up to 85 miles per hour and traveled a distance of 5.6 miles after touching down between 5:22 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Friday.

Haslam Says He Favors Stripping Guns-at-Capitol Provision (Associated Press)
Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that he favors House lawmakers stripping a provision inserted into a guns-in-parks proposal that would allow handgun carry permit holders to be armed on the grounds of the state Capitol. The Republican governor told reporters following a Nashville event that the Capitol’s safety and security officials have major concerns about the provision, “in terms of both the practical realities … as well as the process.” The original guns-in-parks proposal passed the House 65-21 last Monday. Two days later, the Senate added the Capitol provision to the House version and passed it 26-7.

House votes to take Tennessee Capitol complex off guns bill (Associated Press)
The House has voted to remove the Tennessee Capitol from a bill to expand the areas where people with handgun carry permits can be armed. The chamber voted 72-14 on Monday against the amendment inserted by the Senate last week. The original bill would strip local governments of the power to ban all firearms in parks, playgrounds and ballfields. The measure now heads back to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville said it’s unlikely the chamber will agree to the change. If that happens, the bill would go to a conference committee to try to hammer out differences.

House rejects guns-in-Capitol part of guns-in-parks bill (Tennessean/Boucher)
House Republicans agreed to reject a move by Senate Democrats that would allow guns at the state Capitol and surrounding complexes. Although Senate Republicans went along with the Democrats’ proposal — something the Democrats acknowledged was intended in part as a “poison pill” — the House GOP thought the idea could kill the underlying purpose of the bill: nixing any local bans on guns in parks. The House voted 72-14-1 to reject the Senate’s changes. The Senate adopted the change last week, and by the end of the day, House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, announced she thought the amendment was not offered in a constructive fashion and hoped the House would vote to not agree with the change.

House rejects provision in guns-in-parks bill allowing pistols in Capitol (TFP/Sher)
The state House Monday night refused to go along with a Senate amendment on a guns-in-parks bill that would allow handgun-carry permit holders to also carry their weapons into the state Capitol. Whether the Senate agrees, however, remains to be seen. At this point, it’s likely to wind up in a House and Senate conference committee where a majority Republicans will hash out their differences.cThe House vote to non-concur on the bill was initially 72-14. But that was changed to 75-17 after the tally on the electronic board was announced, as members who abstained sought to change their votes to aye or nay. That’s permissible provided it not change the outcome of a bill.

House strips Capitol amendment from guns bill (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Locker)
Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday there are “major concerns” about the guns-in-parks bill and its Senate amendment allowing handgun-carry permit holders to go armed on the Tennessee Capitol grounds, but wouldn’t say whether he will veto the bill. Meanwhile, the House on Monday night rejected the Senate’s guns-on-Capitol-grounds amendment, setting up a potential confrontation with the Senate. The bill goes back to the Senate, where senators will have to decide whether to strip the amendment or stand their ground and send it back to the House a second time. Both have to pass identical legislation before it goes to the governor.

Emergency bridge repair on I-24 in Chattanooga (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
On Tuesday, April 7, after 9 a.m., TDOT crews will be performing emergency repair operations on the concrete bridge deck on I-24 East over Chestnut St. at mile marker 178, according to a news release. One lane will be closed as this repair takes place, the release stated. The lane will be reopened as quickly as possible after the repairs are made and the concrete has cured. TDOT Operations and HELP trucks will assist with traffic control. The work is weather permitting.

Long lines the usual at driver’s license reinstatement office (WSMV-TV Nashville)
Anyone who has ever renewed their license or registered their car knows the lines can be long, but at the driver’s license reinstatement office, people can expect to wait at least three hours any day of the week. The Tennessee Department of Safety has been trying to speed up the process, but customers said it’s not working. “This is the fourth day I’ve missed of work in the last four months trying to get in,” said Jerry Smith of Hickman County. Smith has been trying to get his driver’s license reinstated for month. Each time, he’s waited for hours only to be turned away. “I got here at like 11:30 and I never got around the corner of the building,” Smith said.

Gloves Coming Off in Fight Over ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ Law (A. Press/Schelzig)
The gloves are coming off in a legislative fight over efforts to repeal state guidelines about which spirits can be labeled as “Tennessee Whiskey.” Opponents of the 2013 law passed at the behest of Jack Daniel’s want key committees to vote Tuesday to repeal the rules that they deem to be too restrictive. Key sticking points include rules requirements for sprits to be filtered through charcoal and aged in unused barrels to be called Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel’s master distiller Jeff Arnett is urging state lawmakers not to water down the law that he calls key to maintaining minimum quality standards, and argues that critics of the rules have misplaced priorities.

Medical Marijuana Supporters Dubious Of Latest Republican Plan (WPLN-Radio)
The push to legalize marijuana for medicinal use is getting an unlikely boost from Republican lawmakers, but advocates for medical cannabis aren’t satisfied. A group of Republicans is scheduled to present Wednesday their long-awaited proposal to bring medical marijuana to Tennessee. The plan will call for making small amounts available to people with a handful of illnesses, including Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and cancer, and for delivery to be limited to a few methods, such as patches, gel tablets and atomizers. But marijuana that could be smoked or eaten is out. The goal, says Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville), is to provide marijuana to patients without making it easier for the general public to get. “It does not include combustion. Specifically,” he said. “We shied away from smoking the weed, because we know that is stigmatized and we thought would actually hurt the bill.”

School vouchers gaining ground on two fronts (Commercial Appeal/Roberts)
Public school voucher legislation is closer to passing this year in Tennessee than it has been in the last three. If it is approved, Memphis — “ground zero” in the fight — can expect the biggest influx as potentially thousands of families move their children from public to private schools. Depending on the final votes in Nashville, the exodus could happen on two fronts. The largest likely will be income-eligible families heading to the Catholic schools, which are openly recruiting. And another stream could be special education students, including gifted students, whose families suddenly would have an average of $6,600 in tax money to take to a private school.

Streaming problems at Tennessee Legislature ‘unacceptable’ (Associated Press)
Legislative staffers are calling video streaming problems on the Tennessee General Assembly’s website unacceptable. The online video has been available intermittently over the last two weeks. House Clerk Joe McCord said in an email to members on Monday that audio-video staffers have been in contact with the streaming vendor to complain about the interruptions during legislative session. McCord said that all meetings and floor sessions are being recorded regardless of the streaming issues, and that DVD duplicates are being made for archival purposes.

Mountain of budget backlog repairs pile up in Smokies (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
Next year the National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday. A lot of the facilities in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other NPS properties are showing their age. Many long-overdue repairs are continuously delayed year after year due to a lack of allocated money in the federal budget. The maintenance backlog in the Smokies has piled up to more than $240 million in postponed construction projects. “The Park headquarters was built over 75 years ago,” said Brent Everitt, GSMNP Spokesperson.

Children’s Savings Accounts Help States Create ‘College-Going Culture’ (Stateline)
Free money for college may sound like an easy sell, but when parents of newborns in Maine were offered a $500 grant for their infants’ college education, fewer than half signed up. Even worse, a study found that less educated, lower-income families–those that could benefit most—were least likely to take the money. So last year, Maine changed its strategy. Today, each of the roughly 12,500 babies born in Maine each year receives a $500 grant deposited automatically in a college savings account. For decades, private foundations have promoted the idea of children’s savings accounts to help families imagine and save for their children’s college education.

TVA study recommends demolishing coal plant (Times Free-Press/Flessner)
Fifty-eight years after it began generating power for the Tennessee Valley Authority, the John Sevier Fossil Plant in Rogersville, Tenn., is scheduled to soon be demolished. The 880-megawatt, coal-fired plant, which TVA began operating in 1957, was replaced three years ago by a similar-sized, natural gas plant. TVA switched from coal to gas for power in Upper East Tennessee to help reduce air pollution and comply with the terms of a 2011 settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups. The decision to demolish the aging coal plant follows an environmental assessment just released by TVA that evaluated whether the shuttered, 4-unit coal plant should be maintained for possible future use, partially demolished or completely removed.

School Competition Shows Promise, Threat (Memphis Daily News)
The competition among Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District and charter schools has been a positive for public schools, say two Shelby County Schools board members. But board chairwoman Teresa Jones and board member Chris Caldwell say the competition of the last three school years also has split the funding and could threaten classroom success. “We cannot exist in that climate. At some point it becomes unmanageable,” Jones said on the WKNO TV program Behind The Headlines. “We never get our balance. We never have two or three years as other systems have where we can just do the work – we can just educate children. Every year we are struggling, and we are fighting for survival.”

‘Nickels and dimes’: Residents, school officials discuss funding (N-S/McCoy)
Teona Spurlock had only planned to graduate from high school, but now she wants to not only finish college but continue on to medical school. All of that, the Cedar Bluff Middle School seventh-grader said Monday during a community forum on the 2015-16 school budget proposal, was because of her participation in the AVID program. The initiative prepares middle and high school students for college and success in a global society through instruction in writing, reading, collaboration, inquiry, note-taking and organization.

VW launches ‘pioneering’ engineering center in Chattanooga (TFP/Pare)
Volkswagen is jump-starting its new Chattanooga-based engineering and planning center, which its officials termed the first of its kind in the South for an automaker. “What we’re doing a little bit here is pioneering work,” said Dr. Matthias Erb, who is overseeing the startup of the facility for the German automaker. Hiring has started for about 130 engineers and technicians who are to work at the center by 2017, Erb said. Move-in will begin next week at a vacant building near the VW assembly plant that will temporarily house the center, the VW Group of America executive vice president said.

Station manager tapped to succeed Turner as NewsChannel 5 GM (Nashville Post)
The new owners of NewsChannel 5 have promoted Station Manager Lyn Plantinga to vice president and general manager of the CBS affiliate, effective immediately. Plantinga, pictured at left, has taken over from longtime NewsChannel 5 leader Debbie Turner, who was recently named VP of TV operations at E.W. Scripps and will oversee the company’s 33 stations around the country. Turner is now splitting her time between Nashville and Scripps’ home office in Cincinnati. Plantinga comes to her new role with experience on both the news and sales side of NewsChannel 5.

Editorial: Veto the guns-in-parks bill (Commercial Appeal)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam should veto the “guns-in-parks” bill if it reaches his desk. While we respect the Second Amendment right to go armed, if a person has the proper permits, there are just some places where firearms should not be allowed. Public parks are one of them. The state Capitol grounds are another. If the bill becomes law, it will take away the right of cities and counties to determine whether they want guns in their parks. A troubling Senate amendment to the bill would have allowed guns on the Capitol grounds. Monday night, the House voted 72-14 to remove the amendment from the bill. Thank goodness, common sense prevailed on that front. The original bill would strip local governments of the power to ban all firearms in parks, playgrounds and ballfields.

Times Editorial: Tennessee’s medical marijuana bill is a good prescription (TFP)
At long last, a medical marijuana bill is scheduled to be discussed Wednesday in the Tennessee House Health Committee and also is expected to be presented in the Volunteer State’s Senate House and Welfare Committee. Medical marijuana in oil form has been shown to significantly lessen epileptic seizures, especially in children like 5-year-old Cora Vowell, a local girl who last year suffered an accident that required her to wear a helmet constantly to protect her head against the nine to 12 seizures she now has each day. Every seizure lessens Cora’s mental and emotional growth. Between the illness and her steady intake of psychoactive drugs to combat it, she sleeps through most of her school day and has not learned her ABCs.

Free-Press Editorial: Cannabis oil can be option for many (Times Free-Press)
The medicinal effects of marijuana are no joke to Rita Moore, education services director for the Epilepsy Foundation of Southeast Tennessee. “If they’d found [the medicinal effects] first,” she says, “it would be a miracle drug. We have to get past this.” The “this” is what you already know — the casual “high” you get from smoking marijuana, its ability to impair your judgment, its addictive qualities, its potential to be a gateway to other drugs, plus the jokes about “the munchies,” Cheech & Chong, and Bob Marley music. Moore isn’t interested in legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. She’s more concerned with the statistic on her business card, which says “1 in 100 [people] has epilepsy.” She wants legislators to pass pending legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly allowing the use of cannabis (marijuana) oil for the treatment of several diseases, including epilepsy.