April 9 TN News Digest

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

FedEx works with Haslam administration for tax break on aviation fuel (CA/Locker)
FedEx Corp. and Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration are asking lawmakers to cap the company’s aviation-fuel tax liability to the state at $10.5 million a year — about one third of the $32 million it paid last year. Memphis-based FedEx pays on average between 66 and 75 percent of the total $41 million to $48 million a year that the state’s aviation-fuel tax generates, because of its huge fuel purchases in Memphis, according to legislative testimony. The tax is 4.5 percent per gallon and is in lieu of other fuel taxes. The revenue flows into a fund created in 1988 that helps pay for airport improvements across the state. The revenue fluctuates from year to year with the price of fuel.

Haslam wants lawmakers to approve tax break for FedEx (Associated Press)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration wants lawmakers to approve a cut in aviation fuel taxes for Memphis-based FedEx Corp. The Commercial Appeal reports (http://bit.ly/1amJW4s ) that FedEx on average pays up to three-quarters of the total 4.5-cent-per-gallon tax collected by the state each year. Under Haslam’s proposal, FedEx’s aviation fuel tax liability would be capped at $10.5 million – down from the $32 million the company paid last year. The cap would be phased in over four years. According to testimony in committees this week, no other taxpayer exceeds the proposed cap. Southwest Airlines comes closest at $6 million per year.

Jim Henry honored for work with children (Roane County News)
A nonprofit advocating for abused and neglected children are praising Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and Commissioner Jim Henry of Kingston. Childhelp, which advocates for abused and neglected children, announced that Henry and his staff will be honored with the Childhelp Voice of the Children Award on April 22 at the Childhelp National Day of Hope celebration in Washington, D.C. “The outstanding work that Jim and his team are doing for Tennessee’s at-risk children and families should be brought to the forefront,” said Sara O’Meara, co-founder, CEO and chairman of the board for Arizona-based Childhelp.

Haslam administration won’t let troopers work security at NRA event (AP/Schelzig)
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has rejected state troopers’ request to work security at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Nashville this weekend. State Department of Safety spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said Wednesday that eight off-duty troopers had at first been approved to work the NRA event but were later denied because they wanted to bring along their patrol cars. The state had no mechanism to recoup the cost of using the vehicles, she said.

Bill to replace Tennessee academic standards advances (Associated Press)
Legislation that seeks to replace the state’s current academic standards is advancing in the state Legislature. The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Billy Spivey of Lewisburg was approved on a voice vote in the House Finance Subcommittee on Wednesday. The companion bill is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor. The legislation would replace the state’s current standards with ones developed solely in Tennessee. The state’s standards include the contentious Common Core standards for English and math intended to make students more competitive. Conservative critics argue that the standards represent federal intrusion into state matters.

The state of gun legislation in Tennessee (Tennessean/Boucher)
Guns in parks. Guns in cars parked at work or schools. Guns at the state Capitol and surrounding buildings. Guns on property used but not owned by a school. People carrying guns without a permit, concealed or openly. Permit holders carrying guns anywhere an off-duty police officer can carry guns. Targets that explode. Tennessee lawmakers have discussed bills that address myriad other issues. But they’ve also focused on guns, and noted this week’s massive National Rifle Association annual meeting in Nashville in at least some of those discussions. Here’s a quick look at what’s happened to some of the more discussed gun bills before the Tennessee General Assembly this year.

Local school districts react to guns-in-parks bill (Tennessean/Balakit)
School districts in Middle Tennessee are weighing their options as a controversial guns-in-parks bill makes its way through the state legislature. The proposed measure, which would allow permit holders to carry guns in all parks in the state, has caused concern for some school districts. Some worry how the bill will impact student athletes who frequently practice and play games at parks. It is illegal to carry weapons where school events occur. The two school districts in Williamson County have both taken action on the pending bill.

Tennessee grapples with meth abuse during pregnancy (Tenn/Gonzalez, Boucher)
Tennessee lawmakers wrestled again this month with a controversial law that allows women to be arrested for harming their newborns by abusing drugs during pregnancy. But a vote on Wednesday against expanding prosecution powers could signal the first step toward repealing the law altogether, said health advocates who say expanding treatment would do more for newborns than putting mothers in jail. “We feel like people … realize this is not the way to deal with this problem in Tennessee and that we really need to go back to the drawing board,” said Allison Glass, state director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, a nonprofit women’s advocacy group.

Abortion counseling, waiting period bill advances (Tennessean/Wadhwani)
For the second day in a row, lawmakers spent hours in contentious debate over an abortion measure that would require women to undergo a waiting period and in-person counseling by a physician, but ultimately voted along party lines to schedule the bill for a full vote in the legislature. The bill would require all women seeking an abortion to first receive in-person counseling by a physician before a 48-hour waiting period begins — a measure that would make Tennessee only the second state to combine required in-person physician counseling with a waiting period, according to Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate with Washington, D.C.-based Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion laws nationwide.

Bill Would Add School Teachers to Little Hatch Act (Associated Press)
Legislation to prohibit Tennessee teachers from engaging in political campaigning during work hours is headed to the governor. The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Joey Hensley, of Hohenwald, was approved 27-6 in the Senate on Wednesday. The companion bill passed the House 68-27 earlier this month. Currently, public school teachers and other school employees are excluded from the Little Hatch Act, which applies to most state employees. The proposal would add teachers to the employees prohibited from campaigning at work.

Tenn. senator says vasectomy ‘more stringent’ than abortion (Associated Press)
A Tennessee state senator says a vasectomy is a “more stringent” medical procedure than an abortion. Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga made the comment Tuesday while speaking in favor of a measure that would require a 48-hour waiting period for an abortion during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which passed the legislation on a 7-2 vote. The measure would also require the woman to sign a form indicating she has been informed of the details of her pregnancy and the risks of an abortion. During committee debate, Democratic Sen. Sara Kyle of Memphis said men seeking a vasectomy should have to adhere to the same standards. Gardenhire responded that he believes a vasectomy is “a lot more stringent process” than that of a woman having an abortion.

Senator: ‘More stringent process’ for vasectomy than abortion (Tenn/Boucher)
Lawmakers veering off topic is not uncommon. But state Sen. Todd Gardenhire steered an already charged conversation about an abortion bill into eyebrow-raising territory Tuesday night when he talked about his own vasectomy and suggested the process was more “stringent” than an abortion. The comments start at about the one-minute mark in the video below. The Chattanooga Republican started talking in response to comments from state Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire discusses his vasectomy at the Tennessee capitol (TFP/Sher)
A female senator’s questioning of why 48-hour mandatory waiting periods are needed for women seeking an abortion while not for men for vasectomies prompted outspoken Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga to weigh in with personal experience and a suggestion it’s tougher on men. Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, posed the question during a contentious Tuesday night debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee over the 48-hour waiting period legislation. “What I don’t understand is the discrimination,” Kyle said, according to the digital recording of the meeting.

Senators Debate: Which Is Easier To Get, An Abortion Or A Vasectomy? (WPLN)
Outspoken Chattanooga Senator Todd Gardenhire is suggesting abortions might be easier to get than vasectomies in Tennessee. The remark came Tuesday night during a testy hearing over a proposed requirement that women wait at least 48 hours before getting an abortion. Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis), not Gardenhire, was the first to directly compare vasectomy and abortion requirements. She raised the issue in an exchange with abortion opponents. She described it as discrimination to require women to wait for an abortion but not to require men for a vasectomy.

Tenn. bill targets animal fighting (Bristol Herald-Courier)
The Tennessee House is set to discuss a pending bill that would strengthen animal fighting laws in the state. State Rep. Jon Lundberg, R- Bristol, is the sponsor of House Bill 962, which would create a Class A misdemeanor for a person who knowingly causes a minor to attend an animal fighting event, whether it involves dogs, roosters or any other animal. The bill originally also created a Class E felony for second or subsequent convictions for animal fighting that involves roosters. But a House committee has already deleted the felony section of the bill.

Bill to do away with Tennessee helmet requirement revived (Associated Press)
A proposal that seeks to do away with Tennessee’s motorcycle helmet requirement was revived Wednesday and is advancing in the state Legislature despite concerns about how it would be enforced. The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Kerry Roberts of Springfield passed the Senate Transportation Committee 5-4. Last month, the measure failed after it received a 4-4 vote. However, the sponsor was able to get a majority of signatures from lawmakers on the nine-member panel to place the measure back on the committee’s calendar. Under the proposal, motorcycle riders at least 21 years old would be able to decide if they want to wear a helmet.

Lawmakers May Trump Ed Officials To Give Virtual Academy More Time (WPLN)
Margaret Lea cares little about the Tennessee Virtual Academy’s low academic rating. What the Knoxville mother says is, after four years at the online school, her son has progressed — from reading at a level more than two years behind his classmates to becoming nearly their equal. “I know I see him making gains in his reading. I see where he was before and where he is now.” Parents and teachers at the troubled, for-profit Tennessee Virtual Academy are making a push to save it from closure, but the clock is ticking. A proposal that could keep the virtual academy open until 2018 is circulating in the state Senate, and three families have also sued to block closure.

Advocates hope study revives death, marijuana bills (Tennessean/Daniels)
Two popular but controversial measures, medical marijuana and death with dignity, were held for summer study commissions Wednesday by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. Both bills seek to give patients and their doctors the power to make decisions about what constitutes appropriate care and treatment that current Tennessee law bans. Despite passionate advocacy on behalf of each bill, many legislators have strong philosophical concerns about whether the state should endorse assisted suicide or the consumption of a drug currently categorized by the U.S. government as a Schedule I drug. “Half a loaf is better than none,” said John Jay Hooker, who has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer and testified in favor of SB 1362, which was recommended unanimously for study.

Medical marijuana bill dead for season in Tennessee (Times Free-Press/Belz)
An attempt to legalize medical marijuana in Tennessee has failed in the General Assembly this year, but the bill’s Senate sponsor said Wednesday he doesn’t consider the vote a defeat. “I’m disappointed, but I’m optimistic,” said Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville. “The more I got into this issue, the more committed I became to this bill. This gives us a chance to craft a better bill for next year’s session.” The bill would have legalized cannabis oil for medical use by people suffering from a select number of conditions, including cancer and epilepsy. Dickerson, an anesthesiologist, and House sponsor Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, said the bill was conservative and would not have allowed recreational usage of marijuana. But after hearing testimony in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday, committee members voted to delay action on the proposal this session.

Medical marijuana advocates see past Wednesday failure (Leaf Chronicle)
Longtime medical marijuana advocates were subdued after Wednesday’s decision by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee to table a Republican-sponsored Tennessee medical marijuana bill for summer study. The move, which delays action until 2016, was not unexpected as problems with the bill were cited by pro-marijuana activists, potential medical marijuana (MMJ) supporters and opposition alike. However, one of the biggest problems for advocates – a provision that MMJ patients would have to surrender their driver’s licenses – was reportedly removed from both the Senate and House versions prior to Wednesday’s meeting.

Insure Tennessee backers set meeting in Harwell district (Tennessean/Meyer)
House Speaker Beth Harwell’s constituents who support Insure Tennessee are holding a town hall meeting Thursday night to discuss the plan. West Nashville residents plan to gather at 7 p.m. Thursday at Blakemore United Methodist Church, 3601 West End Avenue in Nashville. The Rev. Robert Coleman will moderate the event, which will include an expert panel and a question and answer session. Insure Tennessee is Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to provide federally funded health insurance coverage to uninsured and low-wage Tennesseans.

Corker talks about Iran at Knoxville event (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Marcum)
The Knoxville Chamber got an update Wednesday from U.S. Sen. Bob Corker on Washington matters, particularly Iran, with Corker addressing the group shortly after taking a call from President Barack Obama on the issue. Corker mentioned the call during his speech at a chamber luncheon at Crowne Plaza in downtown Knoxville, but would not discuss the contents of the conversation other than to say it concerned the negotiations the Obama administration has going with Iran. Several news reports Wednesday said that Obama called Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to lay out his case for a nuclear agreement with Iran.

Corker touts Congressional review of Iran nuclear deal (Times-News)
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker pitched his legislation for a full Congressional review of an Iran nuclear agreement to a room full of Rotarians and other community leaders on Wednesday. “If Iran continues in their current behavior and we enter into an agreement that doesn’t keep them from getting a nuclear weapon, then we have a situation where a country has access to huge amounts of money, their economy is growing and they can continue the destabilizing activities they’ve been involved in, and they in a very short amount of time could have a nuclear weapon,” the Tennessee Republican warned during a meeting of the Sunrise Rotary Club at Food City’s Press Room.

Chuck Fleischmann moves up on key panel (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., has taken one step closer to his dream of leading the House Appropriations Committee. Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., on Wednesday named Fleischmann and 11 others vice chairpersons for the committee’s 12 subcommittees. Vice chairpersons lead the committees in the chairman’s absence. “These Members will play an integral role in bringing each of the 12 appropriations bills from subcommittee to the House floor, and I know that they will live up to the demands of the job over what I expect will be a tough but successful appropriations year,” Rogers said in a statement.

VA makes little headway in shortening waits for care (Associated Press/Caruso)
A year after Americans recoiled at new revelations that sick veterans were getting sicker while languishing on waiting lists — and months after the Department of Veterans Affairs launched major reforms — government records show the number of patients facing long waits at VA facilities hasn’t dropped. No one expected the VA mess could be fixed overnight. But the Associated Press has found that since the summer, the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has largely stayed flat. The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled Nearly 894,000 appointments completed at VA medical facilities from Aug. 1, 2014, to Feb. 28 failed to meet the health system’s timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days.

Marijuana Taxes Won’t Save State Budgets (New York Times)
Colorado’s marijuana tax collections are not as high as expected. In February 2014, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office projected Colorado would take in $118 million in taxes on recreational marijuana in its first full year after legalization. With seven months of revenue data in, his office has cut that projection and believes it will collect just $69 million through the end of the fiscal year in June, a miss of 42 percent. That figure is consequential in two ways. First, it’s a wide miss. Second, compared with Colorado’s all-funds budget of $27 billion, neither $69 million nor $118 million is a large number. “It’s a distraction,” Andrew Freedman, Colorado’s director of marijuana coordination, says of the tax issue. And despite the marijuana tax miss, overall state revenues are exceeding projections, which may force the state to rebate some marijuana tax receipts to taxpayers.

Communications firm’s local project will need 500 workers (Tennessean/Lee)
One of the largest communications contractors in the Midwest has opened an office in Hendersonville, the company’s CEO confirmed on Wednesday. Bear Communications recently leased property on Molly Walton Drive off Free Hill Road in Hendersonville, according to CEO Brett Niles. He said the company will be doing telecommunications construction work but declined to say who the company’s client is or the specific work the company will be doing due to a non-disclosure agreement. “For this project, Bear will employ either directly or indirectly through contract partners around 500 personnel,” he said.



Editorial: Compensation mix for teachers keeps promise (Knoxville News-Sentinel)
A budget adjustment made by the governor’s office has had a ripple effect for Knox County Schools, shaking loose more money for teacher pay and freeing Superintendent Jim McIntyre from a sticky situation. Gov. Bill Haslam announced March 31 he would amend his $33.3 billion budget proposal to increase the state’s share of health insurance coverage for K-12 teachers by $30 million. Knox County Schools fully funds its insurance costs, so the governor’s proposal — assuming it survives the legislative approval process intact — would result in a windfall for the district.

Editorial: Tennesseans should have right to die with dignity (Tennessean)
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.” ­ Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement address, June 12, 2005 Death is something few of us like to think about. However, it’s something we all know is inevitable. The question is whether we should try to have some, or any, control over when that final day will be. While it might be assumed that a majority of us would prefer to die a death of natural causes at an old age, polls like those administered by Gallup show that in 2014 nearly 70 percent of Americans supported euthanasia.