April 10 TN News Digest

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

Haslam in Memphis, selling Reconnect, scholarship for adults (CA/Roberts)
Jonathan Stringfellow steeled himself, then walked to the microphone next to Gov. Bill Haslam and told the crowd at Smith & Nephew how fortunate he was to be able to quit his job digging ditches and enroll in the machinist program at Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Covington. If he were starting school later this year, he’d stand to save $700 a trimester through TN Reconnect, the scholarship that goes into effect this summer and is designed to help the roughly 1 million Tennessee adults who started a degree but did not finish. It’s part of Haslam’s Drive to 55, the statewide effort to have 55 percent of adults hold some kind of postsecondary degree by 2025.

Haslam introduces free training through Tenn. Reconnect (Jackson Sun)
Gov. Bill Haslam spoke at the Jackson Chamber on Thursday to promote the Tennessee Reconnect program. He said Tennessee Promise — which will provide a free community college education to graduating high school seniors beginning this year — is a great first step in the Drive to 55 program. Drive to 55 seeks to bring the number of Tennessee adults with some kind of post-secondary training to 55 percent. But it would take a while to reach that goal working only with traditional college freshman, Haslam said. “If we’re going to get to 55 percent, we have to do something to enable all those adults out there who would like to have education, but they don’t know how to do it,” Haslam said.

Haslam defends bid to cap jet fuel tax (Commercial Appeal/Roberts, Risher)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday a proposed cap on jet fuel tax is a matter of fairness to Memphis-based FedEx Corp., which has shouldered a disproportionate burden for funding airport improvements across the state. During an appearance in Memphis, Haslam said he believes airports large and small can maintain a first-class aviation program even if FedEx’s jet fuel taxes are capped at $10.5 million a year, a third of last year’s $32 million payment. Haslam said, “They came to me and said, ‘We don’t mind paying our load, but we don’t think we should pay for everybody, carry everybody’s load.’ It’s a fair argument.”

Haslam Remains Dubious About Bible Bill and Provisions of Gun Bill (M. Flyer)
Governor Bill Haslam and state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) were members of an all-star assemblage of political and business figures who gathered at the Smith and Nephew plant on Thursday for a ceremony celebrating the successes of the administration’s two-year-old Tennessee Reconnect program. Tennessee Reconnect, a component of the Governor’s Tennessee Promise initiative offering free tuition for post-secondary education, provides free education to adults who wish to attend a Tennessee college of applied technology (TCAT) to gain certification or an associate’s degree.

Cate encourages students to thank community for successes (Daily Times)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief of staff wants The Daily Times Academic Letter winners to thank their community, both today and tomorrow, for their successes. “You didn’t get here by yourself,” said Mark Cate, before honored guests at the 30th annual Academic Letters Awards Banquet sponsored by The Daily Times at Heritage High School Thursday night. “You owe it to your community and should find ways to give back.” A total of 259 students from five high schools — Alcoa, Greenback, Heritage, Maryville and William Blount — earned 371 academic school letters. Letter recipients are the top students in their class — freshman, sophomore, junior or senior — in four areas of study: language arts, math, science and social studies.

Principals Improve At Spotting Great Teachers But Not Low-Performers (WPLN)
Tennessee school principals have gotten better at accurately grading the best teachers, but not those who need the most help. An annual report on the state’s teacher evaluation system finds administrators are still reluctant to give failing marks. Classroom observation scores calculated by principals should roughly line up with how a teacher’s students do on standardized tests. That’s what state education officials believe. But the numbers on the state’s five point scale don’t match up well. “The gap between observation and individual growth largely exists because we see so few evaluators giving 1s or 2s on observation,” the report states.

TDOT announces Knox-area roadwork plan (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Jacobs)
The state Department of Transportation plans construction of a new interchange for Interstate 640 at North Broadway during the next fiscal year, officials announced Thursday. The agency released its three-year statewide work program Thursday. Other Knoxville area projects include: Widening of a 1.4-mile stretch of Alcoa Highway between Woodson Drive to south of Maloney Road, also budgeted for construction in fiscal year 2016, which starts July 1. Right of way acquisition for later widening of 1.6 miles of Alcoa Highway from Woodson Drive to the Cherokee Trail interchange, budgeted for FY 2017.

Contest for vacant judgeship narrows to three candidates (Times Free-Press)
After five hours of public interviews in Chattanooga on Thursday, the Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments selected three finalists for the seat that will be vacated by Judge Rebecca Stern June 1. The council selected Assistant District Public Defender Mike Little, Assistant District Attorney General Boyd Patterson and Assistant District Attorney General Leslie Longshore after a 30-minute deliberation. The three finalists will next face Governor Bill Haslam for a private interview. Haslam will appoint Stern’s replacement, but that person will sit the bench for just 14 months before they’re up for re-election in 2016.

House Passes Bill to Allow Tennessee Constables to be Armed (Associated Press)
The state House has voted to allow constables in Tennessee to be armed if they are certified by the Tennessee Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission. The chamber voted 92-1 on Thursday to approve the measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Timothy Hill of Blountville. The companion bill is awaiting a full floor vote. Elected constables are an anachronism in urban Tennessee, but they still exist in rural areas where they mostly perform light law enforcement and serve court papers. Tennessee’s most famous constable was Buford Pusser, the inspiration of the “Walking Tall” movies, who was known for carrying a big stick.

State OKs Graceland tourism zone; new hotel (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Locker)
The state approved Memphis’s request for a tourism development zone for the 120-acre Graceland campus Thursday, and construction of a new hotel and entertainment center will start soon, Graceland executives said. The next and final public step in the process is Memphis City Council approval of a 5 percent tax surcharge on purchases within the zone to help pay for the planned improvements, estimated at about $135 million. The state Legislature established tourism development zones in 1998, allowing “qualified public use projects” like convention centers and major tourist enterprises to use a portion of sales tax proceeds collected on products and services within the zones to pay for the projects and improvements.

Area veterans alerted to proposed tax relief change (Leaf Chronicle)
Clarksville area veterans advocates are trying to mobilize opposition to an amendment to a bill in the state legislature, HB1197/SB1336, seeking to change the rules of a 42 year-old law that grants significant property tax relief to disabled veterans and surviving spouses, as well as low-income elderly Tennesseans. The summary to Amendment 5376 states “Deletes and rewrites the bill in its entirety. Beginning in tax year 2015, reduces from $25,000 to $23,000, the first portion of home value for which tax relief will be reimbursed to elderly low income and disabled home owners.

Tenn. Lawmakers Can’t Agree on Guns Bill Drafted as NRA Gift (AP/Schelzig)
It was supposed to be a welcoming gift from Tennessee lawmakers to the more than 70,000 people coming to the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Nashville this weekend. But the bill to allow people with handgun carry permits to be armed in all of the state’s parks has gotten tied up amid bickering between Republicans in the state House and Senate. Originally enacted in 2009, the guns-in-parks law included an opt-out provision for city and county governments. More than 70 communities initially decided to keep their gun bans in place.

Insure Tennessee town hall blasts no-show Harwell, others (Tennessean/Fletcher)
Neither Speaker of the House Beth Harwell nor a member of staff attended a Thursday town hall on Insure Tennessee so the town hall organizers are bringing her the questions. Harwell was invited to attend, but she and her staff declined, said Ginna Betts, who corresponded with her. Harwell, R-Nashville, did offer to meet with organizers at Legislative Plaza — and the organizers plan to take up the offer by bringing the questions from the town hall to her office, Betts said. Attendees will be invited to the yet-to-be-set meeting. “We all want to know where she is tonight,” several people chorused through the audience when the question-and-answer period began.

Future for Haynes’ post could be open (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Witt)
Tennessee state Rep. Ryan Haynes looks to be the frontrunner for the GOP chairman vote this week, leaving a question of how he’ll be replaced and who would replace him. The Knoxville Republican and head of the Knox County legislative delegation in the General Assembly said he’s not presuming anything ahead of Saturday’s vote for state party chairman. “I’m 100 percent focused on winning the current race,” Haynes said Thursday. “This is up to 66 very independent people to make this decision.” He’s been traveling to meet with members of the party’s state executive committee, Haynes said.

Fitzhugh honored by Tenn. Development District Association (Associated Press)
House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley has received the “Legislator of the Year” award from the Tennessee Development District Association. He was honored for supporting the efforts of development districts and local governments. The TDDA is an association of Tennessee’s nine development districts, which are regional planning and economic development organizations. The policy boards within each district are made up of the state’s 95 counties and 340 municipalities. Development districts assist with regional issues including planning and economic development coordination, transportation, solid waste, and loans and grants for critical infrastructure, such as water and sewer systems.

Haslam win on keeping tax info under wraps criticized (Times Free-Press/Sher)
A leading national provider of tax news and analysis says the Haslam administration’s recent court victory upholding its refusal to release information behind planned business tax hikes “highlights” a “breakdown in transparency in the state’s legislative process.” Moreover, Tax Analysts says, “it also demonstrates a significant transparency problem arising from the state’s use of outside counsel to determine its tax policy while barring the public from access to those policy considerations. 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 last month that he likely will appeal a judge’s denial of his lawsuit.

Corker’s Iran plan called ‘a balancing act’ (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Brogdon)
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker is walking a long, thin tightrope. If he falls, it could badly bruise his political capital — or America’s reputation across the globe. If he reaches the end, he could bridge a wide divide between Congress and the White House and create a unified American front to negotiations over any final nuclear agreement with Iran. Corker told Chattanooga Times Free Press editors and reporters Thursday that having Congress and the White House on the same team would only help negotiations with Iran, who he said is “the largest exporter of terrorism in the world.”

Editorial: Creating culture of health should become priority (News-Sentinel)
Knox County’s ranking of 15th healthiest among the state’s 95 counties is not bad, but it could be better. Local civic and business leaders and health professionals should work to make that happen. The rankings by county were announced last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which monitors health and health issues in the country. This is the sixth year the foundation has ranked counties, and it listed Williamson in Middle Tennessee as the healthiest county and Grundy, also in Middle Tennessee, as the least healthy.

Editorial: Empty state office building a deal too good for the city to pass up (CA)
If the city can close a deal to buy the vacant Donnelley J. Hill State Office Building for $1.5 million, it will be a bargain. It will keep this Downtown Civic Center landmark from becoming a deteriorating eyesore and eventually could save the city thousands of dollars in lease payments. And, it is sure to make the Memphis Police Department happy to have its own place to call home. Robert Lipscomb, the city’s director of housing and community development, who represented the city in negotiations with the state for the 14-story building, said he expects to bring the deal to the City Council for approval in May.

Free-Press Editorial: Congress must have Iran deal oversight (Times Free-Press)
A non-nuclear Iran is now a pipe dream — gone with the wind, off the table. So it is vital for the U.S. Senate to pass a bill by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., that would give Congress the ability to review and approve an agreement that would limit the Middle Eastern country’s nuclear program. During negotiations over the last several years, Iran “craftily” turned the deal to its advantage, Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, told reporters and editors Thursday in an editorial board meeting at the Times Free Press. What began as a discussion about the dismantling of the country’s nuclear program has resulted in a tentative deal — a verbal “political” deal at this point — about the “managed proliferation” of the program.

Times Editorial: Corker sees opportunity in pushing for Iran talks vote (TFP)
Anyone who watched President Barack Obama’s 45-minute talk with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had to be impressed to see him candidly discuss his approach to the volatile topic of nuclear talks with Iran. He explained the evolving agreement and his thinking on its framework, opportunities and pitfalls with thoughtful poise and statesmanship. And he offered his concerns about congressional reaction to it — specifically the Senate’s efforts to control it through legislation proffered by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and others. The president said he was open to finding a way for Congress to “express itself” as long as it did not block his ability to carry out the agreement.