April 12 TN News Digest

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

Parade, people impress governor (Columbia Daily Herald)
Gov. Bill Haslam is a big fan of Mule Day. As this year’s grand marshal in Saturday’s Mule Day Parade, he will lead the long line of floats as it makes its way through Columbia. As someone who has attended Mule Day in the past, Haslam said he is looking forward to visiting the many who come out each year. The Daily Herald visited the Tennessee State Capitol on Thursday for an exclusive interview with the Republican about all things Mule Day.

Crime decreases on college campuses (Jackson Sun)
Crime on college campuses statewide decreased by 6.3 percent in 2014, but violent crimes increased from 2013. Some West Tennessee schools followed that trend, but violent-crime reports were in the single digits on local campuses. Colleges statewide reported a total of 6,329 crimes in 2014, according to an annual report recently released by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Of those crimes, 324 incidents were reported on six West Tennessee campuses. Overall reports of crime at Bethel University, Freed-Hardeman University, Jackson State Community College, Lane College, Union University and the University of Tennessee at Martin decreased by more than 20 percent from 2013.

Challenging TN death penalty: 5 new things to know (Tennessean/Barchenger)
Tennessee’s death penalty is stalled and all scheduled executions have been delayed while both execution methods — lethal injection and its backup, the electric chair — are tied up in legal battles. A group of more than 30 inmates is challenging the state’s single-drug lethal injection protocol in Davidson County Chancery Court. Next month, the Tennessee Supreme Court will weigh whether the inmates can also challenge the electric chair. The inmates say both methods are unconstitutional because they create risk of cruel and unusual punishment or lingering death. Filings and hearings led to some developments last week.

On pregnant drug abuse, lawmakers whiff on data (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
There’s a joke about setting up hazard cones around any journalist who tries to make sense of statistics. But it was lawmakers last week who let numbers get the best of them during a heated legislative debate. Within just a few minutes they not only ignored important data that Tennessee actually does collect, but suggested it’s not collected. And they grew agitated about a statistic that doesn’t exist because, when creating a controversial law in 2014, they never assigned anyone to monitor its impact. Lawmakers are notorious for gaming numbers to their advantage, or to ignore an inconvenient number.

Analysis: Bible bill draws thunderbolts from critics (News-Sentinel/Humphrey)
Solid majorities of the state House and Senate have already embraced the notion of declaring the Bible shall become Tennessee’s official state book, perhaps leaving an anticipated attorney general’s opinion as the last hope for the bill’s critics. The critics of Republican-sponsored HB615 include some of the state’s top Republican leaders — Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, for example. “For God’s sake, think about where you’re headed,” Norris exhorted fellow members of a Senate committee. But 68 members of the House have signed on as co-sponsors with Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, and 19 members of the Senate have done the same in support of Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown.

Minister’s Supreme Court case paved way for pastors in Legislature (TFP/Sher)
When a bill designating the “Holy Bible” as the official state book hits the House floor this week, some of its biggest boosters will be “ministers of the Gospel” who serve in the General Assembly. But Tennessee’s founding fathers never intended to allow ministers to serve as representatives or senators. They wrote the ban into Article IX, Section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution, adopted in 1796. It took a Chattanooga minister, the Rev. Paul McDaniel, and the U.S. Supreme Court to void that language, to the good fortune of the four House members and the bill’s main Senate sponsor, all pastors. The section states that “Whereas ministers of the Gospel are by their profession, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions; therefore, no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature.” McDaniel challenged that language so he could serve as a delegate in the the 1977 state constitutional convention. Though he lost in Tennessee, the nation’s highest court ruled in his favor in 1978.

Ryan Haynes elected chairman of Tenn. GOP (Tennessean/Boucher)
Rep. Ryan Haynes is the new leader of the Tennessee Republican Party. The Knoxville Republican defeated fellow legislator Rep. Mary Littleton and controversial Vanderbilt University professor Carol Swain to become the new chairman of the party. “I’m absolutely honored. This is a party I’ve grown up in since I was a young kid, so I feel very honored to get the opportunity to lead that here in Tennessee,” Haynes, 29, said after the election. “I got in the car and went around and tried to personally meet with each state executive committee (member) that would meet with me. I think that hard work probably paid off today, but once again, I think all the candidates had that same work ethic.”

Corker: Congress needs time for review of Iran deal (Daily News Journal)
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker visited with staff at The Daily News Journal Friday to discuss efforts to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons and other issues. The Republican senator from Chattanooga said he spent part of the past week visiting with many groups in East Tennessee and Middle Tennessee. “Every question has been about foreign policy,” said Corker, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s been very energizing.” Corker gave detailed responses to many questions from the DNJ, especially pertaining to what is happening with negotiations with Iran:

Few taking advantage of special health insurance enrollment period (TFP/Belz)
Last-minute tax filers who were uninsured this year may be in for a rude awakening when they realize just how much the penalty for not having health insurance hurt their tax refunds — and how much it will increase next year. Luckily for them, the federal government is still allowing a “special enrollment period” until April 30 especially for those latecomers. But local navigators and brokers say they have had few people take advantage of the offer. “Those calls are definitely few and far between,” said Andrew Hetzler, COO of Chattanooga-based broker American Exchange, which specializes in the new marketplace.

Tennessee among top states for electronic tax filing (Times Free-Press/Smith)
With the average tax refund so far this year at $2,893, a record number of Tennesseans have turned to the Internet so far this year to file their tax returns and speed their refunds from Uncle Sam. The Internal Revenue Service estimates that more than 86 percent of Tennessee’s 2.9 million taxpayers will file electronic returns this year, including returns coming in by next Wednesday’s filing deadline and other extended filings through the rest of calendar 2015. “We had estimated that Tennessee would file 2.5 million electronic tax returns for the whole calendar year, but as of this morning Tennessee had already filed 2.1 million tax returns.”

States Tighten Conditions for Receiving Food Stamps as Economy Improves (NYT)
The food pantry here, just off the main drag in this neat college town, gets busiest on Wednesdays, when the parking lot is jammed and clients squeeze into the lobby, flipping through books left on a communal shelf as they wait their turn to select about a week’s worth of food. The Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program is intended to be a supplemental food pantry, but a growing number of clients here and at pantries around the state have little else to rely on because of a change in state policy this year. That change is part of an adjustment being made by states that will strip food stamp benefits from a million childless, able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on low-income Americans.

Big school boom: Hamilton Co builds three huge elementary schools (TFP/Omarzu)
Hamilton County is on a roll when it comes to building huge elementary schools. The trend began in August 2013 with the opening of the 1,100-student Ooltewah Elementary School, which was bigger than every school in the district except for the four largest high schools. Next up is the new East Brainerd Elementary School near Hamilton Place mall, which will have room for 1,100 students when it opens in August. Then, on April 30, officials will unseal construction bids for a new Ganns Middle Valley Elementary School between Hixson and Soddy-Daisy.


Editorial: Legislature uses Bible to pander to constituents (News-Sentinel)
Across Tennessee this morning, an estimated 2.5 million or so Christians will gather to worship. They will occupy theater seating in high-tech mega-churches, wooden pews in traditional sanctuaries and metal folding chairs in makeshift chapels. Regardless of denomination, they will sing, pray and look to the Bible for inspiration, wisdom and direction. For every one of these worshippers, the Bible is a holy book. For many in the Tennessee Legislature, however, it is merely a prop in a political farce. A bill that would make the Bible the official book of Tennessee is heading toward floor votes in both the House and Senate.

Editorial: Fuel tax cap deserves an open process (Commercial Appeal)
Employing tactics that are often used to speed controversial legislation through the General Assembly without giving the opposition time to develop its strategy, FedEx Corp. and its allies in Nashville are in pursuit of a cap on the aviation-fuel tax the company pays the state. The proposal to eventually cap the tax at $10.5 million a year, a roughly two-thirds reduction for FedEx, obviously had been the subject of lengthy behind-the-scenes discussions, appearing suddenly late last week in the form of an amendment to a so-called “caption” bill, which originally gave no hint of its eventual purpose. This is not to say that the cap has no merit.

Tom Humphrey: Fuel tax issue must be faced, but not this year (News-Sentinel)
In one state House subcommittee last week, a caption bill that could have been used to increase Tennessee fuel taxes was postponed until January 2016, while, in another sub, another caption bill was transformed into a $22 million fuel tax cut for Federal Express Corp. and approved. Those two events could well be tied together next year. But for now, they at least indicate the state of taxing matters in Tennessee these days — a willingness, if not eagerness, to cut taxes, especially for folks with political action committees, that is coupled with a slowly-increasing unease over the long-term consequences of doing so and an unwillingness to do anything about it. But maybe next year.