April 15 TN News Digest

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

Haslam assesses Wilson County growth (Tennessean/Humbles)
Gov. Bill Haslam was in Mt. Juliet Tuesday and gave his thoughts on Wilson County’s recent rapid growth and economic development, acknowledging successes come with challenges. The governor spoke at the Mt. Juliet Breakfast Rotary Club meeting, which also drew a number of state, county and Mt. Juliet city officials. Haslam was in Mt. Juliet in October as well, helping announce Under Armour’s commitment to build a 1 million-square-foot warehouse in the city that will bring 1,500 jobs. “Wilson County has a lot of encouraging things lately,” Haslam said.

Tennessee’s new education commissioner stops in Cleveland, Tenn. (TFP/Leach)
Dr. Candice McQueen, the state’s new education commissioner, engaged 30 Cleveland school system educators on Tuesday as part of a statewide listening tour. “We’re really trying to take the feedback to make decisions about strategically where we’ll go from a state department perspective in the next several years,” McQueen said. In a roundtable discussion at the Cleveland High School library, McQueen propelled discussions of the successes and challenges experienced by the teachers and their students with the adoption of the state’s new educational standards in recent years.

What states give the best investment return for taxpayers? (Times Free-Press)
Tennesseans get a better-than-average return from the taxes they pay, but taxpayers in Georgia and Alabama fare worse than most Americans, according to a new report from the online research firm WalletHub. In recognition of the 2015 tax filing deadline today, WalletHub compared what individuals pay in each state with the quality of services provided by state and local governments. The taxpayer return on investment was best in Alaska, Wyoming and Montana and worst in Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi.

​What Tennesseans get from their hard-earned tax dollars (Nashville Biz Journal)
Tennesseans get a better than average return on investment for their tax dollars compared to other states in the nation, a new report from WalletHub finds. WalletHub’s new report ranks the states that get the best taxpayer ROI. The report essentially compares what taxpayers pay into the system to the quality and efficiency of services they get from state government. Tennessee ranks at No. 16 on the personal finance site’s ranking. However, there’s a caveat: Tennesseans’ have one of the lowest tax rate burdens of all the states, thanks in part to the absence of an income tax.

UT’s Diversity Push Isn’t Just About Boosting Minority Numbers (WPLN)
The University of Tennessee says it wants to create an inclusive environment for students — but still has some work to do to get there. The university system is holding a statewide diversity summit for its employees Wednesday, with the hopes of making diversity a higher priority. Across UT’s four campuses, 19.3 percent of the undergraduate student body was a racial minority in 2014. That number has increased in recent years, and UT president Joe DiPietro says raising that number is part of the system’s goal. But he says the issue of diversity is less about labels and more about embracing people from different backgrounds.

TDOT announces downtown bridge rehab project (Nashville Post)
The Tennessee Department of Transportation has announced a major rehabilitation project that will replace eight bridges over Interstate 40 between June 2015 and June 2016. The twin eastbound and westbound bridges over Herman Street, Clinton Street, Jo Johnston Avenue and Charlotte Avenue were built in 1968 and require near constant maintenance, according to a release. The project will require 13 weekend closures of I-40 between the I-65 splits west and south of downtown. “These bridges are prime examples of aging infrastructure, and they are long overdue for major work,” John Schroer, TDOT commissioner, said in a release.

Fast fix: TDOT to repair eight downtown bridges during 13 weekend closures (NBJ)
The Tennessee Department of Transportation Tuesday unveiled an ambitious $62 million plan to fix eight bridges along Interstate 40 in the downtown Nashville area. Dubbed “Fast Fix 8,” the project will impact the west side of I-40’s south loop between June 2015 and June 2016, resulting in 13 weekend closures. “Built in 1968, the twin eastbound and westbound bridges that cross over Herman Street, Clinton Street, Jo Johnston Avenue and Charlotte Avenue show advanced signs of deterioration and require near constant maintenance,” TDOT said in a news release.

TDOT announces major I-40 bridge project (WSMV-TV Nashville)
The Tennessee Department of Transportation announced plans to replace eight bridges along Interstate 40 in Nashville. At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, TDOT said the “Fast Fix 8” project will use accelerated construction to replace the bridges located on the west side of the south loop of I-40. TDOT officials said the eastbound and westbound bridges over Herman Street, Clinton Street, Jo Johnston Avenue and Charlotte Avenue show advanced signs of deterioration and require almost constant maintenance.

TDOT Announces Ambitious Plan To Replace 8 Downtown Bridges (WTVF-TV)
The Tennessee Department of Transportation has announced an ambitious plan to replace eight downtown bridges on the downtown south loop of Interstate 40 with just 13 weekend closures. The project – dubbed Fast Fix 8 – called for an accelerated construction process to tear down and replace each bridge over one weekend. Officials said they would begin the project in June 2015. The 13 weekends were expected to be spread out over 13 months, with a completion time set for June 2016. The announcement was made at a press event Tuesday afternoon.

TDOT Opts For Total Closures To Expedite Overpass Replacement (WPLN)
During 13 weekends between mid-2015 and early 2016, roadwork will shut down the interstate loop west of downtown Nashville, as crews replace crumbling bridges over four surface streets. Tennessee highway officials say partial closures of the highway would draw out traffic delays on I-40 for years. “These bridges are prime examples of aging infrastructure, and they are long overdue for major work,” TDOT commissioner John Schroer said in a statement. The structures were built in 1968 and have required increasing levels of maintenance.

Tennessee to provide lawmaker health cost records (Tennessean/Boucher)
A state agency has agreed to allow a free inspection of records that show how much Tennessee taxpayers are spending on health insurance for state lawmakers after initially pricing the records request at more than $1,500. But the information will take “weeks” to compile, said Joan Williams, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Benefits Administration. The Tennessean submitted a request for the information under the Tennessee Open Records Act in February, days after lawmakers killed Gov. Bill Haslam’s controversial health care plan, Insure Tennessee, for the first time.

High court: Penalty too light for Knoxville attorney (News-Sentinel/Satterfield)
The Tennessee Supreme Court has rejected as too lenient a 30-day suspension of the law license of a Knoxville attorney caught by federal authorities in a sex scandal involving a pill-addicted woman he was appointed to represent. Records recently made public from the U.S. District Court in Knoxville and the state Board of Professional Responsibility reveal the events leading up to the high court’s rejection of attorney Robert Vogel’s punishment for an admitted sexual relationship with an indigent addict — an ethical lapse that Vogel blamed on sex addiction.

Lawyers: AG opinion bars felons from having antique guns (Associated Press)
The Tennessee attorney general’s office appears to have changed its position on whether felons can legally possess antique guns. A 2008 opinion issued by then-Attorney General Robert Cooper said felons could lawfully possess the older weapons. However, state law has changed. The latest opinion by Attorney General Herbert Slatery says violent felons and drug felony offenders cannot possess antique muzzleloaders using black powder, even if they are hunting with them. But legal experts called the opinion confusing and said it seems much broader in scope.

Protesters Call on House Speaker to Revive Insure Tennessee (Associated Press)
Supporters of Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans are calling on House Speaker Beth Harwell to bring the measure to a full vote on the House floor. About 30 people rallied outside the Nashville Republican’s office on Tuesday singing songs and holding signs in favor of the proposal that failed during a special session in February and again in a Senate Committee last month during the regular session. Harwell’s spokeswoman didn’t immediately return an email to The Associated Press seeking comment.

Insure Tennessee backers hold small sit-in at Harwell’s office (Tenn/Boucher)
A small group of advocates sang songs, prayed, read statements and sat down in front of the office of House Speaker Beth Harwell, continuing their fight for lawmakers to pass Insure Tennessee. “We call on the speaker to stand in the breach and advocate for those who have largely remained forgotten in the politics at hand: the thousands of hardworking Tennesseans and their families, the working poor of our communities, the least among us,” said the Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, appointed through the United Methodist Church to work with the homeless of Nashville.

Protesters try to keep Insure Tennessee alive (Times Free-Press/Sher)
As the battle to make the Bible the state’s book wages on, the debate to extend health insurance to 280,000 low-income Tennesseeans appears to be wrapping up. But not without a fight. A Chattanooga minister and other supporters of Insure Tennessee staged a sit-down demonstration Tuesday afternoon in front of Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell’s legislative office in an effort to get the Medicaid expansion proposal to the House floor.

House Approves $450 Million Hospital Fee to Draw Down Federal Money (A. Press)
The state House has voted 90-2 to approve an annual $450 million assessment on Tennessee hospitals to draw down $826 million in federal money. Democrats were quick to point out that the about 2-to-1 match rate pales in comparison to vastly more favorable rate the state would have received if lawmakers approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal. Under Haslam’s plan, hospitals would have covered the $74 million state share to draw down $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid funds to cover more than 280,000 low-income Tennesseans.

Special Committee Strips Capitol Complex From Gun Bill (Associated Press)
A special legislative committee has voted not to allow Tennessee handgun-carry permit holders to be armed at the state Capitol complex. The Capitol provision was part a proposal that seeks to allow permit holders to be armed in all of the state’s parks – including greenways, playgrounds and sports fields. However, the so-called conference committee was called after the House and Senate couldn’t agree on the Capitol amendment. The committee recommended removing it and keeping the main provision, which would strip local governments of the power to ban all firearms in parks.

What’s in, what’s out of guns-in-parks bill (Tennessean/Boucher)
The controversial guns-in-parks bill won’t allow guns at the state Capitol, but it will allow people with gun permits to take their weapons to the “immediate vicinity” of a school event at a park. Those changes to the oft-tweaked bill would take effect if lawmakers approve a report created Tuesday in a conference committee of senators and representatives. All four of the Republicans on the committee voted for the report, while the two Democrats voted against it. Nothing is finalized, but here’s a brief look at the proposed amendments to the controversial bill.

Compromise plan (Commercial Appeal/Locker)
Guns in the statehouse are out but guns in parks adjacent to schools are in under a compromise plan recommended Tuesday by a House-Senate conference committee. The committee’s proposal now goes directly to the floors of both legislative chambers for up or down votes, probably Thursday, and both must approve before the bill is sent for final action to Gov. Bill Haslam, who has expressed concerns about it. The underlying bill, which remains intact under the conference committee recommendation, repeals the authority of city councils, boards of aldermen and county commissions to ban permit holders from going armed in local parks.

Tennessee Lawmakers Decide Not To Allow Guns In The Capitol, After All (WPLN)
A group of lawmakers is recommending against allowing guns in the state Capitol. The panel also says guns should be allowed in parks, except when they’re actively being used by school groups. Both ideas came from a conference committee set up to hash out differences over gun-in-parks legislation. The committee recommendations moves lawmakers substantially closer to ending local bans on guns in parks. Lawmakers dropped the idea of letting guns into the statehouse without any debate Tuesday. The proposal had been added to the bill by an opponent, Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville), and was widely expected to be stripped from the measure.

Tennessee House OKs Bill Creating Lifetime Handgun Carry Permits (A. Press)
The Tennessee House has voted to create a $500 lifetime handgun carry permit. The chamber voted 90-3 on Monday to approve the measure sponsored by Republican Rep. John Holsclaw Jr. of Elizabethton. Current handgun carry permits are valid for five years. The initial application fee is $115, while renewals cost $50. Under the bill, people with lifetime permits would still have to undergo background checks every five years and the Safety Department would still be able to suspend permits for people who are charged with crimes.

Tennessee House Bogs Down Over Making Bible Official Book (AP/Schelzig)
A small-town Republican’s proposal to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee ran into opposition from top members of his own party as the House delayed a scheduled vote on the measure Tuesday. A sometimes raucous floor debate followed a legal opinion issued by state Attorney General Herbert Slatery saying the bill would violate separation of church and state provisions in the state and federal constitutions. The bill’s sponsor, freshman Rep. Jerry Sexton, countered Slatery’s opinion. “This does not establish any form of religion, and any move to denounce it, I think, is to silence those of us who would like to see reverence given to a book that has played a role in all of our lives,” the Bean Station Republican said.

Bible as official state book debate continues to broil in House (TFP/Sher)
Tennessee’s rollicking House debate over making the “Holy Bible” state government’s official book is expected to resume today after Tuesday’s fierce fight in which one member fretted about the U.S. sliding toward a “theocracy” and the sponsor raised questions whether the country will remain a “Christian nation.” The controversial bill, sponsored by freshman Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, a former Baptist minister, has managed to cleave through normal partisan divides and split both Republicans and Democrats. Republican Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery says in a legal opinion that the bill violates both the Tennessee and U.S. constitutions.

Lawmakers debate measure to make Bible the state’s official book (C. Appeal)
A small-town Republican’s proposal to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee ran into opposition Tuesday from top members of his own party as the House delayed a vote on the measure. A sometimes raucous floor debate followed a legal opinion issued by state Attorney General Herbert Slatery saying the bill would violate separation of church and state provisions in the state and federal constitutions. The bill’s sponsor, freshman Rep. Jerry Sexton, countered Slatery’s opinion.

Plan To Make The Bible Tennessee’s Official Book Draws Raucous Debate (WPLN)
Tennessee lawmakers are deeply divided over a proposal to make the Bible the state’s official book, leaving its fate in doubt after more than an hour of debate Tuesday morning. The state House of Representatives was forced to suspend discussion after supporters of the proposal, House Bill 615, were unable to muster enough votes to cut off debate. Lawmakers could take the measure up again as soon as Wednesday. The bill is part of a wave of such proposals, though none has advanced as far as Tennessee’s. The sponsor of one such measure in the Louisiana House of Representatives dropped it last year just before it was to come up for a vote.

Attorney General Election Proposal Passes Tennessee Senate (AP/Johnson)
A proposed constitutional amendment calling for the popular election of Tennessee’s attorney general overwhelmingly passed the Senate on Tuesday despite arguments that the current system doesn’t need to be changed. The measure, which has failed in previous years, was approved 23-9. Under the state’s constitution, the attorney general is appointed to an eight-year term by the state Supreme Court. The amendment would change the term to six years, with only two consecutive terms.

Senate advances measure to put attorney general vote on ballot (TFP/Sher)
The state Senate voted 23-9 Tuesday to begin the lengthy process of giving Tennessee voters the say on whether the state attorney general should be popularly elected in 2020. The resolution now goes to the House. If it receives a majority vote there, it would then go on to be considered by the 110th General Assembly that will assume office in 2017. There it will need a two-thirds vote in each chamber before it can go on the ballot. Senate Joint Resolution 17 sponsor Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, said Tennessee’s current system is unique in that the state’s chief lawyer is appointed by the state Supreme Court.

TN abortion bills on fast track (Tennessean/Wadhwani)
Two bills that would regulate abortion clinics and impose new restrictions on women seeking abortions are rapidly advancing in the Tennessee legislature, with a vote on the Senate floor expected Wednesday and a vote in the House as early as Thursday. One measure would require women to receive in-person counseling by a physician followed by a 48-hour waiting period before she could obtain an abortion. Another measure would require abortion providers who performed more than 50 abortions per year to be regulated as ambulatory surgery centers. Proponents of the measure say they are intended to protect the health and safety of women seeking an abortion.

House approves to-go alcohol around Music City Center (Tennessean/Garrison)
A proposal pushed by the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation to allow beer and liquor consumption outside Nashville’s Music City Center has cleared the Tennessee House of Representatives. The House voted 60-26 Monday to approve a bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, that would let conventioneers carry to-go cups of alcohol from the center, across Fifth Avenue South to the nearby Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and Omni Hotel. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, is scheduled for consideration Wednesday.

Bill allowing residents to “de-annex” areas from cities is moving (C. Appeal/Locker)
A bill allowing residents of parts of cities to “de-annex” their territory from the city, by majority votes in referendums called by voter-initiated petitions, won committee approval in the state House Tuesday. House Bill 779 sets out the process and requirements for de-annexation from municipalities. Current law allows cities to contract their borders by ordinances approved by the city council or Board of Aldermen, but the bill empowers residents of an area to initiate and approve the process in Tennessee for the first time. Twenty-six states allow de-annexation in some form, according to the Tennessee Municipal League.

Parent Trigger Proposal Fails This Session (Associated Press)
A proposal that would make it easier for parents to convert struggling public schools into charter schools has failed this session. Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, the sponsor of the measure, asked Monday for the Senate Finance Committee to place the legislation on its calendar for next year. It failed last year, and the year before. The House sponsor withdrew the measure from a House education subcommittee this year. Currently in Tennessee, there is a statute that would allow 60 percent of parents to petition for a change to be made at a school.

Bill to do away with Tennessee helmet requirement shelved (Associated Press)
A proposal to do away with Tennessee’s motorcycle helmet requirement has been shelved for the year. The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Jay Reedy of Erin was deferred on Tuesday until the first calendar of next year’s legislative session. The move follows a bumpy path for the companion bill in the Senate, where it first failed on a 4-4 vote but was later resurrected for another vote and advanced on a 5-4 vote. Under the proposal, motorcycle riders at least 21 years old carrying private health insurance would be able to decide if they want to wear a helmet. The Tennessee Highway Patrol opposes the bill because it wouldn’t allow troopers to verify the age and insurance status of motorcyclists. About 167,000 motorcycles are registered in Tennessee.

Families praise passage of cannabis oil bill (Times-News)
For the first time, medical marijuana will be available in Tennessee after a bill allowing cannabis oil as an alternative medicine for seizure patients passed the Tennessee House and Senate with unanimous yes votes Monday night. For families of seizure patients who have been relentlessly advocating the legislature since the bill was introduced, the passage of the bills was a cause for celebration. “It was a feeling of great joy from all the families and we gathered in the hall with hugs and tears of joy,” said Ellen McCall, a Greeneville mother who advocated for the bill to help her seizure stricken daughter, Penelope.

Kingsport aims to attract adventure tourism (Times-News)
Kingsport is striving to be a little more adventurous. During last week’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, city leaders approved a measure requesting the entire city limits as an Adventure Tourism District, a move that aims to help attract new tourism-related businesses to the Model City. The measure is being done in accordance to a 2011 state law – the Tennessee Adventure Tourism and Rural Development Act – that allows communities to apply for such a designation where certain new businesses can qualify for job tax credits with the state.

Driver’s License Suspensions Create Cycle of Debt (New York Times)
The last time Kenneth Seay lost his job, at an industrial bakery that offered health insurance and Christmas bonuses, it was because he had been thrown in jail for legal issues stemming from a revoked driver’s license. Same with the three jobs before that. In fact, Mr. Seay said, when it comes to gainful employment, it is not his criminal record that is holding him back — he did time for dealing drugs — but the $4,509.22 in fines, court costs and reinstatement fees he must pay to recover his license. Mr. Seay’s inability to pay those costs has trapped him in a cycle that thousands of other low-income Tennesseans are struggling to escape.

TVA workers study Chickamauga Dam (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
Visitors to Chickamauga Dam are likely to see activity on the downstream side of the dam over the next several weeks as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s continuous hydro improvement program. TVA engineers will be conducting field studies to examine the properties of the dam’s foundation. They will be collecting samples using a barge-mounted drill. The data will refine a health check analysis of the 5,800-foot dam in 2013. “TVA dams perform well and are continuously monitored to ensure they are performing as designed,” said John McCormick, vice president of TVA safety, river management and environment.

Environmental groups sue TVA over Gallatin plant pollution (A. Press/Loller)
Two Tennessee environmental groups claim toxic pollution from a coal-burning power plant is seeping into the Cumberland River and state regulators are not doing enough to stop it. The allegations are part of a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Nashville against the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association first threatened to sue in November, claiming state regulators have known about problems at the 1950s-era Gallatin Fossil Plant for years. In response, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation sued TVA in state court in January.

Reviving schools: Smith makes passionate plea for more funding (TFP/Omarzu)
There was an air of a religious revival Tuesday night as Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith gave a roughly 90-minute speech at Wallace A. Smith Elementary School in Ooltewah to call for a $34 million boost to the school district’s annual budget. A student choir sang “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” during a musical assembly on the gymnasium’s stage before the talk began. Then, like a fired-up preacher, Smith took off his business suit jacket partway through his talk. Later, he set down his microphone and spoke directly to the roughly 125 people in metal folding chairs who surrounded him on three sides.

OPINION

Editorial: Lawmakers show resolve, compassion (Commercial Appeal)
Despite the Tennessee General Assembly’s obsession with loosening gun-carrying laws, lawmakers Monday showed they can take time to deal with legislation that will have a significant impact on victims of sexual assault, and maybe bring needed relief to victims of seizures. Legislators approved and sent to Gov. Bill Haslam a bill that would create a much-needed protocol for the collection of sexual assault evidence kits and for them to be submitted for DNA or serology testing within 60 days after health care providers turn them over to law enforcement authorities.