April 17 TN News Digest

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

Officials: MTSU partnership will put people to work (Tennessean/Tamburin)
A coalition of government and education officials met Thursday in Nashville to celebrate a partnership that they said pointed toward a new trend in Tennessee. The leaders announced a “groundbreaking” partnership between Middle Tennessee State University and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation that aims to educate and equip a new wave of water and wastewater management workers in the state. The partnership was developed over the course of six months to meet a spike in the need for water management workers in Tennessee. Officials said Thursday that the state will need 45 percent more water management workers in five years.

MTSU, TDEC form partnership (Daily News Journal)
Middle Tennessee State University and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Thursday announced a partnership to expand individual opportunities for earning course credit and certifications in water-resource management, according to a release from TDEC. Partnership programs will be available through TDEC’s Fleming Training Center in Murfreesboro, online and at other statewide locations, the release stated. “Fleming Training Center offers cutting-edge technology and advanced classes in a variety of water areas, and this partnership will allow traditional and non-traditional students to take full advantage,” TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau said in the release.

La Vergne company awarded job traning grant (Daily News Journal)
Parthenon Metal Works in La Vergne was awarded the Incumbent Worker Training Grant, Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips announced Thursday. The grants assist employers with upgrading skills to avoid layoffs of their employees. “We have to make sure that we have the trained workforce to fill the jobs companies want to create in Tennessee, and these grants are a part of the effort to meet the demands of a very competitive marketplace,” Haslam said.

Tennessee Unemployment Dips in March (Memphis Daily News)
Tennessee’s unemployment rate inched slightly lower in March but remained above the national level, according to state Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips. Tennessee’s preliminary unemployment rate for March was 6.3 percent, three-tenths of one percentage point lower than the February revised rate of 6.6 percent. The U.S. preliminary rate for March was 5.5 percent, unchanged from February. Total nonfarm employment decreased 4,400 jobs from February to March, with the largest decreases occurring in accommodation/food services, trade/transportation/utilities and mining/logging/construction. The biggest gains from February to March came in the health care/social assistance category, with that sector adding around 1,600 jobs.

Tennessee jobless rate drops to 7-year low (Times Free-Press/Flessner)
Unemployment in Tennessee fell last month to the lowest level since May 2008 as employers across the Volunteer State added 49,300 jobs over the past year. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said today that the jobless rate fell during March by three-tenths of a percent to 6.3 percent. A year ago, the unemployment rate was a tenth of a percentage point higher at 6.4 percent. Despite the job gains in Tennessee, the unemployment rate in the Volunteer State last month remained eight tenths of percentage point above the U.S. jobless rate of 5.5 percent in March.

A gift made possible: Tennessee specialty license plates (Tennessean/Gonzalez)
A gift for that special someone — how about a specialty license plate? That’s the new pitch from the state of Tennessee, which recently debuted a new system that allows the purchase of a gift voucher good for a specialty plate. A change to state law last year made it possible, with officials hoping that online plate sales, which help fund the arts and almost 100 other causes, will increase. Groups that benefit from vehicle tag revenues pushed for the new system, which was created by the Department of the Treasury. The revenue from the $35 plate sales is of special benefit to public funding for the arts. A portion of plate sales — even for causes that aren’t related to the arts — have long funded a bulk of the Tennessee Arts Commission.

DCS investigating two incidents at Loudon County schools (News-Sentinel)
The state Department of Children’s Services has confirmed it is investigating separate incidents involving staff members at two Loudon County schools. An investigation was launched April 9 into allegations against Lisa Hale, a special education teacher at Eaton Elementary School in Lenoir City, DCS spokesman Rob Johnson said Thursday. Johnson declined to specify the nature of the case. DCS also is investigating North Middle School teaching assistant William Michael Olds, who is accused of assaulting a child, Johnson said. Olds, who works with special needs students, has been charged with child abuse or neglect in connection with an April 8 incident in the school cafeteria, according to an arrest warrant.

Tennessee House OKs $33.3 Billion Annual State Spending Plan (AP/Schelzig)
The Tennessee House has approved the state’s $33.3 billion annual spending plan after rejecting Democrats’ attempts to add an authorization for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to strike a deal with the federal government for Medicaid expansion. The chamber voted 80-12 in favor of the measure on Thursday, and the Senate was expected to follow suit later in the day. The Republican-controlled chamber voted largely along partisan lines to refuse the effort to add the governor’s Insure Tennessee plan to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income people.

State Senate OKs appropriations bill, sends spending plan to Haslam (TFP/Sher)
Senators this afternoon approved the state’s 2015-16 appropriations bill, sending the previously House-passed $33.3 billion spending plan to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. The vote was 32-1 for the bill, which includes $165.8 million in grants for the expansion at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant for a new SUV line. Senators then voted 30-0 to authorize $521 million in bonds in a separate bill, also passed earlier by the House today. Finally, they quarreled over the budget-implementation bill. Minority Democrats objected to a provision that bars school boards in Hamilton and six nearby counties from using state funds, including the state portion of the Basic Education Program funding formula funds, in their funding lawsuit against the state.

Legislature approves $33.8 billion state budget (Commercial Appeal/Locker)
Lawmakers approved a $33.8 billion state budget Thursday after arguing over funding a new $120 million state museum and a $17 million 4-H West Tennessee camp. But they had no discussion about $166 million to help finance Volkswagen’s expansion in Chattanooga. The House and Senate both approved two bills that fund state government for fiscal year 2015-16 starting July 1: the $33.8 billion appropriations act and a bond bill authorizing the sale of $521.4 million in bonds. The House approved also approved a “revenue modernization act” projected to raise $17.2 million next year and about $45.5 million a when fully implemented in fiscal year 2017-18 that the Senate will approve next week because the money is already accounted for in the budget. There was considerably more wrangling in the House, which approved the budget-related legislation first.

Tennessee budget bill bans BEP lawsuit funds (Times Free-Press/Sher)
Tennessee Republican lawmakers sent a $33.8 billion annual spending plan to Gov. Bill Haslam Thursday complete with orders for school boards in Hamilton and six nearby counties: They can’t use any state dollars to sue Haslam for underfunding the Basic Education Program formula for K-12 education. Legislative Democrats protested the directive, with one House member charging Republicans were acting like a “bully.” But the lawsuit, which says Tennessee underfunds public education by more than $500 million, won’t be deterred by Republicans’ move, said D. Scott Bennett, the attorney for Hamilton and six other counties’ school districts.

Tennessee Senate Approves Tuition Equality Proposal (Associated Press)
Tennessee residents who are authorized to be in the United States would be eligible for in-state tuition under legislation that has passed the Senate. The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga was approved 21-12 on Thursday. The companion bill is awaiting a vote in the House Finance Committee. Under the proposal, students considered lawfully present in the U.S. through a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals would qualify for in-state tuition. Such students now pay nearly three times as much for higher education – the out-of-state rate – even if they’ve lived in Tennessee for most of their lives.

Senate approves in-state tuition for immigrant students (Tennessean/Boucher)
Cesar Bautista was born in Mexico City, but he’s lived in Rutherford County for the past 19 years. The 26-year-old had to drop down to taking one class at a time from Volunteer State Community College because he couldn’t afford the tuition. But with a bill approved by the full Senate on Thursday, he’s optimistic he can become a full-time student once again and earn his degree in business administration. “I am very happy; no words can really explain today. My heart is just racing. I just want to take deep breaths because I’m really happy and excited. I cannot believe this. It passed the full Senate floor,” Bautista said.

Gardenhire’s tuition bill gets Senate approval (Times Free-Press/Sher)
State senators gave overwhelming approval on Thursday to Sen. Todd Gardenhire’s bill granting in-state tuition rates at state colleges to undocumented Tennesseans brought to the U.S. as children and designated as “lawfully present” by the federal government. The Chattanooga Republican’s measure passed on a 21-12 vote. The bill remains in the House Budget subcommittee. “I was surprised at the margin,” Gardenhire said. “That’s pretty remarkable. I think this margin gives it a real boost in the House. They were sort of waiting to see what we did.” Gardenhire’s proposal would affect students deemed lawfully present in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Senate kills bill to make Bible official Tennessee book (Tennessean/Boucher)
The Bible will not become the official book of Tennessee this year. Bolstered by opposition from Republican leadership, the Senate voted 22-9 to send the Bible to committee, effectively killing the bill a day after it was adopted by the House. “This isn’t the time or place now in the full Senate floor to delve into that. We really need to look into it in committee,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said about two hours before the vote. Gov. Bill Haslam and Attorney General Herbert Slatery oppose the bill; Slatery recently announced he thinks the bill violates the state and federal constitutions. Norris led the effort to kill the bill in the Senate.

Bill to make Bible Tennessee’s official state book fails in Senate (TFP/Sher)
Efforts to designate the “Holy Bible” as Tennessee government’s official book failed in the state Senate Thursday after the controversial bill, which had attracted national attention, was forced back to committee. The GOP-dominated Senate voted to send the bill to the Judiciary Committee on a 22-9 vote, citing concerns raised in a legal opinion issued by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. He opined it violates both U.S. and Tennessee constitutions’ prohibitions dealing with religion and government. Senate Republican leaders were opposed to the bill, which passed the House earlier this week on a 55-38 vote.

Senate kills bill to make Bible official state book of Tennessee (N-S/Locker)
After hours of debate in the House earlier this week, the Tennessee Senate on Thursday spent only 25 minutes to kill the Bible-as-official-state-book bill for the year by sending it back to committee for further review. Acting on a motion by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the Senate voted 22-9 to send the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further review, in light of state Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s advisory opinion on Monday that the bill violates both the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions.

Bill to Make Bible TN’s ‘State Book’ Hits Impasse (TN Report)
After passing the Tennessee House of Representatives on a close vote, a controversial effort to make the Holy Bible the official state book looks to have have died for the year in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Republican Mark Norris of Collierville, who had been indicating strong opposition to the measure for some time, successfully won a motion on Thursday to send it back to the upper-chamber Judiciary Committee, which has been closed for the year. The vote was 22-9. Barring the unlikely event that the committee is reopened, which Judiciary Chairman Brian Kelsey of Germantown said he opposes, the bill won’t likely come up again until 2016.

Guns-in-parks proposal headed to governor (Associated Press/Johnson)
Legislation that would allow handgun-carry permit holders to be armed in all of the state’s parks – including greenways, playgrounds and sports fields – was sent to the governor for his consideration Thursday. Both the Senate and House overwhelmingly approved a conference committee report on the proposal. The measure strips a provision that would have allowed permit holders to be armed at the state Capitol complex. It keeps a ban on guns at school events, but the ban would not apply to playgrounds and other sports fields that aren’t used by schools. Haslam opposed the state Capitol provision, and said there was some confusion in the original legislation about what should happen in the case of parks that are adjacent to schools.

House, Senate send new guns-in-parks bill to Haslam (Tennessean/Boucher)
Lawmakers approved the latest set of changes to the guns-in-parks bill, sending the controversial measure to Gov. Bill Haslam. The House and Senate adopted a report from the joint conference committee, over the objections of Democrats in both chambers. The bill still nixes any local bans on people with handgun permits taking guns into parks. The committee also didn’t change the portion of the bill that allows local governments to keep up the signs that say guns are banned, even though the law would say the guns are allowed for people with permits. The new bill removed the ban on fake guns — not real guns — explosives and other items within 150 feet of a school and a proposal to allow people with permits to take guns into the statehouse.

House approves guns-in-parks bill (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Locker)
Tennessee lawmakers gave final legislative approval Thursday to the bill allowing handgun-carry permit holders to go armed in local parks regardless of local ordinances against guns in parks. The most controversial gun bill of the 2015 legislative session now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam, who on Wednesday continued to express concerns about guns in parks that border schools but declined to say whether he will veto the bill. The bill alters current state law by allowing permit holders to go armed in local parks where school events are underway if they are not in the “immediate vicinity” of the school activity.

Bill hiking taxes on health maintenance organizations on way to Haslam (TFP/Sher)
A bill hiking taxes on health maintenace organizations doing business in Tennessee is on it’s way to Gov. Bill Haslam. The House approved the administration bill on a 74-16 vote. It boosts the tax from 5.5 percent to and is estimated to raise $33.5 million. About $9.5 million of that would go into the state’s TennCare program and draw $17.8 million in federal matching funds. The senate has already passed the bill.

House vote on abortion bills pushed until Monday (Tennessean/Wadhwani)
A vote on a 48-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions and new regulations of abortion providers in Tennessee has been postponed until Monday. The Tennessee House is expected to approve the two measures, which then go to Gov. Bill Haslam for a signature before becoming law. The state Senate approved the measures on Wednesday. Haslam signaled his support for the measures on Wednesday, noting he was “comfortable with the direction those bills were going in.” One measure would require women to receive specific and detailed information from the physician performing an abortion and a 48-hour waiting period.

Right to Try bill moves closer to law in Tennessee (Tennessean/Wilemon)
Right to Try legislation that would give people with incurable diseases better access to experimental drugs unanimously passed the Tennessee Senate on Thursday as it did earlier this month in the House of Representatives. However, the bill will go back to the House because of a change in the bill made by the Senate. The legislation is being promoted in state legislatures across the nation by the Goldwater Institute and here by The Beacon Center of Tennessee. Basically, the law would allow Tennessee doctors to prescribe any drug in U.S. Food and Drug Administration clinical trials that has already undergone phase 1 testing, which checks for safety in healthy volunteers.

Bill Mandating TBI Collection of Crime Data Demos Headed to Governor (TNR)
The General Assembly has passed a requirement that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation start including more demographic information in yearly state crime reports that the agency presents to lawmakers and law enforcement. Sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, the bill would mandate the TBI report percentage breakdowns of suspects, crime victims and convicted offenders “based on race, gender, age, nationality, and any other appropriate demographic.” The TBI’s report is a compilation of data from state, county, and municipal law enforcement and correctional agencies, as well as courts.

Approved bill says big cats need to be micro-chipped (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
A bill awaiting Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature will require all big cats in the state, like lions and tigers, to be micro-chipped. Senate Bill 1273 passed the state house Monday and if signed, will add regulations to a couple of East Tennessee groups. The chips are responsible for identification. That way, keepers can know who is who.One East Tennessee group has been adapting to this plan, even before it hit the Capitol. Tiger Haven, an animal sanctuary for big cats, works closely with University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital, and when they take the big cats in for veterinary care, vets implant a microchip as a matter of routine.

Famous name among Tennessee’s uninsured (Tennessean/Wilemon)
James Davy Crockett is a descendant of one of Tennessee’s most famous politicians, but he doesn’t keep up with political gamesmanship. He’s too down on his luck for that. He didn’t have access to television to watch as Senate committees struck down Insure Tennessee, the plan proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam that would provide him and 280,000 other Tennesseans with health coverage. He didn’t know his state senator, Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, voted to keep the plan from getting a floor vote. Crockett was dealing with the death of his father, the loss of the family home in Bulls Gap to foreclosure and the debilitating onset of a disease he knows he’s got even though it’s not been diagnosed by a specialist. He watched his mother get sick and die with Huntington’s disease.

Time magazine names Corker one of the 100 most influential people (TFP/Brogdon)
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s recent, so far successful, effort to get Congress more say in a multinational agreement over the future of Iran’s nuclear program has earned Tennessee’s junior senator and Chattanooga’s former mayor a spot on a list that includes President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung Un. Time magazine on Thursday named Corker, who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Corker told the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Thursday he was “deeply humbled” by the opportunity to serve in the Senate and by the designation.

Corker makes Time’s list of world’s most influential people (News-Sentinel/Collins)
In a sign of his growing stature on the global stage, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker landed Thursday on Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people, ranking alongside leaders such as President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Corker, a Chattanooga Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was dubbed by the magazine as “the pragmatist in Congress,” a reference to his reputation for emphasizing policy over partisanship. “He is a conservative who prizes results over speeches,” Tennessee’s senior senator, Republican Lamar Alexander, wrote in an essay published by the magazine.

Lamar Alexander’s No Child Left Behind fix passes through committee (TFP/Hardy)
A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators today ushered in a rewrite of the controversial set of federal education regulations known as No Child Left Behind. After days of debate and amendment consideration, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions voted unanimously to approve a bipartisan reform of NCLB. The senators’ legislative agreement, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the chief law governing the federal role in K-12 education. The most recent reauthorization of ESEA was the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which was enacted in 2001 and expired in 2007.

Alexander’s Senate committee advances NCLB revision (CA/Collins)
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s push to overhaul the No Child Left Behind school-reform law advanced Thursday when a committee chaired by the Tennessee senator backed a bipartisan bill to let states decide how schools should be held accountable for student performance. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted 22-0 to approve the legislation and sent it to the full Senate. The bill, a compromise measure called the “Every Child Achieves Act of 2015,” would reauthorize No Child Left Behind for the first time in more than seven years and would end the states’ need to ask the U.S. Department of Education for waivers from what critics see as some of the law’s unworkable requirements.

Records: Russell conducted JailCigs business from work (Daily News Journal)
A Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy used his work email to conduct business involving a company that lists him as an owner, county records show. According to emails obtained by The Daily News Journal, Joe Russell, the RCSO chief deputy of administration and finance, used Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office work email multiple times with JailCigs owner John Vanderveer. Records from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office show JailCigs is based in Marietta, Georgia. Two of the co-owners are John and Judy Vanderveer, Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold’s uncle and aunt. Georgia records show the company was formed in 2013 and Russell was a founding owner.

TVA completes purchase of Mississippi natural gas plant (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Valley Authority has purchased a 700-megawatt natural gas plant in Ackerman, Mississippi. According to the utility, TVA has bought electricity from the plant since 2008. The board of directors voted in February to pursue purchasing the plant itself from Quantum Choctaw Power, and that transaction was completed on Tuesday. The high-efficiency plant uses two gas turbines and one steam turbine to produce energy. It is the sixth combined-cycle gas facility TVA has built or purchased since 2007, with two more under construction.

Hamilton County school board seeks bigger budget by 7-2 vote (TFP/Omarzu)
Give Hamilton County’s schools an additional $34 million to fund such improvements as elementary school art and foreign language classes, and we don’t care how you raise the money. That’s the message some school board members had for the County Commission on Thursday night, as the board voted 7-2 to approve a $379 million annual general purpose budget to fulfill Superintendent Rick Smith’s vision to create “the best school system in the South.” Supporters on the school board downplayed the 40-cent local property tax increase, or about $150 annually on a $150,000 home, that Smith proposed as one way to fund the improvements.

Editorial: No religious text should be Tennessee’s official book (Tennessean)
Even though the state Attorney General has opined that making the Holy Bible Tennessee’s state book would be unconstitutional, House legislators on Wednesday went forward with the resolution any way. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill as early as Thursday. The Tennessee Constitution is far stricter than the federal constitution on prohibiting government endorsement of religion: From Article I, Section 3: “… that no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” In addition, Gov. Bill Haslam has called it “disrespectful” to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee. If the Senate passes the bill, Haslam should veto it, even if it might be overriden by legislators.

Times Editorial: Why can’t Tennessee lawmakers do health care math? (TFP)
Just what is it exactly about opting out of federal health care money that Tennessee lawmakers don’t understand? Is it the dollars or the cents? Apparently, we could spell that cents more like this: sense. As in common sense. When Tennessee’s governor and lawmakers opted out of the Affordable Care Act because of baldly rash, partisan spite for the president and his signature “Obamacare” some years ago (and again this year by refusing to vote out of committees Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee version which would expand Medicaid, known here as TennCare), they were following through on a long-standing precedent. Some 21 years ago when Tennessee first began the TennCare program, state leaders then also opted out of federal funding.

Free-Press Editorial: Legislators, Be Careful What You Wish For (Times Free-Press)
In an effort to finish its business for the year, the Tennessee General Assembly is shedding bills like a fall tree sheds leaves. Legislators are unlikely to say they haven’t had enough time to consider specific pieces of legislation, but several of their recent actions seemed akin to sending an angry email before you’ve counted to 10 and reconsidered it. One of those was the 55-38 House vote Wednesday to make the Bible the official state book. Fortunately, the Senate wisely voted 22-9 on Thursday to send the bill back to a Senate committee, effectively killing it for the year.

Editorial: Back to the bad old days for puppies in Tennessee (Commercial Appeal)
During the same week in which nearly 100 animals were rescued from neglectful conditions at a home in Middle Tennessee — emaciated dogs living in complete darkness in cages filled with their own waste, to be specific — state legislators have rejected an effort to rescue Tennessee from its reputation as a haven for unregulated puppy mills. The proposal died amid predictable opposition from dog owners and organizations that represent them. It’s understandable why responsible dog owners would not see the need to follow government regulations.

Editorial: Corker shows leadership on world stage (Daily News Journal)
Tennessee through its history has taken pride in leaders from the state who have moved from sometimes rustic settings to national and world stages. Cordell Hull is perhaps the best example of such a Tennessee leader. Hull served as secretary of state for 11 years in the administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and received the Nobel Peace Price in 1945 for his work in creation of the United Nations. While it may be a little early to place Bob Corker at the same level of distinction as Hull, the junior Tennessee senator now is serving in a key role on the world stage as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.