May 18 TN News Digest

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

10,700+ apply for tuition-free technical college (Tennessean/Tamburin)

More than 10,700 adults have applied to take advantage of a state grant that would send them to technical college tuition-free, exceeding initial estimates by more than 2,000. The Tennessee Reconnect grant, which offers eligible adults the chance to get training from a Tennessee College of Applied Technology, is a key prong of the Drive to 55, Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to ensure 55 percent of Tennesseans have a college education by 2025. The state released the grant application data last week, at the culmination of a statewide campaign led by Haslam to encourage adults to participate. During speeches promoting Tennessee Reconnect, Haslam pushed the grant’s potential to arm the state workforce with new skills. TCATs offer training in nursing, cosmetology, early childcare and manufacturing, among other programs.

RESET report: Communities key to school success (Tennessean/Gonzalez)

What will it take to improve education in Nashville? In every recommendation in the new Nashville Public Education Foundation Project RESET report, the overarching theme is clear: community. Three of the recommendations look to increase flexibility of schools to meet the individual needs of Nashville’s diverse neighborhoods. The report calls for higher-quality teachers in the classroom, more principal autonomy and strategies in each Metro Nashville Public Schools cluster to ensure schools meet student needs. Decidedly, nothing the report, conducted by The Parthenon Group, identifies is groundbreaking. Metro Schools has tiptoed into the initiatives. But they are things backers of Project RESET, or Reimagining Education Starts with Everyone at the Table, say the district can expand.

Rick Smith says $23 a year per pupil isn’t enough to run school system (TFP/Hardy)

When it comes to running public schools in Hamilton County, principals are given the basics: teachers, a building, maintenance men, buses and utilities. But for just about everything else — the phone bills, the copy machine and other basic supplies — schools are left to their own devices to make ends meet. Each building receives an annual allocation, called a block grant, that’s meant to cover the cost of supplies for teachers, staff and students. But principals have long said the grants, which amount to about $23 per student per year, are woefully inadequate. Superintendent Rick Smith agrees. He has proposed to double the grants, which average about $13,100 annually for each of the county’s 75 schools. It’s just one small piece of Smith’s proposed package of $34 million in increased school spending, which he’ll formally pitch to the Hamilton County Commission and County Mayor Jim Coppinger on Wednesday.

Shelby committee to discuss education financing (Commercial Appeal/Moore)

With a $14 million budget increase request from Shelby County Schools on the table, the Shelby County Commission’s budget and finance committee will convene on Monday in a special meeting to discuss the school system’s financial issues and how they impact the system’s budget. Spring, for local government, is budget season and Mayor Mark Luttrell has presented the commission with a $1.18 billion budget for fiscal 2016 that does not include a tax increase. It does come with $6 million that has not been allocated. The commission has requests from county officials, including Luttrell’s administration, that total $7 million. Also, nonprofit organizations have petition for another $1 million in grants. During the special three-hour meeting that begins at 3 p.m., commissioners will discuss the school system’s OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) liability, MOE (Maintenance of Effort) and BEP (Basic Education Plan) funding.

Officials say the lake level itself will not have an effect on property values (H-C)

It’s too early to tell if the drawdown of Boone Lake will affect property values, both commercial and residential, according to Sullivan County Property Assessor Ron Hillman. The reason, he said, is because Tennessee has a four-year property appraisal cycle and 2013 was the last time Sullivan property value was appraised. The process of the appraisal cycle for 2017 will begin next fall and will be submitted to the state in February 2017. The county will receive its certified tax rate in early April, he said, and then pamphlets will be created and sent to property owners. “Effects on property values are not because of the water itself,” Hillman said. “People are still going to buy and sell lake property; one season won’t change anything much. If it [repairs] takes years, then property values will be affected. Right now, we’re watching commercial property values and will begin the reappraisal process next fall.”

AT&T’s gigabit service officially available in Nashville (Tennessean/Rau)

AT&T begins offering its gigabit Internet service on Monday, making it the first provider of the highest speed connection available to residential and small-business customers. The GigaPower service will be available in areas in Nashville, Murfreesboro, Smyrna, Lebanon and Clarksville. Prices range from $120 per month for the highest possible speed Internet-only subscription to $180 per month for the company’s U-Verse package including Internet, television and voice service. With the launch of GigaPower, AT&T becomes the first provider to enter the Nashville market. The company boasted its ability to offer the service less than one year after the plan was announced. Comcast and Google are on the way as well. Gigabit speed allows users to download 25 songs in less than a second, or load a high-definition movie in less than 36 seconds, according to an AT&T press release.

Protester has no regrets about Y-12 break-in (News-Sentinel/Munger)

Greg Boertje-Obed turns 60 years old Monday, and the best birthday gift he got was his freedom. Looking thin and a bit tired and sporting a new pair of jeans courtesy of the federal prison system, Boertje-Obed arrived in Knoxville shortly before 7 p.m. Sunday following a 20-hour bus ride from Kansas — where the spent the last 14 months serving time in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. He was greeted at the Greyhound Bus Station by friends and well-wishing peace activists. Boertje-Obed and the other two Plowshares protesters who broke into the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant on July 28, 2012 — Sister Megan Rice, 85, and Michael Walli, 67 — were released from federal prison over the weekend. Their release followed a ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that reversed their conviction on sabotage charges. Because they likely have already served more time than required for their other conviction on a felony count of damaging government property, the court approved an “emergency motion” for their release pending a decision by the U.S. government on whether to appeal the sabotage reversal.

Q&A: Sen. Bob Corker on Iran negotiations, his political future (CA/Veazey)

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, fresh off being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world and shepherding through Congress a significant compromise on the Iran negotiations, was in Memphis this weekend. He spoke to a Greater Memphis Chamber luncheon Friday and received an honorary degree from Rhodes College on Saturday. On Friday morning, the Chattanooga Republican sat down for a one-on-one interview with InforMemphis. This Q&A was edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. Q: People have asked you the question of running for president, but I ask you just in general, what is your political future, with a 2018 re-election opportunity coming up? A: I sat beside a gentleman on the plane last night that’s very politically oriented, and we were talking about the same thing. I don’t have any plans. … I do wake up each day knowing what a gift it is to serve in the United States Senate – especially under current conditions, being chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, active in banking and actually active in most issues.

Fleischmann to speak at Hixson Community Breakfast (Times Free-Press)

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., will be the guest speaker at the Friends of Hixson Community Breakfast on May 27. Rep. Fleischmann will give a general update on events in Washington, D.C., according to a news release. The event is set for 8-9 a.m. at Creek’s Bend Golf Club, 5900 Hixson Pike. Nepal benefit event May 30 Nickels For Nepal and the Gamma chapter of Kappa Kappa Iota will host a benefit pancake breakfast at Applebee’s Northgate on May 30 from 7:30- 9:30 a.m. Proceeds will help children and families in two remote villages — Mijar and Ghorka — severely damaged by two earthquakes. Nickels for Nepal has supported both villages.

‘Elite’ donors fueled Tennessee lawmakers’ campaigns (News-Sentinel/Collins)

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais isn’t exactly the most prolific fundraiser in Tennessee, much less in all of Congress. But he’s apparently got a knack for squeezing money out of wealthy donors. The South Pittsburg Republican raised just $684,000 for his re-election last year in a campaign so brutal he won the August primary by just 38 votes. But nearly a quarter of his campaign stash came from an elite group of rich benefactors, according to a new report that tracked contributions by mega donors — or, as the report labels them, “the 1 percent of the 1 percent.”

 

OPINION

Editorial: Insurance for ex-lawmakers outrageous perk (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Tennessee legislators are eligible to receive health insurance coverage for life, an egregious affront to the citizens they serve. The state’s private-sector workers do not get such lavish benefits and neither should former lawmakers. Under the state’s self-funded group health insurance plan, taxpayers ultimately pick up the tab for the state’s share of premiums, plus any associated costs. According to the state Office of Benefits Administration, former legislators receiving taxpayer-subsidized policies outnumber current members of the General Assembly with coverage by a count of 148-133. The former legislators get to keep their coverage even if they have access to insurance through subsequent employers or through the Affordable Care Act. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett and former Knoxville state Sens. Stacey Campfield and Jamie Woodson have taxpayer-subsidized coverage, as do former Knoxville Reps. Gloria Johnson, Harry Tindell and Wayne Ritchie.

Editorial:  Reform in the Deep South (New York Times)

It has been getting easier by the day for politicians to talk about fixing the nation’s broken criminal justice system. But when states in the Deep South, which have long had some of the country’s harshest penal systems, make significant sentencing and prison reforms, you know something has changed. Almost all of these deep-red states have made changes to their justice systems in the last few years, and in doing so they have run laps around Congress, which continues to dither on the passage of any meaningful reform. Lawmakers in Alabama, for example, voted nearly unanimously early this month to approve a criminal justice bill. Alabama prisons are stuffed to nearly double capacity, endangering the health and lives of the inmates, and the cost of mass imprisonment is crippling the state budget at no discernible benefit to public safety. The bill would cut the state’s prison population of nearly 25,000 by about 4,500 people over the next five years. Sentences for certain nonviolent crimes would be shortened, and more parole supervisors would be hired to help ensure that people coming out of prison don’t return. Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to sign the measure as soon as Tuesday.