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DOL Creates Online Application for Unemployment Benefits Extension

State of Tennessee News Release, Dec 07, 2009:

Approximately 25,000 Tennesseans Eligible for Additional Benefits

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development is on schedule to complete the online applications for the latest federal extension of unemployment benefits. The application will be available on the Tennessee Department of Labor’s Internet site on December 11, and the first benefit payments are expected to be mailed December 18, 2009.

“This project has been given the highest priority, and the department’s Information Technology division has worked nights, weekends and holidays to do the extensive programming required of our systems to extend these benefits,” said Labor Commissioner James Neeley. “Those who have already exhausted their benefits should look for instructions in the mail this week with the status of their claim.”

The online application will be necessary for claimants who have exhausted all prior benefits. Additionally, those who exhausted benefits prior to the February 27, 2009, deadline for State Extended Benefits may also be eligible and are encouraged to apply.

Tennesseans who exhaust their State Extended Benefits (EB09) after December 17, 2009, will automatically transition into the new program without having to reapply.

“During this slow economic period, we have seen an unprecedented number of Tennesseans staying on unemployment until they exhaust their benefits,” said Neeley. “This will give those who are still looking for work more time to cover their expenses through the holidays and into 2010.”

This federally funded extension is the fourth announcement of benefits beyond the initial 26 weeks of unemployment compensation provided by the state. While the intent of the bill was to add 20 weeks of payments, an oversight in the way the federal law was structured prevented individuals from receiving the maximum weeks of entitlement. Depending on an individual’s initial claim eligibility, wage history and subsequent employment status, the maximum entitlement for the latest extension of unemployment benefits is 14 weeks.

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development has posted details of the extension with an extensive list of frequently asked questions on their Internet home page at www.tn.gov/labor-wfd. For Tennesseans without Internet access, Tennessee Career Centers throughout the state are available at no charge. Go here to find a Career Center in your area, or call 1-800-576-3467.

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News

Rural Tennessee Unemployment Continues to Soar

While it’s no secret economic times are tough this year all across the Volunteer State, job seekers living in West Tennessee are having an especially difficult time finding and keeping work, according to the latest government unemployment statistics.

As of the end of October, unemployment rates in counties from the Mississippi River to just west of Nashville hovered in the high teens, in some cases pushing 19 percent, according to recent numbers from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

With the exception of Shelby, Montgomery and Dickson Counties, the unemployment rate in every county west of Nashville meets or surpasses the statewide rate of 10.5 percent. Tennessee-wide unemployment was 6.9 percent for the same period last year.

“I think that a lot of the hit that we take has been the erosion of the manufacturing base,” said state Sen. Lowe Finney, a Jackson Democrat.

Several plants have closed or announced layoffs in the past year, including Cub Cadet in Brownsville, a lawn mower plant where 480 full time and seasonal workers lost their jobs when the facility closed in July. Haywood County’s unemployment rate now checks in at 17.9 percent.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate is just above the nation’s 10.2 percent rate for October. Since then, the national numbers dropped to 10 percent in November, though state numbers are not yet available.

Lauderdale County’s unemployment rate was 18.9 percent, the highest in the state and a 4.2 percent increase from October 2008.

Henderson County ranks at 17.6 percent and Carroll County at 17.3 percent.

While each western county struggles with unemployment, those home to larger population centers are faring better, although still significantly worse than the state rates from last year. The rate in Shelby County is 10.2 percent and Madison County is 10.5 percent.

That isn’t to say times are flush for job-hunters in regions east of Nashville. Hancock County unemployment hit 18 percent and Scott County landed at 17.8 percent, and most other counties have unemployment rates in low teens or below.

While Finney said he’s encouraged by the recent drop in the national unemployment rate, he says Tennesseans ought not to expect the picture to brighten anytime soon; the state’s employment numbers tend to lag six months behind.

“If other parts of the country experience good news, hopefully that means a few months from now, Tennessee will experience the same thing,” he said.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, predicts it’ll take even longer than that before unemployment turns around.

A former chairman for the Council of State Governments’ Economic Development Committee for the Southern Legislative Conference, Norris says the stimulus hasn’t yet kicked in the way state officials expected, which he says means it’ll take still more time to see positive changes.

“I would say it’s probably not likely we’ll be able to see any appreciable improvement until the third quarter of 2010 at the earliest,” he said.

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Press Releases

Bredesen Names Gayle Ray to Lead Department of Correction

State of Tennessee Press Release, Dec. 04, 2009:

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today appointed Gayle Ray to be the next Commissioner of the Department of Correction.

Ray will assume her new role on January 1, 2010, following the departure of current Correction Commissioner George Little, who earlier this week announced he will leave Bredesen’s cabinet on December 31 to become chief administrative officer for newly-elected Memphis Mayor AC Wharton. Ray currently serves as deputy commissioner in the Department of Correction.

“I’m pleased to appoint Gayle to this position and appreciate her willingness to serve our state in this important role,” Bredesen said. “Her experience in corrections and law enforcement includes service at the state and local levels, and she is the right person to assume leadership of our efforts to the department.”

Tennessee’s Department of Correction is responsible for supervising and rehabilitating convicted offenders. The department operates 14 prisons and correctional facilities across the state that house more than 19,000 inmates. The department also operates the Tennessee Correctional Academy in Tullahoma, which serves as the state’s primary training and staff development program for correction workers.

“I appreciate the opportunity to serve Governor Bredesen and the State of Tennessee as commissioner,” Ray said. “Under the leadership of Governor Bredesen and Commissioner Little, the department has made great strides to ensure public safety by better preparing prisoners for a successful return to the community, and I intend to continue leading the department toward this important goal.”

Ray served as sheriff of Davidson County from 1994 to 2002, during which time the Metro jail system became the first jail system in the country to be fully accredited. She also developed systems to help offenders with mental illness, initiated graduated sanctions and started a number of rehabilitative programs to help offenders re-enter the community.

She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Middle Tennessee State University, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Arkansas and a Master’s of Business Administration from Belmont University. Ray is a recipient of the Athena Award, the YWCA Academy for Women of Achievement Award and the Public Relations Society of America’s Apollo Award.

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Press Releases

Brig. Gen. Haston Appointed TN Adjutant General

State of Tennessee Press Release, Dec. 4, 2009:

Gov. Phil Bredesen today appointed Brigadier General Terry M. “Max” Haston as Tennessee’s 75th Adjutant General. Haston will replace Major General Gus L. Hargett, Jr., who announced his retirement earlier this year. Haston is currently the Assistant Adjutant General, Army, Tennessee National Guard.

“I’m pleased to announce the appointment of Max Haston as Tennessee’s Adjutant General,” said Bredesen. “His years of experience as a commander and staff officer are vital to the continued professional leadership of our Tennessee Guard. I am confident that under his leadership, our soldiers and airmen will continue to uphold the time honored tradition set forth by the generations of Tennesseans who have served our state and nation.”

“I also want to express my appreciation once again to his predecessor, General Gus Hargett, for his service to our country and the state of Tennessee,” Bredesen continued. “He has been a trusted advisor to me and a true leader for Tennessee.”

Haston is a native of McMinnville and currently resides in Knoxville. He was commissioned in 1979 as an Armor Officer in the U.S. Army from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

“I’m honored to receive this appointment from Governor Bredesen,” said Haston. “The Tennessee National Guard leads the way both here at home and abroad, and I look forward to serving the state soldiers and airmen in this new appointment.”

After completing a tour on active duty at Ft. Hood, Texas, Haston joined the Tennessee Army National Guard in 1983. He has served in numerous command and leadership positions within the National Guard, including Armor Company Commander, Squadron and Regimental Training Officer, and Squadron Commander.

In 2001, Haston assumed command as the seventh Colonel of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, headquartered in Knoxville. Following command of the 278th, he was assigned as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and J-3, Joint Forces Headquarters, Tennessee. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Penn.

In May 2005, Haston mobilized and deployed as the Chief of Reserve Components, Multi-National Corps Iraq (XVIII Airborne Corps). Upon completion of his tour in the Middle East, he returned as the J-3, JFHQ TN. He was appointed the Assistant Adjutant General, Army, on May 6, 2008.

“Governor Bredesen could not have picked a more qualified person to command, train, mentor and serve with the outstanding and professional men and women of our Tennessee Guard,” said Hargett.

The Tennessee Army and Air National Guard stands at almost 17,000 officers and enlisted personnel. The Military Department oversees a total budget, including state and federal funds of over $400 million. The Adjutant General, a constitutional officer of the state appointed by the Governor, is responsible for the leadership and command of the Tennessee Army and Air National Guard, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and the Bureau of War Records.

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Liberty and Justice News

Senator Set to Reload in Guns-and-Booze Battle

The chief Senate advocate for allowing legally permitted handgun carriers to possess their firearms in certain eating establishments where alcohol is served said he’s close to unveiling “a general improvement on the law” for the coming session.

While the language is still in draft phase, the changes that Sen. Doug Jackson says he and fellow co-sponsors plan to propose for the guns-in-restaurants law will clarify some key issues of contention and address the constitutional worries a Nashville judge outlined in a ruling last month.

“If somebody is concerned about vagueness, that is going to be addressed,” Jackson, a Democrat from Dickson, said Friday morning.

In a Nov. 20 bench ruling, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman took aim at the Tennessee Legislature’s recent firearms-law adjustment, saying it was “fraught with ambiguity.”

Before the 2009 General Assembly made it legally permissible for a non-drinking gun-permit holder to carry in certain businesses where both food and alcohol was sold,  state law unequivocally banned pistol packing anywhere beer and cocktails were served.

Bonnyman said she had specific problems with a new provision that states, “the serving of…meals shall be the principal business conducted” in order that handguns might be allowed on the property.

“The new exception of the prohibition against firearms where alcohol is served creates ambiguity where none existed before, and is vague on its face in that it fails to satisfy the constitutional standards of fair warning and fair enforcement,” said the judge.

Furthermore, she added, police officers “are no better suited to make the difficult judgment call as to whether the serving of meals constitutes the principle business of an establishment, such that the presence of a handgun on the premises would be legal or illegal.”

Beyond clearing up the uncertainties Bonnyman outlined, Jackson said the bill-language he plans to introduce will also clarify what sort of signage a restaurant-owner should post to avoid any legal confusion as to whether guns are permitted in the place of business.

Every establishment-owner has the “preeminent right” to ban guns if he or she chooses, and violators are subject to $500 fines, said Jackson.

“We’re going to address that issue head on,” said Jackson. “We want the property owners to know what is an effective posting. And by the same token, we also don’t want the permit holders to be guessing what is, or is not, an effective posting.”

In his view, Jackson said drawing distinctions between primarily eating establishments versus 21-and-over bars and taverns is mostly just an effort “to create standards of behavior for people who legally carry guns.”

“What we’re doing is regulating law abiding citizens,” he said. “As to whether those regulations are necessary, there is a debate, but I would suggest that if you look around the country at all the states and all the body of law, what you are going to find is that law-abiding citizens simply are not the problem.”

He predicted the Legislature “will act quickly and decisively” in 2010 to pass revisions to the guns-in-restaurants law.

“I suspect there will be a lot of support, just like there was last year,” Jackson said. “We’ll address the judge’s ruling, and then we’ll move on to bigger issues.”

Opponents of the law – which was approved over the veto of Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen – promise another tough fight ahead and say a recent Middle Tennessee State University poll showing 60 percent of state residents opposes allowing guns in restaurants, and 80 percent oppose guns in bars, indicates the general public does not support the new law.

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Press Releases

WLAC Radio & Gill Show to Host Dec. 8 Nashville Convention Center Forum

Press Release from “The Steve Gill Show,” Dec. 4, 2009:

Nashville based, nationally syndicated talk show host Steve Gill will moderate a Townhall Forum focused on the proposed Music City Convention Center on Tuesday, December 8, 2009 from 6-8 pm at the Union Station Hotel in downtown Nashville.

Representatives from Nashville’s Priorities, a group formed in opposition to the proposed new convention center, and the Music City Center Coalition, which has been advocating the construction of a new $585 million facility, will participate in a panel discussion of the project. Mayor Karl Dean has also been invited to participate in the forum.

The Townhall forum will air live on NewsRadio 1510 am WLAC and will include questions from the audience. Admission is free and the public is invited to attend.

“This is a major project and it will have huge implications for Nashville in the decades to come,” noted Steve Gill. “Before the Metro Council makes its decision about the project the citizens of Nashville should be fully educated on all the details and have a chance to make their voices heard. We are happy to help in that process.”

On Thursday, Mayor Dean announced the proposed finance package for the project. Music City Center would be one of the largest municipal projects in state history and the Metro Council is expected to make a determination on the project in January, 2010.

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Press Releases

TCPR: Medicaid Expansion Would Wreak Havoc on State

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, Dec. 3. 2009:

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Center for Policy Research today sent a brief to state lawmakers outlining the potential costs the proposed healthcare reform bills in Congress will have on the state. Both the House and Senate bills expand Medicaid eligibility, potentially devastating Tennessee’s budget. As a result, TennCare—the state’s Medicaid program—could become the health insurance option of nearly one in four Tennesseans.

According to the brief, titled “The Oncoming Tsunami of TennCare Costs” (pdf), the additional TennCare enrollees could cost Tennesseans as much as $1.4 billion. Governor Phil Bredesen (D), has properly referred to this expansion as “the mother of all unfunded mandates.”

TennCare already eats up a larger portion of the state budget than nearly every other state’s Medicaid program, and the proposed expansions would cause it to consume even more taxpayer money.

“The current rate of TennCare enrollment is unsustainable without a significant tax increase,” noted Justin Owen, the director of policy at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. “Opening the door to even more enrollees by expanding eligibility would wreak havoc on an already troubled program and the state budget.”

Rather than add to the TennCare rolls, Owen suggests free market alternatives that would reduce TennCare recipients’ dependence on government and protect taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

The brief offers two simple, yet effective solutions to the problem. First, the Tennessee General Assembly should seek a Medicaid waiver that would allow TennCare enrollees to take more control of their healthcare costs. Second, the state’s congressional delegation should urge Congress to replace the current Medicaid matching system with block grant funding.

“Congress successfully reformed welfare in the 1990s by moving to a block grant program, and they should do the same now to fix the Medicaid debacle,” said Owen. “The move would eliminate states’ incentive to throw more money at the problem rather than find real solutions to provide healthcare coverage to those unable to afford it.”

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News

State Budget Shortfalls Could Close Three Vet Centers

Veterans Affairs offices in Memphis, Dickson and Cookeville could close if the state opts to cut the department’s budget by 9 percent next year, say VA officials.

Eliminating three field offices, eight staff positions and slashing travel and supply costs would save the department $407,300, according to John Keys, commissioner for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The department’s current budget is $5.6 million.

Veterans now using those facilities would be absorbed by other branches, Keys said.

The Memphis office would relocate to the local VA Medical Center, though visitors of the Dickson and Cookeville offices would likely travel to Nashville or Chattanooga for assistance.

“We’re confident we’ll be able to meet that need,” Keys told Gov. Phil Bredesen at a budget hearing last month.

Bredesen requested that state agencies prepare scenarios that reflect 9 percent and 6 percent cuts to trim the overall state budget.

At field offices, veterans can file paperwork for benefits ranging from G.I. Bill tuition applications to health services for medical conditions and disabilities. Veterans also use those offices to check in on the status of their claims, or to inquire about other programs.

With 532,000 living Tennessee veterans, and more serving in ongoing U.S. wars, department budget officer Norman Nash says now isn’t the time to reduce staff.

“If we had no cuts at all, we would still need additional people,” he said.

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Press Releases

AccessTN Expands Eligibility to Include Children

State of Tennessee Press Release: Dec 03, 2009

NASHVILLE – The AccessTN board of directors today approved a new policy to allow uninsurable children with chronic and acute medical conditions to enroll in the state-administered health insurance plan. The change will take effect immediately.

As Tennessee’s high risk health insurance plan, AccessTN has provided comprehensive coverage since 2007 for adults who have been denied insurance coverage due to pre-existing health conditions. Until recently, CoverKids had provided coverage to children in similar situations, but suspended new enrollment in November 2009 due to budget limitations.

“With enrollment for new members in CoverKids closed, uninsured children with chronic conditions have fewer options for coverage,” said David Hilley, director of AccessTN. “The AccessTN board voted to expand the program to include children to ensure viable options remain for families with sick children.”

With a current enrollment of more than 3,800 members, each of whom pays a monthly premium for coverage, AccessTN provides comprehensive health insurance to individuals younger than 19, while still managing within its set budget.

Premiums for children will be based on the lowest premium level charged to AccessTN enrollees and will range from $284 to $410 per month. Premium assistance is an option for some families earning less than $75,000. This aid can cover up to 60 percent of the monthly premium, depending on family income, and is subject to available funding.

“Prior to the CoverKids enrollment suspension, families with uninsurable children could buy into that program by paying monthly premiums because they exceeded the income limits to qualify for free coverage,” Hilley added. “Now that enrollment for CoverKids has closed, this keeps a buy-in option open for those families who still need coverage for their children.”

To qualify for AccessTN, an individual must be a Tennessee resident, U.S. citizen or qualified legal alien and be considered uninsurable due to pre-existing health conditions. In addition, applicants must be uninsured for at least three months, though special exclusions apply for those finishing COBRA or TennCare policies, or for those whose employer has cancelled group coverage.

AccessTN is a program of Cover Tennessee, Governor Phil Bredesen’s initiative to address the health care needs of Tennessee’s uninsured. Cover Tennessee offers three other programs, including CoverTN, a limited benefit health plan for the working uninsured. CoverKids provides free comprehensive health insurance for qualifying children 18-years-old and younger. CoverRx provides Tennesseans who lack pharmacy benefits with access to affordable prescriptions.

New enrollment in CoverKids suspended Dec. 1, 2009. The last day to pre-qualify for CoverTN was Nov. 30. Any businesses or individuals who prequalified for coverage have until Dec. 31, 2009, to enroll with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. Both programs are temporarily closing enrollment as a result of limits in the state budget.

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Liberty and Justice News

Seeking Consensus on Traffic Cameras

Instead of slamming the brakes on red-light traffic cameras, House Transportation Committee members have tentatively agreed to try and hash out a three-part proposal to guide and regulate their use instead.

The rough plan, which includes a series of studies and a possible moratorium on new red light cameras, would give lawmakers more tools – and time – to decide the ultimate role the new technology will play in Tennessee communities.

Still, a number of lawmakers haven’t backed off their basic objections with the red-light cameras, saying both that the photos they take subvert civil liberties and that the private camera-vendors collect too much profit off the issuance of violations.

But the hope is to approve one comprehensive plan and move it through the Legislature, according to Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, who chairs the committee.

The panel batted around ideas Wednesday, including a plan by Maryville Republican Rep. Joe McCord to shuffle profits from citations to drivers education or trauma services statewide.

McCord, a vocal opponent of red light cameras, introduced legislation last year banning the technology. He has since dropped the ban, saying he now sees a safety value of the system, but he’s still uncomfortable with how the ticket-generated revenues are divvied up.

Many on the 12-member House Transportation Committee agree that the private traffic-camera service-providers currently have too much unchecked, profit-driven power over motorists.

The vendors capture alleged violations on camera, examine the pictures, cross reference the information with the Department of Motor Vehicles, then mail out the citations. In return, they receive the lion’s share of fines collected.

Harmon wants the state comptroller to take a hard look at the traffic cameras and report back to lawmakers on issues like what impact the systems have on vehicle crashes, the make-up of traffic-camera service contracts, and detail as to how citation revenues are spent.

Harmon also wishes to see the state Department of Transportation conduct an engineering study on each intersection proposed to use a traffic camera, and added he hopes to ban all unmanned speed cameras on state highways.

While many lawmakers on the panel generally seemed supportive of Harmon’s ideas, some still argue the cameras are unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy. “If it intrudes a little, it’s too much,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, a Kingsport Republican.

A study (pdf) by the free-market Tennessee Center for Policy Research released earlier this year argued that traffic-enforcement cameras are unwise, unnecessary and unsafe.

The City of Gallatin collected nearly $1 million in traffic citations linked to the traffic cameras in 2007, according to TCPR’s study. At least 16 Tennessee cities use some sort of traffic camera: Chattanooga, Clarksville, Cleveland, Gallatin, Germantown, Jackson, Jonesborough, Kingsport, Knoxville, Memphis, Morristown, Mount Carmel, Murfreesboro, Oak Ridge, Red Bank and Selmer.

“There’s a lot of money being made here,” said TCPR policy director Justin Owen, an attorney who co-authored the report.

Instead of installing cameras, he says lawmakers should require municipalities to extend the length of the yellow light, giving drivers more time to travel through the intersection instead of stopping short for fear of a traffic ticket.

“The mere presence of the watchful cameras encourages drivers to attempt to stop at yellow lights even if passing through the light would be safer. Coupled with a decrease in yellow light timing, this can readily explain the increase in the number of rear-end collisions that occur at intersections with red light cameras,” stated the TCPR report.

Rep. John Tidwell, an engineer from New Johnsonville, says he’ll push lengthening the yellow light next year.

The Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police maintains that the cameras help enforce the rules of the road, reduce crashes and generally improve safety, said Maggi Duncan, executive director. The association plans to push for the red light and speed cameras this legislative session.

The committee hopes to formulate an initial legislative proposal at their next meeting on Jan. 11.