Monthly Archives: April 2013

Undecided Haslam Still Pondering ‘Ag Gag’ Bill

Gov. Bill Haslam says he’s been learning from both sides about a so-called “ag gag bill” since it was passed by the Legislature two weeks ago, but it hasn’t reached his desk yet and he hasn’t decided whether or not a veto is in order.
The bill has generated thousands of emails, telephone calls and letters to the governor’s office – more than on any legislation that has come up during Haslam’s term as governor – and most have been calling for a veto, a gubernatorial spokesman says.
The Humane Society of the United States has organized a campaign against the bill, including TV ads urging people to contact Haslam and urge a veto. Celebrities including TV host Ellen DeGeneres and country music singer Carrie Underwood have also pushed a veto.
Haslam said he would not simply “tally results” before making his decision.
“Obviously, we value everyone’s opinion. But we’re trying to go beyond that and find the argument,” he said.

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Alexander to Push ‘Freedom to Fish’ Legislation

News release from Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office:
NASHVILLE, April 30 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today released the following statement on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ announcement today that it would proceed with its proposed fishing restrictions below dams on the Cumberland River:
“This is a waste of taxpayer dollars and an unreasonable interference with the right to fish below the dams the public owns,” Alexander said. “We will therefore move ahead in the U.S. Senate next week with legislation to ensure the freedom of Americans to fish in these waters at times that the state wildlife agencies believe is consistent with reasonable efforts to ensure public safety.”
The senator’s statement follows an announcement by the Corps today, Tuesday, April 30, that it would proceed with restricting access to tailwaters areas below the dams in Tennessee and Kentucky on a full-time, permanent basis through the use of buoys and signage. The Corps is not proceeding with physical barriers at this time, though that has been part of the plan.
Alexander previously introduced the “Freedom to Fish Act” to prohibit the Corps from restricting access to the tailwaters, noting that the waters are only dangerous 20 percent of the time. Cosponsors included Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as well as U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) in the House.
On March 23, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution to the budget that would allow for Congress to pass legislation prohibiting the Corps’ plan. Alexander has also held a range of meetings with Corps officials, encouraging the Corps to work with Tennessee and Kentucky wildlife agencies on a compromise to ensure safety.

Survey Finds TN Teachers Happier With Work Environment

News release from governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced today that after two years of rapid change, Tennessee educators reported improved work environments in a broad range of categories, all shown to correlate to increased student achievement.
The results from the second statewide TELL (Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning) Tennessee Survey are now available, and more than 61,000 educators, or 82 percent, in the state responded, a five percentage point increase from 2011. Across Tennessee, 1,627 of 1,774 schools, or 91 percent, reached a response rate of at least 50 percent.
“We know that when educators feel good about the culture and climate of their school, that leads to increased results for our students,” Haslam said. “We want to hear from our teachers, and I am grateful that so many of them took the time to respond.”
From Feb. 18 through March 22, 2013, all school-based licensed educators were asked to complete the online survey using an anonymous access code. Educators were asked to submit their perceptions on a variety of issues related to student achievement and teacher retention, including the adequacy of facilities and resources; time; empowerment; school leadership; community support; student conduct; professional development; mentoring and induction services; and student learning. The results will be used by school-based decision making teams, schools, districts, and numerous other organizations to improve the teaching and learning conditions in the state’s schools and districts.

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TN Legislators Taking Expense-Paid Trips to Turkey, Azerbaijan

At least nine state legislators have signed up for a trip next month to Azerbaijan and Turkey that is financed by groups with ties to a famous Muslim imam, according to WTVF-TV. Five legislators went on a similar trip last year.
In the waning days of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers debated whether proposed changes to the state’s campaign finance laws would open the door to foreign influence.
“If you want to know who contributes to my campaign, it’s as easy as the click of the mouse,” said Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Smith County Republican.
Still, what you won’t find online — and what Weaver did not mention — is that, in late May, a select group of state lawmakers will be jetting off for a 12-day, all-expenses paid trip, landing first in Azerbaijan, then heading a few days later to nearby Turkey.
The invitations came from a group called the Turkish American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast — with the money coming from a sister group called the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians.
Both groups have ties to a movement headed by a moderate Muslim imam named Fethullah Gulen.
…(Memphis Republican Rep. Mark) White is one of the nine lawmakers who have accepted the invitation to go on the trip.
Others, according to a list provided to NewsChannel 5, are:
Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville; Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah; Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville; Rep.  Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis; Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis; Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis; and Terri Lynn Weaver.
Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons has also agreed to go, as has his assistant commissioner David Purkey.
…Fethullah Gulen has generally drawn praise for his moderate religious views and his message of tolerance. Time Magazine just named him to its lists of the 100 most influential people in the world.
But a U.S. State Department cable published by Wikileaks describes his movement as being one that “officially professes to be interested in ecumenical understanding, but whose roots are intensely Islamic.”
As 60 Minutes reported last year, the movement is also behind a secular network of science and math charter schools that began in Turkey and has now spread to the U.S.
One of those is in Memphis.
…House Education Committee Chairman Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican who has been helping to coordinate the upcoming trip, keeps in his office mementos from both Azerbaijan and Turkey from a trip he accepted last year. Brooks said that there were five Tennessee lawmakers on that trip.
Other lawmakers, according to Brooks, were: Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis; Rep. Joe Armstrong, R-Knoxville; Rep. Josh Evans, R-Greenbrier; and Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville.
It was trip that Brooks described as part economic development, part goodwill.
“What we gain is, one, an understanding of a society that wants to be a friend to this country,” he added.
But Brooks insisted that charter schools were never discussed
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More TN Teachers Retiring; Reasons for Increase Disputed

More Tennessee teachers are heading for the exits. Since 2008 the number is up by more than a thousand – nearly doubling – to a total last year of almost 2,200, reports WPLN. Exactly why is a bit of a mystery.
Some teachers see it as a response to a couple years of politically charged upheaval in state education policy. But state officials say it’s not so clear-cut, and even go so far as to argue higher turnover has an upside.
…State education researcher Nate Schwartz agrees many teachers getting bad scores may see it as their cue to leave, in what he calls “self-selection.” He says this isn’t driven by explicit state policy. And because so much has changed in the state over the last few years, Schwartz says it’s hard to pin down a specific cause for the retirement spike.
(Note: The article has a table showing annual teacher retirements from 2008 through 2012. In 2008, there were 1,195 teacher retirements, average age 60.5 years and average experience 26.7 years. In 2012, there were 2,197 retirements, average age 61.4 years, average experience 26.7 years.)
Besides the new evaluations, many teachers were outraged when lawmakers tossed out their collective-bargaining rights in 2011, as well as the old tenure system. But the uptick in retirements might have less to do with shifting policy, says Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, and more to do with the economy.
Huffman notes people retired less “across all professions” amid the recession in 2008, “because their retirement accounts had been hit so badly.”
So if a lot of teachers already put off retiring a few years, Huffman says it’s no surprise to see more leaving now. The point he wants to emphasize is that teachers ranked at the bottom are retiring faster:
“Two years ago our best teachers and our lowest performing teachers retired at the same rate. And after last year, those rates completely diverge, so that our lowest performing teachers were retiring at twice the rate of our best-performing teachers.”
That trend points toward improving schools, Huffman says.
But it’s worth comparing more than just rates. In terms of real people, last year more top teachers retired – 129 of them, compared to 96 from the bottom. So even though 5s retired at a lower rate, there were still far more of them gone. State officials argue the rate is a more telling comparison, since in 2012 there were 6,704 teachers with 5s on the 1-to-5 scale, while 1s totaled just 2,644.

BlueCross Profits Reach Record Levels

Tennessee’s biggest health insurer helped ensure its own fiscal health last year by boosting net income by more than 26 percent and swelling its reserves to more than 50 percent above what is legally required, reports the Chattanooga TFP.
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the state’s biggest nonprofit corporation with $5.6 billion in annual revenues, said Monday it earned record profits of $221.5 million during 2012. Even with its income gain last year, BlueCross officials said the 4 percent profit margin was still the lowest among the major health insurers operating in Tennessee.
“As a tax-paying, not-for-profit company we can operate on a lower profit margin than the investor-owned companies in our industry, but we still try to maintain a small profit margin to ensure we can continue to serve our customers and remain financially strong,” BlueCross Vice President Roy Vaughn said. “I think our customers want us to be strong financially and to do well so that they know they can depend upon our services.”

State Making Incentive Payments to Hemlock Despite Layoffs

Hemlock Semiconductor of Clarksville laid off all of its nearly 300 employees months ago. But the company is still receiving regular payments from the state of Tennessee, including checks totaling nearly $720,000 just this month, reports WPLN.
The Department of Finance is making good on $95 million of promised incentives, having paid $92 million so far, according to a state spokesperson.
“This is something that the current administration sort of inherited,” says Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes. “I think we do have to be very careful and very thoughtful going forward on things like this.”
Former Governor Phil Bredesen – a Democrat – made the deal to bring the solar industry player to Tennessee in 2008. Since then, competition from China has dragged down the price for polysilicon, which is the key component in solar panels manufactured by Hemlock.
Now in the minority, Democrats like Lowe Finney pushed a bill this year that would give the state a way to get back some money if companies don’t deliver on their part of the deal.
“Different legislators have talked about oversight for a number of years,” Sen. Finney (D-Jackson) said. “But it’s a matter of timing.”
The law was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam late last week. It passed unanimously, but that may be because it could be viewed as watered-down. The proposal still doesn’t mandate clawback provisions in future economic incentive deals.

Dept. of Labor Tactics Questioned in Firing Team That Helped Fired Workers

Tennessee labor officials are shutting down a federally funded rapid response team that had been used to provide quick assistance to employees caught in the midst of mass layoffs across the state, reports The Tennessean.
The elimination of the unit, which had been in operation for about a decade, comes despite the strong protest of some members of a state workforce advisory board. That board had refused to approve the change at a meeting last fall, and charged that the state’s last-minute change failed to comply with federal notice requirements.
Jeff Hentschel, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said some of the seven members of the team already have been given layoff notices, while others will be formally notified shortly. All will be off the state payroll by June 18.
He denied that the state violated the federal notice requirements, saying the state has the right to amend its annual plan prior to submission to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The job of responding to mass layoffs will now be delegated to 13 regional workforce agencies across the state. Hentschel said the $568,000 in cost savings will be allocated to those regional agencies, “who will absorb the rapid response duties and responsibilities.”
The state recently laid off an additional 125 employees who provided career job services at centers across the state.
Guy Derryberry, a member of the executive committee of the state Workforce Development board, said the elimination of the response team was inserted in the state’s annual plan just two days before the panel was scheduled to vote on the overall plan.
Derryberry also charged that draft minutes of the board’s Sept. 13, 2012, meeting incorrectly state that the panel approved the revised plan, even though they expressly refused to act on the change.
…Hentschel defended the omission, stating that the minutes were intended to be summaries of board action and not “a transcription of all language contained in a meeting.”
The elimination of the unit, whose employees have a combined 145 years of experience, has sparked a letter-writing campaign to state legislators and the governor charging that the last-minute changes were the result of recommendations from an out-of-state consultant brought in by the recently departed top management at the labor agency.
In fact, the disputed minutes quote former Deputy Labor Commissioner Alisa Malone as thanking the consultant, Mary Ann Lawrence of the Center for Workforce Learning, for her assistance in developing the plan.
Lawrence, according to the minutes, was present for the September session.
Earlier this year, the state of Tennessee halted payments to Lawrence’s company, which collected $1.1 million in fees through the Department of Labor and Workforce Development despite being cited in two successive state audits for contracting irregularities
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Judge Upbeat on Changes at DCS

By Travis Lollar, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal judge overseeing changes at the state Department of Children’s Services expressed cautious optimism Monday that the agency’s new leadership can resolve some of its problems.
The tone of the hearing marked a decided change from a January hearing where U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell expressed frustration that the agency seemed to be moving backward and concern for the safety of the children in its care.
That hearing took place during a public outcry over the agency’s inability to say how many of the children it had tried to help had died or nearly died over the past two years.
DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned a few days later and was replaced by Interim Commissioner Jim Henry, who was in the courtroom Monday.
Campbell said that Henry “seems to have developed a new tone at the agency, and that’s a good step.”
The agency was in federal court to report on its progress toward meeting the goals of a 2001 settlement with the child advocacy group Children’s Rights.

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DHS Moving Ahead With Drug Testing for Welfare Applicants

Tennessee is plunging ahead with a plan to drug-test some welfare applicants even though a Florida judge stopped a similar program over constitutional issues and Arizona authorities caught only one welfare-receiving drug abuser in three years, according to The Tennessean.
Reports from the Tennessee agency charged with implementing the drug-testing law show the state may try to catch drug-using applicants with a diagnostic quiz that includes questions such as “Have you abused more than one drug at a time?” and “Do you ever feel bad about your drug abuse?” If they failed the questionnaire, they would face urine screenings.
Tennessee passed its law last year and gave the Department of Human Services until July 1, 2014, to implement it. It’s taking cues from Arizona’s program, which went into effect in 2009.
“I don’t rule out the possibility that we’ve captured two idiots,” said Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh, a former police detective who sponsored the legislation there. “If I was going to do it again, I would attempt to do a cross-check of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families rolls and records of drug arrests, but based on our budget, I don’t want to create that expense.
“I wish the Tennessee legislature all the luck. If they are able to crack through the judicial barriers, we will benefit from their experience.”
Tennessee’s sponsor for the drug law, Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, said he’s not discouraged by what’s happening in other states, and he would consider the law successful if it drove down the number of applicants simply because they knew they would be tested.
Groups who support drug-testing laws nationwide argue that the Fourth Amendment prohibition on searches without reasonable cause shouldn’t apply in the case of welfare applicants. Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank in Washington, said it’s fair to require certain behavior from people who receive taxpayer assistance.
…About 51,000 Tennessee families receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a cash payment that averages about $164 a month, according to the most recent Department of Human Services report. Adults are required to keep their children in school and participate in a work-training program. They can’t receive benefits for more than 60 months in their lifetimes, although the clock on benefits can stop and start depending on their circumstances.