Monthly Archives: December 2013

State preserves 3,000 Cumberland acres through easement

MONTEAGLE, Tenn. (AP) — The state Division of Forestry has acquired a conservation easement on more than 3,000 acres adjacent to South Cumberland State Park.

The easement allows for the Grundy County property to remain privately owned and managed as a working forest while protecting it from future fragmentation and development.

The land is near a section of the Fiery Gizzard Trail, where more than 1 million people visit annually.

In 2008, the Land Trust for Tennessee and The Conservation Fund, with assistance from the Friends of South Cumberland State Park, protected nearly a third of the Fiery Gizzard Trail and a large section of the view from the trail.

With the completion of the final phase, more than 5,000 acres have been added to South Cumberland State Park system.

On ‘historic structures’ in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By Joel Davis, The Daily Times
MARYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Great Smoky Mountains National Park continually looks to the past for guidance on maintaining and preserving its historic structures — many from the 1800s — into the future.

“There are almost a hundred historic structures in the park,” said park spokeswoman Molly Schroer. “We have a very small crew considering the large amount of work that goes into the maintenance and upkeep of these special areas.”

GSMNP holds many buildings from years past — grist mills, schools, churches, outbuildings, barns, houses — that must be preserved or rehabilitated. It takes specialized knowledge, Chief of Maintenance Alan Sumeriski said.

“We have seasoned craftsmen here,” he said. “They have been doing this work for years. We have a small crew. They use a variety of hand tools. Not many power tools in their business.”

Randy Hatten, program manager for historic structures and preservation, manages the historic preservation shop. The park also employs a cultural resource specialist to guide all the evaluation that goes into a design plan. There is research into the date of the structure and to understand construction methods and materials. For example, the park will send a sample of paint to a laboratory for analysis to determine the original color of a building.
Continue reading

Amazon tax collection bill, 15 others, become law on New Years Day

Perhaps the most notable new law taking effect on Jan. 1, 2014, in Tennessee is one that requires Amazon.com to start collecting sales taxes from its Tennessee customers – passed by the Legislature in 2012 in accordance with a deal negotiated by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration with the company.

A list of bills passed by the 2013 session with a Jan. 1 effective date, providing the official legislative “caption” description, is HERE.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, meanwhile, has a compilation of new state laws from around the nation HERE. (HT to Knoxviews, which also has a link to a ‘ridiculist’ quiz on the laws. Hint: Tennessee doesn’t make the list.)

And here’s a write-up on the Tennessee new laws by Legendary Lucas, otherwise known as Lucas Johnson of the Associated Press:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A law that could boost the state’s revenue is among those taking effect on Jan. 1, as are statutes that govern concussions in school-age athletes and workforce development.

Starting Wednesday, Amazon.com will begin collecting sales tax in Tennessee. Under a deal struck with the administration of former Gov. Phil Bredesen, Amazon was absolved from collecting the state sales tax. Customers were responsible for paying them on their own to the state Department of Revenue.
Continue reading

UT raises staff minimum wage to $9 an hour, effective Jan. 1

More than 200 University of Tennessee employees across the state will begin seeing a slight bump in their paychecks beginning Wednesday when the school implements the first of two planned minimum wage increases, reports the News Sentinel.

The minimum wage will rise 50 cents to $9 an hour at the start of the new year. It is scheduled to increase another 50 cents an hour in June.

The last minimum wage increase was in 2011, when UT raised its starting pay rate from $7.50 per hour to the current $8.50 an hour.

The raise will affect about 223 full- and part-time employees statewide, including 170 at the Knoxville campus, said Linda Hendricks, UT vice president of human resources, earlier this month. These employees are mostly custodial, food services and housekeeping personnel.

This is part of an ongoing effort to improve pay at UT, Hendricks said. Each UT campus has developed a compensation plan to compete with peer institutions in attracting and retaining top talent, she said.

Note: The UT news release on the minimum wage increase is HERE.

Legislators want more answers to Jones Lang LaSalle questions

With questions piling up on the Jones Lang LaSalle contract and other aspects of the state’s procurement system, the the House and Senate Government Operations Committees have decided to bring the contract and other issues back before the legislative committees in the coming session, reports Andy Sher.

“There were just a lot of questions from the members and we knew we didn’t have time,” Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said over the weekend.

Bell noted that the state made a “pretty radical change” to the procurement process.
“And I know there have been some aspects to it that have not been fully understood by the Legislature or the public,” he said. “And it’s looked bad.”

The lawmaker quickly added that “whether the appearances of impropriety are actual, I’m not sure. I haven’t seen any evidence of it and, again, it may be that this is a business model that will benefit the state in the long run.”

Among other things, the comptroller’s audit echoed questions raised in news accounts about potential conflicts of interest. The company is in charge of making recommendations about leased office space needs and also is paid commissions on deals struck with real estate firms.

Haslam says the overall outsourcing will save taxpayers more than $200 million over 10 years. Jones Lang LaSalle also now runs many state office buildings and was put in charge of assessing state office needs and the condition of existing buildings, as well as consolidating state office space.

…At the Dec. 18 hearing, members delved into the conflict issue as well as how the contract with Jones Lang LaSalle expanded. The contract grew from an initial $1 million assessment of state real estate functions into what was envisioned as a $19 million per year contract estimated at $100 million over five years.

Thad Watkins, general counsel for General Services, disagreed with the audit’s conclusion that the scope of the original contract was too broad or that it grew even more by amendments beneficial to JLL.

“We want to put to rest once and for all that this contract grew from its original conception,” Watkins said.

He pointed out that the original contract, as approved by the State Building Commission, “was planned from the very beginning to be grown by amendment as funds became available.”

Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, was skeptical of a General Services official’s assertion that lists of services attached to the original contract were either specifically set forth or “logical extensions” of the contract.

“So if the amendments were an obvious and expected extension of the contract … then why are they amendments?” Carr asked. “Why aren’t they part of the contract as originally written and proposed?”

Told that they weren’t included because the money wasn’t available, Carr said, “your logic poses some challenges.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, pounced on the issue.

“That is probably true,” Kyle said. “And if it is, it has to be the greatest disrespect I’ve ever seen to the General Assembly’s budgeting process in 30 years — ‘We know we’re going to be spending the money, but we’re not going to tell you we’re going to be spending the money.’”

Kyle said he didn’t know of anyone in the Haslam administration ever making a presentation to a legislative committee discussing how the administration planned to embark on a major change in state policy.

Note: WTVF-TV did a one-hour special on Jones Lange LaSalle dealings, coupled with a review of Haslam’s contracting with lobbyist Tom Ingram. IT’s available HERE.

Town leaders decide repealing property tax was a bad idea

Spring Hill officials now look back on the three-year elimination of the city’s property tax as the greatest contributor to financial troubles from which the city only recently emerged, reports The Tennessean.

Alderman Eliot Mitchell, who was on the board that unanimously voted in 2005 to eliminate the property tax, now calls it his “worst decision” since first being elected in 2003.

It wasn’t until subsequent years that Spring Hill officials say they realized how detrimental the vote was, when the city became financially restrained by a burdensome internal debt and inability to build infrastructure and road projects to keep up with its rapid growth.

“That one decision, eliminating the property tax, affected us all the way from 2005 to 2013, even though they reinstated it in 2008,” City Administrator Victor Lay said. “When you eliminate property taxes, there are some benefits. A lot of folks will move to your town, but not having adequate revenue creates a lot of other problems.”

Only in the past few years has Spring Hill gotten back to a relative point of stability.
The city earlier this year paid off a five-year, $4 million internal debt caused after a past administration illegally borrowed money from its water and sewer department to bolster its general fund between 2001 and 2007.

…Every year that the tax was reduced through 2009 — the year after it was restored — the city saw budget shortfalls, growing significantly by 2006 after the tax elimination, with a $2.2 million shortfall. In 2007 it was a $3 million shortfall, and in 2008, it was $830,000.
That was the year a state audit declared illegal the internal borrowing of $4 million, and the city learned it would have to pay it back. Since then, many board members have publicly blamed the quandary on the tax elimination.

…During its no-tax years, the city lived off millions of dollars in reserves put aside during the boom economy. When the money ran out, transportation projects, parks and other capital purchases needed to keep up with growth were halted.

Pro-Obamacare PR campaign getting underway; TN talking points

From a Politico article:

The White House, Democratic lawmakers and advocacy organizations will launch a campaign this week to highlight real-life experiences under the Affordable Care Act — tales so compelling that they help drive up enrollment, marginalize Republican repeal efforts and erase memories of this fall’s HealthCare.gov debacle.

That’s the thought at least.

If Wednesday’s start of coverage for millions of Americans doesn’t go as planned — so far, little about Obamacare has — the airwaves will be dominated with stories of complications and dropped insurance, and President Barack Obama will once again have to explain what went wrong.

But Democrats still see this moment as their best chance yet to show voters why the embattled law is worth protecting by featuring accounts of people visiting the doctor for the first time in years, receiving treatment for a nagging ailment or buying medication that they could never afford before.

White House officials and congressional aides say they have been lining up consumers and vetting their stories to tell through videos, blogs, local news, press conference calls and Twitter feeds, including those of celebrities. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius kicks off the effort with op-eds running Sunday in more than three dozen papers.

Andy Sher, meanwhile, has listed Tennessee talking points to be used within the state, citing a White House press release.

According to the Obama administration, beneficial impacts of the law in Tennessee include:

• 1,413,000 individuals on private insurance have gained coverage for at least one free preventive health care service such as a mammogram, birth control, or an immunization in 2011 and 2012.

“In the first eleven months of 2013 alone, an additional 584,400 people with Medicare have received at least one preventive service at no out of pocket cost,” the release says.

• Up to 2.76 individuals with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, cancer, or diabetes – among them up to 353,000 children – “will no longer have to worry about being denied coverage or charged higher prices because of their health status or history.”

• Some 1.2 million Tennesseans have gained expanded mental health and substance use disorder benefits and/or federal parity protections.

• An estimated 889,000 uninsured Tennesseans will have new health insurance options through Medicaid or private health plans in the marketplace.

Some miscellaneous TN political links, mostly year-end stuff

‘Watchdog’ snarls at Democrats, ECD
The “nonpartisan” Tennessee Watchdog targets three Democratic politicians, one state government department and “taxes on tourists” for a year-end round of bashing as the “top five trendsetters for bigger government and taxpayer waste in 2013.”

No. 1 is U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, followed by “hotel and motel taxes,” especially in Memphis; the state Department of Economic and Community Development; Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.

Political dummies?
Under the headline “Political Year 2013 for Dummies,” Jackson Baker rambles from a developing schism in the “control of a monolithic state Republican party” over all political things in Tennessee to the “apparently insoluble Shelby County Schools dilemma, and to federal government gridlock.

Should Waffling William become Bold Bill?
The Vanderbilt Political Review, which is generally devoted to national and international topics, ventures into Tennessee turf with an article on Gov. Bill Haslam’s indecision on Medicaid expansion, suggesting in scholarly fashion that he ought to do something, one way or the other. Excerpt:

The vague terms and low likelihood of a successful compromise indicates that it may be in the best interests of Tennesseans for Gov. Haslam to choose a side and stick with it, no matter what the cost may be. Each decision will inevitably have its drawbacks, however the increasing costs of indecision appear to be too heavy for the Tennessee to bear in the position it occupies in an already tenuous national health care scheme. The Affordable Care Act has ushered in an era of innovation, and with it an era of uncertainty. The only viable option at a time like this is to make a decision and be prepared to defend it to the unavoidable opposition that will occur.

Kyle’s ‘naughty and nice’ list
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, in a Memphis Flyer piece:

“The timely question is: Will our state lawmakers be naughty or nice? (in the coming session).

A sample answer:
Governor Bill Haslam, for his part, has proposed a nice plan to use federal money for people who want to buy private insurance. He announced the plan almost one year ago, but he has been naughty since then and made no progress.

Lamar laments ‘unhappy new year’
Sen. Lamar Alexander says the new year will be an unhappy one for ‘tens of thousands’ of Tennesseans because of Obamacare, HERE. That’s after the “unwelcome Christmas present” of President Obama’s “broken promise” on Obamacare. HERE. (Note: A new year, but not a new message — Alexander really, really hates Obamacare. Got that yet, Republican primary voters?)

Small Farm Frank
Frank Cagle’s weekly rumination is on the subject of small farmers, agribusiness and the need for state and federal government involvement in striking a balance between the two.
But there are standard things being done to the food supply, like putting antibiotics in animal feed, that ought to be widely exposed if not prohibited. Like putting arsenic in chicken feed to stimulate appetites and make chickens grow faster.

Sunday column: In TN politics, 2013 a year of living aimlessly

In Tennessee political and governmental doings, 2013 may be an oxymoron year for some obscure history scholar of the future who wades through the remarkable lack of significant accomplishments: It stands out as a forgettable year.

Topping the list of significant indecision, Gov. Bill Haslam did nothing on the billion-dollar question of whether to expand Medicaid eligibility.

It might involve health care coverage for somewhere between 130,000 and 330,000 Tennesseans (the debate on numbers is one of those many unresolved matters in the dithering) and the survival of many hospitals on the brink of bankruptcy. But it has been resolved by Haslam doing nothing — an extraordinary political dodge that actually made The Associated Press’ list of the state’s top 10 stories of the year, in contrast with everything else on the list — things that actually happened.

This non-happening was the only item of the year on the AP statewide list that involved state government or politics. It’s not included, understandably, on today’s News Sentinel list of 2013 news of things that actually happened.
Continue reading

On the loss of unemployment benefits for 1.3 million nationwide, 18,000 in TN

From the Commercial Appeal:
More than 1 million Americans — including 18,000 Tennesseans — are girding for a harrowing, post-Christmas jolt as federal jobless benefits come to a screeching halt this weekend.

“The best way I can describe it is it’s simply horrifying,” said Midtown resident Saint Roland Jeancharles, 35.

He has been on unemployment since he lost his $75,000-a-year job as business systems analyst for ServiceMaster in April 2012.

…In Tennessee, the average(benefit payment) is $235 a week, or $1,018 a month. (The maximum is $275 per week.)

…The Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development announced earlier this month that the agency has been alerting more than 18,000 Tennesseans receiving federally extended unemployment insurance that those payments will soon end.

“We don’t want people who are presently receiving (emergency unemployment compensation)to be caught unaware, expecting their EUC benefits to continue into 2014,” Labor Commissioner Burns Phillips said in mid-December. “We also want workers to know that the Tennessee unemployment insurance program that provides the first 26 weeks of benefits is not affected by the expiration of the federal EUC extension.”

After Saturday, Tennessee will return to the system in which an approved new claim can have a maximum of 26 weeks of Tennessee Unemployment Compensation benefits.

Here’s a national AP story on the matter, subject of a dispute between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, of course.
Continue reading