Category Archives: federal funding

Fed funding at risk under new DUI law for juveniles

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper on Friday criticized Tennessee Republicans for changes to the state’s underage drunken driving law that could lead to a loss of $60 million in federal highway funding.

Under the new law, which took effect on July 1, the allowable blood alcohol content for 18- to 20-year-old drivers was raised to 0.08 percent, but offenders now face the same level penalties as adult drivers convicted of drunken driving.

Federal guidelines suggest a strict 0.02 percent allowable blood alcohol content for drivers under the legal drinking age. The new Tennessee law splits this group into two: 16- and 17-year-olds are still subject to the 0.02 limit, while those 18-20 now have a higher allowable limit, but with the tougher punishments.

Cooper said the change runs afoul of federal standards for underage drivers, meaning that the state could stand to lose 8 percent of its federal highway funding, or $60 million per year.

“This must be a mistake,” Cooper said. “No one wants more drunk drivers on the road. State leaders should act immediately and comply with a zero tolerance policy.” Continue reading

TN, VA govs talk opioid addiction with agriculture secretary

By Jonathan Mattise, Associated Press
ABINGDON, Va. — Kicking off a national tour on opioid addiction, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack brought together the governors of Tennessee and Virginia on Thursday to talk about stemming Appalachia’s drug abuse epidemic.

The town hall reinforced President Barack Obama’s call for Congress to pump $1.1 billion more into substance abuse treatment. It also was an opportunity to show that governors of opposite parties want to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, despite Republican efforts to stop them.

Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam see solutions in a mix of treatment, prescription monitoring, drug courts, education and new economic opportunities.

West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose deaths, with 35.5 per 100,000 people. Kentucky has the fourth-highest toll and Tennessee the eleventh, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s everybody’s problem,” McAuliffe said. “Of course, we need money.” Continue reading

TN businessman charged with defrauding government of $1.2M

A Vonore, Tenn., businessman faces federal charges for allegedly defrauding the U.S. Department of Defense of more than $1 million, intimidating potential witnesses and forcing employees to cover up environmental violations, reports the News Sentinel.

Phillip Michael Huddleston is charged in a six-count indictment unsealed this week in U.S. District Court with conspiracy to defraud the government, three counts of wire fraud and two related illegal banking transactions.

Huddleston is co-owner of Protech Metal Finishing in Vonore. He is accused in an indictment drafted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Morris of conspiring with another man identified only as “unindicted co-conspirator 1” to rip off the Defense Department via shoddy work on plating for 717 ammunition racks, lying to federal inspectors, tricking regulators with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, threatening to fire whistle-blowers and forcing his employees to engage in cover-ups.

Huddleston’s attorney, David Eldridge, said his client maintains his innocence, and his firm remains open.

“Mr. Huddleston denies the allegations against him and looks forward to defending himself at trial,” Eldridge said. “Protech Metal Finishing has many long-standing and positive relationships with its customers. Protech will continue to provide its customers quality service as it has done for many years.”

The indictment alleges $1.2 million in thievery from the defense department from September 2011 through February 2014 and states the plot began as far back as 2009. Court records indicate a June 2013 fire at the Vonore warehouse involving illegally stored hazardous waste spurred at least part of the probe that led to the indictment.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Shirley arraigned Huddleston on Tuesday. A July 12 trial before Senior U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan has been set.

Cohen bill calls for reporting all DUI arrests to NCIC

News release from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen
[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Congressman Steve Chabot (R-OH) today introduced the bipartisan DUI Reporting Act of 2016. This bill would close a reporting loophole that inadvertently enables repeat DUI offenders to be tried more leniently as first time offenders. The DUI Reporting Act would require, as a condition of full Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG) funding, that DUI arrests are reported to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the national crime database that is made instantly available to police right from their patrol cars, so repeat offenders can be charged appropriately.

“It is shameful that all DUI arrests are not reported to the national crime database,” said Congressman Cohen. “The consequences of this lack of reporting can prove life-threatening. Last year there was a tragic accident just outside of Memphis. Two teenage girls on their way to a vacation were killed around 6:30 a.m. when the car in which they were being driven was struck by a drunk driver who had accrued seven DUI charges since 2008 but had been allowed to plead guilty five times to a first-offense DUI. This story broke my heart, and I believe the hearts of everyone in the Mid-South. Police need access to this information to get drunk drivers off the road, and repeat offenders need to be charged appropriately.”
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Audits find misdeeds in two child nutrition operations

In separate audits released today, the state Comptroller’s office has found misdeeds afoot in two child nutrition programs — on in Nashville, the other in Clarksville.

The news releases are below, along with a statement from the Department of Human Services disagreeing with some of the auditors’ comments.
Continue reading

DHS meals-for-kids program under scrutiny again

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Department of Human Services program that provides meals to children at risk for hunger is under scrutiny over a lack of oversight.

The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/1Ubonsj ) reports that a federal review issued last month found multiple instances of lax oversight by the DHS. The review also found there is a lack of adequate level of staffing to properly oversee the program.

According to the review, the department currently has three open positions for department auditors who are supposed to review the program for waste, fraud and abuse.

Lawmakers are now working on oversight measures for the DHS.

State Sen. Jim Tracy says the measures would make sure that contractors are getting food to children in need. His bill would require the DHS to provide regular reports to lawmakers.

Old earmark money going to new TDOT projects

At least $64 million in old, unused federal transportation money is being provided to Tennessee for new projects by the U.S. Department of Transportation, reports The Tennessean.

The money is from 57 congressional earmarks — special local projects for Tennessee that were added to federal spending bills — that are more than 10 years old and have resulted in little or no action, according to the list of projects.

Congress passed a law last year allowing states to repurpose orphaned earmark funds if they haven’t spent more than 10 percent of the money and the repurposed projects are within 50 miles of the originals.

Another $86.3 million also may be available from old projects where more than 10 percent of the money has been spent. But Tennessee transportation officials will have to document how those projects are closed out in order to redirect the leftover money elsewhere.

…A top Tennessee transportation official said the agency plans to spend the money on safety improvements, resurfacing and bridge repairs — and every county in Tennessee may benefit.

“Congress has done a good thing here in allowing us to take resources already in place for the states and put these projects out on the street,” said Paul Degges, deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

Note: A U.S. DOT news release on the money is below. Continue reading

Senators vote to cut UT diversity, boost agriculture

The Senate Education Committee voted Wednesday to strip the University of Tennessee’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion of all but its federal funding and to transfer $8 million from the university’s administration into its agricultural extension service and rural outreach programs.

Further from the News-Sentinel:

The committee approved an amendment by its chairwoman, Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, to the UT budget submitted by Gov. Bill Haslam that would have the effect of defunding the diversity office at UT Knoxville – the target of conservative ire since a pair of controversial web posts regarding gender-neutral pronouns and inclusive holiday parties. The panel’s action isn’t final: it will require concurrence by the full Senate and the House before it could go into effect.

Anthony Haynes, UT’s vice president for government relations and advocacy, said after the meeting that university officials “certainly understand the motivation behind the amendment.”

“We’re hopeful that we can work it out before we pass the final budget in April,” Haynes said.

The amendment’s approval followed an earlier 2½-hour hearing by the House education committees on diversity issues at UT and the Tennessee Board of Regents system.

As passed, the amendment:

Transfers $5 million from the funds appropriated to UT Knoxville to the UT Agricultural Extension Service for its programs and services. That’s the amount that the office of diversity and inclusion currently receives annually: $1.3 million on compliance and reporting activities dealing with federal law, and $3.7 million for campus diversity programming.

Declares that “only federal funds shall be expended to support the office of diversity and inclusion” at UT Knoxville.

Transfers $3 million from funds appropriated for administration and salaries on the Knoxville campus to UT Chattanooga and UT Martin (at $1.5 million each) “for the sole purpose of rural outreach programs.”

Gresham owns a cattle farm in Fayette County and faces a re-election challenge in this year’s Republican primary by Savannah Mayor Bob Shutt, who has said he’s running to bring more rural development to the eight-county 26th Senate District.

TNInvestco has run through $200M, results unclear

TNInvestco, established with $200 million in state taxpayer funding to finance startup companies, is almost out of money, reports The Tennessean, and so is a similar federally-funded program called INCITE.

After citing a startup that got $4 million from TNInvestco and INCITE and is doing pretty well, the article goes on to raise questions about whether taxpayers will ever get their money back, which was part of the TNInvestco plan sold to state legislators when it was approved.

Just $17 million remained as of 2014 — the most recent year financials are available. The state’s $30 million INCITE program, a federally funded initiative run by Launch Tennessee, is down to $2 million as of 2015.

TNInvestco and INCITE have been critical drivers in developing the state’s startup growth, helping to build accelerator programs and attract more private capital to Tennessee companies — more than $325 million to date.

…TNInvestco has become a sparkplug for Tennessee’s startups and it has spurred job creation across the state. It has also put private investors on track to make millions and yielded millions in tax savings for insurance companies. But TNInvestco is a long way from repaying taxpayers.

In 2009 Tennessee lawmakers approved $200 million to fund TNInvestco. By enlisting private fund managers to invest the state’s money and insurance companies to help pay for the program, TNInvestco would support small business growth and create jobs. There was also the expectation that the state would recoup its massive investment.

…The TNInvestco program was pitched to Tennessee lawmakers as a jobs bill, but the descriptions that bill sponsors and state officials provided were often confusing, misleading or incorrect. But in a time when the national economy was still reeling, the bill received nearly unanimous bipartisan support.

The problem is in TNInvestco’s design: It forces the state to bear all the risk and see only half of the proceeds, providing far more profits to the managers of 10 TNInvestco funds than they would make in the private markets. Tennessee also loses millions through the sale of tax credits to fund the program, tens of millions that could be spent on funding schools, roads or more early-stage companies.

..As of 2014, 10 of the 175 companies that have received TNInvestco funds sold for a profit, and if returns were distributed, the state would lose money on all but four of those deals. Fifty more companies have closed or sold at a loss. The reinvestment period extends until 2017, which means that the TNInvestco investors’ early returns still have the potential to strike gold in a new investment or to fizzle in a failed company. But, if the 10 funds had to distribute returns in 2014 on those 60 company sales or writedowns, the state would gain close to $10 million on $21 million invested, booking a more than $11 million loss.

State to gain fed highway money under new law

The new federal transportation act that won Congressional approval Thursday will send an additional $300 million to $400 million to Tennessee over the next five years but it won’t relieve the need for new state transportation funding, officials told Gov. Bill Haslam Friday.

Further from Richard Locker:

There was no discussion of a state fuel tax hike in TDOT’s budget hearing with the Governor Friday…Instead, much of the discussion focused on the new five-year federal transportation funding act.

…The new five-year act is a welcome change, (Transportation Commissioner John) Schroer and TDOT Deputy Commissioner and Chief Engineer Paul Degges told the governor, because it provides stability for an extended period. The TDOT officials said uncertainty in federal funding, which comprises just over half of TDOT’s funding, makes it difficult to schedule long-term projects.

…Degges said the federal bill “is going to help us. The federal side is fixed now. Our concern is with state dollars. Our state dollars are flat and will remain flat. The federal money requires a 20 percent match. So there’s that pressure.”

The federal act contains no increase in financial aid to the state next year but over its five-year life is estimated to channel between $300 million and $400 million in federal money to the state for transportation projects, the TDOT officials said.

“It takes off some pressure because we now know we have five years of funding in place, so we can take that worry off. And that was a big worry for us,” the commissioner said. “If you get funded every six months and you don’t know if you’re going to get funded it makes a big difference in how you operate your business.”

Asked by reporters why there was no discussion of a state transportation funding increase, Schroer said, “We have a need for projects across the state and how they get funded is up to the legislature.”

And this note on the Transportation budget hearing from the Times-Free Press:
Meanwhile, the commissioner said his efforts to cut down on costly private consulting firms’ work on behalf of the department by moving the engineering, planning and other work back in house is saving the state some $28 million.

In the latest move, Schroer intends to fill another 1,100 positions in addition to the 3,300 workers already working for TDOT. Schroerer and other officials say reliance of private firms had extended into too many areas and were costing as much as three times the amount spent if done by state employees.