Category Archives: government programs

Following ‘sexist’ flap, Haslam erases ‘governor’ from agency title

Gov. Bill Haslam has changed the name of the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, which got a fair amount of negative publicity last year, to the Tennessee Highway Safety Office through an executive order. The order also transfers oversight of the agency from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security.

Executive Order No. 3, signed March 29 and effective April 1, is HERE.

Further from a Tennessean report on the move that gives some of the recent history of the former Governors Highway Safety Office:

The highway safety office generated controversy last year after launching a campaign that featured what some called a sexist approach to encouraging young men not to drive under the influence. The campaign used coasters and fliers with slogans designed to reach the “young male demographic,” the agency’s director Kendell Poole told The Tennessean at the time.

One version of drink coasters said, “Buy a drink for a marginally good-looking girl, only to find out she’s chatty, clingy and your boss’s daughter.”

A flier read, “After a few drinks the girls look hotter and the music sounds better. Just remember: If your judgement is impaired, so is your driving.”

Another aspect of the campaign mimicked graffiti found on the inside of a bathroom stall using a section of the highway safety office’s website.

The “Legends of the Stall” portion of the website featured behaviors such as binge drinking, promiscuity and cleaning up vomit with a cat. The website became inactive after The Tennessean initially reported about the campaign last July.

150,000 Tennesseans could lose food stamps

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — An estimated 150,000 Tennesseans could lose food stamp benefits on April 1 if they don’t meet work requirements that were waived for several years because of the Great Recession.

Tennessee Department of Human Services spokeswoman Stephanie Jarnagin said the agency began sending out notices earlier this winter to people who could lose benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the federal program is officially known.

The program requires able-bodied adults ages 18 through 49 who have no children or other dependents at home to work, volunteer or attend education or job-training courses at least 80 hours a month. If they don’t, their benefits are cut off after three months.

The work requirement was waived during the recession but the waiver ended in at least 21 states, including Tennessee, on Jan. 1. That triggered the three-month limit for recipients to comply with work requirements. If they don’t, they lose their food stamps on April 1.
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TRICOR blasted; Yager wants ouster of CEO, directors

Senate State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager says the the state agency that oversees prison labor, Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative in Correction or TRICOR, needs a new board of directors and a replacement for its CEO, Patricia Weiland.

So reports The Tennessean. Further:

“I don’t have any confidence in her ability to clean up this problem that has been created under her watch,” Yager said Thursday when asked whether Weiland should resign.

The comments followed a tongue lashing from Yager and other lawmakers during a Thursday morning legislative hearing. Lawmakers remain upset over the findings of an audit from the Tennessee comptroller. The audit outlined substantial financial mismanagement and mistakes that led to TRICOR operating at a $4 million loss and deciding to end its prison food program.

In addition to criticizing Weiland and TRICOR over financial mismanagement, Yager also blasted the longtime CEO for spending $5,000 of TRICOR funds on Nashville-based public relations firm McNeely Pigott & Fox to help prepare her to testify in 2015.

“I think to pay a public relations person to coach you up for a hearing is a waste of taxpayers’ money … and frankly when I received this email I was absolutely shocked,” Yager said.

“I think that as an official, you’re an appointed official and not elected, you’re expected to make your own case without hiring a publicist to help coach you through it.”

Weiland initially declined to comment on the hearing, trying to avoid questions as a spokeswoman attempted to waylay reporters in the corridors at the statehouse. She eventually said she plans to fix the issues at TRICOR, arguing there aren’t a slew of lawmakers questioning her leadership capacity.

“I only heard one senator say that. I’m a 36-year public servant; my record is open to the public. I’ve been a very passionate public servant for the state of Tennessee,” Weiland said.

“We’re moving forward. There’s a 20-year history. This is a blip on the radar. Taxpayer money was not sacrificed, it was not lost. It was used to provide food to the Department of Correction.”

…But Jason Mumpower, chief of staff to Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson, argued that money is taxpayer money because most of TRICOR’s clients are state agencies.

“TRICOR’s deficiencies were eye-opening and they need to be addressed,” Mumpower told lawmakers, adding the agency created an environment where fraud was “ripe to occur.”

TRICOR operated what it called the “Tennessee Cook Chill” program for several years, sending millions of meals to Tennessee prisons. Weiland told The Tennessean in December that TRICOR will end the arrangement with the department by June.

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.

$70M TN switchgrass biofuel project scuttled

DuPont will close its biorefinery in Vonore, a facility that was built as a partnership with the state of Tennessee contributing $70 million to research and develop a biofuel industry in East Tennessee, reports The Daily Times of Maryville.

The refinery started as a joint project between DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC and The University of Tennessee Research Foundation. In 2007, the state legislature approved $70.5 million in total investment for the project, including $40.7 million for land acquisition, facilities construction and equipment.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the 74,000-square-foot facility in the Niles Ferry Industrial park in Vonore, took place in October 2008, and an official ribbon cutting was held in late January 2010.

The facility is a “demonstration-scale biorefinery” where DuPont has been researching ways to use crops like switchgrass to make cellulosic ethanol. The Vonore site had the capability of producing 250,000 gallons of ethanol annually, according to a 2013 story in The Daily Times.

A DuPont spokesman confirmed to The Daily Times this week that the company is closing the facility “in an effort to streamline operations.”

“DuPont partnered with the state of Tennessee to build and operate this pilot facility in 2009. DuPont entered the partnership to develop the technology to scale up next-generation cellulosic ethanol technology to commercial capacity,” said the statement attributed to Jan Koninckx, global business director for advanced biofuels.

“That core mission has been fulfilled as demonstrated by DuPont’s recently opened 30 million gallon per year cellulosic ethanol facility in Nevada, Iowa,” the statement said.

The Iowa facility is one of the first commerical-scale cellulosic biorefineries in the world and uses corn stover — the cobs, leaves and stalks left after harvest — to produce cellulosic ethanol. DuPont predicts the $225 million facility will produce 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. It opened on Oct. 30 of this year.

“DuPont remains committed to the commercialization of cellulosic biofuel and will focus its resources on its Iowa facility and securing technology licensing opportunities around the world,” the statement said.

The statement noted that DuPont has invested over $85 million in the Vonore piloting facility, “contributing substantially to the local economy.”

Note: The project was funded under former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, though embraced by Republicans including Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. (See, for example, previous posts HERE and HERE. As mentioned in the latter, legislators on the Fiscal Review Committee critically questioned the project at one point, but nothing came of that.)

(Hat tip, Knoxviews)

ECD undertakes $250K study of rural broadband

Without taking a position, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has cautiously entered a hotly contested dispute over the appropriate governmental role in providing broadband Internet connections to rural areas of Tennessee.

Randy Boyd, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, said the state has contracted with two companies to “define the problem” of getting broadband access to rural areas, believing that it is crucial to expanding jobs and future development opportunities.

With the studies, Boyd said in an interview, “We are not going to propose a solution.” But he said that, as some point, the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Haslam administration may “take some leadership in developing the solution.” The solution is currently subject to a multifaceted dispute.
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Biden: Feds should bypass legislatures, send more money directly to cities

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The federal government should find more ways to bypass state legislatures to get transportation grants directly to cities and towns, Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday.

Biden also criticized the highway bill approved by the U.S. House earlier in the day as “basically a three-year patch that doesn’t give enough funding or enough certainty.”

The bill authorizes $325 billion in spending through the 2021 federal budget year, but it provides money for only the first three years because lawmakers couldn’t agree on a way to pay for it all. The measure would continue current rates of spending, adjusted for inflation.

The vice president drew applause from the hundreds of local officials attending the speech to the National League of Cities when he observed that federal money flowing through state capitols tends to get diverted toward the interests of governors and individual lawmakers.

“The biggest problem I have with the cities and towns is you almost always have to go through your state legislative bodies to get any help,” Biden said.
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THDA to spend $1.5M patching homes

The Tennessee Housing Development Agency has a new $1.5 million home repair program targeting older houses in economically challenged counties, reports the Kingsport Times-News.

Gov. Bill Haslam has agreed to commit $500,000 of Appalachian Regional Commission funding to the pilot program, while THDA will match the state’s pledge with $1 million of its own funds in order to launch the program early next year.

The program will help patch roofs, fix wiring, update plumbing, and make other repairs for Appalachian families who cannot afford to bring their homes up to code on their own, according to THDA Executive Director Ralph Perrey.

“The Appalachian region includes some areas of Tennessee that are among the most difficult for state agencies to serve despite a high number of families in need,” Perrey said in a prepared release. “It’s important to be creative in order to reach these families, and this program provides us with a unique opportunity to meet that goal.”

This is the first time the state of Tennessee has committed a portion of its ARC funding to a THDA housing program. Under the program, state dollars will be dedicated to 12 so-called “distressed” counties as identified by ARC. The $1 million in THDA funding will be allocated in these areas along with 19 other counties identified by ARC as “at risk.”

…Distressed ARC counties in Tennessee include Bledsoe, Campbell, Cocke, Fentress, Grundy, Hancock, Johnson, Lewis, Pickett, Rhea, Scott, and Van Buren.

At-Risk ARC counties include Carter, Claiborne, Clay, Grainger, Greene, Jackson, Jefferson, Lawrence, Macon, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe, Morgan, Overton, Polk, Unicoi, Union, Warren, and White.

TN moving to use $30.4M in unspent fed water funds

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee environmental officials say they’ve taken steps to utilize millions of dollars of unspent funds from a federal aid program for improving the nation’s drinking water systems.

A review by The Associated Press shows project delays, poor management by some states and structural problems have contributed to nearly $1.1 billion in congressional appropriations sitting unspent in Drinking Water State Revolving Fund accounts as of Aug. 1.

The backlog is smaller than it once was, but federal data show that many states are not on track to meet a goal set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which wants any money dating back to 2013 to be spent by next year.

Tennessee received $194.2 million in federal funding as of fiscal 2015 from the federal fund, according to the AP review. Of that total, $30.4 million remained unspent.

However, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokesman Eric Ward said after several discussions with EPA personnel, TDEC has implemented a new “spending strategy” that he says has resulted in “significant improvements in the pace of spending.”

“Although we have more work to accomplish, we are continuing to improve our position with this … strategy and anticipate additional significant reductions to unliquidated obligations in the coming year,” Ward said.

Lawsuit filed against DHS child nutrition program

An agency that contracted with the Department of Human Services to feed low-income kids in Memphis has filed suit, alleging it was wrongly terminated from the program, reports The Tennessean.

Building Futures was among the larger non-profit providers of meals and snacks for poor children in Tennessee. It was one of hundreds of non-profit agencies that contract with DHS to distribute food in Tennessee, where one in four children is at risk for hunger. DHS paid Building Futures up to $400,000 per month in 2014 for serving food at 124 sites throughout Shelby County.

But DHS and Building Futures are at odds over the exact number of meals served. DHS terminated Building Futures from its program earlier this year, barring its husband and wife operators, Bailey Phillips and Lisa Turner, from working for any similar program. The company had been operating in Arkansas for six years. Because Tennessee placed the couple on a list of banned operators, they also lost their contract with Arkansas, according to a spokeswoman with the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

The lawsuit against DHS comes as the department faces criticisms over poor oversight of two programs designed to reach at-risk children with nutritious meals. DHS is responsible for operating the Child and Adult Care Food Program, as well as a summer food program for children — distributing close to $80 million in federal dollars to middlemen like Building Futures.

An audit by the Tennessee Comptroller questioned millions of dollars in payments to some agencies, and cited poor oversight and fraud. DHS officials have said some of those payments were about incorrect paperwork, rather than fraud.