federal funding

‘Open container’ bill dies despite Haslam’s support

Legislation prohibiting open containers of an alcoholic beverage in moving vehicles is dead again this year even though Gov. Bill Haslam made it part of his official legislative package for 2017.

Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who has pushed the idea for years, had hoped Haslam’s backing would make a difference, reports WJHL-TV, and is disappointed by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (sponsoring SB1219 for the administration) pulled the bill without a vote.

Norris said there’s not enough support among legislators for passage and debating the matter would be “a distraction” from the push for passage of the governor’s priority bill of the year — a package of tax legislation including increases in gas and diesel fuel taxes.

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TN submits new education plan with letter grades for schools

The state Department of Education has released its plan for bring Tennessee into compliance with the new federal education law called Every Student Succeeds Act.

Under the plan, all public schools will get a letter grade from A to F, making it easier for parents to evaluate how their local schools are doing.

Last year the Legislature passed a bill that called for schools to be given letter grades, notes the AP, but the new state education plan goes even further under the measurement system that takes effect in the fall of 2018.

The Department of Education news release is HERE.

Trump budget ax would slash lots of fed spendng in TN

Dozens of programs that provide funding or services in Tennessee are targeted for elimination or drastic cuts under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, reports Michael Collins.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Delta Regional Authority all would be impacted by Trump’s spending plan, released early Thursday and dubbed “America’s First” budget by the White House.

Other programs that reach into the state yet would get no funding under Trump’s budget include Community Development Block Grants, which provide resources to cities for a variety of activities such as affordable housing and anti-poverty initiatives; the Meals on Wheels food-delivery program for the elderly; the Minority Business Development Agency, which works to help minority-owned businesses grow and stay competitive; and heating assistance for low-income residents.

“The list of important programs cut or eliminated is huge,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis. “President Trump’s budget will thrust America into social and cultural deterioration, a new Dark Ages.”

 

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DUI enforcement cut by governor’s ‘open container’ proposal

As proposed, Gov. Bill Haslam’s transportation funding package would eliminate 57 positions dedicated to enforcing drunken driving laws by district attorneys general staff across the state. The Times-Free Press reports the governor is open to address the resulting concerns of prosecutors.

The provision in question in the governor’s legislation, which would also raise fuel taxes, would outlaw open containers of alcoholic beverages in cars on the road. Because Tennessee doesn’t already have an open container prohibition, $18 million in federal highway funds cannot be used for road construction and maintenance and instead goes to other programs – including $6.5 million now used for special DUI prosecutors, training and police overtime for DUI enforcement. With passage of the governor’s plan, all $18 million would be shifted to road construction.

“We’re aware of that,” the governor said last week. “We fund some DUI [enforcement], DAs through that. We’re willing to look at other ways to make sure that function gets paid for. We realize that’s critical.”

…Jerry Estes, former 10th Judicial District attorney general and now executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, recently said DAs in 25 of the state’s 31 judicial districts rely on the funding. He said prosecutors are hoping to work something out.

“Our concern is 57 positions that would be lost if they’re not funded another way,” Estes said. “And what those 57 positions do, they’re very involved, of course, in prosecuting DUIs and vehicular homicides.”

Moreover, Estes said, the money also helps train sheriffs, police departments, the Tennessee Highway Patrol and other enforcement agencies to combat DUI and impaired driving.

“Tennessee’s DUI deaths on the highways have gone down greatly since these programs have been in place,” said Estes, who called them “very crucial” to that success.

…Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, a former prosecutor, said the $18 million, including the $6.5 million that now goes to prosecutors, needs to be replaced.

“If we can take $18 million out of the general fund and allocate that towards safety, specifically toward 57 positions in the district attorneys’ offices, officer overtime, roadblocks and advertising to combat intoxicated driving, I think that’s a great solution,” Lamberth said.

 

Haslam said “not having the open container law has meant that the federal government’s telling us how we can spend that $18 million.”

 

“I think we should choose how we spend that and then to decide do we want to fund DUI, DAs another way,” the governor said. “But in the meantime, money that should be going to roads should be going to roads.”

Secretary of Interior nominee backs more money for Smokies

At a confirmation hearing Tuesday, Ryan Zinke, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to become U.S. secretary of the interior, committed to more funding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, reports WPLN.

While the Smokies attract twice as many visitors as Yellowstone, the Tennessee park gets only half of the federal money. It’s also prevented from charging an entrance fee due to the way it was acquired by the federal government.

Zinke acknowledged this disparity during his hearing and said he hopes to work toward solving it.

“The Smokies is different than other parks, it should be recognized,” he said. “Working forward with this committee on the infrastructure bill, we’re hoping we can take a big bite out of the deferred maintenance on infrastructure. There’s a number of roads and facilities in there.”

Zinke was also questioned about the deadly wildfires that started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and burned through Gatlinburg. He said he would work with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander to learn from the tragedy and implement prevention strategies.

Note: Alexander’s news release on the hearing is below.

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Rep. Butt proposes ban on ice cream, cake for food stamp recipients

State Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, proposes in HB43 to prohibit use of food stamps to purchase products “high in calories, sugar, and fat without any nutritional value, including, but not limited to, soda, ice cream, candy, cookies, and cake.”

The bill provides that those buying candy, cake and ice cream with government-provided funds be required to reimburse the state Department of Human Services. Businesses caught selling the unauthorized products in exchange for food stamps would face a $1,000 fine on first offense; $2,500 on second offense; $5,000 on third and subsequent offenses.

“We have so much obesity in this state that we can’t just sit around and do nothing,” Butt tells Cari Wade Gervin, who, well, doesn’t think very highly of the proposal. Her commentary, HERE, has the headline, “Sheila Butt to the Poor: Let them not eat cake.”

On her website, Butt has a post on her proposal HERE. An excerpt:

“I go into convenience stores almost every day and see the most non-nutritional foods on the counters and in the aisles marked ‘EBT Approved.’ These are the same foods that we have banned from our children’s lunchrooms,” said Butt. “By allowing their purchase with EBT cards, we are actually enhancing diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity in at-risk communities.”

Butt takes issue with the idea that taxpayers should be subsidizing unhealthy lifestyle choices for those on public assistance programs, which she says taxpayers end up footing the bill for on the back end as well.

“Taxpayers are supporting unhealthy lifestyle choices on the front end and up paying for resulting health care costs on the back end,” explained Butt. “This is very counterproductive, counterintuitive and costly.”

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New TennCare waiver could mean ‘whole new ballgame’ in fed funding

After six months of operating under temporary extensions, state and federal health care officials have reached a new long-term agreement on continuing federal funding of TennCare that will change the way money is distributed to hospitals in two years.

From a Modern Health Care article:

 Under the new agreement, the CMS will continue the uncompensated-care payments through June 30, 2017, at current levels, which have averaged around $500 million a year.

During a one-year transition period, the total possible payments will ramp up to $708 million.

After that, Tennessee must submit a revised methodology for distributing the money that limits the subsidies to care provided to people who wouldn’t be eligible for Medicaid if the state agreed to expand the program under the Affordable Care Act.

“Coverage is the best way to assure beneficiary access to healthcare for low income individuals, and uncompensated care pool funding should not pay for costs that would otherwise be covered in a Medicaid expansion,” Eliot Fishman, director of the CMS’ State Demonstrations Group wrote in a letter to the state in November 2015.

Tennessee hospitals are nervous about how the allocations will change. It’s “a whole new ballgame with a new distribution system of funding for hospitals,” said Craig Becker, CEO of the Tennessee Hospital Association. “We have some concerns about precisely how this will work, but we have a couple of years to work with state and federal officials to nail down details and secure needed funding for hospitals in the state.”

The CMS has increasingly resisted paying for healthcare for the uninsured now that most of them have access to coverage under the Affordable Care Act. That issue has been an obstacle to renewing waivers in other states, including California, Florida and Texas.

See also The Tennessean, HERE

Sevier County designated disaster area for federal aid

News release from Tennessee Emergency Management Agency

Nashville, Tenn. – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced this evening (Thursday) Sevier County will receive federal aid assistance through a Presidential Disaster Declaration as the county begins its recovery from the devastating wildfires of Nov. 28, 2016.

“This deadly wildfire required a coordinated response from many individuals and organizations,” Haslam said. “The outpouring of care, relief, and support from around the world for Sevier County and its people has been extraordinary.  This assistance from the federal government will help relieve some of the financial burden of this disaster on Tennesseans and Sevier County.”

In his federal disaster assistance request of President Obama on Dec. 9, 2016, Gov. Haslam also asked for the disaster declaration to include four counties – Coffee, McMinn, Polk, and Sequatchie – hit with severe weather and tornadoes on Nov. 29, 2016.

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Haslam seeks federal aid in repairing wildfire, storm damage

News release from the governor’s office

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today sent a request to President Barack Obama to expedite a major disaster declaration for five Tennessee counties in order to get needed federal assistance to aid in recovery from wildfires and severe storms.

The counties included in Haslam’s declaration request are Coffee, McMinn, Polk, Sequatchie and Sevier.

“My goal is to help ensure these counties have what they need to rebuild and recover from these heartbreaking disasters,” Haslam said. “The state and our local partners continue to work through the damage assessments, provide necessary services to help those in need, and get our neighbors and friends back on their feet.”

A presidential disaster declaration could help the five counties with costs for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and rebuilding and repairing roads, bridges, water control facilities, buildings, utilities and recreational facilities. A federal disaster declaration, if awarded, may also help qualifying individuals with direct assistance.

Additional information about state and federal assistance, should it be granted, will be released when details are available.

On Nov. 28, wildfires rapidly spread through Sevier County, causing mandatory evacuations of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The wildfires caused 14 fatalities and damaged or destroyed more than 2,200 structures in Sevier County.

Overnight on Nov. 29, five tornadoes touched down in Tennessee with two weather-related fatalities in Polk County.

UPDATE/Note: The state’s congressional delegation has written a letter in support of the governor’s request. It’s below.

Joint news release from Tennessee members of Congress:

WASHINGTON – Members of Tennessee’s Congressional delegation today urged President Obama to quickly approve Governor Haslam’s request for a major disaster declaration for the State of Tennessee to help five Tennessee counties impacted by wildfires and severe weather in November rebuild and recover.

“Governor Bill Haslam has submitted a request for Public Assistance and Individual Assistance for Sevier County, which was affected by wildfires and for Coffee, McMinn, Polk and Sequatchie counties which were affected by severe weather and tornadoes,” the members wrote President Obama in a letter. “We strongly urge you to approve Governor Haslam’s request, and we hope you will consider our State’s request as soon as possible.”

The letter was signed by Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and Representatives Diane Black, Marsha Blackburn, Steve Cohen, Jim Cooper, Scott DesJarlais, John Duncan, Stephen Fincher, Chuck Fleischmann and Phil Roe.

The full text of the letter:

Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of the State of Tennessee, we are writing to support Governor Bill Haslam’s request to declare a major disaster pursuant to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief Act as a result of the severe wildfires and tornadoes that impacted our state beginning November 28, 2016.

Governor Bill Haslam has submitted a request for Public Assistance and Individual Assistance for Sevier County, which was affected by wildfires and for Coffee, McMinn, Polk and Sequatchie counties which were affected by severe weather and tornadoes. We strongly urge you to approve Governor Haslam’s request, and we hope you will consider our State’s request as soon as possible.

The severe wildfires that swept through Sevier County, Tennessee beginning November 28, required the evacuation of over 14,000 residents and visitors and led to 14 fatalities and 134 reported injuries. The wildfires damaged or destroyed over 2,200 homes, businesses and other structures. At its peak, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency estimated that over 1,300 people occupied six Red Cross and independently-operated shelters.

The severe weather that impacted 10 counties in East Tennessee on November 29, produced 5 tornadoes and led to 4 fatalities and 12 reported injuries. The severe weather caused structural damage and downed powerlines throughout East Tennessee, especially in Coffee, McMinn, Polk and Sequatchie counties.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency since the beginning of these incidents, and we are grateful for their efforts to respond to Tennessee’s needs. Our offices can provide you with any additional information should you have any questions.

 

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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