Blake Farmer

There was a time when hymns were used primarily to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. But then came the praise songs.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he was as surprised as anyone that FBI and IRS agents locked down the headquarters of his family’s company Monday. He says all he knows is that they were looking for “certain records.” 

The governor remains a primary shareholder in Knoxville-based Pilot Flying J, though he has never disclosed the level of his investment. He stepped down as company president in 1998. Brother Jimmy has returned as CEO after leaving his post briefly last year when he bought the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.

Gov. Haslam was asked by reporters Tuesday if he was worried about any appearance of impropriety.

“Well sure. To say you didn’t would not exactly be honest. That’s a business that my family is involved in, people I care a lot about. So to say that it doesn’t feel like a big deal is wrong," said the governor.

A proposal meant to put more armed guards in Tennessee schools has begun moving forward in the General Assembly. It offers money for schools to hire retired police officers and allows teachers with law enforcement backgrounds to carry a gun to class.

Whether a retired officer hired part-time as a security guard or a teacher already on the payroll, both would have to go through at least 40 hours of special training.

The legislation has the backing of Governor Bill Haslam and has trumped other proposals aimed at more broadly allowing teachers to go armed to class.

Some Republicans still want to mandate armed guards in every school, but others say the only reason they support this bill is because it doesn’t. Rep. Ryan Haynes of Knoxville says schools aren’t as dangerous as they’re made out to be.

For-profit charter schools have been trying to make inroads in Tennessee. But a bill allowing investor-owned firms to manage day-to-day operations has been rejected in the Senate Education Committee.

The Volunteer State has required charter schools to be run by non-profits, even though the legislature has been friendly to for-profits in other fields such as virtual education.

Republican Joey Hensley of Hohenwald says the state is already moving to increase the number of charter schools.

“Then turning around and opening it up to for-profit companies to begin coming in, I don’t know if it’s good or bad but it’s a little bit concerning to me,” said Hensley.

The bill failed, with most of the committee’s GOP members refusing to vote.

Tennessee is not exactly saying “yes” to expanding the state’s Medicaid program – known as TennCare. But it’s not saying “no” either.

Governor Bill Haslam made the announcement this morning to a joint assembly of the legislature, telling lawmakers he’s been working toward a “third option.”

“To leverage the federal dollars available to our state to transform health care in Tennessee without expanding our TennCare rolls," said the Republican Governor.

Haslam says he’d like to use the federal money to buy private health insurance for Tennesseans who have no other way to get it.

Some state lawmakers believe the Tennessee General Assembly may have gone too far with cost-cutting when it wiped out oversight committees looking out for children.

Governor Bill Haslam was asked whether he supports a push by Democrats to reestablish the panel that looked over the troubled Department of Children’s Services.

“You can’t have 133 bosses. That doesn’t work. But having said that, there is a legitimate role for legislative oversight, and we’d love to be a part of that conversation about what that should look like going forward," said the Governor.

Haslam says the debate should be about more than DCS.

A Tennessee panel that could authorize charter schools to open anywhere in the state is moving forward against the objections of Democrats and a few rural Republicans.

The proposal would require that charter applicants first ask the local school board for permission to open a publicly funded, privately run school. If the answer is no, they could go to the new independent state panel that would have the final say-so.

Rep. Curtis Halford is a Republican from west Tennessee, where there are no charter schools at this point. He spoke against the state authorizer in a House committee.

“Is it just kind of like if you don’t get the answer you want from mom you go to dad?,” asked Halford.

Opponents of expanding TennCare as envisioned in the Affordable Care Act say the country can’t afford to add to the national debt. But hospitals in Tennessee are pushing back, saying the money amounts to just seven-thousandths of one percent of the country’s red ink.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Wright Pinson held up a sheet of paper with a pin dot in the middle, representing the potential savings for no expansion compared to the country’s $16 trillion debt.

“I think that you would agree that weighing all of the conflicting politics and data, the health and welfare of the citizens of Tennessee far outweigh this dot,” Pinson said.

The federal government would cover 100 percent of the costs in the first three years. Pinson says the state should take the money and worry about the future later.

Tennesseans could be a bit more discreet about carrying a handgun under a bill approved in the state House last night. The legislation would close carry permit records to the public.

The bill gives just one exception. If someone is suspected of being a felon or illegal alien – precluded from having a carry permit – the person’s information could be released. But there has to be some sort of evidence to show the Tennessee Department of Safety in the form of a government document, such as a warrant or a restraining order.  

“Yes or no – basically – as to whether they have a carry permit,” said bill sponsor Rep. William Lamberth.

His bill is supported by the Tennessee Firearms Association, which wants to take down an online database. The Commercial Appeal newspaper has a searchable list of the names, birth years and zip codes of the state’s nearly 400,000 permit holders.

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is scheduled to update lawmakers on progress toward keeping track of child deaths. But Democrats say they don’t expect enough tough questions.

Two years ago, the legislature proudly abolished all of its joint committees as a way to cut $850,000 out of the budget. One of them had direct oversight of DCS – the select committee on children and youth.

Without this special panel, Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville says there are few experts on child abuse and foster care at the capitol.

“They don’t know how the department works. They don’t know what’s been going on, so they can ask a couple of minor questions, and then pat the commissioner on the back.”

Previous naysayers are coming around to the idea of expanding TennCare. Even while criticizing the Affordable Care Act, they say pulling more poor people into the state’s Medicaid program could have some upsides.

Other Republican-led states have taken the leap, even as Governor Bill Haslam continues to weigh the pros and cons.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick says at first, all he could see was that after three years, the state would have to start picking up part of the tab.

“There are some other facts that have come to light since then that would offset some of those expenses. That’s why I have an open mind about it.”

A Republican-led push to use college IDs to vote in Tennessee was held up on the floor of the state Senate Thursday, as a disagreement has broken out between GOP lawmakers over the issue.

The legislation comes from a Rutherford County lawmaker, home to the largest undergraduate student body in the state. And while Senator Bill Ketron refused to accept student IDs when the law was passed two years ago, he’s now had a change of heart.

Senator Stacy Campfield of Knoxville has not.

“You know, I hate to say it, but possibly in my younger days I may have known a person or two who had a falsified college ID,” said Campfield.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he will make up his mind on whether to expand the state’s Medicaid program by the end of the month. He says he’ll leave time for the state legislature to consider his decision.

There’s no pressing deadline except that the state legislature intends to wrap up work in April and Haslam needs lawmakers to sign off either way. If he does go along with the Affordable Care Act and expand the state’s Medicaid program, it could take a lot of convincing.  

“If the decision is no, then their discussion is short I think. If the decision is yes, then I think they’ll need a decent amount of time to discuss that,” said the Republican Governor.

Two Republican lawmakers are still trying to advance bills that would bar the state from expanding Medicaid. They argue the state still can’t afford it even though the federal government pays the bill for the first three years.

The Tennessee House will consider creating an entirely new panel for authorizing charter schools at the state level. It’s part of a compromise set to be heard in an education committee Tuesday.

The original bill is a direct response to the repeated rejection of Great Hearts Academies by Metro Schools last year. It gives the state board of education power to OK charter schools and oversee them.

But the state board has concerns about possibly taking on the job of managing privately-run, publicly financed schools. Rep. Mark White says he now hopes to create a completely separate board appointed by the governor and speakers of the House and Senate. 

“Now with this panel, this will be something that shows we’re serious about this. We want good charter applications to come to this state, but we’re going to do it right,” said Rep. White.

A bill that would allow handgun permit holders to store firearms just about anywhere they park is poised to become law. The so-called guns-in-trunks legislation now goes to the governor after being passed by the state House.

There would have been very little debate but for 13 amendments proposed mostly by Democrats at the last minute. Most would have exempted certain property owners.

Sponsor Jeremy Faison of East Tennessee says he had no intention of allowing any amendments.

“Absolutely there are some good ideas, but at the end of the day, I gave my word to business people and to common sense gun owners that we were going to pass this bill just like this, and it has something for everybody,” said Faison.

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