Tennessee

Governor Bill Haslam has presented to lawmakers the spending plan that includes a staffing shakeup at the troubled Department of Children's Services, a heavy investment into construction projects around the state and a large deposit into the state's cash savings fund.

The Governor also formally introduced his proposal to create a limited school voucher program in Tennessee to allow parents to use public money to send their children to private schools. According to legislation filed in the Senate on Monday, the program would be limited to 5,000 students in the school year that begins in August, and grow to 20,000 students by 2016.

Haslam acknowledged the proposal will be "hotly debated" and Democrats issued a statement before the speech to criticize the plan.

A Tennessee judge has ruled that the state’s Department of Children’s Services must make public more information about the deaths of young people known to the agency.

A group of Tennessee media outlets, led by The Tennessean newspaper, filed suit against the Department of Children’s Services, alleging the department violated the law by refusing to provide records concerning children who died after being brought to the agency’s attention. At first, the DCS said it would make more records available, but then cited state and federal confidentiality laws as a reason to withhold the documents.

Two high-ranking Tennessee Republicans, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, recently announced they would seek legislative hearings into DCS practices.

The media outlets seek records related to 31 Tennessee children who died in the first half of 2012, as well as the cases of 206 young people involved in fatal or near-fatal incidents dating back to 2009.

Both supporters and opponents of Tennessee’s voter ID law are pointing to newly released statewide data to bolster their positions. Nearly four out of five provisional ballots cast in the Volunteer State last November were tossed out.

The Republican-backed voter ID law was passed in 2011. Supporters say it’s an effort to ensure voter integrity and prevent election fraud. Opponents say it’s an attempt to suppress voting among traditional Democratic constituencies, including the urban poor who sometimes don’t have a government-issued photo ID.

Under the Tennessee law, those who experience trouble at the polls on Election Day are allowed to cast a provisional ballot which will be counted later if election officials determine the person casting the ballot is a legitimate voter. According to the data released this week, a little over 1,600—or 23%--of the more than 7,000 provisional ballots cast in Tennessee last November were ultimately counted.

A Nashville civil rights lawyer told The Tennessean those numbers show some voters were disenfranchised.

Two high-ranking Republicans say they’ll hold legislative meetings to examine the state’s troubled Department of Children’s Services. The Tennessean reports House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey plan to announce meetings to be held later this month when the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes in Nashville.

The DCS has come under intense criticism recently for refusing to share details about the cases of 31 children who died in the first six months of 2012. Those 31 children had previously been brought to the attention of the DCS, leading to questions about whether more could have been done to place the children in a safer environment.

Democratic Rep. Mike Turner has previously called for a legislative investigation into how DCS protects vulnerable young people in the Volunteer state.  The New-York based group Children's Rights is also pressing Tennessee to get the DCS to release case records.

Tennessee Given New Higher Education Goal, Adviser

Jan 16, 2013

Gov. Bill Haslam said he wants to set Tennessee on a path toward boosting college graduation rates from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025.

Haslam has appointed Randy Boyd, chairman of wireless pet fence maker Radio Systems Corp., to help further that goal as his top higher education adviser.

Haslam said Boyd will join a working group tasked with finding ways to tackle what the governor called the "iron triangle" of affordability, access and quality issues for public colleges and universities in Tennessee.

The panel is made up the governor and the heads of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee systems.

Boyd will work full time but won't be paid.

A national advocacy organization is asking a federal judge to force the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to hand over child death records. The New York-based Children’s Rights first sued the Volunteer State in 2000 over youth safety concerns.

Children’s Rights has filed a new motion in federal court saying two children died inside the same Tennessee foster home within six months, and that the response to the incidents by the Department of Children’s Services raised, what it called, “serious concerns.”

The Tennessean reports the New York group wants the DCS to provide child fatality records for children who died in 2011 and 2012 and who had prior contact with the department. There has been no formal response by DCS to the federal motion.

The department in the past has said it will provide records before ultimately deciding it was against releasing case records due to confidentiality concerns. The court filing by Children’s Rights says the few internal records and summaries filed by DCS in December made it “impossible to determine what transpired in those cases.”

Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner is calling for a special meeting to investigate the Department of Children's Services' refusal to release records related to the abuse and death of children under its care.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner is calling for a special meeting to investigate the Department of Children's Services' refusal to release records related to the abuse and death of children under its care.

Turner sent the request for the joint government operations committee to Gov. Bill Haslam, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell, all Republicans.

The Tennessean newspaper and a group of Tennessee news organizations, including The Associated Press, have asked a judge to open records from the department.

The Tennessee House has voted to cap the number of bills members can introduce, a move GOP leaders think will help streamline business in the chamber.

The Tennessean reports the House passed a 15-bill limit for each member. House Speaker Beth Harwell initially wanted a ten-bill per member limit.

Supporters say the limit on legislation will lead to an increase in the overall quality of bills brought up in the chamber. But opponents describe the move as an effort to muzzle them. Representative Joe Towns of Memphis denounced the limit, saying “this is not the chamber of a communist country.”

The Tennessee Senate, meanwhile, finished their weekly business without deciding whether to bind the chamber to the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Republican U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander is proposing a "grand swap" in which the federal government would take over all responsibility for Medicaid and the states would gain all control over education.

The senator said in an address to a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly on Wednesday that the proposal mirrors one he made to President Ronald Reagan three decades ago while Alexander was Tennessee governor.  Alexander said Reagan embraced the idea, but it did not gain any traction in Congress.

Alexander told reporters after the speech that he see similar barriers to his proposal amid Democratic control of the Senate and the presidency, but said the change would remove the concerns and political challenges facing the states on expanding Medicaid or creating state insurance exchanges.

Tennessee Fights Transparency for Child Welfare

Jan 8, 2013

As some states move toward greater transparency when children under state supervision die, Tennessee is holding fast to its policy of blocking public access to case files.

A coalition of news organizations led by The Tennessean newspaper and including The Associated Press has sued to force Tennessee to release case records of children who died after the Department of Children's Services investigated reports of abuse or neglect.

The lawsuit uses Tennessee's public records law and argues it's in the public interest to know what steps the agency took to protect the children.

Tennessee’s Department of Correction Commissioner says he’s pursuing the use of drugs that could be used to execute inmates on death row. The Volunteer State’s entire stock of a key lethal injection drug was confiscated by the federal government in 2011 over questions about whether the drugs were legally obtained.

Commissioner Derrick Schofield says his department is urgently working to secure drugs that could be used to execute inmates.

The Tennessean reports there are currently 84 people sitting on the state’s death row, with 67 of those inmates having been there for more than a decade. Since 2011, there’s been a national shortage of the drug thiopental, which was widely used by states during the lethal injection process.

Tennessee to Begin Tracking Babies Born Drug-Dependent

Dec 28, 2012

A new study showing a major increase in Tennessee babies born addicted to drugs has prompted the state Health Department to require hospitals to report that information. A health department working group found the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, has increased ten-fold over the past decade.

NAS can result from a mother’s drug use, including alcohol and withdrawal drugs like methadone. Henry County Medical Center's Rhonda Carnell says it’s important for healthcare providers to know the signs.

“A baby can’t report to you, ‘I feel bad in this way,’ y’know, like an adult can," says Carnell. "So we have different physiological and neuro-behavorial things that we look at if we suspect it.”

Symptoms include high-pitched cries, tremors, fever and vomiting. Drug dependent babies require more hospital care. For NSA babies receiving TennCare benefits, the cost was five times more than for other babies.

Tennesee Judge Acquits Three in Sex Trafficking Conspiracy

Dec 20, 2012

A federal judge on Wednesday overturned the convictions of three men on sex-trafficking charges in an alleged widespread conspiracy that prosecutors said spanned three states. The other six defendants tried in the case had been acquitted previously.

U.S. District Judge William Haynes said his decision to overrule the jury was based on the government’s failure to prove the men were part of a single, overarching conspiracy. The men had been convicted on a charge of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of children.

The mass-killings last week in Newtown, Connecticut have begun a national dialogue about America’s gun laws. In Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam says the killings will likely have an impact on proposed gun legislation set to be taken up next year in the Volunteer State.

Gov. Haslam says he believes schools and universities in Tennessee should be allowed to legally ban their workers from bringing guns to work. The Tennessean reports it’s a position that puts Haslam at odds with some fellow Republicans in the Tennessee legislature. Some lawmakers in the state are proposing legislation that would force employers to allow workers to have guns in workplace parking lots, as long as owners keep those firearms in their vehicles.

A poll taken for Vanderbilt University before Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown showed 53% of Tennesseans surveyed supported the so-called “guns in trunks” legislation.

Tennessee’s senior U.S. Senator is speaking out against proposed changes to the filibuster. Republican Lamar Alexander says efforts to limit filibusters would cost the Senate its historic function as a brake on legislation that otherwise might be rushed through the chamber.

The 72-year-old Alexander tells The Tennessean says without the filibuster the Senate would become “just like the House”, where a simple majority vote would win each time. When a Senator engages in a filibuster, it takes 60 votes to bring it to an end, so that the legislation in question can be considered for a vote.

Some Democrats are talking openly about changing Senate rules in January that would allow a simple majority vote to change the filibuster policy, as opposed to the 67 votes that have been the standard.

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