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Tennessee editorial roundup

April 29, 2014

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

April 27

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, on the state department of labor:

It is disappointing that the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development still has not figured out how to ensure that everyone receiving unemployment benefits is qualified to do so.

While it is unreasonable to expect the department — or any department that oversees government benefits — to catch every scammer, it is baffling that a more efficient way to access data systems that would flag cheaters has not been developed.

For the second year in a row, state auditors found numerous problems with the state’s unemployment system, including jobless benefits being paid to people not qualified to receive them, along with payments to deceased individuals and felons behind bars.

Last year, an audit found that at least $73 million in jobless benefits had been improperly paid out over the years. This year’s audit found that the cumulative amount had ballooned to $181 million.

That amount is nothing to sneeze at, especially in light of efforts by some conservatives to cut or limit unemployment benefits, with widespread fraud cited as the main reason reductions should occur. Since the amount of misappropriated funds in Tennessee is spread over a number of years, the definition of “widespread” is relative.

Still, the amount of money is significant. The audit findings hurt those who really need the aid by giving benefit critics more ammunition to fire in their push to limit the amount of the benefits and how long the unemployed should receive them. Tennesseans eligible for unemployment receive about $245 a week.

Auditors also said the department’s phone system is wholly inadequate, with those seeking information finding it nearly impossible to get through. The 15 percent of callers lucky to have their calls answered endure nearly an hour of waiting on average.

The fraud and phone system are long-running problems that should be unacceptable to Gov. Bill Haslam, who is running for re-election this year. It is time these problems are fixed.




April 29

The Post-Intelligencer, Paris, Tenn., on economic sanctions:

Can we punish Russia without hurting ourselves? Probably not, and that’s the problem with economic sanctions as a tool to push the Russians to make nice over Ukraine.

Sanctions announced Monday by the United States and Europe are aimed at a group of high-tech and defense companies in Russia, but not the really big ones that would have a chance of making Vladimir Putin change his course.

The West has the power to impose sanctions so significant that they would wreck the Russian economy, an analysis by USA Today declares. The Russian president knows that, but he also knows that those same sanctions would probably wreck the economy of Europe, too, and he’s apparently betting that the West dares not go that far.

Washington’s approach so far has been to “limit the blow-back” on companies in the United States and Europe that do business with Russian customers.

“It sends the signal we’re willing to act, but only so far as it doesn’t cost us very much,” one diplomat said. “The risk is it reinforces his (Putin’s) view he’s the one with the leverage because of our view of the risk or cost of sanctions.”

Monday’s sanctions are the fourth round that the White House has imposed since Russia began fostering unrest in the Ukraine. They freeze assets and forbid travel to the United States of officials at 17 companies “linked to Putin’s inner circle.”

They also deny export licenses to U.S. companies selling high-tech items to Russia that could contribute to Russia’s military clout.

“The goal here is not to go after Mr. Putin personally,” President Barack Obama said. “The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he’s engaging in could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul.”

The United States so far has sanctioned 45 individuals and 19 companies, the newspaper said. In addition, the European Union has acted against 46 individuals.

Missing from the list are the “oligarchs,” the business giants with close personal ties to the Russian president.

Going after these heavy hitters could turn the tide, but businesses in the United States and Europe also would feel the bite.

That’s exactly what the United States should do, in the opinion of Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. He described Obama’s latest sanctions as a “slap on the wrist.”

It’s a high-stakes game of chicken. Who’s going to blink first? Do we dare take the strong medicine that could turn the tide, or will we say the cost is too high?




April 29

Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel on state labs’ failure in air quality testing:

Air pollution harms human health and tarnishes the natural beauty of East Tennessee.

It also drives away jobs.

Knox County’s industrial recruitment efforts have been hampered in recent years by the area’s failure to meet clean air standards, officials say, and air quality monitoring results called into question because of substandard laboratory conditions are exacerbating the problem.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists Knox, three surrounding counties (Anderson, Blount and Loudon) and a portion of another (Roane) as non-attainment areas for fine particulate matter, commonly referred to as soot. Knox, Blount and a portion of Anderson also are a non-attainment area for ground-level ozone.

The harmful effects of air pollutants, particularly for those with breathing problems, are well-documented. But the designation also carries an economic price.

New and expanding industrial facilities in non-attainment areas must install state-of-the-art emission controls without regard to cost and new sources of emissions must be offset by reductions elsewhere. The permitting process is more complicated and takes longer than in areas without air problems.

Many companies do not want to go through the hassle and added expense. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said Blount County recently lost a potential employer because of its non-attainment designation. A non-attainment designation gives industrial site selection firms an easy way to mark communities off their lists for prospects.

“We may not even know the companies that don’t bother to contact us,” said Rhonda Rice of the Knoxville Chamber.

Under EPA guidelines, an area must be in compliance with air standards for three years before it can shed non-attainment status. Four of Knox County’s monitors register annual particulate matter under the EPA standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air, according to Lynne Liddington, director of Knox County Air Quality Management. The fifth registered slightly above the standard at 12.2 micrograms.

But the numbers for the past three years are questionable because of failures at the state level. The state laboratory in Knoxville, where testing was conducted in the past, closed because of problems with high humidity that threw the results into question. Officials found a similar situation at the state’s Nashville lab despite a renovation last year. By the time a new humidification system is installed, the state will have spent in excess of $26,500 on upgrades there. Outsourcing lab work during renovations has cost $50,000 to date.

The EPA now has to determine whether testing results are acceptable. We urge the agency not to penalize Knox County for the failures of the state labs and conclude that the area was in attainment for 2013. Such a decision would not undermine the integrity of the regulatory regime — Knox County still would have to meet the standards this year and next in order to gain attainment status — but it could help prime the pump of the region’s economic development.



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