- Associated Press - Thursday, May 11, 2017

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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May 6

The Commercial Appeal of Memphis on Sens. Corker and Alexander’s action on changes to the Affordable Care Act:

Whatever they regard as the right course for health-care legislation, Tennesseans should appreciate the more considerate and informed approach advocated by their representatives in the U.S. Senate.

“Not so fast” was the basic message of Republicans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, reflecting on changes to the Affordable Care Act that were made in the House at a Kentucky Derby pace, without committee hearings or assessment by the Congressional Budget Office of the cost and effects.

Interviewed on MSNBC before the House passed the bill by a vote of 217-213, Corker said there was “zero” chance that the Senate would pass the legislation as is, according to the Washington Examiner.

“People over here want to make sure it’s something that’s going to work for the American people,” Corker said, predicting senators would take “very responsible, deliberate action” after spending at least a month reviewing the House bill.

Alexander, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees health care issues, congratulated the House on the vote but did not waiver from his position that the ACA should be changed with thoughtful legislation rather than a rushed proposal.

He told the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee that the Senate will take advantage of the work done by the House but will write its own bill. It will either go to the House for its approval or to a conference committee to work out a compromise version.

Alexander is concerned about the loss of insurance providers that are willing to participate in the state’s insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act.

Tennesseans also have cause to worry about the impact that the legislation passed by the House on Thursday would have on the state’s tumultuous situation.

Passage of the measure represents a “triumph for politics over policy,” Emily Evans, managing director of health care policy at Hedgeye Risk Management, told the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee, since it fulfills campaign promises made by House Republicans and President Donald Trump but effects radical changes in health care legislation.

In Tennessee and beyond, the legislation has drawn sharp opposition, largely for provisions that turn over to state lawmakers many of the decisions regarding what is covered under health insurance plans.

These are serious questions that have been raised about a bill that has been racing through the legislative process without thoughtful debate or regard to its potential impact. Tennesseans are fortunate to have two senators with a grip on the reins.

Online: https://www.commercialappeal.com/

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May 7

The Tennessean of Nashville on regulations for short-term rental properties:

The proliferation of short-term rental properties is causing headaches for cities and counties across Tennessee.

While they are learning to navigate how to regulate, tax and provide oversight for these new-economy home-sharing businesses - sometimes clumsily - the Tennessee General Assembly is being influenced by industry players to neuter the locals.

That is unwise and unfair. Municipal problems require municipal solutions from the officials who are closest to the people.

Nevertheless, Tennessee lawmakers are moving ahead with Senate Bill 1086 and companion House Bill 1020, which would strip local communities of being able to prohibit or restrict short-term rental properties.

Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, and Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, are the bill sponsors. They are poking municipal residents in the eye with their one-size-fits-all approach under the guise of property rights protection. However, this is really about protecting the growing profits of listing companies like Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO.

Now, Stevens is rewriting the legislation to place a two-year moratorium on any STR-related ordinance that did not exist before April 1, but only in Tennessee’s four largest cities: Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

That is absurd, not least because neither Stevens nor Sexton represent the communities they want to punish and because it would not affect Davidson County’s satellite cities like Goodlettsville or Belle Meade, or restrictions in places like Hendersonville or Brentwood.

Nashville’s law has been in effect since 2015 and created three classes of permits: multifamily (i.e., apartments), non-owner-occupied (i.e., investor-owned), and owner-occupied, where the host lives on the premises all or most of the time.

The other large cities have passed or are working on new or revised rules:

-Memphis’ ordinance went into effect on March 1.

-Knoxville is looking to create two types of permits for residential areas and commercial areas, and the proposal goes before the Metropolitan Planning Commission on May 11.

-The Chattanooga City Council is still working on a short-term rental vacation zone.

Stevens’ action follows Tuesday’s Nashville Metro Council public hearing on a bill (2017-608) that would only phase out non-owner-occupied short-term rentals in residential communities.

Residents on both sides of the debate spoke at a four-hour hearing, but the Council decided to postpone a vote until its May 16 meeting.

Neighbors complain that non-owner-occupied STRs - which can legally make up no more than 3 percent of single- and two-family units per Census tract - are essentially hotels operating in residential communities that sometimes create a noisy, party atmosphere.

Moreover, there are bad actors, possibly thousands, operating without a permit, flouting occupancy rules, and not paying the required taxes and fees.

The analysis of Stevens and Sexton’s legislation concedes that at least 25 percent of the taxes that should be paid aren’t being collected statewide.

Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO are urging local councils to avoid more restrictions. However, they and their supporters are disingenuously conflating both owner-occupied and non-owner-occupied short-term rental property types.

The official narrative persists that this is just about supplementing a homeowner’s income.

In a March interview with NBC’s Willie Geist, Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky said: “The story of most people in our community is people of average income that depend on the money to get by. The average person is renting the home they live in.”

He did not address the issue of non-owner-occupied properties, many of which are owned by investors and limited liability corporations.

In Nashville for example, non-owner-occupied STRs comprise 43 percent of the 3,648 short-term rental permits issued by Metro as of May 3.

Only 34 percent were for owner-occupied permits, which contrasts Chesky’s description. The remainder are multifamily.

HomeAway released a study in January completed by Austin-based firm TXP Inc., showing that the short-term rental industry had a $477.2 million positive impact on Nashville’s economy.

There is no doubt that short-term rentals have served the needs of visitors in areas with a scarcity of hotel rooms in price ranges visitors are willing to pay.

It is also true that the enforcement of local rules has been choppy at best because of insufficient staffing and resources.

However, this is part of the growing pains of dealing with a new type of industry.

Local communities deserve a chance to fix these problems before the state intervenes.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who used to be the mayor of Knoxville, said last February when asked about the legislation: “If the state is going to act, there should be a compelling interest. The decisions should be up to the locals.”

Aside from industry pressure, there seems to be little compelling state interest.

Online: https://www.tennessean.com/

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May 9

The Knoxville News Sentinel on the Tennessee Valley Exchange changing its working culture:

TVA says it has been working for the past year to fix a “chilled work environment” at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.

Considering the federal utility’s history, it will have to convince its employees and the Nuclear Regulatory Agency - often a tough sale.

Employees had complained in 2015 to the NRC and TVA’s Employee Concerns Program they were reluctant to raise safety concerns, fearing harassment, intimidation or retaliation by management if they did so.

TVA’s Office of Inspector General responded and hired NTD Consulting Group to review TVA’s nuclear safety culture history and its response to a “Chilled Work Environment” letter from the NRC in March 2016.

The group’s report was released in April along with the NRC’s latest TVA inspection report. That report said the agency lacked clear, objective criteria for evaluating how nuclear standards are met and called into question the independence of previous reviewing teams that sometimes included TVA personnel.

President and CEO Bill Johnson says TVA has changed, and the report does not reflect “…the current state of affairs at Watts Bar or at TVA. The NRC told us last March we had a chilled work environment at Watts Bar, and we have never contested that fact…we’ve been working hard for the past year to fix it.”

The plant has a history of employees raising these type concerns, and in 2016 Watts Bar led the nation in allegations submitted to the NRC, indicating employees did not feel comfortable raising concerns internally. In fact, in 2009 NRC ordered TVA to make changes after a worker was demoted for raising a safety concern at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.

The atmosphere of mistrust even spilled over with NTD, which said one of its consultants was not invited back for a second debrief by TVA’s Employee Concerns Program. NTD also said TVA edited its report to remove any mention of a “chilled work environment” and replaced it with the term “degraded work environment,” a non-regulatory term never used previously by TVA or NRC.

Johnson said TVA merely avoided using the term “chilled work environment” until it received the NRC letter in 2016, saying it is a regulatory conclusion only declared by NRC. NRC says it doesn’t recognize the term “degraded work environment,” but its use didn’t impact the NRC investigation.

The disagreements are lobbied back and forth in various reports and responses, but TVA has replaced the management team at Watts Bar. It has instituted some corrective actions dating to 2009 but fell afoul of NRC when it misstated it had completed one.

The NRC says TVA has instituted some corrective actions set out in 2009 but not all and is considering enforcement actions.

The NRC says it doesn’t believe TVA has safety issues that could affect the local residents at Watts Bar, but TVA still needs to improve its “…safety conscious work environment at the plant.”

TVA says it is changing its culture, but only time and its employees will tell.

Online: https://www.knoxnews.com/

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