Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:
The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee, on higher education funding:
The story out of the nation's capital on the front page of The Commercial Appeal Tuesday declared that students are paying more of the cost of attending public universities than are state governments.
That is a shift that is making college less affordable, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
That is not new news in Tennessee, where cuts in higher education funding has flipped the ratio of funding for public higher education over two decades from 70 percent state appropriations and 30 percent student tuition to nearly 70 percent tuition and 30 percent state appropriations.
Pair that fact with yearly increases in tuition and fees, and college has become a very expensive endeavor for young people seeking a degree.
Rising costs are a key reason students do not graduate, and contributed to some students taking longer to graduate.
At some point, the state's higher education leaders told Gov. Bill Haslam and state financial officials early last month, the state's institutions of higher learning are at a "crossroads" regarding universities being endangered by a funding formula in which declining state appropriations, increasing costs and spiraling tuition are jeopardizing the universities' missions.
Nationally, researchers found that in 2012 tuition accounted for 25 percent of school revenue, up from 17 percent in 2003. State funding plummeted from 32 percent to 23 percent during the same period.
The GAO found that although states began reducing their contributions to higher education a decade ago, the collapse of the financial markets in 2008 caused a sharp decline in appropriations.
Here's another fact to chew on: Tuition and fees at college and universities jumped 86 percent, adjusted for inflation, from 2000 to 2012. That was much sharper than the 52 percent rise in the preceding 12 years, according to data from the College Board.
The bigger impact of this rise in costs is that students once could graduate from a state institution nearly debt free.
But that dynamic is changing as students are having to rely more and more on student loans to stay in school. It can take years to repay those loans.
Leaders at the University of Memphis have been keenly aware of the rising-tuition issue. The university gained approval from the Tennessee Board of Regents not to raise tuition last fall, the first time in 22 years that tuition at the U of M did not rise.
Haslam has set a goal of increasing the number of Tennessee residents with college degrees or post-high school certificates from 32 percent of the state's adult population to 55 percent by 2025. His Tennessee Promise initiative, which will offer free community college tuition to all high school graduates, is a major plank in that effort.
Unless tuition costs can be brought under control, though, his initiative could be negatively affected.
News Sentinel, Knoxville, Tennessee, on new-generation reactor:
Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s.
The biggest impediment to the development of a new-generation molten salt reactor, according to an essay by Josh Freed posted recently on the Brookings Institution website, is a lack of government funding for the research and development of next-generation nuclear power plants. With the growing need to transition toward energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gases, the Obama administration and Congress should give research funding for emerging nuclear technologies a higher priority.
Mark Massie, who obtained a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering at UT before earning a Ph.D. at MIT, co-founded Transatomic Power Corp. to develop a molten salt reactor that would be safer to operate than conventional light-water reactors and help solve the nation's mounting spent nuclear fuel problem. Massie and his co-founder, Leslie Dewan, hit upon the idea of resurrecting molten-salt reactors while both were pursuing graduate studies at MIT. As the name implies, molten-salt reactors use radioactive fuel mixed with molten salt in the reactor core.
ORNL operated an experimental molten-salt reactor for four years in the late 1960s, and it proved to be reliable, but it was not commercially feasible, not least because it required uranium enriched to 33 percent, well above the 3-4 percent enrichment level of light-water reactors.
Advancements in technology, materials and processes developed in the intervening years allowed Massie and Dewan to come up with a new design. Their reactor would be more compact, safer (the molten core cannot melt down), more powerful and less expensive to operate. Their breakthrough is the use of spent nuclear fuel that now is being stored indefinitely at the nation's nuclear power plants, thus addressing the long-standing public safety concern of dealing with radioactive waste from power plants.
Massie, who also has worked at ORNL, and Dewan have secured significant investments from private venture capitalists, and Jess Gehin, a researcher at ORNL and a faculty member at UT, is on Transatomic Power's impressive advisory board. The missing piece, Freed concludes in his Brookings essay, is support from the federal government. He writes that the U.S. Department of Energy means well, but "constrained by a limited budget, the DOE is not currently in a position to drive the kind of changes needed to bring advance nuclear designs to market."
According to Freed, several other companies are exploring new nuclear power technologies, but only Fluor and Babcock & Wilcox have received federal grant money — $226 million each — for the research and development of next-generation reactors. Both firms are developing modular light-water reactors, and the Tennessee Valley Authority is working with Babcock & Wilcox to possibly assemble one at the former Clinch River Breeder Reactor site in Oak Ridge.
The White House has been absent from the nuclear power industry discussions, Freed continues, and members of Congress who advocate an "all of the above" energy policy haven't put actions behind their rhetoric. Another roadblock is that federal regulations address conventional light-water reactors and are inadequate for application to other nuclear power sources.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is ideally suited to lead the drive for more research and development funding because of his service on the Senate Energy Subcommittee, which oversees the nuclear power industry. A longtime nuclear power advocate, Alexander should use his considerable experience, knowledge and political acumen to persuade his colleagues that developing next-generation reactors is good for the country. One component that is missing from the nuclear power revival is political will.
Paris (Tennessee) Post-Intelligencer on Haslam's plan:
An epic political battle is shaping up over Gov. Bill Haslam's "Insure Tennessee" plan to offer new health programs for some 200,000 lower-income citizens.
On one side is the governor, sitting in the catbird seat with a 70 percent approval rating from the public. He doesn't have to worry about another election campaign; term limits mean he can't run for the office again. He's pretty well free to push hard for the plan without fear of political repercussions.
On the other side are Republican hard-liners. Their party controls both houses of the legislature, and they're already bad-mouthing the governor's health plan as no more than Obamacare in sheep's clothing.
In the middle — potentially with deciding votes? — are the Democrats, a sizable minority. They generally favor Insure Tennessee.
Whether the governor's Republican followers in the Legislature can join with Democrats to push the health plan through is the question.
The right wing isn't solid on this issue. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, normally a spokesman for the strict right, has come out in support of Haslam's plan.
He said he sees it as "an opportunity to take power away from the federal government, reclaim Tennessee tax dollars and enact authentic state-based, free-market health care reform."
The debate centers on the extent to which the governor's plan resembles procedures legalized by the Affordable Care Act. Haslam insists his plan is not traditional Medicaid expansion.
The governor says his plan stresses personal responsibility and requires those who would become eligible for some publicly financed health coverage to be actively involved in decisions for better health care.
A complicating factor is that the U.S. Supreme Court is to hear a case in March that challenges the Affordable Care Act. An adverse ruling by the court could throw a monkey wrench into the governor's proposal.
Haslam is expected to submit his plan to federal health officials sometime this month and to call a special session of the Legislature specifically for Insure Tennessee in early February.
It's going to be interesting.