December 21 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office. 

Haslam Didn’t Like Timing for Voucher Bill Next Year (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Governor Bill Haslam says Tennessee isn’t ready for a school voucher program. That could use public money for poor students switching to private schools. Haslam says the state has already made several big changes in education, and should wait to do more.

Haslam: Let’s ‘Catch Our Breath’ on Education Reform in ’12 (TN Report)

Gov. Bill Haslam says he put the brakes on a proposal to further open up school choice in Tennessee because the concept of vouchers has “too many unanswered questions” and the timing was off. The plan to allow students to use taxpayer-funded vouchers like scholarships to attend the public, charter or private school of their parents’ choice was one of the most anticipated going into the next year’s legislative session, but the governor shut the door on that last week, saying he’d rather a task force delve into the subject for the next year.

Metro Food Drive Benefits Second Harvest (WTVF-TV Nashville)

Mayor Karl Dean announced Tuesday that more than 62,000 pounds of food, enough for over 48,000 meals was raised by the Metro Government for the Second Harvest Food Bank. Mayor Dean said that in the second annual “Food Fight” he had challenged the Metro Government employees and employees of the Governor’s office to see who could raise the most food for Second Harvest.

THEC discusses speed-up in capital projects (Associated Press)

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission agreed Tuesday to support a plan that would have colleges and universities pay part of the cost for campus construction projects and also requested approval of a five-year capital program that totals $1.8 billion. Commissioners in a telephone conference call Tuesday agreed to send the plan to Gov. Bill Haslam and state finance officials but did not have a quorum to formally act on the proposed capital outlay for the fiscal year that starts in July 2012 and the five-year plan.

MTSU science building on wish list (Tennessean/Hubbard)

Higher education leaders are asking the state to replace Middle Tennessee State University’s 1970’s-era science building plus fund two other projects outside the region. It would cost $205 million in state money to fund the three, plus the institutions would be asked to raise a total of $40 million. Tennessee hasn’t paid for facility improvements at universities since 2007-08.

Higher education panel OKs projects (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Trevizo)

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission passed the 2012-13 capital projects recommendations Tuesday, a list that requires close to $290 million in state funds. The commission also approved 60 already funded capital projects in the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee systems at a cost of $254 million.

Lambuth sale to U of M final: Flag-raising ceremony set for Jan. 12 (Jackson Sun)

The University of Memphis officially took ownership of the Lambuth campus Tuesday when local officials registered the deed to the property at 705 Lambuth Blvd., closing a purchase agreement in the works for more than a year. Local stakeholders that include the city of Jackson, Madison County, West Tennessee Healthcare and Jackson Energy Authority signed their rights to the campus over to the state of Tennessee on Monday after paying about $2 million each to fund the $7.9 million purchase of property. ”

Charlotte Avenue store owner faces charges of sales tax evasion (City Paper)

Agents with the Special Investigations Section of the Tennessee Department of Revenue arrested Nashville market owner, Christopher E. Mulwa, 55, Tuesday morning on charges of sales tax evasion and property theft. Mulwa, who owns the C.M. Discount Store at 3709 Charlotte Ave., was arrested for allegedly withholding $13,416 in sales tax from January 2010 through December 2010, according to a release from the department.

Local businessman charged with tax evasion (Daily News Journal)

A Rutherford County grand jury has indicted a man on four Class E felony counts for failing to file franchise and excise tax returns on behalf of the Jones Company & Associates, Inc. The Special Investigations Section of the Tennessee Department of Revenue conducted the investigation that led to the indictment and arrest of John C. Jones Jr., age 67, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Stores owners charged in TBI’s synthetic drug raid in court this morning (DNJ)

Several individuals charged in connection with the recent TBI synthetic drug raid at local convenience stores are scheduled to appear in Rutherford County General Sessions Court this morning. The individuals, mostly store owners, were served with warrants about a week ago, about two months after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Murfreesboro Police, the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, Smyrna Police and La Vergne Police confiscated 23,000 total units of synthetic cannabinoid- and methcathinone-containing products, along with $44,500 cash and numerous articles of drug paraphernalia.

Appeals court upholds sentence of man who TN threatened judge (Tenn/Gee)

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the five-year sentence of a man who sent threatening letters to a federal judge in Nashville — including one that contained a white powder substance that was ultimately determined to be artificial sweetener. Herbert Wilfred Nixon sent the letters to Senior Judge Thomas Wiseman after Wiseman sentenced him to three years in prison for credit card fraud in 2002.

Tennessee court system says Christian/Newsom petition in vain (CA/Lakin)

Efforts to halt Christian/Newsom retrials not evidence The email messages keep coming in, but the judges say it’s all in vain. Tennessee’s higher court justices won’t consider the thousands of email petitions received against a retrial in the Christian/Newsom case, no matter how many people send them.

Sen. Faulk proposes changes to teacher evaluations (Times-News)

A local state senator has filed a bill to allow high value-added student test scores to count more in Tennessee teacher evaluations. The legislation also would lead to fewer classroom observation evaluations for teachers whose students do well on value-added, which measures how far a student progresses from one year to the next.

Rep. DeBerry Says She’s Free of Cancer (Associated Press/Johnson)

State Rep. Lois DeBerry of Memphis has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season – mainly being alive. After nearly three years of battling pancreatic cancer, DeBerry was told by her doctors last month that they couldn’t find any trace of the terminal disease.

DeBerry of Memphis gets good news in cancer fight (Commercial Appeal)

State Rep. Lois DeBerry has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season — mainly being alive After nearly three years of battling pancreatic cancer, the Memphis Democrat was told by her doctors last month that they couldn’t find any trace of the usually terminal disease. “It’s the best Christmas present I could get,” she said. DeBerry, a lawmaker for nearly 40 years, has been a powerful influence on Capitol Hill.

Knox County Commission against plan to weaken open meetings law (N-S)

Knox County commissioners have unanimously signed off on a resolution to notify local legislators they oppose any changes to Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act. “I think it’s something we need to do, based on past history,” commission Chairman Mike Hammond said, referring to Black Wednesday when commissioners in January 2007 cut deals to replace some elected officials with friends, family and cronies.

Mem. City Council votes to spend $16.5 million on Overton Square (CA/Connolly)

The Memphis City Council voted 8-2 Tuesday in favor of spending about $16.5 million in public money to build a flood-retention basin and a parking garage at Overton Square in Midtown. A crowd of supporters gathered at City Hall to speak in favor of the project.

Council Passes $16M Overton Square Funding (Memphis Daily News)

It may have been a murky day in Memphis, but neighborhood stakeholders didn’t let the afternoon rain dampen their support of the Overton Square redevelopment project during the Memphis City Council’s final meeting of the year. Council members approved $16 million in city funds for a parking garage and detention pond on what is now a large parking lot bordering Cooper Street Tuesday, Dec. 20 at City Hall.

Debate over whether or not Carter County can afford approved bonuses (H-C)

Christmas bonuses, an increasingly rare benefit in a lot of work places. Yet, this year county workers in Carter County just learned they will get a year-end bonus. We found out that some think it’s a luxury the county can’t afford.

City legal staff looking into synthetic drug ban (Johnson City Press)

Vampire Blood, 7H, K2, Diablo, Exotica, Spice. A drug by any other name is still a drug, so officials are trying to pass legislation that would make it a felony to use any synthetic drug or “bath salts” regardless of the chemical ingenuity used to continually alter their composition to sidestep the law. Early this month Kingsport, Bristol and Sullivan County passed a ban on legal synthetic drugs, making the sale, purchase and use of bath salts and synthetic marijuana a violation of city and or/county code. But many are saying the $50 civil fine plus court costs are a drop in the bucket considering the money being made by manufacturers.

Labor department forces hotels to pay fines, wages (Times Free-Press/Garrett)

A hotel that was the subject of a Chattanooga Times Free Press investigation earlier this year is among 35 hotels in Tennessee being penalized by the U.S. Department of Labor for violating federal wage and hour laws. Labor officials said that, during a multiyear effort, which included an investigation into Chattanooga’s former Town and County Inn, they found widespread disregard for minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

States make daily life harder for illegal immigrants (USA Today)

State legislators looking to crack down on illegal immigration in 2012 are turning away from the law enforcement laws that dominated state houses this year, and instead are pushing other measures that can make life just as difficult for illegal immigrants. Much of the international furor over state immigration laws in states such as Arizona and Alabama focused on the portions that granted local police the ability to conduct roadside immigration checks of people stopped for other crimes.

Five lessons from overwhelmed agencies (Stateline)

Last week, Stateline took an in-depth look at what’s causing growing backlogs of work at state agencies across the country. Here are five lessons gleaned from dozens of interviews with state officials, including those who are currently struggling with a backlog and some who have successfully cleared one up. 1. Prioritization is no panacea When agencies have more work than they can handle, setting priorities in a systematic way becomes critical.

Seeing Terror Risk, U.S. Asks Journals to Cut Flu Study Facts (New York Times)

For the first time ever, a government advisory board is asking scientific journals not to publish details of certain biomedical experiments, for fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create deadly viruses and touch off epidemics. In the experiments, conducted in the United States and the Netherlands, scientists created a highly transmissible form of a deadly flu virus that does not normally spread from person to person.

TVA: Higher levels of tritium at Sequoyah (Associated Press)

The Tennessee Valley Authority has reported finding elevated levels of radioactive tritium in a groundwater sample from a new onsite monitoring well at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Chattanooga. TVA said in an email Tuesday that the elevated levels pose no threat to public health and safety.

Tritium detected in Sequoyah groundwater (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Sher)

TVA’s nuclear troubles seem to be mounting. The utility now has active safety concern flags from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission raised at all three of its operating nuclear plants. Additionally, Tennessee Valley Authority officials acknowledged on Tuesday they have found elevated levels of tritium in a groundwater sample taken from a monitoring well at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.

Sherry leaving government, not Oak Ridge (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Munger)

Ted Sherry is leaving federal service, but he’s not leaving Oak Ridge. Sherry, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s manager at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant for the past five years, is apparently considering multiple job offers at the moment. All options, he said, would keep him in Oak Ridge. That was one of his personal requirements when he made the decision to retire from government service at the relatively young age of 47.

Mayor delays vote on trustee (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said Tuesday he won’t finalize an appointment of a replacement trustee to the board that oversees Erlanger hospital until all is settled with outgoing CEO Jim Brexler. “Mayor Littlefield is not going to be appointing anyone until the Brexler issue is settled,” said Littlefield spokesman Richard Beeland.

Chamber committee emphasizes improving ACT scores in Metro (CP/Greenberg)

Accommodating diversity, developing educators professionally, involving family and improving ACT scores were some of the recommendations for Metro schools during the release of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce ’s Education Report Card Committee’s annual report Tuesday. The report analyzed Metro Nashville Public Schools test scores and offered recommendations for the school system.

ACT Scores Not Rising Fast Enough For Chamber (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Business leaders say it’s time for Metro Schools to pick up the pace, particularly when it comes to the ACT college entrance exam. The state now requires every student to take the ACT during high school, plus it has very clear real-world implications.

Grant aims to put Hamilton High students on track for college (C. Appeal/Roberts)

About 56 percent of Tennessee high school seniors pursue some kind of formal education after high school. But at Hamilton High, in the heart of South Memphis, fewer than 30 percent do. With $170,000 from the Tennessee College Access & Success Network, school leaders are out to change the trajectory in three years.

Metro Charter School Gets Second Chance (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The Metro School Board has voted to give a troubled charter school a second chance.Last night, the board voted 5 to 3 to keep Drexel Preparatory Academy open for the remainder of the school year.

Timing questioned on MCS engineering lab start-up (Commercial Appeal)

Public school students in Memphis will begin studying for high-level engineering jobs when school resumes in early January, thanks to a vote during an often-contentious school board meeting Tuesday to spend $690,000 to furnish the laboratory. The questions were many, starting with how well Memphis City Schools staff had scrutinized the bidding process to how it could roll out a program, in the planning process for more than a year, in the two weeks staff and students have off for holiday break.

Meth lab explosion injures one person (Leaf Chronicle)

A 22-year-old man was injured and four families displaced after a methamphetamine lab exploded in a Lexington Drive apartment building. Tuesday at about 12:18 a.m, emergency medical personnel found a man outside screaming for help, according to a news release from Officer Jim Knoll.

OPINION 

Gail Kerr: Haslam should use new boldness to fix voter ID bill (Tennessean)

The new, improved Gov. Bill Haslam — willing to weigh in on issues — should use his new leadership to urge solutions to what is a messed-up voter photo ID law. He’s dropping hints that he might intervene, saying the state’s driver’s license stations were not ready for the lines of voters seeking a photo ID so they can vote.

Editorial: Opportunity still there to revamp board lines (Daily News Journal)

While we were disappointed that county leaders backed off of a push to redo redistricting maps for Rutherford County School Board and Road Board seats, we weren’t surprised and remain optimistic that the momentum will continue to properly address this issue. County Commissioner Rhonda Allen of Smyrna has pledged to bring the issue back up next month, and we hope she follows through.

Scott DesJarlais: Senate should return to work out tax-cut compromise (Tenn)

As a freshman member of Congress who has never before held public office, I find the partisan gridlock that occurs in Congress to be incredibly frustrating. Far too often, it seems that politics trumps what is good for the American people.

Free-Press Editorial: Erlanger’s, and our, struggle (Times Free-Press)

Erlanger Health System is our community’s large and vitally important public hospital. So its financial circumstances should be of high interest not only to its patients and staff but to everyone else in the area, too. Erlanger serves a great many people well.

Editorial: DOE must continue to fund OR mercury cleanup (Knox. News-Sentinel)

Mercury has been oozing into East Fork Poplar Creek in Oak Ridge for decades. The metal also known as quicksilver was used to enrich lithium for use in hydrogen bombs built during the Cold War to intimidate — or, if necessary, destroy — the Soviet Union.

Free-Press Editorial: ObamaCare dictation (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Ever since Democrats passed ObamaCare, they have insisted that the law does not amount to a federal takeover of medical care. But as the details of ObamaCare are revealed, it is impossible to deny that it represents federal government dictation of health care.