This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a suspect in the shooting death of a man in east Knoxville. Haslam announced the reward on Friday evening in the slaying of 40-year-old Robert “Ernie” Reno last November, WVLT-TV reported (http://bit.ly/xEthAP ). Police said Reno was found dead from several bullet wounds outside a home on Selma Avenue just after midnight on Nov. 11. Anyone with information should contact the Knoxville Police Department’s crime information line at 865-215-7212.
A reward is being offered for information on the murder of an East Knoxville man. The body of 40-year-old Robert “Ernie” Reno was discovered in a neighbor’s yard just after midnight Nov. 12 on Selma Avenue in East Knoxville. He had been shot multiple times in the legs. Last week, Gov. Bill Haslam authorized a reward in the case, according to Knoxville Police Public Information Officer Darrell DeBusk. The $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for Reno’s death. Anyone with information can call KPD at 865-215-7212.
He’s no NFL referee, but Gov. Bill Haslam may have thrown more “flags” in the Legislature this year than one of those striped-shirt guys has on a football field. In politics, a “flag” puts lawmakers on notice that the administration or a department opposes their bill. It’s usually a secretive process that erupts publicly only when a stung legislator starts yelping or a committee cites the flag when killing a bill. Or you can just ask the governor. A public records request to Haslam’s office showed he has issued 73 flag letters as of Feb. 6, opposing bills for reasons from cost to philosophical differences.
Governors and lawmakers in a handful of states are taking steps to tackle a growing scourge — prescription drug abuse. All but two states and the District of Columbia have enacted some kind of prescription drug monitoring program, but many state officials argue that this is not enough… Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam also is taking aim at his state’s prescription drug database, which requires prescribers only to record that they’ve written a prescription. In a Haslam-backed bill, all prescribers and drug dispensers would be required to check the database prior to prescribing a controlled substance, and Tennessee would be able to share data with other states to cut down on doctor-shopping.
Sumner home restoration in governor’s budget The circa 1800s Hawthorne Hill in Castalian Springs, is in line for a $900,000 state grant for complete renovations, according to Martha Akins, director of historic sites for the Tennessee Historical Commission. “Right now, the (Gov. Bill Haslam) has provided for this in his budget, and it will be up to the House and Senate to approve it in their capital budget process,” Akins said. “We purchased it in 2008 and we have been applying for capital budget money since we got it. We really need our legislators to stand behind this project, because it will mean so much to Sumner County.”
The Haslam administration’s firings of two top leaders and proposal to cut dozens of positions at the state’s environmental agency have raised questions about whether the goal is efficiency or erosion of its powers. Environmental advocates say the department already is stretched thin and paring down the staff further could bode poorly for the quality of the state’s waterways, air and land. Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau has said that the moves are designed to streamline and improve operations, not undermine environmental protection.
State’s 53 parks reflect Tennessee’s diverse landscapes Fort Pillow State Historic Park sits atop Chickasaw Bluffs — a 200-foot-thick layer of windblown glacial silt and gravel overlooking the Mississippi River that served as a Union stronghold throughout much of the Civil War. Only in West Tennessee would such a modest wrinkle in the landscape be considered high ground. At the other end of the state is Roan Mountain State Park, which boasts the distinction of having the highest swimming pool of any park in Tennessee.
The seeds for Tennessee’s state parks were sown in the early 1900s, a time when Americans had stopped believing in the myth of an endless frontier. The national forest system began with the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. In 1916, the National Park Service was established to oversee the burgeoning network that already included such Western classics as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Mount Rainier. According to Ward Weems, chief historian for Tennessee state parks, early state parks advocates recognized the need to preserve lands at the local level that could not become national parks.
Happy anniversary, state parks. From the Mississippi Delta to the highlands of Southern Appalachia, Tennessee’s state parks reflect every facet of the state’s diverse landscape. In the west, there’s Fort Pillow State Historic Park overlooking the Mississippi River, a 200-foot-thick layer of windblown glacial silt and gravel. To the east, Roan Mountain State Park boasts the highest swimming pool of any park in Tennessee; the mountain is so tall that there’s no poison ivy and the blackberry bushes lack thorns. This year, Tennessee’s park system is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
Patients on bath salts are coming in every day to the hospital emergency room in Johnson City, and toxicologists suspect one local person has died as a result of ingesting the synthetic drug, which is widely available at shops across the Tri-Cities. Dr. Somi Rikhye, who works in the emergency department at Johnson City Medical Center, estimated an average of five people come to the ED each day with bath salts-related complications. “It’s tragic what we’re seeing here,” Rikhye said. “The side effects and the uncontrolled patients that we’re seeing in here is unbelievable.”
As voters start going to the polls, the three Democratic candidates for a Davidson County General Sessions Court judgeship are appealing to them in earnest with a mix of advertisements, mail and robo-calls. Rachel Bell has a new video that touts her compassion and respect for all. Jack Byrd also has a video explaining why he’s the most experienced candidate. And Judge Mike Jameson, the incumbent, has a mail piece that features his family and makes the case for his commitment to public safety. “I have two reasons to keep our community safe … your family and mine,” the mailer says.
A decade-old, multi-million dollar program for restoring degraded Tennessee streams has come under attack in the state Legislature even as Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration moves to give it new legal status. Critics of the Tennessee Stream Mitigation Program, which is overseen by a non-profit foundation, characterized it as a “wholesale auction” of the state’s waterways to developers who can pay a fee for their pollution while leaving devastated downstream landowners in a lurch. Testimony in a hearing before the House Conservation committee also raised questions about whether the non-profit Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation faces appropriate financial accountability under the present setup, which was put in place by a 2002 “memorandum of understanding” between state and federal agencies.
Memphis police, aided by new license plate scanners, are cracking down on drivers who owe hundreds in outstanding parking tickets. According to City Clerk Thomas Long, 194 vehicles have been towed for unpaid tickets between Jan. 2 and Feb. 8, resulting in more than $33,500 paid in tickets and fines, The Commercial Appeal reported (http://bit.ly/zU4wWg ). The officers are using a new scanner that allows them to pick out cars with an excessive number of unpaid tickets. Long said the increased enforcement is serving as a deterrent to those who are afraid of getting towed for failing to pay a parking ticket.
Stricter voter identification laws threaten to take away rights that past generations fought for, pastors told about 500 people Saturday at a march and rally to push voter registration and participation. Black and poor people are in crisis and must use their voting rights for change — to improve education, stop violence and bring equality to all people, said the Rev. Kenneth Love, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. “We are in emergency mode. The alarm is sounding, and it’s time for us to respond,” Love said at the rally at Greater Tucker Baptist Church.
Here in the shadow of the county jail, Sistas Sundry sells snacks, beer and cigarettes to a regular flow of off-duty jailers, bailed-out crooks and residents from the surrounding neighborhood. Many use food stamps to buy certain, eligible products such as canned vegetables and milk. “Probably everybody in that building gets food stamps,” said customer Melvin Boyd, 52, pointing to a high-rise across the street. In this battered economy, food stamp use is up dramatically across the nation, Tennessee and Memphis. So is food stamp fraud.
Dozens of clean energy and anti-nuclear groups — including two in Tennessee — want evacuation zones around nuclear plants expanded from 10 to 25 miles. Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team and We the People Inc. are among those that submitted a formal petition to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission saying several changes are needed to ensure residents are safe in light of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan. The document includes a request to establish a new zone 25-50 miles around reactors in which utilities, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, would have to identify and publicize potential evacuation routes.
More than a dozen serious medical errors were reported at Middle Tennessee hospitals over the past three years — and federal statistics indicate probably 80 more were not reported. In the past, hospitals have been reluctant to admit mistakes, fearing malpractice lawsuits. But hospitals are increasingly under pressure to reduce errors, and to do that, they have to recognize them. The result is the beginning of a cultural change, according to The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/xi1vrD ). Nashville’s Baptist Hospital is a case in point. In 2009, a 3-week-old infant in neonatal intensive care died when a nurse confused a feeding line and an IV line.
Details not ironed out, but each zone likely to have more localized control If Memphis suburban municipalities encounter a snag trying to get into the public school business, they have an alternative to fall back on. They could — in fact they won’t have much choice in the matter — become active players in a new unified city-county school district that is expected to include a large degree of local autonomy. As much as suburban residents long for a chance to run their own schools with their own school boards hiring their own superintendents, there are still serious questions about the process they’re using to realize their dreams.
Although Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday decided to end his push this year to lessen classroom size restrictions and change the funding formula for teachers, Kingsport Board of Education member Susan Lodal is still tracking plenty of pieces of legislation in the 2012 session. Lodal and other BOE members from the city and the region are headed to Nashville Monday for the Tennessee School Boards Association’s Day on the Hill Tuesday. Lodal, the BOE’s legislative liaison and a member of the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce Legislative Affairs Committee, and others expressed opposition to the part of the bill that would change the funding formula and mean a slight decrease in Basic Education Program funding for city schools.
Schools Superintendent Rick Smith wants to eliminate transfers that for a decade have allowed students to leave struggling schools for a chance at a better education elsewhere. The change is made possible by a waiver granted to the state from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Smith said the action could take effect as early as next year if approved by the Hamilton County Board of Education, though he emphasized that the transfers would not end abruptly. Locally, some saw the school choice provision as a safeguard for educational equality and opportunity by giving students in the inner city a chance to attend what they perceived as better suburban schools.
The smell of new carpet still lingers in the children’s section of the gleaming new Bascom Library and Community Center here, where signs promise “picture books” and “story time.” But the low, easy-to-reach wooden bookshelves are empty, along with the rest of the shelves in the state-of-the-art, 40,000-square-foot building. The bookless library stands behind a locked chain-link fence with signs warning of 24-hour video surveillance, one of four libraries the City of San Jose has built but cannot afford to open.
A bill to crack down on domestic violence is making its way through the Legislature. While there are some reasonable concerns about what its impact may mean to local governments saddled with paying to keep violators behind bars, the bill deserves to be passed. The measure, pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam and sponsored in the Senate by Doug Overbey of Maryville, adds fines and jail time for second and later convictions of domestic assault. The cost to local governments would be over $8 million, officials estimate, because those convicted would serve their time in local jails. Overbey, who represents Sevier County, said Gov. Bill Haslam has appropriated close to $800,000 in his budget for the legislation.
When political people talk about Gov. Bill Haslam, the opening remark will often begin something along the lines of, “He’s a nice guy, but .” The “but” will then be followed by some comment reflecting the individual’s perspective on the governor’s politics or an issue at hand. For example: “But he’s not a strong enough conservative.” “But he’s too beholden to his party’s right wing.” “But he doesn’t know anything about (fill-in-the-blank with the given issue, situation or person/people under discussion).” Examples one and two, of course, are matters of opinion and conjecture. The third probably has often been factually correct from the perspective of someone who is knowledgeable about a given issue or situation.
In some ways, Chattanooga has been a beacon of economic hope during the recession that seized our nation and the anemic recovery that has followed. Of course, the Chattanooga area has suffered high unemployment just as the rest of the nation has. We have also had our share of foreclosures and other troubles. And some nearby areas have suffered even more. You might have read, for instance, that from December 2010 to December 2011, the Dalton, Ga., area had the third-highest drop in employment of any of the United States’ 372 metropolitan areas — behind only Missoula, Mont., and Abilene, Texas. Dalton’s textile industry has taken a major hit in the economic downturn.
The facts are so cold, so brutal, that they make the mind reel: In 2010, there were more deaths in Tennessee due to drug overdoses than from motor vehicle traffic accidents, homicide or suicide. In the past 10 years, more than 8,000 Tennesseans have died from drug overdose. These are not dope addicts dying in dark alleys, a needle hanging from their arm. These abused prescription drugs. They’re busy moms, outpatients on painkillers, teens partying on the contents of their parents’ medicine cabinet. The vast majority had no intention of killing themselves. But consider the powerful drugs they took: hydrocodone or oxycodone, often in combination with antidepressants.
Thanks to the staff of The Daily News Journal for the editorial of Feb. 14 concerning the need for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to protect Tennessee’s environment from polluters. Though I totally agree with the sentiments of the article, I must, however, take issue with some of the underlying assumptions on which your editorial board based their views. First, you seem to assume that the streamlining of the TDEC staff is really an effort to make government more efficient. But if that were true, why would TDEC choose to fire one of their best people?
MTSU President Sidney McPhee watched in frustration for 11 years as lawmaker after lawmaker turned down requests to pay for a badly needed new science building. In December 2010, he tried a different tactic: McPhee wooed legislators with free basketball tickets. It was Vanderbilt vs. Middle Tennessee State University, and McPhee persuaded a group of key elected officials to drive the 40 miles to Murfreesboro. And hey, while they happened to be on campus, how about a little tour of the university’s decrepit 1932 science labs? “I called Rep. Joe Carr and said I had a few tickets to the basketball team,” McPhee said.
As more details of ex-Judge Richard Baumgartner’s behavior while in the grip of prescription drug addition come to light, more disturbing questions arise. The public needs answers. A News Sentinel investigative report published one week ago revealed the disgraced Criminal Court judge allegedly shook down court employees for painkillers and intimidated a court security officer into becoming one of his pill suppliers, and that the Knox County Sheriff’s Office had at least three chances to uncover his misdeeds. Baumgartner’s fall has thrown the criminal justice system in Knox County into disarray.
Industry hotbed is in close proximity to local needs With all due respect to the Grand Ole Opry, it’s not the music that draws me to Nashville. My parents met at Meharry Medical College, and I was born at Hubbard Hospital. Coming to Nashville feels like coming home. The Nashville I was born in a half-century or so ago wasn’t ready for a health-care revolution, but it may be today. I met with members of the Nashville Health Care Council, an impressive group of industry leaders who recognize Nashville’s potential for transforming health care. Nashville is home to more than 250 health-care companies, making it as good a place as any, probably better than most, to lead the revolution.
“Is a thumb a finger?” That is the question Maj. Muller asks in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, to mock the Geneva Convention before severing his prisoner’s thumbs. Were he a present-day congressman, he might better ask, “Is an individual mandate a tax?” This is the question that U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., asked White House Budget Director Jeff Zients about President Obama’s claim that no family earning under $250,000 would be subjected to a tax increase. Rep. Garrett asked, “So if I am part of a family that does not buy health insurance in violation of the president’s health-care program and I have to pay (a fine) because of that, that is not a tax increase — that is not a tax on me?”