This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty, joined company and local officials Thursday afternoon in announcing that Snap-on Tools will expand its Elizabethton facility. Established in 1974, the Carter County location manufactures hand tools used primarily in the professional automotive repair industry. Snap-on’s expansion announcement is another example of Tennessee’s business friendly climate, and I thank company officials for their decision to grow in the Elizabethton community.
Company consolidated yearbook operations here, bringing 100 additional jobs Jostens is settling into its new location at the Clarksville-Montgomery County Corporate Business Park. The company moved there this year from its longtime location on state Highway 48/13, and announced it would consolidate its yearbook printing operations in Clarksville, bringing about 100 additional jobs. Jostens has moved into the 575,000-square-foot former Quad Graphics building on International Boulevard. The property sits on 75 acres and has about 20 acres remaining for expansion, according to the Clarksville-Montgomery County Economic Development Council.
Democratic governors are bullish on President Barack Obama’s re-election prospects, citing the improving economy and a Republican nominating contest that has exposed deep divisions in the party’s base. Republican governors insist Obama is vulnerable, but they say they are concerned the prolonged primary race has alienated independent voters and may have badly damaged the eventual nominee. Democratic enthusiasm and Republican apprehension were both on display at the winter meeting of the National Governor’s Association, an annual four-day conference where states’ top executives gather to discuss policy and trade ideas on best practices but where politics is always close to the surface.
Last year, Connie Sanders, director of the Austin Peay State University Child Learning Center, became concerned about the preschool-aged children under her care. Many of them brought sack lunches with junk food and sugary treats, and she knew they weren’t getting enough exercise at home. Obesity and diabetes loomed in their future, she worried, so Sanders and her staff decided to do something before it was too late. “We completely revamped our menus,” she said. “We don’t serve sugar at all. We serve fresh fruits as often as we can. We also do more than 30 minutes of physical activity with the children every day, in addition to the time we spend outside.”
Tennessee state parks are celebrating a milestone this year — it’s their 75th anniversary. The park system was launched in 1937 through legislation creating the Tennessee Department of Conservation. Now, the state has 53 parks spread from the Mississippi Delta to Southern Appalachia ensuring that all residents live within an hour’s drive of at least one. “Our parks are more relevant today than ever,” Brock Hill, Tennessee’s deputy commissioner for parks and conservation, told the Knoxville News Sentinel (http://bit.ly/ysdm8m ). “We have the second-most-visited state park system in the Southeast outside of Florida. I don’t believe you’ll find a system in the country as diverse as what we have right here.”
TDOT to acquire right-of-way Twelve miles out Interstate 40 from Wolfchase Galleria Mall, state transportation officials are laying the groundwork for another potential commercial mecca on a site now dominated by pastures, two-lane roads and lush fields of grass sod. The Tennessee Department of Transportation plans to build a $24 million interchange at I-40 and Tenn. 196, also known as Hickory Withe Road, in Fayette County. Having already spent $739,000 on design, the department recently received approval to use another $1.9 million to buy the right-of-way this year.
Danny and Kim Ledford have been on a mission to strengthen state laws after their only son was killed by an impaired driver in the summer of 2010. They met in Nashville with Gov. Bill Haslam earlier this month to discuss a bill that would lessen the requirements for meeting the legal definition of aggravated vehicular homicide. “A vehicle is as deadly as a gun,” Kim Ledford said. “A weapon is a weapon whether it is a vehicle or a loaded gun.” Although the parents will not have an answer until the fall when Haslam begins work on the 2013-14 budget, Kim Ledford said they left the meeting feeling encouraged and with a “very good impression” of the governor.
At a Feb. 8 state House committee meeting, Knoxville Reps. Steve Hall and Joe Armstrong both asked Commissioner of Mental Health Douglas Varney about a “blacklist” that allegedly allowed local psychiatrist hospitals to turn away certain patients — patients, Armstrong said, Lakeshore Mental Health Institute has filled the “role” of taking in the past. “Effectively, we have not gotten rid of that ‘blacklist'” with the contracts that are currently in place, Armstrong said, echoing concerns advocates, families and Lakeshore employees have voiced at various public meetings.
It appears likely the state Legislature will approve Commissioner of Mental Health Douglas Varney’s extensive plan to revamp East Tennessee’s mental-health services, which includes closing Knoxville’s Lakeshore Mental Health Institute and giving state funds to private providers. Key is his proposal to increase funds to three East Tennessee acute-care psychiatric hospitals — Peninsula in Knoxville, Ridgeview Psychiatric Hospital in Oak Ridge and Woodridge Hospital in Johnson City — for the care of patients who don’t have TennCare, Medicare or commercial insurance, who are often diverted to state institutes. For more than three years, the state has used $1.9 million to buy spaces for “indigent” patients at those facilities, within the limits set by the facilities’ licenses.
State and national NAACP leaders held a news conference Saturday in opposition to Tennessee’s voter identification law, which passed last May. They say the law, which requires residents to submit a photo ID to vote, is a “racial disparity issue.” “This state is seeking to go back to the days before we had the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said NAACP state President Gloria Sweetlove. “We stand here and ask every person to fight with us.” Under the 1965 law, voting practices and procedures discriminating on the the basis of race, color or language were prohibited. The NAACP’s take on the current law is that it is discriminatory against certain populations, including African-Americans, the poor, immigrants, women and senior citizens.
Both Republicans running for the Hamilton County Commission District 3 seat want residents to be able to monitor in real time how commissioners spend more than $1 million in annual discretionary funds. Right now, the county’s Finance Department is the only place to get information about the accounts. The County Commission office doesn’t maintain copies of the records. Marty Haynes, who first raised the issue, said the information should be available online. “Most people don’t know where that money goes,” he said. “What I’d like to see is the day you spent the money and what it went for specifically.”
Daylong retreat emphasizes seriousness of city’s situation A city budget retreat Saturday turned Memphis into a metaphor. It was represented by the Titanic sinking into a sea of debt. “Memphis doesn’t have much margin for error,” said housing and community development director Robert Lipscomb at the Saturday retreat at FedEx Family House. Lipscomb’s PowerPoint presentation — with the upended Titanic slipping into the sea — helped set the stage for the next month and a half. On April 17, Mayor AC Wharton will present his budget for fiscal 2013.
But presidential race is still fluid, analyst says Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has brought his national momentum to Tennessee, outdistancing Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney by a nearly 2-to-1 margin among voters taking part in a new Vanderbilt University poll. But with Tennessee’s GOP primary now just nine days away, the race here remains fluid because one in four potential voters say they don’t know or don’t like any of the candidates, said Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer. “As big a theme as Santorum leading is that a lot of people haven’t made up their minds,” said Geer, co-director of the Vanderbilt Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
If you saw Rick Santorum on CNN or Fox News on Saturday, the backdrop likely was Abba’s House in Hixson, where the latest Republican presidential front-runner temporarily thrust Chattanooga into the national political spotlight. Wearing a blue blazer, open-collared shirt and jeans at the Southern Baptist megachurch, Santorum headlined the Chattanooga Tea Party’s “Liberty Forum,” calling President Barack Obama a “snob” for saying every American child should go to college and promoting his own version of family values. “True happiness comes from doing God’s will,” the Roman Catholic former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania said.
A basketball blitz is about to hit Nashville starting in three days, and Andrew Putman can’t wait. The Bailey’s Pub & Grille manager expects sales to at least double starting Wednesday, when Nashville plays host to the first of four college basketball tournaments linked to that annual rite of hoops passage — March Madness. “It’s huge business,” said Putman, whose restaurant has been a purveyor of drinks and grub on Lower Broadway for a dozen years. “We’re probably going to set our sales record for the month of March.” The madness begins Wednesday, when the Ohio Valley Conference men’s and women’s tournaments tip off at Municipal Auditorium.
Public school systems vary widely in how they rate teachers under a new evaluation system, and the ratings often have little correlation to a school system’s performance on the state report card, according to a review of eight West Tennessee school systems. In Fayette County, for instance, only 1.3 percent of teachers have received a rating of 5, the highest possible rating. But in Hardin County, 31.5 percent of teachers have received the top rating. Two school systems that have fared poorly on state report cards — Jackson-Madison County and Humboldt City — were among the districts that gave out the largest percentage of 5 ratings to teachers.
Lawyer in rezoning case says imbalance is ‘proof’ against Metro The racial imbalance in Nashville’s charter schools is the newest issue in a federal lawsuit against the school district. All of them have 80 percent or more black enrollment, but in recent weeks, a charter school group from Arizona has been gauging parents’ interest in predominantly white neighborhoods. That’s also drawing attention from plaintiffs’ attorney Larry Woods. Woods represents a family in a 3-year-old federal lawsuit against Metro Nashville Public Schools over rezoning they say is causing resegregation. “The charter schools appear to be racially isolated schools,” Woods said.
Spurred on by a gambling law so new that the agency charged with enforcing it does not yet exist, developers are scouring this state for places to build casinos — looking in cities and on the coast, off the Massachusetts Turnpike, by the stadium where the New England Patriots play, and even in little towns like this one, known for its summer antiques fairs and not much else. Brimfield, population 3,600, would be perfect for a “New England-style resort in the woods,” says MGM Resorts International, the company that owns the Bellagio, the Mirage and other giants of the Las Vegas strip. After shunning the concept for years, Massachusetts, seeking solutions to its budget woes, last fall became the first New England state to pass a broad law allowing resort casinos.
Bureaucracy was disliked by environmentalists and business Gov. Bill Haslam has it right: It’s a false choice to say Tennessee can either grow its economy or protect its environment. During his campaign, Gov. Haslam stated, “it’s not one or the other — it’s both.” As commissioner of the Department of Environment and Conservation, I’ve learned that some who follow our work closely say we should be at odds with those bringing new industry and jobs to Tennessee. These people see public policy as a zero-sum game, where one side must prevail to the exclusion of others. In doing so, they promote the false choice Haslam so rightly rejects. When we promote these false choices, we break faith with the people of Tennessee, who see state government not as a disjointed collection of departments dominated by single-issue activists, but as one government serving them.
Access to your information is tightening A little over a year into Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, it may be time to break out the Windex. Those windows meant to allow sunlight onto how state officials handle your affairs have become clouded and dingy. Yes, even though the governor on his first day in office in January 2011 stated that “the rule should be, the more you can be in the open, the better,” in numerous ways the administration is moving to reduce transparency in state government. It isn’t that Tennesseans were not warned. On the same day as the governor made that statement, he signed an executive order eliminating requirements for him and top aides to disclose how much they earn in outside income.
Major efforts are under way in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga to fight street gang activity. Legislative approaches are being considered in the Tennessee General Assembly to create tougher laws dealing with gang activity. New uses of technology are being applied to the fight against gangs. It is our hope that some of these efforts will spread to Jackson and rural West Tennessee where increased gang recruitment has been observed. A U.S. Justice Department survey shows 27,000 gangs and 800,000 gang members operating across all 50 states. Some estimates put the numbers even higher. A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report shows police have identified 5,000 gang members in Davidson County alone.
Give credit where credit is due. Kudos to Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell for slowing the runaway train that the proposed “Don’t Say Gay” bill appeared to be riding last week. The controversial and hateful legislation, which would forbid teachers and guidance counselors from any mention of homosexuality with students in elementary and middle schools, looked like it was heading for a key committee vote when something interesting happened. All the Republicans on the committee disappeared. It turns out they were holed up in Harwell’s office with a member of Haslam’s administration. Bill sponsors appear to have been swayed by school counselors who said it would tie their hands in helping students.
Two efforts — one in the state Legislature and the other at the federal level — would work together to end the threat of mountaintop removal coal mining in Tennessee. The two initiatives would work hand-in-hand to protect Tennessee’s mountains while allowing responsible coal mining as long as the ridgetops aren’t touched. Neither the federal ruling nor the state bill would ban all coal mining. Operators would be able to run strip or underground mines up to the edge of the buffer zones. Only the ridgetops would be off-limits. Mountaintop removal is a particularly devastating technique for getting at coal seams.
It took about three minutes to deftly destroy the latest effort to impose term limits on state legislators. The maneuver, accomplished with bipartisan collaboration, assures that no term limits can be put in place for another decade or so and that there’s really no record of anyone being against the idea. The effort was HJR625, crafted by Rep. Art Swann, R-Maryville, with a good bit of thought. Basically, it provided that state representatives — in exchange for term limits — would have their term of office changed from two years to four years, then be limited to serving no more than three terms or 12 years.