This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
When Janet Elliott saw a severe weather warning scroll across her television screen Friday morning she could hear fierce winds outside, and her two cats and two dogs seated on the bed with her seemed agitated. “They were nervous. The dogs got real low to the floor and the cats were being clingy,” she said. “Then I could feel the pressure in my ears and head, and I knew I should get to the basement.” She ran across the hall to the basement door and called the pets but they wouldn’t come. She tried with all her might to pull the door shut, but then heard a ripping sound as the ceiling peeled off above her head and the doorknob was wrenched from her hand by the wind.
50 homes mangled, hundreds lack power in Cookeville area Residents in the rural community of Dodson Branch near Cookeville on Saturday were stunned as they surveyed their ravaged homes, the result of a tornado that was part of a massive system that swept across Middle Tennessee late Friday afternoon. More than 50 homes were severely damaged, hundreds had lost power, and toppled trees covered the streets. As emergency response teams fanned out across the state Saturday, the National Weather Service confirmed that two tornadoes touched down in Tennessee: one in Jackson County and the other in Cheatham County.
People on Tacoma Drive woke up Saturday morning, and like many others across the Chattanooga region went to work. Volunteer crews assembled at the Bradley Baptist Association office to get directions on where their chain saws, backhoes and muscles were needed most. It didn’t take long for the calls for help to begin rolling in. “We already have over 30 locations,” said Phil Taylor, director of missions for the association. It was 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes after the office opened for phone calls. One of the volunteers was Steve Johnson. He had never volunteered before. But in September 2011, while everyone else was recovering from floods, his house was hit with high winds.
For most of his 71 years, David Dill lived in the Short Tail Springs area, sometimes called “Dilltown.” But he never saw the force of a storm like the one that drove a pine branch through his living room ceiling and half-buried a crowbar in his front yard. “I saw it coming over the hill and I closed the door against the wind. Then I called out, ‘God, is this it?’” Dill said Saturday morning as he sat hunched in a chair his front yard, watching friends and family work to clear dozens of trees splintered around his home and down his long, gravel driveway. “I’ve seen storms before but nothing like what hit yesterday,” he added. The storms and tornadoes that pummeled the Chattanooga area on Friday — injuring at least 33 people and damaging hundreds of homes — was the second -largest outbreak in the last 25 years, according to local experts.
One reason Daniel Lucero and his wife, Susan Jones, bought the modest home in the center of Tellico Plains, Tenn., was the massive oak tree in the front yard. The tree was still mostly in the yard Saturday, but it was lying on its side where violent winds had placed it Friday afternoon. The National Weather Service has not yet classified what went through the town as a tornado, but that is little solace to Lucero. “I had wanted to see it leaf out,” Lucero said Saturday as he surveyed the damage. Lucero said he moved into the home in December, having migrated from New Mexico.
An official with the National Weather Service in Morristown said Saturday morning that survey teams were in route to several locations in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to examine damage caused by possible tornadoes. Preliminary storm reports issued by the NWS Saturday had processed 46 individual incidents brought on by strong storm cells that stretched from Chattanooga to Russell County, Virginia, including an unconfirmed tornado in the town of Ewing in western Lee County. Lee County Emergency Management Service Director Jason Crabtree told the Times-News Friday evening that their central dispatch unit had received a report after 9 p.m. that a residence at 248 Castene Rd. in the Frog Level area had been leveled by a possible tornado.
Severe storms which passed through Bedford County late Friday afternoon left little damage but caused concern for many people. “We had almost 600 people seek refuge in our 13 church storm shelters,” Scott Johnson, director of Bedford County Emergency Management Agency, said. “Because of the duration of the series of storms passing through Bedford County, the shelters were open from 1 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.” One caller to the T-G, who expressed concern about a husband with health issues in the event of storm damage, asked if shelters would be open all night. “The shelters are normally open for about two hours,” Johnson said.
Gov. Bill Haslam likes to compare 2011, his first year in office, to a football game — his team was in the locker room trying on shoulder pads while the other team, the General Assembly, was on the field awaiting kickoff. When the legislature convened its 2012 session in January, Haslam and his team of commissioners were suited up and ready to run with a full-blown legislative agenda. Haslam’s more-aggressive agenda includes proposals on education and civil service reform, a crime package and reworking rules for economic incentive grants. The new rules would allow private companies getting taxpayer assistance to locate in Tennessee to keep their ownership secret from the public. It’s a good thing they’re wearing shoulder pads and helmets.
If freelance production designer Bart Mangrum had more work in Tennessee, he wouldn’t have to skip to other states to maintain his livelihood. For Mangrum, chasing jobs outside of Tennessee is a tiresome but familiar situation. In fact, he’ll travel at the end of the month to work on a film set in Baton Rouge, La., followed by one in Ocean City, Md. “There’s a lot of films that should be shot in Tennessee that are going elsewhere,” said Mangrum, 35, a Nashville native. “If I was able to, I’d never go, but I have to follow the work.” Even as states like Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina sweeten the pot for filmmakers, Tennessee’s film fund, along with proposed legislation to expand incentives, is not gathering steam under Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration.
Lawmakers look for money to preserve Healthy Start A state program that provides home visits to first-time parents could be eliminated June 30 if legislators can’t find funds to save it. Healthy Start, as the voluntary program is called, aims to reduce or prevent child abuse and neglect in enrolled families. The program is meeting its objectives, officials say, as last year 97 percent of enrolled children were up to date on immunizations at age 2, and 99 percent were free of child abuse and neglect. Last year the program served more than 1,110 families. Healthy Start was supported with recurring funds until three years ago, when the program was cut from then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s budget, said Molly Sudderth, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.
State lawmakers took time at the start of a House Education Committee meeting Tuesday to read to a group of kindergarten and second grade students from Nashville’s Shayne Elementary School, demonstrating that it’s not just politics that can leave them tongue-tied. Wearing oversized red-and-white hats, lawmakers took turns reading Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Socks. They quickly learned that, to the unpracticed, seemingly simple rhymes can be a nightmare to read aloud. Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, was the first to stumble. He butchered, “Clocks on fox tick/Clocks on Knox tock/Six sick bricks tick/Six sick clocks tock.” “I got the hardest page here,” he complained.
With Tennessee political action committees growing in numbers and pouring millions of dollars into legislative campaigns, Republican lawmakers are proposing to repeal the limits in current law on how much PAC money they can accept. Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, says SB3654 is a logical follow through to legislation enacted last year that authorized direct corporate contributions to state candidates and treats corporations as if they were PACs insofar as disclosing donations goes. Last year’s law also raised the limits on how much PACs and individuals can donate to Tennessee candidates and provides those limits can be raised annually as inflation increases, a so-called “indexing” provision.
Republicans break down into two camps, Glen Hughes said from his perch near the stage at a rally last week for Rick Santorum. “It’s either Romney or anybody-but-Romney at this point,” he said. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may have the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and most of the state’s Republican leaders. But he hasn’t won over conservative voters like Hughes, which could point to a split between the state’s Republican leaders and its rank-and-file. Just as moderates and conservatives have differed in recent years over issues such as gun rights and discussing homosexuality in schools, they appear to be casting their ballots for decidedly different candidates — Romney, the by-the-book businessman turned Northeastern governor, and Santorum, the firebrand social conservative and former Rust Belt senator.
Most Tennesseans think the state’s new law requiring government-issued photo ID in order to vote is a “good idea,” but many remain confused about exactly what forms of identification are acceptable, according to a poll released this week by Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication. Eighty-two percent of the 646 adults surveyed consider the new law “a good idea that should be kept in place.” Eleven percent consider the law “a bad idea that should be done away with.” The remainder aren’t sure. However, while 93 percent know a current Tennessee driver’s license is acceptable and 81 percent know a valid military ID will do, only 21 percent know that an expired Tennessee driver’s license also will be accepted.
The booze flowed when Southaven Mayor Greg Davis took local business leaders to the Mesquite Chophouse for a night out in 2010. The tab topped $700, swimming in Crown Royal, Absolut Vodka, wine and beer — and a $200 tip. Last year, Davis gave auditors that receipt, and many others, as he defended more than $150,000 in reimbursements from the City of Southaven for expenses to promote business and tourism. Auditors have ordered Davis to repay much of that money but the mayor may now have another problem. An investigation by The Commercial Appeal found the mayor provided that same bill — a $711.77 charge at Mesquite on Aug. 17, 2010 — seeking reimbursement from the Southaven Chamber of Commerce.
Republicans from Madison County and across West Tennessee gathered Saturday night at Union University to rally before Tuesday’s primary election. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker was the keynote speaker at the Madison County Reagan Day Dinner in the Carl Grant Events Center on Union’s campus. Jay Bush, chairman of the Madison County Republican Party, which organizes the dinner around this time each year, said the dinner offers Republicans an opportunity to come together and celebrate their values, no matter which candidate they are supporting for the primary election. “This is a time when active Republicans can get together and get excited about the upcoming elections,” he said.
Tennessee and Georgia voters head to the polls Tuesday with a real chance to make a difference in choosing a Republican nominee for president. Eleven states already have hosted presidential primaries, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads the GOP pack. At the Republican National Convention, it takes 1,144 delegate votes to land the GOP nomination. That’s why Tennessee, Georgia and eight other states matter on “Super Tuesday.” The states hosting caucuses and primaries Tuesday have 437 delegates, the biggest single-day delegate jackpot of the entire campaign. Tennessee has 58 delegates in play, while Georgia’s 76 are the most of any Super Tuesday contest. Both states award their delegates on a proportional basis, not winner-take-all.
Tennessee is one of 10 states that will choose it’s favorite Republican presidential candidate on “Super Tuesday,” adding delegates to a growing tally from states pledged to support its pick at the GOP convention in Tampa Bay, Fla., in August. The state this year has a total of 58 delegates from a combination of at-large and district delegates, plus “bonus” delegates consisting of the governor and U.S. Senate and House members. A total of 1,144 delegate votes are needed to nominate a candidate. As of Friday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney led the pack with 167 delegates, followed by former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (87), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (32) and Texas Congressman Ron Paul (19). Both parties operate with two types of delegates: pledged and unpledged.
Rick Santorum may have a 2-to-1 lead in Tennessee polls heading into the GOP presidential election on Tuesday, but in the race for campaign dollars, he remains dead last. The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has collected just $2,700 in campaign donations from East Tennessee, according to the most recent fundraising reports on file with the Federal Election Commission. Santorum’s cash yield is a fraction of the haul taken in by the most prodigious fundraiser in the race, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney has collected $263,000 in contributions from East Tennessee, putting him far ahead of any of the other candidates.
The co-chairman of Newt Gingrich’s Tennessee campaign changed his allegiance Saturday to Rick Santorum, saying he hopes to set an example that leads to conservatives aligning behind a single candidate against “establishment Republican” Mitt Romney. State Sen. Stacey Campfield’s surprise move comes with Santorum leading in Tennessee polls though under attack within the state from both pro-Romney forces and Gingrich in a frenetic finale of candidate competition for votes in Tuesday’s presidential preference primary.
Former presidential aspirant Herman Cain said he’s still on a mission to defeat President Barack Obama and urged conservatives on Saturday to support former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Tennessee’s Republican presidential primary on Tuesday. For those who still wish the Georgia businessman was in the race, he said to vote for his fellow Georgian instead. “Don’t protest on Tuesday,” he said. Cain was the main speaker at the Tennessee Conservative Union’s annual Reagan Day dinner at the Crowne Plaza hotel and made his comments during a reception for table sponsors before the event.
As Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses loomed in Tennessee and nine other states, representatives of Newt Gingrich rallied support for the Republican presidential candidate in Collierville Saturday, with former U.S. representative J.C. Watts, R-Okla., invoking Gingrich’s conservative record as House Speaker. “I would encourage people in Shelby County to look at what the candidates did — every one of them — what they did when they had a vote and they had a chance to influence public policy,” he said. “Newt Gingrich was balancing our budget, paying down our public debt, and creating tax relief.” About two dozen people attended the rally at the town square. Several said they had no preference in the GOP primary but were open to the message of the Gingrich camp.
It seemed more like the kind of thing you’d do to hammer a candidate you’re already competing with one on one. But the Tennessee Democratic Party went ahead last week and held a conference call to attack Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, five days before his party holds its primary in Tennessee. State Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester, state Rep. Mike Turner and Mike Herron, chairman of the United Auto Workers Local 1853 in Spring Hill, spoke to reporters about Romney’s job-creation record as Massachusetts governor — “dreadful,” Forrester said — and his proposed economic policies if elected in November. Turner said Romney wants to bring back the “trickle-down” economics of the late President Ronald Reagan. “That dog don’t hunt here in Tennessee,” Turner said.
Mitt Romney’s campaign slammed crossover voting in Michigan last week. They told just about every reporter who would listen that Rick Santorum had undermined the process in that state by making an appeal to Democrats to vote for him in its open primary. “Last night, we saw that Rick Santorum cheated, but he couldn’t cheat enough to win,” U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. It seemed like a strange tactic for a candidate whose main selling point might be his crossover appeal. Earlier that same day, Middle Tennessee State University released polling data that showed Romney leading among Democratic voters and tied with Santorum among independents.
Newt Gingrich’s best moment during last week’s campaign swing through Nashville may have been his handling of six Occupy Nashville protesters who disrupted his Monday afternoon rally at the state Capitol by waving a red banner and shouting slogans. Gingrich did not ask security to have the protesters removed. Instead, he quietly waited them out from the podium, giving them an icy glare while occasionally waving to his supporters to keep their cool. Once things had started to quiet down, Gingrich delivered his retort: “I just want to make one observation. In terms of being out of touch with reality,” he said, gesturing toward the protesters, “somebody who 21 years after the collapse of the Soviet empire still has a red flag, is a sign of a commitment to fantasy over reality that is breathtaking.”
The federal government must act more quickly and efficiently in exempting states from certain Medicaid requirements, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said last week. Bredesen, a Democrat and former health-care executive, joined four other former governors from both parties at a Bipartisan Policy Center roundtable to urge reforms in the Medicaid waiver process. Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor — implemented as TennCare in Tennessee — accounts for 16 percent of state spending, second only to education. States can apply for waivers from some Medicaid rules in an effort to cut costs and try new approaches. TennCare, considered a pilot program by the federal government, operates under a waiver.
Starting this summer, Tennessee parents will be able to see at a glance where teachers rank on a scale of 1 to 5, a rating mostly based on learning gains their classes made and spot-checks recorded by principals. Anyone else who wants to know how a particular teacher performed can find out too, an issue that has split parent and educator advocacy groups in other states. They debate whether the benefits of public access outweigh the potential stress to teachers and distraction from learning. The point of Tennessee’s new evaluation system, effective this year, was to improve teachers, not prompt an exodus from classrooms with low-scoring teachers, some say.
The popularity of online textbooks seems to be growing among college students. Some in the Chattanooga area even seem to be embracing the use of e-textbooks, saying they cost less and are easier to use. Lee University student Amanda Cawley told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that she bought an iPad last year and spent $150 to rent e-books for all her classes (http://bit.ly/wKY3Nt). She says that’s about three times less than what she would have paid for physical textbooks. “I love it,” she said. “If I’m looking for specific information, I don’t have to flip through the chapters, I can just type the word in the search field and it takes me there.” University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student Will Conway said he had been spending about $250 a semester on textbooks but decided to rent a couple of books online this semester for $150.
Before their students are rezoned for other schools, many East Hamilton Middle/High parents want the school system to make sure that out-of-zone students aren’t attending the school illegally. Parents brought up the issue several times during a pair of public meetings last week on rezoning proposals. Many said they believe that students who live outside the zone, and in some cases in Georgia, are attending East Hamilton and exacerbating its overcrowding problems. And one school official said he agrees that a crackdown on such cases is needed.
The hard-earned wisdom of local municipal governments, here and elsewhere across Tennessee and other states, is that sensible zoning and development standards typically improve property values, quality of life and general prosperity of all residents. And they do so without infringing on traditional and long respected property rights. Alas, some reactionary right-wing diehards in the Legislature are seeking to block the authority of local governments — the governments closest to their constituents– to keep such standards in place.
A deal struck between Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols and defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs could offer a blueprint on how to deal with the fallout from Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner’s drug abuse at a reduced cost while making public a state probe into the matter. The solution isn’t a perfect one, but Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood should seize this opportunity to save taxpayers money, expedite legal challenges to Baumgartner’s rulings and unseal the full Tennessee Bureau of Investigation file into the ex-judge’s misdeeds.
It’s suddenly cool for politicians to erect barriers for kids who want to go to college. The GOP presidential candidate who is leading in Tennessee polls is doing it. Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly are doing it. Are they out of their minds? This weird trend comes at the same time that Mayor Karl Dean has vowed to double the number of Metro high school graduates who go to college. “It definitely concerns me, especially the affordability piece,” said Jenny Mills, a professional mentor of 100 students from three Metro public high schools who are participating in the Oasis College Connection program. It helps students who think they can’t go to college find a way.
Here’s a two-part prediction that seems pretty safe. Part one: George Flinn, not Charlotte Bergmann, will emerge five months from now as the Republican nominee for the Ninth Congressional District seat. Part two: Flinn, despite having millions to spend on the campaign, will go down in defeat in November to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a three-term Democrat. End of story. I know, it seems weird to be discussing a possible matchup that far down the road when Memphis voters should be focused on the election that’s two days from now. Only problem is, not many voters around here care about Tuesday’s GOP presidential and Shelby County primaries.
Rule No. 1: No matter how academically effective, anything viewed as a threat to the usual way of doing things in public schools is subject to slander, obstruction, de-funding or summary decapitation. Rule No. 2: To understand some of the causes of low achievement in schools, see Rule No. 1. It was not the “failure” but the success of Washington, D.C.’s, educational voucher program that made it a target of the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress. Established in 2004, the government-funded program allowed low-income students from the district’s failing public schools to attend private schools with vouchers — for far less than the district spends per student in its public schools.
For many people, the question probably boiled down to this: Why not let Chris Burns just die of his own stupidity? Burns, you recall, blew himself up in 2009 while he was sitting in his Chevy Cavalier at a stop sign in Fayette County, cooking up a batch of methamphetamine. He managed to escape the burning vehicle, but the third-degree burns he received over 16 percent of his body required two weeks of treatment in the Regional Medical Center at Memphis. There, Burns, who had no medical insurance, incurred $160,000 in medical bills as the expert burn doctors battled to keep him alive. He was back at home, still in bandages, when a Fayette County grand jury indicted him in July 2009.