This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam says the state will cover the estimated $6,000 cost for erecting signs that name a walking path at Bicentennial State Park in honor of Andrea Conte, wife of former Gov. Phil Bredesen. The Haslam administration had initially issued a “fiscal flag” opposing the bill by House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh to name the walkway in Conte’s honor, citing the cost that was not included in Haslam’s state budget plans. Naifeh said five friends and associates of Bredesen had told him they would put up $750 each to cover the cost, but Haslam assured him that will not be necessary and the expense can be covered by the routine operations budget of the Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks.
A poll of 700 registered voters conducted by Public Policy Polling lists Tennessee as the third most favorable state, behind Hawaii and Colorado. The random, automated interviews were done by telephone during a four-month period ending in February. Those surveyed were asked if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of the state, with no criteria specified. Forty-eight percent rated Tennessee favorable, 14 percent unfavorable and 38 percent were undecided. The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development said the poll was not paid for or authorized by any campaign or political organization nor by the state. Public Policy Polling, based in Raleigh, N.C., is a commercial company that conducts polls on a variety of issues. According to its website, most topics are campaigns, politics and public policy.
Citizens get a chance for an inside look at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The TBI, the state’s lead investigative law enforcement agency, is now accepting applications for its citizens academy. The four-week academy beginning May 1 will offer the public a look at TBI’s investigations of crime scenes, cyber crime and terrorism information and other aspects of criminal activity. Classes will be held for three hours, one night a week. The academy will be limited to 15 participants. Applications are at www.tbi.tn.gov .
Glitches in the Department of Children’s Services expensive new computer system have resulted in some foster care parents receiving duplicate monthly room and board payments from the state while others weren’t paid at all. More than $2.5 million in duplicate and missed payments have been identified by DCS already, and officials said last week that they are hurrying to address continued problems with the system. The software system, which is called the Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System, or TFACTS, was the subject of a scathing audit released last week by the state comptroller of the treasury. TFACTS was rolled out in the autumn of 2010 at a price tag of $37 million.
Tennessee has at least 200 boards and commissions that do everything from promoting soybeans to licensing dentists to overseeing the state’s colleges and universities. Almost all of them are required to invite the public to their meetings, but the way they do that is inconsistent at best. On the home page of Tennessee’s official website is a banner that reads “Participate,” and a link below it says “browse all meetings notices.” But many panels do not post meetings there. Even for those that do, finding a meeting sometimes depends on how you search for it. For example, Conservation Commission meetings don’t show up using a keyword search for “conservation.”
The Tennessee Department of Transportation is estimating that the closure of both southbound lanes on Interstate 75 just below the Kentucky state line will last for a couple of weeks. TDOT closed the lanes Friday after geotechnical engineers determined that an earthen embankment under the highway is sliding near the Stinking Creek exit at mile marker 144. The closure is forcing thousands of southbound drivers to take a 26-mile detour through LaFollette to get around the site. TDOT said on its website that repairs could be completed at the site by March 23.
News of the stunning returns in the Davidson County General Sessions judge race spread among Metro Council members as they listened to a lengthy public hearing on a controversial Antioch-area asphalt plant Tuesday night. They couldn’t believe the results. Attention immediately diverted to an old colleague. Looking down at their laptops and fidgeting with their cell phones, council members saw that Mike Jameson, a former two-term councilman whom they had appointed to the bench three months earlier, had lost the early vote — and lost decisively — to attorney Rachel Bell in the Democratic primary for General Sessions judge. “He’s done,” a mayor’s office aide at the front of the council chambers put it bluntly.
In a rare political victory for Tennessee Democrats, Republicans have backed down in one of the hottest controversies of this year’s legislative session. At the center of the fight is the Tennessee lottery, with Democrats denouncing a GOP proposal to curtail the number of students earning HOPE scholarships to college. Republicans contend they must tighten the scholarship’s eligibility standards to stabilize the lottery fund, which now is running an annual deficit of up to $20 million. “We’re spending more than we’re taking in. You can’t do that,” said Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville.
About 15 Tennessee state troopers appeared on Legislative Plaza in Nashville early Monday morning and removed the last remaining tent of the Occupy Nashville group as well as some other items still there. No arrests were made after troopers came on the scene a little before 4 a.m. The remaining tent had been occupied by protester Christopher Humphrey. Other items removed included signs and items inside the tent. State workers were preparing to wash the plaza. Humphrey said that his plan was to test the law, which bans camping on public property, and that he wants to get another tent and put it out on the plaza.
About 30 Tennessee Highway Patrol officers moved into Legislative Plaza overnight and removed the final Occupy Nashville tent, according to the group. Occupy Nashville said that the troopers came onto the Plaza around 3:50 a.m. Monday. The group said Christopher Humphrey was dragged out of the tent, but was not arrested. They said the troopers initially removed their information table, donation box, and other protest materials, but the troopers agreed to return them after talking to occupiers and their legal team. Following Friday’s deadline to leave the Plaza, only one tent had remained on the property.
The lone protester who maintained his vigil at the Occupy Nashville camp on Legislative Plaza was removed from his tent by about 20 state troopers early Monday morning. Christopher Humphrey, 24, said he was asked to come out of his tent on the War Memorial Plaza. When he did, he said the troopers proceeded to remove his tent, as well as one nearby from the plaza. Troopers did not take Humphrey into custody. State workers then begin pressure washing the plaza. Humphrey and other protesters there to support him said they plan to continue contesting the law that prohibits camping on state property that is not specifically designated for it.
Six mass transit projects with a heavy emphasis on technology are competing for $1.65 million in federal funds to be awarded in Middle Tennessee this spring. The recently submitted proposals include a smartphone app for bus riders, a computer system to match riders with carpools, Park-n-Ride lot improvements in Gallatin and Springfield, a short commuter rail siding line to increase train trips to and from Lebanon, and new bus-ticket vending machines for the Music City Central station downtown. The Nashville Metro Transit Authority and Regional Transit Authority submitted four of the six proposals.
County officials on Tuesday expect to release an audit that looks into the Public Building Authority’s handling of the Hardin Valley Academy project, a $50 million development that still raises questions years after it was finished. County internal auditor Richard Walls, who was asked by the County Commission to investigate the project last summer, declined to comment until he gives the report to the audit committee. “I look forward to hearing the report,” said committee member and Commissioner Ed Shouse. “I don’t think there’s anything of great consequence there, but I’ve been told that there may be some slight misalignment of funding to another public entity.”
For seven years, Jackson-Madison County’s Imagination Library has provided books to children younger than 5 years old. The organization is near financial distress levels that could impact the program if donations don’t pick up. Executive board member Kathie Cothern said recent fundraisers at Chick-fil-A and Panera Bread have been helpful, but more is needed. “It takes about $3,000 a month,” Cothern said. “We don’t want to get to a point where we can’t serve.” Cothern said the organization is asking residents to consider making a monthly donation of $15. The money is used to purchase books for children in Madison County from birth up to 5 years old. Children in the program receive a new book every month.
Judges from Michigan are helping to ease the backlog of federal cases in Memphis. Under the Visiting Judges Program, cases from Memphis are being assigned to three judges who will handle some work by phone but will also be holding court in Tennessee. The program is possible because Michigan and Tennessee belong to the Sixth Judicial Circuit. The move comes at a time when Memphis has a vacant seat on the bench and a caseload that is growing quickly. As of last week, 30 criminal and civil cases filed in West Tennessee had been assigned to the visiting judges, The Commercial Appeal reported. Thomas Gould, clerk of the U.S. District Court for Western Tennessee, says the goal is to move cases along faster without sacrificing quality.
When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. takes his usual center seat on the Supreme Court bench on March 26, he will begin presiding over an extraordinary three days of arguments that will determine the fate of President Obama’s sweeping health care law. The decision in the case, expected by June, will have practical consequences for tens of millions of Americans without health insurance, and it may affect Mr. Obama’s re-election chances. It will also shape, if not define, the chief justice’s legacy. Chief Justice Roberts is just 57, and he will probably lead the Supreme Court for an additional two decades or more. But clashes like the one over the health care law come around only a few times in a century, and he may well complete his service without encountering another case posing such fundamental questions about the structure of American government.
With this year’s and next year’s 150th anniversary of the Civil War actions near and in Chattanooga, the new battle is one for history-vacation dollars. As the Civil War sesquicentennial swings into high gear, park and tourism officials hope for record numbers of visitors at the nation’s oldest Civil War military park — the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Superintendent Cathy Cook says it just might be possible, judging from last year’s 1,026,699 visitors. “The last time we had hit over a million visitors was 1998,” Cook said. Even as recession slowed travel and recreation in recent years, a new National Park Service report shows that in 2010 the park had just under a million visitors, who spent $49.3 million at the park and in communities nearby.
Knox County Superintendent Jim McIntyre is hoping to increase the school system budget by more than 45 percent over the next five years. Those additional dollars, he said, would be used to fund nine educational investments, including capital improvements, increases in technology, additional instructional time in the classroom and expanding teacher performance pay. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said the only way to make the proposal a reality is to increase taxes. “Every penny (the property tax rate) is raised is $1 million. So essentially it would be a 35-cent tax increase on property (taxes),” he said. “I will not propose a tax increase.” But McIntyre said his plan — which includes a $35 million increase every year for the next five years over fixed costs — is important to effectively impact student outcomes and achievement.
Lakeland leaders are resigned to the fact that they will have to implement the city’s first property tax if they need to fund a municipal school system. Estimates are that it could take a tax rate of at least 20 to 25 cents per $100 of assessed value to help fund a system, according to Vice Mayor Cecil Tompkins. “There are only two constructive ways to look at our situation,” Commissioner Don Barber said at a March 1 meeting. “It has been great while it lasted. We had 35 years of no property taxes. Nobody else can say that in this county. “And when we do have a property tax, it will be nothing compared to what the other municipalities in this county will have once this is all over.” All six suburban Shelby County cities are mulling the prospects of forming a school district to avoid becoming a part of the unified Memphis and Shelby County district.
After many years in which evolution was the most contentious issue in science education, climate change is now the battle du jour in school districts across the country. The fight could heat up further in April, when several national bodies are set to release a draft of new science standards that include detailed instruction on climate change. The groups preparing the standards include the National Research Council, which is part of the congressionally chartered National Academies. They are working from a document they drew up last year that says climate change is caused in part by manmade events, such as the burning of fossil fuels. The document says rising temperatures could have “large consequences” for the planet.
On a recent Thursday afternoon in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, in the South Bronx, five 16- and 17-year-old boys met outside the Bronx Criminal Court building to complete court-mandated community service. After appearing before a judge for nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting and graffiti, they’d been assigned to Bronx Community Solutions, an alternative sentencing organization attached to the criminal court, for an afternoon of cleaning up the sidewalks around a recreation center. Under New York law, most offenders at this age share community service duties with seasoned adult criminals, because at 16, they are automatically charged as adults. These boys were different because they were part of a judicial pilot program that separates 16-and-17-year-old offenders from the rest of the adult criminal population, and also from younger teens.
On March 2, Gov. Bill Haslam signed HB 2638/SB 2508 into law, making camping, sleeping and cooking on state property a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine. While this law was targeted at Occupy Nashville, it has devastating consequences for our unhoused neighbors — the thousands of men, women and children across Tennessee who are left to live and die on our streets. Many are unable to find refuge because on any given night, there are not enough shelter beds or affordable housing units to accommodate everyone in need. They have nowhere else to go but the streets and public spaces, yet this law further victimizes them for doing so.
Though we often disagree with positions taken by state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey on legislative issues, we thoroughly agree with his opposition to the secretive sections of Gov. Bill Haslam’s dubious FastTrack proposal. That proposal would allow the governor’s administration to keep secret the identify of the owners of firms and businesses that would receive cash awards of taxpayer funds as incentives to expand or build selective business enterprises in Tennessee. There should be full disclosure and complete transparency for any program in which the state would give taxpayers’ cash — or any taxpayer-backed credit or incentive — to any person or business. Haslam supports a state-sponsored, cash-incentive program to attract new or expanded businesses in Tennessee, instead of the traditional tax abatement policies.
Unemployment benefits should be reserved for employees who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Running a business provides great opportunities to make a difference in a community by creating products that people love, providing jobs to area residents, putting money back into the economy by investing in capital and supporting the work of nonprofits. At Freeland Chevrolet, we contribute to the community in all of these ways, which makes our work even more fulfilling. Strong business growth allows us to invest in our facility, our employees and the surrounding community. We see every day that business is good in Nashville.