This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Volkswagen Group of America said Tuesday it will add to its Tennessee footprint by building a warehouse in Roane County, west of Knoxville. The German auto maker will invest $40 million in the project, which will distribute domestic auto parts for its Passat sedan, which it began cranking out in Chattanooga last year. The 400,000-square-foot center is expected to open a year from now and employ up to 45 people by 2016. It will initially redistribute parts before expanding into a full-fledged distribution facility that will reach customers across the United States, Canada and Mexico. “This new facility is exemplary of the commitment that Volkswagen Group of America has to meeting the needs of our dealers and our growing customer base,” said Rawdon Glover, executive vice president of aftersales.
Roane County dangled big incentives to land a huge Volkswagen Regional Distribution Center, officials said after groundbreaking ceremonies Tuesday. There’s the 100 percent property tax break for 10 years, the $435,000 worth of local matches of two state grants totaling more than $1 million, and a break-even land purchase deal. In exchange, the company will invest $40 million in a 400,000-square warehouse that will result in 45 jobs in the Roane Regional Business and Technology Park. The annual payroll is pegged at $3 million. The facility can be expanded to 600,000 square feet, officials said.
Gov. Bill Haslam has said there are instances when groups or individuals make sweeping public-records requests that aren’t entirely legitimate. When it happens, government staff-time and taxpayer resources can be wasted trying to fulfill seemingly gratuitous demands — and it’s a problem the governor says his administration is setting out to address this year. “It is the public’s right to know, and that’s been firmly established,” Haslam told reporters Monday after speaking at the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association in Nashville. “On the other hand, just blanket fishing expeditions that cost the taxpayers’ money, it still takes people’s time and work to go get those. I think there needs to be a way for how we decide what’s legitimate and what’s not there.”
Gov. Bill Haslam proclaimed March 29th as Vietnam Veterans Day, four years after Tennessee became the first state in the nation to designate a special day of observance in honor the Veterans of the Vietnam War. The proclamation was signed on March 1st, “to encourage all citizens of our great state in showing our sincere respect and appreciation, and resolve to never again disregard the recognition for these men and women who bravely fought to defend our nation against a brutal and harsh enemy.” On March 30, 1973, the U.S. Armed Forces completed the withdrawal of combat troops from Vietnam. More than 58,000 members of the United States Armed Forces lost their lives in Vietnam and more than 153,000 were wounded in battle and theatre.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam proclaimed March 29th as Vietnam Veterans Day, four years after Tennessee became the first state in the nation to designate a special day of observance in honor the Veterans of the Vietnam War. The proclamation was signed on March 1st, “to encourage all citizens of our great state in showing our sincere respect and appreciation, and resolve to never again disregard the recognition for these men and women who bravely fought to defend our nation against a brutal and harsh enemy.” On March 30, 1973, the U.S. Armed Forces completed the withdrawal of combat troops from Vietnam. More than 58,000 members of the United States Armed Forces lost their lives in Vietnam and more than 153,000 were wounded in battle and theatre.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will not intervene in the case of Prada, a 4-year-old pit bull mix that has been ordered euthanized for attacking other dogs. A spokesman said the governor has no say in it. Dog owner Nicole Andree has taken the case before three different courts. A legal group from New York that specializes in fighting for condemned dogs agreed to take up the next appeal against Nashville authorities. An Internet and social media campaign has raised $16,000 to help fund the next appeal and inspired more than 11,000 people to sign a petition asking Haslam to pardon the dog. Andree is vowing she won’t halt her fight .
The University of Tennessee is dedicating the new Min H. Kao Electrical Engineering and Computer Science building today at 10 a.m. Governor Bill Haslam will be on hand for the dedication of the new building, which began accepting students in January. The new building is built to LEED standards and includes renovations to six buildings that held the old Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. UT alumnus and Garmin CEO Min Kao donated $12.5 million to the project back in 2005, which was the largest single donation UT had ever received at that point. Tennessee lawmakers contributed $25 million to the project.
Nashville State Community College and Middle Tennessee State University will announce a new agreement Wednesday to “strengthen ties” and afford students more academic options at each school. The agreement will allow students to enroll at both schools simultaneously, which could help NSCC students who need low-level major-specific classes that aren’t offered at the community college level. Students wishing to participate in dual enrollment must meet MTSU’s admission standard. Also, a new “reverse transfer” program will let former NSCC students enrolled at MTSU retroactively apply credits toward an associate’s degree from NSCC. NSCC president George Van Allen and MTSU president Sidney McPhee will sign the agreement on NSCC’s campus tomorrow morning.
Former Tennessee State Senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville has taken on a new job as Health Policy Advisor to the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, John J. Dreyzehner. Just as her title indicates Kurita will be advising the Commissioner on policies relating to health across the state. Kurita said her main focus on health in her new position is on obesity. “We really have an epidemic of obesity. All across the United States and particularly in Tennessee we really are always at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to the way those rankings come out,” Kurita said. Governor Bill Haslam talked about tackling the obesity problem will be the focus of the Governor’s Health and Wellness Task Force. “Tennessee’s status in the America’s Health Rankings report has recently moved in a positive direction from 42nd to 39th in the overall rankings but we still have some critical areas in which we have work to do,” said Haslam.
Rescuers pulled a state trooper from his flaming cruiser after a truck plowed into his car on the shoulder of Interstate 40 early Tuesday. Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Lowell Russell, a 14-year veteran, is in critical condition at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, according to Highway Patrol Sgt. Randall Martin. Knoxville police spokesman Darrell DeBusk told The Knoxville News Sentinel that the cruiser burst into flames and road flares and ammunitions stored in the trunk began exploding. “It was extremely hot, the flames. Fire was coming from his radio box next to him. When they pulled him out and had him on the ground performing CPR, his seat caught fire,” DeBusk said. A city police officer and an emergency medical services worker pulled the unresponsive trooper out of the car. The EMS worker burned his hands during the rescue.
Southbound lanes in Campbell County already closed due to erosion problem Just when they thought they had it all under control. By Tuesday afternoon, LaFollette officials believed they had a handle on the traffic overflow being diverted into their town from the ongoing closure of both southbound lanes of Interstate 75. But shortly before 4 p.m., two tractor-trailers in the northbound lane collided, killing one person and forcing closure of both lanes in that direction — and squeezing even more vehicles into town. One northbound lane remained closed into Tuesday night. At about 9 p.m., officials opened the northbound lanes at mile marker 134 but kept the right northbound lane closed at mile marker 137, the site of the accident, reported at 3:53 p.m.
Investigators believe fatigue may be the cause in the accident that critically injured a Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper Tuesday morning. The driver of the truck that struck Sgt. Lowell Russell has been charged with aggravated assault and reckless endangerment. Investigators say Eric Dwayne Lewis, 32, admitted to falling asleep at the wheel. Trucker fatigue is not a new issue and when an accident occurs, it’s one of the first places investigators look. “Whether it’s a digital log book or a paper log book they’re going to want to look if the driver has any out of service errors or if they’ve been driving for too long of a time,” explains Jeff Steinberg, the assistant director of the Tennessee Truck Driving School.
The Tennessee attorney general’s office has now launched an investigation into HRC Medical. This comes on the heels of a recent News Channel 5 investigation into the Nashville-based hormone replacement therapy chain. This also comes as both state lawmakers and others are also cracking down on HRC. House Bill 2801 easily made its way through the Health subcommittee Tuesday. The legislation is being pushed by Representative Phillip Johnson whose wife claims she suffered serious health problems as a patient at HRC Medical here in Nashville. Representative Johnson told NewsChannel5 Investigates earlier, “Some of her hormone levels had gotten too high.”
After more than a year of debate, compromise legislation that would alter the handling of ethics complaints against state judges passed the Senate Judicial Committee on Tuesday afternoon. The bill, an altered version of legislation once widely opposed by judges, would dissolve the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary and replace it with a “judicial board of conduct.” The board would be able to investigate and punish judges on a broader — yet still private — scale. Already passed by the House Judiciary Committee last week, the bill must still clear one more House committee and both chambers of the legislature to become law. Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Chapel Hill, said the bill would be an improvement despite the compromises required for passage.
The House sponsor of a proposal to ban the teaching of gay issues to elementary and middle school students delayed the measure on Tuesday to allow lawmakers to consider a more comprehensive bill. The legislation, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, was up in the House Education Committee. It seeks to limit all sexually related instruction to “natural human reproduction science” in kindergarten through eighth grade. Republican Rep. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald acknowledged there are problems with the measure and once again delayed it so lawmakers can review another proposal that would place restrictions on “family life education” curricula taught in schools. Rep. Jim Gotto is the sponsor of that legislation.
Tennessee lawmakers backed away from controversial legislation that would have further restricted discussions about homosexuality before high school, presumably ending the two-year battle over how much schoolchildren should be told. The sponsors of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill agreed Tuesday to put off debating the measure until the end of the legislative session, a procedural move that usually signals they do not intend to pursue it. Backers said they would instead shift their focus to an abstinence education measure that is favored by social conservatives. Sponsors had been under pressure to amend the original bill, which would have banned any teaching about sexuality apart from “natural human reproduction” before eighth grade.
After more than a year, backers of the bill nicknamed “don’t say gay” have put it aside. Now their focus is on a measure meant to rewrite Tennessee law on sex education. Representative Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, told lawmakers it’s time to rewrite the sex education portion of state law. He says that’s a better option than pursuing the narrowly drawn “don’t say gay” bill, which was promoted as a way to keep classrooms from discussing homosexuality. “The more that you look at this bill, and you look at the different sections of the code that deal with sex education, you realize that this whole section was put together piecemeal, different legislators at different times put it together.”
The bill that some call “Don’t Say Gay” could soon change into a measure that rewrites the state’s sex education laws. The new sex education bill sponsored by Nashville Republican representative Jim Gotto could be introduced in a House Education Sub-Committee Wednesday morning according to Chair Joey Hensley who sponsors “Don’t Say Gay.” In the House Education Committee, Rep. Bill Dunn identified the bill as HB 3621, but indicated some changes will be made to how it is currently written. Rep. Hensley, who is a physician from Hohenwald, told reporters after the committee that the new sex education bill “redoes a lot of the code and it should cover” a ban on teaching homosexuality in grades kindergarten through eighth grade that critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”
The state Senate was expected tonight to easily pass an industry-approved bill to regulate coal mining that involves mountain-top removal. But a fired-up Senator Eric Stewart fought off industry-friendly changes and kept alive his proposal to ban the practice. Stewart says an amendment to his bill would make it easier to justify blowing the tops off mountains to get to coal. That amendment would allow ridge line removal, followed by the mining company “restoring” the ridge line. “The industry likes this definition because it says you can take the tops of mountains. You can take the tops off of mountains as long as we pile the little pieces back on top of those mountains.”
A fight is heating up in the Tennessee Legislature that has green energy companies decrying what they consider a major tax increase as Republicans look to eliminate an incentive for solar and other renewable power. Senate Bill 3296/House Bill 3520 would get rid of a provision allowing for solar and other green energy installations to have their taxation based on a small percentage of their salvage value. The provision — pushed originally by the administration of former Gov. Phil Bredesen — means there’s nearly no taxation, part of an effort to subsidize renewable energy in Tennessee. Steve Johnson, president of solar energy installation company Lightwave Solar, said changing the law amounts to a tax increase on a fledgling industry.
State leaders are considering recognizing several so-called “new” Native American tribes in Tennessee. For traditional Native American groups, it’s an idea that is causing true outrage. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has not recognized a new tribe in more than 150 years, but now the state of Tennessee considers going where no one else has gone before by naming three new Indian nations. The bill received so many negative calls and emails from Native Americans that it was held over at the state Capitol to accommodate all the speakers.
The Tennessee General Assembly is discussing several bills that would make selling and manufacturing synthetic drugs a felony, but local state representatives said passage could be more than a month away. “I know people are frustrated,” Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said. “We need to make sure a bad bill doesn’t pass.” Lundberg is the primary sponsor of one piece of synthetic drug legislation. Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, is sponsoring a separate bill with the same goal. A third bill also has been introduced. Synthetic drugs, sometimes called bath salts, are sold in smoke shops and are similar to methamphetamines, cocaine and marijuana.
The Dyer County Commissioners held a brief meeting on Monday evening and the main discussion pertained to approving a resolution asking the state to take into consideration financial obligation when adopting new legislation. According to Dyer County Mayor Richard Hill this is not the first time Dyer County has made such a request. “I’m hoping that one of these days they (state legislators) will listen,” said Hill. “When they send these mandates they have to send the money with it. If they are unable to fund it they should not ask us to absorb those costs.”
Chattanooga ranks in the bottom third of communities nationwide in a health system scorecard looking at medical access, costs, quality and outcomes, but scores better than other areas of Tennessee. The Commonwealth Fund released its first-ever community assessment Tuesday, evaluating 306 communities divided into health-referral regions that are based on where most residents in that region go for major health care and surgeries. The assessment found a wide disparity within states and from one community to the next, according to Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund, a New York City-based private foundation that promotes a high-performance health care system.
He’s scrimping on most office expenses, but U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., ranked No. 1 in the U.S. House from October to December 2011 when it came to spending on franking or official mailings to constituents, records show. The 4th Congressional District representative from Jasper, Tenn., spent $224,346.33 on mailings, according to the House’s Statement of Disbursements, which details fourth-quarter spending by all 435 congressman. Records show DesJarlais was also one of the top House spenders on mailings during all of 2011 with $282,385.34. At least three other House members in other states exceeded that. One, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., spent $327,503.90, according to House records.
Memphian up for federal district court Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr. of Memphis may soon become the first federal judge to list as a summer job working as a Denver taxi driver. Fowlkes, who turns 61 next month, is scheduled to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee today for a confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. district judge for Western Tennessee. Fowlkes has been a Criminal Court judge in Shelby County since 2007, where he has presided over 85 trials. Fowlkes was nominated by President Barack Obama on Dec. 16 to replace Judge Bernice B. Donald of Memphis, who was elevated to the Sixth Circuit last October.
BlueCross BlueShield has now spent $18.5 million resolving a 2009 hard drive heist, though the thieves’ motives in the unsolved data breach remain a mystery. Crooks burgled 57 hard drives containing personal information on about 1 million customers, including audio and video recordings from customer service phone calls, according to the Chattanooga-based insurer. A $1.5 settlement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is the latest blow in what could be the most expensive unsolved heist in Chattanooga history. In addition to investigation and notification expenses, Tennessee’s largest insurer has shelled out about $7 million to encrypt its remaining customer data, said spokeswoman Mary Danielson.
Knoxville will be home to the strongest job market in the country this spring, according to a national survey released Tuesday by Manpower Inc. Twenty-five percent of the Knoxville employers surveyed said they would add jobs in the April through June period, according to the Manpower Employment Outlook Survey. That’s an 8 percentage point improvement from the first quarter when 17 percent of Knoxville employers planned to add jobs. Only 1 percent of the metro Knoxville business surveyed said they would cut jobs this spring. Seventy-three percent said they expect to maintain current staff levels. Knoxville’s “employment outlook is the best in the nation,” Manpower said in a news release.
Metro Nashville Public Schools is moving its annual process for hiring new teachers sooner in the calendar year, aiming to contract 250 new teachers this March and April instead of waiting until the summer. Director of Schools Jesse Register first announced plans for the accelerated teacher hiring process at last week’s “State of Metro Schools” address as part of the district’s plan, dubbed ASSET, to recruit and retain high-performing teachers. In a related proposal, Register has pitched increasing the starting salaries of teachers in next year’s budget. Metro school officials outlined the revamped hiring timeline to school board members at Tuesday’s board meeting, billing the approach as a way to compete against other Middle Tennessee counties for top-tier teachers.
Metro Nashville’s 12 high schools are removing the term “comprehensive” from their school signs and after their formal names. Metro school board members, based on a schools naming committee recommendation, voted Tuesday to drop the ’70s term, given out as high schools then were merging into larger complexes. Metro has now invested in 44 academies, smaller programs within its 12 high schools where students learn together based on their career interests. Pearl-Cohn has an entertainment academy; Stratford has a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math academy; and Hillsboro High an International Baccalaureate one.
Metro considers bump in salary to boost recruitment Recruiters from Houston have been to Nashville three times this school year, trying to get first dibs at hiring Vanderbilt University and other college education majors. That district starts teacher pay at $44,000 — one of several urban districts that pay better than Nashville. In a depressed economy, new Middle Tennessee teachers that once stayed in a 50-mile radius to work are more willing to move, and outside districts are banking on that fact, said June Keel, Metro’s assistant superintendent of human resources. So in its draft budget, Metro is proposing to hike starting teacher pay from $34,000 to $40,000. “We aren’t just competing with neighboring districts, but with the Atlantas, the Memphises and other urban areas that have a lot to offer young people,” she said.
Parents have spoken, and Hamilton County Schools leaders say they’re listening. School board members said they wanted to see parental input before moving forward with a rezoning plan for schools in East Hamilton County. More than 100 community members attended a Tuesday board work session centered on the issue. Families upset over the rezonings have begun organizing in person and online since the plan was unveiled late last month. Parents have flooded county and school officials with hundreds of phone calls and emails. One group of parents and students even staged a small protest at the school system’s central office last week. The phrase “rethink, not rezone,” was drawn on the windows of many cars in Tyner’s parking lot Tuesday.
Look closely at the above diagram. It depicts a plan of organization that received the virtually unanimous imprimatur last week of the Transition Planning Commission for city/county school merger. We say “virtually” because, while there were no Nay votes — only an abstention from Tommy Hart of Collierville, who expressed no objection to the model, merely a wish for more elaborate information about it. What seems obvious is that the model, brokered by the Boston Consulting Group, makes a conscientious effort to split the middle between competing interests — between central authority and autonomy, for example.
Ethnic groups in the Southeast say the public schools that serve their children are doing excellent work, regardless of widespread reports on low test scores and high dropout rates. According to a New America Media poll released Tuesday at the National Civil Rights Museum, respondents in four ethnic groups say by a margin of eight to one that their children are being prepared for good jobs or college. The parents ranked teacher quality as good to excellent. Asked about the education they expect for their oldest child, they said they have high expectations that he or she not only will graduate from college but will earn graduate degrees. “There seems to be this disconnect from reality when it comes to interpreting and having opinions about the quality of education their children are receiving,” said Sergio Bendixen, who conducted the poll of 1,400 parents of K-12 students in eight Southern states.
Larry Cafero, the Republican minority leader in the Connecticut House of Representatives, believes all workers should have access to paid sick days. Like most of his Democratic counterparts here, Cafero thinks workers should not be forced to choose between losing a paycheck and reporting to work sick, particularly if they are waiters or waitresses and come into contact with food that will be eaten by others. Paid sick leave “is very hard to argue with,” he says. But last year, when it came time to vote on a bill that would make Connecticut the only state in the nation to require paid sick time for private-sector employees, Cafero and most of his fellow Republicans voted no.
With Detroit expected to run out of cash this spring, state officials in Michigan proposed a restructuring deal with the city leaders on Tuesday that would establish a joint advisory board to address the city’s financial troubles without a state-appointed emergency manager. The proposed agreement was framed by Gov. Rick Snyder’s office as a “cooperative” solution for Detroit leaders, who have strongly opposed such a state takeover as the city races to avert fiscal ruin. But a number of city officials, including Mayor Dave Bing, voiced displeasure with it and indicated they were unlikely to approve it without changes.
Where does public higher education stand in the pecking order of priorities in the Volunteer State? Not very high, I’m afraid. In the past decade we have seen major shifts, some good and some bad, in efforts to provide a quality post-secondary education for Tennessee’s students. I had the privilege of being involved in one of the good things in higher education 10 years ago when I assisted then-state Sen. (now U.S. Rep.) Steve Cohen in the lottery campaign following Cohen’s 20-year push to bring it to a vote. My reasons for involvement were many, but the primary one was to see that our state enjoyed the same type of opportunities that Georgia had derived from its HOPE scholarship program.
Tennessee’s prescription drug problems continue to make headlines and rightfully so. Our high rates of prescriptions per capita and deaths from the misuse of prescription medicines deserve our full attention. But this same media coverage has, in our view, mischaracterized the response by health-care professionals as less than enthusiastic and — in one major newspaper — described doctors as slow to develop or support possible solutions to the problem. It is this misconception I would like to address. The prescriber community, doctors in particular, have been addressing this issue for nearly a decade. The pharmaceutical and medical communities worked diligently to secure passage of the bill that established the Controlled Substances Monitoring Database (CSMD), and agreed to underwrite the cost of its operation.
Legislation that would limit the planning and zoning scope of Rutherford County and Murfreesboro needs to be scaled back or dropped completely, just as a joint resolution castigating any connection to United Nations Agenda 21 should be abandoned. House Bill 3572, sponsored by state Rep. Rick Womick, touches on everything from eminent domain and private property rights to prohibiting local governments from requiring landscaping for new developments. While the bill certainly touches on important issues such as government overreach, it goes too far and should be rejected today by a House Judiciary subcommittee. Even Womick, a Rockvale Republican, told The DNJ last week the bill is to be reduced because it’s “very broad in scope.”
The sun should shine on the inner workings of government every day. But during this week – Sunshine Week – Americans are reminded how precious a gift they have in open government, and why we all must demand it remain so. The American Society of News Editors launched Sunshine Week in 2005. It is observed annually in March to coincide with the March 16 birthday of President James Madison, the father of the First Amendment. It presents an opportunity to compare government’s lip service concerning its transparency with what is actually happening. At the federal level, for instance, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said this week that the Obama administration has “made meaningful, measurable progress in improving the way our department – and its partners and counterparts – respond to disclosure requests.”
One of my favorite environmental research projects at Oak Ridge National Laboratory continues to pay dividends, years after the big outdoor experiment was shut down. FACE (Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment) was an outdoor experiment that lasted for about 12 years and produced valuable information about potential changes associated with increased greenhouse gases. The experiment, which involved pumping tons of CO2 into a sweetgum plantation on the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge reservation, ended in 2009. However, research efforts continued after the experiment itself was shut down, and those results are now surfacing in scientific publications. Recently published data from the FACE research site in Oak Ridge revealed that elevated carbon dioxide concentrations in the air can also increase carbon storage in the soil. That could contribute to discussions about climate change.