This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
President Barack Obama has declared 10 Tennessee counties disaster areas. The designation, announced Friday night, means residents of Bradley, Claiborne, Cumberland, DeKalb, Hamilton, Jackson, McMinn, Monroe, Overton and Polk counties will be eligible for federal disaster aid, following storms and flooding that took place between Feb. 29 and March 2. The assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help homeowners and business owners recover.
Two Coffee County women are charged with TennCare fraud for selling prescription drugs paid for with TennCare benefits. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced the arrest of Monica LeeAnn Dodson, 25, and Melissa Shannon Coker, 41, both of Tullahoma, after a joint investigation with the Tullahoma Police Department. Both women are each charged with one count of TennCare fraud and one count of sale of a controlled substance. The charges say they each used TennCare benefits to obtain a prescription for the pain reliever Hydrocodone, concealing that they planned to unlawfully sell a portion of the prescription.
A new type of bottleneck has materialized around Interstate 24: a clot of government studies looking at traffic congestion. Each report rolls along at a different pace, with officials hoping they’ll merge later this year into plans — better late than never — to alleviate the mind-numbing tedium of the region’s worst commute. It’s only gotten worse as the population has boomed in Rutherford County and Antioch, outpacing other areas and creating tedious rides on I-24 and Murfreesboro Road. It’s not just that there are too many drivers. Bus routes, for example, must account for the sheer distance between Nashville and Murfreesboro.
A popular motorcycle run called “The Dragon” on U.S. 129 in Blount County, Tenn., is closed after a massive rock slide. Cleanup is expected to last into next week, and state engineers are working on a plan to stabilize the mountainside, according to a news release from the Tennessee Department of Transportation. The closure on U.S. 129/State Route 115 is about nine miles north of the North Carolina line, the TDOT release said. Tourists and other noncommercial drivers will be allowed to travel the road up to the overlook near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the section from just south of the Foothills Parkway to the slide site will be closed while debris is removed, TDOT said. The state has set up detours.
A Johnson City registered nurse has been suspended for failing a drug screen while being monitored for an admitted addiction to pain medication. According to the Tennessee Department of Health’s latest disciplinary action report, the Board of Nursing has suspended the license of Angela M. Gross, R.N., for unprofessional conduct. A board order approved Feb. 16 states that on June 21, 2011, Gross tested positive for Tramadol, a pain medication for which she did not possess a valid prescription. The drug screen was conducted as part of a Tennessee Professional Assistance Program monitoring agreement Gross had voluntarily entered into on Nov. 22, 2010, due to a self-professed addiction to pain medication.
An evolution bill that was sitting dormant when Tennessee’s legislative session ended last year has reemerged and is up for a floor vote Monday. Senate Bill 893, sponsored by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, protects teachers who want to debate evolution, climate change and other widely accepted science in the classroom. The bill passed the House last year but would have to go back to address grammatical changes. It purports to foster expanding knowledge and critical thinking, but critics last year, including the ACLU, said that was a cover for allowing teachers to call evolution into question.
Authors of the state law that helped set the process of merging Memphis and Shelby County schools expressed support Friday for a proposed one-year delay in the consolidation. During two Transition Planning Commission committee meetings Thursday, TPC member David Pickler argued that a productive conversation could be held if the merger and implementation of new municipal school districts were delayed from the fall of 2013 to the fall of 2014. State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, primary author of the “Norris-Todd” law dealing with the school merger, said Friday he doesn’t believe current law allows a one-year delay and he hasn’t been asked yet to sponsor legislation for a delay.
The Tennessee General Assembly moved forward on a couple key business issues this week. Others remained stubborn. Here’s a rundown: • Unemployment insurance: One bill reforming Tennessee’s unemployment system moved out of a House subcommittee this week. Others — including a major bill dealing with fraud — didn’t move, and are teed up for next week. We preview coming votes on legislation — which include various bills and in some cases competing interests as business interests try to clamp down on costs — for full subscribers today.
A raft of unemployment insurance legislation would overhaul how Tennessee combats fraud and other complaints in the wake of recession-era job losses that placed the system squarely in the crosshairs of business. The range of bills would do everything from requiring sharp increases in audits of job searches by unemployment recipients to limiting the scenarios in which employers must pay for benefits. Talks on the largest pocketbook issue for businesses this year are near a pivotal point, with a handful of bills slated for key votes in the Legislature.
David Testerman, a Democrat with a longtime career in education, has announced he will run for the state District 10 Senate seat. That seat now is held by Democrat Andy Berke, who announced he won’t seek re-election but is considering running for mayor of Chattanooga in 2013. Testerman joined the Hamilton County Board of Education two years ago after retiring as assistant principal of East Ridge High School in 2007. “I am dedicated to public service and always have been,” he said. “My politics have always been local. I think there are some issues going on in the state legislative body and I could provide some experiential knowledge.”
Dr. Mark Green – Republican hopeful for the District 22 state Senate seat currently held by Democrat Tim Barnes – fired an opening campaign shot at his presumed opponent Friday evening Speaking to a dinner audience of almost 100 campaign supporters at the Hilton Garden Inn near Exit 4, Green didn’t mention Sen. Barnes by name, but said, “I won’t ride on the coattails of (state Rep.) Joe Pitts.” Backed at the complimentary dinner by leading Tennessee Republicans including U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Green, who has lived in Clarksville for 10 years, officially launched his bid for the GOP nomination for Tennessee’s Senate.
The owner of Papa’s Butts and BBQ Hot Sauce Store said Friday he is “livid” over Rep. Rick Womick using his restaurant as an example of government overreach to pass a resolution rejecting United Nations Agenda 21. Dan Wilson, who is preparing to seek a parking lot variance from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals for his business at 2910 Old Fort Parkway, said he is working with city officials to solve the matter and was upset that Womick mentioned his business during debate Thursday on the House floor in Nashville. Womick told House members that local governments are being pushed to implement a U.N. resolution dealing with “sustainable growth,” which he characterizes as a communist/socialist plot to take away the property rights of individuals and business owners.
GOP is accused of ‘needlessly’ splitting counties Opponents of Republican-drawn lines for the Tennessee Senate are suing for the redistricting plan to be thrown out on the basis that it ignored proposals made by the Legislature’s Black Caucus, their lawyer said Friday. Bob Tuke, attorney for the opponents and a former state Democratic Party chairman, said the lawsuit to halt the plan was filed in chancery court in Nashville. The lawsuit names Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state elections officials as defendants. Among the eight Shelby County plaintiffs is Rep. G.A. Hardaway, who was drawn together with another Memphis Democrat in the GOP plan and who is considering challenging Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate.
A black state legislator from Memphis and seven others are challenging the constitutionality of Senate Republicans’ redistricting plan in a lawsuit filed Friday in Davidson County Chancery Court. The suit, filed by former Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Bob Tuke, seeks to have the plan thrown out on grounds it violates the Tennessee Constitution. It also seeks to block implementation of the plan, the first drafted by Republicans in state history. The suit says majority Republicans ignored a competing plan offered by the General Assembly’s Black Caucus, which would have split fewer counties when the 33 Senate districts were redrawn according to the latest U.S. census figures.
On the 200th anniversary of the series of earthquakes that rocked the New Madrid Fault, a group of local experts spoke at a public forum about preparing for earthquakes in West Tennessee. The forum was held Friday afternoon at the Lambuth Campus of the University of Memphis as part of a continuing series of events sponsored by the university’s Papasan Public Policy Institute. The earthquake forum was also co-sponsored by the West Tennessee Seismic Safety Commission. The topic of earthquake preparation was chosen because of the bicentennial anniversary, said forum coordinator Jenci Spradlin. Mark Johnstone, chair of the Madison County Commission, said the forum was a chance to learn what the area could expect from a future disaster.
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 attend 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. 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.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said that health-care fraud has become an “epidemic” across the country and his office is making it a top priority. Holder visited Nashville on Friday to visit with U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin, who heads the Middle Tennessee District, and to speak to students at Vanderbilt Law School about the Department of Justice’s priorities. Foremost among those is the effort to combat white-collar crime — health-care fraud in particular. That focus will lead to local federal prosecutors getting a boost in manpower.
Kilimanjaro inspires Franklin man to urge Congress to act Franklin businessman Tim Pagliara had felt frustrated with the nation’s growing debt for months, but it took a climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania last November to figure out what to do about it. That’s when Pagliara, chief executive of the wealth-management group CapWealth Advisors, decided to start a nonpartisan grass-roots group aimed at getting Congress to enact a major debt-reduction proposal from the Bowles-Simpson Commission. “It was one of the things that kind of distracted me from the pain of zero-degree temperatures and no oxygen,” said Pagliara, who has climbed the mountain five times since 2001.
As spring approaches, the Occupy Wall Street protesters who mostly hibernated all winter are beginning to stir with plans for renewed demonstrations six months after the movement was born. The global protests against corporate excess and economic inequality are generally thought to have begun Sept. 17 when tents sprang up in a small granite plaza in lower Manhattan. The movement has lost steam nationally in recent months, with media attention and donations dropping off as Occupy encampments across the country were dismantled, some by force. On March 7, the finance accounting group in New York City reported that about $119,000 remained in Occupy’s bank account — the equivalent of about two weeks’ worth of expenses.
The Obama administration on Friday told states how to enroll millions more low-income Americans into Medicaid under the health-care overhaul, 10 days before the Supreme Court begins considering a challenge to the law. The regulations, published by the Department of Health and Human Services, detail the scheduled expansion of Medicaid to cover a larger batch of low earners in 2014, when much of the health-care law is set to take effect. “Medicaid will look and feel like a very different program by 2015,” said Cindy Mann, a top official at the agency charged with overseeing the changes. The Medicaid expansion is part of the broader case brought by opponents of Democrats’ 2010 health-care law that the Supreme Court will begin hearing March 26.
Because of a federal budget cut, thousands of low-income students across the nation may not be able to afford the fees for their Advanced Placement exams this spring — exams that could save them thousands of dollars in college tuition. As part of the federal budget agreement last December, Congress cut federal financing for programs that offer advanced high school courses to slightly under $27 million, from $43 million the previous year, with only about $20 million to be used to subsidize low-income students’ exam fees.
An investigation at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant has determined a problem with contaminated respirators goes back to at least February 2009 and possibly even earlier. Bill Reis, vice president for environment, safety and health at B&W Y-12, the government’s managing contractor, said radiation technicians had surveyed thousands of pieces of respirator equipment that had been shipped off-site for cleaning and then returned to Y-12 in sealed packages, supposedly certified as clean. About 10 percent of the equipment exceeded radioactivity levels specified in the cleaning contract.
Residential customers in East Tennessee will pay $2 to $4 more on their electric bills in April, as a TVA raises its monthly fuel cost adjustment due to an anticipated lack of hydro power generation in April. For the billing period beginning April 1, TVA will raise the fuel cost rate from 1.953 cents per kilowatt-hour to 2.163 cents per kilowatt-hour, a 3 percent increase in the average wholesale price of electricity. The actual amount residential customers will pay will be determined by the utility that serves them, but TVA estimates the average bill in April will increase by $2 to $4, depending on power usage.
Construction is to start soon on a solar park estimated to cost about $30 million that will supply a big chunk of power to Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant. The solar park, believed to be the state’s biggest at 9.5 megawatts, will go on a tract adjacent to the factory, said Patrik Mayer, executive vice president of finance and information technology for VW in Chattanooga. “It will be one of the largest in the Southeast that’s privately run,” said Mayer. When up and running late this year, the park will provide up to 12.5 percent of the 2 million-square-foot plant’s power, he said.
More than halfway into his first year on the job, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith seems to be pleasing his boss, the board of education. Superintendent evaluations from all nine board members, released this week, show Smith is meeting or beating their expectations. The board gave the superintendent high marks for understanding the needs of the school system, devoting time effectively to the job, serving as an effective spokesman for the board and dressing professionally. Smith’s lowest overall scores were in issues of communication and planning.
With about half the population hitting their mid-20s without proper job skills, Tennessee high school students could be provided with better technical and career course work, officials said Friday. “I think we have a real need to revamp some of the course offerings and an opportunity to do that with the encouragement of the business sector,” said Kevin Huffman, state commissioner of education. More than 50 Tennessee government, business and education leaders met in Chattanooga in what was billed as a “career-ready summit” to align education and business priorities and enhance the workforce.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered state agencies to cut spending 10.6 percent Friday, making it the third consecutive year state programs have suffered double-digit cuts. State Personnel Director Jackie Graham said state department officials had already called her about getting training for instituting layoffs. She said agencies have few options for reducing spending because they’ve already gone through two years of budget cuts and the new order comes with half of this fiscal year already gone. “When you cut and cut and cut, the only thing left is salaries,” she said.
The epidemic of prescription drug abuse is a serious public health crisis in Tennessee. In 2010, 1,059 Tennesseans died from drug overdoses, a number higher than deaths from motor vehicle crashes, homicide or suicide. The vast majority of these overdose deaths are unintentional, and the victims are children, parents, spouses, siblings and friends. These losses must not continue. This crisis is impacting a wide variety of Tennesseans, and it isn’t only a problem impacting our largest cities. The 10 counties with the highest death rates from prescription drug overdoses are all in rural areas.
For the worthy purpose of funding education and other government services, Tennessee, Georgia and 41 other states have created lotteries. This type of state-approved gambling is often defended on the grounds that it amounts to a “voluntary tax.” After all, residents of a state are not forced to play the lottery. So supporters of the lottery view its proceeds as less objectionable than traditional taxes. But while it is true that a person can choose not to play the lottery, it is also true that many families suffer financially and in other ways from the decision of one or both parents to play. In other words, a father or mother who plays the games may not be doing harm only to himself or herself but to his or her children and spouse as well.
The Tennessee Valley Authority’s decision to consider other alternatives beyond spending $600 million to update the Allen Fossil electric-generating plant is good for two reasons. It could save ratepayers money and it could be a better remedy for the area’s air quality. The TVA is seeking an option on land that could be used for a new electric-generating plant in the Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park in Southwest Memphis. The plant would cost roughly $300 million and likely would be fired by natural gas. Last August, the TVA board voted to retrofit the coal-fired, 52-year-old Allen plant with scrubbers designed to remove thousands of tons of pollution from Memphis skies. Utility customers would help pay for the cleaner air with a rate increase.