This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today lauded Volkswagen for bringing more jobs to its Chattanooga plant and said the state stands ready to offer incentives to woo an even bigger VW presence. Haslam said that if Volkswagen adds another production line, or should Audi decide to build a plant in Chattanooga, “we’d love to have that.” The governor said the incentives could come in the form of grants for infrastructure and training and credits for hiring professional workers. Chattanooga has already set aside land in the Enterprise South Industrial Park for another auto plant.
Volkswagen officials Thursday called it “the magic number.” To the hoorays of hundreds of VW workers at the automaker’s Chattanooga plant, the company unveiled plans to add to their number by 1,000 by year’s end. “It’s amazing we have come such a long way in such a short time,” said Jonathan Browning, Volkswagen Group of America’s chief executive. Browning said VW’s $4 billion investment in the U.S. to bring the plant and new Passat online is starting to pay off. One of every four VWs sold in the U.S. today is a Passat, Browning said.
Volkswagen will add 800 new jobs at its Tennessee plant to boost production of the popular Passat sedan. The jobs will increase the plant’s work force to more than 3,500 by the end of the year, the German company said Thursday. The additional workers will be used to bolster the existing two shifts at the plant, and expand production to Saturday. “We’re adding a third team at this plant for a simple reason: Customers want to buy Passats,” said Jonathan Browning, the president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America. The plant will operate 120 hours per week with the new workers, up 40 hours from current levels, he said.
Volkswagen plans to add 800 workers at its plant in Chattanooga. Company officials say they need the extra manpower because of strong demand for its Passat sedan. The 800 new hires will a combination of assembly line workers and support staff. More than 8,100 Passats were sold in February. Volkswagen says that the best month for the model since 2001. These positions are in addition to 200 jobs announced earlier this year. VW has also announced plans for a parts warehouse in Roane County.
Volkswagen employees have been working overtime—more than nine hours a day and sometimes on Saturday—to meet production demands for the Passat. The addition of 800 employees at the local plant will bring everyone back down to a typical 40-hour workweek while still increasing output, leaders said Thursday. “The workforce that we’ve found in Chattanooga has achieved so much so soon,” Volkswagen Chattanooga CEO Frank Fischer said “We are expanding production to accommodate the success.” The new employees won’t work in a third shift; instead, leaders will rotate two shifts six days a week.
The Haslam administration is betting on a far sounder economy by 2016, and seems to be entertaining considerably better footing a few years sooner. Those are the numbers talking in a legislative fiscal review of an agreement Gov. Bill Haslam has reached with fellow Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly on repealing the inheritance tax. We reported Wednesday that the agreement had emerged — unexpectedly to many observers and advocates — in a House sub committee. Eliminating the inheritance tax is a function of raising the exemption on when property is taxed.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan for raising the exemption level on Tennessee’s estate tax got an upgrade on Wednesday, as state lawmakers voted to amend the bill to repeal the tax on inheritance altogether. The House Finance Subcommittee voted unanimously to include a full repeal of the tax by 2016 and gradually phase it out over the next four years. Currently, inheritance and estate taxes are imposed on decedents’ estates that exceed the maximum for exemption, which has been $1 million since 2006. Originally, Haslam had set to raise the exemption level to $1.25 million as part of his 2012 legislative package.
Gov. Bill Haslam says he agrees with legislative moves to keep new state evaluations of public school teachers off limits to the parents and the rest of the public. Legislation to do just that is already on its way to a Senate floor vote after being approved Wednesday by the House Education Subcommittee. “I actually think it should” be kept confidential, Haslam said Thursday. “The goal of evaluations is to have whoever’s being evaluated get as much help from that as they can. And my experience has been, if people know that evaluation is going to be public, they [evaluators] are going to be a little less honest with that.”
Tennessee’s in the throes of implementing various teacher- and classroom-focused reforms, but an area that’s fallen through the cracks is better training and support for school principals, reports an influential state education advocacy group. Cultivating good principals and continuing to train them are among the top four education issues the state needs to focus on in the next year, concluded the State Collaborative for Reforming Education in the 2011-2012 installment of its “State of Education in Tennessee.” Prominent education-focused lawmakers on Capitol Hill say they agree.
The Tennessee unemployment rate has fallen 0.02 percent to 8 percent in February, the lowest since November 2008. State officials said Thursday that Tennessee gained some 4,800 jobs in February. University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox said the state has gained more than 50,000 jobs in the past year. He said monthly data show reasonable job increases in health care, durable manufacturing and temporary employment agencies. The national unemployment rate in February was 8.3 percent, unchanged from January.
Tennessee’s unemployment rate fell to 8 percent in February, dipping further below the national average. The state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced those results today, which marked a decrease from the 8.2 percent rate Tennessee logged in January. “The state experienced a net increase of approximately 4,800 jobs in February,” Commissioner Karla Davis of the department said in a statement. “While it is a small change in the job picture, Tennessee’s unemployment rate is the lowest since November 2008.”
Employers added 4,000 jobs in Feb., most since 2008 The latest decline in Tennessee’s unemployment rate has economists saying out loud what they would only whisper before: The state’s job market has turned the corner. Tennessee’s jobless rate fell again in February to an estimated 8 percent, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported Thursday. It’s the seventh consecutive month the widely watched figure has fallen since hitting 9.4 percent in August. The streak also includes the state dipping below the national unemployment rate, which was 8.3 percent last month, for the first time in more than a year.
Disaster Unemployment Assistance benefits are now available for storm victims in 10 Tennessee counties. Weekly benefits may range from $117 to $275 per week and are payable up to 26 weeks for those affected by severe weather Feb. 29-March 2. The counties are Bradley, Claiborne, Cumberland, DeKalb, Hamilton, Jackson, McMinn, Monroe, Overton and Polk. Labor Commissioner Karla Davis said the assistance brings some stability to the victims. She said this type of jobless help is available to the self-employed and others who are not ordinarily covered by the state unemployment insurance program.
Beginning in April, significant changes to the unemployment insurance system will require in-person case management and documented work searches for nearly 56,000 claimants. Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Karla Davis announced the receipt of guidance from the USDOL outlining new requirements for select claimants to continue receiving unemployment benefits. “The reality is that as the state unemployment rate drops there will be fewer weeks of unemployment available,” said Davis.
The first phase of renovations is underway on the Clarksville satellite campus of Nashville State Community College and the school is slated to open just in time for fall classes. In August 2011, George Van Allen, president of Nashville State Community College, along with Tim Hall, president of Austin Peay State University, and local state officials Rep. Joe Pitts, state Sen. Tim Barnes, announced a satellite campus of Nashville State Community College, a two-year technical school with more than 80 programs, would occupy the former Clarksville Saturn dealership at 1760 Wilma Rudolph Blvd.
A bill, sponsored by State Sen. Jim Tracy, to make teacher evaluation data private will be voted on by the full State Senate. The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted 7-0 on Tuesday to advance the bill. Recent education reforms have increased the use and importance of various teacher evaluations. Under recent changes to state law, half of teachers’ assessments must derive from testing data, while the rest comes from classroom observations. Teachers are observed by administrators or other observers on a regular basis.
The Senate passed a proposal Thursday that would allow teachers and other school workers to participate in prayer groups and other religious activities on school grounds, so long as they are initiated by students. Sponsors of the bill brought it in part to support “See You at the Pole” gatherings, where students and their parents gather at school flag poles to pray. The measure was approved 29-1. The companion bill unanimously passed the House 93-0 earlier this month. Before it can go to the governor, the measure must go back to the House to approve an amendment that was added.
The Tennessee Senate passed a bill today that would allow coaches and teachers to worship on school grounds. Senator Jim Summerville, Republican from Dickson, says his bill to OK teachers worshipping with students probably doesn’t break any new ground. “I think they already have those rights, we merely reaffirm them. These are first amendment rights. It does not take away from school time, it does not interfere with anyone’s responsibilities. It must be convened by students. No one’s required to participate. It’s all voluntary. So I cannot see that there is any problem. It’s been done for years and years anyway.”
A bill in the Tennessee Senate would allow college instructors to teach their specialty in high school. The measure would apply to anyone who teaches college, even part-timers. The bill would require the Department of Education to grant a license to teach grades nine through twelve to any full-time college instructor who has taught two years, or any part-time adjunct who has taught at least four years. Senate Democrats raised objections. Senator Andy Berke, a Chattanooga Democrat, says the bill values content knowledge but it ignores any lack of training in how to teach and manage a classroom.
Salary hike approved despite election losses Despite presiding over the Tennessee Democratic Party during a time when 30 of its elected officials either lost elections or left office, party Chairman Chip Forrester was rewarded over the past year with a nearly 33 percent salary increase The Democratic Executive Committee decided to give Forrester the raise even though Republicans increased their majority in the state House of Representatives in the 2010 election. Forrester had earlier agreed that he would be entitled to a $25,000 bonus only if Democrats reclaimed a House majority in 2010. With the pay raise, which came in two increments over the past year, Forrester’s salary is now $125,000.
An accidentally dropped digit in the city’s property tax rate — sent to printers last fall for the latest tax bills — ended up costing the city about $70,000. It also wound up costing the employee who made the mistake 30 days of unpaid administrative leave. City officials caught the error about 10 days ago during a check of current-year revenues when they saw that property taxes were “coming in a little low,” City Manager Jim Pinkerton said. That’s when they found that the wrong tax rate was sent to the state for printing the city’s 3,519 tax statements.
Chuck McSpadden tends nearly 20,000 trees at Apple Valley in Cleveland, Tenn. His trees are a week or two ahead of schedule after mild winter temperatures, but he still can’t harvest until July. And he won’t feel safe until May 1, when the threat of a late-season frost should be gone. Another farmer in the region, Wade Shultz, said fruit and vegetable growers have few choices when it comes to Mother Nature. “There’s not a lot we can do,” he said. “We just take it as it comes.” Shultz Farm Foods in Athens, Tenn., grows apples along with sweet corn, green beans and a few other crops.
Bedford County commission member Linda Yockey told the commission’s courthouse and county property committee earlier this week that it should again consider the possibility of buying the Regions Bank building on the square to use for the county’s severely-overcrowded judicial system. “We’ve got to do something,” said Yockey. Late last year, local fire department officials said there was “dangerous overcrowding” of existing courtroom facilities, prompting an evaluation of how many people can safely occupy court chambers.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe’s two-year effort to repeal an independent board created to rein in Medicare spending culminated in legislation that passed the GOP-controlled House Thursday. Language in Roe’s bill to get rid of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) was combined in the so-called “Health Act” legislation filed earlier this year by U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. That legislation passed by a 223-181 vote, but was not expected to make it through the Democrat-led Senate. In a conference call with reporters, Roe called IPAB the “worst thing for seniors” created in the federal government’s health care reform law, also known as the Affordable Care Act.
Backers, critics heat up debate as trial approaches Diana Smith never realized what health-care reform would mean for her family until last summer, when her husband, Kenneth, suffered a paralyzing stroke. She thought he would never get insurance again, but she was wrong. He obtained coverage through a federal program established by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Diana Smith held up his insurance card and proclaimed, “To those of you who are afraid of Obamacare or afraid of rationed health care, it’s already being rationed by insurance companies that will not sell you this card.”
Some Provisions Stumble in Practice When the health-care overhaul became law after a bitter debate, many Democrats predicted Americans would grow to like it as they started enjoying some of the early benefits. The day after the president signed the bill into law, which happened exactly two years ago, an average of major polls collated by the website Real Clear Politics showed 50.4% of Americans opposed. This week, that had changed only by a tenth of a percentage point, ticking up to 50.5%.
The odds of winning one of Michigan’s high-stakes lottery games are 1 in 10,000, but the probability of two people hitting million-dollar jackpots and still be collecting food stamps has to be even more remote. That is exactly what happened in Michigan, stoking a nationwide debate over whether the program is becoming an out-of-control entitlement. A lottery winner “can certainly afford his own food, and should not be able to get more money from hard-working taxpayers after his big pay out,” says Michigan state Representative Dave Agema, who has introduced proposals aimed at ensuring lottery winners aren’t on the public dole. “Michigan’s taxpayers have an absolute right to know when their tax dollars are going to millionaires,” he said.
The downpour held off long enough for local politicians, business leaders and Amazon executives to pitch a few turns of dirt at Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony for the Amazon Murfreesboro Fulfillment Center. Despite the dank weather at the construction site off Joe B. Jackson Parkway, the mood for the event was quite sunny. Several special guests spoke at the ceremony, including Braden Cox, director of U.S. state public policy at Amazon.com, state Sen. Jim Tracy, state Sen. Bill Ketron, Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess and Murfreesboro Mayor Tommy Bragg.
TRG Customer Solutions, an outsourcing company, plans to hire an additional 300 employees during 2012 at its Spring Hill site. TRG, which currently has about 100 employees, will add 150 new workers immediately, said Paige Liggett, spokeswoman for South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance. Hiring begins today and Saturday at a Spring Hill job fair hosted in partnership with the alliance. “TRG Customer Solutions has experienced tremendous growth in 2011 and early 2012, having gained several prestigious client accounts and expanding its footprint from 14 to 17 sites across the globe,” a TRG news release said.
A Florida-based call center company is combining efforts with a national satellite TV provider and several local agencies to bring 300 jobs to Maury County. TRG Customer Solutions has partnered with the Tennessee Career Center, the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance and Direct TV to bring a career fair to the Northfield building in Spring Hill. TRG plans to hire an additional 300 people, beginning with 150 immediate new hires. The call center company currently leases a 50,000-square-foot space in Northfield, located in the former Saturn Corporation training center.
A national golf retail chain is expanding in Tennessee, despite a flood of golf stores throwing in the towel. Golfsmith will hold a grand opening in Brentwood this weekend. Research from a firm called Longitudes Group finds 44 percent of golf retailers have closed since 2006, including several in Middle Tennessee. While it’s been the big chains surviving, there’s increased competition for customers like retiree John Faulkner. The 70-year-old got some of the first strokes in Golfsmith’s hi-tech swing analysis studios. They’re free to use. “They have some testing equipment which is not available otherwise. And to me, that’s crucial.”
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame will remain in Knoxville for three more years, and likely much longer than that. Carol Callan, head of the board of directors for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, flew in to Knoxville on Wednesday to meet with David Conklin and others to talk about the hall’s future here. “Our desire and expectation is that the Hall of Fame stays in Knoxville,” Callan said. The licensing contract for the museum site to house the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame would expire in May, but the Hall of Fame’s board of directors voted Thursday to extend the contract for three years.
Law calls for big changes in what is covered The nation’s big insurers are spending millions to carry out President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul even though there’s a chance the wide-reaching law won’t survive Supreme Court scrutiny. It’s not that health insurers want to bet big that the court will uphold the Affordable Care Act. It’s that they can’t afford not to. It will take at least several months and lots of resources for insurers to prepare to implement key elements of the law, which includes a controversial requirement that most Americans have health insurance by 2014.
Shelby County’s suburban mayors are deciding if they will take legal action to steer the municipal schools referendums back on schedule for May 10. The boards of aldermen from the three largest suburbs — Collierville, Germantown and Bartlett — could consider measures addressing the matter as early as next week. Among the options under consideration are retaining an attorney to facilitate legal action, filing an injunction against the Election Commission’s denial to schedule the referendums or waiting to see if legislative action could address some of the hurdles.
The Memphis and Shelby County unified school board Thursday rejected a proposed agreement described by its supporters as an insurance policy against the feared loss of suburban school buildings to municipalities trying to form their own school districts. The proposed agreement with the County Commission requires that any sale, lease or other disposition of school property to a municipal or special school district not be made unless the price is right.
Countywide school board members rejected Thursday, March 22, an agreement with county government on the possible transfer of school buildings to municipal school districts that would check possible legislation in Nashville on the same general subject. The resolution, approved by the Shelby County Commission in February, would require the school board to declare any school building to be sold or leased to be surplus and get “reasonable consideration” for its sale or lease as well as make a specific finding that the transfer would “not cause the county to incur additional school debt.”
Metro Schools director Jesse Register has been slapped with an ethics complaint. The Service Employees International Union has been at odds with the superintendent over financial disclosures. The union also filed complaints against the nine members of the school board. Public officials in Metro Government must report gifts from third parties and outside sources of income. There’s dispute about whether the city’s ethics code reaches to the school system, which is not directly run by Metro Government. But even Mayor Karl Dean, who is one of Jesse Register’s biggest cheerleaders, has called on the schools director to make annual disclosures.
Indicted superintendent to be suspended with pay after an interim is selected The Hardin County School Board decided Thursday night to suspend school superintendent John Thomas once an interim superintendent is selected. Thomas was indicted Monday on a charge of bringing a firearm on school property, and the board held a meeting Thursday evening to decide what actions to take concerning the charge. After much discussion, the board voted 6-4 for a motion to suspend Thomas with pay as soon as an interim director is appointed, and that the suspension will be effective until a legal decision has been reached regarding the charge against him.
Law enforcement raided eight businesses in northeast Tennessee to confiscate synthetic drugs, but no arrests have been made yet. District Attorney General Tony Clark said at a news conference on Thursday that this was just the start to clearing store shelves of the drugs, which are marketed as bath salts or incense. The Kingsport Times-News reported (http://bit.ly/GN8ZMY ) that searches were executed on Wednesday in Sullivan County; Bristol, Tenn.; Elizabethton; and Johnson City. Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry says the local emergency room sees seven synthetic drug users a day, with about half ending up in intensive care.
For months area police and health officials have been sounding the alarm on the “epidemic” of synthetic drugs — which are available on store shelves throughout the region, and pack a potent, “legal” high. But it’s that supposed legality which authorities are now calling a lie. During a Thursday morning press conference at the Blountville courthouse, federal and local law enforcement discussed their raids of the previous day at eight businesses throughout Northeast Tennessee. Search warrants were also executed at the homes’ of two shop owners.
Volkswagen’s announcement Thursday that it will add another 800 jobs at its Chattanooga plant by year’s end — raising the total workforce at the Enterprise South facility to 3,500 — is positive economic news for the entire region as well as the auto manufacturer. The additional workers will allow the company to raise the plant’s annual production capacity to 170,000 vehicles. VW officials said the majority of the new jobs will be in production. The remaining slots will be professional and skilled maintenance jobs. Aerotek, a firm working with VW to provide contract employees, will begin hiring for the production jobs immediately.
In an effort to figure out what exactly the Tennessee Legislature had done that could truly be called legislating over the last two months, on Wednesday I called a friend who spends most of his days wandering the halls of the Capitol keeping tabs on the lawmakers. “They passed redistricting,” he said. When I suggested they hadn’t done a very good job given the gerrymandering and the number of Democrats who retired rather than run again, he insisted it was good lawmaking. “It had to be done, and they did it first thing like they were supposed to.” That, however, seems about all they’ve done over the last two months that has come to completion.
A bill under consideration in the Tennessee legislature that would encourage the location of horse slaughterhouses in Tennessee is a double head-scratcher. Why encourage an industry that slaughters an animal that most folks consider a lovable, loyal companion? And why would the bill’s sponsors include a provision that financially intimidates anyone who wants to challenge the issuance of a permit to construct a horse-slaughter facility? The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, said the legislation is a jobs bill and one that treats animals more compassionately because the horses are now sent to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico.
Rep. Rick Womick is a fiery, passionate lawmaker. The Rockvale Republican and former fighter pilot doesn’t mind speaking his when it comes to advocating for his constituents in House District 34 during his time at the state Capitol. But that advocacy clearly crosses the line if Womick makes arguments on the House floor that aren’t grounded in facts and ends up painting a constituent’s situation in an incorrect or misleading light. But according to Murfreesboro business owner Dan Wilson, that’s exactly what happened when Womick recently used Wilson’s restaurant dealings with the city of Murfreesboro as an example of government overreach.
Today is the second anniversary of the signing into law of ObamaCare. But that’s no cause for celebration. Of recent concern is the controversy over the ObamaCare rule that religiously affiliated schools, hospitals and charities must offer employees health insurance that furnishes birth control. Lost in that debate is the threat that the mandate poses to the very existence of many of those valuable organizations. Democrats in Washington are seeking to frame the issue as one of religious groups — particularly Catholic ones — trying to deny women access to contraception. But that is dishonest.
On this, the second anniversary of “Obamacare,” a friend, in a succinct aside, captured the sentiment of the majority of Americans. She explained that her employer in the tourism industry dropped company health insurance last year. She now nears the end of COBRA provisions that allowed her to keep coverage and is in search of an individual policy — an expensive individual policy. “Thank you, President Obama,” she said with a slight sneer. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has always been unpopular. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week showed 52 percent opposed the law while 41 percent approved.
It has become fairly standard for employers to view the social media sites of prospective workers in order to learn more about them. A recent Associated Press report, however, detailed a new and disturbing trend of employers actually asking job-seekers to surrender their Facebook login and password information. The employers then spend time scouring the page for whatever intelligence they can gather. Some employers demand that new hires “friend” them on Facebook or allow them to follow Twitter accounts. This is an outrageous invasion of privacy with no justification for the vast majority of occupations.