This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Jackson National Life Insurance Company announced the expansion of its regional headquarters in Franklin, Tenn., incorporating a new Information Technology (IT) center and the addition of 20 new Systems and Programming (S&P) staff. The expanded IT operations will support Jackson’s growth and technology initiatives, such as automated business processes across the company’s various departments. Jackson will be recruiting for qualified IT professionals to enhance the nationwide technology operations of the organization; the new IT center currently has 20 open positions available in S&P to address needs in Internet development and document systems programming activities.
The Tennessee Department of Agriculture recently unveiled the premiere issue of Tennessee Ag Insider magazine, a comprehensive guide to the state’s farms, food and forestry. The department unveiled the magazine to the public March 20th at the annual Ag Day on the Hill celebration at Legislative Plaza in Nashville. The yearly magazine serves as a primer for government and business leaders and consumers about the impact of agriculture and forestry on the state’s health, environment and economy. “We are fortunate to have such a diverse and rich industry that contributes not only to our economy but our quality of life,” Agriculture Commissioner Julius Johnson said.
As TN’s first natural area nears 40th anniversary, its popularity brings need for more protection No road signs show the way to Radnor Lake State Natural Area, but people find it. Lots of them. Like the migrating birds and wildlife the area is meant for, human beings are drawn to the lake and the rugged woods bisected by a crumbling piece of Otter Creek Road. “This is a gateway park to a million visitors a year now,” said Greer Tidwell, president of Friends of Radnor Lake. “If we can expand properly and staff it properly, it could be a gateway park to a million and a half visitors a few years from now.”
Employees at the Taft Youth Development Center in Pikeville will soon be getting 90-day termination notices in anticipation of a state budget that doesn’t include any funding for the juvenile detention center. Although the state budget hasn’t yet passed, the Department of Children’s Services has plans to close the 90-year-old facility that officials have said will save the state $8.5 million. The state plans to move the 16- to 19-year-old inmates to other youth development centers around the state.
A drug rehabilitation facility in Dickson County will reopen in April at a greatly reduced capacity after the state lifted its suspension of admissions that followed the deaths of three patients and concerns about its quality of medical care. The Tennessean reports (http://tnne.ws/GWobST ) that New Life Lodge in Burns will accept only adult patients when it reopens and will have a capacity of 70 beds instead of its previous capacity of 228 beds. Last year, the newspaper reported that two patients died in 2010 and that a teenager in state custody died about a week after leaving New Life Lodge.
After pleading guilty to a state charge of official misconduct, former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner is now under a federal investigation. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Kristin Helm told The Knoxville News Sentinel (http://bit.ly/GMX4Lg ) that investigators are continuing their probe into Baumgartner, specifically looking at possible federal violations in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Baumgartner, whose prescription painkiller abuse was detailed in parts of a TBI file, pleaded guilty last year to one charge of official misconduct in a deal that allowed him to avoid jail time.
With election ahead, Republicans try to prove conservatism Abortion. Evolution. Guns. As Tennessee lawmakers rush to the finish of the two-year legislative session, Republican leaders say they want their first term in control of the state Capitol to be remembered for their efforts to create jobs and reform schools. But social issues are making their way to the top of the agenda, forcing debates that have garnered national attention and opened the GOP to renewed attacks from Democrats. The flurry of activity reflects the power of socially conservative voters in Tennessee and the pressure Republicans are under to deliver for them before they go home for the year.
Some issues dear to the hearts of Tennessee social conservatives have been front and center in the Republican-led General Assembly, with some controversial measures putting lawmakers in the national spotlight. Among them are abortion, abstinence-based sex education, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, public displays of the Ten Commandments and an attack on a 1992 United Nations environmental sustainability initiative. Monday, the House is scheduled to take final action on the Academic Freedom Act. It allows teachers to discuss with students “weaknesses” in evolution, climate change and other scientific theories within the state’s science education “framework.”
Tuesday was Ag Day — when just about every farm organization in the state comes up to the state Capitol — and an annual rite of Ag Day is the milk-off. This milking contest pits two lawmakers in a bid to see who can squeeze the most milk from an udder in a minute. Rural lawmakers often take up the challenge, but this year’s contest featured a marquee matchup: House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville city slicker, versus Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a mountain boy who brags about being raised on a dairy farm. Organizers decided to up the ante by using goats instead of cows. Goats are always good for a crowd.
Shooting death of Florida boy touches nerve About 600 people attended a Nashville rally Saturday at the base of Capitol Hill calling for justice in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Most of the attendees were cloaked in hooded sweatshirts, but it was 17-year-old Michael Dunning who really stood out. At 6-foot-3, Dunning, a junior at Cane Ridge High School, towered over his mother, Tonya Dunning, and sister, Markia Dunning, 19. He wore a plain gray hooded sweatshirt and carried an Arizona-brand sweet tea in one hand and a bag of Skittles in the other.
Retreat offers preview of fiscal 2012-13 plan, which includes 1 percent pay increases Shelby County will be able to pay down some of its debt and give employees a 1 percent pay increase without raising property taxes during the coming fiscal year, county Mayor Mark Luttrell told County Commissioners Saturday. Luttrell gave a budget preview for fiscal 2012-13, which begins July 1, to commissioners during their first retreat, a half-day event organized by Commissioner Melvin Burgess. The proposed raise for employees will absorb pension and insurance increases.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., today made the following statement regarding the two-year anniversary of the president’s health care law. On March 23, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the health care bill into law. Corker voted against the bill when it passed the Senate and has supported legislation to repeal it. “I haven’t met a thinking person on either side of the aisle who believes this law will work as passed. There’s no question that it increases health care costs for individuals, states and businesses, and its expense is going to be very harmful to our country,” Corker said.
Standing atop the decaying walls of the Chickamauga Lock, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann railed on President Barack Obama for not including any funding for maintenance or replacement of the 72-year-old lock in his 2013 budget. “The president has put out a big, fat zero, and that’s unacceptable,” Fleischmann said. Alongside the congressman was Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Fleischmann also sits as one of the committee’s 58 members.
Scottie Mayfield dumped the cow, but he kept her colors. So far, spurning the red, white and blue of most Republican campaign materials, Mayfield is embracing the yellow-and-brown ubiquity of Mayfield Dairy in his first run for office. The 61-year-old Athens, Tenn., native is challenging first-term U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., in a quest to become the first non-Chattanooga resident to win Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District since the 1890s. Mayfield Dairy’s trademark cow is the only thing missing from “Mayfield for Congress” materials.
DesJarlais, Stewart already spending a lot of time here Still officially in Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District for the rest of the year, Rutherford County is already a key battleground for the November election between Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and Democratic state Sen. Eric Stewart who are competing for the new 4th Congressional District. Six months away from the August primary, DesJarlais and Stewart, in a sense, are already staking claim to the county as part of the 4th District, which will stretch from here to Bradley County on the other side of Chattanooga once the new district lines take effect in 2013.
FEMA employees sat in Chattanooga’s Fire Station 7 on Saturday talking, snacking, joking about picking up some Jim Beam after work. They had a lot of time on their hands; during the two hours a Times Free Press photographer and writer were on the scene, absolutely no one showed up asking for help recovering from storms and tornadoes. Nor did anyone need to. Applicants for FEMA aid register online or by phone. If an applicant comes to a FEMA disaster recovery center, he or she is handed a phone or computer.
The U.S. government is considering closing dozens of courtrooms, including a federal courtroom in Jackson, as part of an effort to cut costs. Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that 60 federal court facilities in 29 states could be on the chopping block. Most of the courtrooms are in buildings that house other federal agencies including post offices, and many are located in remote areas. Critics say closing them could make it more difficult for people to get to court proceedings. Six of the 60 court sites that could be closed are located in Arkansas. Texas and Georgia each have five sites on the list of possible closures.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul is likely to shake the presidential election race in early summer. But the winners in the court will not necessarily be the winners in the political arena. No doubt, a decision to throw out the entire law would be a defeat for Obama. His judgment and leadership, even his reputation as a former constitutional law professor, would be called into question for pushing through a contentious and partisan health insurance overhaul only to see it declared unconstitutional by the court.
As President Barack Obama and his allies gear up to defend the landmark health care law he signed two years ago, they confront an unforgiving math problem: Just a tiny fraction of Americans has experienced a major benefit from the law. At the same time, tens of millions have continued to see insurance premiums and medical bills rise as they did before the legislation was signed. That reflects the design of the complex law, which delayed many key provisions in a bid to hold down costs and minimize disruptions while new systems are put in place to expand coverage.
Since Congress removed the pay cap for employees of the Tennessee Valley Authority seven years ago, the base salary for 155 of the utility’s top managers has risen above the $174,000 annual pay given members of Congress. TVA is shelling out nearly $30 million a year more for its top brass than it did before TVA’s board was restructured and the limit on TVA salaries was removed by Congress in 2004. Despite the extra cost, proponents of the change insist it has helped TVA attract and retain top managers and allowed the federal utility to operate more like a private business.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory was born as part of the supersecret project that developed the first atomic bombs. After World War II was won, the gates were opened, much of the work was made public, and over the decades the lab broadened its base mission to do open research in virtually every field of science. The lab, however, never fully stopped doing secret stuff, and in recent days that role has gained new attention.
Juanita Davis-Braswell said Thursday that she was praying for rain Saturday morning. “I’m praying it will rain hard all day long,” she said. Davis-Braswell wasn’t asking for divine intervention to water plants. She wanted to stop a TVA contract crew from cutting trees in its transmission line right of way that separates a subdivision and the Summit Medical Group at Deane Hill. Her prayers were answered. TVA opted to postpone cutting the line of cypress trees because of inclement weather, but the planned cutting is an example of what has become a growing issue: How best to maintain the 16,000 miles of rights of way for TVA’s high-voltage transmission lines.
One of the largest contracts Ram Jack general contractors ever received came from American Ordnance for construction work inside the Milan Army Ammunition Plant. It is unlikely that will happen again. Jacob Bolton, co-owner of the Ram Jack franchise in Milan, said the days of large contracts for work at the arsenal have likely ended as American Ordnance prepares to halt production of ordnance for the U.S. military and reduce its presence at the arsenal. Bolton and other Milan business owners fear some businesses will lose thousands in annual revenues and may have to cut employees after American Ordnance lays off hundreds of workers by the end of this year.
States prohibit ads requiring a current job Few job seekers who fail to get an interview know the reason, but Michelle Chesney-Offutt said a recruiter told her why she lost the chance to pitch for an information technology position. Chesney-Offutt, 54, who had been laid off from her IT job in Illinois, said the recruiter who responded to her online resume two years ago liked her qualifications and was set to schedule an interview. But he backed away, she said, when he learned she had been out of work for 13 months. The employer he represented would not consider applicants who were unemployed for more than six months, she said.
Not motivated to lose 15 pounds this year or run two miles today? It may cost you greenbacks. To stem rising health insurance premiums and improve their bottom lines, more and more companies are reaching for financial incentives — money in health savings accounts, gym memberships and even higher premiums — hoping it will motivate their workers to lose weight and lower their blood pressure. Healthier employees use fewer sick days and take less time off, resulting in greater productivity. Many company wellness programs began with the carrots — money, rewards and gift cards.
A lengthy nationwide investigation of cheating on standardized tests published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution today briefly mentioned Metro Nashville schools at the end. The Atlanta Journal Constitution requested school-by-school test data from 50 states and the District of Columbia for its “Cheating Our Children” project, posted Saturday at AJC.com and printed in today’s newspaper. Reporters launched the investigation last year after a Georgia state investigation toppled school administrators in Atlanta over teacher cheating.
Shifty legislative maneuvering was used last week to further a measure that would place Tennessee teacher evaluations behind a veil of secrecy. If approved, the bill would deprive parents and the rest of the public the chance to monitor the new evaluation system. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he likely will sign the bill if it lands on his desk. Accountability and transparency have been cast aside. The bill exempts from the Tennessee Public Records Act all records containing the results of individual teacher evaluations. Sponsors of the bill contend that the evaluation system implemented this year should be an “internal tool” to help teachers improve.
State Sen. Jim Tracy apparently pulled off a legislative sleight of hand last week when he sponsored a bill closing public access to teacher evaluation data. The measure passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee with a 7-0 vote, but it never received a thorough public debate because Tracy used a caption-bill mechanism to move the measure to the Senate floor. As a result, Tracy, a Shelbyville Republican who represents much of Rutherford County, left the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and other open government advocates flat-footed and unable to discuss the matter with the legislators involved before it went to the committee.
Tennessee got a grade of “C” last week in a “state integrity” national rating of state governments, an averaging of some areas wherein our fair state warrants an “A” and others wherein it warrants an “F.” The review was conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. No state got an overall “A” (eight got an overall “F”) and Tennessee’s numerical score of 77 was actually eighth best in the nation.
This week, the U.S. Senate is likely to vote on President Obama’s plan to end oil subsidies and extend wind-power subsidies. If we really want to lower fuel prices, we should instead double energy research. To pay for it without adding to the federal debt, we should stop wasteful, long-term subsidies to both “Big Oil” and “Big Wind.” Look at shale gas, now being produced thanks to energy research. The U.S. suddenly has a 100-year supply of natural gas at one fourth the prices in Europe and Asia. This will lure manufacturing jobs and provide cheap fuel for cars and trucks.
It’s a dirty word, probably not fit for a general circulation newspaper, and it has become the most pejorative of political labels. Moderate. I’m sure there are some moderates in Tennessee, and if so, I understand why they lay low and don’t engage in debate. I can hear them thinking, “What is to be gained to get into a fight with these folks? They’re crazy.” Public political debate naturally favors the extremes; soundbites, shallow slogans that pass for policy or philosophy, and deliberate ignorance of the facts are useful tools to hammer home a point, to make it memorable; makes sense to me, they’re a lot like headlines.
On Monday, the National Federation of Independent Business and 26 states will go before the U.S. Supreme Court and argue that the health-care law President Obama signed into law a couple of years ago should be struck down. This is a big deal. Usually, the court sets aside one hour for oral arguments. It allowed 90 minutes for Bush vs. Gore 11½ years ago. It’s allotted six hours over three days for “Obamacare.” The issue here is whether the government can force you to buy health insurance. I’m the state director of NFIB, the nation’s leading small-business association.
The Affordable Care Act has just turned two years old, yet tomorrow begins the Supreme Court challenge that will determine whether the ACA lives and thrives, or shrivels, or dies. For all the ways that it would secure the promise of affordable, comprehensive health care for most all Americans, it is regrettable — indeed, almost incomprehensible — that the ACA faces this legal battle. As the huge stakes in this lawsuit suggest, however, the battle will be epic, a rarity for the decades. While the Supreme Court customarily allots just an hour for the cases it hears, it has set aside three days for hearings on the ACA.