This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
This week state lawmakers will get down to the business of passing a budget. Governor Bill Haslam says he’ll unveil his final update Monday, adding back at least some funds that were cut from the original $30 billion spending plan. In past years, incoming money has been so iffy that the governor – last year Haslam and before that Phil Bredesen – waited another month before serving up the last budget update. But just beyond halfway through the fiscal year, the state has $250 million more than it expected to collect.
When the top three Republicans in the Statehouse coalesced behind a plan to cement Tennessee’s current selection process for Supreme Court justices into the state constitution, there seemed to be a smooth path ahead for getting the measure before voters in 2014. Two months later, their proposal has made little progress as some Republican lawmakers have embraced a rival proposal, while others want to allow contested elections to take place. A proposal is advancing in the Legislature to impose a federal-style system of having the governor make nominations to the high court’s bench, and then giving lawmakers the power to confirm or reject them.
Gov. Bill Haslam indicated this week he’s not wedded solely to the idea of rewriting the Tennessee Constitution to legitimize the state’s current method of selecting judges. The governor said he’s amenable to implementing a system that mirrors the federal government’s judicial-selection practice involving legislative confirmation of judges nominated by the chief executive. Earlier this year the governor and the Tennessee Legislature’s highest-ranking Republicans stood shoulder-to-shoulder in agreement that lawmakers should revise the state’s guiding document to reflect the current practice for assigning judges to rule over the state’s most powerful courts.
Dozens of farms and small businesses in Tennessee have received Agriculture Department grants to develop solar power systems that can contribute to local energy grids. According to a department report, the Rural Energy for America Program has paid $6.5 million in grants and loans to Tennessee farms, ranches and rural small businesses in the past three years. The Tennessean reported that 69 of Tennessee’s 98 grants and loans have gone to solar projects. Recipients include a custom saddler in Lebanon, a native species nursery in Fairview and a recreational team-building center in Kingston Springs.
State panel in city for talks on fairness The independent panel in charge of assessing the fairness of the new teacher evaluation process is in Memphis today, listening to comments from city and county teachers and others. While the public is invited to the session, which starts at 4 p.m. at the University of Memphis, only 20 preselected people will be allowed to speak. “The charge we got from Gov. Haslam was to listen and gather feedback on what was working and what challenges people are facing across the state,” said David Mansouri, spokesman for SCORE, the education advocacy group founded by former U.S. senator Bill Frist.
Laughing and talking, huddled over pitchers and appetizers in the back room of Pin Strikes Bowling Center, the two dozen people — kids, couples, retirees — could pass for people at a reunion. In a way, it’s true. In the wake of February’s tornadoes, the once and current residents of Ooltewah’s Woodland Bay neighborhood, who have been holding monthly get-togethers for years, say that they’ve grown as thick as family. At Camp Joy, the staging ground for many tornado relief organizations, there’s a map that quantifies storm damage.
Clerking system to be aligned with general session, circuit courts Juvenile courts are are undergoing reorganization to a system that has been in place for more than three decades. A week-and-a-half ago, Cheryl J. Castle, who has been the Circuit Court Clerk since 1994, was appointed by general session judges as Montgomery County’s first Juvenile Court Clerk. With the change, Clarksville-Montgomery County has joined ranks with the other 94 Tennessee counties who have juvenile court clerks overseeing their juvenile court systems.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to overhaul the Tennessee Regulatory Authority scraped though a Senate committee last week with a “neutral” recommendation and could be headed for more trouble this week. Two area lawmakers pointedly told Haslam’s legal counsel, Herbert Slatery, that officials need to come up with better answers to criticisms of elements such as turning the agency’s full-time director slots into part-time positions. “I think, going forward, you will find it much more difficult and you will need to answer the questions,” Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, warned Slatery in the Government Operations Committee hearing.
While hailing bills that cut taxes, state legislators are quietly pushing tax increases. At least, that’s the tale told by folks who would be paying the levies involved. Proponents say they are merely correcting oversights. Deputy Comptroller Jason Mumpower says SB3296 may be seen as a “technical correction of a technical correction.” The measure undoes a change in the property tax treatment of solar energy companies that was part of the 2010 “technical corrections” bill from Gov. Phil Bredesen’s Department of Revenue.
At the height of Peyton Manning hysteria in Nashville, when it briefly appeared the Tennessee Titans had emerged as the frontrunner to land the services of the celebrated NFL quarterback, rookie Metro Councilman Josh Stites chimed in with a clever tweet: “I’m as excited as the next guy about Peyton coming to the Titans,” the District 13 councilman told his social media followers last month. “I’m not excited about the tax abatement Metro will surely offer him.” Stites was joking, of course. But as with any good punch line, he hit on something.
Even before he arrived in Washington, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann was preaching that government spending had to be brought under control. Stopping deficit spending, says the first-term Republican lawmaker from Ooltewah, “was one of the main reasons I ran for office.” Fleischmann recently took a couple of significant steps in his crusade. In February, he introduced legislation calling for a freeze on discretionary spending until 2021, a move that he says would save at least $856 billion. A month later, Fleischmann returned nearly $80,000 from his office budget and asked that the money be used to pay down the deficit.
Federal court facilities in Jackson are high on the list of facilities under consideration for closure, but a federal judge says the local offices might be spared. The Jackson Sun reports the newer federal courthouse in Jackson would not be affected. The only building that has space that might be closed is the Ed Jones Federal Building, but only certain areas. U.S. District Judge J. Daniel Breen says the potential closures would be restricted to the second-floor courtroom, a judge’s chamber, a jury room, the probation office and pretrial services.
The individual insurance requirement that the Supreme Court is reviewing isn’t the first federal mandate involving health care. There’s a Medicare payroll tax on workers and employers, for example, and a requirement that hospitals provide free emergency services to indigents. Health care is full of government dictates, some arguably more intrusive than President Barack Obama’s overhaul law. It’s a wrinkle that has caught the attention of the justices. Most of the mandates apply to providers such as hospitals and insurers.
Searching for higher returns to bridge looming shortfalls, public workers’ pension funds across the country are increasingly turning to riskier investments in private equity, real estate and hedge funds. But while their fees have soared, their returns have not. In fact, a number of retirement systems that have stuck with more traditional investments in stocks and bonds have performed better in recent years, for a fraction of the fees. Consider the contrast between the state retirement fund for Pennsylvania and the one for Georgia.
The legislative session that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell wanted this year was very different from the one he wound up getting. McDonnell, a Republican, kicked off the session in January by urging lawmakers to focus on job creation and state finances, with funding for pensions and education among his top concerns. He pointedly asked the legislators not to engage in partisan political fights that could sidetrack his priorities, especially after a hard-fought election year that gave the GOP control of both legislative chambers for the first time in 12 years.
The Y-12 nuclear weapons plant has shipped more than 400 pounds of highly enriched uranium to France, where it will reportedly be used for fuel in a high-performance research reactor near Grenoble. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved an export license March 16, and the super-potent uranium apparently has already arrived in Europe. “The material was recently delivered,” Steven Wyatt, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said in response to questions. Because of its high enrichment — more than 93 percent U-235 — the special nuclear material could potentially be converted into nuclear weapons.
Barring cold snap, June corn is possible After a record-setting warm March, optimistic local growers say Knoxville-area farmers markets could be selling strawberries by late April and corn by late June. Unless, of course, it freezes. In that case, we’ll have no fruit at all. “Mostly, it’s just scary at this point,” said Charlotte Tolley, director of the Market Square Farmers Market, which will open May 2. “I have a grower on Dayton Mountain who said he has a ripe strawberry already, which is crazy. They could be early, or they could all die.”
The building looks frozen in time, empty of most fixtures, save for a mural of an Appalachian forest spanning two stories and the slogan “Where Naturea nd Technology Meet” emblazoned at the indoor theater’s entrance. Carol Evans, executive director of the Legacy Parks Foundation, remarks that short of painting and some general maintenance and cleaning, the building needs little to reopen in April as Outdoor Knoxville’s hub of operations.
Knoxville may not be home to a major military base, but East Tennessee has played a major role in national security from its longstanding volunteer heritage to the role of Oak Ridge’s nuclear facilities. The region also strives to honor those who’ve served. Those were the messages that a local steering committee developed to successfully attract the 2014 Medal of Honor Convention. Businesses have pledged $550,000 to host the Medal of Honor recipients, in what will be the 150th anniversary of the first Tennessean receiving the honor, as well as the 100th and 75th anniversaries of the beginning of World War I and World War II.
Once a year, employees of the Swiss Village Retirement Community in Berne, Ind., have a checkup that will help determine how much they pay for health coverage. Those who don’t smoke, aren’t obese and whose blood pressure and cholesterol fall below specific levels get to shave as much as $2,000 off their annual health insurance deductibles. At Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate firm, workers can earn up to $300 in cash for having a physical and hitting certain medical goals, or completing health coaching programs.
$35M proposal ‘needs to be done’ Cindy Buttry has been waiting for a bold budget to help Knox County Schools progress. And the school board member said she believes the current budget proposal from Superintendent Jim McIntyre — which would add $35 million to the district’s operating budget over the next five years — accomplishes that. “I am actually excited and finally feel like we have a plan for spending that is pretty exact,” said Buttry, who represents the 3rd District. “This opens up the transparency and (the community) can hold our feet to the fire and hold us accountable.”
If not already, August 2013 soon will be marked on the calendars and embedded in the minds of nearly every educator, public official, parent, taxpayer and anyone else interested in public education in Shelby County. It’s the date that the merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools will be completed. In the prelude, school officials and others are speedily working to consolidate the operations of the two systems, while suburban municipalities race to create their own school districts.
California Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed ballot measure this fall to raise taxes and restore funding to an array of state programs faces unlikely opposition from a prominent Los Angeles lawyer who supported Mr. Brown’s election only 17 months ago. Attorney Molly Munger has proposed a rival ballot issue that also would raise taxes but earmark most of the new revenues for schools. The clash between Ms. Munger and Mr. Brown highlights the tension within California’s Democrats over how to prioritize spending now that the state is beginning to recover from its fiscal crisis.
Tennessee generally is recognized as a low-tax state, and that is a good thing. But good things can be made better. An important way for Tennessee to improve its low-tax image is to bring an end to its death and gift taxes. Proposals to phase out these counter-productive taxes are making their way through the General Assembly. With the economy beginning to improve, and state tax revenue on the increase, now is the time to act and to pass these state tax reform measures. Tennessee is one of only 19 states, and two in the Southeast, that impose a death tax. It is one of only two states to tax gifts.
The development of the South Knoxville riverfront has been stymied for years, primarily because of the so-called “great recession” that devastated the housing market. An Atlanta developer, however, now has plans to build a 220-unit apartment complex adjacent to the Island Home Park neighborhood. Camden Management Partners wants to build the complex on an old fuel tank site east of Island Home Park, an eclectic neighborhood of craftsman, federalist and other vintage houses. The development would be the first in years in the South Waterfront redevelopment area of the city.
There is an epidemic of unemployment among our veterans and National Guard and Reserve members. Many service members are younger, without established careers when they sign up to serve in the military. National figures show that among non-veterans 18-24 years old the unemployment rate is over 17 percent, while among veterans of the same age group, the rate is well over 20 percent. Of the Tennessee National Guard members who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly half of them had no civilian job waiting for them at home.
My husband is a disabled American veteran who is having problems receiving adequate medical care from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Nashville. After his surgery at the hospital on Feb. 13, we were told that if there were any complications or pain to call the surgeons and they would get back with us. On the second day following surgery, my husband experienced some side effects of the surgery. We called numerous times and left messages with a telephone call nurse, but we did not get a return call for many days. As a prerequisite to my husband’s surgery, he was required to receive an ultrasound.
Wrangling continues: No wonder House members can’t agree on the long-overdue transportation bill: Much of the time, they’re not in session. Many congressional analysts blame the increasingly partisan and rancorous tone of Congress and its inefficiency on the fact that so many lawmakers and their families no longer live in Washington. It was easier to deal with, and harder to denounce, the opposition when members made their homes in Washington or its close-in suburbs and often encountered one another at the supermarket, PTA meetings or regular poker games.