This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Projects to improve safety, create jobs, state says Gov. Bill Haslam wants to spend $1.5 billion for road improvements across the state under a transportation plan released Thursday. Haslam and the Tennessee Department of Transportation unveiled the three-year initiative, which involves 96 projects in 55 counties. The projects range from the construction of an overpass in Murfreesboro to the lengthening of a ramp near Interstate 440 in Davidson County.
Gov. Bill Haslam and Transportation Commissioner John Schroer have released a 3-year transportation plan for the state. The $1.5 billion plan includes improvements to the interstate system, such as truck climbing lanes and interchange reconstruction. It also funds projects along strategic corridors such as U.S. 27 in Roane, Morgan and Scott counties; U.S. 79 in Carroll and Gibson counties; and U.S. 64 in Middle and West Tennessee.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner John Schroer released the 3 yar transportation program, featuring approximately $1.5 billion in infrastructure investments for 96 individual project phases in 55 counties, as well as 10 statewide programs. “This program balances transportation needs across Tennessee, focusing on improvements to strategic corridors, maximizing economic development opportunities and providing key safety improvements,” said Governor Haslam.
Several of Shelby County’s most persistent transportation problem areas will be targeted in road projects outlined in a three-year plan released by state officials Thursday. The Tennessee Department of Transportation will rebuild the interchange at Interstate 40 and Canada Road in Lakeland during fiscal 2013. It also will begin right-of-way acquisition for a revamped I-55 interchange at Crump next year. And in 2014 it will purchase right-of-way for the widening of Lamar Avenue from the Mississippi line to south of Shelby Drive.
Legislators advance Haslam’s tax relief, civil service plans The state House of Representatives voted to cut the sales and estate taxes, and the state Senate gave final approval to civil service reforms, dealing Gov. Bill Haslam three victories Thursday for his legislative package. State representatives voted to cut the state’s tax on food by a quarter of a percentage point, and they agreed to gradually eliminate Tennessee’s tax on inheritances by 2016, approving both halves of Haslam’s tax-cut plan.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s state civil service reform passed the Senate on Thursday and is now headed to the governor’s desk to sign. Senators approved the bill on a 30-3 vote. It passed the House Wednesday by a 74-19 margin. The proposal makes it easier for the governor to hire, fire, promote and demote executive branch workers. It also introduces merit pay for higher-performing employees. Those who don’t do so well could see their salaries cut. Another provision requires the state develop performance standards and evaluate employees annually.
Legislation giving the governor broad new power over the hiring and firing of 40,000 state employees was given final approval Wednesday while the House signed off on a bill that gives him broad new authority over boards and commissions. Both were drafted by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and promoted as bringing more efficiency and accountability to state government. The Legislature’s Republican majority united behind Haslam in supporting the bills, while some Democrats balked.
The General Assembly is rallying behind Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to overhaul how the state’s employees are hired and fired after months of wrangling over details. The Senate voted 30-3 in favor of the reforms Thursday following a 74-19 vote in the House the day before. “Soon we will have the ability to hire, promote and retain the best and brightest, finally giving Tennesseans the government they deserve,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said in a statement.
The Senate took the last vote today Governor Haslam’s TEAM act, which would make big changes to the way the state hires and fires workers. One of the biggest changes: seniority on the job will no longer be insulation against being laid off. Bill sponsor Jack Johnson, a Williamson County Republican, explains the new system. “In the event of a reduction in force, what the law is intended to do, is to say that the primary, or the first, thing that will be used to determine who is laid on, in the event of a reduction in force, will be job performance.”
The state House approved bills Thursday to phase out Tennessee’s inheritance tax by 2016 and cut the state sales tax on grocery food from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent on July 1. Both cuts have been agreed to by legislative leaders and Gov. Bill Haslam, so passage by the Senate and approval by the governor are virtually assured. Both passed the House with heavy bipartisan support: 96-0 on the food-tax cut and 88-8 on the inheritance tax. Democrats argued that more of the tax relief should be directed at the food tax because most families pay it, while only about 1,000 inheritance tax returns are filed annually in the state.
Tennesseans are only a few votes away from paying slightly less on their groceries and, for some, the tax they pay to inherit wealthy estates. The House of Representatives on Thursday gave an overwhelming thumbs-up on two proposals that would reduce taxes in the next year. One would drop the tax on non-restaurant food, and the other would repeal the tax people pay when they are bequeathed an estate worth more than $1 million.
The state House on Thursday approved proposals to phase out Tennessee’s inheritance tax by 2016 and lower the sales tax on groceries. The inheritance tax legislation, which critics dub the “death tax,” passed 88-8. Members then approved the sales tax measure, which reduces the levy from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent, by 96-0. Both bills now go to the Senate. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has included them in his proposed 2012-13 budget.
Tennesseans who inherit more than a million dollars got a promise of a tax break today as the state House voted to raise the exemption on the inheritance tax-and do away with it completely by 2016. WPLN’s Joe White reports. The House raised the exemption for those inheriting more than a million dollars – and promised the so-called ‘death tax’ would be phased out over four years. Governor Haslam has pushed for the bill.
Today, the state House voted to cut Tennessee’s tax on groceries. Cuts to the tax are rare, but the measure passed unanimously. Bill sponsor David Alexander, a Winchester Republican, totaled up average savings from a cut in the tax on groceries, and the resulting reduction in state revenue. “In a year’s time, a family of four would save somewhere between thirty and forty dollars And it costs about $22 million for the state of Tennessee to allow that to happen.”
Tennessee officials trying to fight the epidemic of prescription drug abuse in the state say they hope a bill being considered by lawmakers will crack down on the problem. Tennessee ranks in the top three states in the nation for the number of prescriptions written per population, with about 18 prescriptions a year written for every person in the state. A recent analysis by The Associated Press shows oxycodone and hydrocodone sales, the two most popular prescription painkillers, have exploded in the last 10 years.
The House has voted to give the governor the power to appoint — or fire — the head of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. The chamber voted 66-26 on Thursday to cede more control over THEC and other commissions to the executive branch. Democratic House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh argued that the governor already heads the panels that oversee the University of Tennessee and Board of Regents systems and that giving him control over THEC would remove any independent input.
Senator Tim Barnes, Representative Joe Pitts and Representative John Tidwell attended Governor Bill Haslam’s Wednesday signing ceremony of their bill to protect renters of recreation vehicles from carbon monoxide poisoning. “This law will provide a new level of safety for our citizens and visitors, so that we might prevent tragedies like the one that prompted this bill,” Pitts said. The new law, Senate Bill 2357/House Bill 2734, requires all lease or rental recreational vehicles in Tennessee to have working carbon monoxide detectors.
A measure to allow teachers and other school workers to participate in prayer groups and other religious activities on school grounds has been signed by the governor. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation this week. It allows school personnel to participate in such activities as long as they don’t carry into the classroom or conflict with the assignments of the participant. The activities must also be student-initiated and be held before or after school.
A proposal that could be used as a tool to crack down on gang violence has been signed by the governor. The measure is part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s anti-crime package and was signed by the Republican governor this week. The legislation would increase penalties for violent crimes committed by two or more people. The proposal unanimously passed the Senate 31-0 and the House approved it 91-0.
Tennessee’s general fund revenues have exceeded projections by $80 million in March, largely on a big jump in corporate tax collections. The monthly tax collections, which reflect economic activity in February, bring year-to-date revenues to $317 million more than expectations. Corporate franchise and excise taxes beat projections by $50 million in the month. Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes noted in a release that April traditionally involves a quarter of all corporate tax collections in the budget year that ends June 30.
Tennessee tax revenues were up in almost all categories measured by the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 Survey of State Government Tax Collections, which showed the Volunteer State collected $10.86 billion in taxes in 2011. That’s more than $345 million than was collected in 2010, or a little more than a 3 percent increase. Again in 2011, the majority — 43 percent — of the state’s tax revenues were generated through Tennessee’s 7 percent general sales tax.
A state audit criticized Tennessee State University for reporting student loan disbursements after the deadline. The Comptroller of the Treasury report said problems arose in the 2010-11 school year. TSU’s financial aid office is required to notify the federal government’s direct loan servicing system of loans issued to students within 30 days of dispersing those. The audit reviewed disbursements for 25 students and found the deadline was exceeded in more than half the cases.
Drivers on southbound Interstate 75 will have to deal with a single lane of travel and expected traffic backups for several more months before a contractor finishes a $9.4 million repair job on a collapsing section of roadway. The Tennessee Department of Transportation this week awarded an emergency contract on the repair project. Bids opened Tuesday ranged from $9.3 million to $12.6 million, according to the TDOT website.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol is demoting a captain and recommending a five-day suspension for a sergeant after the agency says the two falied to properly report an incident involving a state trooper last month. The state Department of Safety and Homeland Security said Thursday that Col. Tracy Trott moved to demote David Allred from captain to lieutenant of the Cookeville District and recommended suspension for Sgt. Keven Norris for violating department policy.
Tennessee’s only woman on death row spent much of her time in court Thursday smiling. Her lawyer fought to overturn an attempted murder conviction, arguing that her trial lawyers were ineffective and the evidence against her insufficient to convict her of nearly murdering another prison inmate. Christa Gail Pike, 36, is on death row for the 1995 torture, murder and mutilation of Colleen Slemmer at a Knoxville Job Corps Center. But she was in Davidson County Criminal Court on Thursday challenging her 2004 conviction for nearly strangling inmate Patricia Jones with a shoestring.
A bill favored by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to keep ownership information of companies receiving state incentives secret was quietly abandoned Wednesday, Nashville public radio station WPLN 90.3 FM reports. The bill was sent to a Senate subcommittee that has shut down for the year. Sen. Bo Watson said the Haslam administration had asked him to not pursue passage of the measure. A House version of the bill had made it to the floor, where it was postponed.
Tennessee legislators from outside Shelby County got a look at where the Shelby County schools reformation discussion was in January this week on Capitol Hill in Nashville. And they didn’t like the idea that their counties could be living with Shelby County rules. Whether they could or not became a hotly contested point several times during the week. The House Education Committee discussion came as it sent to the House floor an amended bill that has the same effect as the part of the Norris-Todd law passed last year dealing with municipal school districts.
A state representative says if Vanderbilt University does not rescind it “all-comers” rule, he will push to include private universities in a proposed law targeting non-discrimination policies. Legislation currently being debated would prevent colleges from forcing student groups to drop faith requirements for membership or leadership positions, as Vanderbilt has done. But the legislative proposal only covers public colleges, even though the issue hasn’t occurred there Last night, Knoxville Republican Bill Dunn said he was considering an amendment that would include any private institution that “receives state money.”
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander pledged Thursday to vote against the so-called “Buffett Rule” called for by President Barack Obama to make millionaires pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes. The Obama administration is calling for a Senate vote on the rule, named for billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who the administration says pays a lower effective tax rate than his secretary. Alexander, before attending an annual gathering of Eagle Scouts at the MeadowView Marriott, rejected it.
With a vote scheduled for Monday on a bill that would require Americans earning $1 million or more to increase their federal income tax rates to a minimum of 30 percent, Tennessee senators are already saying they won’t be supporting the measure. The Paying a Fair Share Act of 2012 would enact the Buffett Rule proposed by President Barack Obama. Pointing to the 15 percent tax rate on invested income currently imposed on wealthy Americans such as billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Obama has argued that middle-class families should not have to pay a higher percentage on their taxes than the nation’s most affluent.
Despite sharp questioning from the conservative wing of the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the mandate provision in President Barack Obama’s health care law, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper predicts the court will uphold the controversial measure. “I do not think the court will overturn the mandate,” Nashville’s Democratic congressman told reporters at a roundtable discussion Thursday. “They’re not prepared to substitute their judgment for Congress’s at such a dramatic scale.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper hopes his defeat on a bid for bipartisan budget reduction will still serve a purpose — and that a fellow member of the Tennessee congressional delegation will double down with him. The Nashville Democrat and Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican, advanced a bill based on the Simpson-Bowles commission, ultimately seeing what they thought were 100 supporters in the House wane to just 38 under partisan pressure. In the wake of that defeat, Cooper told reporters today he still thinks there was merit to the move.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann on Thursday said he can’t figure out why dairy magnate Scottie Mayfield is challenging him in the Republican primary in Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District. “I’m already practicing what he’s preaching,” Fleischmann said. In the first two months of his campaign, Mayfield has emphasized his business experience and downplayed politics, but had little to say about his views. At one point, he responded “Not really” to a question about whether he disagreed with any of Fleischmann’s votes.
The Army Chief of Staff says looming budget cuts for the military will not shrink Fort Campbell by much. Right now the post on the Tennessee-Kentucky border has close to 30 thousand soldiers. General Ray Odierno says it’s too soon for specifics in the midst of a sweeping reorganization, and hard decisions might not be finished until the end of this year. “I would just tell you that Fort Campbell will have a significant amount of people assigned here – it’ll be very close to the level they have now. So we’ll work our way through it as we make those decisions.”
The hemophilia drug that saves 7-year-old William Addison from uncontrolled bleeding costs $100,000 a year. His family’s insurance pays virtually all of it. But his mother, Victoria Kuhn, says she is terrified that the insurance company may start requiring patients to pay as much as a third of the cost of the drug. “I don’t know where we’d find $30,000,” said Ms. Kuhn, who lives in Falmouth, Me. Spurred by patients and patient advocates like Ms. Kuhn, lawmakers in at least 20 states, from Maine to Hawaii, have introduced bills that would limit out-of-pocket payments by consumers for expensive drugs used to treat diseases like cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and inherited disorders.
6-day trip to China, South Korea starts this weekend One is an early-stage firm looking to assess a potential market for its recently approved product. Another is an established exporter hoping to enter the world’s largest country. A third wants to replicate its previous success in expanding international sales. All three — Dream Systems LLC, Stinger Medical and VenX LLC — are going to be in Beijing starting Sunday in hopes of moving toward achieving those goals.
Doug Brandon, the head of one of Middle Tennessee’s largest commercial real estate firms, didn’t hold back Thursday when asked about the $250 million Nashville Medical Trade Center project. “I think it’s dead in the water,” said Brandon, managing principal of the Nashville office of Cassidy Turley, at a commercial real estate forum where he was speaking as a panelist. “There’s nothing going on. I’ve talked to a lot of people in Dallas that have been very involved in it and there is no activity from the investor side over there right now as far as moving that project forward that I know of.”
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean will be called to testify next month in a Metro Nashville schools redistricting lawsuit. Federal Court Judge Kevin Sharp ruled in a pretrial conference Thursday to allow attorneys suing the school district to call Dean, various Metro school officials and Harvard University desegregation expert Charles Willie to the stand. Three years ago, Jeffrey and Frances Spurlock sued the school district, claiming its 2009 rezoning plan was meant to move black students attending the Hillwood and Hillsboro school zones to the predominantly black Pearl-Cohn cluster “to make white families more comfortable.”
School officials to file disclosures A proposed policy requiring top Metro Nashville Public Schools officials to file annual financial disclosures has the support of Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who said such a requirement would help maintain the public’s confidence in school leadership. Dean was responding to a proposal introduced this week by MNPS Director Jesse Register, who updated his own disclosure forms on Tuesday. Concerns surrounding Register’s financial disclosures, which are required by his contract, prompted a discussion that led to the creation of the new policy.
A local judge has ruled that the current negotiation conditions of a county teachers union contract must stay in place. Hamilton County Chancellor Frank Brown III issued his ruling Thursday following a hearing Monday between the Hamilton County Education Association and Hamilton County Board of Education. Attorneys for the board argued that recent changes by the Tennessee Legislature prevented “collective bargaining” and replaced it with a new method known as “collective conferencing.”
The commission planning the transition to a consolidated school system in Shelby County reached consensus Thursday on a recommendation to preserve current student attendance zone assignments through at least the 2014-15 school year — two years past the opening of the new district. The Transition Planning Commission stopped just short of a formal recommendation on the plan, first proposed last week by TPC chairwoman Barbara Prescott, because it is dependent on another recommendation the group is expected to approve later: maintaining and expanding current types of transfers available to students.
Memphis City Schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash said he feels like his time in Memphis is growing short even if he doesn’t get the job as superintendent of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. Cash is one of three finalists for the CMS position and returned Thursday, April 12, from two days in Charlotte where he met school board members, schools officials, parents and the media. “If they choose me, I still have to choose back. At my age and stage of development, I’m very selective,” Cash told The Daily News.
The USA hasn’t been this dry in almost five years. Still reeling from last year’s devastating drought that led to at least $10 billion in agricultural losses across Texas and the South, the nation is enduring another unusually parched year. A mostly dry, mild winter has put nearly 61% of the lower 48 states in “abnormally dry” or drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly federal tracking of drought. That’s the highest percentage of dry or drought conditions since September 2007, when 61.5% of the country was listed in those categories.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s Kodak moment came this past January, during a weekly lunch meeting of the Baton Rouge Rotary Club. The image he asked the Rotarians to envision that day was not of a special memory snapped on film but of the bankrupt Kodak company itself—a victim, he said, of its own failure to stay ahead of digital technology after 131 years as an American icon. Louisiana’s 66-year-old public pension system is facing the same predicament, the Republican governor said, with its costly model of guaranteeing retirees generous checks every month for life.
A proposal to drug test applicants for welfare is moving forward in the state Legislature, despite evidence that it would be ineffective, illegal and unconstitutional. On Wednesday the House Health and Human Resources Committee passed the measure on an 11-6 vote. The Senate Finance Committee will be considering its companion bill in the upper house. Lawmakers should take a step back and consider the ramifications of passage, both in terms of the dignity of Tennessee residents and the cost of an almost certainly doomed defense in an inevitable court challenge.
During his first term as governor, former Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam has shown himself to be a savvy politician who has often leaned on pragmatism and common sense to navigate the political land mines placed in his path from his more extreme GOP colleagues in the General Assembly. While being careful to avoid directly criticizing lawmakers, even when he would be perfectly right to do so for some of their more outlandish bills, Haslam has shown the discipline to stay on message and continue focusing on the issues of business development and education reform.
A major piece of economic development legislation proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam rightly has been sidelined for the year for further study and revision. The measure would have drawn lines of secrecy around company information used to decide economic development grants. This is a well-meaning piece of legislation, but the current version failed to provide sufficient transparency to protect taxpayer interests. We urge the governor to rework the measure in cooperation with lawmakers so that it accomplishes its essential goals while still protecting the public’s right to know where its money is going.
Perhaps understating is acceptable at the Tennessee Valley Authority. At a “family meeting” last week to announce cost overruns and delays in completion of a second reactor at TVA’s Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, President and CEO Tom Kilgore, who will make $3.95 million this year, missed the mark in his mea culpa. “I am here to admit to you in front of the community and the media and everything else that we didn’t go a good enough job in our leadership forum when we started (planning and construction) in ’07,” Kilgore said. Didn’t do a good enough job? TVA’s “leadership forum,” just five short years ago, estimated the cost to construct the reactor at $2 billion to $2.5 billion and estimated completion by the end of 2012.
It just took effective leadership: The city’s once- woebegone Workforce Investment Network is now effectively doing its job. When A C Wharton became city mayor in 2009, he had to immediately deal with scandals at the Memphis Animal Shelter and the city’s General Services Division. But lurking on his to-do list was doing something about the woefully run Workforce Investment Network (WIN). Struggling under a series of ineffective managers, the jobs resource program was in disarray. But as The Commercial Appeal’s City Hall reporter Amos Maki wrote in a story Tuesday, the program has experienced a 180-degree turnaround.
The Hamilton County school budget accounts for more than half of all of the county government’s spending. So we are very acutely interested in the necessary costs of running our schools to serve our children. For next year, our county schools are looking toward a general purpose school fund request of $329.5 million. That’s roughly $10 million more than last year’s general purpose school fund, which is the largest of the four parts of the school system’s budget request. Where will the money come from? Five of the nine county commissioners say they will not vote to raise Hamilton County property taxes this year.
Connecticut is poised to become the 17th state without the death penalty and the fifth in five years to abolish it. Gov. Dannel Malloy is expected to sign the repeal bill approved by the Legislature in recent days. Connecticut is part of a growing movement against capital punishment, with repeal measures now proposed in California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky and Washington. Other states like Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania are reviewing their death penalty laws. This shift comes at a time when new analyses of capital punishment show gross injustice in its application and enormous costs in continuing to impose it.