This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
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 Tennessee’s governor. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation last 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.
Billions of Tennessee dollars are going down the drain. And into new pipes, manhole covers, pump stations and wastewater treatment plants. The potential for hundreds of millions of dollars in sewer testing and repairs faces Chattanooga, which soon will enter an agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation on how to handle the problems. Meanwhile, secondary utilities are entering into voluntary agreements with the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
For Murray Martin, Middle Tennessee State University’s centennial fundraising campaign is all about helping MTSU students get a high-quality education without having to work excessive hours to pay for it. “I think they have an awful difficult road to go down,” said Martin, in her second year as MTSU Foundation president. Many students have to balance classes with “taking on a part-time job to get where they want to be in life,” said Martin, a 1975 graduate who majored in theater and speech.
A project to connect state Highways 150 and 28 in Jasper is moving forward now that city officials have approved the plan. Last week, the Jasper Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously approved a resolution allowing the Tennessee Department of Transportation to proceed. Jasper Mayor Billy Simpson said the project has been years in the making and he is glad it is finally getting under way. “I started working on this and have begged and pleaded for it to happen,” he said.
Stuck in the midst of a public relations nightmare and rebuffed at every legal turn, the second highest in command in the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office took aim at a judge and reporter in an email obtained by the News Sentinel. John Gill, special counsel to District Attorney General Randy Nichols, complained in a March email to the state Attorney General’s Office about Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who ordered up new trials in the January 2007 slayings of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23, and about the News Sentinel, which has reported on the ongoing proceedings.
State revenues are on the upswing, and so are lawmakers’ efforts to spend them. Lawmakers have made dozens of requests to amend Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, has an $11.86 million amendment to restore funding for Taft Youth Center near Pikeville, which Haslam intends to close. Closer to home, Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, has two amendments to fund Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield’s proposed anti-gang legislation.
Supporters of Tennessee’s newest education law envision classrooms where teachers lead robust conversations about evolution, analyzing its strengths and weaknesses with students who are freshly engaged with this new approach. Creationism wouldn’t be mentioned, they say. Neither would intelligent design. Teachers know those would violate the First Amendment, plus the new law expressly forbids promoting religious doctrine. “I trust science teachers are smart enough to keep the discussion on a scientific level,” said Casey Luskin, a policy analyst with the Discovery Institute, which wrote a model bill Tennessee lawmakers consulted.
A group of scientists, teachers, parents and students rallied at the state Capitol on Saturday against a new Tennessee law that allows public school teachers to discuss the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution and other scientific theories. “The sponsors of this bill said it’s about making sure students know about controversial issues around topics like climate change and evolution,” said Dr. Larisa DeSantis, an assistant professor in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at Vanderbilt University.
In a 1,000-plus page biology textbook used to school Hamilton County students, the origin of human life takes up a mere chapter. The chapter, one of nearly 40, doesn’t show the well-known picture of a monkey evolving to man, but it does say primates evolved. It teaches about the fossil record and Darwin’s theories of adaptation. And many local teachers say — even though questions over the origins of life have been a cornerstone for the political culture war in schools for years — that chapter is rarely the source of fireworks.
The words “flow motion” were on the lips of all at the state Capitol on Thursday morning — a phrase that conjures up a mix of dread and giddy anticipation. Toward the end of each session, legislators typically vote to suspend several of their rules — including a requirement that they wait 48 hours before bringing bills to the floor — in an effort to speed up lawmaking so they can go home sooner. It doesn’t always work. According to an analysis by the House clerk, in years past lawmakers have spent anywhere from a few days to more than a month operating under the suspended rules.
A bill allowing the state to issue a special Teamsters license plate drew the scorn of anti-union Republican lawmakers on Thursday. Proceeds from sales of the plate would benefit an aid fund for Teamsters members, but the Teamsters’ checkered history fast became the focus of a few GOP lawmakers. State Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, brought up past investigations into the union and its leaders, quoting a 1989 Justice Department investigation as saying the Teamsters were “a wholly owned subsidiary of organized crime.”
A law passed last year to let high school students graduate early if they score high on college entrance exams could be gutted, thanks to some late-session maneuvering. The House Education Committee approved a bill Tuesday effectively repealing the Move on When Ready Act, which allows students to graduate after completing 18 classes if they maintain a GPA of at least 3.2, pass an Advanced Placement language exam, complete two Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and score at least a 27 on the ACT.
Hamilton County is preparing to take a series of aerial photos to update its maps after tornado damaged altered several neighborhoods. Geographic Information Systems manager Greg Butler told The Chattanooga Times Free Press (http://bit.ly/Iysj1t ) that the county’s website is used daily by real estate agents, surveyors, engineers and others, so it’s important to keep it up to date. The project costs nearly $160,000, and it takes several months to piece the photos together to get within 2.5-foot accuracy of the land layout.
‘Everything’ eyed as city faces $47 million deficit As last year’s city budget season came to a close, Mayor A C Wharton and several Memphis City Council members said it was the toughest experience of their public lives. This year will probably be worse. “It’s a rough year,” Wharton said. “There are no easy choices.” The city faces a $47 million deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Since the mayor and council have already used money from the city’s reserves and resorted to layoffs and a salary cut for city employees, they have little financial wiggle room left.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is boosting its wholesale power rate by 2.1 percent in May, in anticipation of increased summer demand. The rate hike is expected to increase residential utility bills by between $1 and $3 a month. The Knoxville News Sentinel (http://bit.ly/IPeVXd) reports TVA announced on Friday that it will raise its total monthly fuel cost from 2.163 cents per kilowatt-hour to 2.311 cents per kilowatt-hour for the billing period starting May 1. Local utilities served by TVA typically pass the expense on to their customers.
Apple growers in northeast Tennessee say last week’s frosts may have damaged their crops. Unicoi County University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension agent Ty Petty told the Johnson City Press (http://bit.ly/IW2Zkp) that the freeze could not have come at a worse time. The crop is ahead of schedule because of the unseasonably warm weather and a majority of the county’s apple trees are in bloom. It may be several days before area apple growers see the full extent of the damage.
Best Buy on Saturday announced the locations of 50 stores that it is closing this year, including seven in California, six in Illinois and six in the company’s home state of Minnesota. The company’s four stores in the Memphis area will not close. One Tennessee store, in Antioch, will close. The struggling electronics chain said last month that it would close some of its so-called big box stores, cut 400 corporate jobs and trim $800 million in costs. The company lost $1.7 billion in the most recent quarter, partly because of restructuring costs.
Electronics store to liquidate goods beginning today Antioch on Saturday dug another hole in what is quickly becoming a graveyard for big-box retail stores. Best Buy at 5255 Hickory Hollow Parkway closed its doors that morning, telling employees they’d soon have to find work at another store or company and telling customers that it will start liquidating its inventory when it reopens today. The store is expected to close for good on May 12 and is part of a larger companywide effort to save costs by shuttering 50 stores nationwide.
After feeling ignored by the Hamilton County Department of Education, a parent committee in the eastern part of the county is asking school board members to consider installing portables and using another year to gather growth information before signing on to the superintendent’s proposed rezoning plan. “We quickly discovered that we were not [meeting with HCDE staff] to provide our input to craft a solution but rather our attendance was perfunctory to give the illusion of community involvement,” the parent committee wrote in its report.
Work to continue regardless of superintendent Whether Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash stays or not, work that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doing in Memphis will continue, key executives with the organization say. Vicki Phillips, head of Gates’ U.S. education portfolio, said Friday the Gates contracts are not tied specifically to one superintendent. “As long as the work is going well, driving deep enough and owned by enough people in the community to have staying power, we are committed,” she told The Commercial Appeal editorial board last week.
State testing for Maury County school children is more important than ever in light of the waiver that exempts Tennessee from the federal No Child Left Behind education law, Director of Schools Eddie Hickman said. During a school board meeting Thursday at Randolph Howell Elementary School, Hickman discussed changes the waiver will bring and voiced a concern about the new system. “The cart is way in front of the horse,” he said.
At a School in Tennessee, a Basketball Team of Survivors It was early on a Friday morning, and there was an emergency in Carroll Academy’s Room 5. A student named Destiny was sitting alone, crying. With cameras in every classroom, she could be seen on the monitor in the security office. The girls basketball team at Carroll Academy had lost the night before, 69-9, at home to University School of Jackson, a private college-preparatory school about 45 minutes away.
Displaying an evolving new normal in his gubernatorial reign, a believing-in-better Bill Haslam last week officially and formally, albeit cautiously, expressed mild disagreement for the first time with a piece of legislation that reached his desk. “Good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion,” he stated with regard to HB368. “My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature.” On one side, the governor had faced united Republican support in the Legislature for the bill, which authorizes classroom questioning of evolution.
For voters to choose among candidates for most elective public offices, it is generally reasonable for the candidates to present themselves for examination, to express their views on pertinent public issues so the voters may be informed, and then for the voters to decide according to the candidates’ character and their points of view. But for the election of judges, voters also should want to evaluate each candidate according to his knowledge of the law, his impartiality and his good judgment. It may be difficult for most voters to judge those qualities in advance.
The cause of open government met with mixed success last week in the Tennessee Legislature. The effort by the Haslam administration to close public access to information about companies receiving state grants apparently has been derailed, but a measure that would keep secret applicants for top university and college positions is all but assured of passage. On Wednesday, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, announced the bill to keep Tennesseans in the dark about companies awarded incentives from state government would be withdrawn.
Last weekend, The Associated Press reported that Gov. Bill Haslam was disappointed that the Tennessee media didn’t seem to be focused on the important work that was going on in the legislature. The governor rapped our knuckles particularly about ignoring bills that addressed a number of educational improvements championed by his administration. The media coverage that piqued the governor’s ire, he told The Tennessean last week, was a television story about the “saggy pants” bill, while his comprehensive school accountability bill’s progress through the legislative committees was being ignored.
Extremist groups push nutty legislation – and it’s becoming law The Tennessee General Assembly is in an awful hurry. For the past month, one major bill after another has zipped through committee en route to floor votes. A few have hit roadblocks, it’s true, but only to pop up again a week or two later, back on the fast track. Considering that a whopping 4,000 bills have been introduced by this assembly in 2011-2012, why should we be surprised that a lot of bills are being expedited now? Except that so many of them are, in a word, nutty. One wants to allow the slaughter of healthy horses in this state so that the meat can be sold to fancy restaurants in other countries.
Near the top of the list of good advice given by your mom is the adage, ”If you don’t know what you are talking about, shut up.” Did Tennessee state legislators forget their mothers’ advice? The legislature has embarrassed itself, and the state, by passing a law suggesting that the part-time legislators know best when it comes to teaching the science of evolution, climate change and cloning. Tennessee’s new anti-evolution, anti-climate change and anti-cloning law was passed by large majorities in the state House and Senate and became law after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam apparently forgot who he was and meekly decided to let the bill become law without his signature.
“The public welfare requiring it.” These five words end all state bills, suggesting that the legislation is crafted with the citizenry’s best interests in mind. But that’s not the case with an abstinence-only sex education bill that would give teens just one tool to protect themselves. That one tool is fool-proof — just say no — but it’s not in use by the 46 percent of high school students who report they’ve had sexual intercourse. Still, this bill calls for all school districts to teach that sex should be reserved for marriage. (Heterosexual, of course, as gay marriage is outlawed in Tennessee.)
Poised on the cusp of overwhelming political ascendancy next year, Tennessee Republican lawmakers are considering placing their Democratic “rivals,” who are tottering on the brink of extinction, in a nature reserve to provide citizens a “living history” reminder of the state’s past. Seeing the writing on the redistricting map, seven incumbent Democratic representatives and four senators have announced they won’t seek re-election. Three more incumbent Democratic representatives and one senator will vanish later because Republican-controlled redistricting pits incumbent against incumbent in cage matches to the political death.
The U.S. Department of Justice and 15 states — including Tennessee — charged Apple Inc. and five major book publishers of conspiracy last week in what they alleged is a scheme to inflate the price of electronic, or digital, books. The alleged price-fixing, Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper said, has cost U.S. consumers more than $100 million since the scheme allegedly took affect in 2010. Given that and the soaring popularity of the e-books, the combined Justice Department/state case to end such activity has merit. Some of the alleged conspirators obviously believe so.
Tennessee’s fine U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is a realist not an alarmist. So when he rings an “alarm,” we’d better pay attention. Sen. Alexander says he fears the current Health Care Law is a “ticking time bomb.” He said: “Millions of Americans, because of the health care law, are going to lose their employer-sponsored insurance and millions of Americans are not going to have as many jobs because of the costs imposed on businesses.” Well, you can see why the senator is issuing a warning.
Our public pension plans have a gambling problem. The plans do not have enough dollars in them to pay for the benefits that must be paid to employees. That fact is increasingly clear as the community learns about the projected shortfalls in funding. What has received less attention is the level of risk the plans have taken with their investments. Private retirement plans for retirees, widows and orphans have traditionally been invested in only the safest, least volatile securities. Those investments produce lower returns in exchange for preservation of capital and steady income.