This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tuesday night the 107th General Assembly adjourned, and I’m extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished working together. Since unveiling a comprehensive legislative agenda in early January, our administration has focused on key reforms that lower taxes, continue improvement of our state’s education system and enable us to recruit, retain and reward the best and brightest employees.
MTSU seniors Luke Suttmiller and Wayne Jaco will probably never take a class in MTSU’s new science building, but they still see its value to the university and students in the fields of science. “You’re going to see a lot more of science students mixing in with mass comm and business students,” Suttmiller, a business administration major, said Thursday, moments before officials broke ground on the $147 million project. “It’s kind of divided in two. This will help bring the campus together.”
Middle Tennessee State University is finally breaking ground on its long-awaited science building. Funding for the $147 million project came through this spring after being in the pipeline for more than a decade. The long list of lawmakers who spoke at the groundbreaking agreed that the Rutherford County delegation has been relentless about getting a new science building. Murfreesboro Senator Bill Ketron has no apologies.
From protests, to store raids, to Nashville, the war we’ve been following on synthetic drugs has reached a much-anticipated milestone. All three bills that make synthetic drugs felonies have been signed by Tennessee governor Bill Haslam. Representative Jon Lundberg’s bill is already in effect. Representative Tony Shipley’s bill starts May 14, and Middle Tennessee representative Ryan William’s bill begins July 1.
Groups like the ACLU have been urging Governor Bill Haslam to veto a proposed law regarding how sex-ed is taught in Tennessee. The administration is reviewing the language. The bill that passed the General Assembly places new restrictions on sexual education, putting the focus on abstinence. “I actually don’t think it’s a big departure from our current practice, but we haven’t made a final decision there.” As he’s done with several other bills, Governor Haslam could let this one go into law without his signature.
The nearly 300 employees remaining at Lakeshore Mental Health Institute on Thursday morning learned details of their severance package as the state prepares for closure at the end of June. A provision of the state budget passed this week by lawmakers, the package provides for a base payment of $3,200 per employee, plus two years of college tuition assistance “to be capped at the average of the highest four-year public Tennessee college undergraduate level.”
Some of the best hiking trails in Tennessee are found in the Cumberland Mountains of Morgan County, home to Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area and the Obed Wild and Scenic River. Sandwiched between these two parks is Lone Mountain State Forest, a 3,572-acre tract with approximately 20 miles of trails open to horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking. We started our hike at the trailhead located directly across the road from the Tennessee Division of Forestry office at the northeast entrance to Lone Mountain State Forest, approximately three miles south of Wartburg.
Road closures downtown and on Interstate 24 east of downtown could cause headaches for commuters to kick off the weekend. The detours are set to begin Friday at 2:30 p.m. when Metro police expect to close Broadway between Fourth and Sixth avenues until midnight. The Nashville Predators received a permit from the city to close Broadway and make room for a festival before and after the hockey team’s Game 4 against the Phoenix Coyotes in the second-round playoff series.
State Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, said Wednesday he was bushwhacked last week by Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 when a reporter suddenly appeared from behind a partition and quizzed him on why his “seat mate” had been casting votes for him in his absence and vice versa. Ford “clocked in” Rep. Dennis Roach, R-Rutledge, and then repeatedly voted for him. Roach cast a dozen votes that session without ever stepping foot in the chambers, and when he showed up late Ford cleared his desk and left for the night, according to the news report.
Mayor Karl Dean will reduce his proposed property tax increase for residents in Nashville’s General Services District to avert a potential lawsuit, one of the mayor’s top aides said Thursday. While the recommended tax increase will remain 53 cents per $100 of assessed value for people living in the more densely populated Urban Services District, the administration decided to drop it by a nickel, to 48 cents, in the General Services District rather than risk being sued.
To avoid the possibility of triggering a public referendum and litigation, Mayor Karl Dean’s administration has lowered its proposed property-tax rate increase for Davidson County’s General Services District by five cents from 53 cents to a new 48-cent tax hike. “There was the potential someone could have challenged it,” Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling said Thursday. “The budget’s too important to take any risk for potential litigation.”
Memphis has been named the nation’s asthma capital, according to the new list issued this week by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. It is one of three Tennessee cities to make the top 10 list. Knoxville ranked third, and Chattanooga ranked fifth. The foundation creates the rankings by assessing the 100 largest cities on air pollution, ozone days, pollen counts, medication utilization, poverty rates and public smoking laws.
Juana Villegas said she was three days’ pregnant when law enforcement in Middle Tennessee took her into custody to be deported. She was shackled until minutes before she gave birth in a hospital. Villegas was one of about eight women who took the stage Thursday night during a rally at a North Knoxville union hall to protest Immigration and Nationality Act Section 287(g), a federal policy that community groups fear will be adopted by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
Memphis Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen says a deal is likely on keeping interest rates on federal student loans at around 3 percent. If Congress takes no action, those rates could double. Democrats and Republicans agree that raising student loan interest rates is a bad thing. The disagreement is how to pay for an extension of those low rates. Republicans want to trim funding to the President’s health care overhaul. Democrats have proposed ending subsides to oil and gas companies.
Aides for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann appear to be embracing a re-election strategy that sells the congressman as a self-made man and dismisses his opponents as anything but. In less than three months, Fleischmann will face two Republican challengers with deep pockets and high-octane surnames — Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp — in Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District Republican primary.
West Knoxville residents suing TVA over its tree-cutting policy say that TVA is violating environmental law by its widespread clearing of trees in power line easements without doing an environmental assessment. An attorney for Westminster Place residents Donna Sherwood and Jerone Pinn, filed an amended complaint against TVA in U.S. District Court on Wednesday. The residents are suing over TVA’s plans to remove trees in a power line easement running through their neighborhood.
Taking advantage of historically low interest rates, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare will supplement the financing of its $137 million Olive Branch hospital with a $100 million bond issue. Underwritten in part by Raymond James Morgan Keegan, the issue has received a “stable” outlook from ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, which assigned ratings of A+ and A2, respectively, according to Jim Birdwell, managing director and co-head of health care finance at Morgan Keegan.
State and federal prosecutors have declined to pursue a whistle-blower lawsuit that says Erlanger Health System made false Medicare claims, a second such decision within the last month. The lawsuit was filed in March 2011 by Robert Whipple, who worked as an auditing consultant for Affiliated Computer Services Inc., at the hospital in 2006. The suit alleges that Erlanger used fraudulent billing practices in categorizing patients and for certain procedures.
The board governing The Regional Medical Center at Memphis has formed an ad hoc committee to review and make recommendations regarding the amount of business the hospital conducts with minority-owned companies. The committee – comprised of attorney Pamela Brown, Plough Foundation executive director Scott McCormick and the Rev. Keith Norman of First Baptist Church-Broad in Binghampton – was created after the subject of minority business dominated the discussion Wednesday, May 2.
The Dallas-based developer of Nashville’s proposed $250 million Nashville Medical Trade Center announced today it has launched efforts aimed at securing financing for the project, thanks in part to commitments from six new tenants. Market Center Management Co. CEO Bill Winsor said those leases range in size from 2,500 to 9,000 square feet and push the project closer to a goal of having 60 percent of space leased before construction can begin at the site of the Nashville Convention Center, which is set to be replaced by the Music City Center convention hall opening next year.
A Dallas company working to build nearly 1 million square feet of medical trade mart space will announce leases with six more companies today, hoping to send a message that its bid to transform the downtown Nashville Convention Center into a major health mart remains on track. Dallas-based Market Center Management Co. says it has engaged a Brentwood-based accounting firm — Lattimore Black Morgan & Cain — to help evaluate financing strategies for the Nashville Medical Trade Center project.
UTC is about a five-minute walk from downtown’s core, but many students feel unsafe and ignored in the central city, a new survey shows. About 45 percent of the students who responded to the survey said they felt unsafe walking alone downtown at night, while 67 percent would prefer to drive. Also, while students like Chattanooga, they believe downtown caters to tourists and families and not to them, according to the survey that drew more than 600 responses.
A 10-year tax break wasn’t enough to keep 230 manufacturing jobs in Loudon County. In a news release, the mayors of Loudon County and Lenoir City said the first round of layoffs at the Yale Commercial Lock and Hardware facility in Lenoir City are expected to take place in August, with a closure of the plant anticipated in the first quarter of next year. Yale is consolidating the operations with an existing facility in Berlin, Conn.
Custodial, transportation proposals move forward Unofficial straw votes Thursday by the commission planning the transition to a unified school district registered a clear preference for privatizing custodial and transportation services when the Memphis and Shelby County school districts merge next year. But there was an understanding in the room that the idea might not fly quite as effortlessly when the recommendations reach the unified school board. If the new district adopts Shelby County Schools’ existing model of contracted custodial services, however, it could save as much as $25 million annually, reported Richard Holden, chairman of the Transition Planning Commission’s Logistics Committee.
Of the 14 charter schools in limbo since the Shelby County unified school board rejected their applications in November, two intend to open this summer. Memphis Grizzlies Prep and Aurora Collegiate Academy, both backed by philanthropists, will open in July despite nearly six months of indecision, delay and red tape. The rest, including nine schools proposed by former mayor Willie Herenton, plan to open a year later. “When formal approval is granted, we will move forward with nine schools,” Herenton said Thursday after an appeals hearing conducted by the state Board of Education.
Mayor Karl Dean, it seems, will not have to testify in a federal court case involving Metro Nashville Public Schools’ controversial 2008 rezoning plan. Dean was previously expected to take the stand Thursday, but the plaintiff’s attorney Larry Woods apparently obtained the testimony he needed from Alan Coverstone, executive director of the MNPS Office of Innovation. The mayor was released from a subpoena, which called him to testify, earlier Thursday.
Lawyer says better school was option The mother suing Metro schools over a 2009 rezoning plan drew heavy fire from the school system’s attorneys Thursday during the third day of trial in the U.S. District Court of Middle Tennessee. Frances Spurlock filed Spurlock v. Fox in an attempt to get school zones redrawn with equal resources for African-American students in her North Nashville neighborhood.
A city school system reorganization that eliminates three jobs, leaves teaching positions unfilled and restructures a number of others was unveiled Thursday by Director of Schools Gary Lilly. Lilly added that the district may also reassign, cut or adjust work responsibilities for some of its estimated 300 teachers. The moves are aimed at cutting costs and addressing an estimated $775,000 budget shortfall. “It’s hard when you’re making decisions that affect livelihoods,” Lilly said.
Kingsport school leaders Thursday night delayed a decision until at least mid-month on whether to allow selected Sullivan County students in the Lynn Garden area to start or continue attending two city elementary schools tuition free. At issue is a group of 59 kindergarten through fifth-grade county students living in a targeted annexation area of Lynn Garden and attending Kennedy and Roosevelt elementary schools, plus at least one additional rising kindergarten student to attend Kennedy in August.
Recent discussions on proposed state legislation mandating parental involvement in schools have focused on the issues surrounding penalizing children, and parents of students, who find it challenging to complete homework. But what about suggestions for solutions to bigger issues, including how to help parents support their children to increase ACT scores and overall academic performance? With the 2011-2012 academic year about to end, it is a natural time to look forward.
Tennesseans can take a deep breath and relax. The General Assembly is adjourned for the year. The session saw some positive signs from lawmakers, including a slight reduction in the grocery sales tax and moves to scale back gift and inheritance taxes. The Legislature also allotted $126 million for MTSU’s science building. But this session made Tennessee the butt of national talk shows and could be known better for what legislators couldn’t get done than what they did.
The 107th Tennessee General Assembly officially ended on Tuesday. It was a generally productive session that closed several weeks early, thanks in part to a 20 percent reduction in the number of bills filed. Gov. Bill Haslam’s $31 billion budget passed with the usual last-minute haggling. Haslam’s anti-crime initiatives passed along with several other key administration proposals. It proved to be mostly a good year for the governor, lawmakers and Tennesseans.
As chairman of the board of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry, I have been closely involved with the collective effort by a broad coalition of business, education, transportation, law enforcement and hospital interests opposing several pieces of legislation introduced in the Tennessee Senate and House of Representatives during this legislative session. Those bills, pushed by the National Rifle Association and Tennessee Firearms Association, would have forced employers, business owners and any private property owners to allow individuals to bring firearms onto their private property and would have created a new, protected class of employees and applicants for employment based on their gun ownership or possession of a concealed-carry permit.
Averting unnecessary tragedies: There are better ways for gun rights groups to spend their energy than fending off phantom threats to the Second Amendment. Taking a breath about gun laws will be good for Tennessee’s health. The state legislature adjourned this week without voting on proposals to force private businesses to allow employees to keep guns in their cars while parked on the company’s property, and barring employers from ever asking employees whether they have guns in the parking lot.
In February 2011, Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter was shot and killed while on patrol in Afghanistan. A lending company subsequently forgave his student loan, but now his parents are on the hook for a $28,000 tax bill as a result. U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., is outraged. And he’s sponsoring a bill that would prevent the Internal Revenue Service from taxing loans to fallen service members that have been forgiven. The Andrew P. Carpenter Tax Act is one bill that all members of both parties can and should support.
As the funding fight for Knox County’s schools moves toward Round 3, perhaps it is time to pause. Superintendent James McIntyre won Round 1, gaining approval of his proposed $35 million increase for the school system’s general fund from the Knox County School Board and a unanimous, unqualified endorsement from the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce. In Round 2, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett stopped the big bump, releasing a budget this week that does not include McIntyre’s big ask.