May 18 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office. 

Haslam signs cash grants plan (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a measure to increase the amount of cash grants available to companies looking to invest in Tennessee. The administration legislation will allow the state to provide Fast Track grants for retrofitting, relocation, office upgrades or temporary space for companies investing in Tennessee. The measure passed the Senate 29-1 last month and the House concurred with that version 92-0 the next day.

Haslam signs FastTrack bill to attract more companies to Tennessee (TFP/Sher)

Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a bill that offers more outright cash grants than tax incentives to attract companies to locate or expand in Tennessee. The legislation aims to support economic development in rural communities and on major projects with significant impact. Tennessee’s current FastTrack program makes grants to local industrial development boards for employee job training and infrastructure improvements, such as at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant.

Gov. Bill Haslam signs legislation to expand FastTrack program (Nooga)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced today that he has signed legislation to expand the state’s FastTrack program to specifically support economic development in rural communities and for exceptional projects. The governor proposed the legislation, HB 2344/SB 2206, in January to create the FastTrack Economic Development Fund, an expansion of the Department of Economic and Community Development’s current infrastructure and job-training program.

AP Interview: Haslam Mulls Expansion of Pre-K (Associated Press/Schelzig)

Gov. Bill Haslam says he’s considering a funding increase for the state’s public pre-kindergarten program, a move that would put him at odds with some fellow Republicans in the Legislature. The governor told The Associated Press in an interview this week that Tennessee’s improving revenue picture could allow the state to resume pre-K expansion. The pre-K program is currently available to at-risk children – education jargon for those eligible for free and reduced lunches.

Haslam announces Larry Martin to oversee TEAM Act Implementation (C. Online)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam today announced that Larry Martin will join his staff to oversee implementation of the Tennessee Excellence and Accountability Management (TEAM) Act. His responsibilities will include coordinating and collaborating throughout state government agencies to effectively begin recruiting new employees on all levels, updating performance evaluations in all departments, and a review of employee compensation that includes the salary study funded in the governor’s FY 2013-2014 budget.

Redesign Improves the Look and Function of State Website (WNWS-Radio)

The State of Tennessee has rolled out a dramatically redesigned and improved website, an important step in a broader overhaul of state web services. TN.gov receives millions of unique visits annually, and the redesign represents a substantial effort to make the state’s official web portal more usable, accessible, and innovative. A key component of this effort is the extensive use of responsive design to transform and adapt TN.gov for a wide variety of mobile devices.

Haslam announces First Lady’s Book Club at DIS visit (State Gazette)

On Tuesday morning, Dyersburg Intermediate School students and Tennessee first lady Crissy Haslam discovered what happened at the corner of Spring Street and South Grand Avenue – just one block from home – on a September afternoon. Although Haslam and the students never left the DIS gym, the group was transported to the imaginary world of author Andrew Clements as Haslam read two chapters from Clements’ 1996 children’s novel, “Frindle.”

State Easing Into New ‘Common Core’ Curriculum (TN Report)

State officials are beginning to phase in changes to Tennessee’s public education curriculum to include more analytical thinking and, officials hope, less teaching to the test. The state is training 12,000 classroom instructors this summer how to teach math principles under the new “common core” curriculum in grades three through eight, a system Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says will better ready Tennessee’s youth for college and the work force.

Tenn. jobless rate drops for 9th straight month (Associated Press)

Tennessee’s unemployment dropped slightly in April, marking the ninth straight month of decreases in the state’s unemployment rate. The 7.8 percent unemployment rate is down from 7.9 percent in March and the lowest it’s been since November 2008. Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Karla Davis said in a release that the decrease in the jobless rate is largely caused by fewer people seeking work.

State jobless rate now at 7.8% (Nashville Post)

Tennessee’s unemployment rate for April fell to 7.8 percent, down from the March revised rate of 7.9 percent, according to Tennesee Department of Labor and Workforce Development numbers released today. The national unemployment rate for April was 8.1 percent, 0.1 percentage point lower than the March rate. “While Tennessee’s unemployment rate has declined for nine consecutive months, April’s decrease is mostly attributable to a shrinking labor force,” department Commissioner Karla Davis said in a release.

Tennessee unemployment rate lower in April (Memphis Business Journal)

Tennessee’s unemployment rate fell slightly in April to 7.8 percent, continuing to inch downward throughout 2012 and reaching its lowest point in three and a half years. The state’s rate was 7.9 percent in March, 8 percent in February and 8.2 percent in January, according to Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development data. The nation’s jobless rate in April was 8.1 percent, keeping Tennessee below the national average for the fourth consecutive month.

Tennessee unemployment continues to fall (Nashville Business Journal)

Tennessee’s unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent in April, down from 7.9 percent in March, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced today. It marks the ninth straight month that the state’s unemployment rate has fallen. Nationally, the unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent, down from 8.2 percent in March “While Tennessee’s unemployment rate has declined for nine consecutive months, April’s decrease is mostly attributable to a shrinking labor force,” said Labor Commissioner Karla Davis in a news release.

Unemployment Falls As Fewer Search For Work (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Tennessee’s unemployment rate ticked slightly down again last month. It’s now at 7.8 percent – just a hair better than the national rate. One reason is more Tennesseans who are out of a job seem have stopped looking for one. April marks the ninth straight month statewide unemployment went down. But officials with Tennessee’s labor department caution that doesn’t necessarily show finding work getting easier.

Unemployment rates fall in Tennessee, Georgia (Times Free-Press/Flessner)

Unemployment fell last month in Tennessee and Georgia to the lowest level in more than three years, although the decline in Tennessee was as much from fewer people looking for work in April as it was to an improving job market. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Thursday that the jobless rate in April fell in the Volunteer State to 7.8 percent, the lowest Tennessee rate since before Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008.

Comptroller Finds Incomplete Implementation of ‘Complete College Act’ (WPLN)

Now that funding for public universities in Tennessee depends on their graduation rates, the state comptroller says data they submit needs to be verified. State auditors have been tracking implementation of a set of laws meant to get more students finishing a degree. Prior to passage of the Compete College Act of 2010, universities were funded based on enrollment numbers. Now that graduation rates are the key, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission is being asked to do more than take a college’s word for the stats.

State of Tennessee flags Signal Mountain School staffers’ licenses (TFP/Harrison)

Five Signal Mountain Middle/High School staff members disciplined for drinking alcohol on a senior trip may appeal to the state to keep their teaching licenses after the Tennessee State Board of Education recommended their licenses be suspended for one year. Those five members and two others were suspended without pay in April after the county schools’ central office staff investigated their behavior during the five-day cruise to the Bahamas in March.

I-24 bridge repairs, various road closures to cause weekend detours (City Paper)

Crews contracting with the Tennessee Department of Transportation will again shut down a section of Interstate 24 east of downtown Nashville this weekend for bridge repair work. The road closures are set to begin at 9 p.m. Friday and continue till 5 a.m. Monday. During the scheduled closures, I-24 eastbound and westbound will be closed from the I-24/I-65 split north of downtown to the I-24/I-40 split east of downtown. The project also requires the closing of sections of Main Street and Woodland Street underneath the interstate.

Tennessee Department of Agriculture says a Berry Good Crop is Almost Gone (CO)

Tennessee has enjoyed a good year for strawberries in most places across the state, despite some cantankerous cold spells. The end of the strawberry crop just a couple of weeks from now signals the beginning of the summer produce season, with wave after wave of favorites lasting until a hard frost closes down harvests for the year. Local strawberry patches will likely have berries for a few more weeks.

Law to clear some convicts’ records in Tennessee (Commercial Appeal/Whitten)

Nonviolent criminals can pay fee, restitution to wipe slate clean Tennesseans who have committed certain nonviolent crimes will be able to have their criminal records expunged for a $350 fee under a bill expected to become law July 1. The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Karen Camper and state Sen. Reginald Tate, both D-Memphis, passed by a wide margin earlier this year. Tennesseans convicted of a single felony or misdemeanor for nonviolent theft, certain types of fraud, vandalism, or other nonviolent crimes may qualify.

No undercover investigation of horse abuse if Tenn. bill had passed (CA/Locker)

Two West Tennessee state legislators tried to pass a bill this year that would have made it a crime to conduct the kind of undercover investigation that produced video of horse abuse, resulting in federal and state charges against a Collierville walking-horse trainer and three associates. The bill was filed in January by state Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and appeared en route to passage in the Senate until it ran into opposition in a House subcommittee last month and died for the year.

Cooper, Black Join ‘Fix Congress Now’ Caucus (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Nashville Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper says support is growing for his ‘No Budget, No Pay’ Act. But the legislation still hasn’t caught the eye of the power brokers on Capitol Hill. Cooper is trying to tie lawmaker’s salaries to their ability to pass a budget. He has forty eight cosponsors in the House and eleven supporters in the Senate. That’s a lot more support than most bills get, but it still doesn’t guarantee the legislation will ever reach the House floor.

Scott DesJarlais ‘bought’ by lobbyists, say Tennessee Democrats (TFP/Carroll)

Tennessee Democratic Party officials are renewing accusations of “pay-to-play politics” in U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ office. Statewide Democratic leaders initially raised the issue in late March, saying the first-term Republican received re-election help from a nuclear energy company five days before he urged government officials to “free up funds” for one of the company’s projects. A minute long video released Thursday describes DesJarlais as “bought and paid for by the Washington lobbyists.”

Postal Service announces mass layoffs (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/O’Neil)

The United States Postal Service announced today it will close 48 mail processing and distribution centers this summer, cutting 13,000 jobs. The Shallowford Road center was marked for closure earlier this year, but won’t close this summer. But the life of the center and its more than 250 jobs is likely short. The Postal Service plans to close an additional 92 centers by February 2014, then another 89 by the end of 2014.

Mail processing to move soon (Jackson Sun)

Postal Service to shift Jackson operations to Memphis beginning in the summer As part of a nationwide effort to reduce costs and increase efficiency, the U.S. Postal Service announced on Thursday it will consolidate its network of 461 processing facilities. The nearly bankrupt postal service is moving ahead with plans to close dozens of mail processing centers, saying on Thursday it can no longer wait as Congress remains deadlocked over how to help.

Lack of rain keeps TVA reservoir levels low (Times Free-Press/Sohn)

Despite recent rains, several reservoirs managed by TVA have lower water levels because of below-normal rain and runoff this spring. Those reservoirs — including Hiwassee, Nottely, Normandy, Norris and Cherokee — may not reach targeted summer recreation levels by June 1, TVA says. With lake levels at some tributary reservoirs down as much as 8 feet, recreation will take a hit, as will power production. Hydroelectric generation is running 12 percent below normal, according to TVA officials.

Demolition versus preservation: K-25 plan still not a done deal (N-S/Munger)

Despite another last-ditch, four-hour meeting, the latest in a decade’s worth of debate, no agreement emerged Thursday on whether to preserve a piece of the historic K-25 uranium-enrichment facility and how to share the plant’s World War II and Cold War stories with future generations. However, it appears that a consensus is building for a plan based on “Concept B” — the National Park Service’s third choice out of three options — that would enable the Department of Energy to demolish the K-25 building in its entirety.

Judge gives TVA time to provide info on tree-cutting policy (News-Sentinel/Marcum)

U.S. District Court Judge Tom Varlan on Thursday allowed TVA time to submit more documents before he rules on a request for an injunction against TVA’s tree-cutting policies. Some Westminster Place residents are suing the Tennessee Valley Authority over its plans to take down trees in a transmission line right of way running through their neighborhood. In a motion hearing Thursday, they asked Varlan to place TVA under a preliminary injunction prohibiting it from continuing what the plaintiffs say is an over aggressive tree-cutting policy until the lawsuit can be heard.

Hamilton County school board ‘let down’ by fundraising (Times Free-Press/Martin)

The business community “let down” the school system and “disappointed” school board members by not adequately funding a science, technology, engineering and math school in Hamilton County, board members said Thursday evening during their monthly meeting. Board members voted 6-3 to approve $500,000 from the school system’s capital projects fund to ensure work continues on the school scheduled to open in August.

Memphis-area high school ‘grads’ may not receive diploma (C. Appeal/Roberts)

All can participate, despite failure risk Thousands of high school seniors are being allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies here despite questions about their final grades. Because the issue is beyond students’ control, both the Memphis City and Shelby County schools are letting seniors walk across the stage without knowing how they did on end-of-course exams, or as a result, whether they have passed courses required for graduation.

Schools transition panel decides 79 ideas (Commercial Appeal/Kelley)

The commission planning the transition to a united city-county school district on Thursday plowed through and approved a list of 79 recommendations that could wind up in its final report this summer. Completion of many of the recommendations dealing with educational services, personnel and governance shifts the focus of the Transition Planning Commission now to a somewhat harder job: figuring out how to pay for the world-class public school system it envisions.

Merged Schools Specifics Clear Another Hurdle (Memphis Daily News)

Recommendations for the look of the new countywide school system cleared another set of hurdles Thursday, May 17. But the estimates of the cost of the different parts of the school system to come in August 2013 are still to come. All of that is ahead of a scheduled June 14 vote on the entire draft plan. A final vote on the work would follow public comment and input sessions. The schools consolidation planning commission approved several sets of recommendations Thursday that are steps on the way to final approval of a draft plan next month.

Sullivan County Schools $6.9 million dollar shortfall could lead to teacher cuts (HC)

With Sullivan County schools facing a $6.9 million budget deficit, school leaders are looking at possible teacher cuts to cut costs. Director of Schools Jubal Yenney tells 11 Connects, 80 percent of the school system’s budget goes to payroll. But the county recently lost funding for teacher salaries when a federal job program ended. The school system is also facing increased medical costs and state mandated teacher pay raises.

Lawsuit looms at Hardin Co. High (Jackson Sun)

Gay and lesbian support is under fire at school The Southern Poverty Law Center is representing a Hardin County High School student who said her friends were threatened with punishment for wearing apparel adorned with slogans supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. A lawyer for the center has sent a letter to school officials, warning them to take action to remedy the situation or face a lawsuit.

Kingsport couple face meth charges after traffic stop (Times-News)

An attempted traffic stop for speeding in Kingsport has led to the discovery of a suspected meth lab, with the driver fleeing the car and running into a wooded area before being arrested. The incident began shortly after 2 p.m. on South John B. Dennis Highway. Kingsport Police Department Officer Aaron Grimes said he observed a southbound Ford Tempo traveling 66 mph in a 45 mph zone. Grimes said he attempted to conduct a stop at Moreland Drive, but the suspects’ car continued to the parking lot of Burger King, 1332 S. John B. Dennis.

Florida: Florida Steps Up Effort Against Illegal Voters (New York Times)

In an attempt to clear the voter rolls of noncitizens, a move that had set off criticism and a threatened lawsuit, Florida election officials decided on Thursday to use information from a federal database to check a list of 182,000 voters who they suspect are not citizens, officials said. Since last year, the Florida Division of Elections had sought access to the immigration database, which is maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, but the department said there were legal and technical difficulties in sharing the information.

Kentucky: As KY plans to execute inmate, need for new hip creates dilemma (AP)

A condemned killer’s fight to receive surgery for agonizing hip pain pushed Kentucky officials into an uncomfortable debate over security, politics and even the possibility of inviting scorn from Fox News pundits. Emails and memos obtained by The Associated Press show corrections officials struggling for a year to reconcile their duty to provide medical care with the political ramifications of spending tens of thousands of dollars for surgery on a man they plan to execute.

 

OPINION

 

Editorial: Laws alone won’t solve drug abuse problems in nation (Herald-Courier)

Several hundred Bristol, Tenn., students watched the last step in the making of a Tennessee law: Gov. Bill Haslam’s ceremonial signing Monday of a ban on the manufacture and sale of synthetic drugs, also known as bath salts. The setting – at Tennessee High School – was significant. The bills were created and promoted by Northeast Tennessee lawmakers, police and prosecutors who have seen at least six deaths in our region attributed to abuse of these substances. There is a greater significance in that the ceremony was held in a place of education.

Editorial: Connected Tennessee a valuable service (Jackson Sun)

Developing adequate computer skills is essential in today’s technology-driven world, especially for young people. But not every child has the resources needed to access computer technology. That’s why Connected Tennessee’s “Preparing Tennessee’s Next Generation for Success” project is so important. Established in August 2010, the program is having a significant impact on two of the state’s most vulnerable youth populations. Connected Tennessee is a public-private partnership to help advance the deployment of technology in Tennessee.

Editorial: School board whiffed on missing laptop (Daily News Journal)

Losing school property is a serious offense, and Rutherford County Schools should have sent a message to one of its principals when she failed to report a missing laptop computer. Homer Pittard Campus School Principal Chontel Bridgeman testified this week in an open records request hearing that she inadvertently left her computer at Vanderbilt University’s Wyatt Center in June 2010. Yet even though it might have contained confidential student information, she didn’t tell the central office until about seven months later.

Editorial: Debt battle ramps up in Congress as election nears (News-Sentinel)

Last summer’s congressional fight over raising the federal debt ceiling was so nasty and economically risky — it resulted in an unprecedented downgrade in the United States’ previously sterling credit rating by Standard & Poor’s — that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wants to do it all over again this year, and do so before the presidential election to score political points. Boehner, who seems to have little, if any, control over his 87 Republican freshmen, apparently feels his credibility on these matters was undamaged when he was forced to renege on the deal that ended the debt-ceiling impasse.

Editorials: What will true costs really be? (Commercial Appeal)

Paying for schools: County lawmaker Mike Ritz has given suburban voters food for thought on the true costs of suburban schools. Suburban municipal leaders and their consultants are pooh-poohing a report challenging the cost of starting independent municipal school districts. Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz, whose district includes a portion of the suburbs, said the municipal districts will cost more than suburban leaders think. Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman said Ritz’s report was “clouding” the contentious issue and had raised unnecessary fears and doubts among voters. We disagree with Wissman.