This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam today announced an executive order to change the management and oversight of state drug court programs as part of his administration’s ongoing effort to increase government efficiency and effectiveness. Executive Order No. 12 transfers the drug court programs from the Department of Finance and Administration (F&A) to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS) effective July 1st, 2012.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and ECD Commissioner Bill Hagerty announced June 11 that Magneti Marelli will expand its Pulaski outfit, a $53.7 million investment that will create 800 new jobs. Magneti Marelli is a top global automotive systems and components supplier, and a new automotive lighting operation will be housed inside the company’s existing Pulaski facility.
It will be a special day Thursday at the Cleveland Bradley County Public Library as United Way of Bradley County, along with a host of volunteers, will be “raising their hand” to read to area youngsters. A part of the statewide initiative entitled “Raise Your Hand Tennessee,” the event will begin at 10 a.m. and continue through 7 p.m. at the library… Nearly 40 other United Ways across the state will be conducting similar events. First Lady Crissy Haslam will be reading to children at at least one event in the state on Thursday.
Higher education nationwide has been racked with turnover at the top in the last year, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is no exception. Within a month, its top two leaders announced that they are leaving. UTC Provost Phil Oldham will become president at Tennessee Tech University on July 1, and Chancellor Roger Brown, 64, will retire at the end of March. It’s rare for a university to lose multiple key leaders at the same time, experts say.
The town of Jonesborough’s plan to correct dangerous traffic patterns at the entrance to the Washington County Justice Center is on its way to the Tennessee Department of Transportation for a preliminary review. The proposed reconfiguration of the center median and turn lanes on Jackson Boulevard (US 11E) at the Justice Center entrance and at nearby North Cherokee Street was approved by the town’s Traffic Advisory Committee in late May and presented to the board of mayor and aldermen last week.
State regulators have taken possession of the Farmers Bank of Lynchburg and appointed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. as its receiver. The Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions announced the action late Friday afternoon, citing the bank’s “impaired capital, unsound condition and inability to continue normal operations.” Deposit accounts of the bank have been transferred to Clayton Bank and Trust of Knoxville and will be available immediately.
Whoever wins the House District 53 seat this fall could represent the South Nashville area in the General Assembly for a long time. Two Democrats and two Republicans are running to succeed retiring state Rep. Janis Sontany, and all four are in their 30s. Each candidate brings government and political experience to the table, from seeking or holding an elected office to working for President George W. Bush during his second term. “It’s a critical period in our state,” said Democrat Jason Powell, who ran unsuccessfully for another House seat in 2006.
Cases highlight a persistent problem across Tennessee At first glance, Ronald Lewallen’s six-year prison sentence for drunken driving may appear harsh. Other East Tennessee defendants have drawn much lighter punishments. In Sevierville, for example, a man who was drunk when he killed a high school baseball coach during a 2008 crash received no prison time — only probation. But climbing behind the wheel drunk had landed Lewallen behind bars before.
The Chattanooga City Council is a step away from voting on a $209 million operating budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year. The only roadblock is reaching agreement on who among the 2,100-person workforce will get raises. “I think they are pretty much close to a compromise,” said Councilwoman Carol Berz, chairwoman of the Budget and Finance Committee. The council has been working on the budget for more than a month, and questions concerning salaries have been an issue for three weeks.
9th District Democratic challenger accustomed to long odds, confident of ‘giant leap’ from school board to Congress against incumbent Steve Cohen. There’s a historical precedent for what Tomeka Hart is trying to do. In 2004, she took on a powerful, 17-year incumbent, and beat him with 68 percent of the vote to win a seat on the Memphis City Schools board. Now a member of the unified school board that is carrying out the merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools, Hart is aiming higher this year. Her sights are set on three-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary that is tantamount to outright election in the heavily Democratic 9th Congressional District.
It has been a long time since Memphis and Shelby County saw a truly competitive Republican primary race in the 9th Congressional District. The heavily Democratic district has been in Democratic hands since 1975, when Harold Ford Sr. took office after defeating the GOP incumbent, Dan Kuykendall. Charlotte Bergmann, 59, a Republican businesswoman who won 25 percent of the general election vote in 2010 when she ran against incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, drew a primary election opponent this year in deep-pocketed Dr. George S. Flinn Jr., 68, a former Shelby County commissioner.
Critics say U.S. citizens will suffer Sixteen-year-old Kevin Rodas’ face lit up Saturday as he talked about his hopes for the future. The soon-to-be senior at Hunters Lane High School, who was serving as a Spanish interpreter on Saturday at a legal clinic in South Nashville, got an excited phone call from his uncle on Friday, soon after news broke about President Barack Obama’s announcement that would allow some illegal immigrants up to the age of 30 to remain in the country and apply for work permits.
States are dealing with slow economic growth while Medicaid stands out as the biggest fiscal challenge, according to a survey from the National Governors Association (NGA) and National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO). Medicaid has the single largest tab of total state spending — estimated to account for 24 percent in the 2011 fiscal year. The NGA-NASBO survey said state funds directed toward Medicaid increased dramatically in the 2012 fiscal year, while federal spending rapidly declined because federal stimulus funds expired.
What’s so great about watching water fall off a cliff? Sandy Brewer knows. “We take them for granted, because we grow up with them,” said Brewer, tourism coordinator with the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association. “But talk to someone from the Great Plains and you begin to understand how fascinating they are.” Overhill is a tourism association based in Etowah, Tenn., that serves Polk, McMinn and Monroe counties, the southern half of the Cherokee National Forest. The association’s job is to bring visitors to the mountain counties.
Local banks have fielded hundreds of questions from worried Clarksvillians this week in the wake of the hacking of school system records. Hackers on Monday and again Wednesday released a list that included Social Security numbers and birth dates for past and present employees and students. In both releases, the list was removed from the Internet hours later. Announcements from the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System have advised past and present employees and students to take steps to monitor their finances.
After spending an estimated 400 hours in 150 meetings with 100 members of the Memphis City and Shelby County Schools staffs, interacting with about 14,000 in community meetings and producing more than 10,000 pages of documents, Transition Planning Commission members believe they have an acceptable plan for merging the districts. Whether the unified school board and the state commissioner of education agree remains to be seen. But finishing the first draft of the transition plan last week was a satisfying experience that left TPC members beaming with pride and hopeful the community will embrace their 200-and-some-page baby.
Downtown parking lots around the Memphis Cook Convention Center filled up Saturday morning as thousands of parents brought their 4-year-olds to enroll in Memphis City Schools’ fourth annual Pre-K Express event. Carolyn Harvey, director of the MCS Pre-K Office, said families started arriving more than two hours before the scheduled start of the enrollment and orientation event. “So many families are at different stages of this enrollment process,” Harvey said. “There are just so many more kids than there are spots. And that’s a problem.”
With 41 years of teaching experience, Gwendolyn Whitelaw plans to spend at least a few more years in the classroom. She’s a part of a teaching population in West Tennessee opting not to retire. In some districts veteran teachers sticking around leaves fewer positions for new teachers. “I like what I do and I do it because I want to make a difference,” said Whitelaw, who teaches at Alexander Elementary in Jackson-Madison County Schools. Henderson County Superintendent Steve Wilkinson said his district had fewer open positions than normal this year because fewer teachers who were eligible to retire actually retired.
It’s tough to be a Tennessee teacher right now. Their pay is low, expectations high, their unions have been usurped, and they’re graded with a stringent new evaluation system that is deeply flawed. The first effort to fix that last one, a 40-page report by the think tank SCORE, did anything but. stands for State Collaborative on Reforming Education. It’s a well-respected group run by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist. Gov. Bill Haslam asked the organization to evaluate the evaluation system, when state legislators were about to change the system themselves. No one disagrees that teachers should be evaluated, including teachers. The devil is in the “how.”
Workforce development remains a key to success in growing jobs, and the Tennessee Technology Center at Dickson’s Clarksville Extension Campus is poised to play an even bigger role in training local people for local jobs. The training school, which is part of the Tennessee Board of Regents system, is adding some 65,000 square feet to its current 19,000-square-foot campus at the corner of International Boulevard and Guthrie Highway. It will be able to expand its student base from about 150 students now to more than 300. The Regents committed some $16 million to construct the new building, which is expected to open in May 2013.
The public-private partnership known as Connected Tennessee just released new data showing that more than 95 percent of the Volunteer State’s households now have access to basic broadband Internet service. That’s good news in an increasingly high-tech world, and in a state with as many difficult-to-access rural areas as Tennessee. But it’s not good enough, the organization’s executive director said. “Progress must continue … in order to bring the empowering technology of broadband to the remaining 123,220 Tennessee households unserved by basic, non-mobile, high-speed Internet,” Corey Johns wrote in a news release.
A Rutherford County chancellor’s ruling that the local planning commission failed to give adequate notice of a meeting to approve the site plan for a controversial mosque has troubling ramifications. Chancellor Robert Corlew determined that the public notice published prior to the meeting in the Murfreesboro Post was inadequate and that the planning commission should have known the issue would be controversial and done more, including posting information on the county website, to inform the public. Corlew hasn’t stopped construction on the mosque but ordered last week that the county could not issue an occupancy permit.
Music festivals are almost always (weather permitting) great fun for the fans. Besides the music, it’s a chance to hang out with friends and sometimes get close to your idol. At the CMA Music Festival, which wrapped up its 40th annual event last week, the air of good feeling is even more special. Not only do the performers appear at no cost, half of the ticket proceeds go to help music education in Metro Nashville Public Schools. The impact of that gift has been huge. Since the Keep the Music Playing program began in 2006, more than $6 million has been donated to 80 schools, funding construction of music labs and purchasing instruments and supplies.
Happy Father’s Day to those of you who qualify, and particularly to my 80-year-old dad, who is, I am sure, playing golf down at the beach today. Thank you for the responses to my column last week; a little heartier thanks to them that liked it, but I do appreciate those who found my questions, conclusions or prose lacking. We certainly learn and grow more from our mistakes than our successes (since I make so many more mistakes than have successes, I have taken this as my mantra from the first bare-butt spanking I received so many years ago; thanks, Dad). As I said last week, I support investing in Metro Nashville, and a hefty 13 percent increase in taxes should not necessarily be considered unreasonable. But I questioned exactly how the proposed budget was going to achieve results we could rationally count upon.
Six months ago today I was sworn in as Mayor of Knoxville. One of the first challenges my administration faced was dealing with a major unfunded liability in the city employees’ pension plan. Most simply, this unfunded liability was the result of substantial investment losses in 2008 and previous costly enhancements to the plan. During my campaign for mayor, I promised to tackle this issue by reducing pension costs and market risk for taxpayers while maintaining competitive benefits in order to recruit and retain qualified and experienced police officers, firefighters, and general government workers.
As the city and county continue to evaluate their pension plans, ‘double dipping’ should be on the agenda. When some public employees are able to draw huge pensions while many working folks in the private sector are facing cuts in their pensions, or have none at all, it naturally raises eyebrows. Recent news about Roland McElrath, the city of Memphis finance director, and Larry Cox, president and chief executive officer of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, falls into that category. McElrath, 51, is leaving his city position, which pays $118,879 annually, to become controller at Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division.
The Rutherford County Commission got it all wrong with a 15-6 vote Thursday night to appeal a court ruling voiding the building permit for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. Contrary to what some officials are saying, Chancellor Robert Corlew didn’t ask them to discriminate against the mosque with a ruling that the county failed to provide adequate notice before a 2010 planning commission meeting. In fact, his decision gave clear instructions for correcting their notice process and moving forward with a vote to approve the mosque’s site plan. Rutherford County has spent more than $188,000 on this lawsuit brought by residents who challenged the mosque site plan approval.
Over the years I have learned that cleaner air means better jobs as well as better health for Tennesseans. That’s why this week I will vote to uphold a clean air rule that requires utilities in other states to install the same pollution controls the Tennessee Valley Authority already is installing on its coal-fired power plants. TVA alone can’t clean up our air. Tennessee is bordered by more states than any other state. We are surrounded by our neighbors’ smokestacks. If we want more Nissan and Volkswagen plants, we will have to stop dirty air from blowing into Tennessee.