This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker are to testify Monday in Murfreesboro at a Republican dominated Congressional field hearing. U.S. Reps. Scott Desjarlais, Diane Black and Marsha Blackburn, all Republicans like the other three, also are scheduled to attend. The subject is “Tennessee Job Creation: Do Federal Government Regulations Help or Hinder Tennessee’s Economic Development?” The hearing will be conducted by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the federal government has yet to grasp the effects of what he called burdensome regulations that obstruct job growth and economic recovery. The hearing will be at the Business and Aerospace Building at Middle Tennessee State University. HYPERLINK
Make plans now to attend the Southern Growth Policies Board 2012 Chairman’s Conference hosted by Gov. Bill Haslam on June 25-26, 2012 in Chattanooga, Tenn. at The Chattanoogan Hotel. The conference will examine job and workforce trends, with a view towards re-imagining tomorrow’s educated worker. This will include exploring tough questions, such as: How can we determine the skills needed for future jobs when we’re not sure what those jobs will be? How can we raise awareness of potential career paths and opportunities? What are the implications for P-16? What is the business perspective and what role will the business sector play in this preparation? And how do we connect the dots between different players-from K-12 to community colleges to universities to industry?
Interviews start today for some of the 18 people who have applied to become the first executive director of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. Lynn Greer, a former TRA director who is president and CEO of Nashville-based Greer Investment Co., is among the applicants. So is Joseph Werner, a CPA in the state’s Department of Finance and Administration who formerly served the TRA as telecommunications chief, financial analyst and in other roles. Two others with current or former TRA ties have applied, as well as several utility industry consultants or analysts, executives with smaller utilities, and the senior director of government affairs for Corrections Corporation of America. The Tennessee Regulatory Authority’s duties include rate-setting for monopoly utilities like Tennessee American Water and Chattanooga Gas. State lawmakers this year granted Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s wish to change the organization’s governance from four full-time board members to a part-time board with five members and a full-time executive director.
Eighteen people have applied for the job of running day-to-day operations of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, including the first chairman of the agency and three current or former TRA employees. The utility-regulating TRA was substantially changed earlier this year with passage of legislation pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam. The transformation replaces the present four full-time directors with a five-member part-time board and creates a new position for a full-time executive director. During legislative debate, critics of the Haslam bill questioned whether the executive director would effectively run the agency with the part-time board serving as a rubber stamp for his or her decisions. Proponents rejected such contentions. The deadline for submitting applications was June 6, but the Haslam administration — in response to a request made a day later — did not provide a full list of applicants until Friday.
Chattanooga State Community College plans to launch a pilot honors college that will allow some students the chance to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from a private school. The pilot program is set to begin in the fall with 16 students, who will participate part time. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that the goal is to have the program fully operational by the fall of 2013. It will be open to students who have ACT scores of at least 27 and a grade point average of 3.6. So far, Chattanooga State has partnered with three schools to offer the four-year degrees — Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee and Berry and Morehouse colleges in Georgia. School officials are continuing discussions with institutions, including Vanderbilt and Belmont universities. “We have many people in our community who are the first of their family who aspire to go to college, and they might be college ready from point of view from an ACT or SAT score, but do they really know this huge cultural change that’s going to occur when they go to an elite school?” asked James Catanzaro, president at Chattanooga State.
State efforts to close down Taft Youth Development Center and transfer some of Tennessee’s toughest teen offenders to other state facilities are creating a flow of delinquents into some county lockups, several officials say. “All I’m hearing is the detention centers are holding them until there’s an opening [at state facilities] and it’s piling up and bottlenecking,” said Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, who was among area lawmakers opposed to closing the 95-year-old center in Bledsoe County. Department of Children’s Services spokeswoman Molly Sudderth denied in an email that there are problems related to shuttering Taft. It houses offenders ages 16 to 19 with at least three prior felony convictions, or those convicted of violent crimes or who have proven difficult to manage in other state facilities. “We aim to place all Youth Development Center-eligible youth within 30 days of their commitment,” Sudderth said in the email. “On June 14, 2012, the average length of stay for a youth waiting in detention before being placed in a Youth Development Center was 14 days.” A year ago, it was 22 days, she said. Area lawmakers also pointed out that the final closure has been delayed from July 1, the start of the new budget year, to July 13. But Sudderth said, “We would argue that there is no delay.”
Judge held back in spat It may have devolved into a shouting match, but last week’s hearing on a motion to try to force Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood from helming one of Knoxville’s most horrific criminal cases was tame compared to what Blackwood said he initially intended. Tired of being blamed for the legal morass in the wake of revelations former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner was an alcoholic turned pill addict with a criminal mistress, Blackwood recounted Thursday a chat with his father, who was upset at the public scourging his son was receiving for granting new trials to the defendants in the January 2007 torture slayings of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23. “He says to me, ‘Jon Kerry, why don’t you get up there and tell them what’s going on,’ ” Blackwood recalled of his father. “I said, ‘Daddy, I can’t do that.’ ” But then, Blackwood said, he received a copy of District Attorney General Randy Nichols’ motion to recuse Blackwood — a motion that accused him of all manner of misconduct and indicated he had lost all objectivity in the case.
A state lawmaker says a recent legal opinion from the state’s attorney general has soothed concerns about Tennessee’s open meetings law. Republican Rep. Tony Shipley of Kingsport said he requested the opinion to clarify that local government officials can meet privately over a meal, as long as they don’t decide public business. “My county commissioners were concerned they couldn’t even go to lunch together, and I told them I don’t think that’s the intent,” Shipley said. “So essentially that’s what I asked the AG, and he said: No, of course they can go to lunch together.” Attorney General Bob Cooper cautioned in the opinion that while officials can share meals, they must avoid deliberating about official matters, which “has been defined to mean to ‘examine and consult in order to form an opinion,’ or to ‘weigh arguments for and against a proposed course of action.’” The Tennessee County Commissioners Association during this year’s legislative session sought to have the state’s open meetings law changed to allow private meetings among officials as long as a quorum isn’t present.
Candidates for different seats in the Legislature to represent Knox County will have activities this week. State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, a Republican who represents the 6th District after being elected in a special election last fall, will kick off her re-election bid 5-7 p.m. Tuesday at the Foundry. She said she will stress her support for a fiscally responsible and balanced state budget, major initiatives to curb prescription and synthetic drug abuse, job growth and measures to improve education. She noted the General Assembly adjourned May 1, which was the quickest in 14 years. “This saved taxpayers a great deal of money,” said Massey, who has no opponent in the Aug. 2 primary. Evelyn Gill, a special-education teacher, is the lone Democrat seeking the post. Gloria Johnson, Knox County Democratic Party chair who is the only candidate running in her party’s August primary to succeed retiring state Rep. Harry Tindell to represent the 13th District, will participate in a round table discussion on the proposed Tennessee First Act at 1:30 p.m. today at the Time Warp Tea Room. The legislation would give priority for state projects to in-state businesses.
Shelby County’s loss of two seats in the state House this year means four incumbent Memphis Democrats are squaring off in two separate Midtown-centered districts this summer. In Memphis’ House District 90, Rep. John DeBerry and Rep. Jeanne Richardson are running, along with community activist Ian Richardson. In House District 93, Rep. G.A. Hardaway and Rep. Mike Kernell are running for the same seat. Both districts are heavily Democratic and have no Republican candidates in the general election. The two districts border each other and comprise most of Midtown and Poplar-Highland areas, with extensions into South and North Memphis and up to Frayser. The four incumbents have a total of 66 years of experience in the state legislature, with Kernell alone counting for 38, followed by DeBerry with 18. Hardaway and Richardson have five years each, after both won special elections in 2007.
A spokesman for Tennessee Secretary of State Tré Hargett and state Election Coordinator Mark Goins said Sunday both welcome a settlement reached last week in a legal dispute involving state voter files. Tennessee Democratic Party officials say their data experts found full or partial voter histories missing for about 11,000 state-maintained voter files they obtained last month. The assertions were introduced in federal court Friday in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, who was turned away from the polls in the March primary. “We’re actually very happy with this settlement,” spokesman Blake Fontenay said in a telephone message on behalf of Hargett and Goins, both Republicans. “Just like we offered to let you look at voter files to verify they’re not missing, we’re happy to let a special master come in to do that and we welcome the opportunity. … We want to be transparent.” Judges sometimes appoint special masters in complex civil cases where their expertise would assist the court. The Times Free Press reported Sunday that U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp requested both sides agree to a proposed consent decree. They did so Friday night, and it will be submitted to the court this week.
Future unclear as election looms The fate of Philadelphia is in the hands of a small group of citizen volunteers battling financial burdens that threaten the tiny Loudon County town’s very existence. The town was almost counted out four years ago when it couldn’t find anyone to run for mayor or other offices. Volunteers stepped up to lead the town, but as another election looms, future leadership remains uncertain. At a county commission budget committee meeting earlier this month, the Philadelphia fire department was criticized for poor response to mutual aid calls. Committee members also said they were concerned about the financial health of the community. The committee recommended that the county no longer provide $23,000 in funding for the fire department. With one convenience store, one motel, a couple of used car dealerships and the flagship Sweetwater Farms Dairy, the 1.6-square-mile town doesn’t have much of a tax base, admits Mayor Paul Stallings.
A national study puts Grundy at the bottom of Tennessee’s 95 counties when it comes to factors affecting health and life expectancy, including death rates, access to health care and healthy foods, economic and education factors, diet and smoking rates. Even at dead last, Grundy is not far below Marion and Sequatchie, which rank 88th and 89th, respectively. Meigs, Rhea and Polk all rank in the bottom 25 percent of Tennessee counties, according to the 2012 County Health Rankings. The study, released in April by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, analyzes factors within four categories — health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment — each of which contain several measures. Grundy ranked in the bottom 25 percent — 72nd or worse — of Tennessee counties in three of the four categories, the study shows. It ranked 89th in health factors, which includes a 35th ranking in health behaviors, 92nd in clinical care and 88th in social and economic factors. But the county notched a 31st rank — second best next to Bledsoe among Southeast Tennessee’s 10 counties — under physical environment factors thanks to its clean air and access to healthy food, study officials said.
Bradley County Republican Party chairman and local school officials do not see eye to eye when it comes to the $32 wheel tax referendum on the Aug. 2 ballot. “We oppose any new tax,” Bradley GOP Chairman David Smith said Thursday. The Republican Party is not opposed to education or to any individual, he said. The county Democratic Party has taken no official position. Several schools, in both the city and county school systems, are appealing for “yes” votes on their marquee signs. Bradley County school board Chairman Charlie Rose agreed that no one really wants a wheel tax. “But given the current state of funding in our county, combined with the current state of capital projects necessary for our students, many of us have come to the realization that we need a wheel tax,” Rose said. “The county system is requesting funds for replacement projects or additional space for current student needs.” The city school system, and the Cleveland City Council, endorsed the County Commission’s resolution calling for a referendum.
The Memphis Veterans Affairs Medical Center is recruiting 19 mental health clinicians and two support personnel for newly created positions. According to a news release from the VA, the agency expects that they will be hired locally and within six months or so. The positions are among 1,600 clinicians and about 300 support staff just added to the existing national workforce. The Memphis center has already received funds for the posts, the VA said. It currently has 162 mental health clinicians and support staff. New staff members may review long-term and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder research and explore alternative therapies.
Federal officials say they have indefinitely closed the federal building in Oak Ridge after asbestos was found during a semiannual inspection. The building houses about 350 Department of Energy workers, but also has offices for contractors and the Oak Ridge staff of U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. DOE spokesman Mike Koentop told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that a meeting has been scheduled today to address plans for a temporary workspace until the problem can be resolved. He said the building was shut down as a precaution after inspectors found asbestos-containing insulation had become dislodged in the building’s heating-and-air system in more than one area. He said preliminary air samples taken inside the building were “clean” though more testing is being done.
Middle Tennessee Medical Center’s move from Highland Avenue to Medical Center Parkway in 2010 was a costly one, according to a report filed by the nonprofit hospital. However, MTMC President and CEO Gordon Ferguson said building the new facility “was the right thing to do.” “We had outgrown the old hospital,” Ferguson said. “We only had the ability to accommodate 216 patients there, and we expanded up to our 286 bed capacity here at the new facility.” The filing in May of the nonprofit hospital’s Form 990 tax form for nonprofits shows the financial impact of that move. MTMC reported a $10,933,735 loss in the July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, fiscal year, according to a summary of revenue and expenses on the form. “We had several million dollars of one-time expenses related to the move,” Ferguson explained. “A lot of that had to do with the obvious physical move, plus the training and retraining of our staff. In addition to hiring new staff, we had to train existing staff and orient them to the new building. We also implemented several new computer systems related to labs, radiology and pharmacy. We also went through a customer service program that was designed to bring our associates back to the real purpose we are here and that is to serve our patients.”
When Tennessee’s Achievement School District — a new governance body that oversees the state’s 85 lowest-performing schools — announced June 4 it had authorized three charter organizations to collectively launch up to 10 schools in Nashville, the city’s elected school board was caught off guard. “It kind of surprised me that they would come in and announce the possibility of a takeover at one or two of these schools without collaboration of the local board” veteran Metro school board member Ed Kindall told The City Paper. “If we don’t have a good understanding, I’m sure the public’s probably very confused,” he added. The shock of some board members highlighted a potential communications challenge for Gov. Bill Haslam’s boldest education reform endeavor — the ASD, a 1-year-old powerful, yet oft-overlooked, entity that presides over the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools. Equipped with complete governing autonomy, the ASD’s strategy is centered largely on tapping charter schools, which rely on public funds but also private boards of directors, to intervene at troubled public schools.
Unified school board member Betty Mallott, seeking to begin work on merging the school districts, will introduce a resolution at Tuesday’s board work session that would start the process of turning over the responsibility of running Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken. The transfer would be based on a board-approved plan. The merger is set for August 2013, as federal Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays ruled. MCS Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash’s job would be to “submit the various responsibilities of operations” under his authority to Aitken, Mallott says, in the year before the merger. “My resolution presumes that the superintendent for Memphis stays in his place and the superintendent from Shelby County Schools stays in his place to begin the work.” To ease the strain of transferring major departments, Mallott suggests MCS begin turning them over now.
More than 30 city school teachers in Memphis got termination notices and another 90 are awaiting tenure hearings as the district completes the first year of a new teacher evaluation process. is the first year Tennessee school districts are using a multi-measure scale that rates teachers based on factors including student achievement and principal observations in the classroom. Many school districts, including Shelby County Schools, have said they don’t plan to make personnel decisions based on the scores in the new evaluations, but Memphis City Schools said it would. District officials told The Commercial Appeal that fewer than 25 are being considered for termination based solely on their job reviews. The majority are cited for issues such as insubordination, neglect of duty or inefficiency. The district has rarely recommended so many teachers be let go in one year.
2 districts struggle to increase diversity Williamson County Schools employee recruiter Eugene Wade said he recently had a line on two well-qualified minority applicants for teaching positions in the district. They were excited about the job, Wade said. But at the last minute they turned it down. One of the reasons: a lack of services such as hair salons in the county that catered to them. “It’s difficult where it’s mostly nonminorities,” he said. “They like to join a staff where there are other people like themselves.” Such is the challenge that Wade is confronted with in hiring minorities to teach in county classrooms, where, according to the Tennessee Department of Education Report Card for 2011, about 89 percent of the student body is white. Franklin Special School District faces a similar uphill battle, with 69 percent of its students white. It also has a growing number of Hispanics, making up about 17 percent of the student population.
Companies Will Manage Six California Sites to Limit Closures Under Budget Cuts California is close to finalizing bids from private companies to take over day-to-day operations of six state parks, including Brannan Island here, in an unprecedented step by the state to prevent mass park closures after stiff budget cuts. On Monday, the state expects to finish its first corporate agreement, under which American Land & Leisure Co. would take over operations of three state parks for five years, the California Department of Parks and Recreation said. Three other state parks also are slated for private management, which covers running all concessions, visitor services, security and parks’ legal liabilities. The state will maintain ownership of the park lands. The corporate bids are part of California’s last-ditch effort to keep more state parks open. The nation’s second-biggest parks system by area after Alaska’s has been in a tailspin in recent years, with annual funding slashed by $23 million—or 20%—since 2009. “I’m not aware of any state that has concessioned the entire operation of a park to a commercial company,” said Phil McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors, a nonprofit funded by state parks.
Tennessee’s governors and state legislators over the last 10 years have made a deliberate decision to operate the state in a manner that encourages the growth of the economy through the expansion of business, an influx of residents whose money moves in our state and holding government expenses in check. The state’s standards of operation have yielded an unemployment rating lower than the national average, a tax status that is deemed “business-friendly,” and a government that serves its citizenry with an eye toward limited spending and budgets. In contrast, many state and local governments of decades past have tended to operate within a model that was supported and written about by Dr. John Kenneth Galbraith, a Keynesian economist who served in the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. This model of operation theorized that a powerful government, strong unions and large corporations would exert “countervailing power” and were the essential ingredients to a successful, fair economy.
A vote in the U.S. Senate this week could determine whether our air will be safe to breathe. Some Republicans, led by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, are pushing legislation to overturn a new Environmental Protection Agency rule that would clean up toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants. The EPA rule has long been needed, because without the scrubbers and filters that the rule would require plants to install in their smokestacks, Americans will continue to be subjected to high mercury emissions, which lead to serious birth defects and mental retardation in children, along with respiratory illnesses in children and adults. With few exceptions, Tennessee Valley Authority being one of them, utilities have refused to add the scrubbers voluntarily, claiming that it’s too costly. The EPA rule, Utility MACT, would require all power plants to emit no more mercury as of 2016 than the cleanest plants do today.
A refreshing breeze is wafting through Tennessee politics. One of the state’s favorite sons is bucking his own party to stand up for something he feels passionately. Good for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. Of course, gentle breezes can be followed by storms, and this is no exception. He’s catching hell for saying what he thinks. Alexander, for the second time in a year, is backing a clean-air rule written by the Obama administration. The first time forces coal-fired power plants to clean up their act and stop blowing their nasty smoke across Tennessee borders. This time, it is about requiring they slash emissions of mercury. The change is adamantly opposed by the Republican party, of which Alexander is a member. The result? Blow back. Tennesseans are seeing their favorite senator and former governor attacked by a group called American Commitment in mudslinging commercials that say Alexander and Obama are waging a “war on coal.” The change would produce “billions in new costs, higher electricity prices, and fewer jobs for Tennessee workers,” the commercials say.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has been consistent in his support for clean air in Tennessee’s skies, even when it has brought the wrath of special-interest groups. The Tennessee Republican has been in exactly that situation for the past week when he said he would vote to support a new clean-air rule. The senator’s stand made him the target of an advertising campaign that accuses him of “siding with (President Barack) Obama and his war on coal.” The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C., says that $1 million is being spent on the ad campaign in four states to persuade Alexander and three other senators to vote in favor of a resolution by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to disapprove the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) for power plants. American Commitment, a recently formed conservancy advocacy group, is behind the ad campaign. As an alternative to Inhofe’s resolution, Alexander is introducing legislation, along with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., to allow utilities six years, instead of the EPA’s designated three years, to comply with the rule. Alexander said many utilities have requested the extension.
Power plant pollution makes people sick and can cut lives short. That is why cleaning up coal-fired power plants is a long overdue, lifesaving necessity that thankfully Sen. Lamar Alexander has embraced to secure both a healthy and sound economic future for our state. I treat patients with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and other lung diseases in those whose lungs are especially vulnerable to the power-plant emissions. But they are not the only ones at risk. My children and yours also are highly susceptible to the long-term repercussions of having to breathe dirty air growing up, which science tells us can prevent lungs from maturing properly. We desperately need Sen. Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker to ensure receive protection from these toxic pollutants now, not years from now. Protecting them is the recently adopted Power Plant Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, as required under the Clean Air Act. Astonishingly, a campaign is under way to block these public-health protections. Until these standards take effect, coal-fired power plants have no national limits on the amount of mercury or acid gases they may pump out of their smokestacks and into the air we breathe. These standards will prevent 370 premature deaths every year just in Tennessee and will provide $3 billion in annual health benefits by 2016.