This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Chattanooga will receive a $170,000 state grant over the next two years to assist in the continued operation and maintenance of its permanent household hazardous waste facility. Gov. Bill Haslam and Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau announced today that grants totaling $680,000 went out to Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis, with the money split between each city. “Providing permanent locations for the safe disposal of potentially hazardous materials helps Tennesseans keep their homes safe, minimizes pollution and protects our state’s natural resources,” Haslam said in a news release.
State officials are warning about a scam in which perpetrators offer to arrange payments of consumers’ utility bills. The Tennessee Regulatory Authority says scammers ask for Social Security numbers or other personal information. The scammers, in exchange, provide phony bank account numbers and bank routing numbers they say would be used to pay bills online. Officials say the perpetrators tell people it’s a special federal program to pay such bills. The bogus information is being disseminated through social media, email, text messages and in-person solicitations.
State officials are warning that con artists may be trying to collect private information by posing as utility company personnel. The Department of Commerce and Insurance said some Tennesseans have been contacted and asked for their Social Security numbers by people claiming they can help them receive government assistance for utility bills. Victims have been given a fake bank account number that they are told they can use to pay utility bills. The payments appear to be legitimate initially, but they are later returned.
Tennessee’s four biggest cities will receive state grants totaling $680,000 over the next two years to continue its household hazardous waste disposal program, the state Department of Environment and Conservation said Wednesday. Metro Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga will receive $170,000 each for household hazardous waste — items such as batteries, aerosols, adhesives, cleaning fluids, pesticides, fluorescent bulbs, mercury thermometers, brake fluid, pool chemicals and paint thinner.
State troopers were told Wednesday by Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons to step up their DUI and seat belt violations enforcement in Northeast Tennessee. “Traffic fatalities are up in the district by 35 percent, and that’s unacceptable,” Gibbons said after his meeting with troopers at the Fall Branch district headquarters. “We’re really encouraging our troopers to be proactive in those (DUI and seat belt enforcement) areas in this district. … So far, we’ve had about a 17 percent increase in DUI arrests compared to this time last year and a 15 percent increase in seat belt citations compared to this time last year.”
A candidate for the state House of Representatives listed his residence on election documents as a renovated brick barn on a Goodlettsville bison ranch, even though Metro Codes says an occupancy permit has never been issued for the property and anyone living there would be violating the law. Charles Williamson said he resides at 2360 Baker Road in Goodlettsville when he filed his petition to run for the District 50 House seat earlier this year with the Davidson County Election Commission.
A debate over voters’ ability to participate in the party primary of their choice is in full swing in Dayton, Tenn., after the city mayor’s wife says she was told Wednesday her vote “will be rejected” as she sought to vote in the Aug. 2 GOP primary. “I’m still in shock,” Maxine Vincent, wife of Dayton Mayor Bob Vincent said. There were unconfirmed reports that as many as five other voters had their effort to cast ballots in the GOP primary challenged by Republican election officials.
Early on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, the big-screen TVs in the Sunsphere declared that Barack Obama would be the next occupant of the White House. Jubilant Knox County Democrats started planning their inauguration outfits and partied on, oblivious to the Republican tsunami rolling inexorably toward a house much closer to home. By the time election night was over, it was Republicans in the legislative delegation who were celebrating. Not only had they solidified their margin in the state Senate, but also they had won a one-vote majority in the state House of Representatives, giving them control of both houses in the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction.
Since early voting in advance of the Aug. 2 election day began Friday, July 13, there haven’t been any reports of problems with voter identification. There have, however, been problems with some voters not getting the right ballot with all of the races those voters are entitled to make choices in on touch-screen machines. Just as election officials completed some retraining for election workers at suburban precincts Monday, there were new complaints Tuesday in Memphis that voters at some precincts in districts affected by state legislative redistricting may have been getting the wrong ballots.
South Cordova move to Memphis will leave budget shortfallWhile the city of Memphis expects the South Cordova annexation to produce a $678,000 budget surplus, Shelby County is looking at a $790,000 loss in fire fees because of the change. And with the fiscal budget for 2013 already set, county officials say they will find a way to make up for the deficit that does not include a reduction in services or layoffs. On July 1 Memphis annexed about 1,800 South Cordova structures, giving little notice to those residents or the county.
The pair of questions the Memphis City Council is considering for the Nov. 6 ballot is another chapter in the council’s nearly five-year debate about the size and role of city government. The council Tuesday, July 17, approved on third and final reading the referendum ordinance that puts a half percent local option sales tax hike proposal to Memphis voters. Council member Shea Flinn, who proposed the ballot question, says the estimated $47 million in revenue the tax hike would generate is one way of solving a heightened budget problem coming the city’s way.
Muslims in a Tennessee congregation prepared Thursday for the holy month of Ramadan a day after a federal judge ruled they have a right to occupy their newly built mosque, overruling a county judge’s order that was keeping them out. The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro sued Rutherford County on Wednesday and asked U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell for an emergency order to let worshippers into the building before the holy month of Ramadan starts at sundown Thursday. Federal prosecutors also filed a similar lawsuit.
A federal judge is giving the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro a last-minute chance to open in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts Thursday night. The judge’s order reverses a state court’s decision that was keeping congregants from moving into the new mosque. Imam Ossama Bahloul said after the hearing his congregants should be proud of America. BAHLOUL: “We set an example to people everywhere. We can look to the people in the middle or far east or in the middle of Africa saying to them ‘America is the role model. Try to learn from us in America.’”
A new mosque in Murfreesboro can open in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a federal judge affirmed on Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell reached his decision hours after attorneys for the mosque and the U.S. Department of Justice sued Rutherford County. His action is the latest in two-year battle over whether the county properly advertised a planning meeting on mosque construction. The ruling cites freedom of religion and overturns a recent chancery court order that barred the mosque from opening.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro could celebrate Ramadan in its new mosque Friday after passing codes inspections thanks to a federal court ruling Wednesday. “We are overwhelmed with joy,” ICM board member Saleh Sbenaty said. His congregation filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday after a certificate of occupancy for its new mosque on Veals Road off Bradyville Pike was denied by the Rutherford County Building Codes Department on Monday as a result of a court ruling.
A $250 million price tag for sewer repairs is a big pill to swallow. But city officials said Wednesday that meeting the mandate of a consent decree Chattanooga reached this week with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Justice Department is doable. The city retires debt each year just as quickly as it takes on new debt for the sewer system, said Daisy Madison, the city’s chief financial officer. “[The cost] is not rising at a rate as large as it may seem,” she said. The city was handed a bill Tuesday by federal regulators stating it would have to conduct an estimated $250 million in sewer repair work over the next decade and a half.
As the county sewer authority rushes to meet an agreement with the state to repair old, leaky lines, it must cut into thousands of streets to reach them. Then its crews will repave the roads and maintain them for one year. But should the authority pay fees to local cities for the road scars they leave behind? East Ridge is caught in the middle of that debate after being sued by the Hamilton County Water and Wastwater Treatment Authority — of which it is a member — for recently requiring the utility to pay a $200 fee each time it slices into the asphalt.
Nashville resident and former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist is ready to take the conversation about health care reform down a different path. The former U.S. Senate majority leader and heart surgeon believes now is the time to weigh-in on an aspect of the Affordable Care Act that has largely been ignored: state health care insurance exchanges. It’s in those exchanges, Frist argues in a recent blog post at The Week, that customers will have access to new and better — and potentially lower-cost — private insurance plans as insurers compete for new enrollees.
Fox News host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will appear in Chattanooga today at a public rally for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann. Huckabee and the freshman congressman are expected to speak at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport today at 5:45 p.m. From there, the pair will travel to another locale in Fleischmann’s 3rd District, Campbell County, for a 7:30 p.m. rally in Jacksboro. Fleischmann’s chief of staff and former campaign consultant, Chip Saltsman, managed Huckabee’s 2008 presidential run, and Huckabee endorsed Fleischmann during the 2010 3rd District race.
While lawmakers continue to fight over how to fix the ailing U.S. Postal Service, the agency’s money problems are only growing worse. The Postal Service repeated on Wednesday that without congressional action, it will default—a first in its long history, a spokesman said—on a legally required annual $5.5 billion payment, due Aug. 1, into a health-benefits fund for future retirees. Action in Congress isn’t likely, as the House prepares to leave for its August recess. The agency said a default on the payment, for 2011, wouldn’t directly affect service or its ability to pay employees and suppliers.
Chem-Dry, a leading carpet cleaning franchise company, announced it has relocated its headquarters from Logan, Utah to Nashville. Chem-Dry’s parent company, Harris Research, Inc., recently moved into a 8,500-square-foot space in the Braid Building on 12th Avenue in the Gulch, according to a company news release. The office houses the company’s senior management, franchise development and marketing departments, according to a company spokesperson. The 30-person office includes Utah transfers and local hires.
Education choice supporters say Metro Nashville’s refusal to approve a charter school application in an affluent part of town begs the question: Are locals officials best positioned to make such decisions? Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies is appealing the Metro Nashville Public Schools Board of Education decision to reject its application to open five K-12 charter schools in 2014, testing a law giving the state the power to veto the local board’s decision. The situation is something of a case study to charter school advocates who want the option to circumvent the local political process by sending their charter school applications straight to a state agency, panel or board.
From their front porch, Kara Smith and her family have watched the new elementary school in the Northshore Town Center being built. “It’s just been so exciting,” said the 33-year-old mother of two, including a future first-grader at the school. “We expected retail and restaurants (when we moved in), but the school is an added bonus. It’s nice to have that a few steps away.” Since breaking ground on the school in February, progress is moving along smoothly. Located near the intersection of the Northshore Drive and Interstate 140, the school is slated to open in August 2013.
Construction of the new Carter Elementary School is about 20 percent complete, officials said. “Most importantly, it’s on schedule to be ready by June 2013 for the schools to occupy,” said Hugh Holt, Knox County’s purchasing director. “We’ve got concrete pads in and coming up with the walls … and the conduits for the lines to actually be run.” Holt said contractors have also roughed in the plumbing, electrical and communication lines at the school. The new school will be located at 8455 Strawberry Plains Pike, about a half-mile from the current school.
Declaration may aid farmers Area farmers, including those still repaying their emergency loans from last year’s floods, can now apply for emergency loans because of drought. Shelby and Tipton on Wednesday joined a growing list of counties now considered natural disaster areas because of drought and heat-related losses. The designation of disaster areas, made by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, makes farmers eligible for emergency low-interest loans. Rates on those loans were lowered last week from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent.
The Obama administration warned Wednesday that food supplies were at risk from the worsening drought afflicting more than half of the country and called on Congress to revive lapsed disaster aid programs. President Obama reviewed the situation with Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, who called it “the most serious situation” in about 25 years and added that he was praying for rain. “I get on my knees every day, and I’m saying an extra prayer now,” Mr. Vilsack told reporters at the White House after his discussions with Mr. Obama.
The heat and drought ravaging much of the nation will soon be hitting America at the supermarket counter: cheese and milk prices will rise first, and corn and meat are probably not far behind. Price hikes in basic food staples are causing huge concern to milk producers and others who rely on dairy to sustain an important part of the national farming economy. The rises foreshadow expected price hikes in coming months for other food staples, such as meat, says Bruce Jones, a professor of agricultural economy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Two suspects were arrested early Saturday morning after Dyersburg Police found a meth lab hidden in a backpack inside a house on Ayers Street. Steven Thurmond, 49, and Mary Pugh, 42, both of 1606 Wheeler St., Dyersburg, Tenn., are charged with initiating methamphetamine manufacture. According to police, officers responded to a residence in the 1700 block of Ayers Street after a complainant called and said there was a strong chemical smell at the house. Police arrived and reported the upstairs of the house was “extremely smoky and hazy” with a strong smell of either air freshener or cleaner.
As some Republican governors declare that they will not expand Medicaid under the national health care law, Gov. Paul R. LePage is going a step further. In what could lead to a direct confrontation with the Obama administration, he is planning to cut thousands of people from Maine’s Medicaid rolls, arguing that the recent Supreme Court ruling on the law gives him license to do so. Mr. LePage, a Republican, says the ruling gave states leeway to tighten eligibility for Medicaid, the joint state-federal program that provides health care to low-income and disabled people.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has begun one of his signature “top-to-bottom” reviews of the state’s higher education system, a long-overdue examination of postsecondary institutions in the Volunteer State. Last week the governor met with academic, government and business officials in Nashville to begin discussions. Next up will be seven regional roundtable discussions held across Tennessee. The initiative represents the best opportunity in decades to retool higher education in Tennessee, an opportunity leaders should not squander. Everything from governance to curriculum should be evaluated. As might be expected from a governor with a business background, Haslam is focusing first on finding out what business leaders need from Tennessee’s college graduates.
Taxpayers always are interested in where their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent. And who can blame them? We applaud the latest effort by Tennessee government to bring additional transparency to state spending. This time, the Department of Economic and Community Development has taken the initiative by setting up a website to show where CEDC grant money is being spent. The website http://www.openecd.tn.gov/ lists details for three state economic development programs and a question and answer section that explains how the department allocates grants and other state investment dollars. The site is detailed and user friendly.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, speaking to the Northeast Tennessee Association of Realtors, said it is wrong for retirees to pay the state income tax in Tennessee. Ramsey revealed a plan to eliminate the Hall Income Tax on investment income for those 65 and older. Wait a minute, Ron: Why 65 and older? I’ve heard they are still getting along better than the younger people. Also, they have Social Security and Medicare, to boot. The baby boomers have been living the good life. They have been taking cruises with their savings. So, the legislature plan helps a select group — but, a loud select group that are known for good voting habits and mailing out campaign checks.
Allegations that Tennessee State University administrators improperly changed students’ grades without instructors’ permission moved like a grass fire through state government last week, leading quickly to an announcement that state Senate hearings will be held on July 25. According to the complaint, more than 100 students’ “incompletes” were changed to C’s in learning-support classes that replaced remedial courses under the state’s Complete College Act of 2010. The speed with which proceedings were arranged would be laudable if it weren’t so uncharacteristic. But it must be noted in this case that legislators are politicians, and this is an election year, with primaries coming up in just two weeks.