This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Parents will once again find valuable information about possible healthcare for their children in this year’s back-to-school packets. Gov. Bill Haslam today announced the 2012 Back to School CoverKids outreach campaign to help enroll Tennessee’s children in the state’s low-cost, comprehensive health insurance plan. Together with the Tennessee Department of Education, CoverKids is including a flier with program and enrollment details in the back-to-school packet of every public school student in Tennessee.
On the heels of a summit meeting in Memphis Tuesday on issues of post-secondary education, Governor Bill Haslam pronounced himself impressed with the breadth of recommendations for what the state could do to coordinate academic policies with economic progress. “There are a lot of challenges in higher education, and from the state standpoint that’s what you’re going to see a focus on,” the governor said, after the meeting on the campus of UT Health Sciences.
Tennessee general fund tax collections finished the budget year at $543 million above estimates after July revenues beat expectations by $2.7 million. State Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes said in a release Thursday that the surplus will help the state maintain a balanced budget for the following fiscal year. Gov. Bill Haslam and fellow Republican leaders in the legislature have rejected Democrats’ calls to use the surplus to further reduce the state’s sales tax on groceries and to help defray tuition hikes at state colleges and universities.
Tennessee tax revenue slowed but continued to climb upward in July, according to newly released state data. Overall revenue collections — a key indicator of economic activity through sales and other taxes — rang in at nearly $881 million. That’s up nearly 5 percent over one year ago, and nearly $10 million more than the state anticipated in Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget. Commissioner Mark Emkes of the Department of Finance and Administration said the results still indicate a recovery, but also expressed concern.
Assessment teams from Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in the Dry Creek community today evaluating damage left behind by a disastrous flood Sunday that damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes. The new development was announced Thursday by Jim Basham, head of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, after he, Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey and others local officials toured properties damaged by the raging water. Basham said state and local teams have been surveying damage in all three counties — Washington, Carter and Unicoi — hit by the flood.
With sporadic reports of storm damage still coming in, the Carter County Emergency Management Agency has released a preliminary estimate of how much damage was caused in Carter County by Sunday’s storm. EMA Director Andrew Worley said the flooding caused about $266,000 in damage. “That is just our rough estimate at this time,” Worley said. “We are still just learning about some damage. People see reports of damage in other counties and don’t let us know about their damage because they don’t think it is bad enough to report.”
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has awarded 16 local law enforcement agencies with state-appropriated grant money to use exclusively for Crime Stoppers programs at the local level, according to a news release. TBI began taking applications in June after the 107th General Assembly appropriated a sum of $100,000 to be awarded to local governments to institute a Crime Stoppers program or enhance an existing program. TBI was charged with administering the grant funds.
Tennessee’s first lady paid a visit to Rhea Public Library Wednesday afternoon as part of her drive to get the state’s families reading together. Crissy Haslam spoke to a group of about 30 local “literacy activists,” as she affectionately called them, as she promoted her Read20 Family Book Club. The club encourages Tennessee families to read together for at least 20 minutes each day. During the visit to Paris, Haslam donated several copies of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, which is the club’s book for August.
Even though drivers won’t have to detour around Interstate 24 this weekend, they’ll still be faced with evening backups on Interstate 65 near downtown Nashville next week. According to a release by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, a bridge repair project will close several lanes of traffic on I-65 from Aug. 12 to Aug. 16. The following roads will be closed: Two lanes of I-65 southbound will be closed on Sunday and Monday night from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. One lane will be open.
A 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Thursday assures that Green Party candidates will have a place on Tennessee’s November general election ballot in several races — including Martin Pleasant of Knoxville as the party’s U.S. Senate nominee. “That’s wonderful,” said Pleasant, 43, who now plans to take some time off his job with the Knox County Engineering and Public Works Department for campaigning. State Election Coordinator Mark Goins said the court ruling came in requests for an expedited ruling on two issues in a lawsuit brought by the Green and Constitution parties challenging the state’s ballot access.
Republican lawmakers likely will take up Second Amendment issues in the General Assembly next year, but they won’t be “dictated to” by the National Rifle Association, Chattanooga Rep. Gerald McCormick says. McCormick, a Republican and House majority leader, said he anticipates the GOP-controlled legislature again will look at the NRA-backed “Safe Commute Act” but will do so on its own terms. “No disrespect to [NRA lobbyist] Darren LaSorte, but he doesn’t tell us what to do,” he said.
Sen. Mark Norris says he will comply with the Shelby County Commission’s requests for all correspondence dealing with the controversial Memphis-Shelby schools merger. But the Senate majority leader and chief architect of legislation dictating rules for combining the school systems thinks the demand is being made principally in the spirit of hassling him and other lawmakers. “It is a major fishing expedition, but you know, knock themselves out. We’ll give them what we have,” said Norris, a Republican from Collierville, told TNReport this week.
The Nashville federal court judge who turned down the city of Memphis’ second request to use photo library cards as voter identification said the city’s legal theories in the opening rounds of what became a larger case this week were “not a model of clarity.” But Judge Aleta Trauger was quick to add that the issues in the case filed by the city and two Memphians who tried to vote with the library cards involve “their fundamental right to vote.” Trauger made the points in a 19-page memorandum she filed the day after the Aug. 2 elections.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has named Tennessee as among the most toxic states in the country, according to a news release. According to the NRDC, Tennessee is the 11th worst state in the country for exposing its residents “to toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants.” Tennessee’s electric sector emitted 9.6 million pounds of harmful chemicals in 2010, the latest year for which data is available. That accounted for 37 percent of the state’s pollution in 2010, or about 3 percent of toxic pollution for all U.S. power plants.
State numbers buck U.S. trend Toxic air pollution from Tennessee’s power plants increased in 2010, putting the state among the nation’s worst polluters, a national environmental group said Thursday. The Natural Resources Defense Council released its second annual “Toxic 20” list of states with the most air pollution from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania topped the list, with Tennessee ranking 11th. Tennessee was one of the few states to increase its output of toxic air pollutants from 2009 to 2010, spewing out 9.6 million pounds of pollutants from its power plants, concluded the environmental group’s report, which is based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.
Tennessee has once again been named to a list of states with the worst air pollution from power plants. The National Resources Defense Council puts Tennessee at number eleven on its so-called “Toxic Twenty” list. But the environmental group says there’s reason to be hopeful for the state of Tennessee’s air. The NRDC also lists which power facilities are the worst polluters in each state. The coal-fired Johnsonville plant is Tennessee’s second worst, accounting for roughly a third of overall toxic emissions in the state.
It’s finally opening day for a Tennessee mosque after opponents waged a two-year court battle trying to stop it. Leaders of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro say they intend to hold midday prayers in the new building Friday. Construction was nearly halted in May when a state court ruled the public didn’t get enough notice that the center was planned. Last month, a federal judge granted the mosque’s request for an emergency order that would open the building in time for the holy month of Ramadan, which is still under way.
It’s getting tougher to be a Republican in Tennessee while also fully accepting the practice of Islam. An incumbent in the U.S. House found herself on the defensive after being called soft on Sharia law, and the governor has been forced to explain why he hired a Muslim as part of a growing public push to raise suspicions of Islam. “By stopping this now, we’re going to save ourselves a lot of difficulty in the future,” says Lee Douglas, a dentist in Brentwood who sees what he calls an “infiltration” of Islam in federal and state government. Douglas points to the appointment of Samar Ali to work in Tennessee’s economic development office.
The Hamilton County Commission and two plaintiffs suing to stop the panel’s weekly prayers now await a judge’s decision on whether the prayers will be stopped temporarily. The county’s outside counsel, Stephen Duggins, filed a court brief Wednesday, arguing that, at this time, the court shouldn’t consider any of the commission’s actions before implementation of its new prayer policy. On July 3, after plaintiffs Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones filed a lawsuit to stop the prayers, commissioners approved a new policy that invites ministers from across the county to give the prayer.
Local freelance writer and editor Pam Strickland has filed a formal sworn complaint, asking state and local officials to look into questionable campaign finance disclosure forms reported by Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett. Strickland, who sent the complaint on Wednesday via certified mail to the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office and the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said: “If there is a problem, it needs to be investigated, and we need to know what that problem is. If there’s not a problem, we need to know that, too.”
A misprinted advertisement may have led to confusion about a whether two nonprofit organizations improperly supported referendums on the Lenoir City ballot earlier this month Questions have been raised about whether the organizations improperly placed ads in a local newspaper to encourage voter support of the charter changes. Some Lenoir City residents are also concerned that public money may have been used to fund the ads. The charter amendments included changing the city recorder/treasurer position to an appointed post instead of elected.
Retract subpoena, attorneys ask Attorneys for The Commercial Appeal said Thursday the law firm representing the Shelby County Commission has run afoul of the First Amendment, two federal statutes, the Tennessee reporter’s shield law and “just plain good sense” in a subpoena asking for the identities of commenters on stories about planned suburban school districts. Memphis attorney Lucian Pera and Washington attorney Paul Alan Levy, a member of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, asked in a letter to the Baker Donelson law firm that it withdraw the subpoena request.
This newspaper has carried several articles and editorials on the subject of Tennessee’s year-old Photo-ID law, passed by the General Assembly in 2011 and, as of now, binding on all elections in the state this year and henceforward. None of what we have heretofore published is as eloquent as what follows. The email reprinted below was unexpected and unsolicited and was received by associate editor Bianca Phillips on Thursday. The sender, Chester Thayer of Bartlett, is a Marine veteran of Vietnam, a retired carpenter who describes himself as “unpolitical.”
State Sen. Eric Stewart of Winchester, a Democrat who is challenging incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburg for DesJarlais’ 4th District House seat, has repeated his call for a series of debates. Stewart discussed the issue during a teleconference on Wednesday with reporters from the district. DesJarlais’ campaign had not responded by press time to a request for a statement. Request made Stewart’s campaign issued a news release on election night last week asking DesJarlais to agree to three debates during August, while the U.S. House is out of session.
More Tennessee National Guard members are heading to Afghanistan. State military officials in Nashville said 39 soldiers of the guard’s 1175th Transportation Company, based in Tullahoma, will depart the armory there Saturday morning for training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. After a short specialized training period there, the members will be deployed overseas for nine months in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The soldiers are scheduled to leave the new armory in Tullahoma at 9 a.m.
If there’s one thing most Memphians innately understand, it’s that race can be a complicated issue. It can be a polarizing issue. It can even be an explosive issue. But when it comes time to take the U.S. Census, it can be a downright confusing issue — particularly for those who have no idea how to pare down their ethnic heritage into a single box or for those who can’t find the right box at all. The results of a study conducted during the 2010 census released on Wednesday show that those who received a new, experimental survey with more racial categories were far less likely to simply skip over the section or check the box for “some other race” out of confusion, apathy, or frustration.
The U.S. Postal Service on Thursday reported a $5.2 billion quarterly loss and said it was nearly out of cash and likely to exhaust its government credit line in coming months. The agency said the loss was its widest since it began releasing quarterly financials in 2007. But Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said the Postal Service would do whatever it takes to maintain its operations, even if that means defaulting on a second multibillion-dollar retiree obligation in as many months.
Sumner County Schools could open by Aug. 15 at the earliest if county commissioners agree to call a special meeting for Monday and find a way to pony up an additional $2.8 million, Director of Schools Del Phillips said Thursday night at a special Board of Education meeting in Gallatin. County officials, when contacted after the board meeting, said the commission was in no mood to make any more concessions. In offering their compromise Thursday, school board members voted 11-0 to adopt Phillips’ recommendations to cut eight guidance counselor positions, saving $480,000; reduce the district’s adult education program by $400,000; and trim central office staff by $205,000.
Tonight the Sumner County school board will decide whether to end a stalemate that’s kept schools from opening on time. Earlier this week the district wrangled an extra two million dollars from the Sumner County Commission, but that’s still millions below what it says it needs to run schools this year. County commissioners have been reluctant to budget more for schools, saying they’d have to afford it in future budgets as well, potentially raising property taxes. S
Lunches may cost more without fruits, vegetables Middle Tennessee students are seeing more fruits and vegetables on lunch trays, as school districts move ahead to comply with new federal guidelines. Some are willingly grabbing fresh watermelon, strawberries and apples. Others are nudged to take lima beans, broccoli or peaches, as cafeteria employees work to ensure students have a portion on their trays. “We want parents to encourage their students to not only take the fruits and vegetables, but to try them,” said Braina Corke, assistant director of nutrition for Metro Nashville Public Schools.
The third of Gov. Bill Haslam’s roundtable meetings with “employers and educators” was held on July 31 in a West Knoxville boardroom. The seats at the table were marked with nametags, for invited and expected attendees. Roughly a third of the seats were for area legislators. Administration from UT-Knoxville, Pellissippi State Community College, Tennessee Technology Center-Oneida/Huntsville and Knox County Schools made up the “educators” part of the table. And companies ranging from a local manufacturing plant to Volkswagen, Scripps and Aqua Chem were there representing area “employers.”
Debates between candidates seeking the same political office are a time-honored and worthy U.S. tradition. They provide candidates a chance to show their mettle, to explain their platform and to extol their merits. The face-to-face meeting gives prospective voters an opportunity to see how candidates perform under pressure and to hear discussion of policies free of the self-serving filter of campaign advisers. Debates, then, would seem to be a win-win for all. Not all candidates take that view. While many office-seekers embrace them, others avoid them whenever they can. That’s certainly the case in a few local and regional races.
To repurpose a 1990s post-Soviet era joke about communism, the Democratic Party is dead in Tennessee — it just hasn’t been buried yet. Here’s another knee-slapper: Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said last week’s GOP primary “shows a Republican Party clearly in disarray.” After the Democratic primary, Forrester should know from “disarray.” Under Forrester’s leadership, Tennessee Democrats presented primary voters with seven candidates for the U.S. Senate. The greatest of these would take on incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Corker. Combined, the seven dwarves collected 160,463 votes. Corker got 389,486.
Chip Forrester should be ashamed. When the state Democratic Party chairman hoodwinked the Executive Committee into re-electing him after the bloodbath that the party took in state legislative races in 2010, he promised to do better, but what he has delivered instead is a U.S. Senate nominee that the party has been forced to disavow. Mark Clayton emerged from the Aug. 2 primary with 30 percent of the 160,331 votes cast. The theory is that he won because his name was first on the alphabetical-order, seven-candidate ballot. Aside from actress Park Overall, a Greene County native, none of the candidates were the kind of folks with the kind of name recognition who are likely to be known outside family, friends and their hometown.
The U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Safety Administration and Y-12 contractors have moved with uncharacteristic speed to resolve problems uncovered during the unprecedented security breach at the nuclear weapons plant. In an understatement, Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the failure an “unacceptable and deeply troubling breach” of security. The three anti-nuclear activists — Sister Megan Rice, 82, Las Vegas, Nev.; Michael Walli, 63, Washington, D.C.; and Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, Duluth, Minn. — have been charged with willful and malicious destruction of property; willfully committing “a depredation against property of the United States and the U.S. Department of Energy”; and trespassing.