This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee students are heading back to class this month, and education reform is likely to be increasingly back in the news heading into the November elections and beyond. So far, few solid policy directions and details have emerged, but the governor said this week he and his advisers are wrestling with issues ranging from school choice to expanding taxpayer-funded pre-K to better preparing post-secondary students for the workforce.
Both studies make persuasive cases, though each could be misunderstood without important context. The first, released last week by the Lumina Foundation and Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, seems to thoroughly demolish the idea that the Great Recession diminished the value of a college degree. Overall, even as unemployment was rising past 10 percent, the authors found the economy actually added 200,000 jobs for workers with a bachelor’s degree.
The Small Business Administration will open a temporary office this week in Washington County to assist homeowners and businesses who were affected by the severe storms and flash flooding that occurred on Aug. 5. The office will open on Tuesday at the Washington County courthouse in Jonesborough to help people apply for low-interest loans. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced last week that the Small Business Administration had granted his disaster declaration for Washington and surrounding counties.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced today the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has granted his disaster declaration request for Washington and its surrounding counties after severe storms and flash flooding occurred Aug. 5, 2012. The declaration includes Carter, Greene, Hawkins, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties, and an SBA disaster declaration makes homeowners and businesses affected by the disaster eligible for low-interest loans.
Governor Bill Haslam says his administration’s coordination with a Muslim advocacy group has been “mischaracterized.” He says his office did not create the so-called American Muslim Advisory Council. An anonymously run newsletter has sustained a near-daily barrage of attacks aimed at the Haslam Administration. The articles argue that the governor is giving Muslims an inside track to state government. One point has been the hiring of a Muslim woman in the state’s economic development office. Another has been the creation of this Muslim advisory council.
State lawmakers and gun lobbyists are poised for another round in the fight over where Tennessee’s gun-owners can carry their weapons. Top officials in higher education are watching, and expect state colleges will be part of the fray. Gun interests hope to expand their clout in the capitol this fall. In this month’s primary a candidate backed by the National Rifle Association unseated a powerful Republican who helped stall a key gun bill. “It’s got to be an issue that will come up again.” John Morgan heads the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Tensions at Tennessee State University reignited Monday as a vocal faculty member opposing university leadership was taken away in handcuffs from a meeting. After campus police arrested the chair of the Faculty Senate, Jane Davis, on a charge of disorderly conduct, the Senate voted to remove her from her leadership position — a vote she claims is illegitimate. Davis, an English professor, has been an outspoken critic of several policies and decisions made by TSU interim President Portia Shields, who has clashed with some faculty since her arrival in early 2011.
The fifth round of dialing for health care occurs Sept. 13 when Tennessee will open the phone lines for one night only so people with low incomes and high medical bills can call a number to ask for a TennCare application. The phone line opens at 6 p.m. and closes once 2,500 applicants are registered. Phone lines have shut down in about an hour during past call-ins. The competitive dialing system is how the state limits the deluge of applicants for a Medicaid waiver program, the TennCare Standard Spend Down.
The TennCare Standard Spend Down program will again offer open enrollment to new applicants on Thursday, Sept. 13, beginning at 6:00 p.m. CST. Standard Spend Down is available through a waiver to the Medicaid program for a limited number of qualified low-income individuals, or those with high, unpaid medical bills who are aged, blind, disabled, or the caretaker relative of a Medicaid eligible child. Eligible people must have enough unpaid medical bills to meet the “spend down” threshold to qualify for coverage.
A Cookeville woman and a Livingston woman have been indicted for alleged TennCare fraud in Overton County, according to the Office of Inspector General. The two cases are unrelated. Pamela M. Johnson, 48, of Cookeville, was recently charged in Overton County with TennCare fraud and two counts of delivery of a Schedule II controlled substance. Allegedly, Johnson used her TennCare benefits to obtain the painkiller Oxycontin and then sold a portion of the drugs.
The Tennessee Supreme Court will rule on whether the Civil Service Advisory Board in Hamilton County has the power to make decisions regarding salaries for sheriff’s office sergeants. According to an order filed last week, to address some of the issues in the lawsuit between Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and some of the department’s sergeants, the court has asked for a copy of the Manual of Civil Services Rules and Procedures. Although the manual and any briefs must be filed within 30 days, the case won’t be heard until next year.
In what one attorney called an “unrelenting attack,” a state prosecutor on Monday hurled indictment upon indictment of Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood’s fitness to preside over one of Knoxville’s most horrific criminal cases. Blackwood listened largely without comment and, at hearing’s end, denied Assistant District Attorney General Leland Price’s bid to push him off the bench and left the courtroom. It was a stark contrast to a June hearing on the same issue when Blackwood did most of the talking, defending himself from Price’s allegations and winding up in a shouting match with District Attorney General Randy Nichols.
The next state lawmaking session is five months away, but gun rights and business groups are already gearing up for another fight over whether workers can keep guns inside their vehicles on the job. Bills that would allow gun owners to keep firearms in their cars, even in their employers’ parking lots, have percolated in the General Assembly for several years. During the most recent legislative session, such measures never made it to the House or Senate floor for a vote. But the discussion next year could look different.
The Democratic and Republican leaders of the state Senate see the politics of the state continuing to change and with it the nature of being the majority and minority parties in the Tennessee Legislature. Republican Mark Norris of Collierville and Democrat Jim Kyle of Memphis are the leaders of their respective parties on the floor of the Senate, which is governed by Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey. Norris, on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines” with Kyle, acknowledged the Republican majority in the Senate has seen some difference from within the last year.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton asked Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday for state help in a new “prosperity plan” the mayor hopes to roll out this fall with a goal of reducing poverty in the city by 10 percentage points in the next 10 years. The 2010 census reported that 26.5 percent of Memphis residents live in poverty. Reducing that by 10 percentage points would cut it to the statewide average of 16.5 percent, the mayor said. He said he met with the governor “to develop a seamless relationship with the state” for the plan, to leverage state and federal dollars in a coordinated way to help reduce poverty.
The Jasper Board of Mayor and Aldermen has hired a certified municipal finance officer and passed this year’s budget with raises for city employees on first reading. At the board’s August meeting, Mayor Billy Simpson recommended Mark Johnson for the finance officer position, and he was approved by a 4-0 vote. “This is something I’ve been working on for roughly four months,” Simpson said. “He’s coming into our area and comes highly recommended from [the Municipal Technical Advisory Service]. This is something that we have no control over. It’s mandated by the state, and it has to be in place by Jan. 1.”
Belle Morris Elementary School will not be used as a voting precinct in the Nov. 6 presidential election, despite efforts to get it reopened — but it may be reconsidered in the future. The Knox County Election Commission voted 3-2 along partisan lines Monday not to reopen Belle Morris following a contentious exchange between former County Commissioner Mark Harmon and Election Commissioner Bob Bowman over reasons why the commission earlier voted to merge the school with the Larry Cox Senior Recreation Center.
The Rutherford County Election Commission turned down the Milton community’s request to reopen its fire hall voting site Monday but promised to reconsider all precincts in 2013. Despite having a polling place as far back as the mid-1800s, the Milton community in northeast Rutherford lost its site this year through redistricting and reapportionment, even though it has one of the highest voting percentages in the county. Instead of the community fire hall, Milton residents were sent to Lascassas Elementary School a few miles down state Route 96 East as part of an effort make larger precincts and cut costs.
The county Election Commission certified results of the Aug. 2 election Monday while expecting challenges this week by the city of Millington and by Rev. Kenneth Whalum over narrow margins that might have been affected by ballot errors. The commission faced a more immediate challenge Monday when member George Monger tried to discuss the errors. “This board has not been held accountable for errors,” he said. “This administration has failed all of Shelby County. There is a history of failure here.” Commission chairman Robert Meyers accused Monger of “grandstanding,” asking him what office he plans to run for next.
Shelby County Election Commissioners certified the results Monday, Aug. 20, of the Aug. 2 elections in Shelby County. But the unanimous voice vote hardly quelled the controversy over the conduct of the election being investigated by state officials. On a party line vote, the commission voted down a resolution by Democratic commissioner Norma Lester to ask for the resignation of Elections Administrator Richard Holden. Republicans on the five-member body said they didn’t want to act until a state comptroller’s office audit of the election is completed.
At a meeting of the Shelby County Election Commisson Monday that had to be excruciatingly painful for SCEC administrator Rich Holden, the two minority Democrats on the Commission called for Holden’s firing and for more Commission oversight on procedural reforms. Holden, who for the most part kept his head down stoically and scribbled away on a note pad throughout a prolonged assault from Commissioners Norma Lester and George Monger (and earlier from audience member Jo Lynne Palmer), was rescued from immediate danger by the three majority Republicans on the Commission, but indications were that even they were merely biding their time, pending receipt of a report on the local situation from state election authorities.
Knox County commissioners are looking into a proposal that would limit a controversial educational incentive payment to $1,000 for employees who complete a program that lets them attain the designation of certified public administrator. Officials talked briefly Monday about the plan before passing it along without recommendation to next week’s monthly voting meeting. At issue is just how much the county should pay employees to complete the County Officials Certificate Training Program, which is administered by the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Services, or CTAS.
City Councilwoman Deanna McLaughlin’s mass e-mail that included an image of local attorney Mark Rassas’ driver’s license may put her under the eye of the district attorney. Under federal law, and possibly under state law as well, it is illegal to release information relating to a person’s motor vehicle record without a specific reason. By sending an image of Rassas’ driver’s license to her constituent e-mail list, McLaughlin may have broken this law. District Attorney General John Carney said he would investigate.
Former state senator John Ford has been released to a Memphis halfway house after serving four years in federal prison for his role in the Tennessee Waltz extortion scandal. A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed to The Commercial Appeal that Ford was released Monday from a federal prison in Yazoo City, Miss. “An incredibly bad experience for me, but that’s behind,” Ford told WMC-TV. According to his brother, Joe Ford, the former lawmaker is at a Dierson Charities halfway house across the street from one of the family’s three funeral homes.
He’s back. Former state senator John Ford returned to Memphis on Monday, four years and four months after he left to serve a term in federal prison for bribery. “He looked good. Good spirits. He looks to get his life back,” said his brother, Joe Ford. “We’re glad he’s back. It’s been pretty hard on his family.” Released from the Federal Correctional Institute in Yazoo City, Miss., Ford reported to a halfway house at 1629 Winchester, where he’s expected to remain for at least the next week. Ford’s 5-year sentence expires in February.
Despite fears the bloodshed in Syria will mushroom into regional warfare, Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper expects the fighting to remain mostly inside Syrian borders. Cooper is a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. He says U.S. intervention in Syria is complicated by the country’s complex circle of friends. Cooper points to countries like China and Russia for holding up international efforts to halt Syria’s spiraling violence. In particular he notes China has a kind of business interest in the Syrian regime’s close ally, Iran.
While some Republican members of Congress spent part of their fact-finding trip to Israel last summer swimming in the Sea of Galilee — including one freshman from Kansas in the nude — U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher was having dinner with his wife, Lynn, he said Monday. “It was unfortunate that the behavior of some folks was not acceptable,” Fincher said Monday. “While this was going on, I was doing one of my favorite things — having dinner with my wife. (House Majority Leader Eric) Cantor did the right thing by pulling folks aside and giving them a stern lecture on appropriate behavior. Folks need to understand this was not acceptable.”
Fort Campbell is packing up for another round of deployments – albeit smaller than the last. The city of Clarksville has become more economically resilient since troops first began shipping out to Afghanistan. In 2001, Fort Campbell soldiers started trickling out of the country. Since then, the 101st Airborne Division has gone through six rotations, at times leaving only a few thousand troops behind. For local businesses, the deployment cycle has created an economic roller coaster they’ve learned to ride.
Faced with a July in which triple-digit temperatures and a historic drought left many of Illinois’ most vulnerable citizens struggling to keep cool, the state decided to step in. But with no regular cooling assistance program or emergency federal dollars available, options were limited. So Illinois borrowed more than $10 million from its winter heating assistance fund to put in place a three-week cooling program for July. “We pretty much had no choice but to rob Peter to pay Paul,” says Larry Dawson, deputy director of the Office of Energy Assistance.
It was a typical morning in Tollgate Village. Neil Thorsbakken’s feet pounded the pavement as he took a run through the subdivision in Thompson’s Station. Inside the community clubhouse, neighbors Beth Murphree and Meredith Smith chatted during a children’s clothing party. Outside, workers scurried around several houses under construction, creating a constant hum of banging hammers and whirring power saws. “They’re going up fast, that’s for sure,” said Thorsbakken, who moved to the neighborhood a year ago.
The group trying to come up with a process for selecting a superintendent to lead the merger of Shelby County’s two school systems has a lot of lead work to do in a short time. The group is likely to have numerous discussions in the coming weeks about what kind of school system that superintendent will be leading. The countywide school board hasn’t yet acted on the set of recommendations from the planning commission that will define the merged school district’s structure and scope.
For a second time, the Knox County school board has deferred voting on the $2.7 million contract with Merit Construction to build a new gymnasium at Carter Middle School. Board vice chairwoman Indya Kincannon asked for the delay, saying she wanted to have more detailed information on additional funding that may be available to help with the project. “I think when we originally voted to move forward with replacing the Carter Middle School gym, the circumstances were a little bit different and it was part of a bigger plan,” she said.
City’s funding request spurs impasse The impasse between the city of Loudon and Loudon County Schools over the cost of school resource officers heated up Monday with a vote by City Council to pull the officers from the schools on Sept. 3. City Manager Lynn Mills told council members he had been in discussion with the county schools director for several months about the need to provide additional funding to place two Loudon police officers in the three county schools within city limits. The school system currently provides about $30,000 per year to the city for the officers.
The current Congress recently was described as the least effective in the history of our legislative branch. Only a handful of bills, or decisions of any kind, have made it to the president’s desk. That cannot bode well for incumbents, or even for newcomers, if the House and Senate no longer know how to write legislation, talk out their differences and arrive at measures that are good for the American people. This Congress obviously is constructively challenged, and maybe they just need a no-brainer piece of legislation that has no downside to get them back on track. The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011 is just such a bill.
Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, which originally was called Eastern State Hospital for the Insane, is scheduled to be closed by the time this column is published. For 126 years it has served the population of this area as a hospital and outreach resource. I found it interesting to learn that the lack of funds stopped the construction of it for more than 10 years. It was even more interesting to learn which patients it would not accept. The Knoxville Chronicle of May 10, 1885, hailed the anticipated opening of the new facility: “Reliable statistics having demonstrated that one in every seven hundred of the population of Tennessee was insane, and the asylum for detention and treatment being capable of accommodating but one insane person in every four thousand, the General Assembly was prevailed upon on March 23, 1873, to pass a law with a view to correcting the then state of affairs.”
As a practicing primary care physician in Marion County, Tenn., for nearly two decades, I know firsthand how important Medicare is for our seniors. Unfortunately, this program that so many Tennesseans rely on to provide quality medical care is on the path to bankruptcy. There are several factors causing Medicare to go broke. Longer life expectancy, increases in medical technology and costs, and the rapid rate of retiring baby boomers has created a situation where Medicare is now paying out $3 for every $1 it takes in. The nonpartisan Medicare Board of Trustees’ most recent annual report showed that the program is fiscally unsustainable and will go insolvent in the year 2024. Further, they state that “lawmakers should address the financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare as soon as possible.”
Congressional Republicans are quick to criticize when it comes to the misdeeds of Democrats, but when it comes to fessing up to their own shenanigans, they’re slow to act. That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from a GOP congressman’s apology over the weekend for swimming naked in the Sea of Galilee while on a junket to Israel last year. Indeed, it’s unlikely Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas would have apologized at all except that the incident was exposed, ahem, over the weekend in an online report by Politico. Yoder wasn’t the only one in the water considered holy by some Christians because they believe Jesus walked on water there. More than 20 individuals, according to reports, took part in the late-night frivolity, though Yoder, by all accounts, was the only one who was stark naked, a legal offense in Israel.