This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
To get state funding for new programs in Tennessee higher education, older ones will have to go. “What we want to know is: If you want to invest in something new, creative, what are you going to divest? Most great businesses do that,” Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday at a roundtable of legislators and business and higher education leaders in Chattanooga. Still, while he said he’s committed to ending Tennessee’s decades-long practice of slashing post-secondary education funding, it doesn’t appear that new funding will be available anytime soon.
Governor Bill Haslam hosted his final discussion on Tennessee’s post secondary education needs this afternoon at UTC. Some of the key players in local education and business sat down for the round table conversation. The goal is to make sure Tennessee students are prepared for the jobs in our region now and in the future. Employers like Volkswagen, Unum, Wacker, Alstom and Blue Cross Blue Shield say they get hundreds of applicants but only a small percentage qualify for the jobs.
Kingsport City Schools’ 2012 average ACT score bettered the Tennessee and national averages, while Sullivan County was higher than the state average. However, Tennessee public high school graduates as a group only slightly improved their performance on the ACT test in 2012 compared to 2011’s class. They earned an average score of 19.7 out of 36, up from 19.5 the year before, according to state-by-state results released by ACT Wednesday. The national average composite was 21.1, but Tennessee is one of only nine states that require ACT tests.
The non-profit land acquisition arm for Tennessee state parks has signed an option to buy Virgin Falls on the Cumberland Plateau. The 1,500-acre tract is already managed by the state but owned privately. Virgin Falls was conserved in 1970 as a so-called “Pocket Wilderness” by the paper company that owned the timber rights. Since then, the 110-foot waterfall has been a big attraction for backpackers, like Jason Miller of Kentucky.
Notices go in the mail next week to Tennesseans on the unemployment rolls. They outline new requirements that go into effect September first for getting benefit checks from the state. Starting next month, collecting unemployment hinges on looking for a new job. People must log at least three instances each week of so-called “work search activity,” like requesting a job application or registering with an employment agency .
The jobless rate rose last month in more than half of Tennessee’s counties. The statewide figure inched up from 8.1 to 8.4 percent in July. But according to the state department of Labor and Workforce, when the numbers are crunched on a more local level, they show unemployment rates of ten percent or more in 54 of the state’s 95 counties. Scott County is in the worst shape, with almost 22 percent of its workforce not in a job. Lincoln and Williamson Counties are tied for the state’s lowest jobless rate, with both at 5.9 percent.
Davidson County’s unemployment rate for July was 7.4 percent, ranking the county among the state’s 10 counties with the lowest jobless figures, according to statistics the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development released today. Tennessee’s unemployment rate for July increased to 8.4 percent, up from the June revised rate of 8.1 percent. The national unemployment rate for July was 8.3 percent, 0.1 percentage point higher than the June rate. County non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for July show the rate decreased in 20 counties, increased in 59 and stayed the same in 16.
Rutherford County has the eighth lowest unemployment rate in the state, according to new figures. The county saw a slight drop in the jobless rate from 7.4 in June to 7.3 in July. The rate in July 2011 was 8.2 percent. County non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for July 2012, released Thursday, show the rate decreased in 20 counties, increased in 59, and stayed the same in 16. Specific county information online at www.tn.gov/labor. Tennessee’s unemployment rate for July increased to 8.4 percent, up from the June revised rate of 8.1 percent.
The state’s housing agency turned down the chance to apply for $12 million in federal rental assistance for people with disabilities — overruling a recommendation by its own staff and by the state’s TennCare Medicaid agency. Advocates for the disabled say the funding is desperately needed to address a housing crisis among people with disabilities who want to live independently but who are often forced into homelessness or into institutions, which cost the state more money.
Tennessee’s Department of Transportation is preparing for heavy traffic in conjunction with this weekend’s NASCAR events at Bristol Motor Speedway by sending special HELP trucks to assist drivers. This weekend, two HELP trucks from Knoxville will patrol the area from Friday to Sunday to assist with incidents to keep traffic flowing. The four-wheel drive trucks are equipped with bumpers that can be used to push cars. TDOT will also have portable message signs to warn drivers of possible delays.
It was a “high point” for the Marshall County Memorial Library when Gov. Bill Haslam’s wife, Crissy, read to nearly 100 children and other library patrons on Tuesday afternoon when Tennessee’s first lady encouraged parents to read to their children daily. Her READ20 Family Book Club is promoted in conjunction with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and the Governor’s Foundation, a funding system that sprung from former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s program called Books From Birth – all of which acknowledge parental attention to reading helps children when they start school.
In yet another wrinkle in the ongoing saga over one of Knoxville’s most horrific crimes, the nation’s highest court is being asked to step in. Defense attorneys Tom Dillard and Stephen Ross Johnson are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal on behalf of their client, George Thomas, to decide whether a doped-up judge can deliver a constitutionally sound trial. Thomas is one of four defendants convicted in the January 2007 torture-slayings of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23.
Some state legislators are questioning whether new student conduct rules at the University of Tennessee could lead to unwarranted disciplinary action against students who keep guns and knives for legitimate reasons. “If I read it literally, this would ban most knives with blades 3 inches or longer. But we’re going to just trust the university’s judgment about which ones to take,” said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, in summarizing one proposed rule and UT officials’ explanation for enforcing it.
State Sen. Jim Summerville doesn’t “give a rat’s ass what the black caucus thinks.” At least that’s what he told Memphis state Rep. Barbara Cooper via email Wednesday in response to her report from the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators criticising the probe of a state university for changing students’ grades. Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham stripped Summerville of his chairmanship on the Education Subcommittee Thursday, saying she is “very disappointed in the unfortunate choice of words and tone” of Summerville, R-Dickson.
State Sen. Jim Summerville was removed as chairman of the Senate’s higher education subcommittee after sending a scathing email that dismissed a report from black lawmakers on the grading controversy at Tennessee State University. Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham announced Thursday that Summerville, R-Dickson, would be replaced immediately. The move came less than a day after Summerville said he did not “give a rat’s ass what the black caucus thinks” after it criticized last week’s inquiry into allegations that TSU administrators improperly changed 270 math students’ grades.
State Sen. Jim Summerville has been stripped of a chairmanship in the General Assembly over an email. This month the state lawmaker led a hearing into grade fixing allegations at TSU, ultimately deemed a misunderstanding. During that meeting of the Senate Higher Education Subcommittee, Rep. Barbara Cooper – a Democrat from Memphis – suggested that the Senate was on a witch hunt at TSU, a historically black university.
State Sen. Jim Summerville was removed Thursday as chairman of a Senate subcommittee after using a graphic term in an e-mail to the legislature’s black caucus. The message sent Wednesday night from his personal e-mail account to Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, said: “I don’t give a rat’s ass what the black caucus thinks. Jim Summerville.” In the subject line, he told Cooper: “Please share this response with your colleagues.” Cooper, a Memphis lawmaker, forwarded it to her colleagues in the black caucus and other legislators Thursday morning.
State House District 26 Democratic candidate Larry G. Miller suspended his campaign Thursday because he is taking a job at the University of Texas at Austin. Miller, who won the August primary, is scheduled to face House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick in the Nov. 6 general election. “The reason I’m suspending the campaign is that I have a tremendous personal opportunity,” he said. Miller will be the director of the National Institute of Staff and Organizational Development. Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith said he’s contacting local officials to see if they can get another candidate on the ballot.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has received its final approval after a nearly two-year legal battle to prevent it from opening. Islamic Center board chairman Essam Fathy said Thursday he was relieved and happy the mosque has its permanent occupancy permit. Since construction was approved in May 2010, the mosque has been targeted by vandalism, arson and a bomb threat. A group of neighbors sued Rutherford County to try to stop construction. Among other things, they claimed that local Muslims were compelled by their religion to try to overthrow the U.S. Constitution and replace it with Islamic law.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell vetoed a referendum for a countywide sales tax increase on Thursday, but the author of the measure said he believes the County Commission will override the veto. Commissioner Mike Ritz, who proposed the resolution to add a half-cent sales tax referendum to the November ballot, believes he has the necessary votes to override Luttrell at the commission’s Monday meeting. “The County Commission is responsible for financing education in Shelby County and not the county mayor.
As expected, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has vetoed the resolution passed by the Shelby County Commission on Monday, August 13, calling for a referendum on the November 6 ballot authorizing a half-cent increase in the county sales tax. Luttrell’s veto follows almost two weeks of non-stop lobbying of commissioners against the resolution from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, City Councilman Shea flinn, and others. The county sales-tax referendum , if placed on the ballot, would pre-empt a similar half-cent city sales-tax referendum approved for the ballot by the City Council.
After over a thousand constituent e-mail addresses were released in a public records request last week, city officials are reexamining how constituents receive city news. About half of the city councilors use the city’s mass e-mail system to communicate regularly with their constituents, but until this past weekend, most people didn’t know that their e-mail addresses were part of the public record. The Office of Open Records Council, a state body that advises government bodies on open records, considers any e-mail in connection with the official business of any governmental agency open to the public.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann strongly disagrees with recent comments made by a Missouri colleague over the improbability of rape victims getting pregnant, but the Chattanooga Republican remains a staunch abortion opponent, according to a spokesman. “Chuck believes the comment made by Congressman [Todd] Akin was flat-out wrong and not factual,” Fleischmann spokesman Jordan Powell said in an email Thursday. However, Powell said, Fleischmann “voted to prevent taxpayer funds from being used for abortion-related costs, and will continue to stand for the sanctity of human life every time he has the chance.”
A federal judge says the Tennessee Valley Authority is liable for a massive environmental disaster at its coal power plant in Kingston. Almost four years ago, millions of tons of ash sludge spilled from a broken dam into the surrounding rivers and countryside. Now claims against TVA from affected property owners can move ahead in court. Hundreds of people sued over the disaster, and now the judge says it’s up to each plaintiff to prove a specific claim against TVA. Sarah McCoin’s family has owned a few dozen acres near the spill for generations.
A federal judge has ruled that the Tennessee Valley Authority is liable for a 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., that has led to more than 60 lawsuits with 800 plaintiffs. Those plaintiffs alleged that the TVA was negligent in the building design and storage of the Kingston Fossil Plant’s coal ash. As a result, the coal ash spill affected several homes, businesses and individuals. “The Court finds in favor of plaintiffs and against TVA because specific nondiscretionary conduct on the part of TVA caused the failure of the coal ash containment dike at TVA’s KIF plant on December 22, 2008 and that … the dike failure would not have occurred,” stated the decision by Judge Thomas Varlan, U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Tennessee.
The Tennessee Valley Authority was responsible for a 2008 coal ash spill outside of Knoxville that poured a billion gallons of toxic sludge into local waterways and marred hundreds of acres of land, a federal judge ruled Thursday. Called one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind, the coal-fired plant spill continues to plague the rural community of Kingston, 35 miles west of Knoxville. But Thursday’s ruling, by U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan, was seen as a victory for the more than 800 property owners who sued for damages because of negligence by TVA, the nation’s largest public utility.
With TVA ruled liable for the failure of a coal ash storage cell at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a federal judge has given lawyers 21 days to file briefs on how they think a damages phase involving 800 plaintiffs should proceed. U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan issued a written opinion Thursday, finding that “TVA is liable for the ultimate failure of North Dike which flowed, in part, from TVA’s negligent nondiscretionary conduct.” The collapse of the dike sent 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge into the Emory River and surrounding countryside in Roane County Dec. 22, 2008.
Sarah McCoin was surprised that a federal judge found TVA liable for the 2008 ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant. It was a happy surprise, though. “If I hadn’t have been driving, I’d have jumped out of my seat,” she said. In a written opinion issued on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan said TVA was liable for the dike failure that allowed some 5.4 million cubic yards of ash sludge to escape during the disaster. More than 800 plaintiffs are involved in the litigation and Varlan heard arguments in the case last year.
Memorial Health Care System will pay more than $1.3 million to settle claims it allowed two doctors to use space at the hospital without paying adequate rent and provided space and services at a price lower than market share, according to a settlement the hospital reached with the U.S. attorney’s office and other government agencies. According to the settlement, Memorial entered into a series of financial arrangements with certain physicians and physician groups, beginning in January 2003, that were inconsistent with fair market value and intended in part to induce physicians to refer patients to Memorial facilities.
Sumner County Commissioner Mike Akins has come up with an idea to generate money for the schools: Instead of forcing residents to pay more taxes, ask them to make a donation. It’s called the Sumner County Voluntary Tax Act. Akins, of Westmoreland, brought in the first $600 and designated it for K-12 education. Akins contributed $200, with local residents contributing the rest. The new account will replace a similar one established in 2010 for voluntary taxes. That account balance has remained at $50 since its inception.
The countywide school board committee working on a method for selecting a superintendent for the schools merger wants more time to come up with a recommendation for the full board. The ad hoc committee of 13 voted Thursday, Aug. 23, to ask the full board to give it until the end of October. But the same group set its own goal of completing the task by Sept. 30. They made the earlier date a back up proposal in case the full school board denies the Oct. 31 deadline. The full board meets Monday.
Four suspects were arrested by the Dyer County Sheriff’s Department after an alleged meth lab was found in a house on Elm Street in Finley. Dyer County Sheriff’s deputies went to the residence at 38 Elm St. on Tuesday afternoon around 3:30 p.m. and knocked on the door to speak with the occupants about alleged drug activity at the house. Upon speaking with someone at the front door Dyer County Sheriff’s Cpl. Chris Chism immediately noticed the strong smell of ammonia, which is commonly associated with the production of meth.
If you read the above-the-fold story in Wednesday’s News Sentinel by Megan Boehnke and Lydia X. McCoy comparing the ACT scores of Tennessee students in 2011 and 2012, you learned that the state’s scores increased by two-tenths of a point across the board, as did the scores in Blount and Knox counties. What you didn’t learn from that story was that Tennessee students’ ACT scores were next to last in the country. The only state that ranked lower for the second year in a row, as reported by The Tennessean on Wednesday, was Mississippi. Now, it is true that Tennessee is one of six states that require all of their high school graduates — 68,095 students in the 2011-12 school year for the Volunteer State — to take the test.
A trio of projects announced this week constitutes a surge in business activity in downtown and North Knoxville. The projects should result in a new hotel, a rejuvenated building just off Market Square and an assisted-living facility in a refurbished eyesore. Atlanta-based Paramount Hospitality Management plans to build a 120-room Residence Inn by Marriot at the corner of State Street and Church Avenue. The firm paid $1.1 million for the vacant lot where the former News Sentinel building stood until a decade ago. The building would be the first new hotel downtown since the Hampton Inn & Suites opened in 2006. Downtown’s renaissance played a key role in picking the location, said Nick Lakha, Paramount Hospitality Management’s president.
The Tennessee Valley Authority will have a new leader. President and CEO Tom Kilgore announced his retirement last week, giving hope for change at the New Deal relic. In our dreams. Kilgore likely just missed an ignominious end. In April, Kilgore admitted TVA’s “leadership forum” failed when announcing a second nuclear reactor at Watts Bar would cost twice original projections and take 60 percent longer to build, an egregious offense worthy of termination. That is, if TVA’s board had the stuff to make the hard call. But the board is part of the “leadership forum.” It isn’t hard to see why the board, appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, missed the mark. Save for the chairman, current board members have no corporate experience, let alone experience running an entity with almost $12 billion in annual revenue.