This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Topping off the three-day festivities at the 2012 Governor’s Conference on Tourism, Gov. Bill Haslam vowed to continue supporting the tourism industry in Tennessee during the event’s closing luncheon on Friday afternoon. Addressing a packed room at the Sevierville Events Center, filled with several hundred tourism professionals from across the state, Haslam discussed how important tourism is to the state of Tennessee as well as the entire United States. In 2011, direct economic impact of tourism throughout the state reached $15.36 billion, a 8.7 percent increase from 2010.
Prior to Gov. Bill Haslam’s address, which wrapped up the 2012 Governor’s Conference on Tourism on Friday afternoon, Colin Reed presented information about increasing tourism traffic to Tennessee, creating more jobs and expanding marketing opportunities. The CEO of Gaylord Entertainment Company and Tennessee Tourism Committee chairman spoke about how the committee came into being and what function it serves, related to tourism throughout the state. Throughout the last several months, after being appointed by Haslam, tourism industry officials that make up the committee have hosted several meetings and gatherings to discuss their goal.
Gov. Bill Haslam says he is reviewing data released by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services on the deaths of 31 children. The department released information on the deaths after repeated requests by The Tennessean and by state Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville. The data showed the department had investigated 31 deaths so far in 2012, including 10 infants who died while their cases were under active investigation.
Gov. Bill Haslam, a longtime Mitt Romney supporter, told reporters last week that the Republican presidential nominee was not clear enough when he said at a May fundraiser that 47 percent of voters will not consider supporting him because they see themselves as “victims” dependent on government to take care of them. Romney’s figure tied together the 47 percent of voters who lean toward Obama, the 49 percent of Americans who receive federal benefits and the 46 percent of U.S. households that did not owe federal income tax last year.
Assuming that the presidential race is already decided in Tennessee in favor of Mitt Romney, the state’s Democrats and Republicans are both providing party activists to work for votes in other states where the outcome is in doubt. But Tennessee chairmen of the two major parties say there’s also a push to turn out voters for their candidates within the state, in part because of a belief that the margin of Romney’s win could impact the outcome in “down-the-ballot” races, including those for seats in the state Legislature.
Lane College is on a financial path that cannot be sustained, while the University of Tennessee Martin is in danger of falling into the same category, according to a recent national study. The study also says the University of Memphis Lambuth campus — which the report categorizes as a tuition-dependent private university — is on an unsustainable path. But a U of M official said that status is not accurate because of the campus’ new affiliation with the public university system.
Both of the candidates for Nashville’s 20th Senate District have been running as moderates this fall in one of the state’s most evenly divided districts. But they found something to disagree about Tuesday in the Haslam administration’s decision to withhold $3.4 million from Metro Nashville Public Schools for rejecting Great Hearts Academies’ charter school application. Steve Dickerson, the Republican nominee for the open seat, shook things up by praising the fine before the state Department of Education had even officially announced it.
Female and male leaders in the Hamilton County Democratic Party are criticizing their chairman, Paul Smith, for including an off-color joke about women on an official business document. Smith printed the joke, described as a guide to “happy life,” on an otherwise run-of-the-mill agenda for the party’s Aug. 23 board meeting. The joke recommends finding a woman who, among other things, “cooks from time to time,” cleans up, has a job and “is good in bed.” “It’s very, very important that these four women do not know each other,” the punchline reads, “or you could end up dead like me.”
Tennessee had to be a tempting target. The state has twice as many evangelicals as the national average. More than Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, too. And in objecting to prayers offered at Neyland Stadium before every game, anti-religion forces were able to take on two sacred institutions — Christianity and UT football. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said universities are the holdouts clinging to offensive tradition.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says America’s political leaders should address end-of-life medical costs without throwing mud about death panels, earning himself a Politico piece last week that examines his heretical embrace of “Obamacare.” Writing in The Week magazine, Frist said 30 percent of Medicare dollars are spent in the last few months of recipients’ lives — often against the wishes of the recipients’ themselves. Frist says this is “perhaps one of the most complex, emotional, and delicate issues in all of health care.”
New storms on horizon for students Looming federal cuts, tax credit expiration, Pell Grant reductions and an election have higher education leaders and advocates casting a worried eye to Washington. “In the short run, things are going to be fine,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “But, in the long run, there is much more uncertainty because there are so many unsettled fiscal and political issues jumbled together like a big plate of spaghetti.”
Josephine Lemmons believes it when critics of the Affordable Care Act say President Obama cut more than $700 billion from Medicare to pay for the law that takes effect in 2014. Lemmons, 84, who has Medicare Advantage, contends the federal law has had a detrimental impact on her health care treatment, forcing her to choose another primary care doctor and also costing her items such as rides to her doctor at Murfreesboro Medical Clinic. “And it’s been told on TV, and it’s true, he’s taken $500 billion to $700 billion out of Medicare to pay for Obamacare,” Lemmons said recently.
It may sound strange, but Veronica Zavaleta can’t wait for her son to give his fingerprints to the federal government. Those prints will allow him, for the first time, to legally work in the United States and avoid deportation if he continues on the right path. “This, for me, means a lot because it changes everything for my family,” she said. Her son is one of thousands of Tennessee’s illegal immigrants who are eligible under a new federal program to apply for a work permit and avoid being deported.
Since the legislature changed state law in 2009 to expand legal liquor-making to 41 Tennessee counties from the previous three, boutique distilleries have been popping up all over. Until now, most of the new, licensed stills have concentrated on such products as moonshine, gin, rum and other mass-market liquors — some of them flavored to vie for younger taste buds. Tennessee whiskey, though, is more of a craft; it takes a long time to age, and it requires lots of patience on the part of those who cook it up and finance its worldwide distribution. Competing with the big boys of the high-octane sport — the Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel brands — is expensive.
The word is out that the unified Memphis and Shelby County school board may be in the market for a headhunter to help bag a new superintendent, and calls are coming in to board members and staff from eager prospects. In other words, “The blood is in the water,” said Rev. LaSimba Gray, a citizen member of the Ad Hoc Superintendent Search Process Committee, which has been formulating a plan for finding leadership for the consolidated school system. Hiring a national firm to conduct the search — if that’s what the board decides to do — is probably a few weeks off, however.
In one scene, an embarrassed little girl stands in front of a chalkboard trying to sound out the word “story” while her classmates titter. Her bored teacher sighs, “Try it again.” Later, the girl’s mother spits lines including, “I can tell you being poor sucks and my kid can’t read” and “Don’t use my daughter to scare me.” The movie is “Won’t Back Down,” an ode to parent-trigger laws — measures that allow dissatisfied parents to take over failing schools if a majority can agree to it. It’s set in gritty inner-city Pittsburgh but based on events in Southern California. Monday night, an audience in the middle of those two places will watch an invitation-only screening at Opry Mills, introduced by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and hosted by the Tennessee Charter Schools Association and education reform group StudentsFirst.
A pilot program that gives every fifth-grader at Pond Gap Elementary the use of an iPad. An iPad technology lab created for students at Sarah Moore Greene. Schools purchasing individual technology devices for their buildings. These are just a few examples of how technology is being used in Knox County schools. Yet only one school in the entire district, the L & N STEM Academy, offers every student and teacher the opportunity to connect with the latest technology. School officials say they want to change that, but it’s going to take funding and buy-in from the community to make it a reality.
The move toward centralized state control took a step forward last week when our big government imposed an unprecedented $3.4 million penalty on an underling government as punishment for an act of defiance. There was really no choice, explained Gov. Bill Haslam, boss of the big government. You see, the lesser government had refused to follow instructions from its superiors and thus violated a law that he had the Legislature enact just a year or so ago. If you haven’t followed these developments, which have gotten a lot of attention in Nashville but not so much elsewhere in the state, here’s a summary. The law in question is a rewrite of Tennessee’s charter schools statute, repealing numerical limits on how many there can be and removing other prior restrictions.
The good news on the Memphis jobs front is that a spurt of new industrial investment means the city must fill up to 1,200 jobs a year for the next four or five years. The not-so-good news is that there is a dearth of workers with the skill sets to fill them. That message was given to business and elected leaders during a recent tour of two new plants under construction — the Mitsubishi and Electrolux plants. It came from Ken Badaracco, general manager of Mitsubishi’s Power Transformer Division, responding to a question from City Councilman Harold Collins about educational requirements to work at the plant. Badaracco didn’t say anything that has not been said many times before. Greater Memphis has a large unskilled workforce, a fact that cost the city several large manufacturing plants over the years.
It is reasonable to be alarmed that in the first six months of 2012, 31 children in Tennessee died while their care either was under investigation by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, had been under investigation by the department, or the children were in state custody. No one should jump to conclusions about responsibility, but clearly an investigation and full explanation is called for. The Department of Children’s Services reported the deaths after numerous requests for the information from state Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, and The Tennessean newspaper. Additional details and comparisons to similar deaths in other states raise questions that need answers. The 31 deaths included 10 infants whose care was under current investigation, 17 children whose care had been investigated in the past and four children who were in state custody.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett was concerned commissioners would spend an unexpectedly high end-of-year budget surplus like “drunk sailors on shore leave,” but the panel instead chose a more sober approach to allocating the windfall. Last week, commissioners gave preliminary approval to spending $1.246 million of the $3.65 million surplus. The remaining $2.404 million would go into the county’s reserves. The increase in tax revenues — $24.2 million — is indicative of a welcome uptick in economic activity. Of that increase, almost $14 million of that automatically goes to the school system, which will spend it mostly on renovations and additions at three schools that were put on hold when commissioners shot down a major increase in education funding for the year.
Transparency and candor are two reasonable demands voters make of government. But despite missteps that stretch back a decade and the snafus that sullied the Aug. 2 elections, the Shelby County Election Commission doesn’t want to give us either. The good news is that the Election Commission suspended administrator Richard Holden for three days and put him on probation for six months. The bad news is that even though voters were due answers about the bungled August election, the commission intended to stay mum about Holden’s slap on the wrist. “We view it as an internal disciplinary matter or we would have had a press release,” said Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers in Friday’s Commercial Appeal.
Nashville General Hospital had 229 licensed patient beds when it merged with Meharry Medical College in 1994. An average of 85 of them were filled most days. Not good. Today? It’s worse. General has 150 licensed beds and an average daily patient census of only 46. It is time to have the tough conversation everyone’s avoided for decades: Should Nashville be in the hospital business? The Metro Charter mandates that the city take responsibility for indigent health care, but it doesn’t say what that has to look like. Today, General simply cannot compete with nearby hospitals. It’s in-patient population started falling off when TennCare came into play, allowing poor patients to choose other hospitals. At the same time, Metro has a moral obligation to provide access to health care for Nashvillians with no insurance and no bus fare.