This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Deaths found ‘distressing’ A review of the deaths of 31 Tennessee children this year who had come to the attention of the Department of Children’s Services while they were alive was “incredibly distressing” but yielded no immediate evidence that the agency had acted inappropriately, Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday. “I spent the weekend looking at reports,” said Haslam in a meeting he requested with The Tennessean to address emerging controversy over the agency in recent weeks.
A $7.5 million state economic development deal with HCA is one of the first such pacts with a provision for recouping taxpayer money if the company falls short of its promise of 1,000 new jobs. The deal with Hospital Corporation of America will cost state taxpayers through so-called Fast Track grants and an undisclosed amount of tax breaks. Combined with incentives from Metro Nashville, the total package will cost taxpayers at least $59 million. “This is a game-changing project for a company that’s been a game changer for Tennessee and Middle Tennessee for a long time,” Haslam said after the announcement.
Online retailers in Georgia now have to collect sales tax, a move that Tennessee will follow in a couple of years. WSBTV reported that the new law went into effect Monday in Georgia, and the topic is one that local and state leaders have grappled with. According to Nooga.com archives, Gov. Bill Haslam testified before Congress at the end of July, encouraging lawmakers to create a level playing field by passing a bill that “would allow states to have the option of collecting taxes on purchases made by residents from out-of-state online retailers.”
Comptroller Justin Wilson’s move to automatically waive the first $25 in fees for public records requests is drawing praise from open government advocates. The proposed rules scheduled to be reviewed by state lawmakers on Wednesday afternoon would also give the comptroller the discretion to waive all costs related to public record searches and copies. Tennessee Coalition on Open Government founding director Frank Gibson said the comptroller’s fee waiver provision should become a model for other state and local agencies.
State hasn’t said which medicine is suspected in meningitis cases Two more people have fallen ill with an unusual type of meningitis apparently contracted at a Nashville hospital, and patients at a health care facility in Crossville also may have been exposed, state officials said Tuesday. “There may be additional cases that come to light,” said Dr. David Reagan, chief medical officer for the Tennessee Department of Health. An updated tally will be released later today on the fungal infections that have sickened 13 Tennesseans, killing two of them, in what state health officials are now calling an outbreak.
Tennessee health officials have found two new cases of fungal meningitis, bringing the total in the Nashville area to 13. The state has also begun using the word “outbreak” to describe the situation. All of the patients identified so far received steroid injections at a St. Thomas Hospital outpatient clinic, which has closed as a precaution. Chief Medical Officer David Reagan says only one case has been absolutely verified to be the deadly pathogen, but he says suspicions continue to be confirmed.
Tennessee’s chief medical officer said Tuesday that state and federal health experts are investigating an outbreak of meningitis in which 14 people who received steroid injections contracted the infection and two of them died. Dr. David Reagan, chief medical officer for the Tennessee Department of Health, said two more confirmed cases in the past 24 hours brought the total to 14. Authorities say all but one of those who contracted the infection had received steroid injections for back pain at a Nashville clinic.
Dr. April Pettit, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University, was worried about her patient. He had been ill with meningitis for two weeks, he was not getting better, and she could not figure out why. Antibiotics, the usual treatment, were not helping. Bacteria, the usual suspects, could not be found. On the morning of Sept. 18, as she and a colleague were examining the patient and talking to his family, a pager buzzed. It was the hospital lab, with an answer at last — but a troubling one.
Tennessee election officials are going to be answering questions about new state laws that require voters to show photo identification at polling places. AARP is hosting a question-and-answer session at meetings in Memphis, Jackson, Knoxville and Johnson City on Wednesday. Election officials will attend each of the sessions, which begin at 11 a.m. local time. Elections Coordinator Mark Goins will be at the session in Knoxville. People who wish to attend should reserve a seat by callling a toll-free line, (877) 926-8300. Early voting starts Oct. 17.
Some 3,000 Memphis area voters’ ballots in the Aug. 2 primary were not counted because of “poor judgement and mistakes” by the Shelby County Election Commission, the state Comptroller’s office concluded in a report released today. The review found that those Memphis voters were given the wrong ballots because election officials were slow to redraw district and precinct lines, as is required every decade to reflect population changes and ensure the districts represent roughly the same number of people.
The Shelby County Election Commission has released the findings of the long-awaited state Comptroller’s report on glitches in the August 2012 election process in Shelby County. According to a summary of the findings by Rene Brison, assistant director of the division of Investigation in the Comptroller’s office, “Our review identified no discernible evidence of intentional misconduct or other actions intended to affect or influence the election process or election outcomes in Shelby County. It appears that poor judgment and mistakes were the most likely causes of the ballot errors and SCEC staff did not identify or correct the errors in a timely manner.”
The Tennessee Comptroller’s audit division has concluded the Shelby County Election Commission has “demonstrated an inability to conduct elections without significant inaccuracies, including those identified in the 2012 elections.” But the audit review requested by Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett also concludes there was “no discernable evidence of intentional misconduct or other actions intended to affect or influence the election process or election outcomes in Shelby County.” The report – which goes to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Hargett and state legislators, who will recommend election commissioners for counties across the state to the Tennessee Election Commission in April – examined election problems in Shelby County prior to 2012.
The state comptroller issued the results of his agency’s investigative audit of the Shelby County Election Commission Tuesday, concluding that the commission “has demonstrated an inability to conduct elections without significant inaccuracies, including those identified in the 2012 elections.” Auditors criticized the commission staff for failing to finish the redistricting of the county’s political boundaries before early voting began in July for the Aug. 2 state primary and local general elections, which resulted in more than 3,000 voters receiving ballots for districts they were no longer in.
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development released updated unemployment figures this week for the month of August. It was good news across the state, as numbers showed a decrease in the unemployment rate in 90 of Tennessee’s 95 counties including Dyer County. The unemployment rate in the county dropped from 13.2 percent in July to 12.1 percent in August. Although still significantly higher than the national average of 8.1 percent, the decrease shows that Dyer County continues to head in the right direction in 2012.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol will begin taking online applications for men and women who are interested in the agency’s Trooper Cadet Class that begins next March. The applications will only be accepted for one week starting Wednesday and are available at http://www.tn.gov/dohr/employment/applicant.shtml . Individuals applying for the position of state trooper must be at least 21 years old, a U.S. citizen and have a high school diploma or equivalent.
Getting a flu shot is just the right thing to do — as much to protect your loved ones and community, if not more so, than protecting yourself — local, regional and state health officials said Tuesday. In the United States, approximately 200,000 people are hospitalized each year due to complications from seasonal flu, and influenza is one of the top 10 causes of death, according to information distributed by the Mountain Empire Epidemiology Task Force (MEETF) as it kicked off the “Keep Flu Out!” public awareness campaign.
Hamilton County General Sessions Judge Ron Durby announced Tuesday that he is stepping down from the bench because of a disability, according to a letter sent to Gov. Bill Haslam. In the letter drafted Monday, Durby said he hopes a replacement for his seat will be temporary. “It is my hope and prayer that I may recover quickly and sufficiently return to my duties serving the people of Hamilton County,” Durby wrote. “However, I must now respectfully request that you appoint a temporary replacement to serve in my stead until I can return to service.”
State Rep. Jim Cobb was arrested Tuesday on an assault charge after a woman in a wheelchair said she felt physically threatened by the Spring City Republican on the day of the primary election. The grand jury indictment handed down Monday said Cobb caused Wanda Sue Goins, a supporter of his GOP primary opponent Ron Travis, to reasonably fear imminent bodily injury. Goins told sheriff’s deputies that Cobb came to the polling place she was attending and tried to knock down a Travis sign.
State Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, called his arrest Tuesday on an assault charge “politically motivated” and predicted it would be “washed away” in court. Cobb was arrested in connection with an incident that happened on election day in August. He turned himself in at the Rhea County Sheriff’s Department in Dayton, Tenn., just after lunchtime. He said the charge arises from a dirty political race for the House seat he narrowly lost on Aug. 2. “That’s the whole personality of this race that we just ran,” Cobb said. “Lies and mistruths? It was filled with that.”
Changes to benefits for future city employees sailed through the Metro Council on Tuesday. Without discussion, the council gave final approval to a series of changes to pension and health care benefits designed to rein in some of the government’s expenses. “This starts the process of chipping away at some of our benefit costs,” Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling said after the vote. The changes, proposed by Mayor Karl Dean’s administration after more than a year of work, would affect only city workers hired on or after Jan. 1, 2013.
A string of charges against Memphis Police Department officers — including reckless driving, assault, and driving under the influence — led some Memphis City Council members on Tuesday to call for study of a college-degree requirement for MPD applicants. The council’s Personnel and Intergovernmental Committee talked about why the MPD requirement for a two-year, or associate, degree had been eliminated from 2008 to 2010, and whether establishing a new, four-year degree requirement might reduce arrests involving MPD officers.
Just before Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz and others announced a political coalition in favor of a countywide sales tax hike on the Nov. 6 ballot, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell approached Ritz. “I don’t guess you’re here to help us,” Ritz said before the two talked privately. Luttrell then watched the press conference from the other side of the podium where Ritz, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and other leaders backing the tax hike assembled. For several weeks, Ritz and other county commissioners had talked with City Council members and Wharton in a plan to find some support at City Hall for the countywide tax hike.
To say Rep. Diane Black moved the needle when she won Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District seat in 2010 borders on serious understatement. The National Journal, a magazine devoted to politics and public policy, rated her predecessor, former Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon, as more conservative than only 38 percent of other House members on votes in 2010. In contrast, the 2011 votes of Black, R-Gallatin, garnered a conservative ranking of 94 percent, a 56-point shift toward the right of the political spectrum.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker made stops in West Tennessee on Tuesday to talk about improving the nation’s financial outlook. “I’m optimistic that Republicans and Democrats can come together to solve our nation’s fiscal problems,” said Corker, a Republican who is seeking re-election on Nov. 6. Corker started his day in Brownsville with the Rotary Club and met in Jackson with members of the Risk Management Association of West Tennessee. Later he was scheduled to be at a National Night Out Against Crime event at the home of radio show host Frankie Lax.
Local Democratic nominees slammed their Republican opponents for skipping a Tuesday night political event that focused on the redistribution of wealth. In her opening statement at a forum sponsored by the Brainerd Unity Group, Dr. Mary Headrick, the Democratic nominee in Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District, said Republican policies are helping “disintegrate” the nation’s middle class. She said reducing military funding and demanding more revenue from “the 1 percent” would result in a fairer tax code for all Americans.
9th District congressman Steve Cohen is just back from Georgia — no, not that Georgia, the one that used to belong to the former Soviet Union — and, as he waited in the Newark airport Tuesday, he could barely contain the elation he felt from having observed a political sea change in that land-bound Eurasian naton. Cohen was in Georgia as a member of the Helsinki Commission and as an international monitor, appointed by House speaker John Boehner, charged with observing parliamentary elections Monday in the Republic of Georgia.
Work will start later this month to double the size of Chattanooga Airport’s solar farm after it received a $3 million federal grant Tuesday. The FAA Airport Improvement Program grant will fund the second part of the three-phase project at the airport, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a news release. According to the airport, phase two should be online in early 2013. While the power will go into the electrical grid, the solar farm will produce enough energy to power 250 homes a year.
A Pennsylvania judge on Tuesday blocked the key component of a highly contested state law requiring strict photographic identification to vote in next month’s election, saying the authorities had not done enough to ensure that voters had access to the new documents. The result, that Pennsylvanians will not have to present a state-approved ID to vote in November, was the latest and most significant in a series of legal victories for those opposed to laws that they charge would limit access to polls in this presidential election.
The Uranium Processing Facility, already tabbed as the biggest construction project in Tennessee history, is apparently going to get even bigger. At a federal safety board hearing Tuesday in Knoxville, officials at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant acknowledged that the UPF will have to be redesigned because all the equipment needed to process bomb-grade uranium and conduct other related activities won’t fit into the 340,000-square-foot building as previously envisioned.
Commercial Appeal laid off eight newsroom employees, effective Oct. 1, according to a letter from the paper’s editor, Chris Peck. The letter, obtained by Memphis Business Journal, and posted on the Memphis Flyer’s website, stated eight newsroom positions, including four senior manager positions were eliminated. The positions were eliminated because “the newspaper industry has been falling far short of revenue expectations,” according to the letter.
About 2,000 Metro Nashville students will get a major boost toward higher education, thanks to a $3.4 million grant from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. The “GEAR UP” grant was awarded to the Metro school system earlier this week and will help fund programs that target low-income middle and high school students who could become the first members of their family to attend college. The funding will be spread over seven years, which gives educators time to talk about the benefits of higher education to several generations of students and also to their parents, who might not understand how higher education can help their child, said Meredith Libbey, assistant to the director of Metro schools.
A study committee appointed by Bedford County Financial Management Committee chose to defer a recommendation on modifying the proposed school system budget amendment in a meeting Monday afternoon. The committee — composed of county commissioner Jeff Yoes and school board members Andrea Anderson, Ron Adcock, Chad Graham and Diane Neeley — unanimously recommended the move, also requesting that a special session of the full school board be called as soon as possible, preferably this week.
A three-bedroom home on Priscilla in Raleigh, where Memphis police determined a man was fatally burned Saturday, is joining scores of other properties in Memphis and Shelby County quarantined because of clandestine methamphetamine labs. While law enforcement officers are responsible for removing the toxic equipment and hazardous chemicals they initially find, the property owner in Tennessee is on the hook for thousands of dollars in cleanup costs required to lift a meth lab quarantine.
A portion of Highway 11-W in Rogersville was shut down Friday after police found a mobile meth lab during a traffic stop. About 9 p.m. Friday, Rogersville Police Department Assistant Chief James Hammonds stopped a 1992 Ford Escort on 11-W near the Charles Street intersection for having an expired license plate. Hammonds detected an odor he said was consistent with a meth lab. He requested assistance from the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Unit, which responded and conducted a search.
On Samarali Daniels’s wedding night three years ago, her new husband faked a stomach ailment so the two of them and her 15-month-old son could sleep in a hospital rather than spend a cold night outside. “I think they caught on,” she says, “but they let us stay anyway.” But for Daniels and her family, there would be plenty of other nights in their immediate future spent in homeless shelters, as well as an uncountable number of dead-end job applications for both Daniels and her new husband.
Assisted living isn’t what it once was. No, indeed, it is far better than in the days when every elderly and ill individual was placed in a warehousing situation, kept heavily medicated until the day they died. Medicine has come a long way, both in diagnosis and treatment of illnesses and in terms of geriatric quality of life. However, with the improvements comes a heightened expectation on the part of the public that patients will receive adequate care. That is not always the case, even in 2012. As The Tennessean found in a special report Sept. 30, patients are sometimes housed in facilities that lack sufficient supervision for their particular needs, and the results can be deadly. The report focused on one Nashville assisted-living center in which four patients died within a three-year period.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act calls for the expansion of Medicaid, but the U.S. Supreme Court this summer blocked the federal government from withholding existing Medicaid funds from states that opt out. Removing the stick from the law’s stick-and-carrot approach has left states reviewing their options for 2014 and beyond. In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam has yet to decide whether to expand TennCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, though he has stated that he would be more inclined to opt into the expansion if funding is distributed to the states in block grants. The Obama administration has resisted calls from Republicans to use block grants for Medicaid.
Public schools in Hamilton County — indeed, in all of Tennessee — must improve if students are to compete in a world where a sound, broad-based education is the prerequisite for well-paying jobs that allow men and women to lead productive lives and to provide for their families. Such improvement has been slow to arrive. Supporters of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers believe they have a remedy for current problems. They are short-sighted — and wrong. Voucher programs might sound good, but they are flawed. Proponents assume that public vouchers for private school tuition would allow worthy students to find places in private schools that have demonstrated an ability to provide a superior education. That contention is not grounded in fact.
When asking voters to approve a tax increase, the job is made easier when officials can designate what the money is going to be spent on. That idea seems to be in play as a host of local government and education officials displayed solidarity at a news conference Monday in their support for a countywide half-cent sales tax increase that will be on the Nov. 6 ballot. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Memphis City Councilman Shea Flinn, both of whom had opposed the referendum, jumped on the bandwagon because much of the money from the tax hike is now expected to be used to fund prekindergarten education. In fact, Wharton said, “It was the commitment to pre-K in Memphis and Shelby County that sold me.”