This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
The state of Tennessee’s INCITE fund has announced another round of nearly $4 million of private investment, paired with money from the venture capital program. INCITE, which steers federal money toward deals to spur venture capital investment, put nearly $1.6 million toward this round, supporting $3.8 million from the private sector by “approved investors” who participate in the program. This third raft of deals follows two previous announcements on the fund’s activity; each deal usually involves additional private investors beyond those working directly with INCITE.
A state investment fund designed to support innovative small businesses announced a new round of investments Monday. The INCITE Co-Investment Fund, which provides public dollars to supplement private investments by venture capital funds and investors in Tennessee companies, said three companies will receive $5.3 million in funding, $1.55 million of which will come from INCITE. Franklin-based Agilum Healthcare Intelligence Inc., a health IT software company, will receive $500,000 from the INCITE fund and $1 million from private investors.
Tennessee has been recognized as one of the top states in the nation for its efficient use of digital technology. Gov. Bill Haslam announced this week that the state was among six to receive an A-minus in the 2012 Digital States Survey, one of the nation’s longest running examinations of technology use in state government. Tennessee’s grade was up from a B-plus, which it got in the 2010 survey. Michigan and Utah were the only two states to receive an “A.” Criteria used to grade states include savings or benefits, progress over the last two years, innovative solutions or approaches, and effective collaboration.
On Monday, Gov. Bill Haslam announced that Tennessee has been recognized as one of the top states in the nation for the use of digital technology in serving Tennesseans and streamlining operations. Tennessee was one of six states that received an A- in the 2012 Digital States Survey. Last time the state was ranked, Tennessee got a B+. Michigan and Utah were the only two states to receive an A. “Our goal is for Tennessee to be the best-managed state in the country, and technology plays a significant role in accomplishing that,” Haslam said in a prepared statement.
Topping off the three-day educational seminars and training at the 2012 Governor’s Conference on Tourism, Governor Bill Haslam vowed to continue supporting the tourism industry in Tennessee during the event’s closing luncheon. Addressing a packed room of tourism professionals from across the state, at the Sevierville Events Center, Haslam discussed how important tourism is to the state of Tennessee. The big news about tourism was announced earlier during the conference. The economic impact was a record $15.36 billion spent by visitors coming to our state.
Governor Bill Haslam says he wants to “pinpoint” why unemployment has been getting worse in Tennessee the last couple months. The national unemployment rate went the other way last week, improving to 7.8 percent, even as workers got more hours and better wages. Earlier this year the unemployment picture in Tennessee looked better than the national average – but not for July and August. Haslam says he’s been trying to figure out why, in talks with economists and state development officials. One factor might be the precarious economy in Europe, where car sales have slumped.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is celebrating reaching his goal of visiting every last one of the state’s 136 school districts, a commitment he made when Gov. Bill Haslam appointed him in April 2011. “I had no idea what I was agreeing to do,” he joked. But those trips did more than familiarize Huffman with Tennessee’s far-flung corners. He reorganized the education department’s regional offices into a school district support network instead of eight offices that tell districts whether they’re complying with state policy.
Stress increases for those who got injections It was a Hollywood-worthy medical mystery, the stuff of films such as “Outbreak” and “Contagion,” playing out in a Vanderbilt University hospital room between a smart young doctor and the patient she couldn’t cure. Dr. April Pettit, a 34-year-old internist, agonized over why an autoworker from Smyrna, otherwise healthy, wouldn’t respond to antibacterial medicine for meningitis. Instead, Thomas Warren Rybinski, 55, felt worse every day, losing consciousness as the symptoms wracked his body, his family frantic and looking for answers.
Search for at-risk Saint Thomas patients expands An 80-year-old former director of the Hickman County Health Department and a yet unnamed victim are believed to be the next two casualties of the fungal meningitis outbreak, bringing the death total in Tennessee to five. Reba Temple, a Centerville, Tenn., resident, died at Saint Thomas Hospital on Saturday, and her brother confirmed that her death is thought to be a result of contaminated steroid injections. Her funeral took place Monday. “The doctor said it was that medicine that they had been giving her shots in her back,” Robert Chessor said.
State health officials are now confirming a fourth death in Tennessee from a meningitis outbreak caused by contaminated injections for back pain. The state is up to 35 cases of fungal meningitis, which cannot spread from person to person. The latest death was actually in late September, and has now been confirmed as part of the outbreak. Officials also say they’ve identified a second fungus in the shots that spread the disease. The New England pharmacy that made them is now recalling all medication, not just the shots.
As many as 13,000 patients may have been exposed to fungal meningitis from tainted spinal steroid injections, authorities said Monday, as some lawmakers called for bringing certain specialized pharmacies under greater regulatory scrutiny. The oversight of compounding pharmacies, which create customized versions of medicines, is gaining greater attention as the death and illness tolls in the outbreak continue to rise. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said eight people had died and 105 people in nine states had been sickened by fungal meningitis, a rare but potentially deadly inflammation to the brain or central nervous system.
Defective system blamed for variety of problems The state is spending $3.96 million to fix a defective computer system that the Department of Children’s Services installed two years ago to keep better track of children in the agency’s care, agency Commissioner Kate O’Day told The Tennessean. The computer system, designed at a cost of $27 million, has been blamed for a variety of problems that include skipped payments to foster parents and the inability to find a particular child’s history when a brand-new report of abuse or neglect is received.
Despite the holiday, election offices are open in Davidson and surrounding counties. Today is the deadline for registering to vote. It’s highly unlikely that Tennessee will be in play in the presidential election. Polls show Mitt Romney winning the state by a wide margin. Despite that, secretary of State Tre Hargett says the number of Tennessee voters could soon reach an all-time high. “We’re almost at four million registered voters. This will be the highest turnout you have. Every four years, this is the biggest turnout.”
A Knox County woman is charged with TennCare fraud and theft of property after she unlawfully received health care benefits from the TennCare public insurance program, authorities said. On Monday, the state Office of Inspector General, assisted by Knox County Sheriff’s Office, announced the arrest of Ashley Leigh Anne Tippens (also known as both Ashley Votaw and Ashley Page), 36, of Powell. She is charged with 17 counts of TennCare fraud and five counts of theft of property. The charges against Tippens accuse her of receiving TennCare benefits by means of willfully false statement or other fraudulent means from October 2008 to May 2012.
A Knox County woman has been charged with TennCare fraud and theft of property. The Office of Inspector General said Ashley Leigh Anne Tippens, also known as both Ashley Votaw and Ashley Page, 36, of Powell, was arrested on Monday. She is charged with 17 counts of TennCare fraud and five counts of theft of property. The charges against Tippens accuse her of receiving TennCare benefits by means of willfully false statement or other fraudulent means from October 2008 and May 2012.
A Knox County woman was arrested for TennCare fraud and theft for benefits she received under the insurance program. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced Monday that Ashley Leigh Anne Tippens, 36, of Powell was arrested and charged with 17 counts of TennCare fraud and five counts of theft of property. Tippens also goes by the names Ashley Votaw and Ashley Page. Tippens is accused of receiving TennCare benefits by making false statements or through other fraudulent means from October 2008 and May 2012.
Veteran Knox County Circuit Court Judge Wheeler A. Rosenbalm is retiring from the bench after 22 years. Rosenbalm has announced his retirement as Circuit Court judge for the 6th Judicial District, effective Jan. 1, 2013, according to a news release from the state Administrative Office of the Courts on Monday. Rosenbalm has served as a Circuit Court judge since 1990. He previously was a partner with the Knoxville law firm Frantz, McConnell & Seymour LLP. “It has been a great pleasure and tremendous privilege for me to have served the people of Tennessee for the past 22 years,” he states in an Oct. 4 letter to Gov. Bill Haslam.
What jurors hear at issue ahead of trial In the upcoming federal trial of a disgraced former Knox County judge, both sides have a laundry list of information they’d like to keep from jurors. Former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner doesn’t want jurors to know, for instance, that his alleged crimes upended the convictions of defendants in one of Knoxville’s most horrific criminal cases — the January 2007 torture-slayings of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23. Nor does he want jurors to know about any sexual escapades outside his relationship with pill-supplying mistress Deena Castleman, a graduate of the Drug Court program he helped found, and that he was married at the time of the affair.
Republican state Rep. Mike Sparks believes in government “by people and for the people” and says the attention of lawmakers should be directed toward making it run more efficiently. Sparks, a longtime Smyrna resident and former Rutherford County commissioner, is being challenged in the 49th District of the Tennessee House of Representatives by Democrat Mike Williams, a retired Methodist minister and sociology professor who says his focus will be on jobs. Sparks said he has a pro-business platform that seeks to reduce regulation at the state and local levels.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey headlined a Chattanooga fundraiser Monday for state Senate Republican nominee Todd Gardenhire. In return for a $250 suggested donation, several Republican elected officials and a few dozen supporters heard speeches, rubbed elbows and enjoyed a multicourse meal at the downtown Mountain City Club. The Gardenhire campaign didn’t fill up the dozen or so tables it reserved, but a staffer said the lunchtime meeting likely exceeded a goal of $10,000. The fundraiser and public show of Republican unity stands in contrast to the situation Gardenhire’s 10th Senate District opponent finds himself battling.
Womick says he can’t participate on date scheduled Voters who want to watch a debate among those seeking to be Tennessee lawmakers have no commitment that Republican state Rep. Rick Womick will be available. Womick said he informed the League of Voters of Murfreesboro/Rutherford County that he had to work as an airline pilot on the Oct. 15 scheduled date for the debates that would include him facing Democratic nominee Luke Dickerson for the 34th House of Representatives seat.
GOP calls on Dem candidate to drop out, Dems cite Day’s tax liens Republican candidate for Tennessee House Lauri Day suffered collateral damage in an attack sent by her own party against a Democratic candidate in Sumner County. Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said in an Oct. 2 news release that Steve Glaser, a Democratic candidate for state House District 44, should drop out of the race because of unpaid taxes. Devaney wrote that Glaser’s tax liens exhibited “a pattern of just refusing to pay his fair share.”
Interstate commerce effect small Responding to questions posed by state Sen. Stacey Campfield, Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper says city and county governments can dictate where their employees live while both state and local governments can give some preferential treatment to businesses located within their boundaries. Campfield, R-Knoxville, says he sought the opinions “for clarity, mostly” in light of a prior Cooper opinion saying that a state law restricting liquor store licenses to Tennessee residents is unconstitutional.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean sounds like he’s all but given up on the so-called med mart. The project was announced three years ago and remains slated to take over the city’s old convention center. Formally named the Nashville Medical Trade Center, the med mart is intended to be a kind of permanent trade show. Health care suppliers and device makers would set up displays, and hospital administrators would enjoy one-stop shopping. The Dallas-based developer has continued to periodically announce new tenants, though not enough to start construction.
Dr. Mary Headrick on Monday accused U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of failing to represent ordinary citizens, using the only scheduled 3rd Congressional District showdown to present herself as a listening ear to the middle class she believes her opponent ignores. Bolstered by more than $100,000 in unspent ad money that Headrick doesn’t have, Fleischmann barely acknowledged his challenger’s specific critiques and made general appeals to cut taxes, reduce government and oppose President Barack Obama.
Six years ago, Republican Bob Corker was locked in a tight, heated race with Democrat Harold Ford Jr. for an open U.S. Senate seat from Tennessee. President Bush flew to Memphis to raise campaign money for Corker at the home of AutoZone founder J.R. “Pitt” Hyde. Corker recalled the day in a recent Nashville speech: “I went out to the airport and it was (the President) and Karl Rove and we got into this long black limo and we all knew I was going to lose the race. You talk about a depressing ride.”
In a legal document filed Friday afternoon, the Shelby County Commission indicated it may refuse to provide funds to proposed new suburban municipal school districts unless ordered to by the federal judge refereeing the battle over the structure of the county’s public schools. An amended complaint related to the commission’s civil-rights challenges to new laws allowing municipal school districts to form declares that, “The Shelby County Commission will take whatever steps necessary to avoid funding the resegregation of Shelby County Schools. Any such steps will expose the Shelby County Commission to potential liability, including possible liability for failing to apportion funds to a segregated school system.”
Shelby County Commissioners have dropped their appeal in the Chancery Court lawsuit over redistricting and ended the protracted political dispute. But the commission also voted Monday, Oct. 8, to replenish its contingency fund with $800,000 for the legal fees in the continuing federal lawsuit over municipal school districts. The commission’s action in the federal lawsuit came as attorneys for the commission filed new motions in the case. The filings are in advance of the upcoming January hearing on its claim that the formation of the municipal school districts amounts to an illegal resegregation of public education in Shelby County.
All six population maps for Carroll and Gibson counties are on file. And Memphis federal court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays has all of the material he needs to make a critical ruling on the future of municipal school districts in Shelby County. The deadline for the maps and “proposed findings of fact” – what each side would propose should be included in Mays’ ruling – was Thursday, Oct. 4. Mays has not said when he is likely to rule. He’s given very little indication about what he considers to be relevant and irrelevant in the three days of hearings he held last month as well as numerous conferences with the attorneys.
Rose Park Math and Science Magnet Middle School won a SCORE Prize on Monday, recognized as improving student achievement more dramatically than any other middle school in Tennessee during the last year. Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced the second annual SCORE Prize and its monetary award of $10,000 during a ceremony at the historic Ryman Auditorium. New principal Robert Blankenship and former principal Risé Pope joined Frist on the Ryman stage to accept the honor while school and district employees applauded.
Project GRAD is preparing for its own graduation after 12 years and looking toward its future. The organization, a public-private partnership that serves 14 center-city schools, is looking at its next phase of operation after its contract with Knox County Schools expires at the end of this school year. “Our job is to help Knox County teachers and principals help kids,” said Jerry Hodges, the organization’s executive director. “Whatever it takes in order to play that role is what we want to do. Regardless of what it might look like in the day-to-day work, still you have to keep in mind we do this because of the kids,” he added.
After hearing from both search firms, the Jackson-Madison County School Board will decide Thursday whether to select the state’s school boards association or Illinois-based BWP & Associates to search for the next superintendent of schools. Board members held video conferences with both search groups Monday afternoon and asked the same questions on issues of a regional versus national search, advertisement costs and the success rate of final candidates. Each interview lasted roughly 30 minutes.
Americans are understandably inclined to believe that the medicines prescribed for them are approved and provided under the safety regulations of the federal Food and Drug Administration. And in most instances, that’s true. But as the current multistate outbreak of 105 meningitis cases and eight deaths (half of the latter in Tennessee) linked to spinal epidural injections shows, that’s not always the case. The problem appears to lie with the growth of so-called compounding companies that do not fall under FDA oversight. State-regulated pharmacies are allowed to create, or compound, specialty medicines to fill local physicians’ prescriptions for patients’ special needs.
Coal has lost its crown at the Tennessee Valley Authority, a development that is good for the health of area residents and the well-being of the environment. Long the dominant energy source for the nation’s largest public utility, coal is losing steam to natural gas, the Commercial Appeal reported Monday. TVA’s coal-fired power plants produced 52 percent of the utility’s power in 2011, but that share dropped to roughly one-third during the past year. That’s on par with the amount of power produced by TVA’s nuclear plants. The utility has turned to natural gas, and last week officials dedicated the $775 million John Sevier Combined Cycle plant near Rogersville.
Federal lawmakers have created an economic mess with their chronic overspending and inability to deliver stable, pro-growth tax policies. Perhaps the elections will break the Washington gridlock and knock loose some solutions. Until then, state capitols are the only place where there is real fiscal progress. Two governors—Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey—have gained national attention for their changes to government pension and union rules. But other state leaders are making breakthroughs on taxes, and they are the focus of Cato’s new “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors.” Four governors received an “A” grade: Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rick Scott of Florida, Paul LePage of Maine and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania.