This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced that the state has been recognized as one of the top in the nation for use of digital technology to better serve Tennesseans and streamline operations. Tennessee was among six states to receive a grade of A- in the 2012 Digital States Survey, which was up from a B+, the state’s grade in the 2010 survey. Michigan and Utah were the only two states to receive an A.
When it comes to a favorable climate for doing business, Wyoming, Florida and Texas are regarded as the best states and New York, New Jersey and California are the worst among the 50 states. At least that’s the view of the conservative Washington-based Tax Foundation. Tennessee ranked 15th in the Tax Foundation’s 9th annual tax climate study. The Volunteer State has the 8th best individual tax rate but ranked 43rd for its relatively high sales tax rate.
Tennessee slipped a notch, but remains among the most business-friendly states for taxes, according to a new Tax Foundation report released today. The state is 15th on the Tax Foundation’s 2013 State Business Climate Index, down from 14th in the 2012 index. The 2013 index reflects tax policies for the various states as of July 1, the first day of the 2013 fiscal year. Tennessee’s taxes are more business-friendly than all bordering states, which can be an edge in business recruitment.
When it comes to the tax environment, Tennessee is pretty good relative to the rest of the country — but don’t let that fool you into thinking we’re roundly “low tax.” That’s the big takeaway from a study out today by the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank that researches tax and budget issues. Overall, Tennessee ranks No. 15 in terms of favorable business and tax climates. The state’s major kudos from the group echo what business and economic development circles often tout: no state income tax and a generally low corporate tax burden.
Governor Bill Haslam is defending his record as a fiscal conservative, after a libertarian think-tank gave his policies a grade of ‘D.’ This week the Cato Institute (report here) took Haslam to task for things like a spike in the state hospital tax. Haslam notes the move came at the request of the industry, which didn’t want to give up matching federal money when the state budget was shrinking. Haslam says at a time when many states were cutting spending, he was trying not to hurt education.
Gov. Bill Haslam said the state will not rush to implement new rules or procedures in the wake of the meningitis outbreak that has claimed the lives of six Tennesseans and sickened more than 100 people nationwide. “Right now our focus is on making certain we address the health issues, and I think we’ll come back to talk about the whys and what happened later,” Haslam told reporters prior to an education awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium Monday evening.
The state’s death toll from an outbreak of rare fungal meningitis has risen to six, Tennessee Department of Health officials said Tuesday. Health commissioner Dr. John Dreyzhener said the number of cases in the state has increased by four and stands at 39. State officials would not release many details about the additional deaths but said that they occurred earlier in September and October. The cases all stem from epidural steroid injections for back pain. Evidence points to contaminated medicine that investigators say was made by New England Compounding Center, a specialty pharmacy in Massachusetts.
Although six people have died from a fungal meningitis outbreak in Tennessee, the state has not yet revoked the license of the Massachusetts pharmacy believed to be responsible, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says the state will not rush to implement new rules. Regulators in California, meanwhile, are already discussing how to tighten standards in the wake of the crisis, even though the state currently has some of the nation’s strictest rules for drug compounding operations and has reported no illnesses or deaths from the contaminated steroids.
A second kind of fungus is now believed to be the main culprit in a deadly outbreak of meningitis blamed on contaminated injections for back pain. On Tuesday officials confirmed it’s killed two more Tennesseans, and sickened more than a hundred people across ten states. While this kind of meningitis is not contagious, people who got the tainted shots might not show symptoms for up to three months. Officials first pinned the fungal meningitis on contamination from a mold called Aspergilus. Now, state health commissioner John Dreyzehner says they’ve identified a second variety.
Doctor: No signs of illness among patients An Oak Ridge pain clinic is one of three medical clinics in Tennessee that received hundreds of doses of a suspect steroid blamed for an outbreak of fungal meningitis. State Health Department officials Tuesday said two more people in the state have died from contaminated epidural shots. Such shots are a frequent treatment for back pain. Just under 1,000 people in Tennessee received epidural injections with the tainted steroid. Those people “we believe to be at risk,” Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner said in a news conference Tuesday.
The number of deaths in Tennessee related to the recent fungal meningitis outbreak was at six Monday afternoon, but there had been no local cases reported at major area hospitals, according to health officials speaking Tuesday. If a case of fungal meningitis is confirmed at Johnson City Medical Center, media outlets will be alerted, said Ed Herbert, Mountain States Health Alliance spokesman. No cases of fungal meningitis have been reported at JCMC but there was a suspected case a few weeks ago.
The number of people who have died in a national meningitis outbreak linked to injections of a contaminated drug rose to 11 on Tuesday as lawmakers called for a Congressional inquiry into pharmacies of the kind that made the medicine and new laws to ensure tighter federal oversight of their operations. In all, a total of 119 people have been affected in the outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. All of them had been injected with a pain drug shipped around the country by a pharmacy in Massachusetts.
The outbreak of a rare form of meningitis is prompting some doctors to rethink their use of a specialized type of pharmacy that created steroid injections tied to 119 illnesses and 12 deaths. MedStar Health, a health-care provider that includes Georgetown University and Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., said it is reconsidering its currently limited use of compounding pharmacies, which create alternative versions of medicines, such as liquid forms of pills.
State officials are eyeing drug-testing programs for welfare recipients in six other states as they work on a similar effort in Tennessee. Legislation approved this year mandates the drug-testing program and gives the Department of Human Services until January 2014 to finalize a plan. Over the next two years, the department must submit quarterly progress reports to two General Assembly committees. “The Department hopes to gain insight on how other states have implemented their policy as well as any obstacles that they have faced along the way,” Department of Human Services Commissioner Raquel Hatter wrote in a four-page letter that serves as the first progress report.
Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services made progress in the past year on four court-ordered goals related to staffing and recruiting foster families, according to a federal filing Tuesday. The department now responds to all families interested in fostering within seven days. The department also is interviewing foster families that resign to learn why. And, the department has a program that encourages foster families to help recruit others. Those measures are meant to create more foster homes, which are needed because the number of children entering state custody has increased in the past year to more than 8,000.
As a panel of experts meets today to examine a reported spike in the number of child abuse victims in Tennessee, Department of Children’s Services chief Kate O’Day said Tuesday that the child abuse data her agency provided the panel is not accurate. The panel of judges, lawyers, police and child advocates known as the Second Look Commission was created by lawmakers in 2010 to “examine the worst incidents of child abuse in Tennessee” – children who suffered severe child abuse on multiple occasions, even after their cases were reported to DCS.
A Democratic lawmaker who played a role in the formation of the embattled Tennessee Department of Children’s Services says the agency’s commissioner shouldn’t be blamed for deeply rooted problems that she inherited. The agency recently released information showing that 31 children it had investigated died during the first six months of 2012. The figures were provided after repeated requests by another Democratic lawmaker. Critics want DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day, who was appointed last year by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, to be replaced.
Unemployed Tennesseans who refuse to accept “suitable” job offers — even if they pay less than their former jobs — will be disqualified from receiving further unemployment benefits, the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development says. The agency began notifying jobless claimants last week about changes in benefits approved by the Tennessee General Assembly earlier this year that make it tougher for claimants to receive benefits if they turn down some job offers.
Opening festivities include Gran Fondo, 5k/10k This Saturday will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone who would like to walk, run or bicycle a major, multi-laned highway uninhibited by car traffic. Before State Route 840 opens Nov. 2 to vehicle traffic, it first will open this Saturday to bicyclists and pedestrians, who will have full reign of the wide-open new stretch of roadway and then celebrate the highway’s completion with a day of festivities. Bicyclists will ride in the southbound lane while runners occupy the northbound lane.
Handwritten notes from the state worker who supervises Tennessee’s regulation of oil and gas production derided opponents of the hydraulic fracturing method of gas drilling as “stupid.” State documents obtained by WTVF-TV (http://bit.ly/R4W0HV ) show the notes were written on emails sent to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation when it solicited public comment on new rules to regulate hydraulic fracturing. Also known as fracking, the process extracts natural gas from rock by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals.
Want to locate a building on the University of Tennessee’s campus, or just find out what’s going on there? Well, there’s now an app for that. UT has released its new smartphone app that’s free to download and is available for iPhones as well as Android and BlackBerry devices. Key functions of the app include a campus directory, course schedule and ability to keep up with campus news.
Tennessee’s Attorney General wants to shut down Nashville-based HRC Medical, charging that the hormone replacement company has falsely advertised and obscured the dangers of their signature treatment. In July, the Nashville Business Journal wrote about the crusade of HRC Medical CEO Don Hale to clean up his company’s image, which has faced a deluge of problems since opening its doors in 2007. Hale’s main strategy was to bank largely on the endorsements of patients. “
The Tennessee attorney general’s office is asking a state judge to shut down a $60 million Nashville-based hormone replacement company after agency investigators found that the company endangered the health of thousands of consumers. HRC Medical Centers Inc., which sells Amor Vie, a drug given to people suffering from hormone deficiencies, engaged in deceptive marketing practices, failed to disclose side effects of its drug and routinely sold consumers drugs with hormone levels far higher than they needed, according to the lawsuit filed this week in Davidson County Circuit Court.
For incumbent 34th District state Rep. Rick Womick and challenger Luke Dickerson, education lies close to their hearts. Womick, a 54-year-old Republican from Rockvale, taught school for a couple of years in Ohio before joining the Air Force in 1983. Dickerson, D-Murfreesboro, currently works as a special education teacher at Northfield Elementary. The pair hope their experiences and message resonate with voters as they head to the polls for early voting beginning Oct. 17 and on Election Day, Nov. 6. Tennessee’s teachers face challenges with the state’s adoption of teacher evaluation systems.
Candidates differ on education, immigration The two candidates seeking the 74 District state House seat have plenty of contrasts that set them apart. Incumbent John Tidwell, a Democrat, was first elected in 1996 and has served on various committees and subcommittees through the years, and also served on the Humphreys County Commission, as well as local and regional boards. Lauri Day, who lives in the Humphreys County town of McEwen, is a small business owner with her husband and has been an outspoken advocate for education in Nashville, which is the extent of her public service and political experience.
Tennessee GOP House Speaker Beth Harwell promised Tuesday to treat Democrats with respect although Republicans appear poised to hold a supermajority in the General Assembly following the November general election. Harwell, R-Nashville, spent Monday and Tuesday stumping for House GOP candidates in Northeast Tennessee. “I told my members when I became speaker, I would be speaker for the entire body, and I would treat every member with respect, dignity and try to be fair to everyone,” Harwell said at a reception hosted by state Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport.
Chattanooga Republican Greg Vital wound up putting $385,400 of his own money into an ultimately losing August GOP primary battle with fellow GOP candidate Todd Gardenhire, new state filings show. Vital, a successful health care entrepreneur and developer, reported spending $500,000 over the course of the campaign, according to his third quarter disclosure filed with the Registry of Election Finance. Efforts Tuesday to contact Vital, who lost the open Senate District 10 race by a heart-stopping 45 votes, were unsuccessful.
Three Tennessee cities, including Chattanooga, made the top 11 of the nation’s 100 fall allergy capitals. With the sneezing and wheezing season upon us, a national group of allergists and asthma specialists are touting these numbers, and actively opposing proposed legislation that would make over-the-counter medications containing a major meth ingredient available by prescription only. “Perhaps more than any other state, Tennessee residents have it rough when it comes to asthma and allergy symptoms,” said Mike Tringale, vice president of external affairs at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Sequatchie County voters for the second time this year will weigh in on a proposed half-cent sales tax increase when they go to the polls in November. The first time in February almost 59 percent of voters said “no.” The increase would boost revenue levels and build a lagging $250,000 county fund balance back to its normal $500,000 mark, Sequatchie County Executive Keith Cartwright said. The money also would keep finances in good shape as a new school looms in the county’s future, he said.
The results of the Aug. 2 election on a Millington sales tax hike were changed Tuesday, Oct. 9, to show the tax hike for a municipal school district was approved by 12 votes instead of losing by three votes. The court order by Chancellor Arnold Goldin came after attorneys for the city of Millington, who filed suit contesting the previous results, and the attorney for the Shelby County Election Commission agreed there was a “mathematical certainty” that the half-cent sales tax hike passed “There doesn’t seem to be any question about it,” Goldin said after both sides told him they agreed on the resolution of the dispute.
A potpourri of Knoxville real estate news? Dullsville. A Top 5 list about the local property market? Irresistible! With that in mind, here are Five Things to Know about the week in Knoxville real estate. 1) Chatter about a sale of the state-owned Henley Street State Office Building hasn’t materialized. More than a year ago, the state talked about selling the eight-story building across Clinch Avenue from the Convention Center. At the time developer Nick Cazana was mentioned as a possible buyer, but no deal materialized.
Following a trip to Libya and Jordan’s border with Syria, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker says he is “more convinced than ever” that al-Qaida, its affiliates and “violent extremist organizations continue to be a serious threat to America and other countries.” The Tennessee Republican, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spent the weekend in Jordan and visited its border with Syria. On Monday, he was in Libya, where an Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others dead.
Tenn. U.S. Rep. Phil Roe (R-1st District) presented Frontier Health’s Runaway and Homeless Youth program with a $194,780 national grant during a Tuesday afternoon ceremony at Frontier Health’s office in Gray. The Family and Youth Services grant will support Frontier Health’s Link House program, which works to assist runaway, homeless, and “throwaway” youth. The 36-month grant will provide emergency shelter and services to some 200 youth, according to Frontier Health officials.
Dr. George Flinn has been running for office for 10 years now and running in a style that continues to evolve. His bid for the 9th Congressional District on the Nov. 6 ballot may be the most convincing proof that Flinn’s style isn’t orthodox. Flinn’s campaigns since his 2002 debut in which he won the Republican nomination for Shelby County mayor have been expensive and heavy on television advertising. Flinn acknowledges he’s not the best at speeches.
If you’ve got anywhere between 101 and 1,000 employees, listen up: Your health care costs are expected to rise 9.5 percent because of federal health care reform. That’s according to a new study released Tuesday by the Urban Institute that found small and large employers will only be minimally impacted by the new law, while mid-sized employers will bare the brunt of the impact. The study, conducted by Urban’s Health Policy Center, found that if every provision of the health law were implemented this year, costs for small businesses (fewer than 50 workers) would drop by 1.4 percent, while large employers (more than 1,000 employees) would see their costs increase by 4.3 percent.
Marvin Berry Jr. was just 7 years old when a ricocheting bullet struck his spinal cord at the point where his head joins his neck. Told by doctors that he would be lucky to live 20 years, Berry has reached age 40. He has earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Austin Peay State University despite having almost no use of his arms or legs. “I know that there are a lot of people out there that believe in entitlements or the government may owe them something,” he said.
County Mayor Mark Luttrell will announce Wednesday a network of agencies that will use a $2 million federal grant to help children exposed to violence in some of the county’s high-crime areas. With Raleigh-Frayser and the Hickory Hill areas as starting points, three apartment complexes in those areas have been assigned “family service providers” to identify children in violent home situations or those who have been victims or witnesses of crimes.
In recent months, courts have struck down voter identification laws in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas, heartening critics who feared the laws would turn away legitimate voters in November. But because the judges declined to reject the laws as unconstitutional, voter ID opponents may be winning battles but losing the broader war. The recent rulings have done little to alter the legal basis that has allowed comparable laws in Georgia and Indiana to stand for years.
More than a quarter-million Medicare beneficiaries are victims of identity theft and hampered in getting health care benefits because the government won’t issue new IDs, according to an investigation report released today. Medicare officials say it’s too expensive and too many agencies are involved to reissue those numbers to patients victimized by identity theft — about 284,000 beneficiaries, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Service’s inspector general.
John Eschenberg, federal project director for the Uranium Processing Facility, said it’s possible the project team could have squeezed all of the necessary equipment into existing designs for the new 350,000-square-foot production center at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. However, urgent efforts in recent months couldn’t resolve the space/fit problems as the UPF design approached 90 percent completion. Eschenberg said it was far better to bite the bullet now — and face an anticipated barrage of criticism — than to try and make major changes after concrete was poured and construction of the building had started.
Nashville-area home sales increased by 23.7 percent in September compared to a year ago, according to a new sales report from the Greater Nashville Association of Realtors. According to the report, 2,266 homes were sold in the area last month, up from 1,832 a year ago. “Even though standard seasonal trends may show reduced monthly closings, the comparisons to the same months from last year continue to indicate significant increases, which is very encouraging,” said GNAR President Kendra Cooke in a press release.
Home sales in Middle Tennessee have cooled off from the last few months, but closings are still up nearly 24 percent from this time last year. The real estate market is maintaining year-over-year growth. September also marks the end of the third quarter. This time last year, more than 15,000 homes had been sold. The Greater Nashville Association of Realtors says the year-to-date figure for 2012 is more than 19,000. Home prices are stable from last month, remaining at $175,000. And the median price of a single-family home is up $12,000 from last year.
There were 2,266 home sales in the Nashville area in September, an increase of 23.7 percent over the same month last year. According to the Greater Nashville Association of Realtors, the Nashville-area closed the third quarter up 26.2 percent with 7,446 homes sold in the summer. Year-to-date sales are up 25.2 percent. “Home sales have seen an increase every month this year,” said GNAR President Kendra Cooke.
Brunswick Corp., which operates the Sea Ray Boats plant at Forks of the River Industrial Park, announced Tuesday that it will cease operations at that plant by the end of the year, ending 225 jobs there. However, the company’s plant in Vonore will remain open as Brunswick pursues a plan to consolidate all production of its Sea Ray brand at that facility and at its plant in Palm Coast, Fla. The closing will end a prominent presence Sea Ray Boats has had at Forks of the River. In 2009, Sea Ray Boats closed two plants there and cut 540 jobs.
Tennessee tobacco farmers say they can’t find enough help for this year’s harvest. The labor shortage is a result of immigrant workers not showing up in their usual numbers. Tobacco farms are much bigger than they used to be, but nearly everything is still done by hand – chopping, spiking, and stripping. Hispanic field workers have become vital to the harvest, says Smith County extension agent David Glover. “A lot of those who’ve been doing it for years, they’re pretty highly skilled at it. They could get a lot more done than somebody who is inexperienced or didn’t want to work that hard, that long.”
The Metro Nashville school board is taking a wait and see stance after again asking the state to reconsider withholding $3.4 million from the system this month. Board Chairwoman Cheryl Mayes said she hopes to be invited to a meeting with Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman after sending him a letter on Tuesday requesting a meeting and asking for a change of heart about the money. “I hope to meet with him (Huffman) this week,” said Mayes, who also hopes to avert the financial punishment created when the school board defied the state by refusing to approve Great Hearts Academies charter school in West Nashville.
Regional automotive industry leaders will gather Thursday and Friday in Chattanooga for the annual Southern Automotive Conference at a time when Tennessee is rapidly accelerating this powerful engine of our state’s economy. In driving terms, Tennessee’s auto sector has pulled in to the fast lane. Consider these major developments in the last 18 months: • Volkswagen Group of America said in March it will add 800 new jobs in Chattanooga as capacity is expanded to meet demand for the highly successful Passat. • Nissan will produce up to 150,000 electric motors a year for the Nissan LEAF at its Dechard powertrain assembly plant. • Nissan’s new lithium-ion battery plant, located at Smyrna, opens this fall and as one of the largest in the country at full capacity.
A study released by the Cato Institute found that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is the least fiscally conservative Republican governor in America. That shouldn’t come as much of a shock to Tennesseans who have watched in horror as Haslam has supported tax hikes, while fumbling away opportunities to cut spending. Cato’s biennial “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors,” released on Tuesday, gave Gov. Haslam a “D” for his fiscal policies — ranking him as the worst Republican governor in America on tax and spending issues. The report card gave Haslam low grades for supporting an increase in the state’s hospital tax from 3.5 to 4.5 percent of hospital net income. Haslam also received poor marks for his efforts to increase taxes on Internet sales.
It would be hard to name a winner in Monday’s debate between incumbent Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, the Republican who holds Tennessee’s 3rd District Congressional seat, and Dr. Mary Headrick, his Democratic challenger. That’s because it takes two to participate in a debate. Fleischmann, as is his custom, refused to do so. He would not directly address the concerns raised by his opponent. Instead, he provided audience members with obviously well-rehearsed talking points and self-serving remarks. District voters deserve a more engaged representative. Headrick is that person.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge cleanup manager has been eliminating jobs in a systematic way over the past couple of months, with an even bigger ramp-down last week, when more than 100 jobs were cut at the East Tennessee Technology Park. Even more jobs losses at URS|CH2M Oak Ridge (UCOR) and its subcontractors are reported to be on the way, although specifics aren’t available. Folks at DOE’s Oak Ridge office have been fairly quiet about the job reductions and the budget situation, at least until the funding associated with the Continuing Resolution for Fiscal Year 2013 was clear.