This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau announced Thursday a total of $6.9 million in local parks and recreation fund grants to 50 recipients across the state of Tennessee. “Our quality of life is directly linked to the quality of our parks and outdoor spaces,” Haslam said. “Recreational facilities are important not only to Tennesseans but for the many visitors we attract to our state each year. I’ve had the opportunity to visit several of these communities throughout the last few weeks and I am pleased to be in a position to provide funding for the benefit of all Tennesseans.”
Tennessee’s latest investment fund has nearly disbursed its first round of money, fueling companies in a range of markets — from health care to consumer safety. INCITE is a co-investment fund that will ultimately provide nearly $30 million in public money to spur private capital. Gov. Bill Haslam’s Department of Economic and Community Development created the program with federal money that the state was already receiving, and it has since provided early funding for 17 companies.
Tennessee’s unemployment rate for September decreased to 8.3 percent, down from the August revised rate of 8.5 percent, state Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Karla Davis announced today In contrast, the national unemployment rate for September was 7.8 percent, 0.3 percentage point lower than the August rate. Over the past 12 months, Tennessee’s unemployment rate declined from 9.1 percent to 8.3 percent, while the national rate declined from 9 percent to 7.8 percent.
Tennessee’s unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent in September, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced. State unemployment is down from the revised August rate of 8.5 percent. Nationally, unemployment in September was 7.8 percent, 0.3 percentage points lower than August. As the state’s press release notes, Tennessee’s employment rate over the past 12 months has decreased 0.8 percentage points, from 9.1 percent to 8.3 percent. The national unemployment rate has fallen 1.2 percentage points in that period, from 9 percent to 7.8 percent.
Fewer workers in Tennessee and Georgia seeking jobless benefits last month helped nudge the unemployment rate down in both states. But Tennessee’s 8.3 percent jobless rate and Georgia’s 9 percent unemployment mark in September remained above the national jobless rate of 7.8 percent. “The economy is improving and there have been recent signs in housing and consumer confidence that things are getting better,” said David Penn, director of the Business and Economic Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
As Tennessee weighs asking for its money back or suing the company that created the computer system it uses to protect abused and neglected children, it could find itself in for a fight. Just ask Ohio. Dynamics Research Corp. (DRC) successfully sued that state over money it never received after creating a computer system for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services — the same child welfare case management computer system that Tennessee paid DRC to install here. The company won its lawsuit against Ohio this year, proving it deserves payment.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has replaced the director of the call center where case workers have struggled to answer phone calls reporting child abuse and neglect. DCS spokesman Brandon Gee said Thursday that Central Intake call center Director Jeanene Waldrum will move to the DCS main office. In her place, the interim call center director will be Dimple Dudley, who began working with the state as a social worker in 1976. “We’ve been considering making a change for some time,” Gee said.
The only people “living the dream” at a senior living facility with that name in Cookeville, Tenn., were former Upper Cumberland Development District Executive Director Wendy Askins and her daughter, state auditors report. A state Comptroller’s Office audit released this week blasts Askins for spending thousands in taxpayer dollars on lavish improvements to the main living quarters where she and her adult daughter, Anna, lived rent-free at the Living the Dream project. Among their luxuries were steam showers costing more than $6,000; a double-sided fireplace that cost more than $1,500; and a $25,000 curved staircase from the downstairs portion of the house where Askins lived to the upstairs where her daughter lived.
Federal officials reported mounting evidence Thursday that a Massachusetts drug compounding firm is the source of a nationwide fungal meningitis epidemic that has now taken the lives of 20 people and sickened 257, including 63 in Tennessee. Unopened vials of a steroid drug at the New England Compounding Center contain the same fungus, Exserohilum rostratum, that has been detected in the majority of the victims, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said.
As federal officials continued their investigation into the deadly meningitis outbreak, health authorities warned the illness could take longer than they had thought to show up in patients, and indicated more cases could be reported before the outbreak abates. The Food and Drug Administration formally confirmed Thursday the presence of the Exserohilum fungus in unopened vials of steroid injections made by New England Compounding Center. The drug-mixing pharmacy is implicated in the outbreak that has sickened 254 people and led to 20 deaths.
Tennessee’s newest interstate welcome center should be open next summer and showcase local tourism initiatives, Tennessee Department of Transportation officials said Thursday. A busload of state and regional officials capped off TDOT’s East Tennessee “Projects Tour” by viewing progress made on Kingsport’s Interstate 26 welcome center — a location now framed by scenic fall color and within sight of Bays Mountain. Much of the $9.5 million roadwork is in place, while a $2 million contract for the center’s log-style main building is scheduled to be awarded next month.
Nearly $70 million in road construction projects are currently under way in Washington County, and projects worth millions of dollars more are expected to begin in the next few years. Tennessee Department of Transportation officials have been touring the state this week to look at projects. Thursday the tour went through Washington and Sullivan counties. Two projects going on now in Washington County are the widening of Tenn. Highway 36, also known as North Roan Street, from near the Bristol Highway to Tenn. Highway 75 and the widening of Tenn. 75 toward Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville.
Oh, deer! The Tennessee Highway Patrol is advising motorists to watch out for deer entering roads during mating and hunting season. The THP says an increase in deer-related crashes is likely from October through December. Deer are more likely to be on the move during mating season, especially during daybreak and dusk. Statistics from the highway patrol show that there were 5,644 deer-related crashes in 2011, including 285 that involved injuries and two that were fatal.
A legal challenge to Tennessee’s voter-ID requirement went before a state appeals court Thursday. Early voting just got underway in the first presidential election since the law passed. Two women from Memphis want the court to overturn the new law, or at least suspend it until after the election, like in some states with similar laws. Failing that, plaintiffs say voters should be allowed to use other forms of ID, like a Memphis library card with a photo. The three-judge panel grilled both sides with pointed questions.
Although Tennessee’s controversial voter ID law faces yet another legal challenge, it remains intact — at least for now. Attorneys representing two Memphis residents whose votes were not counted in the August primary because they lacked a government-issued photo ID asked a three-judge Appeals Court panel on Thursday to throw out the state’s voter ID law. They claim the law is unconstitutional and suppresses turnout among certain segments of the population.
The future of Tennessee’s voter ID law heading into the November elections hangs in the balance as members of the state’s Court of Appeals weighed its constitutionality. One day after polls opened for early voting, the three-member court heard arguments from the city of Memphis and two of its residents who say they were stripped of their right to vote due to the state’s new law requiring voters present a federal or state photo ID. “Both the Constitution and the election statutes have a tension between maximizing participation and ensuring that those who participate are entitled to participate. That’s a tension that occasionally clashes and I think this might be one of those places where it does,” said Appeals Judge Andy Bennett.
Judges on the state Court of Appeals vigorously questioned lawyers for both sides Thursday during arguments in the Memphis lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s voter-photo identification law, but gave no indication when they will issue a ruling in the case. The trio of judges — Andy Bennett, Richard Dinkins and Michael Swiney — probed at key points advanced by the City of Memphis in opposition to the law and by the state attorney general’s office, which is defending the statute enacted last year by the Tennessee legislature.
Federal prosecutors want to present testimony of a disgraced former Knox County judge’s fling with a former member of a Drug Court program he helped found. Defense attorneys Donald A. Bosch and Ann Short disagree and have filed their own motions in the run-up to next week’s trial of former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner on seven counts of federal misprision of a felony charge for allegedly lying to a various officials to cover up his mistress’ drug-dealing conspiracy.
The Bradley County Schools system has a new grant to fund its efforts to get more high school graduates to further their education. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission will give Bradley $846,300 over the next seven years to create services for families and students in specific schools. The funding comes through the U.S. Department of Education’s GEAR UP program, aimed at encouraging more students from low-income families to enroll in post-secondary schools. Bradley is one of 16 grant recipients statewide and the only recipient in Southeast Tennessee.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has moved the race between U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and state Sen. Eric Stewart up on its list of priorities, a sign the organization plans to throw its financial weight into the campaign. The DCCC placed the 4th Congressional District race in its “Red to Blue” category, indicating that it sees the election as a close yet winnable race for the Democratic candidate. The DCCC, which coordinates the Democratic Party’s campaign strategy for congressional races nationwide, usually follows up such a move with an increase in spending.
Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais is slamming Democratic rival Eric Stewart on “Obamacare” in a new television ad, but the underfunded Stewart’s fortunes may be in for a substantial change. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Thursday switched Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District to its “red to blue” category, a designation indicating Democrats think it’s a winnable seat and intend to devote resources to Stewart’s battle with the Jasper physician.
“The Colbert Report” targeted U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais from Tennessee Wednesday night, lampooning the pro-life congressman’s abortion scandal. The satirical political show on Comedy Central featured revelations that the Jasper, Tenn., physician urged a patient with whom he had a sexual relationship to get an abortion a dozen years ago. Show host Stephen Colbert recognized the congressman as the show’s “Alpha Dog of the Week,” highlighting a statement on DesJarlais’ website which says “all life should be cherished and protected.” “DesJarlais recently proved his flexibility by lifting his leg,” Colbert said, “and peeing on his own position.”
It was meant to be a forum, not a debate, but that didn’t prevent Congressional candidates Steve Cohen and George Flinn from taking several swipes at each other Thursday afternoon. Flinn and Cohen, along with a smattering of other local officials, met in a forum sponsored by the Kirby Pines retirement community in the Hickory Hill area. Each candidate took six minutes for an opening statement, then responded to a few questions from the audience of 125 or so. Flinn, a Republican, is challenging the incumbent Democrat Cohen, who was first elected to the seat in 2006.
It may — as one of the principals indicated — end up being a one-of-a-kind event. But Steve Cohen, the incumbent Democrat for Memphis’ 9th Congressional district, and his Republican challenger, George Flinn, did in fact have something of a public debate on Thursday — though the main subject of their relatively brief back-and-forth was the issue of whether they should do a debate for real. Cohen and Flinn were two of the candidates invited to a political forum at Kirby Pines Retirement Home, and, like the other candidates for various offices who were on hand, were there essentially to say their helloes and present their views to an auditorium full of Kirby Pines residents and other guests.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be in Tennessee on Friday. According to a news release from his office, Vilsack is scheduled to meet with producers to discuss the importance of passing comprehensive food, farm and jobs legislation, as well as talk about revitalizing small rural businesses and communities. Vilsack will be in Cedar Hill Friday morning, then travel to Clarksville for a noon discussion. Officials say net farm income in Tennessee rose from $447 million in 2010 to nearly $800 million in 2011, while exports grew from $1.3 billion in 2009 to $2.3 billion in 2011.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has a new web page for outdoors enthusiasts. TVA Trails lists dozens of public trails, covering 137 miles on the utility’s land in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Trails listed on the web page include popular areas like Raccoon Mountain near Chattanooga, Guntersville Reservoir in north Alabama and Norris and Tellico reservoirs in East Tennessee. Following the link will display all of the trails, their locations, how long they are, the difficulty of the terrain and their uses.
These days, there may be something more valuable to job seekers than a four-year college degree: a two-year college degree. Employment for Americans with an associate’s degree or some college has increased by 578,000 the past six months to 35.2 million, while payrolls for those with at least a bachelor’s are up by just 314,000 to 46.5 million, Labor Department figures show. The trend underlines that some of the mid-skill jobs that disappeared in the recession are coming back. They include operators of computerized factory machines, heating and air conditioning repair people, X-ray technicians, medical records specialists and low- to mid-level managers.
The Metro school board has apparently split from city attorneys in its rift with the state over Great Hearts Academies as board members weigh their next move after the state’s decision to withhold education funds. A special meeting is set for Tuesday, when the board is expected to consider legal action in response to the state’s withholding of $3.4 million, which Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration executed this week as a penalty for denying Great Hearts’ charter application last month.
Hamilton County Schools officials are being more cautious about approving school field trips. And so is the school board. In a work session before their regular monthly meeting Thursday, board members discussed the possibility of eliminating school-sponsored senior trips and other excursions that aren’t academically driven. Board members discussed nixing longer overnight trips altogether, eliminating of nonacademic senior trips, putting restrictions on overnight trips for elementary students or maintaining current rules on trips.
Loudon County and Lenoir City school leaders are once again in the crosshairs of a secular organization demanding that the two school boards cease prayer at their meetings. Both school boards received letters this week from Americans United, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit dedicated to the separation of church and state. “These communities are reluctant to follow our advice, so our lawyers are applying a little more pressure,” said Rob Boston, senior policy analyst at Americans United.
The last couple of sessions of the Tennessee General Assembly have been notable for a lack of concern about the issues that a majority of Tennesseans say matter most to them: jobs and a strong economy. For whatever reason, the Republican leadership, which controls both the House and Senate, has been all too content to watch as lawmakers preoccupied their branch of government with attempts to legislate morality. In doing so, they often made Tennessee the butt of national jokes as they attempted to dilute the teaching of evolution in public schools; tried to censor speech about homosexuality in schools; and sought to infringe on religious freedoms of people of Muslim faith while aggressively promoting Christian principles in virtually every facet of Tennessee public life.
As we head toward November, voter interest in Shelby County is at a peak, and voter confidence in the election system is at an all-time low. We’ve known of the problem, and the solution, for years. It’s time to act. In 2010, voters were improperly turned away, being told (incorrectly) that they had already voted early. This past August, thousands of voters — almost 5 percent of those who voted — were given the wrong ballots. A court found this past month that error changed the outcome of at least one referendum election. All this led to the extraordinary step of a state audit of our county’s election office, which concluded that it had “an inability to conduct elections without significant inaccuracies.” The clear lesson: Election computers have glitches. And election officials miss them until it’s too late. Often.
Tough decisions face our elected officials. As they determine ways to lower spending and reduce the deficit, they must also support programs that are needed by their constituents and have proved to be successful. Medicare Part D is one such program. Part D, Medicare’s prescription drug coverage, has made a significant difference in the lives of older adults. They now have improved access to prescription drugs, as well as reduced cost outlays. According to the Congressional Budget Office, total Part D costs are 43 percent, or $435 billion, less than initially projected in 2004. Part D is structured to give enrollees an opportunity annually to choose the coverage that best meets their specific needs. With private insurance companies, rather than the government, providing the coverage, competition is harnessed thus keeping prices low.
Employees of Koch Industries recently received a mailing warning them that they could “suffer the consequences” if they voted for candidates not supported by the GOP political activist brothers who own the international conglomerate. Koch Industries has at least two subsidiaries in Tennessee. Georgia-Pacific, which makes corrugated boxes in Lebanon, and Invista, which has a fiber and polymer plant in Chattanooga. The Koch Industries mailing comes on the heels of a testy email sent to his employees by David Siegel, the owner of Florida-based Westgate Resorts, which has timeshare facilities in Sevier County. Siegel told his employees that if President Barack Obama wins re-election and raises Siegel’s taxes, he will have to lay off workers and downsize his company or even shut it down. These are only two examples of employees being terrified in this divisive election climate that we find ourselves in with the election less than two weeks away.