This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam doesn’t live in Knoxville anymore, but still considers it home and says that his hometown ties may provide some indirect benefit to those still living there. “I love my job and we like being in Nashville,” he said. “But if people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from Knoxville.” He and his wife, Crissy, live in the state-owned executive residence in Nashville, which went through major remodeling and renovation initiated by his predecessor, former Gov. Phil Bredesen.
A 78-mile stretch of highway that loops south of Nashville and has taken 26 years to finish will ease traffic congestion and be a boost for the economy, state officials said Friday. Gov. Bill Haslam ceremoniously opened the final portion of state Route 840, which was to start taking on traffic at 6 p.m. Friday. Former Govs. Don Sundquist and Winfield Dunn and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander attended. It took about $750 million to construct the divided highway that runs from Interstate 40 near Dickson to Interstate 40 near Lebanon.
Milan Express CEO John Ross has been waiting for years for State Route 840 to become a fully connected roadway. The trucking company, which is based just north of Jackson, transports a wide array of products across the Southeast to companies such as Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and The Home Depot. About 30 to 50 of Milan Express’ trucks cut through Nashville each day, Ross said, many of which get stuck in traffic as they approach downtown, limiting the productivity of drivers who get paid by the mile and can’t stay on the road for more than 11 hours each day.
As the final 14-mile stretch of State Route 840 in Williamson County opened to vehicle traffic Friday, opponents and proponents say they generally still feel the same about the completed 78-mile expressway as they did when it was proposed 26 years ago. “I think we could see some people relocate here strictly because of the shorter distance now to Murfreesboro and Smyrna and those areas,” said Andrew Hyatt, city admistrator of Fairview, near the western end of the highway.
Programs give aged-out kids a second chance As a child who grew up in state foster care, Jennifer Rhodes knew that turning 18 and finally gaining her independence could also put her on a lonely, difficult path. She had two options. Go it alone or accept more help. The help came with strings attached — more rules and regimens in a program that would help her transition into adulthood. Still, she took it, and a year later she realized her decision was the right one. She was a freshman at Middle Tennessee State University and her roommate invited a young homeless man to spend the night.
The automated voice in the driver’s licensing center at 3200 East Shelby was announcing service for one type of customer Saturday — those in need of voter IDs. Monisha Hamilton, branch manager for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, said the IDs are free to those who need state-issued picture identification before election day. “If you have a non-photo ID we put a photo on there and if you don’t have (an ID) at all, we provide that,” Hamilton said. On the last weekend before 2012 election, Memphians got ready for Tuesday by getting last-minute IDs and attending voting rallies.
Up until Saturday, Betty Klepper of Kingsport, said whenever she’s been asked for a photo ID, she’s had to present her Sam’s Club card, because her driver’s license, like many people of her generation, did not have a photo on it.Klepper said for so long after reaching a certain age, photos on driver’s licenses have not been required, but new voting laws require some government issued photo ID at the voting booths, which was one of the reasons she made the trek into the Washington County Driver Services Center around 11 a.m.
One is a common black mold that likes to feast on bread. Another is pigmented yeast that can live in the air, soil and water. A third is a fungus, usually found in soil and on plants, that thrives in warm and humid climates. All seemingly different, yet they share one thing in common: They were in supposedly sterile medications prepared by the specialty pharmacy linked to a nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak that has sickened 404 and killed 29, including 12 in Tennessee. So far, lab tests have found three types of fungus and 10 bacterial strains in unopened medicines that New England Compounding Center produced in its Framingham, Mass., facility.
If the closing argument made on behalf of disgraced former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner this past week in his federal trial sounded familiar, that’s because it was. Both the beginning and the end of defense attorney Donald A. Bosch’s impassioned speech to jurors in U.S. District Court were, except the occasional changed wording, a carbon copy of those offered up by the defender for John Edwards, a former presidential candidate, in his May campaign finance fraud trial, a comparison shows.
With education issues high on the agenda for the upcoming legislative session, two new groups that favor charter schools and vouchers have spent lavishly on Tennessee House and Senate races. The Tennessee PAC affiliated with StudentsFirst, a Sacramento, Calif.-based organization led by former Washington, D.C., Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee, has pumped $376,266 into Tennessee this year. That sum includes contributions to a handful of local school board contenders in Nashville and Memphis but far more to candidates seeking state legislative seats.
After spending an unusually large amount of time with the candidate at all hours of the day, Susan Shann decided she was comfortable voting for the underdog in the House District 55 race: herself. Shann, a Green Party candidate, told The Tennessean in September that she would vote for her opponent, Democratic state Rep. Gary Odom, because she hadn’t been able to run an active campaign. But she ultimately voted for herself in early voting, she said Thursday.
State Senate candidate Steve Dickerson released what has to be the ultimate Nashville political attack ad on Friday. “I shred it on the ax, while my opponent makes “big money” on Gibson Guitar lawsuits,” the Republican doctor said in a 30-second spot titled “Guitar Zero.” Dickerson moonlights in a rock band. His Democratic opponent, attorney Philip North, also released an ad that accused his opponent and “extremist” allies of spreading falsehoods about his record.
House District 53 candidate Ben Claybaker is a father for the second time, the Tennessee Republican Party announced Wednesday night. Claybaker’s wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to Emmaline Elizabeth at 9:49 p.m., less than a week before the race between Claybaker and Democratic nominee Jason Powell will be decided. The Claybakers also have a son, Jackson. The candidate “plans to take a break from the campaign trail for a couple days to be with his wife and newborn baby,” the state GOP’s email said.
J.T. Smith and Robert Johnson should have a lot in common. Both are middle-aged. Both are successful. Both have lived in Middle Tennessee for decades. Their lives revolve around communities separated by no more than 20 miles. Yet when Smith and Johnson cast their ballots this fall, they went into the booth with entirely different mindsets. Smith voted for President Barack Obama. Johnson cast his ballot for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Neither man knows many people who aren’t on his side.
Election Day for Jerry Woods once meant a trip, leaning on his walker, from Whiteside’s Faith Manor, through a parking lot and across the street to the downtown Chattanooga polling place to cast his ballot. This year Woods filled out an absentee ballot. He hasn’t moved, and his regular polling place at the Chattanooga Urban League on M.L. King Boulevard had not changed. But because newly drawn political district lines cut right down the street, Woods and the other 107 people living at Whiteside’s Faith Manor on 10th Street now must travel two miles to vote.
Elementary school overcrowding and countywide flooding, along with a court ruling in a sales tax dispute, were on the agenda when Cleveland and Bradley County leaders held a joint meeting last week. “The elementary schools are overcrowded,” said Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of Cleveland City Schools, adding that a new elementary school is needed. “Rezoning is not the answer.” Ringstaff estimated a $13 million to $16 million price tag for a new school, based on student capacity of 500 to 700 students.
Knox County voters on Tuesday will be asked whether they want to close a controversial and expensive pension program for future Sheriff’s Office employees. Yet, no one knows just what will replace it, because officials spent little time discussing an alternative before they opted to put the proposed charter amendment on the ballot. Still, opponents of the plan said it shouldn’t matter. They argue that the program has long been a cash drain on the county’s coffers, and any new one will cost a lot less than the current one.
The underfunded city employees pension already costs taxpayers millions of dollars, and Knoxville officials warn that if a referendum for a new plan fails on Election Day the costs could skyrocket. Way down on the ballot — the last item, really — voters will see the plan Tuesday. In short, it would close the current plan and offer a different pension to new hires that costs less to taxpayers. Mayor Madeline Rogero has implored voters to get to the bottom of their ballots where the city pension vote is located.
The Tennessee Democratic Party tried to keep the pressure on U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, unearthing records of the South Pittsburg doctor’s malpractice cases. The Dems put out a press release Friday linking to evidence of two cases in his 20-year career. One is an indication on his state practitioner profile that he settled a suit in 2004 for more than $75,000. Nothing more is known than that.The second is a 1993 Kansas suit that centered on a birth while DesJarlais was a first-year resident.
Debate in Tennessee’s bitter 4th District congressional campaign turned over the weekend to the respective candidates’ past legal problems. Democrat Eric Stewart was sued by Citibank in November 2011 for failing to pay on nearly $5,000 in credit card debt, Franklin County General Sessions Court records show. Republican incumbent Scott DesJarlais, a physician, has a “history” of medical malpractice, state Democrats claim, citing claims in 1991 and 2004. Citibank sued Stewart on Dec. 6, 2011, a little over a month after the state senator and insurance agent announced he was running for Congress.
With Tennessee and Rutherford County becoming Republican strongholds, about the only uncertain political race is a congressional struggle between embattled U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and state Sen. Eric Stewart. The Republican physician from South Pittsburg is trying to stave off reports that, while estranged from his wife in 2000, he had sexual relations with two female patients, one of whom he encouraged to have an abortion during a recorded conversation. He contends he was trying to make her admit she wasn’t pregnant and that she didn’t have an abortion.
Counting those pills can get complicated. Two Congressional leaders have called for a federal investigation of the electronic database used by Tennessee and 23 other states to track drugstore sales of methamphetamine’s main ingredient. U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday asking for an inquiry into whether the system skirts agreements with state governments, stonewalls police and violates federal law by mining the sales numbers for marketing data.
Tennesseans continue to empty their pocketbooks for the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. An analysis by the Tennessean Washington Bureau of data provided by the Federal Election Commission shows the growing variety of ways donors from the Volunteer State make their presence felt — and the staggering sums now moving through the political system. Tennesseans give directly to candidates, to their company’s political action committee through payroll deductions, to national PACs, to the new “Super PACs” and to state and national political party committees.
Near the corner of Elvis Presley Boulevard and Shelby Drive, not far from the Memphis-Mississippi border, a steady stream of people dedicated to re-electing President Obama enters a former Rent-A-Center with metal bars on the windows. About 15 miles to the east, in a suburban Germantown shopping center, volunteers committed to limiting the president to one term walk past diners on Swanky Taco Shop’s patio and into a storefront that previously catered to ardent soccer fans.
Memphis and Shelby County are getting much more aggressive to keep and add jobs, and the possibility of giving International Paper a tax break of unprecedented length is but one example. That’s according to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who are negotiating a proposal that could save International Paper nearly $100 million with a 30-year property tax break. In return for the incentive, known as a PILOT (for payments-in-lieu-of-taxes), the Fortune 500 firm would not only keep its 2,300 employees and headquarters in Memphis, it would add 100 jobs with an average base pay of $80,000.
Dinner. Coffee at Panera Bread. A walk along the First Creek Greenway. Those are just a few of the events involving two or more school members for which public notice was given by Knox County Schools has officially notified the public about when two or more school board members were to attend. But when three school board members went to Biloxi, Miss., in July to attend the National School Board Association’s Southern Region Conference, no official public notice was sent.
It is encouraging that nearly 5,000 students at the University of Tennessee were taking advantage of early voting at a polling place on the Knoxville campus last week and casting their ballots in the Nov. 6 election.Early voting ended Thursday. Election Day results on Tuesday will determine who will be president for the next four years — Democrat Barack Obama, the incumbent, or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. There also are races for Congress and the state Legislature, as well as proposed changes to the Knox County and Knoxville charters. With much at stake at every level of government, from the occupants of important offices to the pensions of public employees, citizens have big incentives to go to the polls.
I got my property tax bill the other day. Maybe you did, too. It made me proud to see that I was doing my part to keep Knox County green. My bill had been higher, I knew, so that the fairways of Cherokee Country Club could maintain their emerald hue with the help of Tennessee’s greenbelt property tax break. Without that, the well-heeled members of that enclave would have found their wallets lightened a tad, leaving them unbalanced as they lined up putts on their manicured greens. I realized, too, that my family was forking over more so the Schaad Companies could save $78,000 a year while sitting on prime land off Northshore Drive, growing hay until it was time to harvest the 385 subdivision lots already planned there.