This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam will conclude budget hearings for his state departments on Tuesday. The hearings are for fiscal year 2013-14. Departments scheduled to meet before the governor are TennCare, Correction, Economic and Community Development, and Higher Education. Despite improving state revenues, Haslam has asked state departments to develop plans for a 5 percent spending cut as a fallback. The hearings began last Tuesday. Proceedings can be viewed online at http://www.tn.gov.
A recent poll shows Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has strong bipartisan support among Tennessee voters. The Middle Tennessee State University poll shows Haslam has a 76 percent approval rating among independents heading into the third year of his term, 75 percent of Republicans like what he’s doing, and 54 percent of Democrats approve. More than two in three voters, or 68 percent, say they approve of the way Haslam is handling his job as governor. Fourteen percent disapprove, and 16 percent say they don’t know.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam enjoys high bipartisan approval among Tennessee’s active voters as he heads into the third year of his term, the latest MTSU Poll shows. More than two in three voters (68 percent) say they approve of the way Haslam is handling his job as governor. Fourteen percent disapprove, and 16 percent don’t know. The rest give no answer. Surprisingly, perhaps, in the context of a highly partisan national election, Haslam is nearly as popular among Democratic and independent voters as he is among voters from his own party.
Most Tennesseans seem to like the job Gov. Bill Haslam is doing, according to a new survey. But some wonder whether that approval will translate into unified success in the Republican-dominated state legislature. A poll released by Middle Tennessee State University found that 68 percent of the state’s active voters, including majorities of Republicans, independents and even Democrats, approve of Haslam’s performance as governor. The survey found that the governor had a 75 percent approval rating from likely Republican voters, rising to 76 percent among independents and dropping to 54 percent among Democrats.
More than half of Democrats like the job Bill Haslam is doing as Governor. A new poll from MTSU also shows the governor getting high marks among independents. Haslam wins support from 54 % of Democrats. With Independents, it’s 76 %. Overall, pollster Ken Blake says voters see Haslam as a moderate Republican. He cites the governor’s stance on whether the state should set up its own health insurance exchange. “Haslam is kind of saying ‘let’s not have a knee-jerk reaction here, maybe there are some advantages to him setting up his own.’ And I think that’s the kind of governing that’s working for him.”
The re-election of President Barack Obama and the ushering in of Republican supermajorities in the Tennessee General Assembly leave Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in an intriguing dilemma this week. Before Friday, Haslam will have to decide whether to opt for a federally run health insurance exchange as laid out in Obama’s Affordable Care Act, or he will have to recommend that Tennessee pursue creating its own state-run system under the law. Although the governor has said he leans toward the idea of a state-run exchange, the idea is almost certain to go against the grain of many Republicans, who would rather have nothing to do with the president’s signature policy.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation is acknowledging that politics have been driving where some roads get built. As road-building revenues continue to decline, TDOT is looking for savings by listening less to lawmakers. When a legislator asks for some kind of new road, TDOT has been quick to at least agree to study the issue. The problem is that it’s rarely just studying. And once the ball gets rolling, projects become almost impossible to stop, says TDOT Commissioner John Schroer.
The University of Tennessee board of trustees has approved more than $120 million in major building improvements at UT Health Science Center in Memphis over the next five years but the projects are contingent on state funding. biggest single project is proposed for next year: a $66.5 million renovation of the Crowe, Nash, Mooney Building complex. The three buildings are interconnected, near the corner of Union and Dunlap. The Crowe Research Building and Mooney Building will be renovated to house administrative offices, and research labs in the Nash Research and Nash Annex buildings will be renovated.
About 39,000 Tennesseans currently receiving federally extended unemployment insurance benefits are set to lose those benefits in the first week of January, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced today. Emergency unemployment compensation is a federally funded program that provides unemployment benefits to individuals who have exhausted the first 26 weeks of state benefits. The federal program was slated to expire at the end of 2011, but the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 extended the expiration date of to Jan. 2.
Nearly half of all Tennesseans receiving unemployment benefits will stop getting checks at the end of the year. The state Department of Labor is putting 39,000 people on notice. Many of these folks have been receiving $275 a week from the government for as long as two years. And Labor Department spokesman Jeff Hentschel says it’s unlikely there will be another extension. “It’s a tough announcement because a lot of people have criticized people on unemployment because they’ve been chronically unemployed, so we’re really letting people know this is the end of the line as far as unemployment benefits goes.”
The fatal beating of 5-year-old Robert Reyes inside a North Knoxville apartment last month quite possibly was not the first abuse he suffered in his short life. A family member claims he alerted the state Department of Children’s Services last year after noticing bruises on the child. And DCS confirms that it has investigated prior allegations of abuse and/or neglect in the Reyes home. “DCS’s job is to prevent this kind of thing from happening,” said Jim Wyrick, an uncle to Robert’s mother, Amy Reyes.
A Tennessee legislator who repeatedly asked the Department of Children’s Services for information is calling for the commissioner’s ouster. State Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, is asking Gov. Bill Haslam to remove DSC Commissioner Kate O’Day, according to The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/SQkG8f ).. “It’s time for O’Day to resign or for the governor to step in and replace her,” Jones said. “She has had two years, and there is nothing getting better at the Department of Children’s Services,” Jones added. “As a matter of fact, it’s getting worse.”
Tennessee smokers participating in the Great American Smokeout on Thursday can get their plan to quit in place with free help from the Tennessee Tobacco QuitLine. The QuitLine connects smokers with a personal coach who guides them through the quitting process. QuitLine clients also have access to relapse prevention techniques, information on nicotine replacement therapies and other services. According to a news release from the state Health Department, 23 percent of Tennesseans report smoking regularly or occasionally.
As Congress prepares for hearings on meningitis-related deaths and illness tied to a compounding pharmacy, some observers wonder whether lawmakers will raise all of the right questions, including why compounders get so much drug business in the first place. The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Energy and Commerce Committee convenes its inquiry Wednesday, followed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Thursday. They are both probing what could have prevented the recent onslaught of fungal meningitis cases caused by contaminated steroid drugs coming from the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass.
It’s an old story for some Chattanooga commuters: Sitting in stalled traffic, late for work or dinner, while tow trucks haul mangled wrecks off the pavement at the Interstate 75/24 split. Someday — maybe not too long from now — that could change. State transportation planners this week will unveil ideas for a massive rebuilding of the 75/24 split that aims to make the river of cars and trucks flow better and more safely. That’s welcome news to Sgt. Gary Martin in the Chattanooga Police Department’s traffic division.
Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey suggested after the election last week that Republicans may need to consider giving their image on immigration a makeover in order to offset the Democratic Party’s lopsided national advantage among Latino voters. Ramsey told a northeast Tennessee news station, WJHL-TV, that the time has come for Republicans to confront the reality that there’s a perception the GOP is hostile to new immigrants — and the party’s Washington-level electoral fortunes have suffered because of it.
Jubilant Tennessee Republicans are celebrating the “super majorities” they won in last week’s legislative elections, but history shows that may not always guarantee smooth sledding for the GOP, leaders and observers say. Narrow majorities tend to generate a “lot of pressure for you to unite against a common foe,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. But “when you’ve got an excess of votes, there may be personal ambitions, ideological [differences] and whatever else that may come to the fore, and cracks may then begin to appear.”
The legislative push for more gun rights in Tennessee could split the newly-elected Republican supermajority, which may face a standoff over letting people keep guns in their cars at work, whether employers like it or not. Some Republican leaders are leery of gun rights running roughshod over what private businesses want. In spring they buried the proposal just before a House floor vote. The National Rifle Association retaliated by picking off House third-in-command Debra Maggart.
Republican state Senator-elect Steve Dickerson may be the model Democratic candidate. Perhaps not in terms of policy — although he and his District 20 opponent, Democrat Phillip North, did sound awfully similar on a variety of issues — but certainly in patience and dedication to a multi-year process that cultivates winning candidates. Dickerson was first a loser. In 2010, he came out of a Republican primary and faced Democrat Douglas Henry, then a nearly 40-year incumbent, knowing he had hardly a chance to win.
It was a familiar refrain among the business-minded political elite: ‘Debra Maggart is a conservative! How is she getting a legitimate challenge from the right?’ Nonetheless, Rep. Maggart, R-Hendersonville, fell in the August legislative primary to challenger Courtney Rogers. The challenge, which gained critical fuel from the National Rifle Association, is a case study in both the definition of “conservative” and the nature of money in politics these days. In an interview last week, Maggart recounted an experience she hopes has alerted business people to both.
The Davidson County Election Commission “utterly failed” as hundreds of voters experienced problems at the polls last week, the leader of a voter advocacy group said Monday. Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, said a hotline set up at her organization’s MetroCenter office received more than 600 calls on Nov. 6. Callers complained about long lines; poll workers running out of provisional ballots, change-of-address forms and other documents; precincts not having adequate staffing; poorly trained poll workers; incomplete voter rolls; and other problems.
Only a fraction of voters complained they were restricted from casting ballots on Election Day because of Tennessee’s controversial and highly publicized voter photo ID law, but opponents of the law insist that even “low” numbers are unacceptable. “You can’t say it’s ‘not that many’ when you’re talking about someone’s right to vote,” said Nashville attorney Doug Johnston, whose firm is challenging the law in Tennessee’s Supreme Court. “The Constitution lays out the qualifications, and they were perfectly qualified to vote,” Johnston said.
Poll watchers in Nashville say they were surprised that the state’s voter ID law was almost a non-issue on Election Day. But they are asking for an explanation for why lines were so long. Turnout statewide and in Davidson County was actually down from four years ago. Still, Mary Mancini of Tennessee Citizen Action says the queue turned some voters away. “We heard from a lot of the poll watchers here who saw people look at a long line snaking out of their polling location and leaving, not even bothering to park their car and go in.”
A bill to eliminate or significantly reduce the benefit for future council members will be up for a final vote when the council meets at 6:30 p.m. Councilman Phil Claiborne, a co-sponsor, said he expects a close vote. Since the early 1990s, council members and their spouses have been able to stay on the city’s health care plan after leaving office. If they served at least eight years, they pay just 25 percent of the premiums, with taxpayers footing the rest of the bill. Those who served less than eight years must pay the full premium to remain on the plan.
Just days after voters in Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County voted down the idea of a half-cent countywide sales tax hike, there was renewed talk at Memphis City Hall about a citywide sales tax hike. Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn confirmed a “brief conversation” with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “The Memphis-only tax that we were planning … could come back up in six months,” Flinn said on the program hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News.
Some of the country’s most influential health care companies are banding together to train the industry’s next generation of executives. The Nashville Health Care Council announced its “Fellows” program Monday. This is not just glorified professional development, according to organizers. Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist – whose family founded HCA – is leading the effort along with Larry Van Horn, an associate professor at Vanderbilt’s business school. “We will hopefully put in place a structure to preserve the Nashville legacy and build on it year over year.”
Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and others on Monday unveiled a local initiative for selected C-level health care executives that will seek to build a “forum for thought leadership” to birth new ideas that address old problems stemming from the nation’s health care crisis. The initiative, named Nashville Healthcare Council Fellows, will launch this spring and “leverage the expertise of the industry’s founding leadership in Nashville as well as nationally-known figures and leading academic institutions,” according to a statement provided at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel event by the Nashville Health Care Council.
Dr. Bill First and the Nashville Health Care Council announced the creation today of a new fellowship program. The Nashville Health Care Council Fellows will be led by Frist, a former U.S. senator, and Larry Van Horn, an associate professor of management and the executive director of health affairs for Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. Partners in the program include Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, Community Health Systems, HCA Holdings Inc., LifePoint Hospitals and Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.
After a two-year pause, Oak Ridge National Laboratory once again has the world’s fastest supercomputer. Titan, a Cray XK7 system, debuted Monday as No. 1 on the latest rendition of the Top500 list, after tests proved the machine was capable of a sustained performance of 17.5 petaflops — or 17.5 million billion mathematical calculations per second. The supercomputer reportedly has a peak capability of 27 petaflops. Jeff Nichols, the lab’s scientific computing chief, said there’s even more to come from Titan.
According to the media-focused blog Mediaverse, The Commercial Appeal has suffered another rounds of layoffs. This time, the cuts involve the advertising department. Amie Stein, senior associate publisher; Ted Gorman, director of business development; Lee Proctor, national online accounts manager; and Susie Gardner, executive assistant to the vice president of sales and marketing, were given pink slips last week, the blog reports. George Cogswell was named as The Commercial Appeal’s new publisher in June by E.W. Scripps Co. (NYSE: SSP), replacing Joe Pepe.
Lance Williams has been named the new business editor of The Tennessean. Williams has been the editor for the Nashville Business Journal since 2008. Previously he was the editor of the Austin Business Journal. He replaces Randy McClain, who left to take a job at The Republic in Columbus, Ind. “Lance is an award-winning journalist who brings experience and knowledge of the Nashville market to this key position in our news operation,” said Maria De Varenne, executive editor and vice president/news.
Tomorrow night the Metro school board will consider whether to hire a lawyer, to get back funding the state withheld from the district as punishment. One school board member is making a case to sue to get back more than $3 million. In a months-long tug-of-war, state officials ordered Metro to let Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies open a charter school in Nashville if it met certain conditions. Metro says Great Hearts never fulfilled those requirements, and scuttled the application.
Despite years of tests that show that Smithson-Craighead Middle School students aren’t ready for high school coursework, some of their parents are terrified the charter school might be forced to close. No matter what the test scores show, parents say, they know their children are learning and getting the personal attention they need. In Tennessee, school boards issue charters and can revoke them for poor performance, and the Metro Nashville school board will discuss that option at 5 p.m. today.
Three Memphis charter schools could be closed based on poor test scores, including Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, once a flagship performer. The other two are Memphis Consortium of Business and Law and Memphis School of Excellence. The decision is up to the unified Memphis and Shelby County school board, but because the schools are performing in the bottom 5 percent, they have come to the attention of Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement School District.
Rutherford County Schools officials began dissecting the public’s feedback on how to alter the zoning lines for the new Stewarts Creek High. feedback was gathered from meetings at the four high schools to be impacted by the new school’s opening — Blackman, La Vergne, Riverdale and Smyrna. All will have a portion of their student population moved elsewhere due to overcrowding. What they found Tuesday night is that it’ll be especially hard to please everyone, especially those giving input at the Blackman meeting.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision to leave his administration’s rules on public-records requests essentially unchanged leaves much to be desired; mainly, transparency in government. While the governor’s office has tended to waive records requests for high-profile matters such as the recent meningitis outbreak, by allowing other state agencies to set their own fees Gov. Haslam may be unintentionally laying the groundwork for abuse of the public’s trust. When Tennessee’s forward-looking Open Records Act was enacted some 40 years ago, it was a model for other states to follow, allowing any resident of this state to know what their elected officials were up to. However, over the years, the General Assembly — which never has been subject to open-records laws — has issued hundreds of exemptions for others, as well.
Tennessee needs to push forward and establish its own state-run health exchange as part of Obamacare. The newly elected state legislature, the most Republican-dominated legislature in the state’s history, likely will need the Heimlich maneuver to get the word Obamacare unstuck from its craw. But legislators need to look for some way to do just that. President Barack Obama has been re-elected, along with a majority Democratic U.S. Senate, so there is no chance that the Affordable Care Act will be repealed. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has confirmed the constitutionality of the legislation. Against this backdrop, the die-hard opposition to Obamacare seems futile.
Jackson’s Drug Treatment Court recognized nine graduates from the program on Friday. This is a significant accomplishment for these individuals, and we wish them well as they move on with their lives, free from the dangers, destructive lifestyle and the health risks of drug and alcohol abuse. Any graduation ceremony recognizes hard work and accomplishment. That certainly is the case for these nine graduates. Drug Treatment Court is an intensive, year-long program designed to change lives for the long term. Drug Treatment Court goes far beyond the routines of the criminal justice system by offering an alternative to jail time for those who commit non-violent criminal offenses and drug-related crimes.
Spurred by an uproar over recent appointments, the Knox County Commission is poised to create an ad hoc committee today to review the composition and structure of the Ethics Committee. While several commissioners have floated ideas for a reconstituted panel, the best move for the ad hoc committee would be to do its homework first. Consulting experts on ethics and public policy on best practices would ground the ad hoc committee in professionalism and insulate discussions to a some extent from political manipulations. The Ethics Committee grew out of legislation passed in 2006 after the Tennessee Waltz corruption scandal tore through state government. The Legislature required counties and municipalities to adopt ethics policies.