This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam and first lady Crissy Haslam are preparing to light the Christmas tree at the Tennessee Capitol. The 30-foot Norway spruce tree was moved to Nashville from state-owned land in Arrington and has been decorated with more than 6,000 LED lights. This tree is three feet taller than last year’s, and has twice as many lights. The event for state employees, their families and the public will be held Monday evening on the plaza across from the Capitol building.
Thousands more women than men take classes at the four University of Tennessee campuses across the state. Yet the 26-member governing board that oversees the statewide university system has only seven women on it. Three of those are faculty or student trustees who serve only one year as voting members. “I personally would like to see more women on the board, because what I have discovered in my six years of being on the board is that we think very differently than our male counterparts who are on the board, and there are certain issues we feel more passionate about than they do,” said trustee Anne Holt Blackburn, a television news anchor in Nashville.
Bill may let students cross county lines As state lawmakers and members of a Gov. Bill Haslam-appointed task force consider the scope of a possible school voucher program in Tennessee, talks aren’t limited to using public dollars for private schooling. Rather, under one scenario designed to expand choice further, low-income students enrolled in struggling schools could attend higher-performing public schools across town, outside their home districts and — if need be — across county lines.
Minivans, tractor-trailers, buses and four-door sedans packed Chattanooga’s roads Sunday as travelers hit the gas to get home after the Thanksgiving holiday. Traffic on Interstate 24 was backed up all the way into Marion County, Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Steven Bearden said, but that’s typical after a holiday. “It’s about average for a Thanksgiving holiday,” he said. “Wednesday and Sunday are our big travel days.” Heading home from Florida to Crossville, Tenn., driver Robert Axline was surprised when he hit heavy traffic on Interstate 75 north.
With most of the harvest completed in Tennessee, farmers lament the loss of corn, but say timely rains that began in midsummer saved most other crops. Cotton is expected to finish among the best per-acre yields ever. In Portland, farmer Willis Jepson said soybeans made 55 bushels per acre — 15 bushels more than usual. Still, the farm lost $500,000 in corn. University of Tennessee burley tobacco specialist Dr. Paul Denton said 2012 is shaping up to be the most profitable year since the 2004 buyout that ended government price supports.
A 68-acre tract in Meigs County that was slated for a treatment plant and high-density development is now included in one of the most important wintering rest stops for sandhill cranes in the eastern U.S. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency recently acquired the property with help from The Tennessee Land Trust, a nonprofit that specializes in preserving lands of high conservation value throughout the state. The property adjoins the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, a 2,570-acre preserve located at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers near Birchwood, Tenn.
En route back to North Carolina on Sunday night from a Thanksgiving weekend in Michigan, every stop to refuel was another chance to strike it rich for Sherie Britt and her family. After a quick fill-up, the Asheville resident stepped inside to the counter at the Weigel’s along East Emory Road, just off Interstate 75, to buy a couple more Powerball tickets ahead of Wednesday’s drawing. “We’ve bought one or two in every state,” said Britt. “And we’ll probably buy more when we get back to North Carolina.”
Seated around a table is Judge Bill Anderson Jr., the court’s coordinator Curt Wilson, three Veterans Affairs officials, two state prosecutors and a public defender. Nearby are several mentors and representatives from private drug and alcohol treatment facilities. The team evaluates the status of each of the 21 veterans entered in the new court designed to help vets get out of trouble. “I myself had some problems for several years after I came home from Vietnam, and there was nothing like a Veterans Court,” said mentor Bob Croslow, who wears a long gray ponytail and a jacket with “Vietnam Veteran” on the back.
House Speaker Beth Harwell is unopposed for another nomination in charge of the lower chamber of the General Assembly as she heads into Monday’s Republican leadership vote. The 70-member Republican caucus is scheduled to elect its leaders at its first caucus meeting following this month’s elections. While no one has stepped forward to challenge Harwell’s bid for a second term, the No. 2 position of speaker pro tempore involves a competition between incumbent Rep. Judd Matheny of Tullahoma and Rep. Curtis Johnson of Clarksville.
It happens all the time. After a busy week with the legislature in session and lobbyists buzzing around Capitol Hill trying to strike deals, dozens of House Republicans will sit in secret meetings just feet from the Capitol press room. Staffers at the doors refuse to let reporters or almost anyone else in. The only glimpse the public can get of what the voting majority is talking about can only be seen through narrow glass panes in the heavy wood doors. That’s because the legislature is exempt from the state’s open meetings law.
A Middle Tennessee city plans to begin offering classes to its residents in an effort to educate them on the workings of local government. Murfreesboro Vice Mayor Ron Washington told the Daily News Journal he thinks it is important for citizens to understand how their government works, and he thought offering an academy on the subject would be a great opportunity for residents and city leaders. The City Council approved the measure this month, but the weekly classes won’t start until early next year.
For the better part of a year, deputies at the jail in Williamson County have had to shuffle prisoners from cell to cell and bed to bed as they juggle a steadily growing number of inmates. To be more specific, the county has too many of the state’s prisoners. “The biggest part of it is we’re holding a hundred-something felons that we can’t get a bed for at the (state) prison,” Williamson County Sheriff Jeff Long said. The local jail is intended for inmates serving misdemeanor sentences of less than a year, and in Williamson County the facility is rated for 454 beds, said Capt. Mike Dobbins, jail administrator.
Knox County officials again plan to revisit a proposal to build a much-debated safety center to serve as an alternative to incarceration for the mentally ill. But this time, the matter appears to have more backing, including possible state support. Officials say they’ll know more in the coming months, but they expect the talks to again heat up, particularly in the first quarter of the year when the county and city of Knoxville administrations begin crafting their annual budgets. “The state is interested and would certainly entertain a proposal,” said Andy Black, CEO of the Helen Ross McNabb Center, a social services provider.
Fewer pragmatists to help make deals When the next Congress convenes in January, there will be more women, many new faces and 11 fewer tea party-backed conservative House Republicans from the class of 2010. Overriding those changes, though, is a thinning of centrist veterans in both parties. Among those leaving are some of the Senate’s most pragmatic lawmakers, nearly half the House’s Blue Dog Democrats and several House Republicans. That could leave the parties more polarized even as President Barack Obama and congressional leaders talk up the cooperation needed to tackle complex, vexing problems such as curbing deficits, revamping tax laws and culling savings from Medicare, which provides health care coverage for the elderly, and other costly, popular programs.
Emboldened by rapid growth in e-commerce shipping, the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service is moving aggressively this holiday season to start same-day package delivery. Teaming up with major retailers, the post office will begin the expedited service in San Francisco on Dec. 12 at a price similar to its competitors. If things run smoothly, the program will expand next year to other big cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York. It follows similar efforts by eBay, Amazon.com, and most recently Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which charges a $10 flat rate for same-day delivery.
On a Las Vegas morning, crime investigator Gil Grissom surveyed the scene of an apparent suicide by a wealthy casino heir, dusting for prints, looking for fibers — any clue to help him and his team find the true story. Through drug analysis, fiber testing and close contact with the police, Grissom determined that the dead man was killed by his brother, who hoped to get a piece of their family’s fortune. Grissom was right. The brother confessed to the crime and was sent to prison. Close observers were led to the conclusion that crime labs can do remarkable things. And sometimes, they can. But this story wasn’t reality.
Nearly every morning before heading to work, Shawn Courtney searches the Internet for updates on the labor dispute between the National Hockey League and its players. He is the owner of the downtown eatery Past Perfect, which stands just a block away from Bridgestone Arena. On days when the Nashville Predators play, Courtney’s restaurant is teeming with patrons. But over the past months, on nights when games were canceled, he has seen his business cut in half. “I can’t tell you how much it hurts us,” Courtney said.
It was a brazen and surprisingly long-lived scheme, authorities said, to help aspiring public school teachers cheat on the tests they must pass to prove they are qualified to lead their classrooms. For 15 years, teachers in three Southern states paid Clarence Mumford Sr. — himself a longtime educator — to send someone else to take the tests in their place, authorities said. Each time, Mumford received a fee of between $1,500 and $3,000 to send one of his test ringers with fake identification to the Praxis exam.
Tennessee residents face a dilemma. State prisons are full, crime is up in many communities such as Jackson, and, increasingly, the public wants criminals in jail and off the streets of their communities. It is time for new criminal sentencing, probation and inmate parole procedures. According to the Tennessee Department of Correction, last year some 2,000 more inmates entered state prisons than were planned for. At the same time, the number of prisoners released back into the community dropped by more than 1,000. State prisons are bursting at the seams. The Department of Correction had to request an additional $50 million to cover expenses. When it comes to perfect storms, this one is a category five.
With the grueling campaign season and Thanksgiving break now behind us, President Obama and Congress have much work to do before the end of the year. The single most important issue and challenge they face, and that we face as a nation, is to take swift and sensible action to avoid the looming “fiscal cliff” and to fix America’s debt. Over the past decade, the gap between our government’s spending and its revenues has grown tremendously. Today’s $16 trillion gross national debt is larger than the size of the entire American economy. If the debt continues to increase at its current rate, we will move along a path that can only end with a debt-induced fiscal crisis. The debt is not just an abstract, national problem; it’s a local one.
Partisans may argue on how effective the Recovery Act was in halting the recent recession, but there is no denying that stimulus money — coupled with competent project management — accelerated the daunting environmental cleanup at the federal government facilities in Oak Ridge. Several Recovery Act-funded projects at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant were completed ahead of schedule and under budget, and officials now are plowing the savings into other remediation projects.The U.S. Department of Energy will use most of the savings — reported to be in the range of $26 million to $32 million — to address mercury discharges that have fouled the environment for decades. Some of the projects, focused on reducing mercury releases into East Fork Poplar Creek, already are under way.
The city of Memphis has an important decision to make by Dec. 31 regarding property taxes. Mayor A C Wharton must decide whether to renew a controversial contract with the Texas-based firm that collects the city’s delinquent property taxes, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, or turn the task of collecting all city property taxes, including delinquent taxes, over to Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir. The administration is indicating that it plans to sign a deal with the trustee’s office, which already collects county property taxes from city and county residents. During a visit with The Commercial Appeal’s editorial board a few months ago, Lenoir said his office could easily take over the collection of city taxes without adding staff. His annual fee from the city would be $1.25 million, but city officials said the deal would produce savings for the city over the long haul.