This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Governor Bill Haslam and first lady Crissy Haslam lit the Christmas tree at the Tennessee Capitol Monday evening. The 30-foot Norway spruce tree was moved to Nashville from state-owned land in Arrington, south of Nolensville, and has been decorated with more than 6,000 LED lights. The 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.
The University of Tennessee and the state Department of Health are partnering to develop training to improve responses to food-borne illnesses and outbreaks in Tennessee and across the country. The Food Safety Modernization Act directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create five Integrated Food Safety Centers of Excellence at state health departments across the country, and Tennessee was selected as the site of one of those centers.
The Tennessee Department of Education announced today a new First to the Top initiative that enlists highly effective teachers from the state’s top schools to share best practices and help improve student achievement across the state. The 15 teachers named to the Reward Schools Ambassador Program each come from 2012 Reward Schools– the top 10 percent of schools in Tennessee for performance and progress—and will work with neighboring schools in each region to improve student achievement and reduce achievement gaps.
A Meigs County, Tenn., educator is among 15 teachers statewide named to a program intended to share best practices and improve student achievement, according to a news release. Renae Martin from Meigs County Middle School was named a Reward Schools ambassador, the Tennessee Department of Education release states. Each teacher comes from a 2012 Reward School, the top 10 percent of schools in the state in performance and educational progress.
Tennessee is trying to steer more money to smaller video producers. A spokesman for the Department of Economic and Community Development says the downsizing will avoid competing with other states for big-budget movie productions. Previously, grants from the state’s film commission were available only to projects with budgets over a million dollars. The new program is still being finalized, but the threshold has been dropped to $200,000, according to ECD commissioner Bill Hagerty.
State lawmakers are taking the Tennessee Housing Development Agency to task for tens of thousands of dollars spent on arcade outings and stretch limos. THDA’s new director appeared before the Fiscal Review Committee Monday. Agency chief Ralph Perrey says now that he’s at the helm – quote – “what you will not see is us spending money to treat ourselves.” THDA now estimates $75,000 was spent over the last two years on rewards. But before becoming executive director this month, Perrey was on the THDA board.
The Tennessee Department of Health on Jan. 1 will begin requiring hospitals to report babies born with addictions so it can better monitor a rising epidemic caused by mothers taking prescription narcotics. Commissioners of several state agencies plan a formal announcement next month of a joint strategy to better address the problem, which is worse in the state’s Appalachian counties but on the rise in Middle and West Tennessee. “In the last two years, we’ve had in Tennessee more than 1,000 helpless babies, blameless babies born dependent on addictive drugs that their mothers used during pregnancy — some for chronic pain, some for treatment of addiction itself, some using these drugs illegally,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner.
Fixes to a glitchy computer system that has hampered the work of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services should be complete in the next seven months, officials told lawmakers on Monday. Without asking a question, members of the Fiscal Review Joint Committee approved a six-month, $610,000 contract extension for software firm Compuware to continue working with DCS to fix the Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System, or TFACTS, which went online in 2010 after being created by another company.
The state will spend an addition $610,000 in its quest to fix the problem prone Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System (TFACTS) after the Fiscal Review Joint Committee approved a contract extension with Compuware on Monday. Compuware is an outside contractor that’s been working with the Department of Children Services for several months. TFACTS has a long list of problems within the system. It is meant to track payments to foster families and be the main source of case information for DCS employees.
Fungal infections reach 510 nationwide As Tennessee began Monday recontacting people exposed to moldy medicine to warn them about a secondary, less-threatening infection than fungal meningitis, federal health officials said the toll of people sickened nationwide had risen to 510. Two more deaths occurred in the past week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, but not in Tennessee. Michigan and Indiana each had an additional death. Tennessee’s numbers were unchanged from what the state reported last week with 84 illnesses, including 13 deaths.
The Tennessee Board of Regents is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to approve alumna Glenda Baskin Glover as the next president of Tennessee State University in Nashville. TBR Chancellor John Morgan announced last week that he was recommending Glover out of four finalists. Glover is currently the dean of the College of Business at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss. She got her bachelor’s degree at Tennessee State University. Glover has served at Jackson State University since 1994 and is a licensed attorney and certified public accountant.
The state Court of Appeals is again taking up a public records case involving a private prison company and a magazine that advocates for inmate rights. Attorneys for Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America and the magazine Prison Legal News are to make arguments to the court Tuesday. The case began after editor Alex Friedmann in 2007 sought records from the prison operator regarding legal settlements, judgments and complaints against the company.
A top Republican lawmaker sounded off Monday against a possible state-run insurance exchange under the federal healthcare overhaul. That’s at odds with Governor Bill Haslam, who has hinted he’d prefer the state exchange, but has been slow to commit. An exchange would be a government-run store to help Tennesseans shopping for health insurance. Several governors have recently said their states won’t open exchanges, instead leaving it to Washington. But Haslam doesn’t love either option, and has put off a decision, hinting a state model could have some upsides.
House Speaker Beth Harwell on Monday won unanimous backing to be the GOP’s nomination as Speaker for a second term. But the party tossed Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny from his post in a Republican caucus meeting Monday, replacing him with Rep. Curtis Johnson. “As far as our caucus is concerned, one of my big roles is to bring our caucus together,” said Johnson, of Clarksville. “We’re going to have differences, we’re going to have constructive criticism … but I think we need to all work together to move our caucus forward.”
The newly minted House Republican supermajority replaced its second in command Monday, months after the representative threatened to challenge House Speaker Beth Harwell for her leadership post. The caucus voted via secret ballot to replaced Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny — a Republican who said he felt “sidelined” by GOP leadership. Republicans replaced him with Rep. Curtis Johnson, a Clarksville businessman who has largely stayed behind the scenes. “We should all remember that our caucus tent is big enough to have different opinions,” Johnson said to members at the House Republican Caucus organization meeting to elect leadership.
Nearly all of the state House Republican caucus crammed itself into a Nashville law office Monday to renominate Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville to her post and oust the current speaker pro tempore from his. The meeting blocks from the State Capitol was the first time returning lawmakers and a host of incoming freshmen who make the now-Republican supermajority met as a group. “It’s a great problem to have to have 70 members to fit into a room,” Harwell said. “I know these men’s and women’s hearts. They’re here for the right reason, and I think we’re going to have a very productive session as we did last time.”
Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell tentatively won a second two-year term as speaker Monday but her Republican colleagues dumped Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny, who championed anti-Islam legislation in the House. The House Republican Caucus also removed Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, from his 14-year seat on the joint House-Senate Fiscal Review Committee, which lawmakers consider a choice appointment because it meets once-monthly year-round and is the legislature’s fiscal watchdog committee.
Clarksville’s Rep. Curtis Johnson secured the No. 2 position in the Tennessee House of Representatives on Monday after being selected as the Republican nominee for speaker pro tempore. Members of the House Republican caucus nominated Speaker Beth Harwell for another term in charge of the chamber, but ousted Rep. Judd Matheny from the pro tem spot, selecting Johnson instead in a secret ballot. Matheny, of Tullahoma, announced in August that he was mulling a challenge to Harwell for speaker because he felt marginalized by other Republican leaders, according to the Associated Press.
Rep. Judd Matheny, who earlier this year considered challenging House Speaker Beth Harwell for the chamber’s top post, lost his re-election bid for the No. 2 slot Monday in House Republican Caucus elections. Rep. Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, defeated Matheny, R-Tullahoma, as Matheny sought a second term as speaker pro tempore. The vote was conducted by secret ballot, and Matheny left before the meeting concluded and avoided speaking to reporters. Harwell was elected without opposition as was House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and other top GOP leaders.
Tennessee has the nation’s 17th largest population, having added more than 140,000 residents over the past two and a half years. The Volunteer State will have a total of 6,486,827 residents on Dec. 1, according to new estimates from Nashville Business Journal affiliate On Numbers. It also ranked 17th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in April 2010, when the 2010 federal census numbers came out. Just above Tennessee is Indiana at No. 16 and Missouri is just below it at No. 18.
Davidson County election commissioners said Monday that they now feel comfortable with technology that caused problems in the August primary and plan to use it in future elections. The county’s electronic poll books sometimes defaulted to the Republican ballot in August if poll workers didn’t ask voters which primary they wanted to vote in. But election commissioners said that was the result of a programming error by the vendor who sold the machines to the county. They also said the technology would speed up voting lines.
None wore a cap and gown, but the nine people in drug court Monday received a piece of paper maybe more important than a diploma — a drug court graduation certificate. The group is the largest graduating class yet for the 7-year-old Hamilton County Drug Court, said Elaine Kelly, program coordinator. “We function on a shoestring budget every day, and the fact that people keep coming back and doing this work, it’s not just a blessing. It’s a true privilege,” Kelly said. “And seven years, we never thought we’d get here.”
Knox County’s election results are official. The election commission met Monday to validate Nov. 6 Election Day returns in which voters altered the city and county charters, elected Democratic candidate Gloria Johnson to the 13th District in the Tennessee House and backed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, among other races. There were few problems in the balloting, according to Clifford Rodgers, administrator of elections. “The 2008 election was historic,” he said in the Knox County Election Commission meeting.
The Shelby County Election Commission voted 5-0 Monday night to certify the Nov. 6 elections. The board voted unanimously and without comment for the certification, although at least two board members — Democrats George Monger and Norma Lester — expressed dissatisfaction earlier in the meeting with how the election was conducted. Board attorney John Ryder said, however, that this vote doesn’t mean that the election can’t be challenged “You have to certify (saying), ‘These are the numbers we’ve got.’ Somebody who’s aggrieved, that starts the clock (to filing a lawsuit),” Ryder said.
Shelby County Election Commissioners certified the results Monday, Nov. 26, of the Nov. 6 election. The certification sets in motion the swearing-in of members of the six suburban municipal school boards. And the boards, one for each of the suburban towns and cities in Shelby County, are expected to move quickly on a process for selecting superintendents for each school system by the end of the year. The moves ahead for the school boards come as all sides in the federal court lawsuit over the municipal school districts are awaiting a ruling from Memphis Federal Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on the state law allowing for the school districts.
In a further indication that Republican attitudes are shifting on how to reduce the deficit, Sen. Bob Corker said Monday he no longer feels bound by the no-increase pledge he signed at the behest of an anti-tax activist. “I’m not obligated on the pledge,” Corker said during an appearance on the CBS show “This Morning.” “I made Tennesseans aware — I was just elected — that the only thing I’m honoring is the oath that I take when I serve when I’m sworn in this January.” However, Corker’s name, along with those of the eight other Republican members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation, remains on the anti-tax pledge that conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, has been asking politicians to sign for the better part of three decades.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker broke with conservative orthodoxy on national television Monday, becoming the latest congressional Republican to disavow a popular pledge to oppose all tax increases. Sponsored by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the antitax pledge until recently defined fiscal policy for most Republicans, including Corker. The former Chattanooga mayor signed the pledge before his 2006 election to the Senate, but Monday he made it clear he’s rethinking that commitment.
Sen. Bob Corker is circulating a 242-page plan to forestall automatic tax increases and spending cuts by capping federal deductions at $50,000 for high-income Americans while appearing to repudiate his pledge to not reduce or eliminate deductions. In an op-ed article in Monday’s Washington Post, Corker argued the time is now to deal with the so-called “fiscal cliff” of automatic tax increases and spending cuts, imposed by the current Congress when it could not reach a deficit-cutting goal last year.
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker is on a media blitz, telling lawmakers to suck it up and solve the nation’s looming fiscal crisis. The recently reelected Republican has written a bill that he says will take “political courage” to pass. The bill is 242 pages long – relatively short by Washington standards. But other than congressional leaders and the White House, most people will have to take the Senator’s word for what’s in it since nothing has actually been filed. It does increase taxes, sort of. Corker says on “CBS This Morning” his proposal increases revenues by capping tax deductions at $50,000, hitting higher income earners.
Because of Tennessee’s reliance on federal grants, the state is among those that would be most severely affected if Congress takes no action to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, according to a recent study. The study by the Pew Center on the States gauged the effect of the planned cuts to federal spending, which, paired with tax increases set for January, have come to be known as the fiscal cliff because of its possible economic impact. Pew looked at the federal grants subject to the cuts as a percentage of state revenue, based on fiscal year 2010 numbers.
President Obama’s re-election and Democratic gains in Congress were supposed to make it easier for the party to strike a deal with Republicans to resolve the year-end fiscal crisis by providing new leverage. But they could also make it harder as empowered Democrats, including some elected on liberal platforms, resist significant changes in entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. As Congress returned Monday, the debate over those programs, which many Democrats see as the core of the party’s identity, was shaping up as the Democratic version of the higher-profile struggle among Republicans over taxes.
The Supreme Court told a federal-appeals court Monday to consider several lesser-known legal arguments against the national health-care law, in an order backed by the White House. The move came in a case brought by Liberty University, a Lynchburg, Va., college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, and observers said the challenge was unlikely to succeed. “Today’s order doesn’t mean the justices are rethinking their June decision to uphold Obamacare.” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Delta Air Lines will cut more flights at Memphis International Airport, flights fewer and fewer passengers were taking, an airline spokesman confirmed Monday. Beginning in early 2013, the airline will end nonstop service from Memphis to Jacksonville, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala., said Delta spokesman Anthony Black. The Atlanta-based carrier also is cutting the frequency of flights from Memphis to Nashville and Knoxville; Jackson, Miss.; Little Rock, Ark.; St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Tulsa, Okla.
More than 264,000 students were considered truant in Tennessee last year. And the increasing numbers have some University of Tennessee law faculty and students calling for reforms of state rules governing the offense. While the state has some clear guidelines on truancy, school districts do not enforce violations consistently, said law student Megan Swain. “The way the law is, a lot is left up to school districts,” she said. “Even in the districts, they’re not enforced uniformly.” Swain said nearly 20,000 students were considered truant in Hamilton County last year.
Just two years after opening its doors, Knox County Schools’ L&N STEM Academy is broadening its regional scope and allowing incoming freshmen from eight surrounding counties to apply for entry into the math- and science- focused school. The academy at 700 Western Ave. announced Monday that 30 new students from Anderson, Blount, Grainger, Jefferson, Loudon, Roane, Sevier and Union counties will be admitted for the 2013-14 school year. “I’m a firm believer that students can get a good education at any school in Knox County. However, with the economic needs of the future, and by future I mean within the next four years, there’s not an occupation you can have that doesn’t use the skills that STEM breeds,” said Becky Ashe, L&N principal.
The 23-member unified school board will address a proposal to close six schools in the northwest and southwest regions of the Memphis City Schools district when it convenes for the third of three meetings this week. A special meeting has been called for 4 p.m. Thursday at the MCS Teaching and Learning Academy, 2485 Union, to consider a considerably scaled down version of the Transition Planning Commission’s Recommendation No. 113 — to close 21 schools to raise utilization rates and save the district some $20 million a year.
Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash is proposing the countywide school board consider closing five elementary schools and turn Humes Middle School over to the state-run Achievement School District. Cash told school board members Monday, Nov. 26, in a letter that he and his staff will propose “school impact” studies and submit the list of schools for review when the board meets in special session Thursday. Here are the tentative closure plans that would depend on the outcome of a board vote that would follow a set of public hearings and the studies.
Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald’s administration will ask the city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen for another $250,000 Tuesday night to cover ongoing legal fees associated with the municipal schools litigation in U.S. District Court. If approved, the additional money would mean the city has authorized $600,000 for the legal fight tied up in federal court and with associated expenses still increasing. Monday afternoon, McDonald and other suburban leaders were awaiting a decision from U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays regarding the legislation allowing them to pursue municipal schools.
Now that the expected failure of a mediation process is complete, the stage is surely set for U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays to rule on the long-pending litigation to determine whether — and when — the process of creating municipal school districts in the Shelby County suburbs is constitutional and may go forward. After a last, largely pro forma, session on Friday, the contending parties (some of whom had already decamped for Thanksgiving travel), gave up, and Mays is expected to rule this week on the constitutionality of last spring’s legislation speeding up the timetable for the suburban districts, as well as on the final clause of 2011’s Norris-Todd law, which lifted a long-standing ban on new special school districts.
The issue of school vouchers in Tennessee will be back in the news this week as the governor’s school voucher task force reports its findings. Also look for the issue to come before the 2013 General Assembly. The idea of school vouchers is appealing. But the practical application is daunting. More important, vouchers don’t solve the problem of failing schools. State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, and state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, sponsored school voucher legislation this year, but it failed to pass. That led Gov. Bill Haslam to appoint a nine-member task force to study the issue and put forth school voucher options for consideration. One thing is certain, task force input from lawmakers, educators and the public was as varied as the wide range of people who participated.
The Nov. 6 national election seems long ago — probably because not much has happened in Washington since President Obama was re-elected and Republicans and Democrats retained control of the House and Senate, respectively. Meanwhile, however, Americans eagerly await signs of progress toward a solution in the nation’s fiscal crisis. The president and top congressional leaders seem to be moving at a snail’s pace, but they may be getting a nudge from some Republicans who have had it with the politics of gridlock. Among those leading the way is Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who announced in a Washington Post op-ed on Sunday that he has a bill that would produce $4.5 trillion in fiscal reforms and replace sequestration, the dreaded automatic across-the-board cuts scheduled to kick in in January.
Bob Corker proved over his first term in the U.S. Senate that he is willing to take on huge tasks. He managed the GOP’s role in financial reform and the auto industry bail-out, for example, and quietly attempted to push his party toward a more progressive view on health care reform. So it’s no surprise that he is trying to secure a bipartisan compromise on deficit reduction to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” of year-end spending cuts and tax increases that could push the nation back into recession. The harsh, across-the-board spending cuts in federal programs and general tax increases, which were to be accomplished by allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire, were mandated by the 112th Congress last year to force Congress and the White House to agree to a more orderly path toward deficit reduction.
On Monday, U.S. Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., issued the single most responsible, reasonable and realistic plan to address the “fiscal cliff” seen thus far. In order to evade the economy-butchering tax hikes and the automatic spending cuts scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, Corker proposed a blueprint to curb entitlements and reduce other spending by common-sense solutions. These solutions, such as slowly increasing the age of eligibility for Medicare and Social Security to reflect soaring longevity, introducing means testing for entitlements and implementing a benefits system for federal employees more in line with what private sector workers enjoy, will save taxpayers trillions of dollars without impacting the quality of government services. In his plan, Corker also champions a long-overdue change in how the federal government calculates price increases and inflation for inflation-indexed federal programs.
The University of Tennessee has launched a search to replace fired football coach Derek Dooley, but an even more important task is to right the Athletics Department’s budget so it can resume funding the university’s academic mission. Dooley was fired Nov. 18 after the Vols lost to rival Vanderbilt. Athletics Director Dave Hart pulled the plug on Dooley’s three-year stint for one reason — his teams lost more than they won. That’s the reality of big-time college football, but it comes with a price UT can scarcely afford to pay. Dooley will receive a buyout worth roughly $5 million, and his assistants could be due up to more than $4 million more. The total comes to nearly $10 million out of an athletics budget that finished last year $4 million in the red and has only $2 million in cash reserves.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais made remarks on the House floor in mid-November that show he is prepared to work across the aisle to keep the nation from running off the so-called “fiscal cliff.” DesJarlais, who will represent Rutherford County for the next two years in the redrawn 4th Congressional District, appears somewhat conciliatory in video, considering he was in the midst of scandal at home over reports that he allowed his ex-wife to have two abortions, had sex with two patients among six other affairs and encouraged one of those women to have an abortion, according to court transcripts. He was given one minute to speak Nov. 15. “The American people have voiced their demands for an end to partisan gridlock that has far too long plagued Washington. They expect their elected officials to work across party lines and across the branches of government to solve the challenges facing our nation. Unless we act now, we run the risk of allowing this country to go off the fiscal cliff in January. This would have both severe economic and security ramifications.”