This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Lee University on Saturday before giving the commencement address to the winter 2012 graduating class. “Lee University is not one of those institutions which awards honorary doctorates freely or indiscriminately,” university President Paul Conn said at the event. “In fact, we have awarded such a degree only 14 times in the last 25 years, only once before to a commencement speaker, and never to an elected official.”
Ravaged by monsoon-like storms, and in some cases neglect, more than a dozen private dams impounding residential lakes in West Tennessee have undergone repairs to fix potentially unsafe conditions or breaches during the past two and a half years, state officials say. Two dams in Shelby County – at Lochnevin and Sky lakes in Raleigh-Frayser area – sustained significant damage during flash flooding in May 2010, while a third, in the Carrollwood Lakes development of Cordova, washed out completely.
A teen without a place to live was kicked out onto the streets by the state through a legal maneuver that a Nashville judge says should never be used again. Across Tennessee, the Department of Children’s Services has pushed more than a dozen 18-year-olds out of state custody before they had finished juvenile court sentences and programs — some without a plan for how to cope in the adult world. One of them, Terrell Lee Anderson, 18, of Nashville, found he was no longer welcome at the homes of relatives. Within weeks, police picked him up twice for being drunk on city streets and two other times for trespassing when he tried to get into his grandmother’s home, court records show.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he wants to do enough for proponents of wine-in-grocery-store legislation to give them a shot at passing a bill in 2013, but he also acknowledged Thursday that the issue is a low priority for many, despite its popularity “I will give a fighting chance for the people that are in favor of wine in grocery stores,” he said. “But at the same time, when I sit down and analyze this, there aren’t many that this is high on their issues.” Backers of legislation that would let supermarkets, convenience stores and other food retailers sell wine are saying 2013 could be their year.
The Tennessee legislature won’t meet for nearly a month, but the first bill already has been filed — Senate Bill 1, which would bar the state from expanding Medicaid and taking advantage of increased funding under health care reform. The bill number has only symbolic significance, but what it symbolizes is that some Republicans are ready to fight any effort to increase the number of people on TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program for women, children and the disabled.
Representative-elect Harold Love Jr. is familiar enough with the state Capitol in which he is newly elected to serve. Now moved into his tiny office in the War Memorial Building adjacent to the Capitol, the longtime pastor at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church is ready to begin his first term in a state legislature already used to seeing a Love in the state House. His father, Harold Love Sr., was a well-respected state lawmaker and Democratic leader for nearly a quarter of a century. The General Assembly that Love Jr. will enter has some similarities to the one his father entered in 1969, the last session in which Republicans control of the House until 2011.
A group of politically connected businessmen earlier this year sold a long-vacant Knoxville office building in need of millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades to the state for $10 million, twice the price they paid for it five years earlier. The building, for Pellissippi State Community College, will cost an additional $16.6 million to make it suitable for a community college, according to a report commissioned by the college to assess the property before the purchase. A series of emails obtained by The Tennessean under open records laws shows that the top aide to Gov. Bill Haslam stepped in late last year to try to make the purchase a priority after being contacted by an intermediary for the Knoxville developer selling the 220,000-square-foot building.
Introducing Thomas Jefferson biographer Jon Meacham at the Nashville Public Library on Thursday, Mayor Karl Dean veered off the subject of books for a moment to talk a little TV. Nashville is the subject of a TV show these days, as you might have heard, and Dean told the crowd of about 350 people about an early scene when power broker/dealmaker/dastardly daddy Lamar Wyatt is urging his son-in-law, Teddy Conrad, to run for mayor. Wyatt says our town isn’t just “some backwater hamlet,” adding, “This is a thriving, prosperous city, an industrial and cultural juggernaut.”
Chattanooga should have blue skies and clear sailing under the Environmental Protection Agency’s new, tightened air standards for soot pollution imposed Friday, according to local air pollution control officials. “I don’t see any impact as long as we continue to implement measures already being used here,” said Bob Colby, director of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau. That’s good news for the city that in 1970 was the “dirtiest” air city in America and since has struggled several times to remain a “clean” air city.
Coca-Cola, FedEx and Lockheed Martin were among the corporations that financed U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ re-election campaign after revelations that he slept with a patient and pressured her to have an abortion. Political action committees representing at least 15 corporations and interest groups — including the National Pro-Life Alliance — gave more than $25,000 to the Jasper Republican after the Huffington Post published the revelations Oct. 10. The story brought national attention to Tennessee’s 4th District and the congressman’s claims of anti-abortion credentials.
Swiss company serves restaurant industry In a warehouse about four miles off Interstate 24 in Smyrna, cardboard boxes large and small moved along a conveyor belt as machines weighed and stamped them with mailing labels bound for fast-food restaurants across the country. The distribution center for Franke Resupply Systems Inc. ships out an average of 1,800 orders a day from its 120,000-square-foot facility near the Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport. The facility is part of a $40 million project completed in 2009 that turned the vacant land into a high-tech distribution center and shiny North American headquarters building.
Nissan’s idea to manufacture electric Leaf cars that are powered by batteries made here has arrived after three years of planning for these new assembly lines. “We’re in trial productions right now, so we’re getting close,” Steve Miller, a senior tax consultant for Nissan, told the Rutherford County Industrial Development Board Wednesday during a meeting at the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce building in Murfreesboro. The IDB about three years ago approved giving Nissan a 20-year property tax abatement of $62 million for creating 1,314 jobs either with the company or a contractor in a project that included making the zero emission Leaf and constructing a battery factory at the company’s Smyrna plant.
Jeffrey Holst was looking for more space for his growing freight company when he learned about what was available at Eastgate Town Center. The manager for Let’s Go Express, an agent of Chattanooga trucking giant U.S. Xpress, said Eastgate fit the bill for space and location so he plans to shift 18 workers into the former shopping mall in January with hopes of doubling the number in a year or so “We’re currently operating inside one of U.S. Xpress’ terminals,” he said. “We’ve outgrown it.” Let’s Go Express is among the new and existing tenants at Eastgate that will soon add more than 100 jobs in Chattanooga.
America’s oldest skillet maker is forging ahead in 2013 with plans for one of its biggest expansions of its South Pittsburg, Tenn., plant in more than two decades. Lodge Manufacturing Co., announced Friday it will replace its melt center, add a sand system and molding machine and add up to 25 jobs next year. Despite the recession — or perhaps because of it — demand has grown in the past five year for Lodge’s cast-iron skillets and other cookware. “We’re benefiting tremendously by the publicity of cooks using our products on the Food Network and elsewhere, and I think many consumers want to buy American,” said Mark Kelly, director of marketing for the family owned company.
Like little elves, hundreds of Amazon employees are scurrying about day and night at the local fulfillment center to aid Santa in his gift-giving endeavors this Christmas. And while Santa Claus told a reporter at The Daily News Journal last week that he appreciates the help, he’s been wondering a lot lately about how Amazon works its magic. After all, these aren’t elves working at Amazon (although all of the employees have been deputized by Santa Claus and each center receives an official copy of his naughty and nice lists). They’re just regular, everyday Joe and Janes like you and me. Santa’s question got us wondering how it works, too, though.
One way to improve perceptions about public education’s efficiency is with a public evaluation of the superintendent’s performance, according to members of a unified Memphis and Shelby County school board committee. That evaluation should include fiscal management, Commissioner Chris Caldwell suggested last Thursday. Other members of the board’s Internal Board Operations Committee agreed that managing the district’s money should be one of the issues on which the superintendent’s performance should be assessed, along with student achievement and district operations.
Children spilled happily out of Eakin Elementary School on Friday afternoon. They swung from tree branches, spun through the yard in wobbly cartwheels and raced to greet their parents, who hugged them with unusual urgency. The cheery clamor outside Eakin met with a cruel counterpart in Newtown, Conn., where some parents would never hug their children again. But Anne Goldthorpe, a 6-year-old first-grader, felt no need to hurry out of a schoolyard filled with friends.
Is it just me, or is Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam leading from behind these days? Here’s a guy blessed with approval ratings that are off the charts, and enough political capital to spare. He is a thoughtful, well-meaning, moderate Republican in arguably the reddest of the red states. And he’s occupying the governor’s office at a time when Tennessee’s economic outlook is as rosy as it’s been in years. In essence, our governor is riding high. A Vanderbilt University poll released Wednesday showed that Haslam is the most popular elected official in the state — even as Republican Sen. Bob Corker is emerging as a major figure on the national stage. According to the poll, 68 percent of respondents approve of the job Haslam is doing.
Tennessee’s Republican elected officials spend a lot of time complaining about the federal government interfering in state matters. So, what happens when state government has a chance to set up its own health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act? Gov. Bill Haslam instead defers to a federally run exchange. Republican Haslam explained that his decision to punt was not about politics, but rather a business decision he reached mainly because the federal government has not provided enough information about the latitude states would be given to operate their own exchanges. Still, the governor’s decision was made as many GOP legislators expressed their opposition to the state exchange and as tea party protesters on Dec. 5 gathered outside the state Capitol to call on Haslam to reject the creation of a state-run health insurance exchange.
Government works better on a smaller scale, and in spite of Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision not to start a state-run health insurance exchange, we support his leaving the door open to pick it up in a couple of years. Haslam initially appeared ready to set up a Tennessee insurance exchange as part of the Affordable Care Act, a cafeteria of sorts where small businesses, families and individuals could shop for taxpayer-subsidized affordable coverage that would meet their needs and pocketbooks. They face a Jan. 1, 2014 deadline. Though he denied that his decision had anything to do with threats by legislators to kill such an exchange in the House and Senate, we believe that Haslam’s endorsement of such a plan would have given Tennesseans a better program tailored to meet the needs of a state with nearly 1 million uninsured residents.
Jail overcrowding around the state is having dangerous and costly consequences If nothing else, Tennessee’s incarceration problem is a matter of physics: If you pack too many people into too small a space, that space is going to burst at the seams. That should not be that hard to understand; so why do we continue to jam state prisoners and county inmates into facilities that are too small for long periods of time? The Tennessean reported it on Dec. 10: Nearly half of the state’s 109 jails have more inmates than beds, and some jails have three times the number of inmates they are certified to hold. Many Tennesseans don’t care if criminals are forced to sleep on floors or otherwise be uncomfortable. OK, granted.
The Republican domination of the 2012 elections in Tennessee suggests we are one of the reddest states in the nation. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker won easily, and the state legislature is now overwhelmingly Republican. But election results can be misleading indicators of public opinion. A vote for Romney in many cases was a vote against President Obama. So, in the aftermath of this election, it is important to take a closer look at public opinion, which indicates that Tennesseans look much more like purple pragmatists than deep-red partisans. Tennesseans want solutions to our problems, favoring compromise and moderation to make this country work, a conclusion that emerges from the most recent Vanderbilt University Poll, released this week, asking Tennesseans about their opinions on state and national issues.
Democratic President Barack Obama won a bit more than 39 percent of the vote in losing Tennessee to Republican Mitt Romney last month. After the same election, however, Democrats hold just 21 percent of state Senate seats and 28 percent of state House seats. Why the discrepancy? The most likely suspect, in a word: redistricting. The GOP controlled reapportionment this year for the first time since Reconstruction and when the election arrived, increased the majorities they had already under the old Democratic-engineered districts. In the Senate, Democrats were reduced to seven of 33 seats; in the House, to 28 of 99.
The Tennessee Wilderness Act, which would protect nearly 20,000 acres in Cherokee National Forest, is still pending in Congress. Instead of being an example of a bipartisan commitment to protect deserving natural areas, it is becoming symbolic of dysfunction in Washington. It is not a controversial bill, and even a gridlocked, lame-duck Congress should find a way to pass it. The bill would create a new wilderness area encompassing more than 9,000 acres in Monroe County, as well as expand acreage in the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock, Big Frog, Little Frog, Big Laurel Branch and Sampson Mountain wilderness areas. Cherokee National Forest is the largest mass of public land in the state.
Jimmie Starkey was the last one. He was the last county prisoner to be released in freezing temperatures wearing a thin paper jumpsuit and little else — and that’s the truth, promised James Coleman, director of the Shelby County Corrections Center. More later on Coleman’s vow to treat humans, well, more humanely. First, sit with the shame: These men and women got less protection from the elements than trash bagged and set on the curb. Most inmates leave the prison in paper suits and are met outside by family bearing a change of clothes. Not Starkey, who was, as many inmates are, driven from the penal farm 10 miles west to an empty lot downtown, where it’s easier for them to catch a ride.