This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he will ask legislators next month to approve another quarter-cent cut in the state sales tax on grocery food, from 5.25 percent to 5 percent. If lawmakers pass the reduction, it would mark the second year in a row that they have reduced the sales tax rate by a quarter of a cent. Cities and counties in Tennessee add up to 2.75 percent more in local sales taxes, which are not affected by the state cut. In a wide-ranging, year-end press conference Tuesday, the governor also said he won’t propose major changes in Tennessee’s public higher education system to the 2013 legislature and hasn’t decided yet whether he will take a lead role in presenting school-voucher legislation or instead advocate a position once lawmakers have taken the initiative on vouchers.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that while he isn’t planning any major changes to public colleges and universities, he continues to look at expanding scholarship opportunities and easing the costs for Tennesseans to obtain college degrees. Meanwhile, the Republican said he remains undecided about whether his office will spearhead an effort by GOP lawmakers to create a school voucher program for K-12 education. Haslam told reporters during an interview in his Capitol office suite that he may press legislative changes to some scholarship programs but doesn’t plan to move on restructuring higher education governing boards.
Gov. Bill Haslam spent the summer making it a priority to study the state’s higher education system, but he said he needs to do more homework before coming up with solid ways to reform or refine it. The governor said so far he and his administration “haven’t decided what we’re going to do” to produce more students to fill the needs of the state’s businesses, increase graduation rates and keep down the cost of tuition. “We’re still in the middle of a lot of information gathering and trying to come to a lot better decision about what ‘next’ looks like for us,” Haslam told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
The Republican governor told reporters in an interview in his Capitol office suite that he may propose some tweaks to the lottery scholarships and other changes for higher education but that he won’t introduce legislation to reform the way the state’s colleges and universities are managed. “We could have couple components, but it won’t be anything that fundamentally addresses governance changes or anything like that,” he said. Haslam last summer conducted a statewide series of roundtable discussions about ways to improve higher education, but said Tuesday those meetings weren’t meant to signal an imminent overhaul.
Tennessee’s one-of-a-kind governance system for colleges and universities will stay as is for now, though Governor Bill Haslam says he’s looking for a better way. The administration is holding off on making any major changes. Tennessee has the Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee systems, which are both overseen – sort of – by the Higher Education Commission. There are redundancies and unnecessary competition, but Haslam says there’s also no simple solution. He held a series of roundtable discussions on the topic over the summer.
An Italian manufacturer of ceramic tile will bring 178 new jobs to Loudon County. The Loudon County Economic Development Agencyannounced that it has finalized a deal to bring Del Conca to the Sugar Limb Industrial Park in Loudon. In a news release, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said he was excited to welcome Del Conca to the state and praised the announcement as another step in the goal to make Tennessee the top spot in the Southeast for high-quality jobs.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau today awarded approximately $1.7 million in Recycling Equipment and Hub / Spoke Grants for FY 2013 projects to help reduce landfill waste in Tennessee. “We are pleased to fund these 18 projects through the state’s Solid Waste Management Fund because they will promote and increase recycling across the state of Tennessee and engage partnerships among counties and municipalities,” Haslam said.
The Tennessee Department of Education is planning a statewide School Safety Summit next month. Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier says the meeting is a result of concerns following the deadly elementary school shooting in Connecticut last week. Twenty children and six adults were slain by a gunman packing a high-powered rifle. Gauthier says the summit will gather hundreds of district and community leaders from across Tennessee to discuss how to ensure the proper training and implementation of safety measures in schools.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services refused to provide The Tennessean with complete records regarding child deaths on Tuesday — the day the newspaper set as a deadline for the department to make the files public. The newspaper repeatedly has asked for an accounting of how 31 children, who had been reported to the state’s child protection agency, died in the first six months of this year. In the past three months, the newspaper has made multiple requests for records that would show what the $650 million child welfare agency did — or did not do — to protect those children.
The landscape at Austin Peay State University’s campus is slowly transforming as several projects continue to develop. Construction on Phase II of the new residence hall project began in the Fall 2011, shortly after APSU opened the Castle Heights freshman residence hall in August 2011. The $29 million project is on schedule to open at the beginning of the 2013-14 academic year, according to Bill Persinger, director of communications at APSU. Phase II Housing consists of three residential halls that will form APSU’s first “residential mall.”
One year down, two to go. Work crews in February began cutting into the earth on either side of U.S. Highway 27 in a project to widen and improve the busy artery between Signal Mountain Road and the Olgiati Bridge. The work is supposed to be finished in December 2014. Here are some fast facts about the U.S. 27 project from the Tennessee Department of Transportation: Workers are adding northbound and southbound lanes, building 34 retaining walls and six bridges and reconstructing interchanges at Signal Mountain Road, Dayton Boulevard and Manufacturers Road.
TDOT is telling employees and contractors to knock off work for Christmas and New Year travel. There will be no temporary lane closures from 6 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, through 6 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 2. Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer said 2 million drivers are expected to be on Tennessee’s roads over the holidays and TDOT wants to minimize delays for them. There could be some long-term construction closures in place and drivers are cautioned to follow reduced speed limits in those instances.
Spurred by Metro’s repeated resistance to approve Great Hearts Academies this year, Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell has confirmed an outcome many had predicted, if not assumed: impending legislation to form a statewide charter authorizer that would trump local school boards. “I’ve talked to enough folks that I know something is in the works and being drafted right now and will be introduced,” Harwell told The Tennessean. A chief consideration appears to be just how far to move the needle.
Democrats in the state House laid out an agenda Tuesday that includes expanding government programs like pre-K and TennCare. But they admit most of their time will be spent trying to slow down a Republican supermajority. The state doesn’t necessarily have to invest more money in pre-K. It could get additional classrooms by spending less on each one, though Democrats had trouble explaining how. And the minority party is also pushing to bring as many as 200,000 new people into the TennCare program as envisioned under Obamacare.
Fireworks set off in the neighborhood surrounding Meigs Middle Magnet School on Tuesday caused teachers and students to fear gunshots, coming just days after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in a Connecticut elementary school. A call went out to School Resource Officer Scott Murrell, who investigated and determined the cause. But the reaction — or even overreaction — may not be the last of the changes brought about by the new sense of vulnerability spawned all over the nation by the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.
Could the Connecticut shootings be a tipping point in the national debate about gun ownership? More people have died in other mass shootings — 32 at Virginia Tech. Some victims of other shootings, too, have been children. Twelve students were shot to death at Columbine High School in 1999. But Friday’s slayings of 20 first-graders and six teachers and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School struck horror and fear into the hearts of parents everywhere, rallied gun-control advocates and shook even some staunch gun-rights advocates.
A plan to dramatically scale back the controversial lifetime health insurance benefit for Metro Council members won preliminary approval Tuesday but could face challenges when it goes up for a final vote next month. The council also gave the final OK to an employee buyout plan that will take effect in February and agreed to buy 600 acres of undeveloped land in Donelson and preserve them as a city park. Five weeks after the council voted 23-14 to preserve the lifetime health care plan available to its members, it voted by a similar margin — 25 to 13 — for Councilman Phil Claiborne’s second effort to reform the practice.
The U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday, Dec. 18, an agreement with Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court that will put the Shelby County Public Defenders office in the role of defending juveniles who cannot afford to hire an attorney for court proceedings. But as the agreement was announced, it was unclear how the major shift in court operations would be funded. The agreement also sets up strict procedures for the appointment of such legal counsel before probable cause or transfer hearings and better documentation of how court decisions are made.
Some Shelby County Commissioners are baffled that federal officials didn’t include an African-American expert on a team overseeing Juvenile Court reforms, when one key concern was that black juveniles were treated more harshly than their white counterparts. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced this week the appointment of a New Jersey law professor, a Florida criminologist and a Michigan detention center expert — all of whom are white — to oversee the reforms. “I think that should be reviewed,” Commissioner Walter Bailey said after learning of the appointments Tuesday.
But Rep. Diane Black more worried about amount limits Rep. Marsha Blackburn remains adamant about opposing a tax increase of any sort, despite indications that House Speaker John Boehner may be conceding that point in his talks with the White House. Since the weekend, numerous reports have emerged that Boehner, in his efforts to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, has given in on allowing a tax rate increase on the wealthiest Americans — those with incomes of more than $250,000 or those who make more than $400,000.
The federal government can’t claim immunity in the 2010 Nashville flood’s legal wake, say several Middle Tennessee companies that are suing the feds for more than $350 million in damages. The companies hope their argument sways a federal judge to let their lawsuits proceed against the government’s wishes. The judge has set a Jan. 13 hearing on the issue, but a legal expert says the plaintiffs face an uphill battle. The case involves two lawsuits filed earlier this year by nearly a dozen companies, including Gibson Guitar, Nissan North America and Ryman Hospitality Properties (formerly Gaylord Entertainment Co.), and their insurers.
Nicole Perez spends her school days at a local high school here, but when the 17-year-old senior steps into English class she is dipping her toes into college. Ms. Perez is one of a growing number of students taking community-college courses at their high schools. These “dual-enrollment” classes are a low- or no-cost way for students to gain college credits, helping smooth their way to a college degree. “It’s a little more work, but I actually like that,” said Ms. Perez, who hopes the credits will save her time and money next year, when she plans to attend a four-year university.
The winter chill to the pocketbooks of those who heat their homes with electricity won’t be quite as cold next month. After raising rates in eight of the previous nine months, the Tennessee Valley Authority said Tuesday it will cut its monthly fuel cost adjustment by 8.3 percent in January. The change should save the typical Chattanooga household $4.47 in January, lowering the end use rate charged by EPB by nearly 2.3 percent from the current rate. “Favorable hydrogeneration helped to partly offset a continued rise in natural gas prices,” TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said.
The Tennessee Valley Authority maintained its top-of-the-line AAA bond rating from Fitch Ratings on Tuesday, but Fitch gave the federal utility a negative outlook. Fitch said the AAA rating “reflects TVA’s status as a wholly owned corporation of the U.S government” and the implied backing of the federal government behind TVA’s debt. Although TVA is a self-funding agency, “Fitch believes that U.S. authorities would use extraordinary efforts to support TVA’s operations,” the rating service said.
Tilt your head back around Downtown Memphis and you’ll see a surefire sign of optimism in any city, at any time, in any economy. Construction cranes. Cranes mean something big is getting built and that people are working. Cranes mean someone saw something missing in Memphis and wanted to fix it. Cranes mean bank loans, contracts, blueprints, business deals in restaurants over breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks, new jobs, better jobs, new services, better services, risk, reward and a commitment to this town that won’t wane — unless, of course, the Mayans were right after all.
ASD plans to entice high-performance teachers with salaries, bonuses, A teacher fresh out of college can hope to earn a $62,500 salary in the Achievement School District six years after signing on, according to the new pay schedule the ASD is rolling out this fall. Not only is that $16,000 more than the county schools pay a teacher with the same experience, it doesn’t include the annual cash bonus every ASD teacher has a shot at earning. In the best-performing schools, bonus pay will be as high as $7,000.
It’s hard to imagine that Gov. Bill Haslam honestly believes what he said Monday when he was asked, in the aftermath of the massacre of 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school, if Tennessee’s gun laws are tough enough. He said, wrongly, that Tennessee’s gun laws don’t need fixing. Then he added, with equal duplicity, that Tennessee’s only problem, if any, is the paucity of mental health care for potential shooters, a service he already has slashed. There’s no question about Haslam’s chutzpah. He surely is aware of the gun-show loophole in Tennessee that’s big enough to drive a truckload of assault weapons through.
Liquor is flowing in Pigeon Forge — for now. But the story of booze sales in the Sevier County tourist town took a couple of staggering steps since last week, with election workers alleging voting irregularities and an associate of a state senator showing up unexpectedly. As reported Saturday, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission approved liquor licenses for Tony Roma’s, Mellow Mushroom, Blue Moose Burgers and Wings, and Johnny Carino’s Italian restaurant. Three applications from other restaurants are pending with the ABC, which granted the licenses based on certified election results. Like the ABC, Pigeon Forge City Commission has moved forward by approving regulations which, in compliance with state statutes, will allow liquor sales until 3 a.m.
On Dec. 13, 1983, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the selection of Martin Marietta to manage the government’s three big Oak Ridge plants. At the time, the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant (known as K-25, its original building) was still in operation, enriching uranium for nuclear fuel, along with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. The giant contract awarded to Martin Marietta also included the management and operation of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky. This was huge news, of course, because Union Carbide had operated the plants for decades.