This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam in January will ask legislators to cut the state’s sales tax on grocery food by a quarter of a percent, from 5.25 percent to 5 percent, The Commercial Appeal reports. If approved, it would be the second reduction in the state’s food sales tax in as many years. In a press conference Tuesday, Haslam also said he wouldn’t propose major changes to the state’s higher education system. Haslam remains undecided on whether he will take a lead role in pushing for school-voucher legislation, The Appeal reports.
Four years of trying to attract an Italian company to East Tennessee paid off with plans by the business to invest $70 million in a new plant, officials said Wednesday. Ceramica Del Conca, a $120 million-a-year maker of ceramic floor and wall tile, is aiming to hire nearly 180 workers for the facility it wants to build in Loudon County, about 80 miles northeast of Chattanooga. Kathy Knight, assistant director of the county’s Economic Development Agency, said the company liked Loudon’s proximity to the raw materials it takes to make its products.
Tennessee Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes says he expects businesses across the state to be less conservative after Congress reaches a deal on the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Emkes spoke to reporters on Wednesday after the State Funding Board made its state revenue projections. Based on economists’ estimates, the board predicted the state’s total general fund collections should increase from 1.98 percent to 2.85 percent this year, and 2.74 percent to 3.89 percent next year. The governor selects a number within the range in constructing the budget.
Despite slowing tax collections in recent months, the state’s top finance official is using rosy projections to put together next year’s budget. The state funding board listens to a panel of economists who give a range of forecasts for tax revenue. And members are leaning toward the optimistic end of the range, anticipating growth of 3.5 percent. Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes – who previously headed Bridgestone Americas – says economic activity has dipped. He says households and corporations are sitting on their hands, but not for long.
Tennessee and many other states are seeing a record number of cases this year of pertussis, also known as whooping cough. One reason for the increase could be fewer children who are getting vaccinated against the disease. More than 260 cases of whooping cough have been reported this year in Tennessee. That’s an almost three-fold increase over last year. Federal health officials recommend that children should be vaccinated for pertussis by the time they’re 3. In Tennessee and most other states, only 80 percent of children are getting the vaccine in that time frame.
More people in Maryland were exposed to medicine linked to the fungal meningitis outbreak than in Tennessee, but illnesses here easily quadrupled those reported from the Chesapeake Bay State. An article published in The New England Journal of Medicine on Monday showed wide variations in attack rates, but provided no firm conclusion as to the reason. Tennessee had an attack rate of 10.9 infections per 100 people, compared with just 2.4 for Maryland. The national attack rate was 4.7. Tennessee and Michigan had attack rates more than double the national average.
Tennessee’s Commissioner said community based mental health services may be the best way to fill gaps in services across the state. E. Douglas Varney said in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut many are asking the mental health industry to find ways to improve treatment and provide services to areas that are under served. “Everyone is looking at many levels at public policy, funding issues and all those kinds of things but the real answer in my opinion lies in a more fundamental approach,” he said.
The Tennessean, joined by a coalition of the state’s newspapers, TV stations and other media organizations, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the state Department of Children’s Services, alleging the agency is violating the law by refusing to make public the records of children who died after being brought to the agency’s attention. Filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, the lawsuit asks the court to order DCS to explain why the records were not provided. It asks that DCS immediately give those records to the court so a judge can review them and redact any confidential information, and for the records to then be opened to the public for review.
The News Sentinel has joined a media coalition that against the state Department of Children’s Services, alleging the agency is violating the law by refusing to make public the records of children who died after being brought to the agency’s attention. The Tennessean in Nashville has been reporting on the issue for several months. In the first six months of 2012 alone, 31 children died after the state was alerted to problems, and the newspaper has been trying for several months to get DCS to open its files on the deaths.
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 through 6 a.m. 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.
A Tennessee Department of Transportation worker who was cited for patronizing prostitution has been fighting to get his job back for the last 19 months. Now, an administrative judge with the Office of the Secretary of State has ordered the fired worker be reinstated with back pay. Charles Harbison was cited in May of 2011 by Metro police for patronizing prostitution while on duty. He was reportedly in uniform and driving his TDOT truck at the time. According to police, Harbison agreed to pay a prostitute $15 for oral sex.
State House Speaker Beth Harwell on Wednesday proposed an overhaul of the way the lower chamber of the Tennessee General Assembly does business, including limiting members to 10 bills per session and restructuring the committee system. The Nashville Republican said the changes would streamline operations, save money and “help members prioritize what’s most important to them.” The limits would not apply to bills affecting local issues or to lawmakers carrying bills that are part of the governor’s legislative agenda.
House Speaker Beth Harwell says she wants to improve the chamber’s operations by limiting the number of bills introduced and restructuring several committees. The Nashville Republican’s multipoint proposal would also end the common practice of lawmakers casting votes for colleagues who are not in their seats and sometimes not in the Capitol at all. She also hopes to curb a quickly growing practice in which lawmakers make sometimes lengthy floor presentations honoring individuals. Members would be limited to two such speeches per session.
State House Speaker Beth Harwell is trying to tamp down superfluous bills in the state legislature. Harwell is proposing a rule that could cut in half the number of bills each year in the state House. Harwell says the move will ultimately save taxpayers money. The rule could also leave members fewer chances to grab headlines with bills targeting saggy pants, or the teaching of evolution. Republican Charles Sargent argues if lawmakers want to bring such bills it’s their privilege, but he agrees there has to be some limit.
Speaker Harwell wants some of the House rules changed. A release: Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) today announced she is recommending changes to the Tennessee House of Representatives internal rules that will make the governmental process more efficient and save taxpayer money. The changes follow an effort two years ago to streamline operations. “Tennessee taxpayers have entrusted us with the task of governing–something I take very seriously,” Harwell stated.
House Speaker Beth Harwell said she’s unsure what effect last week’s massacre in Connecticut will have on gun laws next year but said she’s opposed to the idea of letting teachers carry guns into the classroom. “I think it would be asking way too much of our teachers for them to be armed in a classroom, and I’m not in favor of going down that route,” she told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “I really think you really have to be highly qualified to handle a gun in a high-stress situation, which is in fact what that was,” she said.
House Speaker Beth Harwell said Wednesday she doesn’t believe allowing Tennessee teachers to go armed is the right answer to last week’s massacre of elementary schoolchildren in Connecticut. “I think it would be asking way too much of our teachers for them to be armed in a classroom, and I’m not in favor of going down that route,” Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters. “I really think you really have to be highly qualified to handle a gun in a high-stress situation, which is in fact what that was.”
Most parents’ vision of a great teacher doesn’t include one packing heat, but a Tennessee senator is ready to arm the state’s teachers, principals and coaches in hopes of protecting students. In the aftermath of last week’s elementary school shooting in Connecticut, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Knoxville, plans to introduce legislation in January that will require every school in Tennessee to have at least one armed person on campus. “Basically, what we’re trying to do is expand on the school resource officer program,” Niceley said Wednesday.
A state representative may present legislation giving Tennessee school districts the authority to allow teachers to carry weapons in schools if properly trained, but the county’s director of schools and sheriff said they’d rather have each building staffed with school resource officers first. State Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, along with Director of Schools Don Odom, Safe Schools Manager Josh Kubly, Sheriff Robert Arnold and School Resource Officer Capt. Barry Hendrixson, participated in a roundtable discussion with WTN radio show host Ralph Bristol about allowing classroom teachers to be armed.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh came out swinging against school voucher legislation in a press conference Tuesday, vowing to fight any legislation in 2013 and keep vouchers off the books in Tennessee – certainly no surprise coming from the Ripley Democrat. “It would be counterproductive and a road we should not go down,” Fitzhugh said. “We’ve done a lot of education reform and it’s time we stepped back and took a look and see what we’ve done instead of stepping out on some cliffs.” But House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick also indicated that many on the GOP side of the aisle may not rush to press the issue.
The chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party is calling for an investigation by the state comptroller of the state’s “deeply troubling” purchase of a Knoxville property from a business associate of the governor’s family. In a letter to the comptroller, Chip Forrester, the party chairman, said that the $10 million purchase price for the office building for use by Pellissippi State Community College may have defrauded Tennessee taxpayers out of more than $5 million. Citing a Sunday report in The Tennessean, Forrester noted that some estimates put the cost of completely renovating the building at 7201 Strawberry Plains Pike at $16.6 million.
State representative Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), who was reelected last week as leader of the 28 Democrats remaining in the 99-member state House of Representatives, created something of a stir in the wake of his win, when he suggested that “someone at the top” of the state party should become a candidate for governor in 2014, opposing incumbent Republican governor Bill Haslam. Asked by reporters if he himself might fit that role, Fitzhugh did not disown the possibility, and Democratic bloggers and activists across the state responded quickly and positively to the idea of his candidacy.
Rhea County commissioners this week delayed consideration of a wheel tax until February to give time for a review of county budget and capital needs. Commissioner Ron Masterson, chairman of the Budget Committee, recommended that the wheel tax issue be delayed until after a Jan. 26, 2013, workshop when commissioners are to discuss proposals for a jail or justice center. “I felt like there is a need to review all our resources, including the property tax or a combination of a property tax increase and wheel tax,” Masterson said after the Tuesday meeting.
Chip Saltsman’s upcoming departure sets off a reshuffle in U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann’s office. Filling legislative director Jim Hippe’s shoes will be Alek Vey, now Fleischmann’s press secretary and legislative assistant. Last week Fleischmann announced Hippe will replace Saltsman as chief of staff and top aide beginning Jan. 1. With Vey’s promotion, someone must communicate with the media. That will be Tyler Threadgill, a former Fleischmann campaign operative known for his role in one of the juiciest stories to emerge from last summer’s 3rd District Republican primary race.
Supporters Hope Tennessee Wilderness Act Can Bypass Congressional Gridlock, Expand Knoxville’s Backyard As the 112th Congress draws to a close and the “fiscal cliff” dominates the news out of Washington, D.C., Tennessee stands to gain nearly 20,000 acres of new wilderness protection for six of the wildest parts of the Cherokee National Forest. But time is running out for the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011, introduced last year by Sen. Lamar Alexander and co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker.
On its face, the low-key discussion around a conference table in Miami last month did not appear to have national implications. Eight men and women, including a diner owner, a chef and a real estate agent, answered questions about why they had no health insurance and what might persuade them to buy it. But this focus group, along with nine others held around the country in November, was an important tool for advocates coming up with a campaign to educate Americans about the new health care law. The participants were among millions of uninsured people who stand to benefit from the law.
In Michigan’s worst techno-horror story, the state’s major utilities get hacked in the wintertime. Power in the state shuts down, and nobody can figure out how to regain control of the systems needed to turn it back on. Millions of people are left in the dark and in the cold. Cybersecurity, the business of protecting the Web-based systems that now run much of the world, has emerged as an important function of state governments. States have to worry not only about the safety of their own networks and the data that is housed there, but also about the security of privately owned systems that control critical infrastructure within their borders.
The Federal Reserve Bank’s policy of keeping interest rates low until the economy rebounds is cutting one of the biggest expenses for the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA said Wednesday it expects to save $25 million in annual interest expenses from a 30-year bond priced this week at a record low rate. TVA said its new 30-year global power bonds carry an interest rate of 3.5 percent — the lowest rate ever on a TVA 30-year note. The new bonds will replace part of a 6 percent bond issue maturing in March, saving $25 million on that amount of the remaining debt.
Four and a half months after Plowshares protesters broke into the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, it appears that government contractors have yet to repair the fence where the initial entry took place. On Wednesday, the News Sentinel visited the plant’s perimeter fence line on Pine Ridge and photographed a section where the chain-link fence apparently had been cut — about 4½ feet vertically. There also was what may be telltale evidence — a white plastic tie and a piece of string — of the protesters’ handiwork.
Exide will temporarily delay the layoffs of 96 employees – scheduled to occur throughout this month – until Jan. 31, a company spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday. The affected workers, all involved in production work at the battery manufacturer’s Exide Drive complex, are being retained for additional time to complete existing orders before their work is permanently taken over by the company’s Salina, Kan., location, Exide spokeswoman Susan Jaramillo said in an e-mail reply to questions from the Bristol Herald Courier.
Countywide school board members already had a lot on their agenda Tuesday, Dec. 18, when they were surprised by an internal ethics investigation. Near the beginning of this week’s meeting, school board member Martavius Jones offered a resolution calling on board member David Pickler to resign over money put aside by school districts under the Tennessee School Boards Association to cover the liability of other post-employment benefits (OPEB). Board members voted down an effort to add the resolution to the agenda, and several board members warned that even reading the resolution with its allegations could leave the board, or at least Jones, open to a defamation civil lawsuit by Pickler.
Early this year, a ninth-grader at Hamilton County’s STEM school was stumped by an algebra homework problem. So he went online to pose a question to his teacher. It was past 10 p.m. on a school night and the teacher was asleep. But fellow students from all corners of the county, each armed with a school-issued iPad, were awake and jumped in to help. They stayed up for hours — well past 2 a.m. — discussing math concepts and working together virtually. And they did it all without a teacher. Officials say that scenario, repeated numerous times as students work together in and out of school, is just one example of the powerful role handheld technology can play in education.
Bradley County education officials this week publicly addressed concerns about the school system’s security procedures in light of the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., last Friday. Administration officials discussed key elements of school security with Bradley County commissioners on Monday, taking the opportunity to address concerns of their own in the process. “We take our responsibility very seriously every day,” said Johnny McDaniel, director of Bradley County Schools.
A routine drug dog sweep/safety drill on Thursday gave Science Hill High School administrators the opportunity to assess emergency procedures and correct any deficiencies found. It came less than a week after a deadly school shooting in Connecticut killed 20 first-graders and six women, all teachers or support staff. Principal Melanie Riden-Bacon said she just wants to make sure her students and staff will be safe if anything out of the ordinary happens. “When we do a drill we walk through the school and look at things we need to work on doing better,” she said after calling “all clear,” to the school.
In what essentially was a non-announcement, Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters on Tuesday that he is not planning major higher education reform legislation for the 2013 General Assembly. We had hoped for more on this important subject that impacts job creation and economic development in Tennessee. Haslam spent a good part of the summer holding meetings across the state to talk about ways to improve higher education. He even noted that higher education was at a crossroads, and we couldn’t agree more. Tennessee lags behind other states when it comes to the number of people with higher education degrees. This is not merely an issue of the state’s image, it is directly related to the state’s jobs picture and to economic development.
Knoxville has fewer hospitals than it did, but the city remains the health-care center for Middle East Tennessee, and the health-care industry here is one of our largest employers. What’s looming in the health-care industry is important for us all and especially the local economy. Tennessee Republicans’ almost universal antipathy toward the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is clouding the issue. There is a tendency to reject anything to do with it. Hospitals in Tennessee are facing several potential problems. A provision of the act allows an expansion of Medicaid (TennCare) to cover more people. If the state chooses it can increase TennCare coverage from the poverty level to people with an income of 133 percent of the poverty level.
If the U.S. House of Representatives and the Obama administration cannot resolve the “fiscal cliff” problem, the economic impact to Tennessee will be large, painful and immediate. Regional Economic Models Inc. (REMI) has estimated the national- and state-level 2013 economic impact of the “fiscal cliff.” If not resolved, the “fiscal cliff” could result in a loss of 4 million-4.2 million jobs nationwide, a reduction of $350 billion-$400 billion in gross domestic product and an increase in the unemployment rate of 2.5 percentage points or more.
I was 19 years old when I first held a M-16 service rifle at Parris Island (S.C.) U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot. I thought I knew that I would be around the weapon a lot, but I had no idea that it would become the best friend I ever had. As clichéd as the “Rifleman’s Creed” is, it does serve a certain amount of truth. It was the amount of training and constant fear of misuse instilled in me at boot camp that allowed me to fully understand and appreciate the weapon and all it is capable of. With the recent horrendous amount of gun-related violence and the newest discussions of gun regulation laws, I am motivated to take a stance to bring an end to these crimes against humanity.