This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Leaders of the city’s five higher education institutions say they are all grappling with the issue of relevance in a changing world and economy as they compete for students with missions that make them different from one another. The presidents of Christian Brothers University, Rhodes College and LeMoyne-Owen College were joined on the BRIDGES Inc. panel this month by top administrators from the University of Memphis and Southwest Tennessee Community College for the latest “Justice Forum Luncheon” sponsored by the youth leadership organization.
Higher Education in Clarksville-Montgomery County has seen an abundance of progress and growth in 2012. Austin Peay State University, the fastest growing university in the state, reached a milestone graduating its largest class of 1,075 graduates in May and was noted for leading Tennessee’s four-year institutions in increasing their student retention and graduation rates. The University’s efforts to offer students more opportunities to finish their degrees faster – such as the Winter Term launched in 2011, curricular redesign to help more students succeed in their classes and technology innovations like Degree Compass – assisted in increasing the rates.
Positive momentum far outweighed the negative in the local logistics and distribution industry during 2012, as city officials and business leaders continued elevating Memphis’s status as world logistics hub. “A total of seven plants have geared up here in the past 12 to 18 months that all use our transportation network,” said Dexter Muller, senior vice president of community development at the Greater Memphis Chamber. Riviana Foods, the largest rice producer in the world, geared up production in South Memphis, and Kruger’s KTG USA, the producer of White Cloud bathroom tissue, announced a $316 million investment in new equipment at its facility north of Downtown.
Davidson County’s unemployment rate plunged below 6 percent in November, according to new data from the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development. Unemployment in Davidson County fell from 6.5 percent in October to 5.7 percent, placing it just outside the 10 lowest unemployment rates in the state. Williamson County’s unemployment rate also fell 0.8 percentage points, to 4.4 percent, the lowest rate in the state. Scott County has the highest unemployment rate in the state, at 15.3 percent, down from 16.1 percent in October.
New unemployment figures show the November jobless rate went down in all but four of Tennessee’s 95 counties. And three of those four held steady, with no increase. Nashville saw a drop from 6 and a half to 5 point 7 percent. That’s the second-lowest jobless figure among the state’s major cities, behind Knoxville Williamson had the state’s lowest countywide unemployment rate, at 4-point-4 percent. The highest figure, just over 15 percent, belongs to Scott County with Obion not far behind.
Davidson County’s unemployment rate for November was 5.7 percent, down 0.8 percentage points from October, according to figures the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development released today. The drop was mainly for the right reasons: Employers added just over 2,000 jobs last month. The unemployment rate was further pushed down by a drop in the size of the labor force of more than 500 people. Tennessee’s unemployment rate for November decreased to 7.6 percent, down from the October revised rate of 8.2 percent.
Unemployment in Chattanooga fell last month to the lowest level in more than four years as local employers added 4,300 jobs in the six-county metropolitan area over the past year. The share of jobless Chattanoogans fell by seven-tenths of a percent in November to 6.4 percent — the lowest level since October 2008 and a full 1.1 percent below the comparable U.S. rate for last month. “November was really a strong month for employment growth — one of the best we’ve seen in this recovery — which seems to suggest that the economy was continuing to rebound from the recession last month,” said Dr. Bill Fox, director of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research.
Local job seeker Connie Drennon remains confident she’ll find auto industry work in a county with an unemployment rate that decreased to 5.3 percent last month. “I’m trying to get one with Yates down at the (Nissan) battery plant in Smyrna,” said Drennon, a Murfreesboro resident who went on worker’s compensation after injuring her shoulder. “I worked for Yates. Yates starts you out at $15.25 per hour on the assembly line with lots of overtime. Yates is Nissan’s right hand.” Drennon and her 5-year-old grandson, Jameel Martin, joined job seekers Thursday who stopped by the Tennessee Career Center at 1313 Old Fort Parkway in Murfreesboro.
Clarksville-Montgomery County will enter 2013 boasting one of the lowest monthly unemployment rates it has seen in the entire post-recession recovery. The new jobless rate – reflecting the total number of people categorized by the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development as being unemployed in November – is 7.1 percent. That’s down from an even 8 percent in the prior month of October, and it’s well below the 8.7 percent unemployment rate that Clarksville experienced a year ago.
A new state requirement that Tennesseans getting jobless benefits verify at least three job searches a week has cut off benefits to about 7 percent of those previously getting benefits, according to initial audits by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. In the first seven weeks of enforcing Tennessee’s new unemployment insurance reform law, random audits of 6,164 people found that 402 failed to verify their weekly job searches and lost their benefits, at least for that week.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation has been awarded a $10 million federal grant to assist a number of transit agencies across the state. The so-called “State of Good Repair Grant” will be used to replace transit vehicles that have exceeded their useful life based on years in service or mileage. TDOT collaborated with 15 transit agencies to get the grant from the Federal Transit Administration.
Tennessee has now surpassed a thousand highway fatalities for the year, representing a dramatic increase from drop seen in 2011. Safety officials believe this year’s figures would have been much worse if not for an intentionally disturbing public awareness campaign that began in April. Three months into the year, roadway deaths were on track to approach the all-time high. So the Department of Transportation decided to put a running tally on the 150 digital highway signs around the state.
The state agency that oversees emergency communications is upgrading to what’s known as Next Generation 911. A bi-product is a sophisticated map that is now going to be shared with other parts of state government. Just as a map, this is more detailed than anything available online and will be updated constantly. “You know, Google may get out to Perry County every couple of years and we have people who are there on the ground every day.” Andy Spears handles public affairs for the Emergency Communications Board.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is accepting entries to compete for a spot in its Tennessee Wildlife Magazine calendar issue for the upcoming year. The agency is looking for photos of fishing and wildlife species native to Tennessee, as well as fishing and hunting scenes across the state. The format is horizontal digital images on disk. Those selected will receive $60. The submission deadline is March 7. Entries can be mailed to: Tennessee Wildlife Magazine, Calendar Issue, P.O. Box 40747, Nashville, TN 37204.
From Friday through New Year’s Day, the Tennessee Highway Patrol will be operating “no refusal” checkpoints throughout the state, where drivers who are believed to be impaired are required by law to either submit to a Breathalyzer test or have their blood drawn to determine blood alcohol content. The sobriety and driver’s license checkpoints will go up in sixteen counties, including Tipton and Fayette, from Friday until just before midnight on Tuesday. Emergency Medical Technicians will be on site at many of the checkpoints to perform the blood tests, while at other locations suspected drunken drivers will be taken to nearby hospitals or clinics.
Five people lost their lives in vehicular crashes on Tennessee roadways during last year’s New Year’s Eve holiday period, and three of those were a result of alcohol-related crashes. That’s why the Tennessee Highway Patrol will join with local law enforcement agencies to conduct another “No Refusal” DUI enforcement campaign during the 2012-13 New Year’s Eve holiday, beginning at 6 p.m. today and concluding at midnight Jan. 1. “No Refusal” is the latest enforcement strategy aimed at deterring impaired driving and reducing fatal crashes on Tennessee roadways.
House Republicans feel stymied but not hopeless as they prepare to return to Capitol Hill for possible last-minute action to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais said Thursday. DesJarlais, of Jasper, Tenn., was one of 234 members of his caucus who listened in on a conference call Thursday with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. Boehner said the House will return to work Sunday at 6:30 p.m. and remain in session in case lawmakers and President Barack Obama reach agreement on a deal to avoid more than $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts that will otherwise take effect on Tuesday.
A small gathering of protesters targeted Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s office in Franklin on Thursday with a message that the congresswoman should support legislation that would end the federal stalemate over the so-called fiscal cliff, while also avoiding tax increases on the middle class. The participants numbered less than a dozen and stood only briefly on the steps outside Blackburn’s office. Chants of “back to work” were broken up by short monologues explaining why a tax increase on the wealthy is the most equitable solution.
This one’s off our beaten path — literally. U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who used to represent generous sections of eastern Shelby County and of Memphis itself, now serves in a congressional district that has been re-drawn to end a county line or two away. Even so, a press release has been dropped into our email by “The Action — TN ,” evidently the Middle Tennessee chapter of a national advocacy group, and those locals who well remember the congressman (her preferred term) from Brentwood, might be interested to learn of the following event, taking place on Thursday of this week (today, as we speak) and entered here without comment: Local Taxpayers to Hold Rally Delivering Letters Calling On Rep. Marsha Blackburn to “Stop Pushing the Middle Class Off the Fiscal Cliff.”
Several states, most of them led by Republican governors, have experimented in recent years with the idea of turning their economic development agencies over to semi-private management. The results have not been uniformly successful. Many of these organizations are struggling to balance job creation with public accountability. When a new CEO is picked soon to lead the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, he will face the task of overhauling an organization that has existed for little more than a year.
The Tennessee Valley Authority says a reactor at its Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in North Alabama is again operating at full capacity. The utility’s Unit 2 reactor unexpectedly shut down Saturday during testing after maintenance. Officials said the reactor was operating at 100 percent power Thursday afternoon. TVA officials said Browns Ferry Unit 2 provides power to 650,000 homes and businesses, and three combined Browns Ferry units generate enough power to supply more than 2 million people.
The Unit 2 reactor at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in northern Alabama was nearly back to full power Thursday after a problem with an electrical cable triggered an automatic shutdown of the unit Saturday. TVA spokesman Ray Golden said Unit 2 was at 95 percent power Thursday afternoon. The incident caused no disruption of power to TVA customers, he said.According to a report TVA filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, about 2 p.m. Saturday workers were testing the reactor’s systems after scheduled maintenance when a faulty cable interrupted power to the reactor’s protection system, causing it to enter an automatic shutdown mode.
A Knoxville attorney is one of two people who have been appointed as mediators in a class-action lawsuit linked to the 2008 TVA coal ash spill in Roane County. In an order filed last week, U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan approved the appointment of Knoxville attorney Pamela Reeves and Florida attorney Rodney Max as joint mediators in the case. Both individuals had been recommended by the parties in the case. The litigation centers on the 2008 ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant, which fouled the Emory River and the surrounding Roane County countryside with 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash.
Hunter Osborne struggled in school, never finding a subject that interested him. “I did my best just to carry a C average,” Osborne the Sullivan Central High School senior recently said. But now Osborne, 17, is excited about his education. Sullivan Central recruited Osborne and a dozen other students to begin a welding program. “It’s something I am interested in as a career,” he said. “It is something I can relate to. I grew up with my father and grandfather as engineers. It feels like home here.”
A man was arrested on methamphetamine charges Wednesday after a lab was found at a west Johnson City apartment unit, according to a Johnson City Police Department report. Brandon Ayers, 1512 Riddell St., Apt. 6, was charged with initiation of process intended to result in manufacturing of methamphetamine, unlawful drug paraphernalia, three counts of reckless endangerment and fabricating/tampering with evidence.Ayers’ was also charged with being in a drug-free school zone, as his apartment complex is located near Woodland Elementary School.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, Gov. Bill Haslam, President Barack Obama — a desperate mother needs your help. Dolores Posada has a 15-month-old son who is seriously ill. The good news: Her little boy is being treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. And if any team of doctors and medical specialists can cure Ulises Posada’s acute lymphoblastic leukemia, it will be the miracle workers at St. Jude. But little Ulises, who was born in Memphis, also needs his mother. And she’s not here. Dolores Posada, an undocumented worker from Mexico, came to Memphis six years ago to find a job. She wanted to work so she could send money back home to her family. Last summer she decided that her family in Mexico — which includes her three older children — needed her.
Tennessee’s Legislature has long thwarted efforts to change liquor laws to allow grocery stores to sell wine, despite widespread public sentiment in favor of such a change. But given the conciliatory comments of Republican leaders in both the state House and Senate, the tide may turn early in the new year. It’s well past time for that to happen. Key to the potential breakthrough is a change in legislative strategy. Rather than push for a broad state law allowing wine sales in grocery stores, the movement’s key sponsors, Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Rep. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) are advocating a referendum clause that would allow local control over passage of a wine-in-grocery-stores ballot.
The top two officials at the Sevier County Election Commission testified last week that ineligible voters cast improper votes in the Nov. 6 Pigeon Forge referendum on liquor by the drink. Administrator Ronee Flynn and chairman of the Election Commission J.B. Matthews corroborated testimony by registrars and poll workers at the Pigeon Forge City Hall precinct. With the biggest turnout in Sevier County history, Election Day was hectic. “It was chaos,” election judge Sarah Ownby said in her deposition in the case of Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge vs. Sevier County Election Commission. “We had people lined up all along the wall trying to get them registered, or get them signed in to vote.”