This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Summer 2013 anticipated opening date The year 2013 will be a monumental year for students, faculty and staff at the Tennessee Technology Center as a decade-long vision will be complete. A project to expand Tennessee Technology at Dickson-Clarksville extension campus, located at 3789 Guthrie Highway, broke ground in November 2011, and the $16.5 million renovation is expected to come to completion in June – July 2013, according to Debbie Griffin, campus director.
Did you enjoy ABC’s “Nashville” series? Good, because you’ll be paying for it to the tune of $8.5 million. Millions of public dollars — in tax credits and, as of this year, via grants — have flowed into the state’s film incentive program to aid productions such as Larry the Cable Guy’s Christmas special, “Hannah Montana: The Movie” and promos for “Monday Night Football.” In all, Tennessee is on track to fork over $22 million worth of handouts for Hollywood productions that are made in the state, a TNReport review of state records from 2008 to 2012 shows.
State officials have started encouraging Tennessee farmers and manufacturers to reconsider short line railroad to ship their products. The bottom line of the pitch is this: if you don’t use it, we could lose it. Often a hundred miles or less, short lines could be considered the on and off ramps to the railroad network, typically run by mom and pop operators off the beaten path. “Being in Amish country, we have to be a little wary of horse and buggies,” says engineer Craig Risner as he pulls through an intersection near Ethridge, Tenn.
Investigators gave up too easily, didn’t share information Investigations into severe child abuse were left incomplete and failed to address the complicated needs of families, according to a new report by experts tasked with examining the “worst incidents of child abuse in Tennessee.” The Second Look Commission’s 2012 annual report recommends more training for child abuse investigators, including Department of Children’s Services caseworkers, mental health providers and police.
If you noticed the digital signs posted over Tennessee highways last week, you may have seen that the state passed a grim milestone: more than 1,000 people died on Tennessee roads last year, Nashville public radio station WPLN 90.3 FM reports. Tennessee Department of Transportation officials erected the signs in April, when traffic deaths were on track to hit an all-time high. Since then, the rate of accidents has been flat, TDOT officials told WPLN. Though there were at least 70 more traffic deaths in 2012 than in 2011, deaths remain below the all-time high of more than 1,300, set in 2004, according to WPLN.
Business owners in Tennessee are counting on 2013 as the year to overhaul the state’s workers compensation system. They complain that it’s confusing and unfair, and the governor says he’s listening. Roofing company owner Steve Griffith of Nashville has a common complaint. He believes his salesmen should need bare minimum workers comp coverage in case they get hurt, but state auditors disagree. “They are trying to categorize a salesman or a person who may occasionally get up on a roof to do a measurement the same as someone who is up there eight hours a day, they’re trying to categorize them as the same risk, and that is not the same risk.”
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has narrowed its list of chancellor candidates to five, the university’s search committee announced Wednesday. The announcement winds down a four-month search process to hire a successor to longtime Chancellor Roger Brown, who retired in September. “We had a strong pool of candidates, and our committee was very diligent in reviewing the experience and achievements of each candidate to narrow the list to five outstanding individuals,” Larry Arrington said in a statement.
Glenda Baskin Glover wants to make sure every student feels valued Glenda Baskin Glover’s career at Tennessee State University was nearly cut short 40 years ago. Glover was at home in Memphis on break from TSU in the 1970s when her parents gave her the bad news: They didn’t have the $300 to pay her tuition. Not knowing what else to do, Glover’s mom sent her back to Nashville and began praying. Those prayers were answered with a last-minute scholarship, Glover said on Wednesday morning during an interfaith prayer service at Jefferson Street Baptist Church.
Lowell Russell used to start each day with a two-mile run. Now his days revolve around physical therapy. “I have to pace myself,” he said. “That’s probably the most difficult thing — going from being able to do about anything I wanted to waking up in a hospital bed barely able to move. I’m one of those people who likes to be on the go, and not being able to do that’s very frustrating.” The Tennessee Highway Patrol sergeant nearly died March 13 when a tractor-trailer slammed into his cruiser on Interstate 40 West in Knoxville.
Yes, Republicans now have a super-majority in the Tennessee legislature, with 26 of 33 state Senate members and 75 of 99 House members. But factions do exist within the GOP, as was made obvious in the 2012 session of the General Assembly, when party members feuded over a bill to allow owners of guns to keep their weapons in locked cars on their employers’ parking lots. Though the bill was technically sponsored by members of the legislature, it was actually the creation of the National Rifle Association, which maintains an active lobby on Capitol Hill and is a virtual branch of Tennessee state government.
Tennessee budget officials have issued a cautious warning to the administration and legislators. The individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, requiring the purchase of health insurance, is expected to increase the number of people signing up for TennCare. People who have been eligible, but have not signed up, will be signing up when the requirement to purchase health insurance is in place. This will put an additional strain on the state budget, given the state match of the federal Medicaid money.
Tennessee’s two senators are defending their votes for a deal to avert the fiscal cliff. Both see it as means to shoring up Medicare and Social Security. The tax-raising deal would have passed without Republican Bob Corker. He says he could have found an excuse to vote no but tells CNBC he treated his decision as if he were casting the deciding vote. “I looked at the policy of where we were going to be if we didn’t pass it or where we would be if we did. While it was like eating a you-know-what sandwich to vote for this, to me it was a right of passage.”
It’s been said that U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann owes everything to House Speaker John Boehner. That he doesn’t think for himself. That he belongs to Grover Norquist and his pledge. But the Ooltewah Republican’s vote Tuesday night against the “fiscal cliff” deal that froze popular tax rates for most Americans bucked all the assumptions: Boehner personally supported the deal; Norquist, the conservative lobbyist, said “aye” votes honored his pledge to keep taxes low; and a sizable bloc of House Republicans — 85 in all — joined Democrats in passing an 11th-hour measure that had Americans white-knuckling their pocketbooks and economists predicting another recession.
Lawmakers vow to push spending cuts A last-minute deal in Congress may have saved the country from tumbling over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” but it also put off what some predict will be an even tougher partisan battle. Lawmakers must decide as early as February whether to raise the nation’s $16.4 trillion borrowing limit so the federal government can keep paying its bills. What’s more, lawmakers still have to decide what to do about $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that were to be phased in starting Jan. 1 but were put off until March under the fiscal cliff bill approved on New Year’s Day.
With the fiscal cliff averted, many Mid-South voters may wonder how their senators and representatives came down on the final bill. Both of Tennessee’s senators, Republicans Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, had signaled support for a compromise in the weeks leading up to the deadline and both did finally vote for the bill in the senate. Steve Cohen, of Tennessee’s ninth district which includes Memphis, also voted in favor of the bill in last night’s vote in the House of Representatives. He was the sole member of the Tennessee contingent of Representatives to vote for the bill. The state’s only other Democrat in the House, Jim Cooper of Nashville, voted against the measure.
The congressmen representing Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee were among the 167 House members who voted against the compromise deal brokered late Tuesday to stave off the harshest and most immediate tax increases and spending cuts of the “fiscal cliff.” “After reviewing all major aspects of the bill, I felt I could not support the Senate amendments,” U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th, said in a written statement. “In fairness to those that voted yes, there are some good things in the bill. However, increasing spending for programs and paying for a two month delay of sequestration in part with new ‘revenues’ were items that I could not support.
U.S. Reps. Morgan Griffith and Phil Roe both voted against the so-called “fiscal cliff” deal that passed in the House late Tuesday night. In statements released after the vote, both Griffith and Roe indicated federal spending was not addressed in the Senate-passed measure that came to House lawmakers. Griffith, R-Va., said: “Reasonable people can disagree whether or not to support this Senate compromise. In fairness to those that voted yes, there are some good things in the bill. However, increasing spending for programs and paying for a two-month delay of sequestration in part with new ‘revenues’ were items that I could not support.”
State Sen. Jim Tracy formally announced his bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais on Wednesday at an event meant to demonstrate his strength in a potentially crowded field. Tracy declared his candidacy for the 4th Congressional District seat before 50 or so supporters at a Murfreesboro pharmacy, attempting to set himself up as the frontrunner to take on DesJarlais, the Jasper physician who won re-election in November despite a series of disclosures from his 2001 divorce. Tracy, R-Shelbyville, said he would fight to cut government spending, a core position that he shares with DesJarlais.
Charging that U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., has “betrayed and deceived” 4th Congressional District voters about his past, fellow Republican Jim Tracy on Wednesday formally launched his campaign to unseat the embattled Jasper physician in the August 2014 GOP primary. “I promise that I will never embarrass you with my personal conduct or compromise on my conservative principles,” Tracy, a state senator from Shelbyville, told supporters in announcing his bid. “I’m a conservative in word and deed. I’m 100 percent pro-life.”
State Sen. Jim Tracy laid the groundwork Wednesday for a bruising 2014 Republican congressional primary with U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, saying the incumbent “betrayed” the 4th District and “deceived” people about his scandalous behavior. The Shelbyville Republican, who represents eastern Rutherford County and four other counties in the 14th Senate District, launched his campaign at Reeves-Sain Drug Store, where he told a standing-room-only crowd that a change in leadership is “a must” because DesJarlais had lost the ability to lead effectively.
“I’m here today to announce my candidacy for the United States Congress,” said State Sen. Jim Tracy during an appearance today (Wednesday) at Reeves-Sain Drug Store. Tracy, Republican from Shelbyville with a background as an insurance agent, is seeking the 4th District house seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburg. DesJarlais, also a Republican, is scheduled to be sworn in Thursday for the new term to which he was elected two months ago. The next election, the one in which Tracy has announced himself as a contender, will be in 2014.
State Senator Jim Tracy of Shelbyville released a list of early supporters as he announced his primary challenge to Congressman Scott DesJarlais. They include some of the top Republicans in state government, including Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, Senator Bill Ketron – who had been mulling a run of his own – and former Governor Winfield Dunn. During a press conference, Tracy said DesJarlais is “preoccupied with his own personal scandals.” He tells WGNS radio that the recently re-elected Congressman should just step down.
Congressman Stephen Fincher, who will represent a larger swath of Memphis once he’s sworn in to a second term Thursday, is clearly ready for prime time. But the Tennessee Republican may not be ready for his official Congressional portrait being shot on Thursday, at least not without a significant dab of makeup. Fincher, looking sheepish, explained Wednesday in his Longworth office that the quarter-size, rust-red wound in middle of his forehead came Tuesday from a hastily opened Capitol door. He’s taking it in stride and joked that the head-butt was NOT retaliation by Speaker John Boehner for his vote against the “fiscal cliff” bill on New Year’s Day.
Far from triggering a quick fix, the deaths or illnesses of 620 people in 19 states that have been linked to a Massachusetts pharmacy have only underscored confusion over how to regulate the various types of drug-makers in the United States. All that’s clear at the moment is that the present federal-state regulatory divide isn’t working. “This is the time that we have to get this right,” Cody C. Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, said last month after attending a hearing convened by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Amid wrangling over the fiscal cliff, the Senate has confirmed four new directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority. If the Senate had not taken action, TVA wouldn’t have enough board members to do business. President Obama nominated new members in September, but their appointments languished in the Senate. They were finally approved without debate last night, along with dozens of nominees to other federal boards and commissions.Two of the new directors are from Tennessee. One is an accountant from Memphis. The other is Mike McWherter, a Democrat who lost the governor’s race to Bill Haslam in 2010.
After leading the Senate to a late nod Tuesday to approve four new TVA board members and give the nation’s largest public utility a quorum for the coming year, Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker drew a line in the political sand. The renomination of two-year board veteran Marilyn Brown, an expert and advocate of energy efficiency, was not offered to Senate members for approval. “We respect her professional credentials, but we encourage the president to send another nominee with credentials better suited to the TVA board,” according to a Wednesday joint statement from Corker and Alexander.
Former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter will join the Tennessee Valley Authority’s board of directors after the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination by President Barack Obama on Tuesday. McWherter, who owns a beer distributorship in Jackson, Tenn., will be one of four new directors of the federally owned electric utility, which covers Tennessee and parts of six other states. “Good leadership at TVA is a priority for all Tennesseans, who count on having access to cheap, clean, reliable electricity — and I believe, after meeting these individuals and studying their backgrounds and qualifications, that they will provide strong board leadership,” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said in a joint news release with Tennessee’s other senator, Bob Corker.
A local businessman and Jackson Energy Authority board member was approved by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday as a new member of the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors. Mike McWherter, of Jackson, was approved along with Vera Lynn Evans of Tennessee, C. Peter Mahurin of Kentucky and Joe H. Ritch of Alabama to fill vacancies on the nine-member board. The nominees passed the Senate by unanimous consent, and the appointments will now go to the president for his signature.
The U.S. Senate has confirmed President Obama’s nomination of four people to the TVA Board of Directors,according to TVA. They are V. Lynn Evans, a Peter Mahurin, chairman of a financial services firm in Bowling Green, Ky.; Mike McWherter of Dresden, a beer distributor and the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor; and Joe H. Ritch, a Huntsville, Ala., attorney. Obama also nominated V. Lynn Evans, a Memphis accountant, and Joe H. Ritch, a Huntsville, Ala., attorney, as new members of the board while proposing to give Marilyn A. Brown, a current board member whose term has expired, a new term on the nine-member panel.
Vera Lynn Evans, a Memphis certified public accountant, said Wednesday that she’ll bring “independent thinking” and experience as a small-business owner to the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors. While hashing out details for averting the so-called “fiscal cliff” on New Year’s Day, the Senate also managed to confirm four new TVA board members, including Evans and former Tennessee Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter of Jackson. “I’m delighted to have been confirmed by the Senate,” said Evans, 59.
The new year means a new CEO for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Bill Johnson takes over the $11 billion public utility after being hired in November. Johnson’s first day was about like any one else’s, down to learning his way through security at the Knoxville headquarters. “Try the badge, see if it works, alright.” Johnson received the symbolic “keys to TVA” from outgoing CEO Tom Kilgore, who has been at the helm since the agency was restructured in 2005. “I look forward to seeing you build this place to be even better.”
Oak Ridge is very much an enclave of the U.S. Department of Energy, but the DOE facilities here do a surprising amount of work for other federal agencies. The so-called “work for others” programs amounted to almost half a billion dollars in Fiscal 2012 and significantly bolstered the DOE funding base in Oak Ridge and the regional economy. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as usual, was the biggest recipient, receiving about $232 million in FY 2012, which concluded Sept. 30.
Erlanger hospital trustees say they aren’t changing their timeline for hiring a new CEO despite a request from local state lawmakers to slow down. “The interviews with the candidates will be completed this month, with the final decision being made by the end of March during an open meeting by a vote of the full board,” Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles said in an email Wednesday. Board members held an unscheduled, unannounced meeting Dec. 27 to discuss a letter from House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick.
Teachers call for locked classroom doors Teacher outcry over a Metro Nashville school policy requiring classrooms to remain unlocked caused officials to rethink their position and find a loophole that allows locked doors. The system’s longtime policy calls for unlocked doors to prevent people from barricading themselves in a classroom, spokeswoman Meredith Libbey said. Tony Majors, Metro assistant superintendent for student services, explained that policy in an email to principals after a school shooting claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., she said.
Adding more officers desirable but expensive, officials say School Board and law enforcement officials in Jackson-Madison County work to ensure the safety of students each day at school and may consider new options for doing so. Madison County Sheriff David Woolfork said he thought of his three grandchildren, who attend Jackson-Madison County Schools, during the horrific shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Pennsylvania’s governor sued the National Collegiate Athletic Association on Wednesday, saying the organization exceeded its authority last year when it penalized Pennsylvania State University over the child-sex-abuse scandal involving a former assistant football coach. Legal experts said the suit, filed in federal court in Harrisburg, Pa., tries to raise questions about the limits of the NCAA’s power and the unusual steps it took in imposing the sanctions, including bypassing its normal enforcement procedures and not conducting an independent investigation.
When the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Board voted in mid-November to close Smithson-Craighead Middle School at the end of the current academic year, the decision angered parents and generated pleas for patience. This despite the fact that the charter school had been warned over several years that it needed to improve its performance or risk closure. The most recent TCAP scores showed that only 7.6 percent of Smithson-Craighead students were proficient in math and only 17.6 percent in reading. These abysmal scores were far below those of other Nashville charter and public schools. Nationally, the data on charter school closings have been mixed.
Shelby County is home to the majority of the state’s lowest-ranking schools, according to test scores. So maybe the students in the unified school district, which begins in the fall, need to spend more time in the classroom. The unified school board may consider just that. The board has authorized staff to study a proposal requiring students to attend school more than the current state-mandated 180 6½-hour days. Is it a good idea? A big “yes,” qualified by a big “if.” That is, if the extra hours are meaningful ones. Extra time for extra time’s sake is time wasted. But if there’s execution behind the idea — capable teachers holding students to higher standards, students engaged in the process of learning and given the tools to succeed — more would undoubtedly translate to better.
The start of the New Year also is breathing new life into the Tennessee Valley Authority. The nation’s largest public power company begins 2013 with new President and CEO Bill Johnson taking up the reins as well as U.S. Senate approval of four new TVA board members, including Jackson resident Mike McWherter. Congratulations to all as they will oversee major leadership changes at TVA and help guide its service to more than 9 million people in seven states. TVA operations are overseen by a nine-member board of directors. The four new members approved by the Senate include McWherter, Joe H. Ritch, of Alabama; Vera Lynn Evans, of Tennessee; and C. Peter Mahurin, of Kentucky. All four were unanimously approved by the Senate on Tuesday.
Amid all the carping on 24-hour cable news and talk radio over the New Year’s Day “fiscal cliff” agreement, can we just step back and concede that maybe there are reasons for optimism here? In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog — or is it just rank hypocrisy? — all the voices that clamored for President Obama and Congress to reach a compromise are now complaining as if the deal approved by the Senate and House was nothing more than a fiction. But this legislation is anything but fiction. It will have a real impact on nearly every American, and if that impact is not always a desirable one, well, that’s what makes it a compromise. The baffling thing is why it took lawmakers and the White House so long to come up with this.
President Obama’s desire to raise taxes on the so-called wealthy is politically expedient but not good economic policy. Since the 2008 recession, we have witnessed two distinct and opposite approaches to fiscal management at the state level. The results are worth examining. First, a comment about federalism: It has its advantages. States often act as petri dishes for economic policy experiments. In the best case, the successful policies will be adopted at the federal level. But that’s not the case today. The president is negotiating to raise taxes on higher wage earners (mostly private business owners) while he resists meaningful spending cuts. He is not alone. Southern Europe has pursued this policy for years. But so have certain U.S. states.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal., called the scheme to partially avert the fiscal cliff “a happy start to a new year.” If more unemployed Americans, higher taxes on the middle class and small businesses closing their doors from sea to shining sea are the kinds of things that make Rep. Pelosi grin with glee, then she certainly has plenty of reasons to be happy. But for those of us who actually live in the real world, the plan is an absolute nightmare. The 11th-hour compromise, concocted by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and blessed by President Barack Obama, included plenty of fiscal irresponsibility, economy-battering tax hikes and passing the buck.
For all the noise over whether or how to avert the fiscal cliff by New Year’s day, Tuesday’s bipartisan deal — making permanent the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, but not for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans — is disappointing in its reach. It offered enough near-term certainty over taxes to buoy the stock market Wednesday, and it assured most Americans that their income taxes will not rise (though their payroll taxes will as the Social Security tax reverts from 4.2 percent to the normal 6.2 percent). Yet the terms to avoid the fiscal cliff’s mandated spending cuts and tax hikes makes just a modest stab at reversing the thrust of the disastrous Bush tax cuts by restoring Clinton-era rates on the biggest earners.
We have the feeling that, fiscally speaking, 2013 will be like Groundhog Day, the movie. We’ll just keep living brinkmanship over and over. The late-night congressional voting that averted the notorious fiscal cliff kept us from lurching over the side, but we are by no means on safe ground. The New Year’s Day agreement raises taxes on individuals earning over $400,000 and couples earning over $450,000 a year and preserves the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone else. But paychecks will be slimmer this year; the employee share of the payroll tax increases to 6.2 percent from 4.2 percent. As a result of last-minute congressional shenanigans, tax planning and filing this year will be even more of a headache. And don’t expect a timely refund.
The procrastination and partisan stubbornness the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives demonstrated during the wrangling over crafting a compromise to avoid the “fiscal cliff” does not bode well for the likelihood that Washington will get anything significant done over the next two years. The fiscal cliff was the label given to a series of stiff mandatory budget cuts and tax increases that were scheduled to go into effect if President Barack Obama and Congress could not reach a deal by the end of December on legislation to halt the process. For weeks GOP senators and representatives held firm against the president’s call for higher taxes on the wealthy.
Yes, at the last second, the United States Congress came in and approved a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Democratic Vice President Joe Biden hammered out a New Year’s Eve deal approved by the Senate that kept us from flying off this proverbial cliff, and after some hand wringing, the agreement passed the House of Representatives. The agreement is nothing more than a bandage, though, to the real problems our country faces. It raises $620 billion in revenue over 10 years and delays draconian spending cuts by two months. Those cuts were put in place to motivate Congress to deal with this issue in time. We assume that’s how they play; set the rules, fail to meet them, reset the rules.