This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
As revelers around the world rang in the new year last week, the workers and robots on Cormetech’s factory floor here continued their around-the-clock production of a key element to help many people breathe a little easier. “We shut down for 47 and a half hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas, but other than that we’re a 24-7 operation every day,” said Denise Rice, the director of operations at Cormetech’s Environmental Technologies plant in one of Cleveland’s industrial parks. “We set up some TVs in the break room for workers to watch some of the bowl games on New Year’s, but we kept production going.”
Two state agencies, the federal government and the American Lung Association are encouraging Tennesseans to test their homes for radon. Radon is a naturally occurring gas that can enter homes through foundation cracks or openings. It’s invisible and odorless and high concentrations can cause health problems including lung cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 70 percent of Tennesseans live in areas with high or moderate risk of radon.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation says it will rebuild three piers supporting the Henley Bridge in Knoxville rather than try to repair the severely deteriorated concrete pillars. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports officials aren’t sure yet how much more time and money it will add to the $24.7 million project that has closed the span for two years. Originally, the bridge had a completion date set for June 30. TDOT bridge division director Wayne Seger says officials should have “a very honed estimate” by mid-January.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is accepting applications for its Citizen’s Academy. The TBI says the academy is designed to develop a better understanding and awareness of the agency in the community. It offers citizens a close look at the TBI’s work investigating crime scenes and cyber crime, tracking terrorism information, and doing forensics examinations. The academy runs from May 7 through May 28 at TBI headquarters in Nashville. It is limited to only 15 citizens.
Faculty, students and the public will have the chance to ask questions of the five finalists vying to become the next University of Tennessee at Chattanooga chancellor during open forums this month. Appearing on Jan. 9 is Diane Allen, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Salisbury University. On Jan. 10 is James Moran III, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. On Jan. 15, is Harold Jones, dean of the School of Health Professions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Few colleagues have ever accused veteran Memphis lawyer R. Sadler Bailey of being subtle, including the three-member disciplinary panel that recently recommended he be suspended for 60 days. The suspension, which Bailey plans to appeal, stemmed from the “disrespect and sarcasm” in comments he made to Circuit Court Judge Karen Williams during a medical malpractice trial in 2008 that the panel described as “contentious, combative and protracted” Bailey called opposing counsel a liar in court and told Williams she might “set a world record for error” in her rulings.
Tennessee’s 108th General Assembly opens for business Tuesday with a Republican supermajority in the driver’s seat on issues ranging from gun policy to school vouchers and a possible expansion of the Medicaid health care program. Beleaguered Democrats will take the proverbial back seat unless Republican squabbling over several issues allows them to steer the car of state. The 99 House members and 33 senators convene at noon for their annual session. Republicans hold 70 seats in the House and 26 in the Senate, their largest majority since the late 1860s.
After years of the legislature saying it was too early to uncork a serious debate about selling wine in food stores, grocers are convinced the discussion has fermented long enough. The issue has been a politically sexy one for years. But even in a state that could conjure new laws banning students from wearing saggy pants, selling wine in grocery stores never had a chance. But this year a handful of factors have changed. Top lawmakers have gone on record to say they’re open to the idea. Legislative leaders are shuffling committees that have repeatedly killed the bills before the legislation had time to breathe.
Legislation to let parents decide a struggling school’s fate is among several education-related proposals lawmakers are likely to discuss during the 108th Tennessee General Assembly that convenes Tuesday. Officials have made reforming education a top priority since Tennessee became one of two states to first receive federal Race to the Top funding about three years ago. Lawmakers expect to take up more proposals this year, including so-called parent trigger legislation, creation of school vouchers, reshaping online schools and boosting community colleges.
Tennessee lawmakers are just now making their way back to Nashville. And bills for school vouchers and a statewide charter authorizer, though certainly in the works, still aren’t on the table for inspection. Nevertheless, a new coalition of Davidson County parents and stakeholders is already gearing up for what it perceives as a fight to both protect local autonomy and defend public schools from outside special-interest groups during the legislative session that commences Tuesday.
The head of the state’s largest teachers’ union said she expects her board to take an official position against proposals that would allow teachers to carry guns. The Tennessean reported that the measures are among proposals state lawmakers are considering this legislative session in the wake of last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman fatally shot 26 people — most of them children — inside the school Dec. 14. He also killed his mother and himself. Several Tennessee lawmakers have drafted legislation that would encourage school districts to place at least one armed police officer in every school and would allow teachers who have undergone special training to bring their personal handguns into schools.
When lawmakers convene Tuesday in Nashville to open the 108th session of the Tennessee General As-sembly, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Rep. Jon Lundberg see battles on the agenda, particularly when it comes to Obamacare directives and getting wine in Volunteer grocery stores. However, both said, it is the unknown that provides the most bill-creation suspense. “Bath salts were no where on the radar when we talked about possible legislation in late 2011 and look where that ended up,” Lundberg said.
Officials in Maury County say they are resolved to have more transparency in 2013. The Daily Herald reports county Mayor Jim Bailey said his plans include posting county audits online, disclosing taxpayer-funded lobbying associations, adding provisions on making requests for public information and drafting agendas for meetings. “It was one of my campaign objectives back in 2010 to get a new website — an improved website,” Bailey said. “We’re knocking on the door of having that ready. It will be much more user friendly and will prevent some of the things from not getting on the website.”
Chip Saltsman may have left U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann’s staff on New Year’s Day, but certain benefits still may be flowing his way. Since July 2011, the Fleischmann campaign has earmarked $51,523 in donor funds to pay Saltsman’s legal fees in a lawsuit 600 miles away from Washington, D.C. Campaign finance records show the latest payment, $15,000, came on Nov. 14. Fleischmann’s office announced Saltsman’s resignation as chief of staff a month later. After spending $1.3 million on the 2012 election cycle, the Fleischmann campaign reported $50,990 on hand and $226,538 in debts, according to the latest filings.
There were smiles, gasps and cheers as fans surrounded the rink to watch the Predators hold an impromptu workout at A-Game Sportsplex on Sunday. With the NHL lockout essentially over after 113 days, professional hockey quickly reappeared on Nashville’s sporting landscape. “Guys are excited,” Predators captain Shea Weber said. “They can’t wait to get back and get into the swing of things and get into a routine. I think that’s the biggest thing for a lot of guys. We’re just used to playing this time of year.”
Newtown tragedy spurs plan to tap reserve fund Williamson County Sheriff Jeff Long has talked with the superintendent of the county schools more than once in the past few years about putting police officers in every building, not just the high schools and middle schools. They’ve been in agreement on the idea, but Long doesn’t have the money in his budget, and his appeals for federal grants keep getting denied. Then, 20 children and six teachers were killed last month in Newtown, Conn. Very quickly, the sheriff, the superintendent and the county mayor decided to pay for the additional officers with local tax dollars, even if the money isn’t in the budget.
Measure seeks to clarify ownership The Knox County school board will discuss a resolution tonight that puts the building deeds of several schools in its name. “To me it makes sense. If we’ve bought the land, we’re paying for a building, then it should be under the schools,” said school board Chairwoman Karen Carson, who requested the resolution. “It’s come up a few times.” Carson said the resolution — which specially names Brickey-McCloud, Amherst and Gibbs elementary schools and the as-yet-unnamed new elementary school being built in southwest Knox County — clearly spells out the owner of the buildings.
The Virginia governor’s race long has been considered one of the country’s marquee political contests of 2013, pitting a national tea-party hero, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, against a close friend of the Clintons, former Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe. But the plot has thickened amid a spat among the state’s Republicans over the party’s tone and direction. Some conservatives fear the fight could wound the GOP as it seeks to broaden its reach among independent voters in a state where Democrats have made big gains.
Limit on number of bills helps put House in order The proposal to place a limit on the number of bills filed in the Tennessee House of Representatives should be adopted by the full House in policy and in spirit. That means the proposal should not be a signal to the state’s 99 House members and about 500 lobbyists in Nashville to begin looking for loopholes and exploiting the exceptions, although, given human nature and politics, that is bound to happen to some extent. The aim of the proposal by House Speaker Beth Harwell — at the behest of Gov. Bill Haslam — is good government, more efficient government and a savings to taxpayers.
The Jackson Sun’s Sunday education story on whether students should be retained if they don’t measure up to grade-level performance was instructive on several points. Parents, educators and school officials should consider several concepts that could help address this often controversial issue. First, we note, there is broad agreement that students must achieve early learning milestones if they are going to succeed in later years in school and ultimately in life. Learning to read at grade level by the end of the third grade is a good example. But just as there is widespread agreement on the importance of early-grade student achievement, there is widespread disagreement about what to do with students who don’t make the grade.
No matter which side of the fiscal cliff debate Tennesseans took, the compromise deal Congress and the president reached has one provision that will help some of the state’s citizens when they file their federal income taxes. Taxpayers in states that do not have state income taxes — including Tennessee — can continue to deduct sales taxes on their federal income tax forms, if they itemize. That means the roughly 25 percent of Tennessee filers who do itemize will save an average of about $400. U.S. Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Stephen Fincher, both of whom voted against the bill, still praised the sales tax-deduction extension.
If Tennessee’s Republican leaders want to unseat the embarrassment that is U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, and they do, they need to gang up on him. Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell need to lead the way. Yes, it’s early. The race is not until 2014, and DesJarlais has made it more than clear he will not resign. If the GOP leadership does not come out of the gate early and put all its support and financial resources behind one opponent, DesJarlais could very well get re-elected. If you get three or four primary opponents in it, the vote is going to be divided. And the incumbent, DesJarlais, could sneak back in.
Some state legislators still pretend to believe they can find a reasonable “compromise” between business owners who don’t want their employees leaving guns in their cars on their parking lots, and gun owners and NRA lobbyists who insist on that privilege. Take the latest idea, offered by state Sen. Stacey Campfield. He proposes to institute the outmoded “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule that the Pentagon tried for years in a futile compromise on gay rights. The formula never worked because it involved an untenable pretense by people on both sides of the rule. Gays and lesbians were denied equal civil rights with respect to their sexual orientation, and forced to live that part of their lives in a quiet shadow.
Twenty-three states, most led by Republican officials, have declared that they will not set up their own health insurance exchanges to help individuals and small businesses find affordable coverage. Instead, they want to offload that task to the federal government. In the short run it will not matter much who runs the exchanges. Consumers will be able to buy essentially the same policies and receive the same consumer protections either way. But in the long run, it would be best if states took on the job because they have the knowledge needed to mesh state and federal programs and encourage participation by local insurers and health care providers.