This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
With a $500 million budget surplus and $2 billion in reserves, Indiana Governor-elect Mike Pence has pledged to give back some of that money when he takes office next week by cutting personal income taxes. “An across-the-board tax cut for all Hoosiers would send a strong signal that we are managing our funds wisely and also reducing the tax burden on our taxpayers and businesses,” the former U.S. Congressman said while campaigning to replace outgoing fellow Republican Mitch Daniels as governor. Indiana is not alone going into the 2013 legislative session with extra money in the coffers and policy makers figuring out how to spend it.
When Milton Gilder ran out of money to pay for his final semester at Duke University, the 25-year-old student got creative. Using background music from the Korean song “Gangnam Style,” Gilder filmed a quirky YouTube video in which he dances across the Duke campus and talks of his financial struggles and dreams of becoming a high school teacher. By last week, the Long Beach native had raised $2,200 on the website gofundme.com. Gilder isn’t alone. Mounting debt and ever-increasing tuition costs have more students innovating to pay for higher education.
Two grants, two jobs, multiple scholarships and a running tally of more than $20,000 in loans aren’t enough to pay for Jerica Johnson to attend Maryville College. So each semester, her mother finds a way to make up the difference — usually a couple thousand dollars. But this semester, Johnson’s last, that outstanding bill will double. She is one of a projected 2,891 students across the state losing their HOPE scholarship over the next two years because of a law passed in 2011 that caps students’ eligibility at the minimum number of hours required for their degree program.
New Tennessee State University president Glenda Glover made the opening of the spring faculty and staff institute feel like a Monday morning pep rally. Glover, in her first address to the faculty, received multiple bursts of applause as she laid out her vision for the school. The morning was punctuated by Glover opening up her checkbook and personally donating $50,000 to an endowed scholarship fund. “I mentioned earlier, I will lead by example. So, today, my first act of leading by example is this [donation] — to demonstrate my commitment to TSU as an administrator and as president of this institution,” Glover told the faculty and staff.
A Nashville judge will decide whether the state Department of Children’s Services must release the case files of children who have died or nearly died after being in contact with the agency. The Tennessean newspaper originally requested the records in September, citing the state’s Open Records law. The department gave the paper only a spreadsheet with minimal information. The newspaper sued to force the release of the files. Joining the suit to be heard Tuesday are The Associated Press and other media organizations from across the state.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Service has been reporting to a federal court for more than a decade on how it is handling foster care, yet it faces no such scrutiny of its handling of children suffering from abuse or neglect. The state reports that 120 children investigated by the Department of Children’s Services after reports of abuse or neglect died between 2009 and 2011. There were 31 more deaths during the first half of 2012, DCS says. DCS refuses to divulge anything but bare details about the deaths, such as the child’s age, gender and home county.
News groups want access to child fatality records A judge is scheduled to hear arguments this morning by The Tennessean’s attorney and the state Department of Children’s Services regarding access to child fatality records. The newspaper and a coalition of a dozen other news organizations filed a lawsuit Dec. 19, alleging that DCS is violating the law by refusing to provide the records of children who died after being brought to the agency’s attention. The Tennessean made requests over a three-month period for information about 31 children who died in the first half of 2012 — and regarding 206 children involved in fatal and near-fatal incidents dating back to 2009.
Legislation that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school 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.
Both chambers of the state General Assembly gavel into session at noon Tuesday. And at that moment, campaign fundraising will be off limits. So there’s a last minute push for political donations underway. State law prevents the governor or legislators from raising money during the session. The ban is intended to prevent campaign contributions from having sway on the lawmaking process. It will be nearly two years before any state lawmakers face reelection, but there’s no time being wasted.
House Speaker Beth Harwell says she’s ready to “fight for” rule changes she’s proposed to modify how the chamber does business. Considering those rules will be job number one as the General Assembly convenes this week. Speaker Harwell will first name a special rules committee, and within hours they could take up her suggestions. At least one has resulted in grumbling among lawmakers and lobbyists alike. It limits each member to sponsoring just 10 bills. Except for Mississippi, Tennessee legislators introduce more bills than any other state in the region, according to the Council of State Governments.
A proposal from House Speaker Beth Harwell to limit to 10 the number of bills each lawmaker can sponsor during the legislative session comes with plenty of loopholes — and those loopholes are starting to stir debate. One of the biggest loopholes deals with Gov. Bill Haslam. He is potentially exempted from the 10-bill-limit and can ask for as many bills as he likes. “It increases the power of the executive branch,” said Bob Rochelle, who’s currently a Democratic nominee for the state Registry of Election Finance.
The doors of the Tennessee Capitol “shall be kept open,” reads the state’s constitution. But to get through those doors when lawmakers gather today to begin the 108th General Assembly, Tennesseans will have to clear a couple of new hurdles. State officials are rolling out new security measures at the Capitol this year, including machines that can scan identification cards, more cameras and permanent guard stations at each public entrance. Similar measures are being implemented at adjoining Legislative Plaza, where lawmakers have their committee meetings.
Though legislators are clamoring to propose bills that will arm teachers or staff in schools in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting, many are concerned that simply arming teachers will not be enough and more comprehensive steps must be taken. Right now, there are at least four bills being floated through the Tennessee Legislature, including one by Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, that would allow teachers to be armed in classrooms across the state.
A new session of the General Assembly beginning this week means new faces, lots of them, particularly in the majority party. Half of the House Republicans have fewer than two years of experience, and this week they’ll be figuring out more than where the capitol bathrooms are. Nearly two dozen lawmakers in the 99-member House are brand new. Most are Republicans, though Davidson County elected four Democrats who will start their careers as state lawmakers. They are not necessarily young, though several are in their early 30s, including the younger brother of Rep. Matthew Hill from upper East Tennessee.
Cleveland education officials have expressed ambivalence toward proposed legislation — championed by Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland — that would give Tennessee school districts the option to allow eligible educators to carry concealed weapons on school grounds. On Monday, Cleveland Police Chief Wes Snyder and the Cleveland City School Board discussed, in general terms, existing and future security initiatives for protecting city schools. While several officials praised the relationship among school administrators, student populations and school resource officers, few voiced enthusiasm for the idea of allowing armed teachers in classrooms.
Two months after voters – most of them Memphians — rejected a countywide sales tax hike, there is a new proposal for a city-wide sales tax hike to go on the ballot later this year in a special election. Memphis City Council members Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland are expected to talk about the idea Tuesday, Jan. 8, at a 10 a.m. council committee session. Revenue from the half percent sales tax hike, an estimated $47 million a year, would be used to fund and expansion of pre kindergarten programs in the city as well as allow the council to roll back the city’s property tax rate.
In the deal to eliminate the fiscal cliff that passed Congress last week, capital gains tax relief was given to some investment groups that could help bolster Nashville’s investments in startup companies. The American Taxpayer Relief Act includes a 100 percent exemption on Qualified Small Business Stock through 2013 and applies retroactively to investments made in 2012, addressing the expiration of the exemption in 2011, according to Angel Capital Association, a trade association of angel groups and private investors investing in high-growth, early stage ventures.
Seven months after Franklin’s dam on the Harpeth River was demolished, making the river free-flowing for the first time in 49 years, inspectors at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believe several new dams should be added along the river’s route. Franklin Mayor Ken Moore and city aldermen tonight will discuss an agreement asking Franklin, Brentwood and Williamson County to partner with Metro government to finance a $1.4 million feasibility study examining ways to reduce flood risk and ways to repair the river’s ecosystem.
Nashville has been passed over by the U.S. Department of Education for a grant that could have brought millions of dollars to the poorest part of East Nashville. The Nashville Promise Neighborhood — a collection of more than 20 service agencies and government departments led by the Martha O’Bryan Center — worked more than a year to apply, proposing numerous ways of improving services to families and schools. The goal is to help about 2,000 children in a 15-square-mile area of lower East Nashville where the average annual income is about $10,000 and almost a third of people are unemployed.
Thousands of health care investors are gathering this week to decide where they’ll put their money in 2013. JP Morgan has invited about 300 companies to make their case at its Global Healthcare Conference. Fifteen of those are either headquartered in the Nashville area or have a presence here—and more yet from the region will be in the halls, appealing to investors one on one. The conference comes just two weeks after Modern Healthcare’s ranking of the nation’s top-performing for-profit hospital chains.
With Music City Center set to open in just six months, Metro could be close to a new agreement with Renaissance Nashville Hotel that would open up the 25-year-old Nashville Convention Center to new development opportunities. The deal could help the city get over a major redevelopment hurdle – a requirement that the existing center continue to serve that function through 2017. Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told The Tennessean on Monday that Mayor Karl Dean’s administration hopes to file legislation perhaps as soon as this month to lease exhibit space at the city-owned convention center on Commerce Street to the 673-room Renaissance Hotel.
Tennessee ranks 11th in StudentsFirst report Tennessee needs to give parents better options when it comes to improving the education of their children, according to a national organization that examines education policies in each of the 50 states. StudentsFirst released its inaugural report card Monday. Eric Lerum, the vice president of national policy for the Sacramento, Calif.-based group, said the group ranked Tennessee 11th among other states. He said the state has “been on a pretty solid path of enacting reforms during the last several years,” but said “there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Critics say it’s a political document A national education reform group ranks Tennessee among some of the best on a list of states where policies promote the traditionally Republican agenda of more charter schools, private school vouchers and increased ability of parents to make school choices. Opponents of the group’s philosophy, however, say the report is a political document designed to promote the group’s agenda and its release Monday was timed to coincide with the opening of the legislative session in many states, including Tennessee.
StudentsFirst, the national education reform group headed by former Washington schools leader Michelle Rhee, gives the state of Tennessee a grade of “C-” on the state’s education policy so far. It is the first-ever state policy report card issued by the group.The grades, which come with grade point averages, are based on “elevating teaching, empowering parents and spending public dollars wisely,” according to the group’s announcement of the grades. Tennessee’s grade point average is 1.75, by the StudentsFirst standards.
Williamson County officials will soon vote on a proposal to pay for an armed police officer in each of its public schools, The Tennessean reports. To do so will require hiring another 32 people. County Mayor Rogers Anderson has told commissioners he does not know how the positions will be funded on an annual basis, but for now is proposing to pull $2.5 million from the county’s reserve fund. The Williamson County Commission will vote on the proposal Jan. 14.
The Sullivan County Board of Education’s aim is to have a school resource officer assigned to all 20 school campuses in the county, not just the four high schools that have had SROs since 1997. School security proposals have emerged nationwide in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 killing of 26 people — 20 students and six adults — at Sandy Hook Elementary School by an armed gunman, who earlier killed his mother and after the school killings killed himself before police could capture him. Miller Perry Elementary parent Angela Stanley and Rock Springs Elementary parent Jennifer Fox during public comment urged the funding of SROs during Monday’s BOE meeting.
Knox County school board members learned Monday night that one construction project they will vote on will help pay for another. The board will vote on two contracts at its meeting tonight — one for $639,643 to replace the roof at West Valley Middle School and another for $2.3 million for an addition to be built at Belle Morris Elementary School. Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre told the board that the roofing project came in under budget, while the other came in over budget. “It came in quite a bit under the budgeted amount that we had anticipated, which is good news,” he said.
Speaker Harwell can take credit for wise proposal Today, the 108th Tennessee General Assembly will be gaveled into session, and with Republicans having built their strong majorities in both houses into “supermajorities” in last November’s elections, there is every reason to expect a session as self-indulgent and culture war-obsessed as the 107th. That session was marked by bills that undermined science instruction and free speech about homosexuality while banning saggy pants anywhere and trying to allow guns practically everywhere except the Legislative Plaza. With Republicans holding 26 of 33 Senate seats and 70 of 99 House seats, Tennesseans could expect more social tinkering and less practical lawmaking than ever.
The first session of the 108th Tennessee General Assembly convenes today in Nashville. With 2013 not being a general election year, lawmakers should be able to concentrate on getting the public’s business done without worrying about facing voters in November. But several controversial issues are sure to generate lots of debate and public comment. The first test will come in the House as Speaker Beth Harwell asks a committee to approve her recommendation to limit the number of bills submitted. The new measure is intended to streamline the legislative process. House members would be limited to 10 bills each. The Senate would be able to submit a similar total, affording senators about 30 bills each. Bills involving the governor’s legislative agenda would not be part of the total, nor would local municipality items requiring legislative approval.
When Tennessee’s 108th General Assembly begins today, Republicans will find themselves in the powerful position of holding super-majority control in both houses of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. For the entire 20th century, thanks largely to ruthless and unreasonable gerrymandering, the GOP was little more than a speed bump for Democratic policy proposals in Tennessee. Now the tables have turned — in a big way. Republican dominance in the Volunteer State is so absolute that Republican lawmakers could pass any bill they agree on whether or not Democratic lawmakers even show up to vote. How are Republicans in the state legislature going to use their power?
Dear Tennessee Lawmaker, Please outlaw gravity, for I am afraid of heights. You have shown the prowess to alter science and nature by taking on evolution (twice), and passing the mildly Talibanesque gateway law that led Stephen Colbert to quip that Tennessee adolescents will be required to postpone puberty until after marriage. You bring our state to national attention for all the wrong reasons — and please don’t take for granted that big companies planning to move here will not notice. So don’t grant my wish, and instead do the following for a better Tennessee during the upcoming legislative session.
Tennessee’s greatest natural resource is undoubtedly its children. And they deserve so much better. A recent report from the state Second Look Commission cites what members called “gaping holes” in the child welfare system. The Legislature created the panel in 2010 to examine cases in which children suffered severe abuse more than once. The annual report looked into what the commission termed the worst incidents of child abuse in Tennessee and found missed opportunities to protect children. This occurred even when authorities knew families were abusive. The panel found some child abuse investigators gave up too easily. Unshared information allowed serious concerns to continue without investigation.
Local Republican legislators are ready to run a tag-team on U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais to dislodge him from office in the wake of personal scandal surrounding the congressman. While state Sen. Jim Tracy announced last week he will go head-to-head with DesJarlais in the 2014 GOP primary, state Sen. Bill Ketron could be waiting in the wings. But they want to be on the safe side, too, rather than risk losing a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly. Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican who is in the middle of his third term, said last week he and Tracy, who starts a third state Senate term this week, discussed the election cycle and which one of them should run against DesJarlais.