This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam has appointed former state Rep. Richard Montgomery to the Board of Probation and Parole. Montgomery, a Sevierville Republican who chaired the House Education Committee last year, lost the August primary by 78 votes to Dale Carr in District 71. Montgomery’s term on the seven-member board will be for six years. He will be paid $93,700.
The 2013 Nissan Leaf is now being produced in Tennessee. Nissan announced in a news release Wednesday that production of the all-electric car had begun in Smyrna. The car is being built next door to the Nissan plant that produces the Leaf’s lithium-ion battery. The new Leaf features faster charging and what will likely be an extended driving range, although that will be determined by Environmental Protection Agency testing. In addition, 2013 will see a new, lower-priced entry-level Leaf S model. Meanwhile, the SV model adds enhancements such as a 7-inch color LCD screen and six-speaker audio system. The SL model will see leather-appointed seating and 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels.
Nissan is starting to build the Leaf at its plant in Smyrna. Until now the electric car was made exclusively in Japan. Nissan says producing it in Tennessee is part of a broader push to get 85 percent of U.S. sales made in America in the next few years. Mark Swenson oversees manufacturing for the company: “With the strength of the yen, it’s really hurtful for us to build it in Japan and sell it in the U.S. So the localized production of this product will mean we’ll be able to have more value for our company by having more locally produced parts and components for it here.”
Production of Nissan’s all-electric Leaf will begin this week at the car manufacturing giant’s Smyrna plant, Franklin-based Nissan North America announced today. The start of production plays into Nissan’s goal to manufacture 85 percent of its U.S. sales volume in North America by 2015, which could bring more than 1,000 manufacturing jobs to the region as demand and capacity ramp up. Already, 300 manufacturing jobs have been created at the Smyrna plant in anticipation of the Leaf. Most of these came from the opening of the company’s $1 billion battery plant last month, where the proprietary batteries that power the Leaf are produced.
Firings conveyed little explanation Two executive-level Department of Children’s Services staffers — whose duties at the agency included reviewing the deaths of children — were fired Tuesday. Dismissed were • Debbie Miller, 61, executive director of family and child well-being, who oversaw medical and behavioral health and education for children in custody and independent living for teens that age out of DCS custody; and • Alan Hall, 47, executive director of performance and quality improvement, who oversaw department policies, licensing and accountability, and who led the department’s internal audit.
The Tennessee House of Representatives is scheduled later this week to vote to limit the number of bills a chamber lawmaker can introduce or sponsor throughout the course of the session. The House Rules Committee on Tuesday approved a cap of no more than 15 bills per member. That was a 50 percent increase over what Speaker Beth Harwell had originally suggested. Harwell, who was unanimously re-elected as speaker Tuesday afternoon, said she wants to cut down on the staff time and taxpayer resources unlimited bill-filing has cost.
A law enforcement group on Wednesday voiced opposition to a legislative proposal to allow wine to be sold in grocery and convenience stores, with one police chief citing a recent high-profile alcohol abuse case at the University of Tennessee as a cautionary tale. More than 100 sheriffs and police chiefs have signed a petition by the coalition Tennessee Law Enforcement for Strong Alcohol Laws, calling on lawmakers to keep the current rules governing wine sales in place. Allowing stronger alcohol to be sold in grocery and convenience stores would make enforcing underage drinking laws more difficult and would come at a price for public safety, said Madison County Sheriff David Woolfork.
A group of Tennessee police officers urged lawmakers not to embrace a proposal to let grocery stores sell wine, fortifying their position ahead of a renewed push for the bill this year in the state legislature. Calling themselves Tennessee Law Enforcement for Strong Alcohol Laws, police chiefs, sheriffs and other officers from around the state held a news conference Wednesday to argue that changes to the state’s liquor laws could encourage binge drinking and divert police resources. They said letting supermarkets sell wine would mean letting corner grocers and convenience stores sell the product as well.
More than 100 Tennessee sheriffs and police chiefs, including Knoxville’s Chief David Rausch, have declared their opposition to legislation that would allow the sale of wine in grocery stores. Raush and several other law-enforcement officers, part of a “Tennessee Law Enforcement for Strong Alcohol Laws” coalition, declared at a Legislative Plaza news conference that they see wine sales in groceries and supermarkets as weakening control over alcohol sales and causing an expansion of underage drinking.
Many of the state’s police chiefs and sheriffs oppose wine being sold in grocery stores and corner markets. They say they have enough alcohol-related incidents as it is. Perceived momentum to loosen Tennessee’s liquor laws has interest groups on the offensive. They include the state’s 600 liquor stores, who don’t want the increased competition. Liquor lobbyists also helped organize a coalition of likeminded law enforcement officials. Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch says alcohol already causes widespread problems. He gives the example of a UT frat party where a student nearly died from ingesting boxed wine through his rectum, known as “butt chugging.”
Five days after Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips joined other Tri-Cities elected officials in urging lawmakers to pass legislation allowing wine sales in Tennessee grocery stores, it’s now learned that the Model City’s head police officer signed a pledge opposing the bill. The Tennessee Law Enforcement for Strong Alcohol Laws coalition announced KPD Chief Gale Osborne’s support of their cause in a Wednesday press release.
A Rutherford County sheriff says he would support letting teachers carry guns in schools – within certain limitations. State lawmakers are talking about arming teachers so they can fight back against a school shooter. Districts that can’t afford much extra security are of particular interest to some lawmakers wanting to arm teachers. Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold isn’t ruling it out, pointing to teachers who have experience in law enforcement or the military.
Democrats are trying to stay part of the lawmaking process, despite being outnumbered by more than two to one. In the state Senate, the minority party is trying to force meetings to be held in public. The two-thirds majorities Republicans have mean they could debate behind closed doors, then pass almost anything without a single Democrat. So Sen. Jim Kyle, the minority leader from Memphis, says party strategy sessions – called “caucus meetings” – should be open to the public. “We will become relevant and we are relevant if we are right. And we are right in demanding open government.”
The convening of the state legislature this week has attracted the usual lobbyists and advocacy groups. There are some new faces at the capitol, including a controversial figure in public education. Former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is meeting face-to-face with lawmakers. During most of the legislative session, she says carrying the load will be local members of her organization “StudentsFirst,” which claims 40,000 members in Tennessee. “You have to have the constituents who are actually voting for these politicians come to them and say, ‘education is a priority for me. I am going to watch how you vote on this bill.’”
Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess is asking Tennessee legislators to push federal lawmakers toward legislation allowing states to require collection of Internet sales tax. Burgess, a second-term Republican, told Rutherford County’s legislative delegation recently that Internet sales revenue is outpacing local sales tax collections to the detriment of local government services. Growth in local sales taxes is less than 1 percent, while Internet sales are seeing double-digit increases, he said during the annual meeting of legislators with the Rutherford County Steering, Legislative and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Tennessee state Rep. Timothy Hill is holding three town hall meetings with constituents. The meetings are a chance for community members to express their concerns about state government with the representative. “I’m encouraging everyone in the 3rd House District to come out and let their voices be heard” Hill said. “During our meetings, we will discuss the issues that will face the 108th General Assembly, but the main focus is to hear the concerns and thoughts that are on the minds of my constituents.”
After several weeks of confusion and miscommunication among Chattanooga City Council and county election officials, an attempt to increase the number of early voting sites in the county has died for lack of support. During a meeting Wednesday, Hamilton County Election Commissioner James Anderson pushed support for the City Council’s unanimous request to add two extra early voting sites — one at the Bethlehem Center in Alton Park and another in Lookout Valley. The council backed off the issue, after Election Administrator Charlotte Mullis-Morgan said there would not be any extra sites because of Internet availability and the possibility of favoritism.
The effort to overturn Pigeon Forge’s controversial liquor by the drink referendum got a big boost on Wednesday when election officials said they could no longer support the validity of the vote. Moreover, the Sevier County Election Commission declared the results of the Nov. 6 vote are “incurably uncertain,” and instructed their lawyer Dennis Francis to stipulate that to Chancellor Telford Forgety today, when a trial over the election is scheduled to begin. The phrase “incurably uncertain” is a legal one that carries significant weight in cases that challenge an election result.
An often divided Shelby County Commission drew closer Wednesday as most members criticized the $4.5 million to $6.5 million settlement agreement reached between Juvenile Court and the U.S. Department of Justice without a vote from the commission. The justice department found, after a three-year study, systemic discrimination in how African-American children and other children were treated when accused of the same crime and with the same record, including transfers to adult court.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander proposed shifting the burden of Medicaid entirely onto the shoulders of the federal government in a speech Wednesday to Tennessee lawmakers. The Republican senator said he would file a bill that would take away states’ responsibility to fund a portion of Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, in exchange for taking on more of the cost of public education and other expenditures. Alexander said he first came up with the plan three decades ago while governor of Tennessee. With Medicaid set to expand under the Affordable Care Act and health care costs continuing to rise, the idea should be revisited, he said.
Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander on Wednesday called for a “grand swap” in which the federal government would pay for Medicaid entirely while states took sole responsibility for education and possibly other program receiving federal funds In an address to a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly, Alexander said his plan resurrects a proposal he made as governor 30 years ago to then-President Ronald Reagan. While Reagan liked the idea and included it in a State of the Union address, Alexander recalled, “of course it went nowhere” in Congress.
Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander says the federal government should be fully responsible for Medicaid, which provides health care for the poor. And he’s willing to make a trade. Alexander floated the idea during a speech to the state’s General Assembly. Most of Alexander’s address was about how he trusts states to handle programs more than the federal government. But not Medicaid. And he says now is the time for Washington to take full control, as states are considering whether to expand the program as envisioned under Obamacare.
Befitting the pragmatic construction man he was in a far-off life and the equally pragmatic mayor of a grubby-collared industrial town he was in a less-far-off one, Sen. Bob Corker rarely minces his words. Which isn’t to say he is brusque — he is not — but when he has a spell of loquaciousness, it’s usually in service of explanation rather than equivocation. After weeks on the Sunday wonk-show circuit calling for a comprehensive deal on the so-called fiscal cliff, the Republican — like many of his colleagues who had expressed similar misgivings — cast a vote in favor of the deal hashed out by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
To better protect its diplomatic personnel abroad, the United States must better evaluate the commitments of host nations’ to keeping American embassies and consulates secure, Rep. Scott DesJarlais said during a tour of the Middle East Wednesday. DesJarlais, R-Jasper, is one of seven members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee inspecting security arrangements for State Department personnel in the region as part of its ongoing inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that left Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others dead.
The demand for four-year college degrees is softening, the result of a perfect storm of economic and demographic forces that is sapping pricing power at a growing number of U.S. colleges and universities, according to a new survey by Moody’s Investors Service. Facing stagnant family income, shaky job prospects for graduates and a smaller pool of high-school graduates, more schools are reining in tuition increases and giving out larger scholarships to attract students, Moody’s concluded in a report set to be released Thursday.
Pilot program focuses on more efficient lighting Knoxville businesses have an opportunity to save money on light bills and get up to $2,000 in incentives toward more efficient lighting under a new TVA/KUB program. The Tennessee Valley Authority launched its MainStreet Efficiency pilot program Monday, and the Knoxville Utilities Board is offering some small-business customers a chance to take part. Eligible customers are those with a contract demand of no more than 50 kilowatts. Participating customers get a free lighting assessment of their facility, to show how much they could save on energy costs each month with more efficient lighting.
Rae Hutchins’ best-selling cigar is from Nicaragua, but most of her customers are locals. That’s why the owner of Thomas Tavern Gifts & Smoke Shop, in downtown Dandridge, is so excited about the possibility of an industrial megasite coming to Jefferson County. “If we create middle-class jobs, we’re going to all benefit from it,” she said. Officials in Jefferson County couldn’t agree more. On Wednesday, they announced an ambitious plan to prepare a certified industrial megasite that could be marketed to automakers or other large manufacturers.
An accelerated string of industrial expansions in Clarksville-Montgomery County continues this week with an announcement that Akebono Brake Corp. is adding 94 jobsin its $82 million plant addition. Currently, Akebono – a key tenant of the Corporate Business Park near exit 4 of Interstate 24 – employs around 503 people at an average wage of about $17 per hour, officials said during the company’s formal announcement early Wednesday at the monthly meeting of the Clarksville-Montgomery County Industrial Development Board.
With the state and Shelby County’s suburban municipalities adding this week to their legal arguments on municipal school districts, at least one suburban mayor is optimistic that ongoing negotiations with the County Commission and Memphis City Council can yield a schools structure attractive to suburban citizens. Citing confidentiality agreements, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald avoided specific details of terms being discussed, but sought to reassure residents anxious about the future of public education in the suburbs as Shelby County Schools completes its merger with Memphis City Schools in time for next school year.
The countywide school board meets in special session Thursday, Jan. 10 to take up 10 more recommendations on the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems. The recommendations are the latest to go to the board from a steering committee composed of administrators from both school systems. The steering committee is making its recommendations on the set of merger recommendations made last August by a consolidation planning commission.
Blount County authorities confiscated several “one-pot” method methamphetamine labs at two separate locations Wednesday night. The Blount County Sheriff’s Office initially was called about 5:30 p.m. to Arabian Lane, where a resident reported a suspicious bag she found in a field behind her home, according to a news release from the Sheriff’s Office. “The nylon bag contained several precursors used to manufacture methamphetamine,” according to the release. “Evidence shows meth was cooked recently. Narcotics investigators inventoried and neutralized the ingredients.”
The convening this week of a new Tennessee Legislature has, unfortunately, already turned into a dismal prospect. Tennessee’s Republican rulers, heady with the novelty of super-majorities in both chambers and no need to consider opposing voices, appear ready to flex their muscle by shoveling retrograde education policies down our school systems’ throats. Three of their legislative proposals illustrate their delusional vision of how to cure the state’s educational shortcomings on the cheap. Some, for example, want to impose charter schools, a proven failure at solving school problems. Others are lining up to dictate untenable ways to kill off “failing schools” instead of providing additional resources to help their under-prepared and under-achieving students.
“We don’t grade on a curve,” Michele Rhee said of the C-minus grade that her organization, Students First, gave Tennessee on its first State Policy Report Card. The C-minus (1.75 on their scale) earned the state a ranking of 11th, which is better relative performance than we get on student achievement rankings or other measurements of educational commitment. Students First is an educational advocacy group that is pushing for more choice to students, more power to parents and more accountability for educators and policymakers. Its report card, released this week, is another in a series of salvos Rhee’s group is making to advance its agenda.
The race for Congress is on, and this time state Sen. Jim Tracy made sure he got out of the Republican gate fast enough to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais. When Tracy previously decided to run for Congress in December 2009, he waited until the day former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon announced retirement plans that would come about a year later at the end of a 26th year as a Democratic congressman from Murfreesboro. Prior to Tracy’s announcement in 2009, past Rutherford County Republican Party Chairwoman Lou Ann Zelenik had already let it be known she was running to capture the seat. Tracy, a Shelbyville insurance agent who represents much of Rutherford County, was slow to get out of the gate and ended up playing catch-up to Zelenik and others, including retired Army Gen. Dave Evans, who resides in Tracy’s Bedford County.