This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee revenue collections for December came in stronger than the same month a year before. Finance and Administration Commissioner Mark Emkes reported today that state revenue collections for December were $982.2 million, which is 1.71% above December 2011. December sales tax collections represent consumer spending that occurred in November. “Total revenues in December were higher than expected due to over collections in the sales and corporate tax categories,” Emkes said.
Drug dealers who make methamphetamine have little trouble skirting legal obstacles in Tennessee. A new comptroller’s study looks at a database lawmakers created two years ago, meant to block criminals from buying multiple boxes of pseudoephedrine – the cold drug that’s a key ingredient to making meth. This past fall police were still finding about 150 meth labs around the state each month. The study says dealers may recruit others to help gather supplies, use fake IDs or cook smaller batches of the drug more often.
The law catches the cooks but can’t stop them — not so far. Enhanced electronic tracking of ingredients at the pharmacy counter has made barely a dent in Tennessee’s methamphetamine production, according to a study released Thursday by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office. The findings echo repeated complaints and criticism of the system by law enforcement officers statewide. “We do appreciate the comptroller’s efforts and their hard work,” said Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force. “They didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, but not everybody lives it like we do every day. The facts are there and speak for themselves.”
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services fired two executive officers on Tuesday — the same day the agency faced The Tennessean and other media outlets in court about access to child fatality records. DCS Executive Director of Performance and Quality Alan Hall “was separated” from the state agency on Tuesday, according to DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth. Executive Director of Family and Child Well-Being Debbie Miller lost her job as part of an ongoing restructuring of the department.
‘It is well past time that we have a full accounting of problems,’ he says One of the state’s top-ranking lawmakers has called for an immediate investigation into the Department of Children’s Services, saying the matter is urgent and citing the department’s refusal to release records concerning the deaths of children in its care. Thirty-one Tennessee children died in the first half of 2012 after coming to the attention of the state’s child protective agency. On Thursday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner sent letters to Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — the state’s top three Republican leaders — requesting an investigation into the $650 million agency.
House Democrats are asking the Republican legislative leaders, Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, to investigate why the Department of Children’s Services refuses to release records relating to abuses and deaths of children in its care. “The mission of the Department of Children’s Services is too important for them to operate in secrecy,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “It is well past time that we have a full accounting of problems within the agency, so we can determine how best to move forward and fix them.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner is calling for a special meeting to investigate the Department of Children’s Services’ refusal to release records related to the abuse and death of children under its care. Turner sent the request for the joint government operations committee to Gov. Bill Haslam, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell, all Republicans. The Tennessean newspaper and a group of Tennessee news organizations, including The Associated Press, have asked a judge to open records from the department.
‘Those are real people, real families whose lives have been devastated. It makes you think twice.’ To Jennifer Leonard, the interstate signs flashing highway fatality statistics are not just morbid numbers. One of them is her sister. Leonard was driving her routine commute from Franklin to Nashville on the frigid morning of Feb. 22 last year, when traffic came to an abrupt halt before she passed the Harding exit. A deadly wreck had traffic at a standstill. Leonard didn’t take it personally. Until she was forced to. She did what all of us do: worry she would be late for work, wonder if she would have better luck getting off the interstate. Then her father called her cellphone.
A state legislator who once proposed banning nearly all advertising for the Tennessee Lottery now is trying a different tack: a warning label. Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, filed a bill Thursday that would require all lottery advertising to prominently include this notice: “Warning: You will probably lose money playing the lottery.” If enacted, it could make Tennessee the first state lottery with a warning label. Summerville said his goal is to make consumers more aware of their chances of winning. “We have warnings on cigarettes, and we should have warnings about lottery tickets,” he said. “States that sponsor gambling should fully disclose the risks.”
State lawmakers have now been assigned committees. And Republican leaders say the makeup of some panels was tailored around specific issues. One Senate committee is stacked in a way that Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says it will likely act on a perennial issue that has gotten stuck in the committee process. “Wine in grocery stores is one that I feel passionate about. And I think with the committee we appointed we will have at least a fighting chance of getting it out.” Ramsey says it was also important to get someone who sees eye-to-eye with him on selecting judges.
Two Hamilton County Republican lawmakers moved up in state House ranks Thursday as a result of new committee assignments made by House Speaker Beth Harwell. Rep. Vince Dean, of East Ridge, is now chairman of the House Transportation Committee, a position he has eyed for several years. Harwell tapped Rep. Richard Floyd, of Chattanooga, as vice chairman of the newly created Local Government Committee. Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican Senate speaker, announced the committee assignments Thursday.
Tennessee legislative session sees smaller Shelby delegation The Shelby County legislative delegation to Nashville returned to the capital Tuesday, Jan. 8, with three fewer members – one state senator and two state representatives – all Democrats – but with no new faces. After 2012 redistricting that eliminated the three seats and a turbulent 2012 primary election season last August, incumbents Mike Kernell and Jeanne Richardson in the House and Beverly Marrero in the Senate did not return as the House and Senate were gaveled to order for the new session.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey on Thursday replaced the chairwoman of the powerful judiciary committee with a key ally, while some opponents of a proposal to allow wine sales in grocery stores lauded committee assignments in the lower chamber. Ramsey removed Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet as the head of the judiciary committee, replacing her with Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown. All three are Republicans. Beavers said her efforts to ramp up accountability for judges may have had a role in her losing her leadership post.
The Tennessee General Assembly is in session and on Thursday, senators received their committee assignments. “The most important job I have as speaker of Senate is appointing the committees that hear and deliberate the legislation before us as representatives of the people of Tennessee,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who made the assignments. “Placing the right people in the right places is crucial to making sure not only that good legislation rises to the top but that all legislation gets a fair hearing.”
Two Northeast Tennessee House GOP lawmakers were named Thursday to chair two key committees. State Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, will chair the Civil Justice Committee, while state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, will chair the Local Government Committee. State Rep. Mike Harrison, R-Rogersville, will again chair the House Finance subcommittee, while state Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, will chair the Criminal Justice subcommittee. Freshman state Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, was appointed to serve on the House Business and Utilities Committee and Calendar and Rules Committee.
Republican leaders capped the number of bills lawmakers can introduce in the state House of Representatives and shook up the committees in both chambers, moves that could strengthen their hold over the General Assembly. House Speaker Beth Harwell won approval for plans to reorganize committees and to bar members from asking others to cast votes for them when they are absent. House lawmakers also agreed to limit each member to 15 bills a year, despite opposition from members who described the cap as an effort to muzzle them.
The House on Thursday approved a 15-bill cap on the number of bills members can file annually. Deputy Speaker Steve McDaniel, R-Lexington, said the move will help streamline the legislative process and save taxpayers money. But Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, likened the move by the Republican majority to measures imposed by Russia or communist governments. “I see more censorship and draconian tactics … to stop the members from discussing what they want to talk about,” he said. Republican critics this week charged the caps would benefit Gov. Bill Haslam.
Tennessee law enforcement officials who claimed grocery and convenience stores do a poorer job of following alcohol laws than liquor stores couldn’t back that up with statistics on Thursday. More than 100 sheriffs and police chiefs across the state signed a petition expressing their concerns about a measure that would allow wine in grocery and convenience stores. Seventeen of them discussed those concerns with reporters on Wednesday. Two who signed the petition acknowledged later they based their assertions on anecdotal evidence.
Here’s a daisy chain for you: State Senator Reginald Tate, who represents District 33 in southern Shelby County, has long had various Democratic members of the county’s legislative delegation privately chafing on account of Tate’s GOP-friendly votes and close relations with Republican legislators, including Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, the Senate’s Speaker. During debate on 2011’s Norris-Todd bill and subsequent measures favoring the creation of suburban municipal school districts in Shelby County, Tate did not join other inner-city Democrats in opposition.
The controversial former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools is hopscotching the country this month, dropping in as state legislatures reconvene for the year. Michelle Rhee is using a political machine to push dozens of policy points from Missouri and Ohio to Georgia and Tennessee. Rhee is probably the most well known ex-superintendent in the country. This week PBS Frontline ran a documentary about her time as D.C. chancellor. She was treated a bit like a rock star, even on the playground.
Shelby County will ask the state to take over the vehicle emissions-testing program now run by the city of Memphis, making it all but certain that local motorists will pay a fee for the annual service, county Mayor Mark Luttrell said Thursday. The change will occur with the start of the next fiscal year on July 1, when a recent City Council decision to quit funding the inspection program takes effect. But it has yet to be determined whether the testing will be required only for Memphis motorists, as it is now, or extended to areas outside the city.
Memphis City Councilman Jim Strickland is an unlikely candidate to be selling a sales tax increase. He’s the only member of the current council to never have supported a tax hike, including one last fall for prekindergarten. He does now because his plan comes with a guarantee: The money will positively be used to fund prekindergarten and give landowners a break on property taxes. “The public will know for sure what they are getting,” Strickland told The Commercial Appeal. Under the plan Strickland and Councilman Shea Flinn introduced this week, the sales tax would increase from 9.25 to 9.75 percent, raising $47 million a year.
New, tougher work search requirements haven’t resulted in many jobless Tennesseans being kicked off unemployment yet, state figures show. Fewer than 800 people have lost their benefits because they did not look for work or provided no evidence that they did so as required, according to figures from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. That’s just 6 percent of the more than 13,000 verification checks the agency has done in the past three months. Supporters are calling the effort an early success despite the low violation rate, citing state estimates that it has saved taxpayers at least $185,000 so far.
Marking Nashville’s first significant governmental response to the Newtown, Conn., school-shooting massacre, Metro officials appear ready to spend $5.5 million to implement new school safety measures. Mayor Karl Dean, in a letter to the school board Thursday, endorsed a wish list of spending that school officials requested the previous day to pay for a handful of safety measures. He urged the board to immediately reallocate already approved capital funds set aside for building and infrastructure improvements and vowed to make it whole during the budget process this spring.
A proposal to staff each Rutherford County school with at least one full-time school resource officer could come to fruition, but it may not be until fall. “We need to do it,” County Commissioner Robert Peay Jr. said during a Budget, Finance & Investment Committee meeting Thursday. “I’m going to push for it. I think it’s a good thing. Our teachers feel more secure about it.” “I think it’s something we can (implement) in the fall,” Commissioner Steve Sandlin added. “(But), it needs to go through the budget process.”
Dr. Kriner Cash resigned as superintendent of Memphis City Schools Thursday night, leaving Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken with the lead role in the merger of the two districts. The resignation was announced at a special called meeting of the unified school board by board attorney Dorsey Hopson, who said he had been approached about the issue several weeks ago, initiating negotiations with Cash’s attorney. “To Dr. Cash’s credit, his thoughts were that we had reached a point in the merger where the board probably needed to have … one person issuing directions in relation to the merger,” Hopson said.
Countywide school board members approved Thursday, Jan. 10, a severance package that ends Kriner Cash’s tenure as superintendent of Memphis City Schools. Cash will remain through the end of July as an employee in an advisory capacity. At the end of July he gets six months of regular pay and $17,000 in moving and legal expenses as well as a letter of recommendation from the school system. Memphis City Schools attorney Dorsey Hopson said Cash approached him late last year about working out a “severance package.”
For many reasons, Austin Peay State University – the centerpiece of higher education in Clarksville-Montgomery County and northern middle Tennessee – is emerging as a campus symbolizing the fresh, new and innovative future of higher education in the state. Physical changes on campus are visibly at the forefront of APSU’s forward progress. For many colleges and universities, upgrades in the athletic department tend to symbolize this with the greatest fanfare, and APSU is no exception with its planned makeover of Governors Stadium. But the changes reflecting rapid student population growth and APSU’s coming-of-age are actually visible all over the downtown campus.
The concept of education vouchers in Tennessee seems quite simple on the face. Take children out of failing schools and send them somewhere else, either to a private school or better public school. But this idea, which is being pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam, gives rise to more problems than it solves. It also raises a philosophical debate that likely will never die. Late economist Milton Friedman backed the idea of government-funded vouchers in each state to let all parents choose their school of choice. It would be the first step toward privatization of public education. This sort of proposal might look good on paper, but it must be able to work in reality, too. And Tennessee legislators who believe vouchers can solve the state’s K-12 ills would be hiding their heads in the sand.
I was catching up with a friend of mine, Branden, who told me about someone who left an unforgettable impression on him. Brandon told me about Tom, a patient of his. Tom is a 54-year-old farmhand. He is solidly built, with leathery skin and hulking hands from all his days working the fields. As tough as he is, he came into the hospital complaining of severe belly pain, nausea, vomiting, and the inability to use the bathroom. Tom gave a history, received a careful physical exam and underwent some tests. The medical team found a mass in Tom’s bladder, and, unfortunately, he was diagnosed with cancer.Hope was not lost. His medical team came up with a plan that included surgery and radiation, but Tom was drowning in medical bills. High premiums made insurance too expensive for Tom to buy individually.
The shell game that Republicans play on health care costs, and who gets the bill, is seemingly never ending. Tennessee’s senior U.S, senator, Lamar Alexander, dipped into that dodge once again Wednesday when he made a pitch to the new state Legislature for the “grand swap” idea that he originally proposed when he was Tennessee’s governor and Ronald Reagan was president. His swap proposes to have the federal government take over all the costs of Medicaid, the health insurance program provided for Americans below or just a bit above the federal poverty level. In return, Alexander’s pan would have states picking up all their education costs, and current federal funding for schools would be eliminated. That’s hardly a grand idea. It would reward states with a new pot of money for all the harm that have done to their citizens on the health care front.
Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker apparently are so worried about political cronyism that they can’t read the well-qualified resume of Dr. Marilyn Brown, former chair of the TVA board, with clear eyes and sound minds. Last week the Republican duo convinced their fellow senators to deny Brown’s reappointment to the board, saying in a joint statement: “We respect her professional credentials, but we encourage the president to send another nominee with credentials better suited to the TVA board.” They have declined requests to clarify what those credentials might be. That’s important because Brown, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has some amazing experience that it would be hard to best.
The wisdom of Washington again ensures taxpayer dollars will be well spent, the environment will be protected and that paragon of progressivism, the Tennessee Valley Authority, will continue to enjoy stellar leadership by the best of the best. Just after America avoided a free fall off the fiscal cliff, the U.S. Senate confirmed three new members to the TVA board of directors. President Barack Obama again showed his brilliance by nominating an accountant, an attorney and a beer salesman to the board of the $11 billion electric utility formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yes, dear reader, you are correct: not one of those nominees has one second of experience leading anything nearly as large and complex as TVA.
The research is in and it contains great news. The work of good teachers can be measured and always makes a difference. These are the promising, important conclusions drawn by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation after studying three years of test scores and reviewing results of 3,000 classroom observations in Memphis City Schools. Results of the Gates research were released in Memphis a few days. The massive review of thousands of MCS test scores and the classroom observations clearly show that the best teachers can move the academic needle even among the most challenged student populations. So the path ahead toward improving schools is now much clearer. Measure and reward teacher performance on the basis of real results in the classroom.
It is no secret that the United States spends a lot more on health care than any other country yet ranks far behind other advanced nations in keeping its citizens healthy. This has been well documented in studies of older people and of newborn infants. It is now shockingly clear that poor health is a much broader and deeper problem than past studies have suggested. An authoritative report issued by the Institute of Medicine this week found that, on average, Americans experience higher rates of disease and injury and die sooner than people in other high-income countries. That is true at all ages between birth and 75 and for even well-off Americans who mistakenly think that top-tier medical care ensures that they will remain in good health.