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 25th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Dunavant to the Tennessee Medical Examiner Advisory Council, according to a news release. made the announcement of Dunavant’s appointment in December, at the same time as announcing the appointments of 152 Tennesseans to 58 state boards and commissions, the release said. “I appreciate the willingness to serve the state and the commitment of these men and women,” Haslam said in the release.
Gov. Bill Haslam has appointed Erlanger Health System President and CEO Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson to the Board of Appeals for East Tennessee. “In the thorough, aggressive search for candidates, your individual characteristics and professional qualifications were exceptional among the number of nominees who expressed interest,” Haslam wrote in his letter to Woodard-Thompson. Woodard-Thompson was one of only seven Chattanooga-area residents to receive a state appointment from the governor this year.
Gov. Bill Haslam has no public events scheduled this week as he prepares to deliver his annual State of the State address. The Republican governor has only attended four public events since the beginning the year, with each of them coming last week. Haslam has been keeping the details of his legislative agenda close to his vest, only giving fleeting details about his plans to introduce measures to create a school voucher program and to change workers’ compensation rules. The governor is scheduled to deliver the speech outlining his annual budget plan and his legislative proposals Monday.
The state is opening self-service kiosks that will allow drivers to renew or replace their driver licenses and state identification cards that will hopefully reduce lines and wait times. The kiosks will be installed at places like AAA offices or local government offices to cut down on wait times at driver centers. Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons will demonstrate one of the kiosks Tuesday at the AAA office in Cool Springs in Brentwood.
The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security is setting up more self-service stations across the state, a move that officials hope will reduce waits at driver service centers. The department announced Tuesday that it has installed 30 kiosks at AAA, driver service centers and local government offices where Tennesseans can renew or replace driver’s licenses and identification cards. The effort is meant to free up agents to handle more complex transactions, Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said.
Driver’s license renewal lines may get a little shorter soon. The Tennessee Department of Safety has opened 30 self-service kiosks, with ten more set to be installed in the next month or so. The machine takes credit or debit card payments for renewal fees and uses facial recognition technology to make sure the person in the booth matches the photo on record. Several are at existing license offices, but most are at locations intended to be more convenient, like local government offices or Triple-A branches. John Doyle works for the company that made the machines.
Enter a gas station and walk to the register, and you’ll often notice a common fixture: a clear case with rows and columns containing rolls of brightly colored pieces of paper that can mean different things to different people — entertainment, guilty pleasure, distraction, hope — all for as little as a dollar. The giant jackpots from Powerball and Mega Millions might grab the headlines, but year after year, it’s those rolls of instant scratch-off tickets that consistently bring big bucks into the Tennessee Lottery’s coffers. Nearly everything about the tickets — the color, the name, the design — is methodically planned and focus group-tested to better persuade customers to part with their cash.
A woman in Lincoln County is charged for the third time for TennCare “doctor shopping”, which is the crime of going from doctor to doctor in a short period of time to obtain prescriptions for controlled substances. The Office of Inspector General announced the arrest of 32-year-old Amber L. Watkins. A Giles County Grand Jury charged her with “doctor shopping” for the strong sleeping medication Ambien and using TennCare to pay for either the clinical visit or the prescription.
A recent Tennessee Supreme Court rule change that will make oral arguments from all of the state’s appeals courts available online has delivered a shock to some appeals court judges and family law attorneys. Under current rules, oral arguments from the Court of Appeals, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Supreme Court are available by request and for a nominal fee — usually about $20. But in a little-noticed policy change in the name of “transparency and openness of the courts” expected to take effect this spring, digital recordings of all oral arguments in appeals courts will be available online at no cost.
Music instructors, school librarians and many elementary school teachers could catch a break in their next review under legislation now in the works at the state Department of Education. Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told state lawmakers Tuesday that his staff is writing a bill that would reduce the importance of school-wide test scores in the evaluations of teachers who teach grades or subjects that are not measured with standardized tests. Under statewide education reforms passed in 2011, 35 percent of those teachers’ annual review had been determined using the average test scores of all the students at the school where they teach.
The controversial teacher evaluation system in its second year could soon change for thousands of Tennessee’s public school teachers. State education officials say the system can be unfair for art teachers and librarians. More than half of the state’s public school teachers are in subjects that lack a standardized test; that’s thousands of educators in areas from music to PE. Many are frustrated because instead a third of their evaluation comes from on their school’s overall test scores, which they can do relatively little to help.
Tennessee’s largest K-through-12 online school had to defend poor standardized test results to state lawmakers Tuesday. Tennessee Virtual Academy posted scores labeled “unacceptable” by the state. Sitting before the Senate Education Committee, academy head Josh Williams was asked why his online school – on a scale of one to five – ended up with a one. Tennessee Virtual Academy has more than 3,000 students, and they come from public school districts throughout the state, including Nashville. “I know some of the districts – and this is a rumor – that some of the districts would take some of the kids they thought would be bad for their scores and actually try to send them our way.”
The bill to come in the Tennessee Legislature that permits school vouchers will be built around the more than $9,000 in state funding per school child, in the case of Memphis, and the ability of parents to use it to move their child to a private school. State Sen. Brian Kelsey, who will sponsor the legislation backed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam as part of the administration’s legislative agenda, said the focus is on low-income families. “You see that most of these students end up going to (private) schools that focus on low-income children,” Kelsey said of the experience in other states with such voucher programs.
Several members of the Tennessee General Assembly are rewriting their gun legislation in response to White House calls for more gun control. A bill sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Faison bars state and local money from being spent to enforce any new federal law or executive order restricting guns. But President Obama actually proposed some things Faison agrees with last week, like being tougher on gun crime. So he’s revising the state legislation. “I wanted to leave it wide open. I knew he was going to do or say something before we came back out of recess.” Faison says his bill will single out any ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines.
Lobbyists at the state capitol remain in overdrive trying to find sponsors for their legislation before all the good ones were gone. A new cap on the number of bills that can be filed in the General Assembly is expected to alter how the legislature does business. And lobbyists are at the center of it all. “Instead of having five or six bills, we’re encouraging our clients to really pare down their want-list and really focus on what’s most important now,” says lobbyist Mark Greene, who represents health care organizations and is also represents the lobbyist association.
Under a plan introduced in City Council committee Tuesday, a free prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds in Memphis would be funded by a sales-tax increase. City Council members Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland on Tuesday introduced a resolution for a referendum to raise the local sales tax by one-half percent in order to fund prekindergarten classes and reduce property taxes. Under the plan Strickland and Flinn introduced in a council committee meeting, the sales tax would increase from 9.25 to 9.75 percent, to raise $47 million a year.
U.S. lawmakers unsure if federal rules would help U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper calls the inability of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to protect children and meet federal standards “embarrassing” and “tragic.” Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, said DCS has not released enough information about the deaths of children with whom the agency had prior dealings. Nor has the department sufficiently responded to the state’s Citizen Review Panels, which recommend measures for protecting children. “So many have died and we’re not even allowed to know about how or why,” Cooper said.
As the new top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker wants an immediate “top-to-bottom review” of the State Department. The former Chattanooga mayor’s first big moment as the No. 2 senator on the Democratic-led committee comes this morning as the panel questions Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The former first lady is appearing because of the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. “I personally have seen the security tape, and it’s … almost surreal to see how easily people came into the compound,” Corker said in a conference call with Tennessee reporters.
Tennessee’s U.S. senators have been named the top Republican members of two key committees. Sen. Bob Corker was named the ranking GOP member on the Foreign Relations Committee, while Sen. Lamar Alexander was elected by his colleagues to the same post on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The ranking member works with the Democratic chairman to represent the Republican interests on the panel. Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, was elected to his second six-year term in November.
Sen. Bob Corker’s elevation to become the ranking member — the top Republican — on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will give him the kind of high international profile on public policy that few Tennesseans have enjoyed. Corker, re-elected in November, will be the first Republican to ask outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday about the September terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. He will also be the top Republican during the confirmation hearings for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Obama administration’s nominee to replace Clinton, and other more controversial nominees for high-level foreign and national security policy posts in the new Obama administration.
What promises to be an eventful work week for the Senate Foreign Relations Commmittee in Washington began Tuesday with an announcement that U.S. Senator Bob Corker (D-TN) has ecome the ranking Republican member of the Committee. The Tennessee Republican has very prominently (and very unusually) worn two hats during his tenure in the Senate, which began with his election in 2006 over Democratic opponent Harold Ford Jr., then a Memphis congressman.
A draft of Pentagon proposals for force realignment obtained by the Leaf-Chronicle has stark implications for the local area depending on which of several options is adopted. The draft report, outlining possible changes to force structure and installation usage between 2013 and 2020, is mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which mandates that environmental impacts be assessed prior to undertaking any course of action. One proposal would result in the loss of approximately 8,000 soldiers at Fort Campbell. Under another alternative, the post could stand to gain as many as 3,000 soldiers.
With the national economy picking up and the housing market improving, states are poised in 2013 to finally rebound from the recession’s lingering revenue crunch. But continued budget delays in Washington may dampen that prospect. (See Stateline infographic.) For all the talk about the fiscal cliff, states already know what a free-fall in revenue feels like; they experienced one in the 2008-2009 recession. Back then, Washington bailed the states out, sending billions to help back-fill the massive deficits. Now states face the prospect of digging out of new budget holes created by belt-tightening in Washington.
The spillway tube at Fontana Dam looked like a giant ice-making machine Tuesday morning. The Tennessee Valley Authority is dropping the water level behind Fontana Dam at a rate of 1 foot per day because of runoff from the recent heavy rains. It works out to about 128,000 gallons of water per second — 71,000 gallons per second going through the turbine, and an additional 57,000 gallons per second sluicing through the dam and down a tube 34 feet in diameter, said Chuck Bach, TVA general manager of river scheduling.
After months of tension over the denial of a specific charter school, Metro school board members are questioning what they want from new charter applicants and how to find it. District officials said they have an opportunity to attract charter schools that could meet Metro Nashville Public Schools’ specific needs but faced questions over whether the district could be more proactive in seeking out schools they will want to approve. “I’m really tired of the them-versus-us mentality, and that’s got to stop,” Cheryl Mayes, the school board chairwoman, told the board Tuesday night at its regular workshop meeting.
Fifth-graders’ scores at Nashville Prep, Liberty top Metro scores, some state averages The two Nashville schools shepherded into business by the Tennessee Charter School Incubator are proving to be worth the investment of time and money, according to a report created by the organization and released today. Fifth-grade students at Liberty Collegiate Academy and Nashville Prep charter schools outperformed Metro Nashville fifth-graders in every subject, and beat the state average in a number of subjects during the last school year, according to the report.
Countywide school board members moved closer Tuesday, Jan. 22, to a calendar for the first year of the merger of Shelby County’s two public school system. The first day of classes for the merged school district would be August 5 with teachers returning to work on July 29. The dates are set in a proposed school year calendar board members reviewed Tuesday with a vote on the calendar set for the Tuesday, Jan. 29 school board meeting. The board also got its first look at a budget process unlike the budget process used in past years by either school board.
He mentioned economic development, Medicaid and health care, but improving Mississippi’s education system was at the heart of Gov. Phil Bryant’s State of the State speech Tuesday. Bryant’s reasoning was sound: A better-educated workforce attracts new and expanding industry, which means more and better jobs and an improved quality of life for Mississippians. “It is imperative that we remember what others have also known — the path to Mississippi’s economic success must pass through the schoolhouse door,” Bryant said.
With the legislature dramatically reducing the number of bills it can file this year, it should be easier than usual to make a list of the failed bills of recent years that should not be resurrected during the 108th General Assembly. Our lawmakers have a way of refusing to see the proverbial writing on the wall. So, year after year, a legislator will, for example, submit a bill to make motorcycle helmets optional, even though most people want them to remain mandatory; perhaps believing that enough fellow legislators in the intervening year reached the age where buying a motorcycle and pretending to be a “wild hog” will win them over. So it is with matters of public notice.
Jan. 20-26 is Public Notice Week. It is not a high-profile call to arms, but it should be. Public notices of government actions are a primary conduit of government transparency and citizen access to open meetings and government deliberations. Again this year, we expect legislative efforts to reduce availability of government public notices. It is an effort that should be vigorously opposed by informed lawmakers and the public. The real effort should be to expand access to public notices, not restrict it. As part of the Tennessee Sunshine Law passed by the General Assembly in 1974, every governing body is required to post advance notice of meetings and other actions. This is how the public is kept informed of what government bodies are doing, deliberating and acting on.
The Tennessee House of Representatives got off to a good start this month when it set a 15-bill limit for lawmakers this session. House Speaker Beth Harwell initially proposed a 10-bill limit to trim the mountain of legislation filed each year and save time and money for the Legislature and staff. Opponents argued that such a move would cut off free speech, limit debate and give professional lobbyists the upper hand over average Tennesseans. They make good points, because high-powered lobbyists shouldn’t be able to push their legislation ahead of ideas that could come from everyday folks. But Tennessee’s General Assembly was reaching the point of no return in regard to the thousands of ridiculous bills filed each year, many of which made the state the laughing stock of America and never had a chance to pass.
“Comic relief” is a creative device to distract momentarily the attention of an audience from a dramatic scenario involving terror, suspense or other stark happenings. State Rep. Joe Carr last week provided some comic relief in necessarily somber discussions about mass killings and responsible gun ownership. Carr, a Lascassas Republican, was one of several legislators in various states to propose a bill that if enacted would allow local law enforcement officers to arrest federal agents who tried to enforce proposed stricter federal gun-control laws. The immediate mental image after Carr’s comments was that of Deputy Barney Fife trying to arrest Eliot Ness after the G-man found his way to a Mayberry gun show. Although that is something of a mixed metaphor, it may be appropriate in trying to find some logic in Carr’s proposal.
There still are scores of parents who have a commitment to public schools. That commitment was evident in the lines and tents that sprang up in the chill of winter outside the Memphis City Schools Administration Building a few days ago, where parents waited day and night to get their children into the new unified school district’s optional programs. Billy Orgel, president of the Shelby County unified school board, said many of those parents were from the suburbs. We must say that there has got to be a better process for parents to apply to have their children enrolled in an optional program. It is unacceptable to expect parents — and the friends and family members who help by holding their places in line — to spend several days and nights outdoors in January.