This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told state lawmakers Tuesday that his department’s primary goal over the next two years is to make public schools here become “the fastest improving” in the United States. “We’ve put a stake in the ground that Tennessee should be No. 1 in rate-of-growth by 2015, and we are going to measure that on national assessments,” said Huffman, who became the Gov. Bill Haslam’s top education official in 2011. “We know that we aren’t going to go from 46th in absolute results to first in absolute results,” said Huffman.
Tennessee is one of five states to receive a federal grant to establish an Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence. The center will be located at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and operated in cooperation with the state Health Department. According to the department, the new center will allow Tennessee to improve food safety and its response to outbreaks of foodborne illness. The effort is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner said in a statement that the award recognizes the good work the state is doing to protect public health.
In an effort to improve the college completion rate and fend off new regulations, a commission of the nation’s six leading higher-education associations is calling for extensive reforms to serve a changing college population — one increasingly composed of older and part-time students. “This is the first time in the history of modern higher education in which all the communities have come together — community colleges, research institutions, public universities and small liberal arts colleges — and reached agreement that completion needs to be our most important priority,” said E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State University and chairman of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment.
The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security announced it will be installing 40 self-service kiosks where residents can renew or replace non-commercial driver licenses. Six of the kiosks will be located in Shelby County, according to a release, including one centrally located at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on Poplar Avenue. So far, 30 of the machines have been installed and the remaining 10 will be up and running by the end of February.
More information about the deaths of children who were known to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services must be made public, a judge ruled Wednesday. Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy ordered DCS to release copies of the forms agency employees fill out when a child dies. Those forms will provide more information than DCS has so far provided to The Tennessean, the judge wrote, including more about the cause of death, the department’s prior involvement with the children, results of prior contact and services provided to the children who later died.
The commute from her downtown high school to her home in East Brainerd should take Kelsi Hoffman about 20 minutes. Most days, it takes twice that or longer. The drive itself down Interstate 75 North is usually a straight shot. The snarls start at the exit to East Brainerd Road, where traffic bottlenecks into the curved, one-lane ramp to the point that it backs up onto the interstate at rush hour. “I will be sitting on that stretch waiting for a while,” said Hoffman. On Tuesday evening at rush hour, more than 50 cars snaked around exit 3A and into the emergency lane of the interstate — a precarious feature of the regular commute for East Brainerd residents.
Washington County’s Zoning Administrator’s Office and its staff have come through a state pilot program at the top of the class, becoming the first local government in Tennessee to qualify to administer its own stormwater permitting program. The bottom line is the new situation likely will help put revenue into the business three months faster, giving a startup company a better chance of survival. Residential contractors also should be able to begin building and selling lots up to three months faster, decreasing the amount of interest paid on the project.
Stating immediate action was imperative due to a history of looting, creditors of the firm blamed for a nationwide meningitis outbreak are moving to freeze and seize the assets of the company’s owners, including bank accounts, real estate and related firms. In a massive emergency motion filed Wednesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Massachusetts, lawyers for unsecured creditors of the New England Compounding Center sought the court’s permission to initiate action to seize and place in escrow all assets of the Conigliaro and Cadden families, owners of the firm.
A bill filed in the state Senate would end an automatic hotel allowance for lawmakers living within 50 miles of the Statehouse. Under current rules, every lawmaker receives $173 each day to offset meals and lodging while they are participating in legislative proceedings, regardless of whether they spend the night at a hotel. The bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin would eliminate the lodging allowance for lawmakers who live nearby. But it would continue to allow them to receive food money based on the current federal per diem rate, which is pegged at $66 in 2013.
Wants amendment to balance budget State Sen. Jim Tracy is calling for a congressional balanced-budget amendment at the same time Congress voted to push off a debt limit ceiling decision for nearly four months. Saying his constituents are frustrated with Congress, Tracy is sponsoring a resolution urging the federal body to pass a balanced-budget amendment. The state Legislature reconvenes Monday after taking a short break. “If Tennessee can do it, surely the federal government can do it,” said Tracy, a Shelbyville Republican.
Gov. Bill Haslam and two of his top commissioners are refusing to talk on the record with lawyers about how they decided to arrest Occupy Nashville protesters camped on War Memorial Plaza in 2011. In response to a motion by Attorney General Robert Cooper to spare the high-ranking officials from depositions, lawyers representing the protesters are urging a judge to force the trio to share details only they know about deciding on curfew rules that led troopers to make 54 arrests at an Occupy Nashville protest in two midnight police raids.
Memphis citizens could vote late this summer on a half-cent sales tax increase that would fund pre kindergarten expansion and lessen the property tax burden. Memphis Daily News reports two Memphis City Council members supporting and writing the legislation — Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland — revised the proposal to set the referendum for a summer date, in August or September. The council will vote on the resolution Feb. 5. The tax hike, which would bring Memphis’ sales tax rate to the highest point allowed under Tennessee law, would bring in about $47 million annually, of which $27 million would go to pre kindergarten programs.
Former state Sen. Roy Herron and his supporters say he has the votes at this point to be the new chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party as candidate after candidate for the post has dropped out. The race now is down to Herron and Dave Garrison, the party’s treasurer. Garrison has the support of Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero as well as the three other Democratic mayors of the state’s largest cities. Wade Munday, considered one of the leading contenders, is running instead for Garrison’s treasurer post and has endorsed Garrison.
Since 2008, former state senator, and current candidate for chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, Roy Herron has led the Ned McWherter Center for Rural Development. The center, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to Tennessee students, was created with a $900,000 state grant in 2008. The grant was part of that year’s state budget during Herron’s term as senator and while he was the president of the organization. But since that time, the center’s output has been minimal, according to tax records examined by The City Paper.
Rep. Jim Cooper’s “no budget, no pay” idea for Congress was included Wednesday in a House-passed bill to extend the ceiling on the national debt through May 18. Cooper, D-Nashville, last year got 79 House members and more than a dozen senators to endorse his idea that lawmakers should stop receiving their salaries if they do not resolve the federal budget for the next fiscal year by Oct. 1 of every fall. In the measure extending the debt ceiling Wednesday, House Republican leaders included a version of Cooper’s idea that calls for pay to lawmakers to stop if both chambers do not adopt a budget resolution by April 15.
House Republicans agreed Wednesday to suspend the nation’s debt ceiling after inserting the idea into a bill a Tennessee Democrat has been pushing for two years. But the No Budget No Pay Act was changed in the process. The measure sets a deadline for passing the budget. If it isn’t met, Congressional paychecks will be diverted into escrow accounts until a deal is struck. In the original bill, Nashville Democrat Jim Cooper says members would have lost that money for good. Still, Cooper was happy to see the idea gather momentum and pass.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker lived up to his reputation as a moderate Republican on Wednesday, probing but not slamming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing over last year’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Unlike various colleagues, Corker, the committee’s top Republican, didn’t say he would have fired Clinton or that her testimony was unacceptable in response to questions about the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that killed four Americans, including an ambassador. Tennessee’s junior senator suggested using the incident to modify America’s approach to North Africa and the Middle East.
Tennessee’s Bob Corker began his tenure today as the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was the first GOP senator to ask Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But Corker’s questions weren’t nearly as pointed as those asked by other Republican lawmakers. Corker has been a fierce critic of the Obama Administration’s response to Benghazi. His sharpest exchange with Secretary Clinton had to do with the State Department’s own probe into the attack.
When the Supreme Court convenes to hear same-sex marriage arguments this spring, it will confront a landmark civil rights case with societal and constitutional implications that could reverberate for years to come. But underlying the questions at stake will be even more far-reaching issues, ones that reflect the evolving relationships between Washington and the states and among the states themselves. In judging the rights of individuals to marry, the court could also wade into the very concept of states’ rights, and what that idea means for a federal government increasingly under siege by state lawmakers across the country.
Local automobile plant may also make batteries Nissan’s Smyrna complex could soon be making gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles — and the batteries for them — while also continuing to assemble the all-electric Leaf car and its lithium-ion battery packs. The No. 2 Japanese automaker won’t confirm reports of specific future products for its Smyrna operations, but the reports — from Japan and the recent Detroit auto show — suggest that at least two hybrid models might be on tap for the Smyrna auto assembly plant, and that the adjacent battery plant could provide the necessary battery packs.
German automaker Volkswagen on Wednesday flipped the on switch for a new solar park at its Tennessee assembly plant. The 33-acre installation next to the Chattanooga plant has a capacity to produce more than 13 gigawatt hours of electricity per year. That’s the equivalent of the amount of energy used by 1,200 area homes each year, according to Volkswagen. “We are proud to power up the biggest solar park of any car manufacturer in North America today,” Frank Fischer, the chairman and CEO of VW’s Chattanooga operations, said in a release.
Volkswagen’s new 33-acre solar park, the largest at any U.S. auto plant and the biggest array in Tennessee, adds another stamp to Chattanooga’s green card, officials said Wednesday. “It tells people there is an old industrial city that has gone from smokestacks to next-generation industrial technology,” said Mayor Ron Littlefield as the $25 million solar farm was officially switched on. Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW’s operations in Chattanooga, said officials had looked at using methane from the city’s landfill as an alternative energy source.
Hemlock Semiconductor LLC still isn’t calling the impending layoffs of nearly 300 Clarksville production workers “permanent,” but some of the latest signs and company language may be pointing to it. The layoffs officially take effect in mid-March, at least temporarily delaying the company’s Clarksville-based polycrystalline silicon production launch.
About 75 Nashville community leaders joined House Speaker Beth Harwell on Wednesday at a kickoff event for a group dedicated to improving the ACT scores of Nashville students. “Nashville Commits” is a partnership of leaders from government, businesses, religious communities and schools that hopes to triple the number of low-income students graduating from Metro schools ready to attend college or start a career by 2020. Scores on the ACT college entrance exam are the best measure of that readiness, said Jeremy Kane, a charter school founder and the man behind the Nashville Commits initiative.
The Metro Nashville Public Schools’ plan to deliver on promises to decentralize management and hand more power to school leaders begins with staff changes and doubling the number of principals who mentor their peers. That was the plan Director of Schools Jesse Register unveiled at the district’s central office Tuesday, adding he wants to reduce bureaucracy by “outsourcing” district staff into schools so far without layoffs. “This will drive performance up across our district,” said Register. “It’s time to pick up speed.”
The superintendent of Metro Schools is handing more control to a group of select principals. So-called “lead principals” will decide on their own about hiring and budgeting while mentoring leaders at other schools. The move is part of a push to streamline bureaucracy (PDF) in the district’s central office. Superintendent Jesse Register says it’s long bothered him when talented principals who are getting good results in their schools are promoted to the district’s headquarters. “I want them to stay in their schools but I want them to grow their influence. And we do that by having them work with networks of principals – about five, for each of them.”
A staff shakeup in the Metro Nashville Public School District’s main office — designed to reduce bureaucracy and give principals more authority — also is causing friction with city officials. Immediately after Metro’s Director of Schools Jesse Register announced changes on Wednesday, Councilwoman Emily Evans questioned the new structure and the selection of existing staff members to an executive management team. A large part of the main office streamlining is to reduce the number of managers who report directly to Register from 12 to six.
Ram Achanta scrambled out of a tent earlier this week and made his way to his minivan where he spent time warming up from his evening camping out at the Memphis City Schools district offices on Avery. Achanta, who camped out over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, faced below-freezing temperatures with other fathers, all waiting for the sake of their children’s future. In Achanta’s case, he was hoping to snag a spot at White Station Middle School. This year the line was noticeably thick with suburban residents, who for the first time got the same priority on open seats as city residents.
Countywide school board chairman Billy Orgel noticed lots of parents of school children from the county outside of Memphis at the annual camp-out for optional school enrollment over the long weekend. “Everybody got to enjoy being outside for four days,” Orgel said of what is a new experience for some parents as Shelby County’s two school systems merge. The optional schools enrollment process is the first part of the coming consolidation that parents are dealing with. Next month there will be the open enrollment process for available spaces at what are now separate city and county schools.
A front page story in Wednesday’s Jackson Sun, “Technology delivers blow to middle-class jobs,” should set off clanging alarms for everyone in Jackson and other West Tennessee communities, especially among those responsible for public education. Communities that don’t adapt to technology will be left behind. Students who don’t develop the skills needed for the modern workforce have little chance for future economic success. An Associated Press analysis of research on technology’s impact on jobs is startling. Half of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession paid annual middle-class wages of between $38,000 and $68,000. But only 2 percent of the 3.5 million jobs created since the end of the recession pay in that range.
You might wonder why it was necessary for legislators to introduces thousands of bills each session—before House Speaker Beth Harwell put a stop to the practice this year with a limit. The short answer is why not? It didn’t cost them anything, it was an easy way to please campaign supporters, lobbyists, and special-interest groups. And it was also a way to generate fodder for their next campaign brochure. Harwell limiting each legislator to 15 bills will prevent a lot of mischief. Lobbyists provide a useful function for the Legislature. They offer information to the part-time group with little research staff. Some of my best friends are lobbyists. But just as there are good and bad legislators, there are good and bad lobbyists.
The recent debate between gun control and gun rights has dragged nearly every organization into being a part of the debate, and that includes newspapers that have published lists of gun-permit holders in their communities. The reaction is not surprising. Across the nation, state legislators are trying to close off access to the records, including Tennessee, where state Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, is proposing legislation to seal records of registered gun owners in Tennessee. This is simply a bad law that has the potential to do more harm than good. Yes, the media may wish to search records to see if a person arrested for violent crimes or on weapons charges has a permit, but this isn’t really about the media. It is about public safety.
The drawing rooms of Georgetown and the New York and Los Angeles party circuits are undoubtedly abuzz with the much described “unapologetically progressive” inaugural speech of President Barack Obama. Tennessee Democrats must be wondering what anvil is going to next fall on them, and out of what window? As the national party has pursued policies that fit nicely in the blue state Massachusetts mentality of liberal politics, Tennessee Democrats have seen their fortunes sink like those of Solyndra, the solar company in which U.S. taxpayers lost somewhere between $500 million and $850 million.