This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
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.
With its nationally recognized aerospace program as a focal point, Middle Tennessee State University has joined with other groups in the establishment of an agreement in principle this week to work together to help train Chinese pilots on their new Beechcraft King Air 350 Extended Range airplane currently housed in Smyrna. Along with state Sen. Bill Ketron, a Republican from Murfreesboro, officials from MTSU, the Civil Aviation Authority in China, China-based Flying Dragon General Aviation Co. Ltd., Franklin-based PacUS LLC and Smyrna-based Corporate Flight Management announced the agreement Thursday during a morning meeting in the new Student Union Building.
Gov. Bill Haslam picked a longtime adviser from his days as Knoxville mayor to examine repeated problems within the Department of Children’s Services. In an emailed announcement Thursday evening, Haslam named his former deputy Larry Martin — currently serving as special adviser in the governor’s office — to conduct a “thorough analysis” of the $650 million child protection agency. “I’ve told Larry that he has the full weight and resources of this office as he carries out this mission,” Haslam said in the prepared statement.
Gov. Haslam appoints special adviser after more problems surface at DCS More Tennessee children died in state custody during the past two years than what state officials have been saying for months, according to information revealed Thursday, prompting Gov. Bill Haslam to appoint a senior adviser to probe problems with the Department of Children’s Services. The appointment was the latest move after a flurry of activity on Thursday, when DCS: • Admitted it failed to account for nine deaths of children in custody in 2011 and 2012; …
Nashville drivers are being warned that overnight freezing rain could turn the Friday morning commute into an icy mess. “Nashville’s morning rush hour could be treacherous,” said Jason Wright, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Nashville. “Don’t travel if you don’t have to.” Forecasters were predicting a sloppy, freezing rain to begin falling around midnight, continuing until late Friday morning. Worst of all, Wright said, the Nashville area eastward to about Cookeville could see up to two-tenths of an inch of ice accumulate on roads, branches and power lines, threatening a variety of hazards around town.
Unemployment increased in most Tennessee counties in December, the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development reported today. Unemployment increased in 93 counties, primarily due to normal seasonal employment declines, according to a state news release. Davidson County’s unemployment rate increased to 6.2 percent in December, up from 5.7 percent the month prior. Williamson County still has the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 5 percent, up from 4.4 percent in November.
Employers in metropolitan Chattanooga added nearly 2,400 jobs last year to end 2012 with the lowest December jobless rate in five years. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Employment Security reported Thursday that unemployment in the six-county Chattanooga area last month was 7.2 percent, or 0.4 percent below both the comparable state and national rates for December. Although the jobless rate last month was up from the November rate of only 6.4 percent, most of the change was from seasonal factors such as tourist attractions, manufacturers and schools reduced hiring at the end of the year.
Knox County’s unemployment rate increased to 5.7 percent in December, up from 5.2 percent in November, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Thursday. Statewide the rate decreased in two counties and increased in 93 primarily due to normal seasonal employment declines. County unemployment rates are not seasonally adjusted and reflect seasonal employment changes from month to month, the department said in a news release. Despite the increase, Knox County still had the lowest jobless rate of the state’s major metropolitan markets.
The Memphis metro area’s unemployment rate spiked nearly a full percentage point in December, reversing a downward trend the area enjoyed through the latter half of 2012. The Memphis MSA’s unemployment rate was 8.6 percent last month, up from 7.7 percent in November, according to data released Thursday by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.November had represented the lowest rate for the metro area since 2008. A year ago, in December 2011, the metro area’s rate was 8.9 percent.
State officials aren’t expected to decide whether to extend James White Parkway until after April, according to a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation. “An analysis of the public hearing transcript and all comments received up to Jan. 4 are being evaluated,” TDOT regional spokesman Mark Nagi said. “A decision regarding the future of this project is estimated within the second quarter of this year.” Hundreds of interested people gathered Dec. 6 at South Doyle Middle School to review three proposed routes for the road that now ends at Moody Avenue in South Knoxville.
Fueled in part by concerns over new gun restrictions, the firearms market in Tennessee is booming. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, December was a record-breaking month for background checks for gun purchases, with more than 82,000 background checks run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), beating out the previous record of 52,259 in December 2011. For the calendar year 2012, more than 460,000 background checks were run in Tennessee. It was, by far, the largest number of background checks performed in Tennessee since 1998, the first year NICS was in use.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is holding a town hall meeting in Chattanooga with state Rep. Eric Watson to discuss human trafficking in Tennessee. The meeting on Friday will be held at the Development Resource Center and comes shortly after police in Chattanooga made an arrest in what officials say was the first reported case of sex trafficking in Hamilton County. A 21-year-old Baltimore woman said she was held against her will by a man who took her to Tennessee and North Carolina to work as a prostitute.
Freshman state Rep. Jeremy Durham has filed a House bill seeking to block Tennessee from expanding Medicaid under the federal health care overhaul. Durham noted the experience of TennCare, the state’s expanded Medicaid program that was plagued by out-of-control costs until former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen made deep cuts to enrollment and benefits in 2005. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has not said whether he will pursue Medicaid expansion, which hospitals say would make up for heavy losses from changes in federal reimbursements.
A Republican House member and 21 colleagues on Thursday introduced legislation that would bar Tennessee from participating in the expansion of Medicaid called for under the federal Affordable Care Act. Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, said Tennessee taxpayers “cannot afford the long-term financial burden of expanding our Medicaid rolls.” The freshman lawmaker said, “Due to the extreme uncertainty surrounding the federal fiscal situation, it is increasingly important that we as legislators exercise fiscal responsibility and not accept federal funds to expand programs that we’re not prepared to fund ourselves.”
School vouchers and legislation surrounding oversight of charter schools drew little support at a forum designed for local educators to share their thoughts with the county’s legislative delegation Thursday night at Cason Lane Academy. Gov. Bill Haslam recently announced plans to introduce a proposal to create a voucher program in Tennessee that would allow families to take a share of state funds and apply them to tuition at private schools. Though details of the program are expected to be revealed during Monday’s State of the State address, local legislators said they have no idea what Haslam’s proposal contains.
Bill would make it easier to take over failing schools A much-anticipated parent trigger bill that would allow a majority of parents or teachers to force a school takeover is ready to wind its way through the Tennessee House. The bill was filed Wednesday by Rep. John DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat and member of the House Education Committee. “It is, in my opinion, important legislation that will get the debate started,” DeBerry said Thursday. “One thing we can’t afford is we can’t continue to support the status quo.”
A state lawmaker has proposed legislation making it easier for parents to force reform at their child’s public school. It’s known as a parent trigger law, and it’s part of a national push by the education lobbying group Students First. The parent trigger law has been popularized in recent months by a film called “Won’t Back Down” in which two mothers take on the teacher’s union and take over a failing school. Memphis Democrat John DeBerry has proposed allowing a simple majority of parents to sign a petition and either transform into a charter or close the school altogether. DeBerry says his proposal is meant to start a conversation.
Lawmakers agree state’s public schools must be strengthened State Sen. Lowe Finney, Rep. Johnny Shaw, Rep. Jimmy Eldridge and Rep. Craig Fitzhugh all said they agreed on the importance of strengthening Tennessee’s public education system Thursday during a legislative forum on education in Jackson. Parents and teachers in the Jackson-Madison County School System voiced their concerns about the school system Thursday night at the forum, which was held at Union University’s Carl Grant Events Center.
Saying his intention is to try a new way to “break the cycle of poverty,” Knoxville Sen. Stacey Campfield has introduced sure-to-be-controversial legislation tying a low-income child’s educational progress to the aid his or her parents receive from the state. A member of the Senate Education Committee, Campfield told TNReport.com recently that his aim is to place “more accountability on people who are on government benefits.” Senate Bill 132 would establish mechanisms for reducing Temporary Assistance to Needy Families payments for TANF recipients whose children fail to maintain satisfactory progress in school.
With the “Tennessee Civil Rights Initiative” and related legislation, state Sen. Jim Summerville says he is trying to end the last vestiges of discrimination in state government and public education and put everyone on equal footing insofar as race, gender and ethnicity goes. Following the “mostly peaceful social revolution during the Dr. Martin Luther King era,” Summerville said in an interview, “there may have been a reason for preferences in hiring, in college admissions, in scholarships.” But not anymore, said the Republican senator from Dickson, an adjunct professor at Austin Peay State University and author of several books involving history research.
Those living near Capitol would lose $173 per diem Several Middle Tennessee lawmakers have proposed major changes to how they are paid. State Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, has introduced legislation that would slash expense payments for lawmakers who live near Nashville by as much as $100 a day. The payments have been a focal point for attacks on lawmakers in recent years, with opponents calling them a costly sop to legislators, who already draw a salary of more than $20,000 a year. The measure, Senate Bill 107, would do away with “per diem” payments of $173 a day for lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the state Capitol.
If state lawmakers have their way, Thursday’s meeting of the Erlanger Health System board of trustees might be one of the last, at least in its current configuration. A bill restructuring the board, to be introduced Monday, could pass the General Assembly by Feb. 11 and a new board could be in place by mid-March, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said Thursday. “We are still putting the final touches on the legislation with our legislative legal staff” and expect to have the bill finished by the end of next week, McCormick said.
Tennessee’s criminal prosecutors are asking the state legislature to approve a package of bills to help them prosecute serial child-sexual abusers, the most serious attempted-murder cases, prescription drug trafficking and synthetic drug sales. Shelby County Dist. Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich and the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, which represents the state’s 31 DAs, issued the organization’s 2013 legislative agenda Thursday. They will ask state lawmakers to approve the bills before the General Assembly finishes this year’s session in April or May.
Tennessee’s District Attorney Generals are pushing for several law changes over the upcoming legislative session, including the ability to prosecute an alleged serial child sex abuser in a single trial, and increased sentences for individuals convicted of aggravated child neglect and attempted first-degree murder. “My fellow district attorneys and I, along with our staff members, have the responsibility of protecting Tennesseans by prosecuting criminal cases on behalf of the state,” said Sullivan County District Attorney Gen. Barry Staubus.
The Knox County Criminal Court Clerk’s office set into motion the revocation of driver’s licenses of 1,279 people without verifying such a sanction was legally appropriate, the News Sentinel learned Thursday. At this point, Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey can’t say how many of those people actually failed to pay court costs and fines as required to avoid revocation. Records show the cases against 473 of those people were dismissed. Another nine show no conclusion of the cases at all, and another 39 are classified as having completed all requirements of the court.
Like many American businesses fighting to keep their prices competitive, Vision Quest Lighting turned to China about six years ago. It now imports about a sixth of the two dozen to three dozen parts required to make its lighting fixtures from there. Recently, however, the Long Island company began to see China in a different light: as a sales target. The growing economy of the world’s most populous nation made it ripe for Vision Quest’s architectural lighting fixtures, many custom-made for hotel and restaurant chains like Hilton and KFC.
The hammer fell Thursday on one of Downtown Memphis’s biggest success stories in 20 years as Pinnacle Airlines Corp. announced it will take hundreds of jobs to Minneapolis. Ending months of speculation, Pinnacle said it would move headquarters to the Twin Cities airport as part of its exit from Chapter 11 bankruptcy this spring. The company said it hadn’t determined how many of 500 workers would make the move. The announcement hit city leaders and owners of the iconic office tower hard.
Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines Corp. is moving its headquarters to Minneapolis by May as part of its bankruptcy reorganization. The regional air carrier announced the move out of One Commerce Square Downtown Thursday, Jan. 24, saying the new headquarters will be in vacant space leased by Delta Air Lines at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Pinnacle president and CEO John Spanjers said the company considered staying at One Commerce Square, the Downtown office tower the company announced it was moving to in October 2010 after considering a move at that time to Olive Branch, Miss.
Ratings for ABC’s “Nashville” dropped 6 percent Wednesday compared to a week ago, based on live viewing numbers. The primetime drama scored a 4.2 rating, which means that 4.2 percent of households were tuned to the show, down from 4.5 percent on Jan. 16, SpoilerTV.com reports, citing data from Nielsen Media Research. The show attracted 5.47 million viewers, down from 5.8 million viewers last week. “Nashville” continued to outperform “Chicago Fire,” which drew a 2.1 rating in its time slot, but fell below CBS’s “CSI:Las Vegas,” which had a 7.4 rating.
Several school districts in Tennessee are experimenting with using extra pay to reward strong teachers. But a new study from the state comptroller’s office says it’s not clear such differential pay boosts student results. Tennessee has four districts trying differential pay, and three others on the way. It’s hard to say if it’s helping so far, partly because the state’s broad push to overhaul education has lots of other moving pieces clouding the picture. And, in districts like Putnam County, which has only been trying differential pay since 2011, it’s too early for conclusions, says Superintendent Jerry Boyd.
Changes are coming to your state driver service center — and to your driver’s license. Some of the changes sound like a boon to customers; others, not so much. But first, the good news: The state Department of Safety and Homeland Security is installing 30 self-service kiosks around Tennessee for renewing driver’s licenses and ID cards. This hopefully will thin the notoriously long lines at driver service centers. The kiosks will be located at certain driver service centers, along with AAA offices and municipal offices. However, when you use the self-serve kiosk, you pay your fee and are issued a 20-day temporary card, with the permanent card later mailed to you.
State Rep. Joe Carr’s bill striking down new federal gun laws in Tennessee could very well pass in the General Assembly. That’s how strongly our state legislators feel about Washington, D.C., unless, of course, the feds are promising to send money. But putting such a law into practice is another question completely and would pit the Volunteer State against the federal government in a battle it won’t win. Legislation filed last week by the Lascassas Republican would allow state law enforcement officers to arrest federal agents and charge them with a Class A misdemeanor for enforcing new federal laws or executive orders that ban, restrict or require registration of any semiautomatic gun, accessory or ammunition. It also would prohibit any public employee, public official or gun dealer from enforcing any such laws or executive orders put in place after Jan. 1.
We are happy to see U.S. Sen. Bob Corker take over the position of ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This is a good thing for Corker, a good thing for residents of Tennessee and a good thing for all citizens of the United States. We have been impressed with Corker since he was elected to his first term in the Senate in 2006. We endorsed his candidacy for a second term last year, as well. To date, Corker has been most vocal on fiscal issues and the need for our country to curb spending and debt. He brings common-sense approaches to the table on those issues backed by a wealth of knowledge and experience. We value Corker’s willingness to avoid stringent party-line divisions in dealing with the issues that face our country.
This was the week the real Barack Obama emerged, the president espousing a leftist agenda unlike any heard since Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt. With hardly a mention of the economy or foreign affairs in his inaugural address, Obama unprecedentedly bashed his political opponents, breaking with the civil, conciliatory tone so prevalent in every other inaugural in memory. Liberals had a great week. But Tennessee’s two U.S. senators had an outstanding week, too. Sen. Lamar Alexander got global face time at the inaugural, introducing Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who swore in Vice President Joe Biden. In his short speech, Alexander displayed his congenital homespun elegance. “The late Alex Haley, the author of ‘Roots,’ lived his life by these six words: ‘Find the good and praise it,’ ” Alexander said.
In the aftermath of recent school shootings, some have questioned whether teachers in schools should be armed. The argument for teachers carrying handguns relies on the belief that educators are the first line of protection for students in their care. Those who advocate for gun-toting teachers argue that — with the right training in operation and weapons safety — the men and women whom we pay to enrich the lives of our children might also save their lives one day. Most police chiefs and sheriffs disagree with arming teachers, and as the experts in lethal force, they have valid reasons for doing so. Police officers, who must qualify at a pistol range on a regular basis, still hit their human targets only about 17 percent of the time, a nationwide statistic that does not vary much from year to year.
There is no one single thing that can be said to demonstrate how poorly the Tennessee Democratic Party has performed in recent years. So many points are disappointing, sad or just plain embarrassing. Lest we forget, the state Legislature, where both chambers once had Democratic majorities, now boasts of a Republican super-majority in each chamber. The 1.1 million swing in the number of Democratic votes cast when Phil Bredesen, a moderate Democrat, was re-elected in 2006 by 706,638 votes, and Democrat Mike McWherter, son of an overwhelmingly popular former Democratic governor, lost by 391,741 votes, in 2010, is overwhelming.