This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam says his goal of ensuring that all tax-supported K-12 schools are accountable for student achievement underlies his moves to cap enrollment at a low-performing online school and proceed more cautiously than some like with his school voucher program. “We’ve introduced accountability in the process everywhere,” the Republican governor told Chattanooga Times Free Press editors and reporters last week. Haslam has introduced legislation to cap enrollment at the Tennessee Virtual Academy in Union County.
For nearly two decades, the Department of Children’s Services had to open its files to an independent team of 13 experts who would retrace every step taken to protect and care for children under the state’s watch. Last year, DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day abruptly ended the agency’s relationship with the Children’s Program Outcome Review Team despite the protests of children’s groups and lawmakers. Since 1994, that team’s work had been touted as the only unbiased, independent quality review of the cases of children in DCS care.
Although the plan mirrors what’s already being done by many states as well as by the U.S. Supreme Court, the idea of easy-to-find digital recordings of sensitive cases rankles one ranking member of the judiciary, who is concerned that “salacious facts arising from messy divorces” involving children will become accessible. “I write you not on behalf of my colleagues on the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, but as a lawyer of 33 years with 17 years of experience on the trial and appellate bench who believes this program should be stopped before it gets started,” appellate Judge Frank Clement Jr. of Nashville said in a widely circulated letter.
By limiting the scope of his plan for launching a school voucher system in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam finds himself facing legislative critics who think he hasn’t gone far enough and others who think he has gone too far. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, for example, is in the camp of those who think the governor’s plan is too restrictive. He predicts that the Senate will amend the Haslam bill, filed as SB196, to make it “more universal.” At the other end is House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, who said a state near the bottom nationally in public school funding should not be diverting any money at all to private schools.
Sen. Stacey Campfield can be forgiven if he needed to rest this weekend. He had a busy week. Before making news by responding to constituents’ email with a snarky reply in which he recommended that they seek medication for their views, the Knoxville Republican drew national attention with a welfare bill he said was based on programs used in the developing world to discourage poor families from sending their children to work in sweatshops. In an interview, Campfield said the United States needs to change its model for paying welfare from straight payments to one in which families are paid for sending their children to school.
Nearly three years after Dustin Ledford was killed by an intoxicated driver going the wrong way on APD 40, tougher DUI legislation named for him may be close to becoming reality. Bradley County commissioners will vote Monday on a resolution asking that Gov. Bill Haslam and the Tennessee legislature support “Dustin’s Law,” known as House Bill 0008 and Senate Bill 0579 in the Capitol in Nashville. Commissioner Robert Rominger introduced the resolution, which urges support of legislation to toughen penalties in cases that result in charges of aggravated vehicular homicide.
Shelby County officials are giving property owners fair warning: The current reappraisal may lower the values of their properties, but that likely won’t provide relief for weary taxpayers. With the delivery of property-value notices just weeks away, owners are expecting reappraisals to reflect the smackdown the real estate market took after the economic crash of 2008. But it’s possible that, in accordance with state law, county property tax rates will be raised to compensate for the lower values, and raised again to cover increasing county expenses.
Also making the rounds on the national news circuit, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has been drawing scorn for a comment he made on MSNBC last week in which he appeared to say that video games are a bigger problem than guns because “video games affect people.” The suggestion that virtual shooting is more dangerous than actual shooting was quickly lampooned, particularly by the DailyKos and other left-leaning blogs. But the sound bite was far from the first time Alexander has pointed the finger at video games.
Court ranks in the top 10 in productivity, trial hours Citizens who have cases before the federal court in Nashville can expect to see efficient handling and, unlike in other districts in America, perhaps an actual trial. The U.S. Court for the Middle District of Tennessee was the seventh most productive among the nation’s 94 judicial districts during fiscal year 2012, according to a report from the U.S. Courts Administrative office. The calculation was based on the service of the average district judge in that court, the report stated.
About 2:30 a.m., the unlikely trio of interlopers approach the first fence, aided by flashlights and, as they would later boast, Divine Guidance. They hear no alarms, no shouts from the armed guards, just the hum of a Tennessee night, chirping insects in the nearby woods, backlit by a not quite full moon above their heads. The two men, one, 63, and the other, 57, and the woman, 82, do not pause to reconsider their first act of federal trespass. They are present on this July night to do a job — in their eyes, a holy service.
The Regional Medical Center at Memphis has launched a new ad campaign to “reawaken” its brand and change patients’ minds when they wake up at the hospital. A series of three television ads started running about a week ago. Quick-paced and dramatic music pushes medical teams through high-pressure trauma situations in two of the ads. The other plays sweet and tender as a mother and doctor fawn over a newborn baby. Billboards around Memphis mirror the TV spots. “We wanted to reintroduce the Regional Medical Center to the public,” said Med CEO Dr. Reginald Coopwood.
Board members confident in security systems in lawsuit Knox County school officials during a news conference Saturday defended the bidding process in the hiring of a contractor now being sued by the county for subpar work on the district’s security systems at two of its schools. School officials called the conference — in which they outlined a timeline of events surrounding the work — to address reports surrounding deficiencies in state-of-the-art security systems that were designed to keep students safe.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam presented a promising, pragmatic budget during his State of the State speech at a joint session of the Legislature on Monday. The $32.7 billion spending plan is a prudent approach amid a resurgent though fragile economy. Spending increases in Haslam’s proposed budget focus on education and TennCare, while two tax cuts should lighten grocery bills and help seniors. While outlining his proposal for the News Sentinel Editorial Board on Thursday, Haslam employed a favorite phrase of his: “Budget drives policy.” If that’s the case, it is obvious that education — both K-12 and post-secondary — is Haslam’s primary policy initiative in his third year in office.
In what was unquestionably his best State of the State speech ever, Gov. Bill Haslam announced last week that “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is one of his favorite movies. He especially liked the scene where the Butch and Sundance jump off a cliff. There were a lot of other announcements in Haslam’s third State of the State speech (SOTS), enough to make your head spin if you try to keep track of state governmental doings. That was part of the beauty of the 43-minute rhetorical ramble through dozens of topics, many the subject of proclaimed new attention by our state’s benevolent, business-loving chief executive. It was, in a word, substantive.
Details of DCS child deaths still unclear; department keeps mumLike most Tennesseans, I read with some relief that Gov. Bill Haslam recently spent a weekend personally reviewing documents from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, detailing how 31 children died last year. The death of any child is a tragedy, and so most of us understood what the governor meant when he said that he found the reading experience “incredibly distressing and depressing.” I had the same reaction last weekend after reviewing a Department of Children’s Services document — a “fatality summary” — that DCS provided to The Tennessean.
“What’s with the war on teachers?” a Tennessean reader asked last week in the comments on a recent story outlining research that questions the value of pay differentials for teaching experience and advanced degrees. State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told the State Board of Education that the results of Tennessee’s first year of teacher evaluations, which look at student performance on standardized tests and on subjective observation of classroom technique, showed that student test performance was independent of how many years a teacher had in the classroom, or how many advanced degrees the teacher had earned during his or her career.
Tennessee’s new teacher evaluation system has hit more than a few bumps in the road since it was put into place two years ago. That, by itself, is not too disturbing. New systems often take time to iron out unexpected results and problems. But one shortcoming revealed by state Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman this week is unacceptable. According to Huffman, a significant number of teachers who scored low never were advised of their low score by their school principal. It is hard to imagine any employee evaluation system that doesn’t include a requirement that the boss or supervisor review evaluation results with the employee.
State Sen. Brian Kelsey’s proposed bill to block expansion of Tennessee’s Medicaid program is premature. The Germantown Republican and the bill’s co-sponsors should give Gov. Bill Haslam a chance, as Haslam said in his budget address Monday, “to gather all of the information possible to understand the impact on our budget, the impact on community hospitals, the impact on health care in Tennessee, and the impact on our citizens. This decision is too important not to do that.” Kelsey’s bill, labeled the TennCare Fiscal Responsibility Act, would prevent expansion of the state’s Medicaid program under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
Every January, in a predictable nutcake ritual, state Sen. Stacey Campfield climbs down from Crazy Mountain and makes his way to Nashville, sprinkling Legislative Plaza with bills that make Tennessee a laughingstock. Only this year, he’s become the punch line. In a beautiful twist, the Tennessee Equality Project launched a campaign within hours of Campfield filing his annual “Don’t Say Gay” law. They call it the Stacey Campfield “Counseling” Fund. “We’ve grown concerned about Senator Campfield’s homophobia, pathological obsession with gay people, and the effect of his campaign against youth in the state of Tennessee,” the TEP wrote in a blog post.
Tennessee for years has had a few lightly regulated natural gas wells in several north Tennessee counties. But with the rise of new techniques for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” of deep shale deposits to release natural gas, those counties and others in northwest and southeast Tennessee — including Hamilton County — are now expected to become players in the national shale fracking industry. That may enrich the gas industry, but under the state’s lamentably lax environmental laws, fracking is likely to threaten public water supplies with toxic pollution, and run the risk of air contaminated by radon, methane and other potent toxins.
Our region is sitting on a potential gold mine — a tremendous natural gas reserve, accessible by safe, responsible hydraulic fracturing stands to create hundreds of jobs and generate millions of dollars for the Chattanooga area. Opponents of the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” procedure used to coax the natural gas from bedrock, claim that fracking creates a perilous threat to the environment. But that simply isn’t the fracking truth. Some green alarmists claim the process of fracking, which involves pumping soapy water mixture into wells more than 3,000 feet below the surface, contaminates groundwater. Research performed by Popular Mechanics magazine determined that fear simply isn’t founded.
It’s ironic that Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith said at a recent meeting that he was pleased the press wasn’t there so party members could talk privately about sensitive issues and avoid “a big brouhaha.” By keeping the meeting secret and barring a reporter who wanted to cover it, he created an even bigger brouhaha than if he’d just welcomed the reporter in the first place. Smith closed the Jan. 24 meeting to the media and told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Chris Carroll that the meeting was “confidential.” In the end, being barred from the meeting didn’t matter because Carroll was given an audio file of the meeting and wrote a front-page story about the incident and what was discussed in the closed session.