This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
A healthy jump in tax collections is letting states spend money on things they haven’t been able to afford since the recession struck five years ago. Big spending turnarounds are underway this year in education, tourism promotion and worker pay. Many of the nation’s 30 Republican governors are among those advocating for spending more freely now that tax collections have risen steadily for three years…Tennessee. GOP Gov. Bill Haslam wants more education spending and pay raises for state workers.
Car parts manufacturer U.S. Tsubaki Automotive plans to invest $1.9 million in its Portland facility to add a new product line, a move that will come with 70 jobs. Tsubaki Automotive makes chain drive systems for engine and transmission applications and also provides design support as well as component and engine testing and analysis. Its customer base includes General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Nissan and Honda. The 70 jobs being added in the coming months will be a mixture of production and engineering positions.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday that he would sign a bill seeking to allow wine to be sold in Tennessee supermarkets and convenience stores into law if lawmakers approve it this year. The Republican governor told reporters that he’s neutral on the measure calling for cities and counties decide by referendum whether to allow wider wine sales, but added that he won’t stand in the way of it becoming law. “The whole allowing voting is an interesting concept,” Haslam said.
The head of Tennessee’s child welfare agency resigned Tuesday under scrutiny of how her agency handled the cases of children who were investigated as possible victims of abuse and neglect, then later died. Gov. Bill Haslam announced Kate O’Day’s resignation as Department of Children’s Services commissioner in a news release, saying “She was concerned that she had become more of a focus than the children the department serves.” Last week the Republican governor defended O’Day’s leadership, even after the agency told a federal judge it couldn’t say with total certainty how many children died while in its custody.
The embattled commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is stepping down, Gov. Bill Haslam announced Tuesday. Kathryn O’Day’s resignation comes on the heels of a legal battle with The Tennessean and a coalition of media companies over access to records on deaths of children the department had contact with. “She was concerned that she had become more of a focus than the children the department serves,” Haslam said Tuesday. The governor has replaced her temporarily with Jim Henry, commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Kate O’Day became commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services after turning around a troubled nonprofit, with a self-proclaimed mission of creating the nation’s best child protection agency and the backing of newly elected Gov. Bill Haslam, who appointed her. But on Tuesday, O’Day, 56, resigned two years into her term, amid mounting criticism from lawmakers, child advocates and watchdog groups. Instead of a turnaround, the agency remains years away from completing federal court-order goals that have dictated much of its work with children for more than a decade.
The embattled commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, Kate O’Day, has resigned — a day before she was to appear before a state legislative committee looking into her agency’s handling of the deaths of about 150 children since 2009 whose cases had some contact with the department. Gov. Bill Haslam announced O’Day’s resignation Tuesday, ending a turbulent 2-year tenure in which his appointee sometimes clashed with lawmakers of both parties, employees of the department and media seeking information from the agency.
The commissioner of an embattled state agency has resigned. Kate O’Day steps down as head of the Department of Children’s Services one day before she was to testify about child deaths. A statement from Governor Bill Haslam’s office says O’Day “felt the time was right” to leave. She entered the job two years ago and has been under intense scrutiny in recent months for unreported fatalities and a computer system plagued with glitches. Just this week, her office told newspapers they’d have to pay $55,000 to get copies of case files in question.
Jim Henry led DCS contractor Omni Visions for 13 years Jim Henry, Gov. Bill Haslam’s pick for interim commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services, is no stranger to the struggling agency. Henry, 67, also will continue to oversee the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. But before Haslam appointed Henry to that position in 2011, Henry served for 13 years as president and CEO of Nashville-based Omni Visions, the largest private agency doing business with DCS. DCS currently has a $51 million contract with Omni Visions to serve difficult-to-place foster children.
Tennessee officials say they would like to see state law become more like it was 130 years ago, when the entire Tennessee Code could fit in a single book. Republican legislators have announced plans for a position they call the “Office of the Repealer.” Senator Jack Johnson of Franklin says there are too many burdensome state laws, like one that says no more than 25 balloons can be released into the air at one time. However, Johnson’s focus is less on the peculiar and more on the areas he sees as unnecessary red tape for businesses.
Officials continue analyzing state film incentives, challenges A prominent Republican state senator recently asked the state Department of Economic and Community Development to make sure and take the call if the department gets a ring from Molly Mickler Smith, the daughter of FedEx founder Frederick W. Smith. She is producing a movie adaptation of the Tony-award winning Broadway smash “Memphis: The Musical.” Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris’ request to state officials wasn’t because he assumed they’d ignore her call. Instead, his request reflects a continued interest at all levels of government in Tennessee to make sure the state remains competitive in the never-ending arms race to attract entertainment productions of all kinds.
The Tennessee Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether Memphis photo library cards can serve as government IDs under the state’s voter identification law. State election officials contend the state law intended that only state or federally issued photo IDs are valid at the polls, but the city of Memphis argued that the library cards, which include a photo, should be enough to prove identity. The state Court of Appeals last August cited Tennessee case law in finding that Memphis is a branch of the state and the library cards could be accepted at polls.
The U.S. government accused Standard & Poor’s of inflating ratings on mortgage investments to boost its bottom line, taking aim at a key player in the run-up to the financial crisis. In charges filed late Monday in Los Angeles federal court, the Justice Department said S&P gave high marks to mortgage-backed securities that later went sour, even though it knew they were risky. The government said S&P misrepresented the risks because it wanted more business from the banks. On Tuesday, Tennessee joined several other states in filing enforcement actions against S&P and its parent company, McGraw-Hill.
Haslam wanted college employers to be exempt A bill that would let gun owners carry their weapons into workplace parking lots was rushed to the floor of the Tennessee Senate on Tuesday, despite questions raised by businesses, gun rights advocates and Gov. Bill Haslam. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a measure backed by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey that would force businesses to let their workers carry their guns to work, provided they leave their weapons in their vehicles. Ramsey, R-Blountville, has said he wants to pass the bill quickly and get it out of the headlines early in the session.
A bill letting Tennessee’s 375,000 handgun-carry permit holders store firearms in vehicles parked on most public and private lots is on its way to the Senate floor despite concerns voiced by businesses and Gov. Bill Haslam. The legislation, sponsored by Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, sailed earlier Tuesday through the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday on an 8-0 vote. Ramsey later issued a statement saying he was pleased the panel voted on “a bipartisan basis to allow gun permit holders to keep their firearms securely locked in their vehicles while at work.”
Closely watched legislation that would allow guns to be stored in cars – even on someone else’s private property – is headed to a vote of the full state Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the so-called “guns-in-trunks” measure against the wishes of some of the state’s largest employers. Bill Ozier is chairman of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and addressed the panel. He admitted businesses realize guns are already being stored in cars on their property. “We believe that the current system of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach has work very well for many years.”
The Senate Finance Committee has advanced a proposed constitutional amendment to explicitly ban a state income tax to a full floor vote. The panel voted 9-1 on Tuesday to advance the measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown that would also ban a state or local payroll tax. The measure would need to receive two-thirds votes in both chambers of the General Assembly before it could go before the vo ers in 2014. Opponents argue the measure is unnecessary amid solid opposition to an income tax among Republican lawmakers who already hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate.
A Tennessee legislative committee agreed Tuesday morning to send a constitutional amendment banning a state income tax to the floor of the state Senate. The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee voted 9-1 in favor of Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would permanently ban a tax on personal income or a payroll tax in Tennessee. State Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, cast the only vote against the amendment. He stated he is against an income tax in principle but believes a payroll tax is different because it is levied on employers rather than individuals.
The Tennessee Senate Finance Committee passed, on a 9-1 vote, Senate Joint Resolution 1, also known as the “No State Income Tax” constitutional amendment. The resolution is sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown). The resolution specifically prohibits an income or payroll tax in the state of Tennessee. Last year, the Senate approved the resolution by a 36-4 vote and the House via a 73-17-3 tally. There are still a few hurdles to climb before the amendment is embedded into the state constitution.
Virtual education appears to be the future, even for the youngest students. School districts are offering classes online. Cyber schools – many of them run by the same for-profit company – are popping up all over the country. But student test scores have fallen short. Even some Republican leaders feel burned after passing legislation in 2011 that paved the way for the Tennessee Virtual Academy, which now enrolls 3,200 students. “I think that’s what happens when you have reform,” says Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey.
The largest teachers union in the state is quietly on board with allowing educators to carry a weapon to class, at least as a last resort. The Tennessee Education Association is supporting a bill under consideration by the state legislature. The TEA would prefer teachers not need to bring a gun to school, says president Gera Summerford. “I think the way we would look at it is it’s the responsibility of law enforcement-trained personnel.” But the TEA also wants a school resource officer in every school. So the organization has signed onto a bill from state Senator Frank Niceley that would mandate it.
Officials representing all six of Shelby County’s suburbs huddled behind closed doors with state officials Tuesday to discuss their options through the Tennessee legislature for creating their own school systems. The mayors and other officials from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown and Millington and the city manager of Lakeland met in state House Speaker Beth Harwell’s conference room with all of Shelby County’s suburban legislators, the legislature’s chief staff attorney and the lead staff attorney on education.
State legislators and the Hamilton County mayor’s office appear to be in agreement on changes they want to a bill restructuring Erlanger hospital’s governing structure. Some of the proposed changes include expanding the number of voting board members from seven to nine, and including a way for state or county leaders to intervene in the board member nomination process if they believe it is being abused. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick met Friday to share concerns and hammer out details in the bill.
Less than a week after state education officials linked better ACT scores to teacher effectiveness, an education advocacy group is calling for teaching candidates to face tougher academic standards before starting their own studies. The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, recommended on Tuesday that public universities and colleges raise standards for students entering teaching programs. The group also recommends tougher teacher licensing policies. SCORE noted that some schools admit and graduate teachers who scored less than 15 on the ACT college admissions exam — a score near the bottom of all students taking the test.
At a public information meeting Tuesday night, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials from Nashville told a sometimes-hostile crowd of more than 300 people how and when they will begin restricting access above and below Cumberland River dams. The Corps said restricting boating and fishing access near 10 dams the agency operates on the Cumberland and its tributaries is necessary to boost safety and comply with national policy. Not so fast, said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is once again starting its fiscal year in the red, but utility officials said Tuesday they aren’t going to put TVA on the same “diet and exercise” program they did last year to cut staff and spending — at least yet. “We’re looking at this very closely,” TVA CEO Bill Johnson said Tuesday after TVA reported a $245 million net loss in the last three months of calendar 2012. “If we have to adjust, we certainly will to make these numbers add up at the end of the year. I believe the cost management and cost control is something we need to be doing all the time to achieve financial excellence.”
Flat electricity sales and higher fuel costs, driven mostly by planned nuclear plant outages, added up to a $245 million loss for TVA in the first fiscal quarter of 2013. TVA released its first-quarter results Tuesday. The federal utility reported a net loss of $245 million on operating revenues of $2.58 billion for the three months ending Dec. 31, 2012, compared to a net loss of $173 million on revenues of $2.57 billion in the same period a year ago. TVA saw a 0.2 percent increase in electricity sales for the quarter over the first quarter of 2012.
Nissan is planning a new parts distribution facility between Murfreesboro and Smyrna consisting of 60,000 square feet of renovated office space and a new 400,000-square-foot warehouse Ronald Buck, the real estate developer and owner of the property at 4500 Singer Rd., said he has executed a lease agreement with Nissan to occupy the property, which sits on 28 acres four miles southeast of Nissan’s Smyrna plant. “We are excited about having Nissan as a tenant in a long-term lease,” Buck said.
The superintendent in Williamson County does not want charter schools to start opening in his district. Officials there received a letter of intent from a farmer who wants public funding to run a school his own way in one of Tennessee’s best districts. Schools in affluent Williamson County are the envy of other districts, and often at the top of the list for statewide test scores. Superintendent Mike Looney argues opening charters would only take away from traditional public schools.
With the hiring process under way at the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office — including more than 100 applicants, eight interviews a day and 20-plus new police cars in line to receive their stripes — student resource officers are coming soon to all elementary schools in Williamson County. After the Sandy Hook incident in Newtown, Conn., leaders in Williamson County rushed a resolution by the following week for the funding of student resource officers for all elementary schools in the county.
Just a random check into whether a sampling of schools are secure may not be enough for Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett if officials want him to approve extra spending on new education initiatives. A day after county school board members agreed to audit the security systems of some — but not all — schools, the mayor said he’s “on the fence” about whether he’ll agree to new funding, something school officials are expected to request in the upcoming budget cycle. “I’ll have to look at it,” Burchett said Tuesday.
For the second night in a row, administrators and school board members took comments and questions from the public Tuesday on a preliminary general fund budget for the new unified school district that is $80 million to $90 million in the red, but far too conservative for a lot of school patrons. Shelby County Schools Assistant Supt. Tim Setterlund led off the discussion with an overview of the $1.3 billion spending plan, reminding the audience that a merger of the magnitude of SCS and Memphis City Schools has never been done before.
The first and very preliminary draft of a budget for the first year of the consolidated public school system in Shelby County was probably dead on arrival this week. Even before a public hearing Monday, Jan. 4, that drew several hundred people, countywide school board members spent most of the day reviewing the numbers with the transition steering committee – a group of top administrators from both school systems. Shelby County Schools assistant superintendent Tim Setterlund, who heads the steering committee, stressed that the budget priorities are tentative but need to be a bit firmer this month as the school board takes some general idea of a schools budget direction to Shelby County Commissioners later this month.
Gov. Bill Haslam toured Tennessee last week in his State of the State address. “There are lots of reasons for people to come to our state,” Haslam said. “From blues on Beale Street to racing in Bristol. From Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Market Square in Knoxville to the Chattanooga Aquarium to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and thousands of places in between.” Then, the money line: “In Tennessee, tourism equals jobs.” Nowhere are Haslam’s words truer than in Sevier County, home to two of his highlights, Dollywood and the headquarters of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Nothing shows in starker terms the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services’ failure to discharge its duties than the department’s notice filed in Davidson County Chancery Court on Monday. In that filing, the state lawyers explained that the records of deaths or near-deaths of more than 200 children over the past three years, which media organizations, child-advocacy groups and public citizens have been requesting since last summer, are spread out all over the state of Tennessee, in various county offices. It’s no wonder that DCS has appeared to be operating in the dark, and that no one has produced any answers about many youth deaths.
Kate O’Day, the embattled commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, has resigned. Gov. Bill Haslam made the announcement Tuesday, saying O’Day did not want to become the focus of attention rather than the children the agency serves. But O’Day already had become the focus of criticism that has grown since she became commissioner of the multifaceted department in January 2011, after Haslam appointed her to the job. O’Day previously was president and chief executive officer of Child & Family Tennessee, a family and child advocacy organization in Knoxville, where Haslam had been mayor. Perhaps the job was too big for someone who worked for a small, community-based nonprofit agency.
Like many a Tennessee entrepreneur, I have had to become a jack of all trades. In my case, I have had to master logistics, distribution, employee benefits and, of course, the perfect recipe for highlighting a particularly good batch of hops. The one thing I can’t wrap my head around is Tennessee’s bizarre beer tax structure. It’s a set of three taxes: a federal excise tax, a state excise tax and a whopping 17 percent local wholesale tax that, unlike the other two, is based on price, not volume. Tennessee is one of just two states in the nation that calculate wholesale taxes on price rather than how much is sold. So when I am forced to raise prices because my barley costs go up, the tax bill goes up, too. This compounding taxation creates a perverse effect: I can actually sell less of my product and still see my tax burden rise.
After two years of failure, it was reasonable to expect that the “Don’t Say Gay” bill wouldn’t be revived. But when it comes to the Tennessee General Assembly, reason has nothing to do with it. Smirking Knoxville Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield boldly refiled the controversial legislation — which seeks to restrict discussion, or even mere mention, of LGBT issues in elementary and middle schools — last week and in doing so, renewed the debate on whether he is genuine or just some sort of incredibly elaborate piece of satirical performance art. Not content to simply bring back the failed bill as it died, he added a new wrinkle.
State lawmakers in Tennessee and Georgia are certainly wasting no time wasting time and money. Less than a month into their legislative sessions, politicians in Nashville and Atlanta have already managed to file 574 resolutions — while making little headway in addressing actual policy concerns. Resolutions are how state lawmakers officially honor, memorialize or recognize a person, business, charity or event. They are usually accompanied by a few minutes of hot air on the senate or house floor and a fancy copy of the resolution suitable for framing. A few resolutions each session, like proposed state constitutional amendments, can impact policy.
Strange times indeed. Last week, I wrote about the unusually tense atmosphere at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant these days, a situation exacerbated by the big security breach last summer, the ongoing uncertainties of a contractor change and the possibility of layoffs on the horizon. The National Nuclear Security Administration recently awarded a new contract — combining the management of Y-12 and Pantex, another nuclear weapons facility in Texas — to Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC, a team that’s headed by Bechtel National and includes Lockheed Martin. The award followed nearly two years of procurement activities for the contract valued at about $22 billion over 10 years. But the Jan. 8 announcement didn’t end the uncertainty or dim the drama.