This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
The Associated Press and Tennessee Press Association are hosting their annual legislative planning session in Nashville on Thursday. Gov. Bill Haslam, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell are scheduled to speak to editors, publishers and reporters about their priorities for the year. The session also features a panel discussion on the debate about whether Tennessee should expand Medicaid under the federal health care overhaul.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday it’s too early to know if he would veto a controversial “guns-in-parking lots” measure should it pass, noting he continues to study its impact on schools, colleges and universities. The bill, sponsored by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, will be on the Senate floor next week. It would allow handgun-carry permit holders to store firearms in their locked vehicles parked on most public and private lots in Tennessee. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, 8-0.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday he doesn’t know whether he would veto a bill being fast-tracked through the Senate to let handgun-carry permit holders keep guns in their cars on any public or private parking lot, even though it doesn’t exempt school and college campuses as he’s always insisted. The bill won approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday without a dissenting vote, despite the objections of college administrators and business leaders. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who is sponsoring the bill, has said he wants the Senate to quickly pass the bill next week so that the media won’t spend the legislative session reporting on the issue as occurred in the last two legislative sessions.
County ends up with deficit under current method Anywhere between 50 to 200 state prisoners are housed in the Montgomery County Jail on a given day, because of never-ending overcrowding in state prisons. It’s a problem not just here in Clarksville, but throughout Tennessee’s small towns and big cities – wherever there are vacant places to incarcerate prisoners in state custody… Trying to cover the cost In his new 2013-14 budget, Gov. Bill Haslam says he wants to help counties cover more of the rising cost of incarcerating state prisoners.
First, some bona fide good news of a bipartisan sort: In his State of the State message last week, Governor Bill Haslam unveiled some serious lagniappe for Memphis: $45 million for a new community health facility at the University of Memphis; $62 million for renovations at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; $15 million to match an outlay by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for treatment of childhood obesity and genetic disorders. Haslam also proposed selling the Donnelly Hill State Building, a white elephant in the downtown government plaza, but wants to see the employees of that building relocated elsewhere downtown.
Gov. Bill Haslam defended the former leader of the Department of Children’s Services and the agency’s $55,000 bill to news outlets to obtain records related to children who have died. The Tennessee governor said Commissioner Kate O’Day decided herself to resign a day before she was to testify to state lawmakers about her embattled department. Haslam praised O’Day’s record and declined to cite any missteps she might have made as commissioner. “All of us do things (wrong),” Haslam told reporters after a speech at Lipscomb University on Wednesday. “I don’t know that’s a fair question of any of us.”
Interim Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry on Wednesday told state lawmakers he was not going to be “baby-sitting” but would immediately “attack the problems as they exist” at the state’s troubled $650 million child welfare agency. In his first full day on the job, Henry — who still serves as the commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities — laid out his preliminary plan for that attack. He will meet with DCS private contractors and staff, assess progress on the department’s glitch-prone computer system and hold roundtables across the state with private agencies that work with children.
State lawmakers told the interim commissioner of the embattled Department of Children’s Services on Wednesday that they want to be made aware of the agency’s challenges so they can help address its problems. Jim Henry, who headed the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, spoke before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. He replaces Kate O’Day, who resigned the day before under scrutiny of how her agency handled the cases of children who were investigated as possible victims of abuse and neglect, then later died.
The temporary head of the embattled Department of Children’s Service said at a legislative hearing he would turn things around, even with the title of “interim.” Jim Henry was named to replace DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day, who resigned 24 hours before she was to testify about unreported child deaths. “I promise you I will not be passive or a caretaker. I will attack these problems as they exist.” Henry is also still the commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, though he says he will devote more time to DCS.
Tennessee’s economy will continue modest growth this year, but should be “substantially stronger”in 2014, University of Tennessee economists said today. The national economy is expected to grow in the coming months with a steady decline in the unemployment rate, according to the annual economic forecast prepared for the governor by UT’s Center for Business and Economic Research. “The U.S. economy is projected to continue to grow in the quarters ahead and the unemployment rate will continue its slow but steady decline,” said Matt Murray, associate director of CBER and the report’s author.
Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, founder of a statewide advocacy group for education reform, is pressing for higher standards in the state’s colleges and challenged leaders not to soften the teacher evaluation process. As head of SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, Frist also wants better ways to evaluate school principals, specific strategies for how schools invest in technology and more ways to involve parents in education. The priorities are outlined in SCORE’s third annual review of the state’s progress in education.
The $208 million Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, completed in December, is slated for a $30.25 million expansion before the first inmate has even moved in. The expansion funded in Gov. Bill Haslam’s 2013-14 budget will add 512 beds to the 1,444 the state will start filling in March, state Correction Department spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said. “The facility was originally planned for this expansion,” Carter said this week. “The space for the two additional housing buildings is already within the secure perimeter, and utilities and other measures are in place to assimilate these new inmates.”
State economic development officials have chosen six communities to participate in the Tennessee Downtowns program. The state Department of Economic and Community Development said Wednesday that the communities of Clifton, Greenfield, Portland, Tracy City, Waynesboro and White Bluff have been chosen for the program. The six communities are each home to downtown commercial districts established at least 50 years ago. The selection process was based on criteria including historic resources, economic and physical need and probability of success.
Court to decide constitutionality of 2011 law Tennessee’s Supreme Court was asked Wednesday to decide whether the state’s voter ID law deprives people of the right to vote or if it’s a necessary safeguard to prevent election fraud. And in a related issue, the court must determine whether a city-issued library card with a photo can be used as identification to vote. The court heard arguments from the city of Memphis and two residents who are challenging the law. The city and the individual plaintiffs sued the state last year after election officials refused to accept a city-issued library card with a photo as voter identification.
The Tennessee Supreme Court invoked century-old arguments about suffrage in Wednesday morning’s hearing of a voter ID lawsuit brought by Nashville civil rights attorney George Barrett. Barrett is representing the city of Memphis, which attempted last year to disperse library cards that could be used as acceptable forms of photo ID. But the state election commission instructed polls in Memphis not to accept the IDs. The state Court of Appeals ruled before the election that the cards could be used, although they upheld the state’s photo ID requirement as well.
It could take months for Tennessee’s Supreme Court to rule on the legality of requiring a photo ID to vote, and whether a Memphis library card should count. Opponents of the law had hoped to overturn it before the election last fall, saying it disenfranchises voters. In court Wednesday a couple of the justices seemed to hint which way they’re leaning. Defending the law was Janet Kleinfelter, whom Justice Cornelia Clark tested early on. Clark asked whether her 82-year-old mother might have a hard time getting a required ID to vote.
A bill granting legal protections to certain gun owners so they can keep a firearm in their vehicle while parked on their employers’ property is quickly headed to the Tennessee Senate floor. Senate Bill 142, sponsored by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, seeks to put to rest a running political skirmish from last year that pitted typically Republican-leaning constituencies against one another — business interests and gun-rights advocates. It passed out of the nine-member Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday with no opposition; Ophelia Ford, a Memphis Democrat, abstained from voting.
When it comes to promoting Tennessee as a business-friendly state, new guns-in-parking-lots legislation does little to help enhance that reputation, business leaders say. “Anything that infringes on the rights of property owners or employers clearly is viewed as a negative by companies that are already here or are looking to locate here,” said Bill Ozier, chairman of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “When a legislature starts to sort of interfere in how you run your business and what your rules for your employees and others can be, that’s not a plus.”
State Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, the longest-serving member of the General Assembly that recently convened, looks ahead with a simple, focused determination. Beginning his 43rd year in the Senate, Henry says he has little interest in “hot-button” issues such as the expansion of gun-owners’ rights, school vouchers or allowing wine sales in grocery stores. “What I’m interested in is the financial condition of the state,” he says. What he would like to see – and what he will work toward – is regaining Tennessee’s AAA credit rating with all bond-rating agencies.
The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce released its 2013 state legislative agenda today, citing its top priorities for Tennessee lawmakers. Improving primary and secondary education and job creation topped the priority list in terms of urgency, based on a member survey, with 24 percent responding, according to the chamber. The group’s policy priorities include: • Support for the federally funded expansion of TennCare/Medicair • Moving workers’ compensation out of the courts • Business impact statements for proposed legislation • Comprehensive federal immigration reform
The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce came out Wednesday in support of expanding TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program. Marc Hill, the chamber’s chief policy officer, said the business group looked closely at the controversial issue over the past month before deciding to advocate for the expansion — which would be fully funded by the federal government for the first three years — in its 2013 legislative agenda.
Shelby County suburban leaders were meeting in Nashville Tuesday, Feb. 5, with Tennessee legislators about possible moves toward some version of suburban school districts, the Memphis City Council was reacting to a pending bill in the state Legislature. The Tennessee Heritage Preservation Act of 2013 has nothing to do with the Shelby County schools merger. But it scraped a still raw nerve at City Hall from the 2011 move to the schools merger – two years of state legislation altering the terms of that merger, fueling an ongoing federal court lawsuit over first the merger and then the attempt at suburban school districts.
Private student loan debt should be treated just like other debt in bankruptcy, according to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who re-introduced a bill Wednesday that would make such debt dischargeable – erasable – by bankruptcy judges. With student loan debt now more than $1 trillion, including $150 billion in private student loan debt, undoing the 2005 change in the law that shields private lenders is “long overdue,” Cohen said. “People who seek higher education to better their futures should not be dissuaded from doing so by the threat of financial ruin,” he said in a prepared statement.
State Sen. Jim Tracy defended himself Wednesday against House Democrats who say his legislation requiring women to undergo ultrasounds before abortion is a politically motivated move that would invade doctor-patient relationships. “The protection of human life and the unborn is very important to me,” said Tracy, a Shelbyville Republican who represents a portion of Rutherford County. He added he believes in the measure “from the bottom of my heart.” Tracy, who announced he is running against U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Jasper physician, in the 2014 Republican primary for the 4th District that includes Rutherford County, contends the bill is consistent with his views and is simply an effort to inform pregnant women before they make a “life-altering decision.”
The U.S. Postal Service announced Wednesday that it plans to cut Saturday mail delivery, hoping to eventually save about $2 billion annually. The new delivery schedule is set to begin the week of Aug. 5 at which time mail delivery will shift to a Monday through Friday only schedule. Package delivery, however, will continue on a six-day-per-week basis. The projected annual operational savings are expected to come from a “combination of employee reassignment and attrition,” according to a Postal Service release on Wednesday.
After 150 years of six-day-a-week mail delivery, the U.S. Postal Service announced Wednesday it will stop delivering mail on Saturdays — a move that many locals think is a good idea. “With all the problems the Postal Service is having, they should have done this a long time ago,” Chattanooga resident Larry Jones said. “Everything shuts down on Friday, and all I get is junk mail on Saturday anyway.” The Postal Service will switch to five-day-a-week delivery in August, Postmaster General and CEO Patrick Donahoe said Wednesday.
Plans by the U.S. Postal Service to cease Saturday home deliveries beginning in August have left Murfreesboro residents with conflicted feelings. Flore Weinstein, supervisor for customer service at the Memorial Boulevard Post Office, said she is optimistic about the change and feels it’s a decision that needs to be made. “Customers have more choices now, and the letter volume is going down every day. People don’t really write letters anymore, so we need to evolve with the choices the customers have.”
The U.S. Postal Service announced on Wednesday plans to stop Saturday deliveries for everything except packages. This decision has been made to help The Postal Service financially. Cutting down to five-day-a-week deliveries is expected to save $2 billion annually, according to officials. “Our financial condition is urgent,” declared Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe. The plan is expected to take effect in August. Some area residents are afraid of the impact this decision may have. “It’s going to affect my economics because my husband is a postman and he’s going to lose a day’s pay,” said Jennifer Blankenship of Beech Bluff.
Tennessee Army National Guard soldiers from the 212th Engineer Company, based in Paris and Camden, are leaving this week in preparation for a one-year deployment to Kuwait in support of the war in Afghanistan. Roughly 150 guardsmen will leave on Thursday from the Paris National Guard Armory to go to Fort Bliss, Texas, for training. Capt. Susan Parker said in a news release that many of their troops have deployed two and three times before. The unit will perform construction operations for coalition forces in Kuwait and elsewhere.
The Tennessee Valley Authority said Wednesday it has completed its application with federal regulators to extend the operating life of its Sequoyah Nuclear Plant by another 20 years. If approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the license extension would allow TVA to extend its original 40-year operating license of its Soddy-Daisy plant until 2040 for the Unit 1 reactor and until 2041 for the Unit 2 reactor. TVA said it expects to spend about $23 million in the renewal process, including NRC charges to TVA to review the applications.
TVA seeks 20-year license extensions for Sequoyah plant TVA announced today that it has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 20-year extensions of operating licenses for both units of its Sequoyah Nuclear Plant. The licenses of those units are set to expire in 2020 and 2021. Renewal of the licenses would allow the units to operate until 2040 and 2041. “By applying for a 20-year extension of our current operating license now, we are affirming to the NRC that our plant is safe and in solid material condition,” TVA Chief Nuclear Officer Preston Swafford said in a statement.
The Tennessee Valley Authority says it applying to extend the license of its Sequoyah nuclear plant, near Chattanooga. By 2021, the license for both of Sequoyah’s reactors will expire. TVA hopes federal regulators will extend the plant’s lifespan by two decades. The utility just spent more than $360 million to upgrade generators at the plant. The project required lifting the top off the reactor’s containment building with a massive crane. A public hearing on the renewal will be held in April. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will inspect the plant later in the year.
The dams and reservoirs of the Tennessee Valley Authority helped avert an estimated $710 million of flood damage to Chattanooga last month. But last month’s rainfall — twice as much as in the typical January — continues to clog river traffic along the Tennessee River artery through Chattanooga. “It’s been devastating for our operations,” said Peter Serodino, president of the Chattanooga barge and towing company that bears his name. “We’ve been shut down for almost five weeks now. We’ve had to send our crews home and, except for one day, we haven’t been able to operate.”
Prompted by concerns about security work at two schools, Knox County school board member Mike McMillan wants his peers in the coming weeks to consider putting financial safeguards in place to ensure projects they contract out will be completed. “It would just give some protection for the school system in the future,” said McMillan, who represents the northeast portion of the county. “We may never get into this situation, but it gives us some protection.” McMillan said he is researching the issue and could present something to the board for discussion as soon as its Feb. 18 mid-month meeting.
Knox County school board members on Wednesday night approved three contracts for improvements at several elementary schools. The first contract, for $667,125, was to Henley Roofing Co. for roof upgrades to Bonny Kate and Sequoyah elementary schools. The other two contracts went to architecture firms to design additions and renovations at Pond Gap and Shannondale elementaries. The Pond Gap project, a $365,000 contract plus reimbursable expenses to The Lewis Group Architects, includes the addition of 16 classrooms, a new kitchen/cafeteria area, a gymnasium, two new music classrooms, an art room, an expansion of administrative office space and a new front entry complete with a secure vestibule.
Budget shortfalls estimated at anywhere from $90 million to $180 million related to the city and county school merger will drive the need for higher property taxes just as property values have gone down for the first time, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said Wednesday. At the University Club, Luttrell told the Kiwanis Club of Memphis that he didn’t intend to “sugar coat” the county’s economic situation. “We have serious issues that are facing our county. Issues that require aggressive leadership and collaboration — issues like education, crime, blight, access to health care, juvenile court reform, government inefficiencies and lack of job growth.”
Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and Tennesseans from every walk of life don’t agree on much. But almost every resident of the Volunteer State can find common ground on the ideas that there is too much waste in state government and far too many unnecessary, obsolete laws and regulations are on the books Two Williamson County state lawmakers have developed a plan to address both problems in one fell swoop. In what may be the best idea to come out of Nashville since the Goo Goo Cluster, state Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, unveiled a proposal on Tuesday to streamline state government, save taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars and make the legislative process more transparent.
“Had we had a chance to sit down with the media, we would have come to this conclusion. Without a lawsuit, which I thought was needless,” said Doug Dimond, general counsel for the Department of Children’s Services, in testimony on the release of information to media companies before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday. C’mon, man! Members of the Tennessee press have been “talking” with your department since Oct. 2 to gain insight into the challenges DCS faces in the cases that result in the worst conclusion, the death of a child.
One gun control measure strongly favored by public opinion and supported by the National Rifle Association would require background checks on all gun purchases. Presently, only sales by federally licensed firearms dealers are subject to these checks, and an estimated 40 percent of all transactions are exempt. The trouble is that the system for determining whether a prospective purchaser is prohibited from possessing a firearm is widely reported to be flawed. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (known as NICS) on which gun dealers rely is reportedly quite good at identifying some categories of people who are banned, including convicted felons and illegal aliens.