This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
The Tennessee Tourism Committee is advocating for additional spending on tourism marketing to bring more visitors to the state, funding that could come from Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed $8 million increase for the state’s tourism marketing budget. A $10 million increase in marketing dollars could lead to 9.5 million additional visitors, generating $1.25 billion in new visitor spending, $185 million in additional taxes and 65,000 more jobs, according to a news release from the Tennessee Tourism Committee.
A Hamblen County chancellor has been elevated to a higher state court, officials said. Gov. Bill Haslam on Friday appointed Thomas R. “Skip” Frierson II as a judge for the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, authorities said.Frierson replaces Judge Herschel P. Franks, who retired at the end of 2012, according to a news release from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts. “Skip Frierson has spent the last 23 years serving in public office in East Tennessee, and he brings a wealth of experience to the bench,” Haslam said.
The state of Tennessee’s economic development effort outside the U.S. has returned formally this week to where it was in 1997 with overseas offices pushing Tennessee exports and foreign investment in the state. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty announced Monday, Feb. 11, the new set of eight offices in Mexico, the United Kingdom, China and Germany. Four of the offices will work on recruiting direct foreign investment in Tennessee while the other four will work on export promotion.
The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development announced plans to bolster exports by opening physical offices in China, Mexico, Germany and the UK, The Tennessean reported, but Memphis officials are also looking to secure a bigger slice of international trade. For example, the Greater Memphis Chamber has been working with contacts from Israel to strengthen ties between the local and Israeli economies. It went so far as to bring Eli Groner, Israel’s Minister for Economic Affairs to the United States, to Memphis on Feb. 5 to address local business leaders.
Lawyers: Files must be moved by hand, not express mail Lawyers for the Department of Children’s Services claim that agency files on children who died or nearly died must be transported by hand, from one location to another, in order to protect the documents’ confidentiality and integrity. But the agency’s own written policies instruct staffers to use “express mail” when sending children’s files in the course of doing their work. The key difference between hand-delivering files versus putting them in the mail lies in the extremely high price tag DCS has put on the delivery costs of making its files public.
Someone at the Department of Children’s Services redacted numerous pages of information about child fatalities in meeting minutes that were provided to the media. DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth told The Tennessean the department is still investigating who redacted the information and why. Because the documents were redacted on a computer, it was impossible to tell that many sentences and paragraphs had been completely removed. These included potentially damaging information about caseworker actions.
LaunchTN, a state-supported agency created to help promote the development of high-growth companies in Tennessee, is getting $100,000 from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to start a “Tennessee Top 10” program for graduates from Tennessee’s regional business accelerators, including the CoLab in Chattanooga. Thirty “master mentors” will be selected to help the entrepreneurs, primarily with expertise in either technology or health care.
A federal judicial panel has ruled that dozens of cases involving a nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak, including those filed on behalf of Tennessee victims, will be consolidated before a federal judge in Boston. In Tuesday’s ruling, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation concluded that Massachusetts was the most appropriate location for the multiple lawsuits because the company blamed for the outbreak is located there and many of the likely witnesses live there. Federal and state investigations of the outbreak are centered there.
Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers will continue an aggressive traffic enforcement campaign through March on Interstate 75. The campaign, dubbed “Operation Stay Alive on I-75,” will focus on traffic violators after statistics showed there was an increase in crashes and fatalities on the interstate, according to a news release. In the Chattanooga highway patrol district, which includes 12 counties, there are 59 miles of I-75 for troopers to patrol during the campaign that kicked off in January.
In an effort to prod more attorneys to provide free legal assistance to people who can’t afford a lawyer, the Tennessee Supreme Court has announced that it would begin giving special recognition to lawyers who spend at least 50 hours doing pro bono work. Lawyers who donate 50 hours of their time to either the poor, or organizations that serve people who cannot afford an attorney, will be honored and receive certificates signed by members of the Supreme Court. Nearly 20 percent of Tennesseans cannot afford to pay for the most basic legal services.
A plan to demolish the Cordell Hull Building faced questions Tuesday from Tennessee lawmakers concerned about the historical value of the building and future plans for the site next to the Capitol. Members of the House Finance Committee sought assurances at a budget meeting that Department of General Services officials would consider other ways to dispose of the 60-year-old building on 5th Avenue North and would not sell the land beneath it to private developers.
A Republican bill to tighten enrollment requirements for online-only schools was softened in a House subcommittee Tuesday, while a Democratic proposal to ban private companies from running them was derailed. The House Education Subcommittee took up several virtual school bills, but the two proposals seemed to draw the most attention — particularly the banning measure. That legislation, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville, was brought amid allegations that a privately operated virtual school directed teachers to cover up failing grades.
A House committee killed legislation that would have closed Union County-based Tennessee Virtual Academy on Tuesday after one Knoxville legislator effectively blocked another from talking to the committee about allegations that the for-profit school altered the bad grades of some students. Instead, the House Education Subcommittee approved a bill pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration that puts some new restrictions on virtual schools, but only after eliminating — with the governor’s approval — a proposed 5,000-student enrollment cap that was originally part of House Bill 151.
Teachers filled the front row of a state legislative committee room to support their embattled virtual school. Ultimately, the panel advanced legislation that would cap enrollment if a trend of poor grades persists. Teachers with Tennessee Virtual Academy say many of their 3,200 students come from homeschool backgrounds and are new to standardized tests. Summer Shelton teaches sixth graders. “I know you’re looking at test scores. We need time for improvement, and you’re exactly right, we do want to have the best for our children. But we want to have options.”
Lawmakers have put a clear target on the Metro Nashville Public Schools system in a bill that would allow groups looking to open charter schools to apply straight to the state Board of Education. Under the proposal, the option to circumvent the local school board would only be available in Nashville and Memphis. The legislative language, which was released late Monday before a Tuesday meeting, won its first victory in the House Education subcommittee today before a standing room only crowd.
A bill allowing charter school applicants to apply directly to the state passed its first hurdle in Nashville Tuesday, potentially setting up a way for the suburbs here to have charter schools outside the control of the Unified Shelby County School Board. The bill would allow charter school operators in Shelby and Davidson counties freedom to apply to the state to approve their charter applications instead of the local school board. The caveat is that if the state denied the application, there would be no appeal.
The Tennessee Board of Education could soon decide which charter schools can open up in the state. A proposal in the General Assembly gives charter applicants a way to bypass the local school board. The legislation would apply only to Nashville and Memphis. According to its sponsors who are from Memphis, that’s because the state’s two largest cities are where charter schools are most active. The wording does give these privately-run, publicly-financed schools an end run around local school boards.
House leaders who last year fended off a bill to overrule businesses seeking to ban firearms in their parking lots appear to be giving up the fight. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga says he and fellow Republicans just want to put the measure behind them so they can move on to other more pressing issues. In McCormick’s words: “We can argue about it and then pass it, or we can just pass it.” The bill that passed the Senate on a 28-5 vote this week is up for its first House committee hearing on Wednesday.
A proposal meant to stop legislators who live near the state capitol from receiving money for hotel rooms and meals has been delayed. One affected lawmaker accused those from farther away of taking advantage of per diem rates too. On top of their part-time salary and mileage reimbursement, legislators can also claim nearly $180 a day for expenses. The bill being considered makes that money off limits for those who live less than 50 miles from the capitol, saving an estimated $250,000 a year.
A Hamilton County commissioner wants to see a “short list” of potential new Erlanger trustees before approving legislation reforming the hospital’s governing board. “My problem is that the County Commission has final approval, but we don’t have any knowledge of who the prospective initial board members are before we approve this legislation,” Commissioner Tim Boyd said Tuesday. “Before we vote on the legislation, I want to see the short list of community members for the board.” Boyd’s comments came just hours after legislation to remake Erlanger’s board members cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday.
Politically and physically, Tennessee Republicans shied away from President Barack Obama before, during and after Tuesday evening’s State of the Union address. A little after 9 p.m., the traditional bipartisan scramble extended smiles and hands toward Obama as he strode into a joint session of Congress. But the pre-speech hustle featured no one from Chattanooga, Knoxville, Maryville or Jasper, reflecting the wide political gap between the president and the Volunteer State’s congressional lineup.
Tennessee’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law does not hold the state as accountable for high-school graduation rates as it should. So says a report out today from the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which analyzed waivers from thirty-four states. The report gives Tennessee some credit for singling out high schools for intervention, if graduation rates lag among say poor students, or minorities. But the report also says Tennessee’s new waiver puts too much emphasis on test scores, and not enough on grad rates. It could give districts a perverse incentive, to get better test scores by letting bad students drop out.
Recent mass shootings in Connecticut and Colorado have reshaped governors’ legislative agendas this year, spurring many of them to use their once-a-year legislative addresses to ask lawmakers to take up gun control, mental health treatment and school safety. In their state-of-the-state speeches, Democratic governors tended to push for restrictions on gun sales, such as bans on automatic weapons or universal background checks. Republicans often defended the rights of gun owners and pushed for armed guards in schools and better training for police.
After announcing its intention to shut down its Memphis facility in 2010, J.M. Smucker Co. has filed an application for tax abatements for a $55 million expansion that will preserve 60 existing local jobs and create 65 new ones. Smucker manufactures fruit spread at the 135,000-square-foot facility, and had previously planned to invest $220 million in a new facility in Orrville, Ohio, where the company is based. That project would have resulted in the shutdown of the Memphis facility, a process that was scheduled to be completed by this summer.
J.M. Smucker Co. may reverse its decision to leave Memphis if local government gives it a 12-year tax break. Smucker, now employing 60 in Memphis, would hire an additional 65 workers and pump $55 million worth of improvements into its operation, according to its application for a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes). The Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) for Memphis and Shelby County is holding a special called meeting on Monday to consider the application.
School security is now at the top of the Knox County Commission’s agenda. In the wake of an audit that says a Knoxville security company performed shoddy work, county leaders say they want more answers. “The commissioners have some questions other than the standard claim that ‘Kids are our highest safety and priority,'” said Commission Chairman Tony Norman. “Those are nice things to say, but we also have questions about the process and procedures that took place, and I wanted to make sure that there’s an opportunity to ask questions.”
A Knoxville company facing a lawsuit over security systems it installed at two local schools has been paid almost $2 million from the county, the city and the school system during the past half decade, records show. Professional Security Consultants and Design, or PSCD, also received about $300,000 under a federal Homeland Security grant to oversee some upgrades for the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. Most of the local monies paid to PSCD have come from the school system.
The countywide school board is asking the Shelby County Commission for $145 million in extra funding for the first fiscal year of the schools merger. The “ask” is a preliminary number that goes to a county commission budget retreat scheduled for Feb. 23. It is extra funding beyond the $361 million county government currently provides both school systems. If the commission informally rejects it, as Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and County Commission chairman Mike Ritz have predicted, the school board would then begin preparing a specific budget to take to the commission for funding in April – the traditional budget season in local government.
Shelby County Commissioners marked the two-year anniversary Monday, Feb. 11, of the federal lawsuit over schools consolidation and municipal school districts with a running debate across several items about the upcoming schools merger. Commissioner Wyatt Bunker pushed unsuccessfully to add a vote Monday on a resolution instructing the county’s attorneys to drop the commission lawsuit opposing municipal schools district laws. “This is a time … when the mistakes of consolidation are magnified,” Bunker said.
Tennessee is more connected to the global economy than ever before. It makes sense to capitalize on decades of foreign business relations and some of the state’s unique advantages. That’s why Gov. Bill Haslam’s latest effort through the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development makes sense. The state will add to its global presence by opening four new foreign offices dedicated to expanding Tennessee exports. With a large U.S. trade deficit, it can be hard for many people to comprehend that the United States also is a major exporter of goods and services. U.S. exports in 2011 were close to $1.5 trillion. Tennessee exports that year we $30 billion, ranking it 14th in the nation.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has said he will make a recommendation on the possible expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee before the General Assembly ends its 2013 session this spring. The expansion is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states can opt out of the Medicaid expansion, and that is precisely what many in the Legislature’s Republican supermajority would like to see happen. We urge Haslam to find a way to make the expansion work — and convince GOP lawmakers it is in the best interest of Tennesseans. Expanding Medicaid, which is administered in Tennessee through the TennCare program, would be good for lower income residents and help the state’s hospitals survive Medicare cuts that also are part of the Affordable Care Act.
Watching the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services evolve into a publicly accountable government agency is not unlike watching a toddler taking its first uncertain steps. First a step forward, then a step back, a sway to the side, then a stumble and then more steps forward. Even as DCS officials are preparing judge-ordered copies of files relating to more than 200 child deaths and near-deaths, another set of documents from the department’s Child Fatality Review Team that was prepared for media organizations had major deletions of public information. These improperly redacted documents were released by DCS on Jan. 11, prior to the judge’s ruling in a lawsuit filed by The Tennessean and other media organizations.
The guns-in-parking-lots bill fails in logic and common sense, yet the Tennessee Senate overwhelmingly passed it on Monday. The legislation now is on a speedy path toward passage in the House. The bill would allow handgun-carry permit holders to keep loaded guns locked in their vehicles on virtually every public and private parking lot in the state, including schools and college campuses. The bill is another example of the headstrong assault by the National Rifle Association and Second Amendment advocates to allow carry permit holders to take their weapons anywhere they want. And Tennessee’s Republican-led General Assembly is marching along in lock step.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has issued a proposal to redraw Tennessee’s 31 judicial districts. Office holders are elected to serve, and that is part of the concern. In many states, redistricting becomes a way for the party in power to remain in power. It becomes a political ploy that annoys voters, who sometimes have difficulty seeing the benefits of the redistricting. Conversely, when done right, redistricting can be a powerful tool to ensure the electorate is properly represented. Lt. Gov. Ramsey makes a strong case for judicial redistricting. Redistricting has not occurred since 1984, and Ramsey told reporters that it is obvious that redistricting then was based on politics. He stated that one of his goals is making sure a new plan is more efficient and makes wise use of state resources.
As the race for the Republican nomination for the 4th District U.S. House seat moves apace, challengers to incumbent Scott DesJarlais are making their appeals to single-issue voters. These appeals seem to be much more matters of political expediency than studied efforts at policy-making or political leadership. State Rep. Joe Carr of Lascassas is still is in the “exploratory” phase of his campaign, but he appealed to those for whom the Second Amendment is the single issue with his legislative proposal to empower state and local law-enforcement officers to arrest any federal agents who try to enforce stricter gun-control laws in the state. Not to be outdone, State Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, who has announced his candidacy, is proposing legislation to appeal to those for whom abortion is the only issue on which to base a political decision.
Nashville has a problem. Companies here have 836 open technology jobs. But there aren’t enough workers to fill them. A jaw-dropping 60 percent of those jobs will take more than a year to fill. The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce last week launched what it hopes is the solution. The new “workIT Nashville” program will connect job applicants to companies, woo IT workers to move here and create a national public relations buzz to make Nashville a go-to city. These are not fresh-out-of-college startup jobs. These are jobs for people with three to five years of experience in the technology field who can expect to make salaries between $50,000 and $125,000.