This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
For the “gold standard” of tourism marketing, look to Michigan, says Susan Whitaker, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. The “Pure Michigan” campaign has been funneling millions of additional out-of-state visitors to Michigan destinations, spreading awareness of the state through TV, radio, billboards and social media. The state generated $3.70 in tax revenue for each dollar spent on “Pure Michigan” advertising since it began in 2006.
State nutrition consultants stood at the front of the cafeteria line at Soddy-Daisy Middle School on Wednesday and watched students choose their lunches. Lila Beasley, with the state Department of Education school nutrition program, noted that students not only had healthy food on their plates, they were eating it, despite some negative comments. Very little of the lunches was wasted, she said. Soddy-Daisy Middle is among five Hamilton County schools that state nutrition inspectors are visiting this week to ensure schools are meeting new federal and state nutritional requirements.
Students at Volunteer State Community College will be able to easily transfer to Western Kentucky University under a new dual admissions agreement between the two schools. Leaders from both schools will sign the new agreement at the community college campus in Gallatin on Thursday. Students who earn a two-year degree at Volunteer State can enroll at WKU to pursue a bachelor’s degree and are advised by counselors at both schools to create an easy transition between schools.
Greenery, amenities to add curb appeal A multimillion-dollar overhaul of Volunteer Boulevard will be the marquee project in the University of Tennessee’s new plan to shed its “ugly campus” reputation. UT will ditch on-street parking, add bike lanes and install lush new landscaping along the city-owned, horseshoe-shaped campus thoroughfare. The project is part of an immediate face lift that would also bring greenery to Presidential Court, landscape the engineering buildings behind Ayres Hall, add entrance pillars to Fraternity Park and extend the existing pedestrian mall.
Travelling around campus could be a pain for the next few years as three projects — one by the city, one by the University of Tennessee and one by a private developer — envelope the area with construction. UT’s overhaul of Volunteer Boulevard, a multimillion-dollar project to widen the median, add bike lanes and do other cosmetic upgrades, will likely overlap with the city’s planned remake of Cumberland Avenue. Meanwhile, construction on the nearby Fulton Bellows site, where a Walmart and Publix will go up, has already started.
The Montgomery County Jail inmate population is lower today after state corrections officers transferred 80 prisoners to state facilities earlier this week. Sheriff John Fuson said an incident last week involving two inmates – who protested by climbing atop an air-conditioning unit and refused to come down – may have precipitated the transfer. The inmates had been sentenced to the Tennessee Department of Corrections and were in the county jail awaiting transfer to a state penitentiary; they had demanded to be sent to a state-run facility.
Tennessee’s judicial system is in the midst of a makeover. This week, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey announced the launch of the state’s first judicial redistricting process in nearly 30 years. It follows the state’s recent legislative redistricting process that occurred a little more than a year ago and was led by the General Assembly’s Republican majority. The last judicial redistricting occurred in 1984. At the moment, Tennessee has 31 judicial districts, which determine the areas that judges, district attorneys and public defenders serve.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has one issue that has drawn little attention that he wants to pass through this session of the legislature: redrawing the state’s judicial districts. These districts, which define the areas overseen by judges and district attorneys, have not been refined since 1984. “The population has changed, but not the districts,” Ramsey says. “I am bound and determined to tackle that.” Ramsey says he expects pushback from judges and district attorneys, whose jobs may on the line.
A Republican bill to tighten enrollment requirements for online-only schools has been softened while a Democratic proposal to ban private companies from running them has been derailed. The House Education Subcommittee took up virtual schools Tuesday amid allegations that a privately operated one directed teachers to cover up failing grades. The committee altered Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed enrollment cap so it kicks in only if the school falls below performance guidelines for two consecutive years.
Are leaders of a for-profit public school trying to hide the fact their students are failing? That’s the question that some are asking tonight as a result of an email uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates. At the center of the controversy is the Tennessee Virtual Academy — a for-profit, online public school that Republican lawmakers touted as a way to improve education in Tennessee. Two years ago, state lawmakers voted to let K12 Inc. open the school, using millions of taxpayer dollars. But, now, those lawmakers are concerned about standardized test results that put it among the worst schools in the state.
A bill to prevent businesses, schools and colleges from banning firearms in their parking lots was approved by a House subcommittee after a six-minute hearing Wednesday. The measure, sponsored by Republican Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cosby, would give the state’s 390,343 handgun carry permit holders the ability to store firearms in their vehicles parked on company or school property. Faison argued that permit holders who undergo background checks and meet training requirements are “worthy of carrying … and keeping a gun.”
A House panel on Wednesday quickly advanced a bill that would block employers, businesses, colleges and churches’ ability to bar handgun-carry permit holders from storing firearms in vehicles parked on their property. But the bill’s sponsor acknowledges that nothing in the measure would prevent employers from legally firing permit-holding workers who keep guns in their vehicles while on the job. Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said the Senate-passed bill doesn’t protect permit holders from Tennessee’s existing “at will” employment law.
A proposal to eliminate affirmative action initiatives from higher education institutions in Tennessee slowed in the state Senate on Wednesday after lawmakers and educators said they were uncomfortable with the bill’s language. Action on the measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Summerville of Dickson, was delayed in the Senate Education Committee for a week. The companion bill has been assigned to the House education subcommittee. As written, the legislation would prohibit colleges and universities from granting preference “based on race, gender or ethnicity … to any student or employee of the public institution of higher education or any person with whom the public institution of higher education contracts.”
Tennessee college officials, including University of Memphis President Shirley Raines, told state lawmakers Wednesday a bill to prohibit their schools from using any preferences based on race, gender or ethnicity could hurt their diversity outreach and student success programs. Raines, along with the presidents of East Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech universities and Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, said none of the public institution base admissions on race but do have programs to recruit populations “underrepresented” on their campuses and in academic disciplines, like engineering, and to help students succeed academically.
College presidents in Tennessee are defending their programs meant to diversify their student bodies. They worry about an effort to outlaw any preferences on the basis of race or gender. Universities are already barred by federal law from giving minorities a leg up in the admittance or hiring process. But there are efforts to attract certain under-represented groups. Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan says a summer program is meant to make sure black males stick with their college plans after high school graduation.
The state Senate is expected to vote on two constitutional amendments on Thursday. Both measures are sponsored by Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown. One would prohibit any state or local taxation of payroll or earned personal income, and the other would allow the governor to appoint appellate judges, subject to legislative confirmation. Under legislative rules, both measures will be read a third time before being discussed for a possible vote.
State lawmakers are looking for some way to slow the production of illegal methamphetamine without requiring a prescription for its ingredient. Legislation is being considered that would make Tennessee just the third state to require a doctor’s signature before buying medicine containing pseudoephedrine. Tennessee Meth Task Force chief Tommy Farmer told lawmakers he doesn’t know what else to do. “We have attempted everything.” But after reviewing tracking data for last year when nearly 750,000 packs of cold medicine were sold in Tennessee, some lawmakers are talking about less drastic steps first.
The 2013 version of legislation to increase penalties for cockfighting in Tennessee on Wednesday cleared a House subcommittee where it has died in previous years — though not without opposition. Under the bill by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, cockfighting would remain a misdemeanor on first offense, but the minimum fine would increase from $50 to $500. On second offense, cockfighting would be a felony punishable by one to six years in prison. Last year’s version called for a felony classification on first offense and set the minimum fine at $2,500.
Legislation increasing penalties for cockfighting offenses advanced in a Tennessee Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Wednesday. Subcommittee lawmakers agreed on a voice vote to pass state Rep. Jon Lundberg’s bill establishing a minimum misdemeanor fine for any cockfighting offense at $500, while a second offense would be a felony punishable with up to six years imprisonment and a fine not to exceed $3,000. Lundberg, R-Bristol, was unable to advance an anti-cockfighting measure last year.
The bill reworking Erlanger hospital’s governance structure guarantees only a third of what the hospital received in local public funding two years ago. The bill, which is expected to be passed by the Tennessee Legislature in March, obligates Hamilton County to set aside at least $1 million for the hospital for at least five years. After that, the amount would be adjusted according to the consumer price index. Since 1976, Chattanooga and the county had together put aside $3 million toward the hospital each year for indigent care, in accordance with the sales tax agreement between the two bodies.
Folks at the United States Geological Survey didn’t record any seismic activity in Hamblen County on Tuesday, but officials said that doesn’t rule out the possibility there was an earthquake. Geophysicist Julie Dutton in Denver said the USGS received several phone calls regarding the tremors that were reported around 4 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday in Central and East Hamblen County and Morristown. “It wasn’t big enough or we couldn’t see it on wave forms to identify it as an earthquake,” she said.
Grundy County, Tenn.’s finances are on the rebound after reaching worrisome lows late last year. The shortfall had some officials eyeing bonds or loans to keep services operating through year’s end. But County Mayor Lonnie Cleek says the situation never became too dire and property tax collections are filling coffers again. “We had our finger on the pulse of this thing well before the concern even arose,” said Cleek, who maintained in November 2012 that county finances were stable.
A Chattanooga developer who sued the city last year after the City Council voted against his request to build an International House of Pancakes on Gunbarrel Road is now alleging that council members held private meetings before the vote that violated Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act. The council voted in December 2011 not to rezone the property at 1825 Gunbarrel Road — which would have allowed developer Bassam Issa, who owns Ant Group, to build an IHOP on the spot. The rezoning would have violated the area’s land-use plan — which suggests the area should be used mainly for office space — and the Council voted 5-3 against the change.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais frowned at mentions of gun control, immigration reform and climate change during Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Fellow Tennessee Republican U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann crossed his arms as President Obama began his address. Democrat U.S. Rep Steve Cohen took pictures with his iPad. These are some of the sights witnessed by Chris Carroll, a reporter with The Chattanooga Times Free Press who watched the State of the Union in person. Unsurprisingly, Tennessee Republicans were unimpressed with Obama’s address.
Employers are increasingly using credit checks to screen prospective employees but wouldn’t be allowed to if a bill U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen introduced Wednesday becomes law. The Memphis Democrat has introduced the bill in two previous Congresses where it has died in the Financial Services Committee. On Wednesday, he touted the measure in the context of a recent story in The Commercial Appeal that indicated no metro area in America has a consumer credit score lower than Greater Memphis’ 638 average, according to the TransUnion rating agency.
State Sen. Jim Tracy has said he is running against abortion-recommending Congressman Scott DesJarlais in the Republican primary in 2014. Not so coincidentally, Tracy has introduced an anti-abortion bill that requires women to undergo an ultrasound before getting the procedure, an invasive test passed in other states by anti-abortion legislators. The bill is a template of anti-abortion legislation being passed around nationwide. DesJarlais has been revealed in court records to have urged an abortion on a former patient with whom he had an affair.
The U.S. government asked a federal judge Wednesday to dismiss a lawsuit alleging its agencies were negligent during the 2010 flood. Gaylord Entertainment Co. (now Ryman Hospitality Properties), A.O. Smith Corp. and several other companies, plus Nashville attorney Phillip North, filed a suit against the federal government, contending that the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service acted with negligence and failed to communicate properly when the decision was made on May 1-2, 2010, to release water from the Old Hickory Dam during the flood.
The Army Corps of Engineers is trying to fend off lawsuits over its handling of epic flooding in May of 2010. Wednesday a federal judge heard claims against the Corps from the owners of Opryland Hotel, Gibson Guitar, Nissan and several insurance companies. The Corps wants all the lawsuits to be dismissed, saying it could not predict the foot of rain that fell in a single weekend. Whole neighborhoods flooded, as described from the air by Nashville’s Channel 5: “And those are completely submerged… you would never, visiting that area you would never suspect that those would go underwater. There’s the off-ramp from Interstate 40. The underpass there, highway 70S, completely submerged…”
Saying that its debt could reach $45 billion by 2017 if Congress does not act, the Postal Service on Wednesday called on lawmakers to give it the flexibility to change its business model to keep itself solvent. During a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Patrick R. Donahoe, the postmaster general, asked Congress to give the Postal Service permission to run its own health plan for employees and retirees, modify a Congressional mandate that requires the agency to pay $5.5 billion a year into its fund for future employee health benefits, and end Saturday mail delivery.
A coalition of environmental groups plans to sue the Tennessee Valley Authority over violations of the Clean Water Act. The Southern Environmental Law Center says the Colbert Fossil Plant in Tuscumbia, Ala., has been illegally discharging pollutants into the Cane Creek — a Tennessee River tributary — and has been polluting groundwater as well. In a letter providing TVA 60 days’ notice of the impending suit, SELC officials say coal ash from the facility seeping into nearby waterways contains arsenic, selenium, lead, iron, cadmium and other pollutants.
Ed Medical, a local medical equipment company, is bracing for a big financial hit that could cut its annual revenue in half, starting in July. The Hendersonville-based company is one of dozens of local health care suppliers that will be heavily affected by the federal government’s new plan for supplying durable medical equipment — such as oxygen tanks, wheelchairs and hospital beds — to Medicare patients. “This is devastating for the industry,” said Ben Shapiro, chief operating officer of Ed Medical, which operates a half-dozen locations in the Nashville area.
The countywide school board’s $145 million “ask” is on its way to the Shelby County Commission. There was much debate among board members about the amount but general agreement that they need more details about what would be in even a preliminary budget. The reaction this week came after the first attempt at a preliminary budget from staff of both school systems provoked mutual alarm among city and county school parents. Prior to the budget outline showing rising pupil-teacher ratios and cuts in teaching assistants and assistant principals, many of those parents had been relying on assurances the opening day of classes Aug. 5 in the merger would see few if any changes for the vast majority of students in both systems.
‘Not realistic’, ‘frustrating’ Shelby County commissioners say the $145 million budget increase approved by the unified Memphis and Shelby County school board is more fantasy than reality and not likely to be approved. Even supporters of the vision of a “world-class school system” say the votes aren’t there to support such a huge increase. “I’m living in Realville and they brought me a fantasy budget,” said Commissioner Heidi Shafer. The money represents the deficit in a $1.3 billion budget proposal to fund the merged school systems.
The search for a superintendent to lead the new unified Memphis and Shelby County school district has shifted into high gear. Seventeen of the 23 unified school board members have been interviewed by Proact Search, Inc., of Wilmette, Ill., the firm hired to lead the search, to determine what they would like to see in a new superintendent. The board is expected to approve a plan Monday in which the next step is a series of community forums and other “stakeholder engagement activities” late this month and early next month.
North Carolina lawmakers approved deep cuts to benefits for the jobless on Wednesday, in a state that has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. In a debt-reducing effort, the Republican-controlled legislature voted to cut maximum weekly benefits to $350 from $535, a 35 percent drop; reduce the maximum number of weeks for collecting benefits to between 12 and 20 weeks from 26 weeks; and tighten requirements to qualify. The cuts would begin with new jobless claims on July 1.
A for-profit company selected to run Tennessee’s largest virtual school system is accused of doctoring students’ grades, but two state representatives, including one from Memphis, cut off any discussion Tuesday about the alleged cheating. Then the state House Education subcommittee killed a bill that would have closed the Tennessee Virtual Academy, which has 486 students from Shelby County and 3,149 statewide. The reprieve came despite the fact that a lot of legislators — Democrats and Republicans — are extremely disappointed with the low academic performance of students enrolled in the school.
Tennessee may soon join several states experimenting with vouchers as a vehicle for school reform. These include Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and the District of Columbia. Louisiana, under Gov. Bobby Jindal, has been implementing an ambitious voucher program that a state judge recently ruled unconstitutionally violates the state’s education funding formula. Nevertheless, it looks like vouchers are back on the menu of school choice reforms favored by politicians and some policymakers. In a panel discussion last week co-sponsored by Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and the League of Women Voters of Nashville, Peabody professor Claire Smrekar situated vouchers as one among a range of choices including magnet schools, charter schools, open-enrollment policies and home or private schooling.
How Do You Get Washington to Listen to State Issues? • Since the 1970s, with the possible exception of Don Sundquist and Jim Sasser, everyone elected to statewide office in Tennessee has been a millionaire. In the last decade they have been multimillionaires—capable of writing $3 million checks to their campaigns. • A common complaint of state and local officials is unfunded federal mandates. • There is a feeling that Washington doesn’t work anymore; Congress is trapped inside the Beltway Bubble and out of touch with the folks back home. Nothing gets done, though polls show the American people would prefer some bipartisan solutions rather than continuing crises and stalemates.