This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
The Washington, D.C.-focused website Politico profiled Gov. Bill Haslam Wednesday, describing him as “the most important Republican governor you’ve never heard of.” Contrasting Haslam’s style to the bombast that wins clicks on video websites and appearances on cable news, Politico writer Alexander Burns said Haslam could be a model for the national GOP on how to govern conservatively. The piece listed Haslam’s credits as passing civil service reform, tort reform, new teacher tenure rules, tax cuts and charter school expansion.
Two days after being labeled a “GOP star you’ve never heard of,” the news website Politico continues to offer coverage to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. Haslam, who is in Washington, D.C., for the National Governors Association winter meeting, participated in the State Solutions Conference Friday, sponsored by Politico and Microsoft. In a report on the event, Politico quoted the governor offering thoughts on what contributed to Republicans’ inability to relay their message to voters last November.
Governors of both parties said on Saturday that they knew federal budget cuts were coming, and they pleaded with President Obama and Congress to give them more discretion over the use of federal money so they could minimize the pain for their citizens. The governors, arriving here for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, said that the automatic across-the-board cuts in federal spending that are scheduled to begin at the end of the week were creating havoc, threatening jobs and sapping economic growth in their states.
With the deadline for action less than a week away, exasperated governors are joining a White House push to intensify pressure on Congress to prevent a looming budget crisis. Both Democrat and Republican chief executives, gathered in Washington for the National Governors Association annual meeting, warned of widespread economic fallout should Washington lawmakers fail to reach an 11th-hour compromise. “It’s senseless and it doesn’t need to happen,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said Saturday.
The person appointed to replace Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey will have only a year on the bench before trying to win a full term in the 2014 election, but the appointee will carry a distinct advantage into next year’s campaign. Over the past four judicial elections, which span 32 years, only three incumbents in 56 local judicial races have lost, according to Times Free Press archives. Only twice did a judge appointed before facing election lose the race. Among the 15 sitting state or county judges in Hamilton County, seven were appointed to their positions before winning the next election.
State lawmakers were not in session when chronic problems surfaced at the state agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect. But they are making up for lost time. Spurred on by revelations that the Department of Children’s Services can’t adequately explain the deaths of children in its care — or even give an accurate count of the number of children who died — legislators are demanding answers from the $650 million agency, even as it undergoes a change in leadership.
Democratic state Rep. Sherry Jones said she’ll be requesting access to as many as a dozen case files kept by the Department of Children’s Services — and she’ll get to look at them thanks to a state law she helped pass in 2008. “We listened to what their side of the story is,” Jones said after meeting with several families from across the state on Monday. “We will have to check all of these case files to see what the other side of the story is.” Department spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said lawmakers can review entire files at the agency’s central office after signing a confidentiality agreement.
A Senate hearing on Tuesday turned into a lengthy debate over the Marshall court, mid-19th century tariff policy, the Nullification Crisis of 1832 and the Civil War. And it was a bill by state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, that prompted it all. Speaking on behalf of Senate Bill 250 — a bill she has filed that seeks to nullify any federal laws that would restrict ownership or production of semiautomatic weapons, high-capacity magazines or other accessories — Beavers called the U.S. Supreme Court “a dictatorship” and suggested the entire American judicial system has been off the rails for more than two centuries.
State lawmakers thought a 2011 bill allowing revocation of driver’s licenses for deadbeats who failed to pay criminal fines and court costs would reap millions in reinstatement fees. But seven months into the first year of operation, only nine counties are complying and the state has collected just $22,425. The shortfall has left a gaping hole in the department’s budget, Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons said last week. “The department is requesting $7.6 million in supplemental funding for the current fiscal year in order to correct the overestimate of driver’s license reinstatement fees,” Gibbons told Senate Transportation Committee members.
Memphis-area homebuilders have turned to Tennessee lawmakers for help in avoiding new and stricter seismic building standards that they say would drive buyers out of the still-beleagured market for new houses. Bills filed in the House and Senate would grant local governments the power to adopt building code amendments that are less stringent than those enforced by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Under current law, local amendments are supposed to be at least as strict as the state-mandated codes.
People aren’t afraid of gun legislation coming out of Nashville, it’s Washington lawmakers who have them worried, said State Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. Niceley spoke during a “Day of Resistance” event held this afternoon in Sevierville at the Thompson Carr Auctions parking lot off Dolly Parton Parkway. Rallies occurred throughout the country as part of a nationwide “Day of Resistance,” and Nicely said the Sevierville event had a good turnout. “I was impressed with the crowd, these people know their Constitution,” he said.
At least 18 donors to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais have pledged money, support or both to the congressman’s opponent, adding to a growing list of defections amid personal scandals and political fallout. Along with 25 state legislators, the 18 DesJarlais donors publicly have endorsed state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, in the 2014 Republican primary for the 4th District. Tracy is the only candidate so far to challenge the Jasper, Tenn., physician, whose re-election campaign and victory celebration were rocked by revelations from his long-ago divorce.
State Sen. Jim Tracy has set the first fundraiser of his congressional campaign for March 14 in Murfreesboro. According to a flyer from the Tracy campaign, Beverly and Warren McPherson will host a $250-minimum event at their home. Former Tennessee Gov. Winfield Dunn and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey headline the list of honorary hosts. Tracy, R-Shelbyville, has already announced plans to take on U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-South Pittsburg, in the 2014 GOP primary. State Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, is among those also weighing a run.
Unless Congress reverses budget cuts already in motion, federal spending in Tennessee will nosedive more than $350 million over the remaining seven months of the federal fiscal year, with many fearing that the sharp decline will harm the national and state economies. The reductions — which include defense and nondefense programs — will stem from the “sequester,” the device for automatic spending cuts beginning this year that Congress put in place as part of a deficit-reduction package passed in August 2011.
If Fort Campbell’s civilian workforce – some 8,058 people strong at last count – is adversely affected by federal spending cuts and furloughs, Clarksville’s overall economy could also feel the pinch in the months ahead. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly told Congress this week that up to 22 weeks of furloughs could be in store for the 800,000 civilian workers of the Department of Defense, starting in April, if automatic spending cuts are enacted next month. That means many people in the Fort Campbell civilian workforce might lose one day of work per week, or 20 percent of their pay, based on Panetta’s comments.
Tennessee Valley Authority backed away from the nuclear plant design that is proving costly at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, but the federal utility still is leading the nation in pursuing more nuclear power. TVA is finishing one reactor and considering completing two others that are the last of the previous generation of nuclear plants begun before the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. Although TVA deferred its original plan to build one of the first of the next generation reactor designs in Alabama, utility officials announced an agreement last week to pursue a construction permit to build an even more innovative reactor in Oak Ridge as soon as 2022, pending regulatory and board approval.
Erlanger trustees believe they will pay their newly named CEO more than the half-million dollar salary paid to his predecessor, as hospital executives’ pay continues to rise across the country. After naming Kevin Spiegel as the public hospital’s new CEO on Monday, Erlanger board members have spent the week negotiating contract details with him. Spiegel now is CEO and senior vice president at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis. Erlanger’s trustees are expected to vote next week on a contract with Spiegel.
Les and Nancy Adkins would recommend Middle Tennessee Medical Center to anyone after Les was treated there for a ruptured appendix in January. “I think they are trying to do a good job in customer satisfaction. They’re making a real effort at it,” said Les Adkins, 64, a retired Nissan purchasing project manager who went to the emergency room Jan. 13 seeking treatment. A retired registered nurse, Nancy Adkins judged the hospital’s response based on her knowledge of what doctors and nurses should be asking and doing, and “they were right on the money,” she said.
A few years ago, Whitwell resident Jason Freeman brought home an $8,000 federal tax refund and promptly treated his wife to a vacation in Cancun, Mexico. But this year, he’s only planning to put new tires on his truck and pay some bills with the $1,400 refund he collected. “It’s not as good as last year’s refund,” he said with a wry grin. The payroll tax changes that cut into most Americans’ paychecks and an uncertain economy have created a sea of tentative consumers this tax season, according to the National Retail Federation.
Whitehall Pre-K Center teacher Abby Worsham is among the 16 percent of Jackson-Madison County Schools teachers who received a 3, which is considered a solid score, under the state’s teacher evaluation system in the 2011-12 academic year. But Worsham said the score is not a true reflection of her performance as a teacher. “My observation score was a 4, but since I had to take the district’s growth score, which was a 1, it brought me down to a 3.” Under the state’s evaluation system, teachers receive a score of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest possible score.
Leaders of the area Public Building Authority are accusing the Knox County Schools chief and school board members of misleading the public about the state of security systems in at least two schools and putting taxpayers at financial risk. School officials Saturday, however, disputed PBA members’ assertions. At a meeting Tuesday, PBA’s board of directors asked attorney Morris Kizer to draft a statement notifying Knox County Commission, Mayor Tim Burchett and the public that the school system’s statements about the state of security systems at the two schools were at best misleading and at worst untrue.
The clock is ticking. Yes, that’s true about the sequester, too — but we are talking about the risk of Tennessee being left out of the Medicaid expansion. In just about a month, Gov. Bill Haslam and legislative leaders must let federal officials know whether Tennessee will accept its portion — $5.8 billion — of a federal Medicaid expansion for the Affordable Care Act. The dollar amount is obviously impressive, but even more so is the prospect of adding health coverage for 180,000 Tennesseans who currently have no coverage. That is approximately the population of Knoxville. We’ve known ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act that a lot of Tennessee politicians would be struggling to embrace the law.
Politico discovered Bill Haslam last week, declaring in a flattering profile piece that he is “the most important Republican governor you’ve never heard of,” a prospective candidate for national office and “at the very least a model for national Republicans groping around for ideas that appeal to the middle class.” At the same time, the national online political magazine was also running an article about the great divide among Republican governors over Medicaid expansion. The “ideological purists are big-name Southern governors who have all said ‘hell no’ to major pieces of the law, even turning down free federal cash to expand Medicaid in their states,” the article says.
Nashville has a growing national reputation as a place for opportunity. A Conde Nast writer recently described our city as “where all the young, vibrant, creative types are going.” As mayor, I’m proud that everyone from aspiring songwriters to young professionals are choosing Nashville. But what keeps me up at night is that in our very same city, thousands of public school children — who didn’t choose where they live and whose parents often have little choice in where they reside — aren’t receiving the opportunity they need and deserve to pursue their own dreams in life. For example, only 29 percent of our high school students scored a 21 or above on the ACT in 2012.
We love to talk about what is wrong with our schools — after all, since we went to school, we are experts, too, so we certainly know how it can be done better! And as thoroughly modern Americans, we embrace the idea that there is a magic cure — whether that cure is charter school expansion to provide competition within public schools, freedom of school choice by providing vouchers that can be used to attend private schools, making teachers better through ramping up accountability for student test performance, or making students behave through one-strike rules that give schools the freedom to remove “bad” kids from the system. All are programs that have demonstrated some success, albeit on a small scale, in treating the symptoms of an “ailing” system.
Though the Great Recession is technically long over, the aftereffects stubbornly linger. Unemployment in particular remains high. Knox County’s rate is lower than the rate in many places, but that’s cold comfort to those who lost jobs during the economic downturn and have yet to find new ones or are working part time. Last week the News Sentinel published a series of articles over three days taking a look at the ongoing effects of unemployment on East Tennesseans. The reports were sobering but also help point public policymakers in the right direction for ways to help alleviate the suffering in the Volunteer State.
We all know the U.S. Postal Service is facing dramatic financial challenges, but its recent decision to start shredding undelivered Imagination Library books for children is simply mind-boggling.Check that. It’s totally outrageous and infuriating, and postal officials need to step in and fix this quickly.Since 2004, the Governor’s Books From Birth Foundation, in cooperation with local Imagination Library organizations, has mailed the books free of charge to registered children across the state as part of a broad charitable effort. The concept, started by Dolly Parton and nurtured in Tennessee by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, aims to get a monthly book delivered to children from birth to age 5.
We’ve all heard of welfare for the unemployed and welfare to serve low-income children. But have you ever heard of welfare for golfers? It’s a serious problem in Tennessee, where government officials routinely spend more than a million dollars a year bailing out failing state-owned golf courses. Earlier this month, the Tennessee State Building Commission announced plans to spend $2.25 million on improvements to Fall Creek Falls State Park in Pikeville. A big chunk of that cash is slated to go towards installing an expensive new irrigation system for the park’s insolvent government-owned golf course. The golf course at Fall Creek Falls lost $275,760 last year and $256,089 the year before that — and $252,005 the year before that. In fact the Fall Creek Falls golf course never turns a profit.
The Tennessee River is not to be taken for granted. And it shouldn’t be piped to North Georgia in a land grab either. In 1998, a Georgia planner named Harry West, half jokingly talked of sticking “a big straw” in the Tennessee to bring water to thirsty Atlanta.” The talk made headlines and galvanized Tennessee state officials to action, drafting a new permitting law that bans what is called “interbasin transfers.” The bill quickly passed unanimously. In approving it, Tennessee lawmakers and policy wonks pointed to the example of the Colorado River, which once flowed from the Rockies into Mexico and then to the Gulf of California. Now after being diverted hundreds of miles to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and other fast-growing cities and acres of thirsty deserts converted to croplands, 70 percent of the Colorado’s water is siphoned away.