This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty along with Festiva Hospitality Group representatives today announced the company has opened a call center in Johnson City. The announcement represents an investment of $1.1 million and will create 100 jobs in Carter County “We are thankful for Festiva Hospitality Group’s decision to locate in Johnson City and the investment in our state and its citizens,” Haslam said.
Clarksville bank executive Billy Atkins has been appointed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to the board of directors for the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security Foundation. The mission of the Foundation is to “ensure that Tennessee is a safe, secure place in which to live, work and travel; enforce the law with integrity; and provide customer-focused services professionally and efficiently by supporting all the sheriff’s offices, police departments, Tennessee Highway Patrol and Homeland Security across the state.
The death rate for children in Tennessee dropped by 20 percent over the five years between 2007 and 2011. According to a report by the Tennessee Department of Health, factors in that decrease include a sharp decline in the number of sleep-related infant deaths due to suffocation or strangulation. But Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner said there are still too many children dying from preventable causes. Of the 799 deaths in 2011 that were reviewed for the report, 26 percent were due to injuries from things like motor vehicles, weapons and fires.
America, fewer children are behind bars. And nowhere has seen a bigger drop in incarcerated youth than Tennessee. According to a new study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation the state saw a 66 percent change from 1997 to 2010. One big drop came in the late 90s when the state first placed both child welfare and juvenile detention under the same department. The second came a few years ago, as Memphis high schools began dealing in-house with certain assault cases, rather than sending kids to court.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman thinks most school systems are big bureaucracies that waste money that should be spent on students. At least that is what he told an audience of about 60 people Wednesday at Vanderbilt University. Huffman’s comments came during an education reform discussion at the Vanderbilt Law School, where he was joined by former New York University School of Law classmate and social justice advocate Oona Chatterjee, who works for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.
As the world’s population increases, the demand for food will rise, which means agriculture production will become even more important. Since about 25 percent of Tennessee’s total agricultural production is exported to other countries, Commissioner of Agriculture Julius Johnson said the state has to increase its agriculture production over the next several decades. Johnson believes Washington County will play an important part in that mission.
A former Tennessee driver’s licensing clerk was sentenced earlier this month on federal bribery charges for issuing licenses to ineligible persons for money. U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp sentenced Larry Murphy, 54, of Antioch on Feb. 15 along with Anny Castillo, 30, of Madison, for her role in paying Murphy for the licenses, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Nashville The FBI filed a criminal complaint against Murphy last April that accused him of assisting illegal immigrants with obtaining the licenses from the Hart Lane testing facility without passing the necessary tests.
A report issued Tuesday shows Tennessee, along with Indiana, leading the nation for the number of teen driving deaths for the first six months of 2012 when compared to the same time in 2011, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The study cites improved economic conditions and fewer states strengthening the graduated driver licensing programs as reasons for the overall increase in 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths nationwide. However, local authorities cite teens not wearing seat belts and distracted driving as reasons for local teen driving deaths.
UT, donor believe new building will improve state of education A towering clay-colored pedestrian bridge may be the most obvious sign a visitor is standing near the University of Tennessee’s soon-to-be-finished John D. Tickle Building. The walkway is meant to look like a suspension bridge, a staple of civil engineering feats, and will include large I-beams manufactured by the company founded by the building’s namesake. “This is going to be a civil engineering building, and we want it, from the road driving down, to have more of an industrial look. We want it to look like an engineering building from the other parts of campus” said Wayne Davis, dean of the College of Engineering.
Nearly 600 students, alumni and employees of University of Tennessee campuses have signed a petition protesting a plan to partner with an oil and gas company to conduct research on hydraulic fracturing. Two UT-Chattanooga professors started the petition two weeks ago on Change.org, a website that allows anyone to create and sign a petition. The duo has spread the word through social media and environmental groups about the University of Tennessee proposal, and they aim to slow down the state approval process to allow for more scrutiny.
A federal appeals court on Wednesday sent back a case to a lower court for an explanation as to why two convicted sex offenders were ordered to each pay more than $1 million in restitution to a victim of child pornography. The opinion, issued Wednesday by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, does not say she isn’t owed restitution. However, it sends the case back to the Eastern District of Tennessee for an explanation as to why the men must pay the full amount of compensation when they are among many who viewed the child pornography.
Support for the governor’s school voucher plan is developing into a showdown as lawmakers from both chambers say they’re itching to expand the program beyond Bill Haslam’s wishes. State Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is a long-time advocate for a wide-ranging taxpayer-funded school vouchers system, is sponsoring the governor’s small-scale bill. He told members of the Senate Education Committee Wednesday night he has a plan ready for a “very expansive” program. “I’d love to see a statewide bill, but I’m certainly open to discussions on the matter,” he told reporters after the meeting.
The state senator shepherding Governor Bill Haslam’s school voucher bill through the legislature says it doesn’t go nearly far enough. He says he will offer an amendment making many more students eligible to have their private school tuition paid with public money. With proposed restrictions limiting vouchers to poor students attending struggling schools, Kelsey says just 3.5 percent of Tennessee students would be eligible. And only a fraction of those would take the offer. “After we do all this heavy lifting to work on this bill this year, if we end up with only two-thousandths of one percent of students being helped by it, I will be sorely disappointed.”
When Michelle Rhee’s controversial education reform organization, StudentsFirst, started pouring money into the campaign coffers of state House and Senate Education Committee members last year, it denied it was buying votes. “Absolutely not,” says Brent Easley, the director of StudentsFirst’s organization in Tennessee. “We support people who are the champions of the children of the state. If you know [these legislators], you know how much they care.” Still, the fact remains that the lobbying arm of the group has donated from $1,000 to $13,500 to every member of the Senate Education Committee, save Sens. Stacey Campfield and Charlotte Burks.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to take workers’ compensation cases almost entirely out of the court system in the name of efficiency has set off alarms across the state among labor attorneys and advocates, who say the plan stacks the deck against injured workers. State lawmakers have long sought ways to streamline the multimillion-dollar workers’ compensation system, and both workers and employers agree that the system, plagued with long delays and what many see as ineffective solutions, could run more smoothly.
The third time was not the charm for Dickson Republican state Sen. Jim Summerville and his “Higher Education Equality Act.” After being held back from a vote at two previous meetings to hash out amendments and take input from higher education administrators, the anti-affirmative action measure died in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday. Senate Bill 8 would have prohibited Tennessee colleges and universities from giving preference in admissions or hiring decisions based on race, gender or ethnic identity.
The state’s public universities have fended off a law intended to keep them from showing preference toward women and minorities. They say admissions and hiring practices don’t need to be reworked. College officials say they’re already precluded by federal rules from giving applicants a leg up on the basis of race or gender. However, they do have programs to recruit certain under-represented groups, like black males. Senator Jim Summerville of Dickson sponsored the bill and says he’s not surprised by the outcome.
The tedium of an annual vehicle emissions test could be a thing of the past for some drivers if a proposal to exempt newer cars finds support. Senate Bill 1080, introduced by Sen. Jack Johnson, would waive the requirement for vehicles that are 3 years old or newer. Generally, these cars are not heavy polluters, Johnson said, and testing them does little but clog the process. But there is a catch. Drivers who would not have to take their cars through the test would still be on the hook for the fee.
Vehicles less than three years old would be exempt from Tennessee’s vehicle emission test under legislation co-sponsored by three Hamilton County lawmakers. Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson R-Hixson; Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga; and House Transportation Committee Chairman Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, have put their names on the bill that would apply to owners of vehicles in Hamilton County and five other counties where emissions testing is mandatory. In a news release, Dean called the proposal a “commonsense bill. “
In the wake of Memphis’ decision to drop its vehicle emissions-testing program, a Germantown lawmaker wants to make sure suburban Shelby County residents don’t have to have their cars and trucks inspected. Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey has sponsored legislation aimed at blocking any expansion of the emissions-testing program that has operated only within Memphis since its inception in the 1980s. “What he eventually intends to do is keep Shelby County residents from having to go through emissions-testing,” said Nick Deidiker, an attorney working for Kelsey.
It was after 2 a.m. when David Aller was thrown out of the Klub Cirok Nightclub & VIP Lounge for fighting. That’s when police say the 26-year-old man retrieved a loaded handgun from his car in the club parking lot and returned to threaten patrons. Aller, who was charged with aggravated assault for the Nov. 11 incident, was also a handgun carry permit holder. Ever since lawmakers opened serious consideration of a bill to allow permit holders to store firearms in their vehicles — no matter where they are parked — backers have maintained security won’t be threatened because gun permit holders are law-abiding citizens and unlikely to commit crimes.
A proposal allowing handgun carry permit holders to store firearms in their cars nearly anywhere they are parked is headed for a final vote Thursday morning. Democrats are making a last ditch effort to water down the bill. Democrats want to make schools, long-term parking lots and unemployment offices off limits. The bill’s sponsor has said he is not interested in exemptions. But Nashville Democrat Mike Turner says they should at least be considered, like one allowing any employer to opt out.
An effort to nullify federal restrictions on firearms stalled Wednesday after a lengthy debate that roved the extreme reaches of the landscape of constitutional law, from the Founding Fathers to Monty Python. Senate Bill 250, a measure that attempts to strike down anticipated limits on semi-automatic weapons passed in response to the Newtown, Conn., shooting, became mired in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill, which extends the largely symbolic Tennessee Firearms Freedom Act passed in 2009, also would have made it a crime for federal agents to come into Tennessee to enforce gun laws.
A shot at nullifying federal gun laws in Tennessee died in the state Senate Wednesday. A vocal committee chairman sped along debate and ultimately cast the deciding vote. Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown is a lawyer by training and the newly appointed chair of the Judiciary Committee. He took a personal interest in blocking legislation that would make it a felony for agents to enforce federal gun laws. To make his point, he laid out stark terms. “This is a bill that says our individual sheriff’s deputies will be going out and using deadly force of the law of Tennessee to potentially shoot and kill federal authorities for enforcing U.S. Supreme Court decisions.”
Efforts to let liquor distilleries operate in Chattanooga became whiskey-a-no-go in a House subcommittee Wednesday after the bill’s sponsor accused opponents of one provision of using “thug tactics.” Chattanooga is seeking to join counties that may operate distilleries. The permission is in a bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas. But Wednesday, Carr delayed the bill for a week, citing a full-page newspaper ad attacking the bill and pressuring State Government Subcommittee members over a separate local-control provision.
Legislation that would require incoming students at public higher education institutions to show proof of immunization against meningitis is expected to be on the Senate floor Thursday. The measure is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley. Meningococcal (meh-nin-joh-KAH’-cul) meningitis can be spread through such contact as sharing drink bottles. Ten percent of people who contract the disease die — sometimes within 24 hours.
State Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, the Republican caucus chairman of the state House, is part friend and part cajoler to the 70 representatives with whom he serves. “I help members with their legislation,” he said. “And I help the caucus rally around a few positions.” Likening his job to a congressional whip, Casada wants to keep the House focused on a clear agenda, which, he says, he shares with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. He wants to cut taxes, especially the sales tax on food and the Hall income tax of dividends.
Knox County Commissioner Richard Briggs has announced plans to run for the state senate against incumbent Republican Stacey Campfield. It appears that the campaign has already started and we might get some indication of the direction of the race from a post on Campfield’s blog. There is a headline asking “Who Hates the Tea Party” over a quote from Briggs in the News Sentinel saying the Tea Party has turned off a lot of people: “If Republicans don’t change we’re finished as party of anything other than white middle-aged men.”
Germantown is facing budget issues that already have caused a freeze on certain spending in the current fiscal year and could lead to a property tax increase in June. City Administrator Patrick Lawton said Wednesday it would be “irresponsible” to discuss a specific amount of the tax hike, including a claim by Kristen Geiger — the suburb’s former financial and general services division director forced to resign Friday — that she had warned Lawton the increase could reach 90 cents over the current property tax rate of $1.485 per $100 of assessed value.
Sequestration is on track to begin Friday, but there’s still time to change how some of those automatic federal spending cuts will happen, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe observed Wednesday. Roe, R-Tenn., told reporters in a conference call that House Speaker John Boehner has had enough meetings despite ongoing calls from President Barack Obama to avert the sequester. “There aren’t going to be any deals done by those three (Obama, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid),” Roe pointed out.
Companies worried about govt. cuts The possibility of drastic government spending cuts if the “sequester” takes effect Friday has some Knoxville area businesses on edge, with one company worried about the loss of millions in government contracts. Aqua-Chem, a Knoxville-based producer of water purification equipment, stands to lose more than $12 million as contract work on seven Navy vessels would be either deferred or canceled, said David Gensterblum, Aqua-Chem president and CEO.
Automatic federal spending cuts could shut down two out of three security checkpoints at Memphis International Airport and close air traffic control towers at airports in Millington; Olive Branch; Jackson, Tenn.; and Tupelo, Miss. airports. Fallout from the so-called sequester wouldn’t be felt for about a month, and even then it probably would not seriously disrupt the Memphis airport, at least not at first, officials said. Airport officials don’t expect the threatened cuts to have an immediate affect on overnight cargo operations of the FedEx Express world hub, the airport’s bread and butter.
Extended deployments possible by FY14 Maj. Gen. Karen E. Dyson, Director of Army Budget, began the roundtable discussion with the following statement: “I want to talk to you today about one of our greatest threats to our national security, and that is fiscal uncertainty.” Speaking from the office of the Chief of Staff in the Pentagon on Wednesday morning, Dyson grimly intoned, “The reductions that we are going to talk about today define a fiscal outlook that is dire and, as far as I know, unprecedented for our Army.” Her next statement was even more of an attention-getter. “The fiscal crisis that we face today can be framed by three numbers — 666.”
With sequester closing in, sides turn to next battle About $85 billion in cuts are set to hit federal programs Friday with all the precision of a wrecking ball, and there are no signs that a deal is imminent. Even the White House conceded Wednesday that efforts to avoid the cuts probably won’t succeed before they kick in. House Republicans are turning to mapping strategy for the next showdown, a month away, when a government shutdown instead of just a slowdown will be at stake.
With time running short and little real effort under way to avert automatic budget cuts that take effect Friday, substantial and growing wings of both parties are learning to live with — if not love — the so-called sequester. “It’s going to happen,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and a leading conservative voice in the House. “It’s not the end of the world.” For weeks, President Obama has barnstormed the country, warning of the dire consequences of the cuts to military readiness, educators, air travel and first responders even as the White House acknowledges that some of the disruptions will take weeks to emerge.
As Tennessee hospitals continue pressuring Gov. Bill Haslam to expand the state’s Medicaid program, TennCare, Chattanooga-area health care providers are weighing the impact the governor’s decision could have on their operations. Local hospitals say they are joining with the Tennessee Hospital Association, which has stressed that expanding TennCare is crucial to offset severe federal funding cuts hospitals face over the next 10 years under the Affordable Care Act.
Anthony Billingsley had only been in his Stoney Brook Lane house for three months last year when he got a notice that some of the trees in his backyard near TVA’s electricity transmission lines were scheduled to be cut down. “I worked in the past for the [Electric] Power Board so I know about power easements, but I never expected them to have to remove 30- and 40-year-old, relatively small trees that weren’t even under the power lines,” Billingsley recalled Wednesday. “It was outrageous.”
The good news: One way or another, the complicated tangle of the city/county school merger process may get untangled this year. Federal, state, and local officials are working on it, though they seem to be working in different directions. That’s all part of the tangle, which could become even more snarled than it already is. And that’s the bad news.
Attorneys for the Shelby County Commission, the city of Memphis and suburban leaders agree that a special master should be appointed by Memphis Federal Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays. The master would generally monitor progress toward the August date for the consolidation of Shelby County’s two public school systems. The attorneys filed their positions at the end of the business day Wednesday, Feb. 27, the deadline Mays set for responses to his suggestion Monday during a status conference with all sides in the schools lawsuit.
A sheriff’s deputy who went to the wrong house to settle a domestic dispute collared drug suspects instead. The Daily Post Athenian (http://bit.ly/13jTqYx ) reported the McMinn County officer answered a domestic call in Englewood but mistakenly went to a home four houses away. Deputy Guy McGill said he caught a strong chemical smell as he got out of his car Saturday evening. Another deputy was sent to take the domestic report, and McGill searched the house where he went, finding an active methamphetamine lab in a bedroom.
The commitment Tennessee has made toward increasing its high school graduation rate is paying dividends. The state is making the largest gains in the nation on that front. If the pace of the gains continues, it will be among 18 states poised to achieve 90 percent by 2020, a national goal, according to a report released by a collaborative of researchers. Turning out more high school graduates will have a tremendous impact of the quality of life in Tennessee and in high-poverty-rate cities like Memphis. High school graduates are less likely to get stuck in low-wage jobs, live in poverty, rely on public assistance or end up in jail.
New reports from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Justice Policy Institute reveal that between 1997 and 2010, Tennessee led the nation in reducing the number of youths incarcerated. This reflects important new directions for juvenile justice over the years. At the same time, it raises questions about procedures, recidivism, supervision and funding of community-based programs designed to rehabilitate young offenders. In the time period covered by the studies, Tennessee’s youth incarceration rate dropped 66 percent, compared to the national rate decline of 37 percent. The change in Tennessee meant youth incarceration went from 2,100 to 800 over the time period.
A bad idea is a bad idea, no matter how many times you say it. Take the legislation that has cropped up in the Tennessee General Assembly, it seems, every year for a quarter-century. The bill might have a different name from one year to the next; thinking, perhaps, that legislators might get caught napping and vote it for by mistake. In 2013, it’s the “Motorcyclist Liberty Restoration Act.” But it’s the same-old, same-old, bad idea: motorcycle helmets as optional equipment. This year, the backers of this phony gesture of “freedom” are emphasizing that only riders 21 and older could ride without a helmet if their bill passes.
Should area customers of Comcast and other cable and telecommunications providers be forced, by state law, to pay higher rates for cable, telephone and Internet service to subsidize EPB’s struggling fiber business? Of course not. But that’s exactly what will happen if an ill-conceived bill proposed by state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, passes through the Tennessee legislature. Throughout the nation, cable, telephone and Internet providers pay a fee every year to electric providers to rent a portion of electric poles to run the lines necessary to provide their services to homes and businesses. That fee is supposed to be used by electric companies to help install and maintain poles.
He may be 72, but Sen. Alexander is running as hard as he ever has One day back in the 1960s, Republican Sen. Everette Dirksen took a call from President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson invited Dirksen to come over to the White House that night for a drink. Dirksen told the president that since he had been over there for a drink the night before he would have to decline. His wife insisted he come home, she had plans. Later that afternoon a couple of Beagles bounded into Dirksen’s office, followed by the President of the United States. Johnson told “Ev” that since he wouldn’t come to the White House to have a drink with him, he had come over to have a drink with Dirksen.
In April 2011, the United States Congress passed a budget that included sequestration, a series of automatic budget cuts that would take place if it could not trim spending on its own. Two years have passed and the United States Congress is on the verge of failing. The automatic cuts will directly impact Tennessee hard. Some $350 million in defense and non-defense budget cuts are expected in the last seven months. Additionally, according to a White House memo, Tennessee will see: • Head Start services for 1,200 students eliminated. • 1,660 fewer low-income students receiving financial aid for college and 720 fewer students in work-study programs. • 7,000 civilian Department of Defense employees furloughed. • 800 disadvantaged children would lose child care.