This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee exports have tripled in the past decade, but the state’s top economic development official said Monday there is room for far more trade growth from Tennessee’s small and medium size cities. “With the current exchange rates, we have a real opportunity right now and we want to do what we can to help businesses capitalize on that,” Bill Hagerty, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, said during a meeting with editors and reporters of the Times Free Press.
Exports from Tennessee companies reached a record level last year as the country achieved an all-time export record of $2.2 trillion in U.S. goods and services, according to government figures. Tennessee exported $31.1 billion in products in 2012, a 4 percent increase from $30 billion in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration. There were big jumps in Tennessee exports to several destinations. Tennessee exports to the United Arab Emirates were up 82 percent in 2012 compared to 2011.
Southeast Tennessee led the state last year in job additions from new or expanding businesses recruited by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. In a record year for employment gains from state recruitment programs across Tennessee, the 10-county Chattanooga-area region added 3,317 jobs from 19 projects during 2012. Collectively, those projects invested $148.2 million in the region. That was the biggest job gain among Tennessee’s nine regional offices and helped lead Tennessee to a statewide record yearly gain of 20,062 jobs from 195 projects statewide during 2012.
NASHVILLE — The number of prescriptions for painkillers is up for another year in Tennessee, a report by the state Department of Health shows. This year’s increase is slight — nearly 1.5 percent — compared to the previous year, leading officials to believe they are finally getting a handle on the prescription drug epidemic in the state. Tennessee has some of the highest prescription drug abuse rates in the nation. The report to the General Assembly shows that pharmacists dispensed nearly 18.3 million prescriptions in Tennessee last year for controlled substances such as OxyContin and hydrocodone.
State lawyers have cut by $21,000 their price tag for releasing files on children who have died or nearly died after coming into contact with the Department of Children’s Services. Officials now say it will cost news organizations $34,225 instead of the $55,584 originally sought for children’s records that Nashville Judge Carol McCoy ordered DCS to make public in January. The new estimates were contained in a Chancery Court filing by Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr. and Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter.
The state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse will move the transportation office it opened last year on the campus of the former Lakeshore Regional Mental Health Institute. Department spokesman Michael Rabkin confirmed Monday that, effective July 1, the East Tennessee Transportation Unit will be moved to Moccasin Bend Regional Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga. The 14 Knoxville positions, largely filled by former Lakeshore staff, will be eliminated, Rabkin said.
Lawyers for the clinic where dozens of patients were injected with tainted spinal steroids say the FDA and state officials in Tennessee and Massachusetts bear responsibility for the fatal outbreak of fungal meningitis. In a 55-page response to a suit pending in Davidson County Circuit Court, lawyers for the Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgery Center say the facility “complied with the acceptable standard of professional practice and acted without wrongdoing” in selecting a Massachusetts firm as the source of drugs.
NASHVILLE — The legislative battle over school vouchers in Tennessee is escalating, with the bill set for committee votes in the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday, and the state Democratic Party chairman attacking it Monday. The voucher bill, which allows taxpayer dollars for education to move from public schools to private schools for student tuition, is also a point of contention among its Republican supporters.
The new leader of the Tennessee Democratic Party attacked “out-of-state guns” for trying to sway the state legislature on education issues through hefty political contributions and television advertising. Roy Herron, the recently elected party chairman, said at a news conference Monday that special interest groups are pouring millions of dollars into Tennessee to influence lawmakers on vouchers, charter schools and virtual education. “These out-of-state outfits want to pilfer, plunder and profit from the privatization of public schools and pickpocketing of public funds,” Herron said.
The Tennessee Democratic Party is crying foul as advocacy groups begin running TV spots promoting school vouchers. The ad target certain lawmakers without mentioning specific legislation. This commercial is running in West Tennessee, paid for by a local chapter of the Washington D.C.-based American Federation for Children – a school choice cheerleader. “Tell Bill Sanderson our students are counting on him.” The conservative Beacon Center has ads of its own, calling for reform that “puts parents in charge.”
NASHVILLE — At least two pro-voucher organizations are airing broadcast ads — perhaps spending as much as $1 million combined — to promote “school choice” while some legislators are eyeing expansion of pending voucher legislation beyond Gov. Bill Haslam’s recommendations. The American Federation for Children is spending about $800,000 on television and radio ads urging Tennesseans to contact legislators and ask them to support “opportunity scholarships,” a source familiar with the ad buy told The Associated Press.
NASHVILLE — A pair of Republican state legislators has filed a bill to allow student photo identification cards issued by state universities and colleges to comply with Tennessee’s voter photo ID law — and to explicitly prohibit photo IDs issued by public libraries and other local agencies and governments. The bill, to be presented in a Senate committee Tuesday, would block use of the Memphis Public Library cards issued last year. That initiative was Mayor A C Wharton’s response to the state voter photo ID requirement that city officials argued would disenfranchise voters without driver’s licenses or other photo IDs specified by the state legislature in 2011.
Tennessee Sen. Bill Ketron has filed legislation that would allow student identification issued by state higher education institutions to be used for voting. The Murfreesboro Republican is expected to present the proposal in the Senate State and Local Government Committee today. Ketron said the legislation clears up any confusion regarding locally issued cards that he said were not supposed to be allowed under the original law passed two years ago. He said that includes library cards issued by local governments.
The state House will consider creating an entirely new panel for authorizing charter schools at the state level. It’s part of a compromise set to be heard in an education committee Tuesday. The original bill is a direct response to the repeated rejection of Great Hearts Academies by Metro Schools last year. It gives the state board of education power to OK charter schools and oversee them. But the state board has concerns about possibly taking on the job of managing privately-run, publicly financed schools.
NASHVILLE — Contributions totaling more than $364,000 have poured into lawmakers’ campaign accounts over the past two years from liquor wholesalers, package stores and the beer industry — three groups that have traditionally opposed changing state law to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets. An Associated Press analysis of campaign finance data shows that six of the 11 members of the Senate Finance Committee, which is scheduled to take up a bill today to hold local referendums on whether to expand wine sales, received a combined $38,000 from the three political action committees.
Chattanooga-area cable customers could see their bills rise more than $13 per year under a worst-case scenario if a new law is approved by state legislators. The law would position Tennessee as the most expensive state for private companies to hang wires on public utility poles, making the Volunteer State more than four times more costly than the national average. “Certainly wherever you have a fee that’s imposed at the government level, customers bear those costs,” said Andy Macke, vice president for government and community affairs at Comcast.
NASHVILLE — The House gave final approval on Monday to legislation pushed by an AT&T-led coalition that effectively eliminates Tennessee’s Lifeline program, which provides a $3.50 monthly credit to 93,000 low-income Tennessee households on their landline telephone bill. Members voted 91-1 for the bill, which previously passed the Senate, and it now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam for his consideration. The bill will have no impact on an identically named federal Lifeline program, which covers both landlines and cellphones for hundreds of thousands of low-income people.
The Tennessee Firearms Association is again looking for a fight. The organization is unhappy with Republicans who passed a more restrictive guns-in-trunks bill than the TFA would have liked. The legislation doesn’t stop an employee from being fired for storing a gun in their car while at work. And the soon-to-be law is limited to carry permit holders and cars they own. The TFA’s John Harris says someone “will pay” at the ballot box. “As a matter of fact, we’re looking for strong primary candidates.”
DAYTON, Tenn. — Dayton City Council members voted Monday to oppose proposed judicial redistricting after hearing a presentation by Rhea County’s clerk and master. John Fine, accompanied by Circuit Court Clerk Jamie Holloway, told the council that “by all objective standards, the 12th judicial district meets criteria” being considered for the redistricting. Based on district population and number of cases, “the 12th district should not be changed.” He pointed out that if Rhea County is moved into a new district, it risks losing its influence in the choice of judges, the district attorney and public defender.
Nashville-based HCA says its doubtful one of the pivotal parts of the Affordable Care Act will start by a federal deadline. The nation’s largest for profit hospital company has been reluctant to talk about healthcare reform, but brought up state health exchanges at an investors conference in Orlando today. Insurance exchanges are supposed to help people who don’t have coverage find affordable options. They’ll also do other things, like tell health insurance companies what they’re required to cover in particular plans.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander urged a top Army official Monday to use the automatic spending cuts hitting federal agencies as a way to delay the Corps of Engineers’ plan to restrict fishing access near Cumberland River dams. As part of the spending cuts, federal programs and agencies must trim $85 billion out of their budgets over the remaining seven months of the federal fiscal year. It’s part of an effort to put in place $1.2 trillion in reductions over the next decade.
WASHINGTON — Introducing legislation Monday that was banned as unconstitutional just last week in Florida, U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher would require those receiving or applying for federal welfare benefits to submit to illegal drugs testing. The Welfare Integrity Act would require states to certify that applicants and current recipients are being randomly tested for illegal drugs. In a statement released Monday, the West Tennessee Republican’s office says the bill attempts to “pass constitutional muster” by providing a consent and waiver form “where applicants are given the choice to waive their Fourth Amendment Rights and submit to a random drug test.”
A new report from the State Comptroller’s Office details a laundry list of misspending at Lincoln County’s water utility. Hundreds of thousand of dollars in unapproved employee bonuses and discounts on water bills were given out as party favors for at least four years. Some workers were getting extra money on an almost weekly basis, often disguised as overtime. Ten thousand dollars was charged to utility credit cards for things like personal meals and movie tickets. The superintendent kept a utility-owned boat on his own property and did not return it when he retired.
NASHVILLE — Sixty-two percent of Tennesseans oppose “allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally” but almost as strong a majority oppose making it illegal to talk about homosexuality in school classrooms at lower grade levels, according to a Middle Tennessee State University poll. Only 28 percent of those polled said they were in favor of gay marriage, with 62 percent opposed and the rest either undecided or refusing to answer. The result compares to 43 percent opposition in some national polls and 56 percent opposition in other Southern states.
Here’s a list we’re glad to be on — well, mostly glad. Memphis comes in at No. 7 in the latest rankings of cities with the lowest tax burdens on families, according to Delaware-based 24/7 Wall St., which publishes financial and investment news and opinion pieces online. In fact, Memphis is the only Tennessee city to make the Top 10. That’s due in large part because of no state income tax and lack of a city personal income tax. But the news is not all rosy. The Bluff City posted the fourth-highest sales tax rate — 9.25 percent — of all the areas surveyed.
Faculty at the University of Tennessee want to meet with campus leaders one-on-one and examine other states to find new strategies to ensure health benefits for unmarried employees with same-sex or opposite-sex partners. “The (Faculty Senate’s) benefits committee is not here to argue what is marriage. I think we just got sucked into that argument and it became a political wedge for us,” said associate theater professor Kenton Yeager, a member of the committee tasked with the domestic partner benefits issue, after Monday’s faculty senate meeting in the University Center.
The Davidson County Election Commission is expected to reconsider a controversial vote that one member said would call for “profiling” foreign-born voters. The commission voted 3-2 on Feb. 21 to ask the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security to review the citizenship status of recently registered voters who were born outside the United States. But Metro attorneys later said doing so would violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the National Voter Registration Act — also known as the “motor voter law” — by creating two different classes of voters and scrutinizing one class more than the other.
Metro Nashville school officials are looking to increase the district’s budget by $44 million for next year — a sizable bump they say is largely to replace money drained by new charter schools. A preliminary operating budget proposal, unveiled Monday to the school board’s Budget and Finance Committee, would up the district’s overall spending for the 2013-14 fiscal year to $764 million, 6 percent over the current year’s $720 million budget. The spike covers typical increases: scheduled employee raises, rising insurance costs and inflation.
A routine meeting to review Metro Nashville Public Schools’ nearly $765 million budget proposal for next school year Monday afternoon broke into a makeshift policy meeting about the financial effect of opening more charter schools. About a third of a $44 million budget increase that Director of Schools Jesse Register is asking the Metro school board to approve is directly attributed to the district’s growing charter school community. “What comes to mind for me, just from a fiscal perspective, is a strong potential for a tax increase,” said Amy Frogge, a school board member.
The unified Memphis and Shelby County school board will be asked at its meeting Tuesday to link students’ performance on standardized tests to teacher promotions, tenure and raises. That and other changes to the personnel policies for the unified Memphis and Shelby County school district, some of which are associated with the Gates Foundation-funded Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, will be on the agenda.
The Memphis Education Association weighed in Monday with U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on who should not be appointed special master overseeing schools merger — anyone connected with the case or with the Transition Planning Commission. “To insure actual neutrality,” the union representing teachers in the Memphis City Schools system reasoned, “the MEA believes that the Court should exclude from consideration those who may reasonably be presumed to be predisposed toward certain outcomes on the matters the Court may consider, either because of positions he or she may hold or opinions he or she may have expressed in public comments or writings.”
The results are in. And they are impressive. A new independent study of the KIPP schools operating in 20 cities and states, including Memphis, shows without a doubt that the KIPP method of educating at-risk kids works. Here’s what the most recent research shows. Kids who go to KIPP are learning more and moving ahead faster than kids in the regular Memphis city and county public schools. Fourth-grade KIPP students who stick with the program for at least three years move from trailing both city and county school kids in math proficiency to outperforming both city and county school kids in math by the end of seventh grade
Tennessee’s utilities are dueling with cable and telephone companies in the state Legislature over the price utilities charge for stringing wire on their poles. The bill pushed by the telecommunications industry — the Freedom to Connect Act of 2013 — is fairer to all the parties and likely would cost consumers less than the one promoted by the state’s utilities. Utilities lease space on their power poles to cable and telephone companies that connect to them. Tennessee’s rate, based on the amount of space the lessee uses, is the highest in the nation, according to the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association.
One has to wonder why the voters of Tennessee’s 95th House District keep re-electing Rep. Curry Todd. Perhaps, by sending him back to Nashville, they are keeping him off the streets of Collierville. But this is more of an issue of character in our General Assembly, and who gets to cast votes on matters that touch all Tennesseans. Every time we hear some word of Rep. Curry Todd, it is troubling. In 2010, Todd was one of the House’s highest-ranking members and a member of the Fiscal Review Committee, and in a meeting of the committee, asked whether the state-funded Cover Kids program checked citizenship before paying for health care.
In Tennessee, ACT and SAT results provide a measure of college and career readiness and determine eligibility for the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship. Because Tennessee is one of only a handful of states in which nearly every student takes the ACT, this test is the closest thing we have to an exit exam with real stakes for students and families. However, most Tennessee school systems are starting from a low level of performance on the ACT, and the pace of improvement is of great concern.
In the weeks after Sandy Hook, a group of gun owners in Memphis who were a part of the same church community asked themselves, “What can we do to curb gun violence?” The group wondered whether, using their faith as a basis, they could bring responsible gun owners together to initiate an earnest conversation about the power they hold in their hands. In this ongoing conversation, ideas range from a group covenant not to buy assault weapons to a collective agreement to discourage their children’s playing of violent video games to a mentorship program that would teach new gun owners about gun safety.
National policy does have local implications. A Tennessee manufacturing company is now in the fray because of “gun control” efforts elsewhere. In recent days, New York has made significant legislative changes making the state the first to implement gun control measures immediately following the tragedy of the mentally-impaired young man murdering the innocent children and adults of the Newtown elementary school. Included in the legislation signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo were regulations to “fortify New York’s existing assault weapons ban” and to “limit the number of bullets allowed in magazines.”
A few months ago I spoke to the Rotary Club of Oak Ridge. I used old newspaper clippings and excerpts from books on the Atomic City to recall how it had been established and how the people who lived in the surrounding counties had been affected by the upheaval. I mentioned the stories of families who had moved three times because of various federal projects. Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan Project, after considering several sites for a part of the project, decided to locate a nuclear development plant in East Tennessee on Sept. 19, 1942. It was estimated that the 59,000 acres for it could be obtained for an average of $50 to $60 per acre.
Who owns the news? The glib answer is “no one.” But of course, the full answer is more complicated than that. Famously, news is “who, what, when, where and why” — the “five Ws.” That mantra was drilled into the minds of generations of journalists, the essentials around which a news report is constructed. Once past those basic facts, the complexity of the ownership issue begins. News operations claim ownership of their reports — individual items as well as the collections that make up newspapers, broadcasts and online sites.