This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Governor Bill Haslam says he will make up his mind on whether to expand the state’s Medicaid program by the end of the month. He says he’ll leave time for the state legislature to consider his decision. There’s no pressing deadline except that the state legislature intends to wrap up work in April and Governor Haslam needs lawmakers to sign off either way. If he does go along with the Affordable Care Act and expand the state’s Medicaid program, it could take a lot of convincing.
Despite recent press suggesting Gov. Bill Haslam should be on the list of presidential contenders, the governor said there is “zero” truth to rumors he would consider a bid. The governor has been the subject of several recent news articles calling him the “GOP star you’ve never heard of,” with political insiders suggesting he could be a contender for the White House. “There’s about 20 people who would be better at it, no, more than that,” Haslam told reporters after addressing small business groups like the National Federation of Independent Business Tuesday morning at the Downtown Hilton.
A commission set up to make sure the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is protecting severely abused children has a key supporter: interim DCS commissioner Jim Henry. The commissioner’s support of the Second Look Commission comes as the legislature mulls whether to keep the panel. The commission is charged with reviewing how well child welfare workers are protecting the state’s most vulnerable children. Henry wrote a letter Feb. 27 to state Rep. Judd Matheny, expressing his desire to have the oversight.
NASHVILLE — Hamilton County and 134 other local education systems Tuesday were abruptly dragged into a bill that sets up a special, nonelected state panel to authorize charter school startups rejected by school boards. The Republican-backed legislation, which passed the House Education Committee on a 9-3 vote, had previously applied only to the state’s two largest counties, Davidson and Shelby. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville charged the special board amounts to a “death panel” because it removes ultimate control from locally elected school boards and puts it into the hands of a state-appointed entity.
NASHVILLE — A House committee voted Tuesday to create a new nine-member board and give it authority to override local school boards statewide in deciding where charter schools can be established. The bill approved by the House Education Committee (HB702) drew strident criticism from some Democrats. House Democratic Chairman Mike Turner said the new board would be “a death panel for public schools” and Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, called said the vote is “the most extraordinary power grab I’ve ever seen in the Legislature.”
Tennessee lawmakers gave initial approval to a new panel that would hear appeals on school charter decisions after an apparent compromise was reached between school boards and charter school advocates. The House Education Committee voted 9-3 in favor of an amendment that would set up a nine-person board that could issue final decisions on charters. The amendment replaces an early proposal that critics said would have effectively stripped the Nashville and Memphis school boards of their power to reject charter schools.
Members of the Tennessee House Education Committee began their meeting Tuesday donning silly hats and playfully reading Dr. Seuss aloud with elementary school students. They ended it passing contentious charter school legislation that may significantly impact the learning environment for a rising number of children in the state. House Bill 702 itself would only make minor changes to the charter school approval process, increasing the number of days prospective schools have to appeal a local denial of application to the state.
The idea for a new state-level panel that could authorize charter schools to operate anywhere in Tennessee is moving ahead, while facing bi-partisan resistance. The House Education Committee gave its blessing Tuesday, though two Republicans voted against it. The GOP lawmakers opposing what is seen as an end-run around local school boards are educators themselves. Rep. Jim Coley teaches in Shelby County. “Increasingly we’re taking those decisions away from local education associations, and I don’t think that’s right.”
Tennessee lawmakers on Tuesday revived an effort to pressure Vanderbilt University to drop its controversial nondiscrimination policy for student clubs — this time with an attack on the school’s police powers. A pair of Middle Tennessee lawmakers said they will press ahead with a bill that would strip the Vanderbilt University Police Department of state recognition unless the school abandons its “all-comers” policy. That policy requires university-sponsored clubs to follow its rules against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
State lawmakers are threatening to pull the rug out from under Vanderbilt University’s police force of 90 sworn officers. It’s a roundabout way to overturn a controversial non-discrimination policy on campus. So-called “all-comers” rules have attracted the ire of conservative Christians who fear religious student groups will be forced to accept members who don’t believe the way they do. Last year, Governor Bill Haslam vetoed a bill that tried to single out Vanderbilt by withholding state funding.
A bill pushed by rural and municipal public electric services on pole-attachment fees cleared the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on an 8-0 vote in Tennessee Legislature action Tuesday. The bill is sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson. But public power distributors’ effort to charge cable companies more for stringing fiber on their poles stalled in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee.
NASHVILLE — College student identification cards would become valid for voting under legislation approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday. The bill by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro also declares that library cards issued by the city of Memphis for voting are not valid for voting. The State Supreme Court ruled last fall that the library cards could be used for voting in the Nov. 6 election. Student identification cards are excluded from the list of valid identification under current law, though faculty ID is accepted.
NASHVILLE — Legislation requiring all Tennessee school systems to allow home school students participate in local public school sports team is advancing in the state legislature. The bill, which won approval 31-0 on the Senate floor Monday night, would not guarantee home schoolers a spot on teams but would give them the opportunity to try out for teams as regularly enrolled students. They must also meet the same health, academic and conduct standards required of other participants. The bill is set for House subcommittee review.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bill to allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell wine is up for a key vote in a House subcommittee on Wednesday. The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol is scheduled for an up-or-down vote in the House Local Subcommittee. The companion bill last week cleared its first Senate committee by a single vote, and both supporters and opponents expect the House panel vote to be close. Proponents of the bill note that the bill calls for cities and counties to hold referendums on the bill, meaning no area would automatically allow wine sales in grocery stores.
Six months after moldy medicine caused an outbreak of a deadly new form of meningitis, Congress does not have a single bill before it to improve regulation of compounding pharmacies, and the only legislation proposed in Tennessee would strip away an important safeguard. The one proposal pending before the Tennessee General Assembly would eliminate the requirement that compounded drugs be prepared only with a patient-specific prescription.
Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgical Center paid a compounding pharmacy $6.50 a dose for the steroid medications blamed for making dozens of its patients sick and causing meningitis deaths, according to a new court filing. An amended complaint filed Tuesday includes the clinic’s invoices from New England Compounding Center for 80 mg vials of preservative-free methylprednisolone acetate — a generic version of the brand-name drug Depo-Medrol. The court papers allege price was “the only motivation” for the pain clinic to make bulk purchases of the generic drug from the compounding pharmacy.
NASHVILLE — A Tennessee Court of Appeals judge Tuesday asked why his court should decide if a Murfreesboro mosque was legally built when a federal court ordered Rutherford County to issue the certificate of occupancy. “The building is built, and the people there have been using it for awhile,” Judge Andy D. Bennett said during a hearing at the Tennessee Supreme Court Building that’s across the street from the Capitol. The judge also questioned why plaintiffs seek to stop a new Islamic Center of Murfreesboro mosque that opened last August on Veals Road off Bradyville Pike, southeast of the nearby city limits.
Lawyer Deborah C. Stevens, appointed last week to replace retired Knox County Circuit Court Judge Wheeler Rosenbalm, will take her oath of office at 8:30 a.m. today in the City County Building. Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin will administer the oath of office, Stevens said. Stevens, president and managing shareholder of Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop, was appointed to the position by Gov. Bill Haslam, a fellow Republican. She has practiced law since 1980 after graduating from the University of Tennessee College of Law.
Detectives spent a little more than two hours Tuesday evening at U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s home in West Nashville investigating a burglary they believe was a “random” crime. According to police spokesman Don Aaron, the senator was in Washington, D.C., at the time of the incident. His wife, Honey, called police to her house just before 4 p.m., Aaron said.
Conservative religious groups hope a new bill filed by U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, will help them in their fight against the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate. Known as the Health Care Conscience Rights Act, the bill would give any individual or group that opposes contraception an automatic exemption. The bill would also protect health-care workers from having to participate in abortions as part of their work or training.
FORT CAMPBELL, KY. — Speaking in unusually frank language, 101st Airborne Division commander Maj. Gen. James C. McConville – who was an hour and-a-half from getting on a plane to deploy to Afghanistan – talked about the possible effects on Fort Campbell of the political inaction that forced the enactment of across-the-board, indiscriminate cuts to military budgets, which began on March 1. The cuts, which come under the name of “sequester,” affect all areas of federal government expenditures, but weigh most heavily on the military.
Former state Sen. Andy Berke now has a new title to add to his resume — mayor of Chattanooga. The two-term state senator won overwhelmingly Tuesday in Chattanooga municipal elections, beating opponents Robert Chester Heathington Jr. and Guy Satterfield. “The time for renewal is now,” Berke told a cheering crowd of more than 200 people in the Waterhouse Pavilion at Miller Plaza. Voter turnout was anemic, at just 16 percent, Hamilton County Election Commission records show. Of the 111,324 registered voters in the city, 18,194 ballots were cast.
With the Knox County school superintendent planning to hire 58 security officers, Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones has dismissed his request for 20 additional deputies. “We called the director of finance and told him we would be rescinding our request for the additional 20 officers,” Jones said of the call made Tuesday. Jones earlier this year proposed hiring 20 deputies at an initial cost of $2-$2.2 million to cover salaries, equipment and training. Continuing annual costs would have been $1.3-$1.5 million.
When Robin Hill’s children were in school, he didn’t worry about them being safe. And he still feels that way about his 12-year-old granddaughter who attends Farragut Middle School. But on Tuesday night he joined a number of parents and school officials at Amherst Elementary to learn about how the school system and law enforcement are working to keep it that way. “Your main business is education and … I think the security system you put in has to do the job, but at the same time has to be virtually invisible to the children,” he said during the meeting.
In an order that could have far-reaching implications for how Memphis and suburban schools are combined this summer, U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on Tuesday assigned former city of Memphis chief administrative officer Rick Masson as “special master” overseeing schools merger. Mays enumerated at least eight specific duties for Masson, who spent much of his career rising through Memphis’ bureaucracy but since leaving Mayor Willie Herenton’s administration in 2003 has developed a reputation as an administrative fixer in roles ranging from executive director for the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy to interim president of Memphis, Light, Gas & Water Division to strategic planner for Memphis-Shelby County Port Commission.
The unified Memphis and Shelby County school board approved personnel and staffing policies Tuesday night that administrators described as urgently needed in their push to be ready for the opening of the new merged school district on Aug. 5. The districts, which together employ 17,000 teachers, principals, administrators, technicians, bus drivers, custodians and other personnel, have no time to waste in putting together a staff for the start of the district’s inaugural school year.
In the wake of an ongoing scandal involving one of the nation’s leading suppliers of red-light traffic surveillance cameras, local officials in Knoxville and Farragut say they are confident in the process that they used to select their vendors. The chairman of Redflex Holdings, parent company of Redflex Traffic Systems of Phoenix, resigned recently amid an intensifying investigation into allegations of corruption in its contract with the city of Chicago. Redflex once operated cameras in Knoxville, and it currently has a contract with Farragut for its four cameras.
City Council asked the state to help South Knoxville businesses that have been hurt by the closed-for-construction Henley Bridge. On Tuesday in their regular meeting, City Council members passed a resolution that could result in a sales tax abatement for those shops that have felt exiled by the severing of the major city artery. The state project to rehab the bridge won’t be complete until 2014. The General Assembly could lift sales taxes for the area — which appears to be the most desired action to help drum up business.
CLARKSVILLE, TENN. — Nearly 300 employees of Hemlock Semiconductor in Clarksville who had been put on administrative leave earlier this year were formally notified Tuesday that their jobs are gone. The announcement confirmed weeks of speculation about the long-term status of the layoffs, effective March 18. The situation at the polycrystalline silicon plant that has yet to launch production was further amplified recently by confirmation from Hemlock, plus other local sources in job training and recruitment, that affected workers are being offered a severance package that includes health benefits and outplacement services.
A fresh perspective for the state Department of Children’s Services is offered by its interim commissioner, Jim Henry, and special adviser to the agency Larry Martin, at a time when a fresh perspective clearly is needed. However, their ability to right the ship is being interfered with by the state Office of the Attorney General. Last week, in a baffling turn of events, Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter refused to allow Henry and Martin to take questions from the media at a meeting was specifically set up for just that purpose.
Chattanooga’s new mayor Andy Berke and the city’s five newest council members received majority votes Tuesday, but hardly a broadbased mandate. Just over 16 percent of city’s 111,324 registered voters thought it important enough to even mark a ballot Tuesday. It’s a sure bet, however, that when the first couple of controversies arise on the council — sewer rates, tax talk, zoning measures — four or five times that number of city residents will raise their hands and voices to complain.
On Tuesday night, the long, slow slog towards the inevitable finally ended. Andy Berke is officially the mayor-elect of Chattanooga. For the sake of the city, we hope Berke is a great leader for Chattanooga. In reality, though, we simply have no idea what kind of mayor he will be. What he has told Chattanoogans about specific policies he wants to enact couldn’t fill a thimble. And that’s scary, because he’ll probably be Chattanooga’s mayor for a long, long time.
This story made me shiver. An 87-year-old California woman collapsed and died in an independent living facility when a woman who identified herself as a nurse refused to give her CPR. Why? Because she believed that the center, owned by a local Brentwood company, had a policy not to take life-saving measures for fear it would get sued. The company, Brookdale Senior Living, said Tuesday that the incident “resulted from a complete misunderstanding of our practice” regarding emergency care, according to The Associated Press.
Puppies. Where are the puppies? And ponies? Where are the ponies? With a bit more than a week to go before Pigeon Forge voters go the polls for the fourth time in two years to decide whether liquor by the drink should be legal, Forging Ahead, the pro-liquor group, has made their campaign all about the kids. Nothing touches hearts quite like cute, cuddly children. In decades of nonprofit work and many years of political observation, maybe your irascible scribe saw behind the scenes a bit too much in too many campaigns, too many nonprofit organizations. Call me cynical, but the easiest way to score a buck or a political point is to talk about the kids.
As many of us learned in eighth-grade civics class, our state constitution provides for three separate but equal branches of government. A fair and impartial judiciary is the capstone of the judicial branch. Tennesseans deserve the benefit of a well-functioning judicial system with fair, impartial and well-qualified judges who rule not based on popular public opinion or campaign contributions but rather on the facts and law as presented.