This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
NASHVILLE — Tennessee tax collections inched up in February, with overall revenues up $5 million over projections. Still, Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes worries that rising fuel prices and Congress’ failure to enact a budget “will soon begin to erode the positive growth trend we are now enjoying.” Revenues in February, which reflect January activity, came in at $744.3 million. The $5 million increase came despite the end of a federal payroll tax holiday and the resumption of higher deductions on Social Security.
Tennessee Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes says the state’s total tax collections for February mark the seventh consecutive month of positive growth this year. Emkes said Friday that overall revenues for February were $744.3 million, which is $5 million more than the state budgeted. He said sales tax collections showed modest growth, as did several of the smaller tax categories. The sales tax collections were $3 million more than the estimate for February. The general fund was over by $12 million.
The state of Tennessee stands to miss out on more than $1.4 billion in federal aid if it does not expand TennCare, according to a recent analysis from the legislature. The General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee, a nonpartisan office set up to assess the costs and benefits of proposed legislation, says expanding TennCare would inject more than $418 million into the state’s budget in 2013-2014 and $1 billion more in the next budget year. The money would cover the cost of offering TennCare to 161,900 more Tennesseans.
With school bus-related crashes on the rise, Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers are ramping up safety inspections and cracking down on motorists driving aggressively near school bus stops. Troopers said they hope beefed up inspections and enforcement will boost awareness among motorists and school bus operators and curtail accidents involving school buses. “I think there’s a lot of distracted driving,” said Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. John Harmon.
Eddie Mays finally got the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to open an investigation into his child’s welfare. It wasn’t the letter he says he sent to his DCS caseworker from the Dickson County Jail, where he was being held. It wasn’t the 6-minute, 28-second telephone message he left at DCS’ Dickson County offices. It took the death of his 18-month-old daughter, Somarah, to prompt DCS to open a case file on the child. On Friday, DCS acknowledged that Mays had reached out to the agency, asking it to check on his children after he heard their mother, Helena “Jill” Smith, also had been arrested.
The Department of Children’s Services was creating new rules on how it would publicly disclose information on child deaths, but the agency put the project on hold after a media coalition filed a lawsuit seeking access to state records, a spokeswoman said this week. The DCS rules would have gone “above and beyond’’ what the federal government requires and created more transparency at the state’s $650 million child welfare agency, said DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth.
During the winter months, when the trees around his property are bare, the view from Michael Melton’s driveway in Camden, Tenn., includes a mountain of waste. Literally. Just blocks from Main Street, in an otherwise sleepy town located 90 miles west of Nashville in Benton County, a black mound rises from the ground like the snout of some sleeping beast. “That’s the first thing I see when I come out to start my day,” Melton says, during the Scene’s recent visit to the rural neighborhood he’s called home for more than 20 years.
NASHVILLE — State Sens. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, announced that the Tennessee Department of Transportation has awarded two grants totaling $37,000 to Murfreesboro Municipal Airport. The grants are available through TDOT’s Division of Aeronautics. Along with a local match of $5,250, the funds will be used for ground maintenance equipment and tree trimming. “I am pleased to see that TDOT is providing a grant to the Murfreesboro airport to make necessary improvements,” Ketron said in a news release.
NASHVILLE — Three area airports are among 15 across Tennessee that have been approved for thousands of dollars in aeronautics grants, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. The newly opened Cleveland Regional Jetport in Bradley County will receive $60,000 for grounds maintenance equipment, $712,500 for southside corporate area development and $33,250 for approach clearing, a news release states. Rockwood Municipal Airport in Roane County will get $3,050 for community hangar upgrades and $14,250 for an Exhibit “A” property map.
Katie Winchester was honored as Dyer County Volunteer of the Year at the fifth annual Governor’s Volunteer Stars Awards ceremony. The presentation took place on Monday, March 4, in Franklin. With an estimated 1.3 million volunteers statewide, Volunteer Tennessee set forth under the direction of the governor’s office to create an initiative to honor the finest of the state’s volunteers annually. This initiative seeks to recognize a volunteer from each county in Tennessee who has displayed tremendous dedication to serving their neighbors and worked to strengthen their community in various areas to meet compelling needs.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, in Shelbyville for a fund-raiser for Jim Tracy’s congressional campaign, said that the chances for the bill to allow wine sales in supermarkets are promising. “It’s looking better every day,” Ramsey told the Times-Gazette. The bill has survived close votes in legislative committees — including one this week in the House in which Speaker Beth Harwell used her privilege to break a tie — but Ramsey said that some of those may actually have been among its toughest hurdles.
NASHVILLE — Despite stern vows by some liquor retailers to fight wine-in-grocery-stores legislation to the end, Tennessee legislative leaders warned that time is running out for them to negotiate concessions that could help them better compete if the bill passes. The legislative battle to legalize wine sales in Tennessee grocery and convenience stores and “big box” retailers like Costco has advanced further in the last two weeks than it ever has, winning approval in committees in both the House and Senate for the first time.
MURFREESBORO — State Sen. Bill Ketron predicts the liquor lobby will “come to the table” next week and start negotiating details in his wine-in-grocery-stores bill as it gains momentum more than four years after he initiated it. “I think the liquor lobby is starting to fall apart,” Ketron said after Friday morning’s Chamber of Commerce Capitol Connection breakfast. Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said he expects to talk to liquor industry lobbyists to negotiate amendments allowing package stores to sell more items than liquor, wine and lottery tickets.
Nashville — A renewed push is under way to get Tennessee lawmakers to allow local officials to hold more closed-door meetings. Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, who also spearheaded a similar attempt last year, has written to local government colleagues around the state urging them to encourage state lawmakers to pass a bill to allow private meetings among officials as long as a quorum isn’t present. Current law forbids members of a local legislative body from meeting privately to deliberate on public business.
MURFREESBORO — State Rep. Joe Carr has filed a statement of organization with the Federal Election Commission to run for Congress in the 4th District, though he is still hedging on official candidacy. Carr, a Lascassas Republican, filed a Joe Carr for Congress statement Feb. 19, listing Troy Brewer of Nashville as campaign controller and Murfreesboro dentist Nate Schott as treasurer. In December, Carr formed an exploratory committee and began raising funds. The committee raised more than $5,000 toward a race, Carr said Friday, and he was required to file with the FEC.
In the middle of the debate over the hotly contested guns-in-trunks legislation, Rep. Joe Carr was heading to a Franklin fundraiser to boost his congressional campaign. Shortly before the final vote on the bill, Carr was excused for the day and left for a gathering at a country club of what he calls “close personal friends” supporting his bid for Congress. “I made a calculated decision based on the votes that were necessary for passage,” Carr told The City Paper about his decision to leave before casting his vote on the controversial bill. “I don’t think it was an unreasonable choice that I made. Not unreasonable at all.”
NASHVILLE — A Rutherford County lawmaker confirmed Friday he missed the final House vote last month on a controversial guns-in-parking lots bill to attend a fundraiser for his likely 4th Congressional District GOP primary bid. Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, said the event had been scheduled for weeks before the bill, which he supports, was set for final action on Feb. 28. “When I had scheduled to speak for these people in Franklin [at the fundraiser], I didn’t realize the gun bill was going to be on the floor that particular day,” Carr told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
State Sen. (D-Memphis), the Democratic leader of the Senate, sees things at the legislature these days he does not like. But he knows there is not much he can do, other than raise public attention. With just seven Democrats and 26 Republicans in the Senate, Kyle says, “our goal is not be marginalized.” Some issues facing the state are vitally important, and he believes Democrats should be heard.
Tennessee’s beer tax is the highest in the country, and distributors and brewers are rallying to change it. Rich Foge, president of the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association and one of the organizers behind fixthebeertax.com, says the dubious honor stems from the state’s unique wholesale tax, a 17 percent tax based on the price, not the volume, of beer sold to distributors. “Every time the cost of doing business goes up and the price of beer goes up, the tax automatically goes up with it,” Foge said.
The Tennessee Senate Education Committee approved legislation that would allow any military veteran, regardless of current state residency, to receive in-state tuition at any Tennessee post-secondary institution provided that they re-locate to the state within 24 months of their discharge. Senate Bill 208, sponsored by senate education committee chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, would work in conjunction with the federal GI bill that provides financial support for education to servicemen and women who have served 90 days or more since Sept. 10, 2001.
The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has come out against state legislation that it says would “unravel Metro government.” In doing so, the chamber sides with Mayor Karl Dean who said in a letter Thursday to Davidson County legislators that the bill would “gut” the Metro model of government, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The state bill, sponsored by Republicans Rep. Joe Carr and Sen. Jim Tracy, would apply to towns statewide but would largely affect Davidson County.
Cecil Dotson was a gang member until the day he died violently five years ago this month. He also worked every day for 16 years as the maintenance man at the apartment complex where he lived until he moved, just before his death, into a rental house on Lester Street in Binghampton. Dotson, three other adults and two children were shot and stabbed to death by Cecil’s brother, Jesse Dotson, on March 3, 2008, at 722 Lester St. It marked the worst mass murder in modern Memphis history. Cecil Dotson loved guns.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has received 14 proposals for how to redraw Tennessee’s judicial districts. The Blountville Republican, who is expected to unveil his proposal for new judicial districts early next week, on Friday praised the involvement of groups including the Tennessee Bar Association and the Public Defenders Association. But he expressed disappointment that leaders of associations representing judges and prosecutors refused to participate.
The Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee is being forced to close for one day a week from April to October because of 5 percent budget cuts mandated by Congress. The office will close on Fridays, Federal Public Defender Henry Martin said. If Congress doesn’t put the brakes on the budget-cutting process known as sequestration, more days may be cut, slowing the federal criminal justice process considerably. The office will furlough the 53-person staff 22 days — one day a week for 22 weeks — because of a lack of funding in the Criminal Justice Act.
Worries that consumer woes would stifle the economic recovery across Memphis and the nation faded in late February. Shoppers rolled into retail shops ranging from discount chains like Memphis-based Fred’s Inc. to apparel stores like the Gap and the specialty shops of Batteries Plus Bulbs in Bartlett. “Our growth has been significant, both in retail store sales and in our commercial accounts, and we expect that to continue,” said Michael Stone, warehouse supervisor for Batteries Plus at 6115 Stage.
Year-to-date home sales in the Memphis area may be up 22 percent through February, according to the most recent data from the Memphis Area Association of Realtors, but the shortest month of the year had little to contribute to the momentum. Compared to February 2012, the annual change in total home sales last month was negligible, but the median sales price gained almost 20 percent to settle at $80,000. The average sales price was up about 15 percent to $117,016.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett needs an additional $14 million to pay for everything his department heads and other elected officials tell him they want in the upcoming budget. And that doesn’t include an expected increase in funding requests from the school system. His response? It’s not happening. “We’re not going on a spending spree,” he said. “We will be able to provide the services we provided last year without a tax increase and at the same level that the taxpayers have come to expect.”
A taxpayer’s bill of rights is among the benefits touted by a group of Loudon County citizens who want to change the local government to a home rule charter. The Loudon County Home Rule Committee has been collecting signatures since February on a petition that would put the question of home rule to the voters in the November election; 2,500 signatures are needed. Committee leader Wayne Schnell presented his ideas to the county commission earlier this week. “Citizens want more open government,” Schnell told the commission.
Alstom’s $300 million bet in Chattanooga on a renaissance of nuclear power has hit a snag. Citing a lack of orders for nuclear power components, Alstom’s turbomachinery plant that opened here in 2010 will slash its workforce to just 60 employees by year’s end, an official said Friday. “The ultimate driver is that people are not ordering new nuclear,” said Tim Brown, Alstom’s communications director. “There’s not the demand for nuclear [that there was] when we built the factory.”
As home of America’s biggest government utility and the birthplace of the peaceful use of the atom, East Tennessee has long had a love affair with nuclear power and the jobs and energy it has brought to the region. But just as the 1979 Three Mile Island accident tripped up the first generation of nuclear power, the Fukushima nuclear meltdown that hit Japan’s coast in 2011 is stalling the industry’s much-touted nuclear renaissance. For Chattanooga, the fallout from the tsunami that struck Japan two years ago Monday is now costing hundreds of hoped-for local jobs among manufacturers supplying the nuclear industry.
OAK RIDGE — The removal of old hot cells at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of the most challenging and potentially hazardous cleanup projects in recent times, has been halted because the costs went way up and the Recovery Act funding ran out. The hot cells in Building 3026 were part of the original nuclear operations on ORNL’s central campus, dating back to the World War II-era Manhattan Project. The shielded enclosures were once used to remotely process highly radioactive substances, including those retrieved from the nearby Graphite Reactor.
Mae L. Parman of Williamson County is the third fungal meningitis victim to sue Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgical Center and its part owner, Howell Allen Clinic. The complaint, which gives only one side of a legal dispute, alleges that the clinic was negligent in not ensuring the safety of the medicine it used and failing to warn Parman she was at risk for contracting meningitis. Her lawsuit was filed Friday in Davidson County Circuit Court by Leader, Bulso & Nolan PLC, the same firm that filed the other two suits.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A Chattanooga-based company that runs nursing homes in several states and one of its affiliated firms agreed to pay $2.7 million plus interest to settle allegations that they overbilled Medicare and other government-run health care programs, the Justice Department announced Friday. The agreement resolves claims in a lawsuit that Grace Healthcare LLC and Grace Ancillary Services gave medically unnecessary therapy to patients so they could collect more money from the government.
Beth Harwell, the speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, struck a blow for consumers this week when she cast the deciding vote that kept alive a bill authorizing local referendums on whether to allow wine sales in grocery stores. Her vote was important because it provides opponents and supporters of the bill within the General Assembly, along with groups trying to influence how the lawmakers vote, with the opportunity to have a more thorough discussion on the bill’s merits. Polls repeatedly have shown the state’s consumers support allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores.
The word “hero” gets tossed around a little too easily and a little too often in our culture. But when it comes down to it, the true heroes are the ones who sign their names on a dotted line to defend our freedoms, no matter what the risk. Sunday was Tennessee National Guard Day, a holiday created last year by the state Legislature aimed at recognizing the heroic work of our state’s National Guard members. The National Guard has been called on in the past decade to travel farther and do more than in previous generations.
Sunday marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, an annual effort to raise awareness of the importance of open government and freedom of information. Over the course of the next week, the Free Press editorial page will publish a number of editorials that feature information obtained through open records requests. We also will discuss ways to improve government transparency and accountability and, hopefully, encourage citizens to use government open records and open meetings laws to hold policymakers and bureaucrats accountable.
Knox County Republican Chairwoman Ruthie Kuhlman has written a letter to Republicans on the Knox County Commission asking them in the future to represent the party’s position supporting the election of school superintendents, but she’s getting push-back from some colleagues. The GOP at a reorganizational meeting Feb. 1 adopted a resolution asking state lawmakers to change legislation requiring that superintendents be appointed to making them elected. The Republican-dominated commission Feb. 25 in a 10-1 vote tabled a resolution supporting a state proposal that would let counties decide whether to elect superintendents.