This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Bradley County’s chief economic developer Thursday cited Wacker’s long-term view of the solar market in the U.S. for the company’s plan to ratchet up investment in its plant to $2 billion. “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Doug Berry, the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for economic development. “North America is the area that presented the most opportunity for growth in the solar industry and their perspective is what the needs are 10, 20 years out and not today.”
Leclerk Foods is expanding its operations in Kingsport, adding 40 jobs. Leclerk makes granola bars, crackers and cookies. In addition to the plant in Kingsport, the company operates in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario and in the state of Pennsylvania. Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty said Tennessee and Canada enjoy a mutually beneficial economic partnership through exporting and foreign direct investment. Leclerc is investing $15.7 million in expanding the Kingsport plant, which it has operated since 2008.
Shelby County saw its unemployment rate rise considerably from 8.9 percent in December to 9.7 percent in January, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. A year ago in January 2012, the rate was 9.6 percent. In Memphis alone, the January unemployment rate was 10.8 percent, up from 9.9 percent in December and the same as in January 2012. The unemployment rate state-wide and nationally also saw increases. In Tennessee, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate in January was 8.5 percent, up from 7.6 percent in January.
A federal appeals court has thrown out a 15-year-old legal agreement that mandates regular medical and dental care for the 750,000 children on TennCare, more than a third of all children in the state. The Tennessean reported the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in an opinion published Thursday voided an agreement mandating compliance with federal requirements governing the state’s version of Medicaid. The consent decree arose out of a 1998 lawsuit alleging that children were not getting regular checkups.
A federal appeals court on Thursday ended 15 years of court-ordered oversight of Tennessee’s health care services for poor and disabled children under TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program — a decision that affects more than a third of the state’s children. The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ends ongoing monitoring of TennCare’s progress in meeting a federal requirement that all of the approximately 750,000 children on TennCare receive regular medical, dental and mental health screenings.
A newly formed coalition of state businesses and businessmen is urging Tennessee political leaders to expand TennCare under the federal Affordable Care Act, saying rejection is a “job killer.” “Expansion is a win-win-win for Tennessee,” said Dan Hogan with the Coalition for a Healthy Tennessee Economy on Thursday. “Accepting this funding to retool, reform and expand Medicaid will help our economy, create jobs and provide care for a lot of families who would otherwise not have access to health insurance.”
As commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, Many-Bears Grinder oversaw the disbursement of 1.1 billion tax-free federal dollars to veterans last year. “Not handouts, not welfare,” she emphasizes. “Disability compensation for their military service.” You will be hard-pressed to find anyone more in tune with her job. “I told Gov. Haslam, ‘I can’t believe you’re paying me to do this,’ ” she recalls, beaming. “When I got that call and realized I could be serving half a million veterans and one-and-a-half million family members, I just jumped at the chance.”
Not all of the colorful vehicles in Bristol this weekend will sport racing numerals on them. The Tennessee Department of Transportation is dispatching three of its lime yellow HELP trucks to keep traffic flowing near Bristol International Speedway for NASCAR races on Saturday and Sunday. TDOT Commissioner John Schroer noted HELP truck drivers are trained emergency medical responders, but their more usual role is changing flat tires, providing fuel and directing traffic with lighted message boards.
Tennessee House members took up the Department of Children’s Services $15 million budget increase request Thursday, but much of their discussion veered away from the budget to airing criticisms and complaints about DCS that lawmakers have heard from lawyers, DCS caseworkers and even family members. DCS is seeking more money to hire more lawyers, hire more caseworkers and pay them more, and increase the payments to foster care agencies and parents.
Trooper Gordon Roberts sat behind a pair of Ray-Bans, a steering wheel and about 15 different gauges as he merged onto Interstate 75. He looked out the driver’s side window and scanned across the three lanes in front of him, left to right, looking for his first catch of the day. “We should be able to nab some people here,” he said in an accent forged through a childhood in Rhea County. From the cab of a Tennessee Highway Patrol-owned tractor-trailer, he looked down into cars and minivans and smaller trucks, searching for seat belts that rested unbuckled, fingers that tapped text messages and beer can tabs that popped open.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett is warning home buyers and sellers about a scam involving real estate titles. According to the office’s business services division, letters have been sent to at least eight real estate companies suggesting that there are claims against titles of more than two dozen residential properties. The letters are postmarked from Portland, Ore., and claims they were submitted on behalf of an organization called “the French Trust.” The letters threaten court action against anyone attempting to sell any of the listed properties.
No violations, but planneeded to catch fluids Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials are requesting a meeting this month with Rutherford County leaders to focus on a plan for keeping landfill fluids out of the water supply. Al Majors, environmental field office manager for TDEC’s Division of Solid Waste Management, sent a letter to Mayor Ernest Burgess last week stating that his office “consulted together” about “concerns” with Rutherford County’s landfills.
The University of Tennessee is expected to face vocal opposition today when it seeks approval for a plan to allow natural gas drilling on more than 8,000 acres of public land in East Tennessee’s Morgan and Scott counties. The university’s Institute of Agriculture, which manages the land known as the Cumberland Forest, wants permission to seek bids from energy companies to lease the oil and gas rights. In return, the university would partner with the company and use the revenue to fund research into how hydraulic fracturing — a controversial gas extraction method — affects the environment.
A Rutherford County woman is charged with TennCare fraud and theft after she received healthcare insurance benefits through the program, even though she was not eligible for TennCare. Kristy Robinson, 26, of Smyrna is charged with one count of TennCare fraud and one count of theft of services over $10,000, according to a news release from the Office of Inspector General. The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office assisted in Robinson’s arrest. Authorities say she received TennCare benefits by means of willfully false statement or other fraudulent means.
The state’s attorney general has raised constitutional concerns over an effort to strip Vanderbilt University of its police force because of a nondiscrimination policy for student groups. Attorney General Bob Cooper said in an opinion released Thursday that he sees no legal problems with requiring public colleges and universities to bar such policies. But he said it would be problematic to impose a possibly “unconstitutional condition” on a private institution. “The General Assembly cannot assert … through an unrelated requirement that a private university abandon its right of free association,” Cooper said in the opinion.
A bill to strip Vanderbilt University of its police powers unless it drops a controversial nondiscrimination policy appears to be in jeopardy after a ruling by the state’s attorney general. Lawmakers would violate the U.S. Constitution if they were to place conditions on the state’s recognition of police forces at private universities, Attorney General Robert Cooper said in an opinion released Thursday. The opinion could force changes to or the abandonment of a measure meant to pressure Vanderbilt into dropping its “all-comers” nondiscrimination policy for university clubs by threatening to turn its police department into an armed security guard service.
The Tennessee attorney general says legislation that would take away Vanderbilt University’s right to have a police force is “questionably suspect.” The legislation is a second attempt to punish the university for its “all comers” nondiscrimination policy. The policy says that campus organizations can’t discriminate against anyone who wants to become a member. Religious organizations in particular resisted the policy for preventing them from making sure members followed their same beliefs. Representative Mark Pody of Lebanon says he’s not all that surprised by the attorney general’s unfavorable opinion.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to tighten enrollment requirements at privately run online schools has passed the Senate. The measure guided by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville was approved 27-2 on Thursday. The proposal would allow beginning online schools to start with an enrollment of 1,500 and continue to expand as long as they meet performance requirements. If they fell to do so for three consecutive years, then the state education commissioner can cap enrollment, or direct the local school board to close it.
A proposal to bar local governments from renaming parks or monuments honoring Tennessee’s military figures is headed to the governor for his consideration. The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro was approved 26-3 by the Senate on Thursday. The companion bill passed the House 69-22 last month. Sponsors say the legislation is aimed at preventing shifting views and changing “demographics” from erasing memorials to historical figures from the Civil War and other conflicts.
A bill aimed at encouraging Tennesseans to eat healthier by eliminating the sales tax on unprepared foods like fruits and vegetables is headed to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee next week. But House Bill 484 still has a steep hill to climb before becoming law because of the huge estimated drop in tax revenue – more than $90 million for state and local governments. Still, Rep. Ron Lollar, chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, said there is a possibility some version of it could be rolled into Gov. Bill Haslam’s initiative to reduce the sales tax on groceries another quarter of a percent.
The Senate has approved legislation that would protect student counselors at public higher education institutions who withhold their services because of religious beliefs. The measure passed Thursday 22-4. Republican Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald sponsored the bill. The legislation targets students in counseling, social work or psychology programs. Hensley says he proposed the measure after a student at a Tennessee college was required to counsel someone who didn’t agree with the counselor’s “moral belief.”
The Tennessee Senate approved a bill Thursday that would let counselors-in-training turn down clients on religious grounds, despite objections from graduate schools and gay rights activists. Senators voted 22-4 to approve Senate Bill 514, which would bar schools from disciplining students in counseling, social work or psychology programs for turning away clients based on their religious beliefs. A case in Michigan, in which a student was expelled from a master’s degree program for refusing to counsel gay clients and clients who were sexually active but not married, inspired the measure.
The state Senate approved Thursday a bill that will make college student identification cards valid for voting despite Sen. Stacey Campfield’s contention that lawmakers were “gutting” protections against voter fraud. The bill by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron was approved on a 21-8 vote and now goes to the House, where it faces a committee vote. Besides legalizing college student IDs for voting, the bill also prohibits use of library cards issued by the city of Memphis.
The state Senate on Thursday approved and sent to the House a bill forbidding use of Memphis Public Library photo identification cards for voting but allowing student photo IDs issued by the state’s public colleges and universities. The bill, approved 21-8, is a response to Mayor A C Wharton’s plan last year to create photo library cards that would be valid for voting under Tennessee’s 2011 law requiring registered voters to present a valid photo ID to cast a ballot. When the state blocked the library cards, the city and two Memphis voters sued state officials to permit their use by properly registered voters without driver’s licenses.
Despite some opposition from his own party yesterday, a Murfreesboro Republican won passage of a measure that would make college IDs sufficient forms of voter identification. Two years ago, when the state’s voter ID law first passed, Senator Bill Ketron was against including college IDs. Now, he’s reversed his position in response to concerns from MTSU. Some of his Republican colleagues haven’t changed their minds. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville – home to the state’s largest public university – still argues college IDs are too easy to get, and don’t require that someone is a U.S. citizen.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he wants to a supermarket wine bill to clear his chamber’s committees even though the House version failed this week. The Blountville Republican said he would then put the bill on hold before a floor vote takes place to see what action the House might take. The bill seeking to allow local referendums on whether to expand wine sales to supermarkets and convenience stores fell one vote short in the House Local Government Committee on Tuesday. Supporters are clinging to the hope that the panel’s chairman, Republican Rep. Matthew Hill of Jonesborough, might seek to reconsider the vote.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said the effort to let grocery stores sell wine is “dead for this year,” but Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said his chamber is pressing on with the legislation “while the iron is hot.” The yearslong effort failed this week in an 8-7 vote by the House Local Government Committee when the chairman, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, voted no. “I think it’s dead for this year,” said McCormick, who supports the legislation.
Lawmakers who wanted to give voters the power of a referendum to decide whether their local food stores should sell wine are hungover this week after the bill failed in a committee of state House of Representatives. But Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is a fan of the bill, said he still wants the Senate to keep it alive and ready it for a floor vote just in case. “This bill will eventually come back. It will. It would be my intention to strike while the iron’s hot,” Ramsey told reporters Thursday.
Liquor retailers, supermarkets and convenience stores gathered in one room at the state capitol to negotiate a deal on wine sales. But there was little headway. Lawmakers who want to get wine on grocery store shelves have offered all kinds of concessions, like letting liquor stores sell something other than alcohol and have multiple locations. At this point, wine and spirits retailers remain reluctant to release their best seller, says lobbyist David McMahan. “Proposals that our industry have heard have been mere crumbs compared to the potential revenue loss of their wine sales.”
Legislation by state Rep. Joe Carr allowing state authorities to arrest federal agents for enforcing new gun laws failed Wednesday in a House subcommittee. Carr introduced the measure in January, saying Americans should be able to “defend themselves from tyranny,” then later debated the Rev. Al Sharpton on the bill’s constitutionality. It failed Wednesday in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on a voice vote. “I’m disappointed,” Carr said Thursday, noting he placed an amendment on the bill removing any part that was found to be unconstitutional.
Rep. Curtis Johnson is presiding over the Tennesee House while Speaker Beth Harwell is away to attend to her mother’s funeral. Harwell, a Nashville Republican, left for Spring City, Pa., on Wednesday. Her mother, Jessie Halteman, was 97. Harwell’s staff expects her to return next week. Johnson, a Clarksville Republican, was elected as speaker pro tempore before this year’s session began.
Liquor by the drink passed. So now it can be poured. Pigeon Forge voters, by a total margin of 952 to 798 votes, agreed Thursday to allow the sale of mixed drinks, something its neighbor cities of Gatlinburg and Sevierville have had for years. Early voting was the key to the win for Forging Ahead, an organization that campaigned and spent heavily to persuade voters that the city would have multiple benefits from liquor by the drink. In early voting, the measure won 581 to 411. It lost in votes cast at the polls on Thursday, 354 for to 362 against, and lost in the absentee vote count, 17 to 25.
Three powerful House committee chairmen are hosting a fundraiser next week for U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, but one already is distancing himself from the event and the embattled Tennessee Republican. A DesJarlais aide listed U.S. Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, as a host for a $500-per-plate fundraiser at a Washington restaurant. But Kline’s office told the Chattanooga Times Free Press the Minnesota Republican never planned to appear at the March 19 event.
FAA decision expected Monday; budget woes could close 238 towers Smyrna Airport officials say they should hear on Monday whether the FAA will close the facility’s air traffic control tower because of the sequester federal budget cuts. But a bill pending in the U.S. Senate could give endangered towers nationwide a reprieve. A Republican-sponsored amendment to the pending Senate spending resolution would add $50 million back to the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget through the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, allowing the agency to continue funding for some or all of the 238 towers in danger of closing.
A federal court judge has blocked the Tennessee legislature and Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration from denying Planned Parenthood in Tennessee from participation in federally funded HIV- and syphilis-prevention programs administered by the state. Planned Parenthood called the ruling by U.S. Dist. Court Judge Williams J. Haynes in Nashville “a major victory” for the 14,000 Tennesseans served by the programs at its health centers The ruling makes permanent a temporary injunction against the state a year ago and affirms a settlement agreement negotiated by the parties but which the state tried to back out of in November.
Employers are bracing for a little-noticed fee in the federal health-care law that will charge them $63 for each person they insure next year, one of the clearest cost increases companies face when the law takes full effect. Companies and other plan providers will together pay $25 billion over three years to create a fund for insurance companies to offset the cost of covering people with high medical bills. The fees will hit most large U.S. employers, and several have been lobbying to change the program, contending the levy is unfair because it subsidizes individually purchased plans that won’t cover their workers.
At least 10 states are considering raising their minimum wages even as President Obama’s proposal to increase the federal standard is stuck in Washington’s political quagmire. In one of those states, New Jersey, voters rather than legislators will decide the issue. A measure that will be on the ballot this fall would increase the state’s minimum wage by $1, to $8.25. The New Jersey measure also would take politicians out of future hourly wage increases by including automatic annual adjustments for inflation, known as “indexing.”
TJX Companies, Inc., seeks a five-year tax break to help the retail apparel and home furnishings company open a distribution center creating 40 new jobs and invest $6.9 million. The project will create $1,302,750.00 in new tax revenue for Memphis and Shelby County, according to the staff of Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis and Shelby County. The average salary of the new employees will be $27,368. EDGE calculated the project’s benefit-to-cost ratio to be 1.23/1, generating $1.23 of new tax revenue for every $1 of abated taxes through payments in lieu of taxes.
Some Hamilton County commissioners don’t like parts of the legislation to reform Erlanger Health System’s governing board. And state legislators say if the commission kills the bill, it will not be resuscitated. The commission’s Legal Committee decided Thursday to postpone a conversation on the private act reforming the hospital’s board. The bill cleared the state House and Senate and was signed last month by Gov. Bill Haslam. Commissioners must ratify it before it can take effect. Committee Chairman Jim Fields said Thursday he wanted to read the signed legislation before deciding whether to place it on Wednesday’s voting agenda.
Chris Peck is retiring as editor of The Commercial Appeal, the newspaper’s newsroom staff was told Thursday afternoon. Mizell Stewart III, vice president of content for Scripps newspapers, the parent company of The Commercial Appeal, said managing editor Louis Graham will serve as interim editor. He said a national search for Peck’s replacement — both in and out of Scripps — will take place with hope that a replacement will be selected in 90 days. Peck, 62, has overseen operations of The Commercial Appeal’s newsroom since he was hired in 2002 to replace the retiring Angus McEachran.
State approves California company’s request to open first of eight planned schools Metro school officials were shocked to hear a California charter school group had state permission to open the first of eight planned schools in Nashville in 2014. Until Rocketship Education announced plans on Thursday, school officials thought they had an agreement with the state to turn around low-performing schools on their own. The Rocketship announcement made early Thursday was such a surprise to them that they were still seeking official verification late Thursday afternoon and declined to comment.
A charter-school operator based in California is scouting potential sites to open its first facility in Nashville next year. Rocketship Education got permission for the expansion not from Metro, but from a special state-run district aiming to turn around Tennessee’s lowest performing schools. The state’s Achievement School District already oversees a middle school in Nashville, turning it over one grade per year to a charter. Rocketship might not follow that model, says its future principal, Nashville native Adam Nadeau.
After meeting with Knox County Mayor Tim Buchett in individual, private discussions, county commissioner appear unwilling to give the school system an early payment to get started hiring and training 58 new armed security guards. Instead, a number of county commissioners want the school board to cover the proposed $219,000 in start-up costs. “This is another ploy to get more money,” said Commissioner Mike Brown, noting the school system has the funds to cover the request. “They’ve got $24 million — they’ve got money in the bank. Why come to us when they can use their own funds?”
Supt. John Aitken is expected to ask the unified Memphis and Shelby County school board Tuesday to buy out his contract, allowing him to leave a job requiring him to plan and execute a school merger he likely will not be chosen to lead. Aitken, 54, declined to comment Thursday, but sources close to the negotiations say he is troubled that a majority of board members voted for a national search and that the job almost certainly will go to someone else. While the terms of the buyout are unclear, his contract gives him two years of base pay if consolidation occurs and he is not selected superintendent.
Gov. Robert Bentley signed a law on Thursday granting tax credits to families who want to send their children to private schools or better-performing public schools. The act was passed amid heated controversy, not only about its substance, but about the way it was passed: A conference committee that was to reconcile versions of a school-related bill already passed by the House and Senate added the tax credit, and more than tripled the original bill’s length. The new version was then voted on quickly by both houses.
Gov. Bill Haslam and legislators alike made a big deal before the General Assembly convened in January that education would be a main focus. But the two most talked-about education bills of the session wouldn’t put a dime into public education but instead actually would take thousands of dollars from local districts. House Bill 190, sponsored by state Reps. Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga and Bill Dunn of Knoxville, and companion measure Senate Bill 196, sponsored by state Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville, would take money from local districts and give it to existing private schools as tuition vouchers. Or, as the bill labels them, “Opportunity Scholarships.”
Some legislation identified as “anti-crime bills” might not pass the General Assembly during the current session because of fiscal notes, and that could be a double-edged sword for the state of Tennessee. Essentially, it raises the question: Is the state saving money now only to have to construct more prisons in the future at what likely will be a greater cost, both in terms of dollars and suffering to society?The issue emerged recently during a discussion of a bill to expand a sex-trafficking measure approved last year. That act increased the sentence for sex-trafficking involving a minor 15 years or younger. The current bill would include those who are 16 and 17 years old.
The state of Tennessee has a law requiring motorcycle riders to wear a helmet for a good reason — it lessens the chance a rider will suffer a traumatic head injury during an accident. For those who want to zip along with the air flowing through their hair, the helmet law is a major aggravation that they have tried to get rescinded for years. For reasons that defy common sense, members of the Tennessee Senate Transportation Committee on a 6-3 vote approved a bill Wednesday that would do away with the helmet law. Helmets are not an absolute guarantee that a motorcyclist will escape serious head injuries if he or she is in an accident.
Sen. Bill Ketron thought he found a fool-proof way to pass the much-anticipated wine-in-grocery-stores bill this year by putting a referendum measure on it. The move to place it on county ballots and let communities decide its fate made it even more palatable. Thus, it was disappointing to see the House Local Government Committee completely mishandle the legislation this week in an 8-7 vote that rejected it. State Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, cast one of those opposing votes, largely because he believes it would be unfair to package store owners who’ve played by one set of narrow rules for years only to see them changed to favor large corporations such as Kroger and Walmart.
In this year’s annual General Assembly detour down Nonsense Lane, we have The Senate Transportation Committee passing two public safety bills at the same meeting, but with conflicting logic. State lawmakers finally have outdone themselves when it comes to giving us reason to shake our heads in disbelief and ask: Really, you want us to believe you are serious? The first bill the committee approved, SB0458, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, would allow some motorcycle riders to ride without a helmet. This is a perennial effort put forth by riders who value the wind in their hair more than the head it grows on.
Today, members of the State Building Commission could approve a proposal from the University of Tennessee for permission to use hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to extract oil and natural gas from the shale under the 8,000-acre Cumberland Research Forest. The commission should reject this proposal, as much for the covert manner in which UT has pursued project and the revenues it is likely to produce as for the uncertainty about the safety of the extraction process. It seems that UT, a public university, wants to become a player in the fossil-fuel industry. To do so, it would have to make this pursuit appear to be “research,” and not business.