This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
A new website has been created in northeast Tennessee to support and share best practices in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. The subjects, known by the acronym STEM, are getting increased attention in K-12 schools in Tennessee. East Tennessee State University and the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network will be collecting and sharing the education advice on the website with 15 northeast Tennessee public school systems. Dr. Jack Rhoton of ETSU said the goal is to engage students, develop a skilled workforce and increase STEM literacy in the region.
Experimental digital imagery took center stage during Cleveland State Community College’s “Accessiblity2013: CMD+R,” a two-week program dedicated to engaging the public with creative marriages of technology and art. Last week, the school held a reception for works created on campus by a handful of visiting interactive media artists. The artists lived at the college and visited local schools for the event, punctuating two weeks of talks, lectures and films regarding technology-driven arts.
Storms predicted this week for Plains states, lower Mississippi Valley After a remarkably quiet start to the severe weather season in the U.S. — which included the fewest number of tornadoes in March in several decades — signs are pointing to a more active pattern for April. This includes the possibility of an outbreak this week in the central U.S. This week’s severe weather outbreak “is likely to be the worst of the season so far,” AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski says, with the greatest threat Tuesday in the central and southern Plains, and Wednesday in the mid- to lower Mississippi Valley….Memphis, Nashville in risk zone During the heart of the severe season, when the threat of tornadoes is usually at its highest, AccuWeather reports that areas to watch will be the lower Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee valleys.
The path may have been rocky at times for the new Republican supermajority in the General Assembly, but leaders are pleased that many of the most contentious issues have been decided as lawmakers enter the final few weeks of the session. Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision last week to withdraw his limited school voucher proposal highlights the sometimes-contentious nature of his relationship with rank-and-file Republicans in the Legislature. But the demise of the legislation staves off a last-minute showdown as lawmakers put the final touches on the state’s annual spending plan.
The grueling pace set by GOP leaders to complete this year’s legislative session early has sparked bipartisan criticisms for weeks that proposed laws are sometimes not getting properly vetted while debates on others are short-circuited. Among others, Transportation Committee Chairman Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, and Calendar and Rules Committee Chairman Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, have raised concerns as leaders drive lawmakers to complete business quickly. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, wants lawmakers to finish by April 18.
District attorneys, public defenders and a few legislators in a local area that will be heavily affected by a proposed judicial redistricting plan say changes are not needed. Many question Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s motives. “This is not about courts; it’s about politics,” said 31st District Public Defender Dan Bryant. “If something’s not broke, why do you have to fix it?” In 2009 the state commissioned an outside study to see if redistricting was needed. The report concluded it was unnecessary. What’s changed since the report, Bryant said, is the makeup of the General Assembly.
Even though for-profit charter school companies targeted the Tennessee legislature with several lobbyists this year, their agenda appeared dead until a last-minute bid slid through last week. The plan to allow for-profit charter schools in Tennessee twice failed in Senate committees this year. But an eleventh-hour change to a noncontroversial bill originally created to clean up a few charter school rules started the debate again. The newest plan is sponsored by Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and is headed to a full Senate vote after last week sailing through the Senate Education Committee that she chairs.
Tennessee lawmakers bit off more than they could chew this session when it comes to classroom reform. “I think we gave the impression that we were forcing a whole lot of stuff down folks’ throats,” says Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis). “And perception is reality.” DeBerry’s legislation strengthening the state’s so-called “parent trigger law” is one of several major proposals abandoned for the year. The national lobbying organization Students First is behind the push to make it easier for parents to overthrow the administration of a public school. Lobbyists say the clock ran out as they hashed out details.
A bill that would halt all city-initiated, or so-called “forced” annexations statewide for two years, will hit the Senate floor Monday in Nashville, and its passage has major implications not only for Johnson City, but for Washington County as well. Oddly enough, leaders from both entities share some of the same concerns over the bill and feel it will do more harm than good. Many believe the bill developed from an ongoing adversarial relationship between the two and a perceived aggressive annexation policy by the city, though it has played by the rules.
State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat who succeeded longtime lawmaker Harry Tindell last year, is just into the third month of her first term but already is a target by Republicans in 2014. She was mentioned last week in a news release put out by the Tennessee Republican Party in which she was criticized for pushing a bill requiring cities, counties and other political subdivisions to grant an unpaid leave of absence to full-time employees for service in the Legislature. The bill died in the State Government Subcommittee for lack of a second.
Amid Nashville’s busiest stretch ever in delivering tax breaks to corporations, Mayor Karl Dean’s administration and members of the Metro Council have finalized a plan designed to let small businesses cash in as well. Legislation sponsored by two at-large council members — working in tandem with the mayor’s office — would create a new incentive system allowing Davidson County businesses with 100 employers or fewer to land one-time grants if they create 20 new jobs or more over a year’s time.
When budget hearings begin this week for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the only departments attending will be those that need more money. Everyone else gets a pass. “We are only going to bring before us the departments that are asking for increases and giving us justification for why their budget is going to be more this fiscal year than last year,” said Commissioner Melvin Burgess, chairman of the commission’s budget and finance committee. And those departments asking for more money won’t be a surprise, said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.
While making their rounds in checking Shelby County’s nearly 5,300 restaurants, health inspectors aren’t paying as much attention to cracked wall tiles and various minor violations these days. Health Department officials have launched what they call “risk-based” inspections that focus on practices and conditions that can lead to foodborne illness, a problem many experts agree is vastly underreported. The new regimen means a restaurant is less likely to get written up or fail because of non-food-related deficiencies.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is considering consolidating acute and intensive care in its Nashville hospital and putting psychiatric care in its Murfreesboro hospital instead of having both services in each location. That means veterans who live in Murfreesboro would have to go Nashville for serious hospital stays and Nashville veterans who need inpatient psychiatric services would go to Murfreesboro. The proposed change is part of a systemwide proposal to improve efficiency and cut costs in the country’s veteran’s hospitals.
Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre has proposed that $3.9 million of the school system’s capital budget for 2014 be used to begin implementing a number of security enhancements, including the addition of video cameras, camera/buzzer systems, secure vestibules and keyless entry cards at every school. His total capital budget proposal, which the school board will discuss today and vote on Tuesday, is about $14 million. “I think it’s a very practical capital budget. … The total capital budget proposal is less than $15 million, which is traditionally what we propose,” McIntyre said.
Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers made a big mistake this session when they passed legislation to bar the use of the Memphis Public Library’s photo identification cards for voting purposes, and put the same prohibition on student photo ID cards. The legislation is on its way to the governor’s desk and is expected to become law. The bill is the GOP’s reaction to a state Court of Appeals ruling that backed Memphis officials’ claim that the library cards could be used for voting. The case is now before the state Supreme Court, which could make the GOP’s victory on the voter ID bill short-lived if that court also sides with Memphis.
The only good thing about the March unemployment rate in the United States is its direction — down, to 7.6 percent from February’s 7.7 percent, a small enough drop that Obama administration critics could dismiss it as a statistical anomaly rather than a solid sign of economic progress. And the only reason for that small drop was that fewer people were looking for work. Labor force participation was 63.3 percent, a 34-year low. The report was especially dismaying since it followed two really good months, months that got even better Friday when government economists upwardly revised the number of jobs created in February from 236,000 to 268,000 and January’s from 119,000 to 148,000.
Professional baseball season recently opened with all of its fanfare and everyone once again took to the parks to watch the cowhide meet the wooden bat. Outspoken baseball manager Leo Durocher once said, “Baseball is like church. Many attend — few understand.” Just as baseball has its opening days, so does agriculture. When warm days of spring arrive, farmers take to the fields hoping their season is just as successful as a team in the National or American League. And just like the quote from Durocher, you could say that agriculture is much the same. Many eat, but few understand how it happens.
President Obama will soon release a new budget, and the commentary is already flowing fast and furious. Progressives are angry (with good reason) over proposed cuts to Social Security; conservatives are denouncing the call for more revenues. But it’s all Kabuki. Since House Republicans will block anything Mr. Obama proposes, his budget is best seen not as policy but as positioning, an attempt to gain praise from “centrist” pundits. No, the real policy action at this point is in the states, where the question is, How many Americans will be denied essential health care in the name of freedom? I’m referring, of course, to the question of how many Republican governors will reject the Medicaid expansion that is a key part of Obamacare.