This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
West Tennessee is battening down for a blow as the first major storm system of spring pushes into the region. Thunderstorms are expected to intensify beginning Wednesday afternoon and become most intense as a cold front moves across the Mississippi River after sunset. Forecasters say strong winds are likely and downpours could dump as much as 2.5 inches of rain — more in areas of heavy thunderstorms. Localized flooding is possible in low-lying spots. There is also the possibility of damaging hail and brief spin-up tornadoes.
As a cold front continued moving eastward through the nation’s mid-section on Wednesday, the National Weather Service continued fine-tuning its forecast for possible severe thunderstorms in northern middle Tennessee. The latest hope of forecasters is that the storm line will weaken somewhat as it moves into Tennessee, but don’t let your guard down. In its revised special weather statement Wednesday afternoon, forecasters said a squall line is forecast to move eastward from Arkansas and be situated along the Mississippi River by 1 a.m. Thursday.
West Tennessee was battening down for a blow as the first major storm system of spring pushed into the region Wednesday. Thunderstorms were expected to intensify after beginning Wednesday afternoon and become most intense as a cold front moved across the Mississippi River after sunset. A cold front was expected to lift to the Mississippi River by 1 a.m., with a squall line likely forming along and ahead of the cold front. Forecasters said strong winds are likely and downpours could dump as much as 2.5 inches of rain — more in areas of heavy thunderstorms.
As strong storms make their way through Middle Tennessee Thursday, forecasters said the biggest threat could be damaging straight line winds. The National Weather Service said isolated tornadoes are possible. The line of storms pushed its way through west Tennessee overnight. Heavy rain was starting to move into western Middle Tennessee by 5 a.m., and will likely be in Nashville by 6:30 a.m. The threat of storms could continue across the mid-state through 7 p.m. before exiting the Cumberland Plateau.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is forcing 1,600 information technology workers across state government to re-apply for their jobs in an effort to screen out those who can’t master the skills of a rapidly changing field. The state employees association said IT workers are nervous. But the state’s chief information officer said most of them don’t need to worry. “This is really not about getting rid of people,” Mark Bengel said Wednesday. “It’s about making sure that we do have the skills and we have the ability to develop and retain staff in the future.”
There’s a big shuffle looming for the state’s 1,600 information technology workers, who will have to re-apply for their jobs. State officials are defending the move as necessary, as part of a plan to afford staffing skilled tech workers by training many from within. The state wants lots of tech workers, but they’re not cheap to recruit. So instead the idea is to reboot the state career ladder, and line workers up where they can train for more advanced jobs.
Nashville-area victims of the nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak will be among the subjects of a federal study to determine the long-term effects of the deadly infections that have killed 53 across the country, including 14 in Tennessee. “These infections are extremely rare. No one has ever seen anything quite like this,” said Dr. Peter Pappas of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. State and federal regulators say the outbreak was caused by fungus-tainted spinal steroids from a Massachusetts drug compounder.
Ex-judge: Conduct was pathetic What would make a respected jurist brazenly break the laws he was sworn to uphold, lie to his colleagues, turn his chambers into a den of sin and leave the bench to get high? It is a question that disgraced former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner insisted Wednesday still mystifies him. “People will ask me, ‘What were you thinking?’ I don’t know the answer,” Baumgartner told U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer. “My conduct was pathetic. … I wish I could do it over.”
A proposal to freeze the state’s beer tax is headed to the governor for his consideration. The measure was approved 87-2 in the House on Wednesday. The Senate approved it 30-1 earlier this week. Tennessee’s beer taxes outstrip any other state’s because the bulk of the levy is based on price rather than volume. The more a beer costs, the higher the taxes that must be paid to buy it. In Tennessee, brewers pay federal and state taxes per 31-gallon barrel, and then a 17 percent tax is charged to wholesalers based on price. Consumers then pay as much as 9.75 percent in sales taxes on top of the previous charges.
The House gave final legislative approval Wednesday to legislation intended to eventually end Tennessee’s status of having the nation’s highest beer taxes. The bill was approved 87-2 by the House on Wednesday without debate beyond sponsor Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, describing it as “simply replacing an antiquated 1950s tax structure.” The Senate approved Senate Bill 422 last week, 30-1, under sponsorship of Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. It now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam, who is expected to sign it.
A proposal to freeze Tennessee’s beer tax at current levels and alter how it’s figured is headed to the governor after it was approved 87-2 in the House on Wednesday. The Senate approved it 30-1 earlier this week. Tennessee’s beer taxes outstrip any other state’s because the bulk of the levy is based on price rather than volume. The more a beer costs, the higher the taxes that must be paid to buy it. In Tennessee, brewers pay federal and state taxes per 31-gallon barrel, and then a 17-percent tax is charged to wholesalers based on price.
A bill that lowers the tax on craft beers in Tennessee seems on its way to being signed into law, and it’s seen as a victory for small local businesses who brew beer and the consumers who drink it. The proposal would mean some high-end, smaller craft beer makers could begin selling their products in Tennessee now that officials have voted to change the way beer is taxed. “The tax on a six-pack of our beer will be the same as any beer,” said Linus Hall, owner of Yazoo Brewing Co. Craft brewers in Tennessee lobbied for this change, which adds a flat tax for every barrel of beer no matter what it costs.
Records of handgun permit holders soon may no longer be available to the public, after a vote Wednesday in the Tennessee legislature. Legislation that would make confidential the list of people who have a permit to carry a gun passed the state Senate by a wide margin. The vote represented the last major hurdle for the bill before it goes to Gov. Bill Haslam. The measure is meant to prevent newspapers and other media outlets from publishing the home addresses of handgun permit holders.
A proposed law that would make who gets a Tennessee handgun permit secret will take effect as soon as the governor signs it. That’s created a rush to see the records while they’re still open to the public. The Tennessee Press Association fought against sealing gun permits. But in case they were unsuccessful, half a dozen news organizations have requested the latest records, which will still be legal to publicize. “That’s the interesting thing about this,” TPA lobbyist Frank Gibson says. “Groups that now have the database and get the database between now and the day the governor signs it, those 400,000 will not be closed. They will be out there.”
Before last year’s elections, the Senate Republican Caucus obtained a copy of the entire database of handgun carry permit holders in Tennessee. On Wednesday, the GOP-controlled chamber voted to block public access to those records. The Senate voted 27-2 to pass the bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin without debate. Those voting in favor of the measure included Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who had previously expressed support for keeping the records open to the public.
The state Senate approved a bill Wednesday closing public and media access to Tennessee’s handgun-carry permit records in most cases, making secret the names of nearly 400,000 Tennesseans licensed to go armed in public. The House approved it 84-10 last month. The Senate followed suit 27-2, with Sens. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, and Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, voting no. Senators added an amendment providing limited circumstances when the public can ask if a specific individual who has some brush with the law has a permit.
The Tennessee Senate voted Wednesday to prohibit the public from gaining access to identifying information about people registered with the government to legally carry firearms. Proponents of the legislation encapsulated in Senate Bill 108/House Bill 9 have argued that media outlets or websites publishing names and addresses of firearm-owners can give crooks valuable intelligence on possible homes to burglarize. Permit-holder info can be used both by criminals looking to steal guns and by would-be home-invaders interested in lowering their risk of encountering armed residents, said the measure’s sponsor, Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin.
A proposal that would dock the welfare payments of parents whose children fail school is scheduled to be heard by the full Senate on Thursday. Earlier this week, the House Government Operations Committee voted 8-4 to give a positive recommendation to the companion bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Vance Dennis of Savannah even after hearing from a representative from Gov. Bill Haslam’s office that the governor has serious concerns about the legislation. The measure would cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefits by 30 percent if a child fails to advance to the next grade.
State Sen. Stacey Campfield says he’s moving forward with a controversial bill that would tie some state benefits for poor families to their children’s school performance, despite objections raised by Gov. Bill Haslam. The Knoxville Republican lawmaker told TNReport that he plans to bring Senate Bill 132 up in the Senate floor Thursday, saying he isn’t convinced by what the Haslam administration called “philosophical” concerns about the legislation. “I’m waiting to hear their legitimate objections,” Campfield said.
A bill moving forward in the state legislature is now getting national attention. 6 News reported Tuesday about the legislation being sponsored by state Sen. Stacey Campfield. The bill creates a path for temporary government assistance to be taken away from families whose children don’t make satisfactory progress in school. On Tuesday night, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart mocked the legislation, even referring to it as a version of The Hunger Games.
A proposal that would create a special panel to authorize charter schools in several Tennessee counties passed a key legislative committee on Wednesday and is headed for a full House vote after the bill was amended to provide oversight of the entity. The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Mark White of Memphis was approved on a voice vote in the House Finance Committee and will now be scheduled for a vote on the House floor. The panel would oversee five of the state’s lowest-performing counties: Davidson, Hamilton, Hardeman, Knox and Shelby.
State legislators are considering a substantial change to long-standing Tennessee municipal annexation law, requiring referendums of residents of areas proposed for annexation. The Senate on Wednesday delayed its scheduled floor vote on the bill to next Monday at the request of members who wanted to examine the bill in more detail. The original Senate Bill 279 would require approval by of a majority of voters in the proposed annexation territory before the annexation occurs, but a Senate committee amended it to impose a moratorium until June 30, 2015, on annexations not initiated by residents in the affected area.
Tennessee lawmakers gave rousing applause to welcome a Georgia senator who opposed a resolution calling for redrawing the border between the two states. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville introduced Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga, Ga., during a floor session on Wednesday. Norris joked that Mullis was not in exile because of his position on the Georgia-Tennessee border dispute. Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga gave Mullis a signed coffee cup of water to take back to Atlanta.
With state lawmakers hoping to adjourn next week or soon after, House Speaker Beth Harwell said Wednesday that House members may not have time to take action regarding 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb if they decide it’s needed. The Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this week directed the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to let members examine files of its four-month probe into allegations against Bebb. House members plan to approve a resolution doing the same, although some think with the Senate’s action that may not be necessary.
Saying now is not the time to make budget cuts at the troubled Department of Children’s Services, state Democratic leaders on Wednesday urged Gov. Bill Haslam to restore $1.6 million in proposed cuts to the child welfare agency. The cuts Democrats are protesting are part of Haslam’s $647.4 million DCS budget plan for the next fiscal year, which will begin July 1. The plan calls for eliminating 10 administrative jobs and 10 jobs in the Office of Information Systems, which oversees DCS’ complex computer systems.
The state of Tennessee is helping facilitate talks between city and county leaders about the coming deadline. There are conflicting versions of what will happen at the end of the fiscal year. No one is certain or clear about what the federal response will be. The issue at the center of all of this activity isn’t the coming merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems. It is the planned June 30 end of city funding for auto emissions testing. Shelby County government, so far, has not agreed to take on the inspections or their cost. The state, which does inspections for local governments in other parts of the state, wants to wait at least two years to see what new federal clean air standards look like.
Shelby County workers won’t get a raise next year and won’t be laid off, but property tax rates may increase by at least 33 cents to offset property tax revenue losses. County Mayor Mark Luttrell and members of his staff presented on Wednesday an overview of the proposed budget to the County Commission’s budget and finance committee. The tax rate increase would raise rates from $4.02 to $4.35 for Memphis residents and from $4.06 to $4.39 for non-Memphis residents. (non-Memphians pay an additional 4 cents to cover construction cost for Arlington High School.)
The Shelby County property tax rate would increase at least 33 cents in order to produce the same amount of revenue for county government it currently produces. That was the bottom line of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s budget presentation Wednesday, April 10, to the Shelby County Commission’s budget committee. The 33 cents would be part of a certified county property tax rate that takes into account the 2013 county property reappraisal.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker told reporters during a visit to Memphis last week that he is concerned not only about North Korea’s recent nuclear saber-rattling but also about an increase in a desire for nuclear armaments among the populations of neighboring nations allied to the United States. Corker said such views were becoming prevalent in Japan and South Korea — not in government circles — but in the populations of those nations. “They want to consider for themselves, or at least to think about adding nuclear armaments of their own to their military, which obviously we don’t want to see,” said the senator, who has recently consulted with government leaders in those nations.
Two U.S. senators announced a big breakthrough Wednesday on the issue of gun control. The lawmakers reached a bipartisan agreement on new restrictions, which they hope will keep guns from falling into the wrong hands. The deal would close the so-called “gun show loophole.” The agreement to expand background checks is one that Steven Bowman of Crossroads Firearms in North Knoxville says could help keep weapons out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.
Gun sales in Middle Tennessee have grown significantly since the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last December. “These last few months since December, it’s [sales] been pretty much up, up, up,” Nashville Armory general manager Andrew Brenemen told Nashville’s News 2. In January, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the agency ran 59,716 background checks on people trying to purchase guns from licensed gun dealers, like the Nashville Armory.
The Postal Service has pulled back on its threats to end Saturday mail delivery in August after Congress denied it the ability to do so A statement Wednesday from the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors said it would delay the move to Monday through Friday service that would have started Aug. 5. “The board believes that Congress has left it with no choice but to delay this implementation at this time,” the statement read. “The board also wants to ensure that customers of the Postal Service are not unduly burdened by ongoing uncertainties and are able to adjust their business plans accordingly.”
Medical claims costs could jump 32 percent nationally by 2017 for individual policies under the Affordable Care Act health care law, according to a study released recently by the Society of Actuaries. While some states will see medical claims costs slump, the study by the group of financial risk analysts found that 43 states will see increased premiums in their individual health insurance market, where people purchase health insurance on their own. The research estimates that of the 52.4 million Americans who would not have had health insurance, about 32.4 million will gain coverage if all provisions of the Affordable Care Act are implemented next year.
Haven’t filed your state income tax yet? There’s a good chance your state allows you to file it online for free. More than 20 states offer “State FreeFile” programs that are similar to the federal IRS FreeFile Program. Both use outside vendors to prepare free returns for taxpayers with incomes below a certain threshold. But there’s a catch: Eligible taxpayers must follow the link from the state website, not any other link. If you don’t follow the precise instructions, you could find yourself with a charge of as much as $19.99 when you are ready to click the “send” button, said Verenda Smith, deputy director of the Federation of Tax Administrators. “
The Obama administration’s 2014 budget is calling for a strategic review of the Tennessee Valley Authority, opening the possibility that the largest U.S. public utility could be sold. TVA officials seemed to have been caught off guard by the budget proposal released Wednesday. Board Chairman Bill Sansom and President and CEO Bill Johnson said the proposal was unexpected. “At this point we don’t know what the strategic review might include or what options might be explored,” Sansom says in a statement.
The Obama administration on Wednesday called for a “strategic review” of financial options for the Tennessee Valley Authority, including a possible sale of the federally owned utility to private interests. “Reducing or eliminating the Federal Government’s role in programs such as TVA, which have achieved their original objectives and no longer require federal participation, can help put the Nation on a sustainable fiscal path,” the president’s 2014 federal budget proposal said. It listed divestiture “in part or as a whole” as an option to be considered.
U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of North Alabama grabbed his glasses to scan page 51 of President Barack Obama’s budget request Wednesday and turned red as he absorbed a seven-sentence proposal that could put TVA in private hands, alter rates for 9 million customers and jeopardize 12,000 employees. Tucked under a heading of “Creating a 21st Century Government” in the president’s nearly 230-page fiscal 2014 budget document is a the section that states: “Given TVA’s debt constraints and the impact to the federal deficit of its increasing capital expenditures, the administration intends to undertake a strategic review of options for addressing TVA’s financial situation, including the possible divestiture of TVA, in part or as a whole.”
Buried in President Obama’s budget is a paragraph that could lead to the sale of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The document says TVA may be one of the federal agencies that have “achieved their original objectives.” TVA was established in the 1930’s to provide low-cost electricity to a struggling region. Its now entirely self-funded, relying on the sale of electricity and not tax payers. But the power provider has racked up nearly $30 billion in debt and needs to borrow nearly that much money for future projects.
Could the Tennessee Valley Authority be put up for sale? The Obama administration’s 2014 budget is calling for a strategic review of TVA, opening the possibility that the federally owned utility could be sold. The section of the budget that discusses TVA says the utility’s anticipated capital needs, which include expansion of nuclear power, are likely to quickly exceed the agency’s $30 billion statutory cap on indebtedness. The proposal reads, “Reducing or eliminating the Federal Government’s role in programs such as TVA, which have achieved their original objectives and no longer require Federal participation, can help put the Nation on a sustainable fiscal path.
Agency to hold meeting in Athens Environmental advocates will be listening closely next week to what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says about TVA’s troubled Watts Bar Nuclear Plant project. “I will be interested in hearing their assessment of the (non-nuclear grade materials) and any other surprises or reports,” Don Safer, chairman of the Nashville-based Tennessee Environmental Council, said Tuesday. The NRC is reviewing possible violations involving TVA’s purchase of thousands of parts not documented as nuclear grade for Watts Bar Unit 2, although the agency has concluded that construction work was done in a manner that met requirements.
The 2012 Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl game brought $13.9 million in economic impact to Nashville, down 38 percent from the previous game, according to a release. Economic impact from the game was $22.3 million in 2011, $20.1 million in 2010 and $12.6 million in 2009, years in which the city hosted two out-of-town teams. Vanderbilt University played N.C. State in the 2012 game. More than 55,800 fans that attended the 2012 Bowl game, up from 55,208 in 2011, and 13,026 hotel room nights were booked, down from 25,000 in the previous year.
Title deeds for Knox County school buildings are currently done in three ways: to the school board, to the county or to the individual school itself. Simplifying the issue, members of the Knox County school board and County Commission joint education committee agreed Wednesday, needs to be done, but it’s not the most important thing the group needs tackle. “If you look at this issue separately, it’s not a big deal, but you have to … pick an issue that affects both bodies and use that as something that you then build a framework of how to talk about any issue,” Karen Carson said Wednesday during the joint committee’s second meeting.
In this state that spawned test-based accountability in public schools and spearheaded one of the nation’s toughest high school curriculums, lawmakers are now considering a reversal that would cut back both graduation requirements and standardized testing. The actions in Texas are being closely watched across the country as many states move to raise curriculum standards to meet the increasing demands of employers while grappling with critics who say testing has spun out of control.
If a deal sounds too good to be true it usually is. That’s a maxim that Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee legislators should keep in mind as they wrestle with whether or not to expand Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Gov. Haslam took a step in the right direction when he rejected an expansion of the traditional Medicaid program. However, legislators must remain wary of ongoing negotiations with HHS that would use the same federal funds to subsidize private insurance. The federal government is dangling “free” money in front of state lawmakers as an incentive for them to go along.
Anyone who doubts Gov. Bill Haslam’s sincerity in seeking to provide high-quality health care coverage to low-income Tennesseans has another think coming. In rejecting federal Medicaid expansion funding that would have provided roughly $1 billion a year to cover everyone in the state with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty line, Haslam seemed to many to be spurning a bird in the hand for a bird in the bush. But the bush, as Haslam envisions it, would be far sturdier and prove far more beneficial to health care consumers and providers alike than Medicaid/TennCare expansion.
Legislation moving through the Tennessee General Assembly that would reduce welfare payments to parents of children who fail in school is a bad idea. Few people disagree that students generally perform better academically when their parents take an interest in how they do in school. But putting more financial stress on poverty-level parents will only aggravate living conditions that contribute to poor academic performance by their children. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, would cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families payments by 30 percent if a student fails to advance to the next grade.
Last month, we witnessed the shameful spectacle of 35 public school educators being indicted on racketeering charges in Atlanta. All of these people turned themselves in and were booked at the Fulton County Jail. So what led to this singular event? Beverly Hall, the former superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, is accused of intimidating area superintendents, principals and teachers into erasing students’ wrong answers on Georgia’s Criterion Referenced Competency Test, the state’s equivalent of Tennessee’s TCAP, and replacing them with the right ones. Some teachers who proctored the tests gave students the correct responses directly.
Drunken driving is a relentless killer. It takes lives and ruins others. In Tennessee in 2011, 257 people died in crashes caused by drunken drivers, more than a quarter of all traffic deaths that year. And despite many innovations in how DUIs are handled here and nationally, the number of cases remains stubbornly high. Like so many problems related to substance abuse, we can try to tackle drunken driving through law enforcement and punishment. But there also is a societal component that must be addressed, consisting of the drunken driver’s behavioral pattern and whether it is enabled by others around them.
The Knox County Board of Education passed its spending plan Tuesday night and now must wait to see how much of it will be included in Mayor Tim Burchett’s budget proposal. The proposal would increase the school’s budget by 3 percent from $406.47 million to $419.86 million, and would provide funding to start or expand key programs. The increase in funding is focused on teacher pay, classroom instruction, technology and school security. These are appropriate places for the county to increase its investment in education, and Burchett should incorporate the school system’s request into his budget proposal.