This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced attorney Stacy Street as the Criminal Court Judge, Part II, for the First Judicial District, effective immediately. Street takes over for former Judge Lynn Brown who resigned at the end of March after serving in the position since 1988. The First Judicial District includes Carter, Johnson, Unicoi and Washington counties. “Stacy has extensive trial experience from his time in the private sector,” Haslam said. “His experience, demeanor and respect for the court will benefit the citizens of the First Judicial District.”
When she retires June 30, University of Memphis president Shirley Raines will have overseen the successful Empower the Dream Campaign, which raised $250 million for the school; helped the school grow research revenue from $20 million in 2003 to $66 million; and watched the school’s honors program grow to a record 1,848 students in fall 2012. While U of M has seen its share of issues during her 12 years, including NCAA violations for the men’s basketball program under former coach John Calipari, and other issues in the athletic department, academics are considered stronger as Raines leaves than when she arrived.
The state Department of Children’s Services was ordered Wednesday to give the media records from the case files of 50 children who died or nearly died after the agency became involved with them. Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy also ordered the state to bear the cost of redacting identifying information from the records. The media organizations will pay the cost of making copies. In September, The Tennessean requested the records of all the children involved with DCS who had died or nearly died between 2009 and mid-2012.
Judge sets deadline in response to media’s open-records lawsuit Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy on Wednesday ordered the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to provide the Tennessean and other media outlets with redacted case files of the 50 most recent cases involving 2012 fatalities or near-fatalities of children under their watch. McCoy said the state cannot charge for redacting those records or criss-crossing the state to pick them up. Previously, state lawyers had said the state would charge $55,584 for the same records, a price they later reduced to $34,225.
A Fayette County woman has been charged with TennCare fraud and theft. Investigators said she received the state healthcare benefits, even though she was not eligible. Morgan Myers, 26, of Somerville faces four counts in all. She is accused of lying to get the benefits. Myers could face between two and six years in prison for each of the charges, if convicted.
A Wilson County woman is charged with TennCare fraud for filling fraudulent prescriptions and using TennCare to pay for them. The Office of Inspector General (OIG), along with the Wilson County Sheriff’s Department, on Wednesday announced the arrest of Tiffany N. Ferguson, 27, of Lebanon. Ferguson is charged with two counts of TennCare fraud and two counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud. The charges against Ferguson allege that on two separate occasions she presented an altered prescription for the painkiller Percocet, using TennCare to pay for certain services.
Tennessee State University officials will kick off construction of a $4 million teaching and research facility today at 2 p.m. with a groundbreaking ceremony. The ceremony marks the building of a 4,800-square-foot, federally funded Agricultural Research & Educational Center on the main campus and is a highlight of Natural Sciences Week. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The facility is expected to be complete in September.
The final countdown to the end of Tennessee’s current legislative session appeared to have begun in earnest Wednesday. The Senate approving their version of the state budget and the House Republican Caucus voted to finish their business by Friday afternoon instead of continuing into next week. The Senate budget, crafted by the Haslam administration and guided through the chamber by Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, coasted through with the support of the GOP supermajority.
Tennessee lawmakers approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s $32.7 billion budget for the state of Tennessee, including spending increases for government salaries, schools and health care. The state Senate voted 32-0 Wednesday afternoon to pass the appropriations measure for the budget year that begins July 1. The state House of Representatives followed hours later with an 82-14 vote. The plan, Senate Bill 502, includes $350 million in increased spending for TennCare and other health care programs — a rise Haslam says is required even though the state has declined to expand the number of people eligible for TennCare.
The General Assembly approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s $32.7 billion state government budget for the coming year Wednesday after defeat of a Democratic effort to give the governor authority to expand Medicaid and Republican-led attempt to delay action. In the House, Democrats pushed an amendment by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh to give Haslam the authority to use federal funds to expand Medicaid in Tennessee if federal officials meet any conditions he sets. Haslam has rejected Medicaid expansion, saying federal officials would not approve a “Tennessee Plan” he wants that involves using federal money to buy private insurance coverage.
The Tennessee legislature has now done the one thing it must do each year – pass a budget. The nearly $33 billion spending plan was approved in the House Wednesday night. Including tweaks from legislators, there are 132-pages of changes from the original proposal. A few in the Republican majority wanted more time to comb through it. “They did not elect me to ram our budget through only two and a half hours after it was handed to me,” Rep. Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) said on the floor.
An overhauled version of a controversial bill that would allow the state to approve charter schools in five counties, including Davidson, cleared a Senate committee Wednesday, one day after it became clear it wasn’t going anywhere in its previous form. It now appears the legislation is back on track as the 108th Tennessee General Assembly concludes its business. Chief among changes is scratching what previously was conceived as a new state-appointed panel that could approve charter applications first denied by local boards.
There will be no state-level panel to approve charter schools at this point. The much-debated concept was scrapped by lawmakers Wednesday night in favor of giving a more authority to an existing panel. Those who want to start charter schools but are turned down by a local school board already make their appeals to the state board of education. Instead of just overturning the decision and sending a charter back to the local district, the modified proposal allows the state board to oversee the charter as it opens and monitor its progress.
A bill repealing requirements for corporations to disclose political contributions and more than doubling the amount of money partisan caucuses can put directly into legislative campaigns fell two votes short of passage Wednesday on the House floor. The bill (HB643) by House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada would also repeal a law prohibiting direct political contributions to legislators by insurance companies, which now must form political action committees to make donations. The vote was 48-41 with 50 votes required for passage.
An effort by House Republican leaders to put state lawmakers, candidates and party caucuses effectively on an honor system for reporting direct corporate campaign contributions melted down on the floor Wednesday amid charges it would invite corruption. The bill failed on a 48-41 vote. It needed 50 votes to pass. Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, questioned the ethics of exempting corporations from having to disclose directly their contributions and relying solely on lawmakers to report the money on their own state disclosures.
A push to raise some campaign contribution limits in Tennessee has likely died for the year. The bill received just 48 votes, needing 50 for passage. Ultimately, arguments from the minority party won the day. Democrats railed against raising the amount of money political parties could give individual candidates from the roughly $60,000 allowed currently to $150,000. “Essentially you’ll now be able to run for the House of Representatives without ever raising a dollar of your own money,” Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) said.
A proposed constitutional amendment to give lawmakers the power to select the state attorney general passed the Senate on Wednesday even though opponents argue there’s no need to change the current process. The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville was approved 22-9 on Wednesday. Under the proposal, the state attorney general would be appointed by a joint vote of both chambers of the Legislature and serve four years. Currently, attorneys general are selected by state Supreme Court justices.
State lawmakers have embarked on the long process of amending the Tennessee constitution to give themselves the power to pick the attorney general, the latest in a lengthening string of efforts to revise the document that has governed the state for more than 140 years. The Tennessee Senate voted 22-9 to approve a resolution that would take selection of the attorney general away from the state Supreme Court and give it to the General Assembly. The question would not go before the voters until November 2018.
A long awaited bill to rewrite the state law governing conservatorships has undergone a last minute amendment at the request of hospitals thus delaying a final House vote on the measure and forcing another Senate vote. The amendment, which triggered a brief debate and a motion to delay further action came Wednesday as the General Assembly moved toward a planned early adjournment. The amendment would create a new and special path for hospitals to move patients unable to make decisions for themselves into lower cost settings such as nursing homes or rehabilitation facilities.
The Tennessee state Senate on Wednesday refused to go along with the House version of a liquor distillery bill, with members raising objections to several provisions. A motion by Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, to concur with the House’s actions failed on a 13-10 vote, sending the bill back to the House. The House can either stand by its actions or accept the Senate bill. Senate debate turned on the issue of allowing Sunday sales by distilleries of their product and offering free samples to customers who take tours of the distillery.
A bill seeking to require anyone recording or taking photos of livestock abuse to turn images over to law enforcement within 48 hours was approved in the House on Wednesday with the bare vote minimum needed. The chamber voted 50-43 to approve the measure sponsored by Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) after defeating several proposed amendments and an extensive debate that at times featured lawmakers making animal noises. Bills must gain at least 50 votes in the 99-member chamber to pass.
Tennessee legislators sent a controversial animal abuse bill to the governor after one of the longest debates of the 2013 session Wednesday night, and worked toward resolving contentious bills on charter schools and municipal annexation. The animal bill requires recorded images of livestock abuse to submit the raw, unedited videos or photos to law enforcement agencies within 48 hours or face a fine. Opponents of the bill say it targets organizations like the Humane Society of the U.S., which in 2011 secretly documented abusive practices inside a horse training stable in Fayette County.
A proposal that would force activists to immediately give police their footage of livestock abuse is a signature away from becoming state law. Wednesday night the House signed off on what many see as a backdoor way to block the filming of animal cruelty. If animal rights groups like the Humane Society don’t turn over photos and video of abuse within 48 hours, they could be charged with a misdemeanor. Opposition crossed party lines. Rep. Susan Lynn is a Republican from Mt. Juliet who said she couldn’t believe the proposal was given serious consideration.
Both houses of the Tennessee state legislature have unanimously passed a bill that would require public and private schools to have at least two Epi-Pen devices to treat students in the event of a severe allergy attack. The Epi-Pen is designed to quickly treat a severe allergic reaction by injecting a dose of epinephrine. The legislation prevents a doctor or nurse administering the shot from liability unless there is “an intentional disregard for safety.”
As the state legislature moves toward completion, state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, offers his assessment: “This is no way to govern.” Fitzhugh, the House minority leader, says the Republican-controlled legislature has needlessly rushed through its business without due deliberation. “We blew through critical bills,” he said. “We are moving so fast on so many issues we have had no time to vet them.” With a 69-29 majority in the House, and a 26-7 majority in the Senate, Republicans are intent on changing things, Fitzhugh says.
Ex-judge to still go through appeal process He’s still not ready to admit the crime, but disgraced former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner is ready to do the time. So says defense attorneys Donald A. Bosch and Ann Short in a notice filed this week in U.S. District Court. Last week, Greeneville U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer sentenced Baumgartner to a six-month prison term for his convictions on charges he lied to cover up his mistress’ role in a prescription painkiller distribution network.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton called one widely-held perception a “flat-out untruth” after proposing a 28-cent city property-rate increase Tuesday — that governments just keep hiring people. “The numbers (of City of Memphis employees) are going down, down, down and the budget is going down, too,” Wharton told reporters after his relatively brief speech selling his administration’s budget recommendations to the Memphis City Council. That is, the administration insists, except for the city’s police and fire departments.
The way Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. views the city’s budget trajectory is shaped by a City Council with different fiscal ideas that has consequences the city is still paying for. The way City Council budget Chairman Jim Strickland sees it, Wharton has proposed property tax hikes multiple times since taking office in 2009 instead of seeking to fundamentally change city government from the inside. On the day that Wharton pitched a $622.5 million budget with a 28-cent property tax rate increase to the council, no one believed the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 will look exactly like the plan in the 189-page budget book.
Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush explained to the County Commission’s budget and finance committee on Wednesday why his office needed nearly $2 million in additional funding for fiscal 2014. But his request may be tied up with issues over which he has no control. The money is intended to partially fund the new juvenile defense requirements, as stipulated in the memorandum of agreement reached between Juvenile Court, Mayor Mark Luttrell and the U.S. Department of Justice, as part of the DOJ mandated court reforms.
Madison County budget hearings will continue into next week as the Budget Committee meets to discuss departmental requests for the 2013-14 fiscal year. The committee met Wednesday morning to discuss the Health Department, including rabies control, solid waste and the coroner’s office. Officials from the county’s Trustee Office and Information Technology department were also on hand to discuss their budget requests. The county coroner/medical examiner’s office, which has seen a marked increase in expenditures over the past five years, requested $129,290.
Federal prosecutors gave a few new details today on this week’s search of Pilot Flying J headquarters but still won’t say what the investigation’s about or where it’s headed. Agents of the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service raided the company’s headquarters Monday on Lonas Drive. Authorities haven’t said what the agents seized, although a Pilot employee present during the raid said agents concentrated on documents and electronic files. U.S. Attorney Bill Killian said today agents served a total of four separate search warrants, one for each of Pilot’s buildings.
The Nashville Tea Party wants someone to take on Senator Lamar Alexander. The group sent out an email to its members this morning, asking them to sign a petition in support of a Republican primary challenger. The petition accuses the “Tennessee Republican Establishment” of “doing everything they can” to stop any challenge to Alexander seeking a third term. In an interview with The Tennessean last week, Nashville Tea Party founder Ben Cunningham says Alexander talks like a conservative but his record doesn’t back it up.
Senate Republicans backed by a small band of rural-state Democrats scuttled the most far-reaching gun control legislation in two decades Wednesday, rejecting tighter background checks for buyers and a ban on assault weapons as they spurned pleas from families of victims of last winter’s school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker both voted against the key bipartisan Toomey-Manchin amendment. After the vote, Alexander said, “I’m examining every amendment to gun legislation to see whether it infringes upon or strengthens Second Amendment constitutional rights.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper has decided to temporarily stop receiving mail and packages at his district office in downtown Nashville after suspicious letters were sent to President Barack Obama and a Mississippi senator from Memphis this week. Cooper spokeswoman Katie Hill said the measure was a temporary precaution “in light of recent events.” “The office is still open for business, of course, and continues to accept calls, emails and even faxes, but we felt this was the best way to ensure the safety of our staff members and of the postal workers who deliver our mail,” Hill wrote in an email Wednesday.
Feds say they stole jobless benefits, welfare, more First it was the families of dead people and state employees. Now, authorities say Internal Revenue Service employees in Tennessee were stealing unemployment and other benefits while fully employed. On Thursday, 13 of those employees were indicted on federal charges that they lied to get unemployment, food stamps, welfare and housing vouchers. An additional 11 have been indicted on state charges of theft greater than $1,000. In all, authorities say the workers improperly received more than $250,000 in government benefits.
Investigators reported making major progress in the Boston Marathon bombing case Wednesday, including the discovery of an image of a man believed to be involved in one of Monday’s twin explosions. A federal law enforcement official said the image is of someone “who we think is involved” in the second bombing. Investigators are enhancing and studying the image, but have not yet determined the man’s identity, the official said. Another law enforcement official said authorities have been focusing on photographic evidence provided by the public and area security cameras, including an image captured by surveillance cameras of a person placing a bag near one of the bomb sites.
Video is a critical component in finding and prosecuting the bomber responsible for the Boston Marathon bloodbath. Even as first responders arrived on the scene Monday, police were already securing video footage from the vast network of surveillance cameras keeping watch over downtown Boston. Since 9/11, law enforcement agencies have used federal grants to buy surveillance cameras for areas across the country plagued by crime or potentially targeted for terrorism. A surely outdated count from 2007 said downtown Boston was watched by a network of at least 147 police surveillance cameras.
Boston tragedy sparks support from Midstate The emotional force of an explosion 1,100 miles away continues to inspire Middle Tennessee runners to make an impact. Locally, groups have planned runs, vigils and donation drives in support of Boston Marathon bombing victims. As a longtime runner, Molly Brown-Boulay has completed the Boston Marathon twice and qualified many times. So this tragedy “hit very close to me,” the Franklin resident said. “To attack something so wonderful and peaceful and uplifting was just shocking and upsetting and made all of us feel very violated,” Brown-Boulay said.
Eddie Kessler said that it’s lucky his wife, Patricia, beat her previous time at the Boston Marathon on Monday. “If she had the same time as her last Boston Marathon, she would have been near the finish line when the bombs went off,” he said on Wednesday. Before the explosion, Eddie safely met up with Patricia at the family meeting area near the finish line. He estimated that about 15,000 people were in that area alone. “If the bomb went off there, it would have been unbelievable,” he said. “It was an ocean of people … hundreds or thousands would have been killed.”
At the same time that citizens are cooling on nuclear power in Fukushima’s wake and both nuclear regulators and operators are pushing emergency preparedness for worst-case scenarios, the EPA has moved to update radiation exposure rules. They include some health-related guidelines to help responders determine evacuation needs and short-term exposure measures for situations not previously spelled out, according to Jonathan Edwards, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency’s radiation division, and David McIntyre, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors holds a public meeting in Columbia on Thursday. A public comment period begins at 9 a.m. followed by the regular meeting. The meeting comes days after the Obama administration suggested in its 2014 budget the idea of selling the utility as a way of decreasing the federal deficit. Although TVA does not receive taxpayer appropriations, and taxpayers aren’t responsible for the TVA’s debt, the utility’s expenditure of borrowed funds does count in the federal deficit.
Memphis-based Bryce Corp. received an 11-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes abatement from the Economic Development Growth Engine of Memphis and Shelby County for a $21 million expansion that will create 95 jobs and retain 318 jobs. The project will add new equipment to Bryce’s largest Memphis facility, located at 5405 Hickory Hill. The company will leave its smaller facilities at 4460 Holmes and 4040 Delp, which houses the company’s accounting and storage facility.
Chattanooga once was a union stronghold, but much of that support melted away over decades as membership fell here and nationwide. The United Auto Workers and some Volkswagen plant employees believe the trend may be about to make a U-turn, though it’s going to take a campaign to educate the Chattanooga workforce. “They don’t realize what the new UAW combined with a works council can do,” said Lon Gravett, who has worked at the plant for more than two years and assembles dashboards for the Passat sedan.
Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz, the man who has been at the center of the school-merger crisis for the last two years and has been the driving force behind ongoing litigation, assayed the situation in the wake of Monday’s passage of municipal-schools legislation in Nashville and saw some complications remaining. At some point, a few of the six suburban municipalities may find the independent school districts they establish vulnerable to legal challenge, Ritz said.
A year and a half ago, all sides in the federal court case over the consolidation of public schools in Shelby County reached a hopeful milestone that set the ground rules for the merger. “The proposed decree brings finality to this matter,” wrote Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays in accepting the agreement and making it an order in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. “It prevents years of litigation and establishes the basis for cooperative solutions based on good public policy, rather than legal solutions imposed by the court.”
It appears that the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has entered a new phase — one that stirs renewed hope for the agency and the young people in its care. In little more than two months, interim Commissioner Jim Henry, leading one of the largest departments in state government, has guided a reorganization that includes reassignment of key deputies, addition of badly needed oversight officer positions and a reconstituted line of command. Undoubtedly, the changes have been difficult, even painful, for all involved. But it was necessary, because, as all of us have become keenly aware, children have been dying in preventable circumstances, at an alarming rate, during the past three years.
We continue to be concerned about creeping government control of the public’s right to free speech, freedom of the press and access to public records in Tennessee. Each infringement chips away at every Tennessean’s constitutionally protected rights. HB1191 would place severe restrictions on anyone seeking to document animal abuse by professional livestock producers and processors. It would require any recording or photograph of abuse to be turned over to police within 48 hours. A similar bill was defeated last year. But some lawmakers who opposed it in the past are voting in favor of it this year.
The rubber is about to meet the road in this year’s Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission budget deliberations. And a lot of homeowners are hoping that they don’t get run over in the process. The property tax stage was set Tuesday when Memphis Mayor A C Wharton presented to council members his budget proposal, which calls for a 28-cent property tax rate increase to close a $26 million gap in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. County Mayor Mark Luttrell, in his budget discussion with the commission on April 10, said the county may need a 33-cent property tax rate increase to fund county government at the same level as last year.
The implementation of this unpopular law is a story of missed deadlines and general bungling.In congressional testimony last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius blamed Republican governors for her department’s failure to create a “model exchange” where consumers could shop for health-insurance coverage in states that don’t set up their own exchange. Nice try, but GOP governors aren’t the problem. Team Obama’s tendency to blame someone else for its shortcomings is tiresome. The Affordable Care Act requires HHS to operate exchanges in states that won’t operate their own.