This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
The competition to bring big companies and their jobs here amounts to selling this area’s central location and workforce with tax breaks and grants for infrastructure and job training. “We have to be competitive with other cities and counties, as well as states,” Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce President Paul Latture said. “There are only a certain number of economic development projects in the United States in any given year. We want to be competitive for those projects.” That includes not only new development, but businesses and industries looking to start over in another location.
State agriculture officials are expecting an excellent crop of strawberries throughout the state this year. Pamela Bartholomew, a marketing specialist with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, told the Daily News Journal that Tennessee’s cool, wet spring has prolonged the growing process. “The cold has thinned out some strawberries, but that’s actually a good thing, too, since the remaining berries will get a bigger share of their plant’s nourishment,” she said. “It all adds up to a great crop.”
Three months after the state took custody of Blade Alex Brewer, the 2-year-old with a passion for Mickey Mouse died in the home of his foster parents.vDepartment of Children’s Services officials say their preliminary findings show that Blade died March 2 of natural causes. He was born with his intestinal tract outside his body and lived with only a quarter of his colon — a condition known as short bowel syndrome. He had been in and out of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt all of his short life.
Surveying the shifting sea of faces celebrating the recent Fogelman Promise Day at the University of Memphis — more than 2,000 students participated in the third annual event — Dr. Rajiv Grover reflected on the evolving model of higher education to address 21st-century needs with 21st-century methods.v“Before, there was this mindset that every student who wanted to get a business degree had to take a lot of prerequisite courses and follow a path that was largely academic training when in fact very few of the students were preparing for academic careers,” said Grover, dean of the Fogelman College of Business and Economics.
In the last few years, Tennessee hasn’t shied away from contentious education initiatives as it seeks to remain at the forefront of education reform in the nation. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has even characterized the state’s efforts as “courageous leadership.” Two big initiatives were proposed during the 108th Tennessee General Assembly: an administrative proposal to create a school voucher program and a so-called parent trigger measure that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school.
Delivering his State of the State address in January, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam quickly brought up what he called the “elephant in the room.” “There is a narrative already being written for us this legislative session. Republicans will be fighting internally,” Haslam said. He was talking about the GOP’s “supermajority” — 70 of the 99 House seats and 26 of the 33 Senate chairs, well more than a two-thirds majority in both chambers and enough strength to completely negate anything put forward by Democrats.
GOP ‘supermajority’ rolls, but friction derails pet projects Commenting on one of several pieces of legislation to gain national attention during the 2013 session of the Tennessee General Assembly, Gov. Bill Haslam blamed the failure of his education reform priority of the year on “infighting among advocates.” If you consider Republicans as advocates for a standard set of policy principles, the same might be said for many other bill failures in the debut performance of the 108th General Assembly, the first since Reconstruction with the GOP holding a “supermajority” — more than two-thirds of the seats in both the House and Senate.
Country singer Carrie Underwood urged Gov. Bill Haslam to veto legislation that would restrict filming of animal abuse. Underwood said on Twitter that Haslam can “expect me at his front door” if he signs the measure, which requires anyone who takes video or photographs of animal abuse to turn the footage over to law enforcement within 48 hours. The bill would restrict hidden-camera investigations into animal cruelty, such as recent footage recorded of trainers abusing Tennessee Walking Horses.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron used Monday’s deadline to file federal income tax returns as an opportunity to decry again Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision not to expand TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program. “This is simply the sickest Tax Day in Tennessee history,” Herron told reporters at a press conference in Legislative Plaza. “Tennesseans today will file returns showing we’re paying the IRS $47 billion. But the radical Republican legislators and the governor are making sure Tennesseans don’t get our share.”
A debate on Saturday between Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield and standup comedian J. LaLonde drew 125 people who laughed, clapped and occasionally shouted, but overall resulted in a civil discourse in democracy. Contributing to the light-heartedness of the event was Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, who has a reputation of making funny comments without even trying. The event at Market Square’s Square Room was free, with $1,001 raised in advance to show interest and commitment to Choices Resource Center of Oak Ridge.
The rise of the Republican party in Tennessee during the past four decades is still underway and shows no signs of slowing, two of the party’s elder statesmen said in an interview last week. Former Tennessee Gov. Winfield Dunn and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson have witnessed a dramatic shift in the state from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold. “I think the transition continues at this point,” Dunn said. “The Republican Party hasn’t quite reached its total ascendance, in my opinion.”
Pilot CEO faces hard questions amid FBI investigation As recently as a week ago, Jimmy Haslam III appeared at the top of his game. Getting glowing reviews as the new owner of the Cleveland Browns, he prepared for the upcoming draft. His younger brother, Gov. Bill Haslam, had won easy approval of most of his agenda in a Republican-dominated General Assembly. And the family-controlled company — the powerhouse truck stop chain Pilot Flying J — was poised as No. 1 in an industry capitalizing on a recovered economy and increasing demand. Then came Monday with an FBI raid on Pilot’s Knoxville headquarters.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander thanked Madison County Republicans on Saturday for allowing him to serve in the state Senate. “It’s a great privilege,” he said multiple times throughout his speech at the annual Madison County Republican Party Reagan Day Dinner, which was held Saturday evening at the STAR Center in Jackson. Alexander is the only Tennessean ever popularly elected in both the governor and U.S. senator elections. Alexander said there are three issues he’s working on fixing in Washington. The first thing, and most important, he said is the national debt.
The six Republican senators from Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama cast a total of 54 votes on nine gun-related proposals last week. The NRA-backed Southern sextet voted identically on every measure, helping defeat attempts at gun control and supporting amendments they believed would strengthen the rights of gun owners. Groups on both sides promised the votes will reverberate into 2014’s midterm election season and beyond. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the National Rifle Association have said they’ll punish plenty of senators with ads and other political weaponry.
A sampling of Memphis gun control advocates including Mayor A C Wharton have vowed to continue their efforts following the Senate’s rejection of a federal plan to expand background checks for gun buyers. The bill, authored by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., received wide public support, and President Barack Obama said its defeat Wednesday marked a “shameful day” in Washington. Leatrice Burgess, a Memphis organizer with social welfare group Organizing for Action, shared his sentiment.
Officials have many questions for survivor Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lay hospitalized in serious condition under heavy guard Saturday as people around the city breathed easier and investigators tried to piece together the who and why of the deadly plot. Tsarnaev, 19, was reported to be in no condition to be interrogated the morning after he was pulled, wounded and bloody, from a tarp-covered boat in a Watertown backyard. The capture came at the end of a tense day that began with his older brother, Tamerlan, dying in a desperate getaway attempt.
With Friday’s dramatic capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, federal investigators have a rare chance to gather firsthand information to determine whether the deadly Boston Marathon bombings are an isolated attack or part of a broader initiative of homegrown or international terrorism. Tsarnaev, 19, remains hospitalized, listed in serious condition with gunshot wounds. He faces a number of potential charges ranging from murder and terrorism to manufacturing bombs. Officials say a special interrogation team for high-value suspects plans to question him without reading him his Miranda rights, invoking a rare public safety exception triggered by the need to protect police and the public from immediate danger.
After days of waiting, the first group of residents who fled their homes when a fertilizer plant exploded in a blinding fireball were allowed to go home Saturday to find out what remained. The news came after a nervous day where officials told residents packed in a hotel waiting for updates about their neighborhood that leaking gas tanks were causing small fires near the blast site, keeping authorities from lifting blockades. But officials emphasized that the fires were contained and said the town was safe. “It is safe, safe and safe,” City Council member Steve Vanek said emphatically at a midday news conference.
A new fight is brewing over health insurance companies letting millions of Americans renew their current coverage for another year — and thereby avoid changes under the federal health care law. That may offer a short-term benefit for certain consumers and shield some of those individual policyholders from potentially steep rate increases. But critics say this maneuver could undermine government efforts to remake the insurance market next year and keep premiums affordable overall.
Principals for the first time here are looking hard at teachers’ skills over seniority as they decide who will have jobs next year. For dozens of teachers throughout Shelby County, including Kim Harwood, a special-education teacher at Shadowlawn Middle, the foundation is cracking around their feet.b“If I don’t find a job in four or five weeks, I’ll have to put my house on the market and hope it sells,” Harwood said. “I can’t afford to go into bankruptcy.” She and about 160 other teachers were “excessed” in the last week, the new name for what happens to teachers when their jobs at one school are cut because of budget cuts or drops in enrollment.
Sullivan County’s school board got a crash course in budget revenues 101 during a half-day work session Saturday morning. But the class project and end-of-course testing will begin next month at a May 11 meeting, where the board is to start wrangling with the expenditures in the 2013-14 budget while staying inside revenue constraints. Officials said it might include not just elimination of teaching positions where employees are reassigned but some layoffs, as well as moving many instruction aides from full-time to part-time status.
The pink bows adorning mailboxes, lamp posts and store fronts in this one-stoplight town are a symbol of unity and hope that a woman who disappeared two years ago is still alive. The bows were made by a local florist who prays every night that Holly Bobo’s case will be solved. Interest in the case rekindled this week when a purse at first thought to be the nursing student’s was found by neighborhood dogs, who took it to a home in Parsons, a town nestled along the hills, woods and farms not far from the Tennessee River.
On the sprawling grounds of the state prison, built here in 1955, a new three-story, $24 million treatment center for mentally ill inmates stands out because of its freshly painted walls and rooftop solar panels. Inside, on a recent morning, psychologists and social workers were leading group therapy sessions for inmates in large, brightly lighted rooms while individual meetings were being held in smaller offices. By all accounts, the opening of the new wing in January, as well as that of a crisis center and a housing unit for more troubled inmates in recent years, has improved the quality of mental health care in this prison, known formally as the California Medical Facility.
A group of Texas optometrists is lobbying the State Legislature for more power to negotiate contracts with health insurance companies, and the measure they are supporting could hit consumers’ wallets, some business advocates say. “The problem is that optometrists are just getting eaten up by insurance companies,” said Dr. Thomas A. Lucas Jr., an optometrist and legislative chairman for the Texas Optometric Association. “It’s very rare that the small-business optometrist has any say in what’s actually in the contract.”
As the Texas Legislature moves to uproot the state’s standardized testing program amid an outcry from parents and school leaders, state lawmakers have focused their criticism on Pearson, the publishing and testing company that develops the tests. Pearson holds a five-year, $468 million contract through 2015 to provide the state assessment tests that students begin taking in third grade. While policies that led to the contract won unanimous approval four years ago, some lawmakers now say Pearson exerted excessive influence in the policy-making process.
When we reflect on the natural beauty of Tennessee, we think of verdant hills and mountains, abundant lakes and rivers and a soft-blue sky. But do we really reflect on these treasures as often as we should? Or do we take them for granted? With Earth Day on Monday, it’s a good time to assess this state’s resources. There are formidable challenges; for example: • The latest fight over water quality runs through Nashville, where a lawsuit in federal court alleges that stormwater discharged into the Cumberland River by PSC Metals, the big scrap-metal yard downtown, contains contaminants such as copper, lead, iron and zinc.
While our attention was trained on following the manhunt in Boston, the tragedy in West, Texas, and the unfolding drama in Knoxville, the Tennessee General Assembly, true to the predictions of its leadership, wrapped up its work and adjourned. It was a session far quieter than many observers on the left had feared, and perhaps less far-reaching than those on the right had hoped. And it ended with a little tit-for-tat as two prized bills, SB 780, a judicial redistricting bill pushed by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), and the statewide charter school authorizer bill favored by House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) fell victim to intraparty politics.
Tennessee lawmakers say a bill they passed last week will protect animals from abuse. Right. Sure. Uh-huh. The bill, which makes it a crime for someone to photograph abuse or suspected abuse of livestock and not report it to law enforcement within two days, is actually targeted at radical animal rights groups, which have used secret videos and photos to document abuse and expose the perpetrators. Is it a bad thing that whistleblowers expose mistreatment of animals? Not unless you’re in the practice of abusing animals. Known as an “ag-gag” bill, the law has another gag-inducing layer — it’s clearly intended to stop journalists from investigating cases of suspected abuse.
Theodore Roosevelt gets credit for attaching the term muckraker to the reporters of that era, who were dredging up the ills of society for all to see. The president praised them, saying: “There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life.” Teddy was a Republican then, though he later split with the GOP to found his “Bull Moose” Party. Many Tennessee Republicans, though, don’t look so kindly on muckracking nowadays, passing a bill last week to stifle one type they find particularly annoying.
Sometimes a light comes on for Tennessee legislators regarding bills that, when fully analyzed, can have a detrimental impact on the entire state. A bill changing the process for cities to annex an area falls into that category. As first introduced, the bill would have required the approval of a majority of voters in a proposed annexation area before the annexation could occur. History has shown that in most cases residents of unincorporated areas don’t want to become part of a city. If the bill had remained as originally written, it would have effectively killed any city’s attempt to grow by annexation.
This deal could mark the rebirth of a vital part of Murfreesboro. When Middle Tennessee Medical Center vacated its longtime hospital building in October 2010, the vacuum it created caused some trepidation among local residents and many other people interested in maintaining a vibrant downtown area. After years of certainty, people were left to deal with the unknown. Would the site at North Highland and East Lytle become an eye sore? Would it be scooped up by a buyer that would put in an unwanted development that would hurt their property values?
A few years ago while I was working at the newspaper in Bartlett just outside Memphis, Brother Industries opened a new 1 million-square-foot distribution facility. It was state of the art and to this day, some 15 or so years later, is still serving the company and employing hundreds in the area. During the opening ceremony for the center I had the opportunity to interview, through an interpreter, the world CEO of Brother Industries. He’d flown over from Japan to attend the grand opening of the facility. “Why is Brother so committed to Bartlett?” I asked. His response was simply one word: schools.
Violence can happen without warning, to anyone, at any time — no one is immune and no one deserves to be victimized. Crime victims experience strong emotions for days, months and even years as they grapple with crime’s physical, emotional, financial and spiritual effects. National Crime Victims Rights Week, “New Challenges New Solutions,” April 21-27, is a fitting moment to salute the early pioneers who stood their ground to create services for victims (Edith Hammons, Carol Etherington, Mary Ann Jackson and Norma Calway-Fagan, among others) and it’s fitting to salute all who expanded this early work on behalf of victims.
President Barack Obama has included a recommendation in his budget to study whether the Tennessee Valley Authority should be sold to a private company. This is a curious proposal, at best, and smacks of political gamesmanship. The president’s proposal suggests that selling TVA could reduce the budget deficit by $25 billion and “help put the nation on a sustainable fiscal path.” That is a suspect statement because the government has no liability for TVA’s debt, though it is included in the nation’s debt figure. Furthermore, no taxpayer money goes to TVA, other than through utility rates, for which consumers receive a direct benefit in the form of electricity and other services performed by TVA.
With few exceptions, the long road to merging Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools — and the dogged determination by suburban cities to opt out of the merger — has produced nothing but stark disagreements. But now that the red light that has prevented the municipalities from creating separate schools has finally turned green, the time for serious negotiations and consensus building is here. Thanks to their friends in the state legislature, Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington now have the go-ahead to launch their own schools starting in 2014 — assuming that another legal battle doesn’t stymie the plans.
With an improved Sugarlands Visitor Center now open, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is better prepared to serve the millions who come annually to view this Tennessee trophy. The timing for the Sugarlands improvement is excellent. The park recently was reaffirmed as the most-visited national park in the U.S., drawing a total of 9,685,829 visitors in 2012 to maintain the title. The nearby Blue Ridge Parkway — a unit of the national park system but technically not considered a national park — was the most visited of all sites in the park system with 15,205,059 visitors last year.
I was the only online producer working when news of the Boston Marathon explosions broke. Already having my hands full with the breaking-news story about the FBI raid at Pilot Flying J, I quickly and methodically began grabbing the few bits of information available to compile on knoxnews.com. It was shocking, but I didn’t really have time to process the news. My priority was to get the information out and keep the updates coming. I was also monitoring the reaction on social media, where the horror was palpable. It seemed many people viewed this attack as a symbol of how inherently rotten humanity can be — a natural reaction. But then there was the camp that chose a different perspective: They took a step back and said, in spite of this horrific event, look at all the goodness in the world. Example after example began to pour in, and the gnawing, uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach began to dull. In all directions, people were responding to tragedy with kindness.