This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
A proposal to freeze the state’s beer tax has been signed by the governor. 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.
Gov. Bill Haslam made beer tax reform official in Tennessee Tuesday, signing a bill into law that freezes the way taxes are levied on wholesale beer sales. The bill, which overwhelmingly cleared both House and Senate chambers earlier this month, changes the structure around the state’s 17 percent tax on beer. The tax will now be based on volume rather than price. Backers of the bill argued that the old setup, which allowed for some of the highest taxes on beer in the nation, hurt smaller brewers who often sell higher-priced beers.
A proposal to eliminate hotel allowances for some Tennessee lawmakers has been signed by the governor. The measure would eliminate a $107-per-night hotel payment for the 33 legislators who live within 50 miles of the state Capitol. The legislation would continue to provide a $66 daily meals allowance for all lawmakers. It passed the House 72-15 and the Senate approved it 28-2. The legislation was sponsored by Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin and Republican Rep. Rick Womick of Murfreesboro.
Legislation to bar public universities and colleges from implementing nondiscrimination policies for student groups has been signed by the governor. The Senate unanimously passed the measure 30-0 and the House approved it 75-21. The legislation does not include private institutions like Vanderbilt University – a provision that caused Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to veto last year’s version. Sponsors say the measure is aimed at preventing colleges from creating policies requiring student groups to open membership to all students and allow all members to seek leadership posts.
Law enforcement authorities say they have no known threat for the St. Jude Country Music Marathon and that runners will see a strong presence of officers and security from start to finish Saturday. Officials from the Metro Nashville Police Department, FBI, ATF, Tennessee Department of Safety and both local and federal prosecutors promised Tuesday that they have reviewed security plans for the marathon and half marathon, which draw approximately 30,000 runners. Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson said they are planning for every contingency.
City outlines security plan for Saturday’s marathon Hundreds of local, state and federal authorities will be on hand to help secure Saturday’s St. Jude Country Music Marathon. But they say they can’t do it alone. Saturday’s marathon won’t be quite the same, coming just two weeks after the bombing of the Boston Marathon, which left more than 200 people injured and three killed, including a young boy. With that in mind, authorities on Tuesday announced heightened security measures of Saturday’s events, which will include plain-clothed law enforcement officers, surveillance and bomb-sniffing dogs and could also include limited backpack checks, on a case-by-case basis.
Officials are spelling out more details of how security will tighten at this weekend’s Country Music Marathon. Metro, state and federal officials say they’ve been reviewing safety plans with race organizers in the week since the Boston bombing. They reiterate that there are no known threats against the Nashville race, but say security will be more visible than usual, with hundreds of personnel on site and some measures that go beyond what race veterans may be accustomed to seeing.
MTSU has hired former USA Today editor in chief Ken Paulson to be the new dean for the College of Mass Communication, the university announced Tuesday. Middle Tennessee State University President Sidney McPhee said that Paulson’s unique blend of national media leadership, scholarship in the First Amendment and music background will strengthen the college and move it to the next level. “We were impressed by the breadth of Ken’s experience,” McPhee said.
Two significant, statewide energy programs — the Tennessee Energy Education Initiative and the Qualified Energy Conservation Bond Program — launched Monday during a Tennessee Renewable Energy and Economic Development Council event in Jackson, according to a news release. The release said that both programs are designed to help Tennessee organizations of all types become more energy efficient and increase the use of renewable energy to improve their competitiveness, drive economic growth and reduce environmental impacts.
The Tennessee lottery has been socking away cash for a rainy day that has yet to come. And a few lawmakers have become increasingly irritated at the reluctance to spend any of the growing reserve fund on college scholarships Students at Tennessee’s public colleges who are taking 18-hours a semester will reach their final term only to get bad news. They have exceeded the 120-hour cap on too many unnecessary classes. “I have a 3.7 GPA,” says senior Molly Pahn at the University of Memphis. “I have made the dean’s list every semester since I’ve been there. Why should I have my funding cut off if I’m supposed to be an investment in the state?”
A Nashville man will pay up $50,000 to reimburse people who bought a medical device pitched as a cure for ailments ranging from fungal meningitis to Lyme disease. Thomas Michael Haarlander of Nashville ran The Avalon Effect Inc., which was based in Franklin and offered the product, according to the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office. The product people bought was called the Quantum Series Wellness Pack. Ten people in Tennessee are thought to have bought the units, which cost $1,000 each. The settlement was announced after the attorney general sued.
The Pilot Flying J sales executive at the center of the ongoing federal fraud investigation combined with his wife to contribute $12,000 to the campaign of Gov. Bill Haslam in recent years. Pilot vice president of sales John Freeman gave a combined $5,000 to Haslam’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign and an additional $2,000 last year. Freeman’s wife, Monica, gave $5,000 in 2010. Freeman was singled out in a search warrant affidavit released last week by the FBI as one of the sales executives who allegedly ran a rebate scheme to cheat Pilot customers, mostly trucking companies, out of millions of dollars.
Pilot Flying J has dealt with more than a week of public scrutiny after the FBI raided the company’s Knoxville headquarters in an investigation of rebate fraud. Affidavits claim some Pilot employees short-changed “unsophisticated” trucking companies that receive “manual” rebates for fuel purchases. The alleged manual rebate scheme also directly involved race, WBIR-TV in Knoxville reported Tuesday. The transcripts of secretly recorded conversations with Pilot sales managers indicate a perceived vulnerability among businesses owned by Hispanics in South Florida.
Moody’s, cites federal investigation Pilot Flying J is scrambling to contain the business fallout from a federal investigation, but the scandal might also impact its credit rating. One day after federal agents raided the company’s facilities, Moody’s Investors Service last week announced it had put its ratings for Pilot Travel Centers LLC on review for a downgrade. The ratings agency said that decision was prompted by the announcement of the investigation.
A number of Knox County Commissioners are pushing a proposal that would give voters the chance to decide whether to term limit school board seats. The plan, however, is going to need state support, and then nothing could be done until lawmakers reconvene next January. Still, some officials say they want to get the ball rolling early. “It’s been talked about in the area the last two or three years and I felt like it’s time to do it,” said Commissioner Mike Brown, who is spearheading the proposal.
Senators on Tuesday sought to humanize a bill that would let states require sales tax collection on all online purchases. To do so, they appeared with several small-business owners from Middle America who say it’s a great idea. Meanwhile, eBay and other opponents continued attacking the Marketplace Fairness Act, which they say is anything but fair. Despite a fresh fight, a mix of logistical readiness and political failure have experts predicting Senate passage by week’s end. Supporters say such a step would help even the score between online retailing and brick-and-mortar stores, which are forced to collect sales tax at the cash register.
The U.S. Senate is expected to vote soon on allowing state sales taxes on Internet orders. Both of Tennessee’s Republican senators are for it. Each year Tennessee misses out on hundreds of millions in sales taxes that aren’t collected from online shoppers. Senator Bob Corker argues taxing sales online levels the playing field for brick-and-mortar retailers. In a statement this week he framed the matter as one of “states’ rights,” as did Senator Lamar Alexander at a press conference: “I don’t like it when Washington experts want to force governors to play ‘mother, may I?’ to the United States Congress about whether they can collect taxes from everybody who owes taxes.”
Tennessee’s senators applauded beginning the process for debating the Marketplace Fairness Act Monday, which was approved in a 74-20 Senate vote. The bill, which has been long-backed by co-sponsor Sen. Lamar Alexander, would allow states to decide whether to tax online retail sales from companies that don’t have a brick-and-mortar presence within a state’s borders. The measure would impact sales from online corporate giants such as Amazon and eBay, which offer differing takes on the bill.
Former Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown, who recently lost his syndicated television courtroom over a contract dispute with CBS, may seek the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Lamar Alexander. That’s what the flamboyant Brown, whose 15-year stint as a television judge ends next month, told The Hollywood Reporter recently. According to the publication, the judge “says he also is considering offers to get involved in politics, which could include a run for the U.S. Senate from Tennessee.”
Responding to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ proposal to limit fishing on dams along the Cumberland River and its tributaries in Kentucky, former U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin said that the Corps’ plan is not worth the effort. Martin, who just weeks ago would have been responsible with carrying out the Corps’ wishes, said the Tennessee Valley Authority’s siren system, which goes off when water is released from the dams, is enough to ensure public safety. The Corps has proposed barriers along the river that would limit fishing access, citing safety concerns. Detractors say the move could cost millions of tourism dollars every year. “
Construction on Music City Center has ended, finishing ahead of schedule by one week, according to a news release Contracts with architects TVS Design and construction management firm Bell/Clark called for construction to be finished by the close of business April 30 With construction complete, the Metro Nashville Codes Department has issued a certificate of occupancy for the 1.2 million-square-foot facility. The baton is now passed to the building’s operations group, which will begin installing furniture, fixtures and equipment, in addition to training staff. Music City Center’s formal grand opening is scheduled for May 19 and 20.
Three years after it started and one week before the deadline, construction on the Music City Center officially came to an end today. The building has been issued a certificate of occupancy, certifying that it has successfully met various codes and regulations examined through 250 inspections and approvals by several state and Metro departments and agencies. The project now moves on to the final stages of completion, including furniture and fixture installation and staff training, before it opens to the public next month.
Tennessee’s biggest health insurer and Chattanooga’s biggest hospital are joining in a five-year network agreement officials hope will lead to better and less costly health care, especially for many of the 25,000 Chattanooga-area residents expected to join one of the new health exchanges coming on the market next year. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and Erlanger Health System announced Tuesday they will join in a “strategic partnership” July 1. The unique network agreement, which is longer and more involved than most insurance and hospital payment arrangements, is designed to boost the number of paying patients at Erlanger while limiting the costs of care for BlueCross and its members.
Hospital care spending in Tennessee averaged $2,160 per person in 2009, a figure that is among the 10 lowest in the nation on a state-by-state comparison. Tennessee ranked No. 10 in the country for the states with the lowest hospital care spending, including services for outpatient care, operating room fees and the services of physician residents, data from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed. Nationally, hospital spending averaged $2,475 per person in 2009. That’s about 14.6 higher than the average per person hospital spending in Tennessee.
The Common Core State Standards Tennessee adopted in 2010 are a bad idea and a power grab by federal education officials, a group of local parents told the Rutherford County Board of Education Tuesday night. Members of the group, Parents for Truth in Education, packed the board meeting and shared their feelings about the standards, adopted for English/language arts and math in July 2010. Core standards call for teaching students deeper, more meaningful lessons that emphasize critical thinking.
In light of what the school district considers a legislative victory in local control, Metro school board members are bracing to review six new charter school applications this spring. Originally, 10 charter school operators put the district on notice earlier this year that they each wanted to open a school within the district, but only six handed in completed applications to the district this month. “There will be denials,” said Alan Coverstone, executive director of the district’s Office of Innovation, at Tuesday night’s school board work session.
Mayor Karl Dean told Metro Schools officials on Tuesday that he won’t be able to fully fund their budget request and that they need to go back to the drawing board. Dean’s administration has told the school district it will get significantly less than the additional $44 million, or 6 percent, that it requested for the 2013-14 budget year, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling said. But it still will get significantly more than the $720 million it’s getting this year. “We’ve told them that we can’t fund the level that they asked for and that they should start thinking about appropriate cuts,” Riebeling said.
Metro Nashville Public School officials expect to cut as much as $25 million of their budget proposal this spring, according to district officials. MNPS originally pitched a $761 million budget to Mayor Karl Dean but was told Tuesday they will have to scale it back due to lower revenues. Director of Schools Jesse Register said it was too soon to say what he and the board would want to take out of the budget proposal, but said capital projects, increases in salaries as well as benefits and money dedicated to charter schools will likely not be considered.
Interim Supt. Dorsey Hopson recommended to the unified schools board Tuesday that 11 schools, primarily in southwest and northwest Memphis, be closed by the fall of 2014. Among the schools are Carver, Westwood and Northside high schools and six elementary schools. The only Shelby County school is A. E. Harrold Middle in Millington. The schools are primarily under-enrolled schools, but also include Corry and Shannon elementary schools, which will lose whole grades this fall as the Achievement School District begins its phased-in takeover.
Memphis-Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson is proposing the countywide school board close 11 more schools, 10 in the city of Memphis and one in Millington. The closings which include three Memphis high schools – Northside, Carver and Westwood – would take effect in the 2014-2015 school year if approved by the school board. The board votes Tuesday, April 30, on starting the process which includes public hearings. When Hopson was appointed interim Memphis City Schools superintendent in March, making him the leader of both school systems, he said then that he believed the school system should close more than the four schools the board voted to close earlier this year.
Shelby County’s six suburbs are coordinating efforts to hold all of the referendums for municipal schools on July 16 and the subsequent election of school boards the first week in November. Leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington settled on the specific dates Monday afternoon, several mayors said, as the suburbs strive for their individual school districts to open in August 2014. The corresponding local legislative votes by the suburbs to authorize the July referendums should begin in the next two weeks with some cities holding special called meetings in May to pass the ordinances by the end of the month to stay on schedule.
At a time when state and federal officials are discussing how to protect schools better, the Jasper Police Department is taking its own measures. Police Chief Tim Graham said he and his officers are trying to walk through each of the city’s three school buildings every day. “We’re a small department, and we realize that,” he said. “Without having resource officers, we’re doing what we can to make it a little safer.” There is no set schedule for the officers to arrive on each campus, officials said. Graham said Jasper police have to prioritize any calls they may receive during regular school hours.
Four contractors have submitted proposals to conduct a “snapshot” review of security systems at five or six schools in Knox County. On Tuesday, the contractors’ proposals were opened by the Knox County Purchasing Department. While dollar amounts were included in each of the proposals, they will not be announced until the school board votes on the contract. The contractors are: Elert & Associates of Stillwater, Minn.; CSI of SE Inc. of Maynardville; Eye in the Sky LLC of Brentwood, Tenn., and KC Sound and Electric of Knoxville.
The Wise County School Board on Tuesday adopted a budget for next fiscal year reflecting about $3.5 million less in funding than the current year. The board will meet again Thursday to choose a health insurance provider for employees. The budget of $60,415,000 for next fiscal year is a drop from the current fiscal year’s $63,943,300, reflecting a decrease in state funds of $1,396,900, a cut of $2,233,700 in federal funds, and $700,000 less from the county. State funds are projected to be $30,965,000 next fiscal year compared to $32,361,900 this year.
Jackson-Madison County School officials are proposing changes to the 2013-14 fiscal year budget that is nearly $5 million more than the 2012-13 budget. Superintendent Buddy White said the current year’s budget is $97,644,000. But with a proposed Web-based curriculum, which would eliminate traditional textbooks, along with bonuses for certified and non-certified employees, the new budget request is more than $102 million. “I think our proposal was well received,” said White after presenting the budget to members of the Madison County Commission’s budget committee on Tuesday morning.
Irate Wisconsin legislative leaders are threatening to withhold funds from the University of Wisconsin and force a tuition freeze after discovering the school has quietly amassed a $650 million reserve fund unbeknownst to lawmakers. “It’s shocking,” said Senate President Michael Ellis, a Republican. “In terms of accountability, it’s just extremely shady.” The rainy-day fund came to light when several lawmakers who are also accountants began digging into the system’s books and found hundreds of cash reserve accounts that weren’t readily discernible in the budget.
Our country’s transportation infrastructure, the system on which our economy is dependent to move people and products, is broken. Like an automobile once new and high performing that’s now old, tired and sputtering due to poor maintenance, many of our roads and bridges are in decline. The roadway system is badly in need of repair and much of it rapidly approaching the end of a viable life cycle. America has more than 4 million miles of roadway, of which Tennessee counts 93,251 miles of public roads. A recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that 32 percent of the nation’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently released its “report card” on the state of American infrastructure. Frankly, the results weren’t good. As a country, we received a D-plus, and in Tennessee the infrastructure merited a D. No other part of any industry in the world is competing and winning with machines, technology or systems that are even one-third as old as the national infrastructure in the U.S. Right now, the U.S. is equipped with roads, bridges and ports from the early to mid-20th century and pipes and rail lines from the 19th century. But, the news isn’t all bad.
It’s becoming clearer each session that Tennessee’s Republican-dominated Legislature is intent on protecting abusive businesses while punishing whistle blowers, journalists and, in this case, animals. Why else would the House and Senate pass legislation designed to jail and fine those who photograph animal abuse if they don’t turn it over to authorities within 48 hours? Legislation dubbed the “Ag Gag” bill would slap anyone who holds animal abuse photos more than two days with a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $50 fine. Clearly, this is in response to video recorded by the Humane Society last year of a renowned walking horse trainer abusing a horse.
Gov. Bill Haslam has an opportunity to show some courage by vetoing the so-called “ag-gag” legislation sitting on his desk. This end run around the First Amendment does nothing to protect animals, it only opens the door to government intrusion into free speech, and protects the interests of commercial slaughterhouse operators. This legislation has been defeated in numerous other states, and deserves to be rejected by Haslam.vThe bill would criminalize anyone, including news media, taking pictures of livestock abuse and not turning over all unedited photos and videos of suspected abuse to police within 48 hours. This will have a chilling effect on news media and mainstream press to investigate suspected abuse.
It’s TCAP time in Tennessee, when prepubescent kids — chocolate milk stains on their shirts and stubby No. 2 pencils clutched tightly in their grip — spend hours and hours bubbling in question after standardized question. Good moms and dads will want to serve up fresh fruits and veggies for dinner, get their kids to bed early, and then do the only thing a sane and caring parent can during TCAP week. Keep your kid at home. Boycott the standardized sucker. “It’s killing creativity,” one Hamilton County teacher said Tuesday. Of course it is. It’s killing the true spirit of education, the morale of teachers and any sweet belief our kids may have that education is more than memorization.
One week ago your scrappy scribe opined that the FBI raid of Pilot Flying J headquarters last week was akin to a 2011 raid on Gibson Guitar Corp. The big bust on Gibson shut down production, left the company dangling when the feds wouldn’t say what was wrong and caused acute, if transient, reputational damage to the maker of iconic guitars. Your now-humbled journalist was wrong. The G-men’s move on Pilot bears little resemblance to the heavy-handed actions that netted Indian ebony at Gibson. First, the feds came in and, according to public accounts, bent over backward to keep Pilot operating, leaving essential personnel in place the day of the raid.
On Monday, after the sequester cuts forced the Federal Aviation Administration to begin furloughs for air traffic controllers, delays began to build up at airports around the country. Travelers had to wait, but nothing delayed Republicans from scurrying away from all responsibility. Speaker John Boehner started using the Twitter hashtag #ObamaFlightDelays, the latest effort in his party’s campaign to blame all the pain of the sequester on the Obama administration while claiming all the credit for its effect on reducing the deficit. “Why is President Obama unnecessarily delaying your flight?” Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, wrote in a message on Twitter.