This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee lawmakers living within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol can expect to see their daily lodging allowances drop in a couple years. Gov. Bill Haslam signed House Bill 80 into law Friday. It won’t impact sitting legislators — only those elected in 2014 forward. The provisions of the bill cover 25 Middle Tennessee House districts and nine Senate districts. The final House vote was 77-16, with 20 members whose districts will be affected voting in favor of the legislation. Of the 15 Democrats who voted against the change, only four of them will be affected.
Gov. Bill Haslam has signed legislation that clears the way for cities to begin forming municipal school systems. The measure, which passed the House70-24 and the Senate 24-5, lifts a 1998 ban that forbids municipalities from starting their own school systems. It benefits six Memphis suburbs seeking to bypass a merger of the Shelby County and Memphis school districts and run their own schools.The suburbs voted in August to create their own districts after the Legislature passed a narrowly crafted bill that allowed it.
Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday signed the main bill paving the way for creation of new municipal school districts in the six Shelby County suburban cities. House Bill 1288 repeals a 15-year-old prohibition in state law on the establishment of new municipal school systems beyond the 28 that existed in 1998 when it was enacted. Tennessee has 137 school districts — most of which are county systems and 15 special school districts that have broader taxing authority than city and county systems.
A measure that allows any photo identification issued by the state of Tennessee or United States to be used for voting has been signed by the governor. The Senate version of the legislation at one time would have allowed student ID cards issued by public universities to be used, but the House stripped out that provision and the Senate later agreed with it. The legislation also eliminates library cards as suitable voter ID. The city of Memphis and two residents sued the state last year after election officials refused to accept a city-issued library card with a photo as voter identification.
Two new statewide programs aim to make Tennessee more energy efficient and increase the use of renewable energy. The Tennessee Energy Education Initiative offers free training for businesses, public officials and communities in energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy management. The initiative includes free workshops and conferences across the state. Some of the events will hit specific topics like energy efficiency in multi-family housing, while others will provide universally applicable information.
Tennessee is on track to become the number one state for meth-lab busts in the United States, according to Tommy Farmer with the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force. Farmer says Tennessee has ranked among the top three states for meth since 2007 and is currently neck and neck with Missouri for the number one spot. According to the TBI, during the first three months of the year Tennessee law enforcement officials busted 611 meth labs. That’s compared to 488 during the same time period in 2012.
A Robertson County woman has been charged with TennCare fraud for using the state’s healthcare insurance program to pay for a fraudulent prescription. The Office of Inspector General, with assistance from the Robertson County Sheriff’s Office, on Wednesday announced the arrest of Jessi Hall-Norrod, 26, of Springfield. She is accused of using TennCare healthcare insurance benefits to pay for a fraudulent prescription for hydrocodone, which is a Schedule III controlled substance, according to a news release from the OIG.
The Tennessee attorney general has entered a settlement with a Nashville man whose company claimed a medical device could treat or cure serious medical conditions such as fungal meningitis and Lyme disease. The settlement requires Thomas Michael Haarlander and his business, The Avalon Effect Inc. of Franklin, to stop making misleading marketing claims about a medical device called the Quantum Series Wellness Pack. The settlement also requires the defendant to place $50,000 in escrow to refund customers.
Never has Gov. Bill Haslam received so much communication on a single issue. As of Wednesday afternoon, his office counted 4,502 emails and 1,796 phone calls – almost all of them against the so-called “ag gag” bill. The proposal that passed the Tennessee legislature by a narrow margin requires that activists turn over footage of livestock cruelty to police within 48 hours. Organizations like the Humane Society of the United States say such a law would criminalize long term investigations, like one that led to the conviction of a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer last year.
The Tennessee legislature adjourned Friday, but state politics are still making national news. On Wednesday, Ellen DeGeneres welcomed the president of Humane Society of the United States on her to self-named show. The topic: “ag-gag” legislation. Opponents worry it punishes those who record animal abuse and not the abusers. “We really want people to contact the Governor of Tennessee, Governor Haslam and ask him to veto this bill,” the group’s president, Wayne Pacelle.
As moratorium nears, cities find themselves in limbo Thompson’s Station had hoped to bring an additional 500 acres of land into its borders this year, but it is expected to delay the plan because of a looming statewide moratorium on annexation. In rural East Tennessee’s Scott County, the potential halt on annexation has put the tiny city of Huntsville in a bind. The city is in the middle of approving a plan to bring about 30 new residents into city limits, longtime Mayor George Potter said. Now that is in limbo, too.
Back in the days of the old Solid Democratic South (roughly, the 100-year period from the end of the Civil War to the civil rights revolution), such political disputes as existed below the Mason-Dixon line were either factional within Democratic ranks or were based on local or personal or occasionally ideological rivalries. This was especially the case in border-state Tennessee, where the switch-over from Democratic to Republican control was later in coming than in the Deep South (though ultimately just as profound and sweeping).
State to provide $4.3 million for Veterans’ Nursing Home State Rep. Curtis Johnson, R–Clarksville, on Wednesday announced that Montgomery County is set to receive about $5 million total in additional appropriations through the 2013-14 fiscal year budget passed by the Tennessee General Assembly last week. Johnson offered several key amendments to Gov. Bill Haslam’s official budget to include this funding, according to a news release from Johnson’s office. The first project allocates $4.3 million for the new Clarksville Veterans’ Nursing Home.
Access will be blocked to all mail collection boxes along the route of the St. Jude Country Music Marathon this weekend out of an abundance of caution, the U.S. Postal Service announced Wednesday. The move is a security measure after two bombs exploded at the finish line at last week’s Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others. “There is no increased threat level whatsoever,” Susan Wright, a spokeswoman for the postal service, said. “It is strictly a precautionary measure.”
Thousands of runners will lace-up their shoes for the Country Music Marathon Saturday. One Franklin runner will join the pack on the heels of the Boston Marathon tragedy. Vance Poss finished the Boston Marathon an hour prior to the explosion. He turned on the television in his hotel room after finishing the race and saw the news. Poss ran down to the hotel room lobby to see if what he witnessed on TV was real. “The medical people, police force, army, national guard. People were out in the streets, it was very scary at that point,” he explained.
Many younger doctors in Tennessee have never seen a case of measles or mumps in person, because vaccinations have been widespread for decades. The state health department now wants to make sure they’re up to speed. This follows an outbreak of measles in North Carolina, and one of mumps in Virginia. The director of the department’s immunization program, Dr. Kelly Moore, says they want doctors to watch for the fever and rash that come with measles. If they spot it, Moore says they need to isolate the patient and contact state officials.
Three years ago, Bill Haslam could not talk about the family business enough. In the television ad that introduced Haslam to many Tennessee voters as a Republican candidate for governor, yellowed photographs of Pilot stations — including one with Haslam standing next to his brother, Jimmy, and a pump advertising 54-cent gasoline — rolled past the screen. A narrator introduced the soon-to-be governor as a man who helped build Pilot Travel Centers into the nation’s biggest truck stop chain.
Tennessee’s Haslam family is furiously trying to control the damage following a federal investigation into the family business that could threaten to unravel decades of growing wealth and influence that spans business, sports and politics in the state and beyond. Jimmy Haslam, the CEO of Pilot Flying J, owns the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and recently sold his small holding in the Pittsburgh Steelers. His brother Bill is governor of Tennessee, and their father, Jim, has been a prominent GOP fundraiser for presidents and senators.
Hang up and pay up. That’s the message a Georgia trucking company sent Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam on Wednesday when its lawyer accused Haslam of witness tampering and cheating customers for a second time as the fallout from a federal fuel-rebate fraud probe continues. Pilot’s lawyer called the accusations “outrageous.” Haslam said that this week he’s calling and meeting with trucking customers who might have been shorted on fuel rebates and discounts and repaying them what they’re owed.
It reads like a David Mamet play. The affidavit by FBI Special Agent Robert H. Root that provided enough evidence for a judge to order search warrants for last week’s raid on Pilot Flying J headquarters in Knoxville, along with an off-site computer storage facility and three home offices in Nashville, Kentucky, and Iowa, is 120 pages long and filled with multiple excerpts of recorded conversations. It’s those conversations that provide the most damning evidence against Pilot, even as they sound like a re-imagined version of Glengarry Glen Ross, peppered with dirty language and sales meetings at high-end locales.
This isn’t a full list of everyone who may have been involved in the rebate fraud, or even everyone listed in the affidavit, but this should help you keep your names straight while reading the conversations in the FBI’s transcripts of recorded conversations of Pilot Flying J employees. Chris Andrews: Regional Sales Manager; works remotely and lives in Dallas, Texas. Vickie Borden: Director of Wholesale and Inside Sales; Knoxville office. Karen Crutchman: Senior Account Representative; Knoxville office.
Pilot stores in the Knoxville region are a major sales point for the News Sentinel. In fact, Pilot often offers free newspapers with a coffee purchase on Friday morning. The newspapers this past Friday, being sold at Pilot, had this headline stripped across the top of page one: “FBI: Pilot engaged in fraud.” The situation would make a good case study for a journalism class, illustrating the different roles between independent newspaper newsrooms and the paper’s business side.
Aubrey Harwell works for The Neal & Harwell, and reps Pilot Flying J. Last week’s federal raid of pilot’s headquarters in Knoxville shined a bright light on the Haslam family and its multi-billion dollar diesel retail company. The FBI alleges wide-spread fraud of customers at Pilot Flying J, claiming the company was boosting profits by pocketing rebates owed to customers. Aubrey Harwell, who works for Neal and Harwell, Pilot Flying J’s representatives, said that they are trying to determine exactly what happened.
The failed effort to locate a megasite along Interstate 81 has cost the Jefferson County economic-development community $133,000. The county commission withdrew its initial commitment of $440,000 to develop the site and the Economic Development Oversight Committee agreed to absorb the money already spent. The economic-development group spent $51,723 before springing the idea on farmers and property owners, and another $79,453 for options and other expenses before the plug was pulled on the project.
Memphis City Council members opened budget committee hearings Tuesday, April 23, on the clock and with lots of questions about what seemed to some like different budget numbers from last year at this time by the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. So far, there are more questions than conclusions by council members. But the next five to six weeks of budget hearings could get rough. The budget committee’s first vote Tuesday was not to recommend the $4.7 million budget proposal of the city’s finance division, the first of the city’s divisions up for review.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett releases his budget next week. In the meantime, county commissioners are submitting what they’re hoping to see in that budget. Topping the list is pay raises for county workers. Several commissioners told Mayor Burchett giving raises to the county’s general employees is at the top of their wish list. Commissioner Mike Hammond says he would like Mayor Burchett to put pay raises in his budget for the “lowest paid” of the 779 full-time general employees.
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker wrote in New York Times opinion piece today that the US should arm moderate forces in the Syrian opposition The comments are a major pivot for the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker’s views on Syria have evolved dramatically over the last year. Early in 2012, he said too much remained unknown about the rebels, so the US shouldn’t provide anything beyond humanitarian aid. After visiting with opposition leaders in Turkey in September, Corker seemed more open to military assistance…but only as a last resort.
The time for America to become more involved in the Syrian civil war is now, Sen. Bob Corker argues in an opinion article written for The New York Times today. Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggests that the U.S. needs to lead the global response to the ongoing conflict, which has killed tens of thousands of Syrians over the past two years. “As Syria slips further into chaos, America is acting hesitantly at a pivotal moment for our national interests and for those of our allies in the region,” Corker writes in the article’s opening sentence.
Many conservatives, meanwhile, have grown increasingly confident the system of tax credits and penalties the 2010 act calls for will not apply in Tennessee or other states refusing to create their own special health insurance marketplaces or “exchanges.” In fact, they say, the tax subsidies may be struck down in the courts before 2014 arrives. One of those making that case is Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, who argues that the sloppy wording of President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment provides one of the best remaining opportunities to stop it in its tracks.
Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) and Rep Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.) will host a joint town hall meeting for constituents in the Ninth District of Virginia and the First District of Tennessee on May 1. The joint meeting will take place 6 p.m. in Bristol, Tenn., at the Paramount Center for the Arts, located at 518 State Street. The event is free and open to the public. No tickets are required to attend.
Spending cuts touch workers, fliers, parents, students – everyone After Ktora Smith gave birth to her first child four years ago, adjusting to motherhood was a lonely road. Smith didn’t have many people to turn to. The second time has been another story. Since her son Tyrese was born on Dec. 5, Smith has been able to ask Elizabeth Cook questions on a regular basis. Cook, a nurse with the Metro Health Department, visits Smith and nine other new mothers in the city’s Early Head Start program once a week.
If marijuana is legalized and properly regulated, its proponents have long said, it could generate millions of dollars in state tax revenue. But how the drug should be taxed has proved to be a thorny question. In Colorado, where voters approved a measure in November legalizing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, officials have been grappling with this issue for months as the state works to forge a cohesive regulatory code. This week, legislators here will consider excise and sales taxes on marijuana of up to 30 percent combined.
In Alabama, if you get your health insurance through your employer and you lose your job, you quickly realize there aren’t a lot options for purchasing coverage on your own. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama has had a virtual monopoly in the state since the Great Depression, and today it covers a whopping 89 percent of Alabamians. In part, Blue Cross and Blue Shield is dominant in Alabama simply because it has been there for so long—it sold its first policy in 1936—and potential newcomers have found it difficult to convince hospitals and doctors to give them favorable prices so they can compete with the entrenched carrier.
Mystery still surrounds a TVA security officer’s report of a gunfight with an intruder in the middle of the night near Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. Authorities continue to investigate, and the FBI’s Ed Galloway, head of this region’s investigative office, has declined to talk about the findings so far. “We are conducting a logical investigation and pursuing all leads,” he said, adding that anyone with information should contact the FBI. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records show that shootings at the nation’s nuclear power plants are rare.
Logistics titan expanding network across state, in Dallas Shipping giant UPS says it will build a liquefied natural gas fueling station in Nashville as part of a big push to overhaul its fleet with alternative-energy vehicles. UPS plans to buy about 700 LNG vehicles and build a total of four refueling stations by the end of 2014. In addition to Nashville — details about the location of the station here are not yet available — the fueling stations will be built in Knoxville, Memphis and Dallas and will serve the company’s heavyweight rigs traveling into adjacent states.
“Nashville” producer Loucas George said he is hopeful that ABC will renew the show for a second season, and if it is renewed, he is “very confident” the show will continue to film locally. “I am very hopeful,” he said, adding that he expects to know more by May 10. George said he has been working with city and state officials concerning film incentives. In its first year, the show had incentives accounting for 32 percent of its Tennessee-based costs, a combination of a state grant and an additional tax credit.
Hutcheson Medical Center leaders support a plan from Catoosa and Walker counties to restructure the hospital’s long-term debt. The plan could mean leasing the Fort Oglethorpe building to another hospital or health care company. Hutcheson board Chairman Corky Jewell said the counties will help pay off the debts Hutcheson owes stemming from previous administrations. Most notably, Jewell said, the hospital owes Regions Bank about $25 million and Erlanger Health System about $20 million.
Oak Ridge High School was ranked sixth-best academically in the state in an online evaluation released this week, while three Knox County high schools placed in the top 20. U.S. News & World Report ranked Hardin Valley Academy as the state’s 10th-best school academically, while Farragut High School was 13th and Bearden High, 14th. Maryville High School in Blount County was ranked 20th by the publication. Schools were evaluated on criteria that included student-teacher ratios, performances on exams that gauge students’ readiness for college-level work and scores on algebra and English tests.
There is a joke going around among school administrators across the country in the wake of the decision by Chicago school leaders to close more than 50 schools there. “What do you call a superintendent who closes schools?” countywide school board member Kevin Woods began in telling the joke at the Tuesday, April 23, board meeting. “You call him a past superintendent.” In the case of Memphis-Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson, who proposed closing 11 schools just months after the school board voted to close four other schools, he is an interim superintendent.
One of the earliest items on the schools merger checklist was a new computer system that would handle the payroll and other human resources needs of Shelby County’s two school systems once they become one at the start of the new fiscal year July 1. And the work on the Enterprise Resource Planning system was touted by leaders of both school systems as an example of how they were working together on the merger transition. Less than three months from the start of the fiscal year, however, countywide school board members heard work on the system is “significantly” behind because of a lack of “timely made decisions” by schools administrators.
The Tennessee group known for helping its participants start successful charter schools is branching out to help other charter operators start second schools. Greg Thompson, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Incubator, announces his organization’s “Replication and Expansion Program, or REP” this morning. The incubator began in 2009 to recruit potential charter school operators and help them prepare to open high-quality schools in Nashville and Memphis.
Tennessee’s new alternative to teacher collective bargaining isn’t going so well in Rutherford County. The organization representing teachers has filed a formal complaint with the state board of education. The state legislature outlawed collective bargaining in 2011, favoring instead something less binding called “collaborative conferencing.” Rutherford County Schools officials sat down with teacher representatives for these newfangled negotiation sessions six times to talk about pay, benefits and other employment issues like days off.
A Franklin family on Wednesday filed a $1.1 million complaint in U.S. District Court in Nashville against the Williamson County School District, claiming that the school system failed to protect their son from cyber bullying. In the lawsuit, Tracy and James Mihnovich say their son — who was adopted from Ethiopia and enrolled at Grassland Middle School in 2010 — was the victim of an “on-going pattern of student peer-on-peer racially motivated cyber bullying,” and that school administrators were indifferent.
Congress shied away for years from the idea of fixing a blanket federal requirement for online businesses to collect and remit state and local sales taxes on online purchases. The bill now being debated in the Senate — the Marketplace Fairness Act — tackles this needlessly thorny issue from a different angle. It would give state governments the option to require all but small businesses, those with sales of less than $1 million, to collect and remit state and municipal sales taxes. Adoption of this state option should be an easy call for Congress, but apparently nothing related to taxes and business lobbyists is easy.
Question: Last Friday, the Tennessee General Assembly adjourned for the year after the Republican supermajority succeeded in passing a number of bills. What should be remembered as the legislature’s most important accomplishments this year? Drew Johnson Editor of the Free Press opinion page The first year of the 108th Tennessee General Assembly began with the installation of a Republican supermajority in both houses. GOP lawmakers seemed intent on using their newfound clout to enact school choice reforms, reduce onerous regulations and unnecessary red tape on businesses, and make state government more fiscally responsible.
The office of the Attorney General of the State of Tennessee is at the center of an interesting debate. Currently the position is filled by Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. He was appointed to the position by the Tennessee Supreme Court and took office Nov. 1, 2006. He served as legal counsel to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen between 2003 and 2006. Tennessee is the only state in the United States that allows its Supreme Court to pick the attorney general. In theory, this prevents the AG from being subject to political pressure. However, the Tennessee Senate passed Senate Joint Resolution 196 by a vote of 22-9 this session.
When word hit news websites last week that the FBI had staged a shock-and-awe raid of the headquarters of Pilot Flying J, there was a common theme expressed in my round-robin of phone calls. Nothing this shocking has happened in Knoxville since the Feds raided and closed the Butcher banks in 1983. No one is comparing the Haslam family to the illegalities perpetrated by Jake and C.H. Jr.; the similarity has to do with the size of the company, its prominence in the city and state economy, and the very public lives of the owners. After all, Jake just ran for governor. Bill Haslam got elected.
It is budget time in Madison County, and no county budget is larger or more demanding than that of the Jackson-Madison County School System. This year’s request tops out at more than $102 million. That is about a $5 million increase, most of it driven by technology improvements throughout the school system. It will be a challenge to see if county commissioners are prepared to move the school system forward by investing heavily in new technology. If commissioners are serious about preparing students for today’s high-tech workplace and higher education, they will approve the increase. Superintendent Buddy White presented the budget proposal to the Madison County Commission Budget Committee on Tuesday.
Few residents, if any, want to hear a proposal to close their neighborhood school. But that is what the interim superintendent of the Memphis and Shelby County school districts Dorsey Hopson is recommending by the start of the 2014-2015 school year of the Shelby County unified school district, which becomes a reality July 1. Hopson deserves credit for having the pluck to make the recommendation, which is sure to draw vehement objections from some residents in affected communities and from some members of the Shelby County unified school board, while the board is dealing with other fractious issues.
On Monday, 1,500 air traffic controllers — 10 percent of the total — were furloughed for the day pursuant to a budget deal Congress agreed on last August that none of the lawmakers thought would ever come to pass. Briefly, it looked as if the air-traffic-control system, with a little bit of luck and some cooperation from the weather, might escape relatively unscathed. But high winds at New York’s three main airports caused delays of one to three hours, which rippled though the system, causing delays as far away as Miami and Los Angeles. An ice storm in Denver didn’t help. Three airlines — US Airways, JetBlue and Delta — were forced to cancel some flights.