This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday signed into law the second of the two municipal school district bills — this one removing the limits on the number of school systems permitted in a county. Previous Tennessee law limited to six the number of school districts per county. Senate Bill 1354, by Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, is the second of two bills lawmakers passed this year paving the way for Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington to create their own municipal school systems for the start of the 2014-15 school year.
Tennessee is making a steady commitment to deliver high-quality pre-kindergarten education, according to a 10-year study conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research. The 2012 State Preschool Yearbook study, which came out on Monday, ranks the state 17th in the nation for providing families with access to the early childhood learning program. Tennessee ranked 15th for funding per child enrolled in the 2010-11 school year, which is up from 32nd and 28th a decade ago, according to a news release from the institute.
Attorneys for the Department of Children’s Services returned to federal court Monday to present a revised plan for investigating child deaths and near deaths. They described the changes as a “significant step forward” for the embattled agency. DCS is under a federal court order to revise its system for investigating child deaths. Since January 2011, the agency has had no formal guidelines for tracking or investigating the deaths of children in custody or children brought to its attention for allegations of abuse or neglect.
A federal judge overseeing changes at the Department of Children’s Services expressed cautious optimism that the agency’s new leadership can resolve some of its problems. At a Monday hearing, lawyers for the department said DCS has created a process for tracking and reviewing the deaths and near deaths of children the agency has tried to help. At a January hearing, DCS attorneys said they were not even sure how many those children had died over the past two years. On Monday, DCS attorneys pegged that number at 193, although they said it is still possible some deaths were missed.
State officials say a program that aims to revitalize downtown commercial districts in communities across Tennessee generated more than $82 million in private and public investment last year. The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development released on Monday statistics from its Main Street program, which includes 24 towns and cities in the state. Kingsport and Rogersville are among the Northeast Tennessee participants. The department says 604 jobs were generated and 107 new businesses sprang up in the 24 communities in 2012.
Tennessee labor officials are shutting down a federally funded rapid response team that had been used to provide quick assistance to employees caught in the midst of mass layoffs across the state. The elimination of the unit, which had been in operation for about a decade, comes despite the strong protest of some members of a state workforce advisory board. That board had refused to approve the change at a meeting last fall, and charged that the state’s last-minute change failed to comply with federal notice requirements.
Hemlock Semiconductor of Clarksville laid off all of its nearly 300 employees months ago. But the company is still receiving regular payments from the state of Tennessee, including checks totaling nearly $720,000 just this month. The Department of Finance is making good on $95 million of promised incentives, having paid $92 million so far, according to a state spokesperson. “This is something that the current administration sort of inherited,” says Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes. “I think we do have to be very careful and very thoughtful going forward on things like this.”
This weekend’s heavy rain put a surprise obstacle for drivers on the westbound lanes of Purple Heart Parkway after a 20-foot-wide sinkhole formed Sunday night. Tennessee Department of Transportation crews excavated and filled the hole, which opened between Fort Campbell Boulevard and Jordan Road, with rock Monday, according to Deanna Lambert, spokeswoman for TDOT. Traffic heading west on Purple Heart Parkway has been diverted to the shoulder while crews repair the hole.
Clarksville saw a massive amount of rain over the weekend: 3.5 inches That was the count recorded at Outlaw Field Airport from Friday at 10 p.m. to Sunday morning at 2 a.m., according to the National Weather Service. All that rain had to go somewhere, and it drained mainly into the creeks and rivers. The Cumberland River in Clarksville crested at 47.65 feet Sunday evening, well above the minor flooding stage of 46 feet. Moderate flooding begins at 50 feet. The river stayed in the flood stage through Monday, but was on a gradual decline.
More Tennessee teachers are heading for the exits. Since 2008 the number is up by more than a thousand – nearly doubling – to a total last year of almost 2,200. Exactly why is a bit of a mystery. Some teachers see it as a response to a couple years of politically charged upheaval in state education policy. But state officials say it’s not so clear-cut, and even go so far as to argue higher turnover has an upside.
Shannon Hill says much of the past two years of her life has been unbearable. Even the most basic of decisions about her daily life were taken away. “I was told that I couldn’t buy a new book unless I sold an old one,” Hill said. Hill, 67, was placed in a court-ordered conservatorship in 2009, although she says she had never set foot in the Nashville courtroom where her fate was decided. Her attempt to regain control of her life comes amid increased public attention on the Tennessee law governing conservatorships.
Tennessee authorities are preparing to test welfare recipients for drug abuse. The legislature passed a bill requiring it, and Gov. Bill Haslam signed it nearly a year ago. The statute gives the Department of Human Services until July 1, 2014, to begin screening people receiving welfare for illicit drug use. The Tennessean reported the agency might begin with a diagnostic quiz that could ask if assistance recipients have ever abused more than one drug at a time or if they felt bad after abusing drugs.
The Knox County Commission on Monday agreed to ask state officials just what they need to do to let voters decide whether to term limit school board seats. Officials said they will now ask state Rep. Ryan Haynes, the Republican chairman of the local Legislative delegation, to research the proposal and report back to the board by June. “I just want to know the procedure — what needs to happen?” Commissioner Mike Hammond said. Commissioners initially were supposed to vote on a resolution requesting the legislative delegation to “take all necessary and appropriate steps” to allow the county to put the question on a local ballot.
Germantown will seek a 44.5-cent increase to the city property-tax rate, with 35 cents of that amount to cover the budget for the next five years, City Administrator Patrick Lawton said Monday. The administration will present the general fund budget, including details of the property-tax increase, to the suburb’s Financial Advisory Commission Tuesday night. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen will begin considering the budget and tax rate May 13. “It’s a very responsible budget to make sure we have the resources to provide the level of services our residents want,” Lawton said of the financial plan.
A Knoxville judge on Monday rejected a claim that Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam is tampering with potential witnesses in a lawsuit stemming from an FBI raid on the country’s largest diesel retailer. Knoxville Circuit Judge Harold Wimberly denied a motion by Atlantic Coast Carriers Inc. of Hazlehurst, Ga., to block Haslam, who also owns the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, from contacting customers who the FBI court alleges were short-changed on their fuel rebates by Pilot. The FBI alleges members of Pilot’s sales team deliberately withheld rebates to boost Pilot profits and pad sales commissions.
A Knoxville judge Monday decided against blocking Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam III from reaching out to trucking companies that might have been victimized by a rebate fraud scheme. A Georgia lawyer representing Atlantic Coast Carriers, which is suing Pilot, had filed a motion for a restraining order asking Knoxville Circuit Judge Harold Wimberly to stop Haslam from making such contacts. The motion said Haslam’s actions “may constitute an improper attempt to coerce parties and witnesses under Tennessee law.”
A Knox County judge on Monday rejected a bid to silence Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam in the wake of a federal probe into an alleged fuel rebate rip-off scheme. Georgia trucking company Atlantic Coast Carriers Inc., had sought at a hearing Monday to win approval of a restraining order barring Haslam and Pilot executives from contacting other trucking firms allegedly victimized by a scam to cheat them of fuel rebates. But Circuit Court Judge Harold Wimberly ruled the firm’s only proof were media accounts in which Haslam said he was contacting trucking companies he believes were shorted in the rebate rip-off and intended to pay those firms what they were owed.
The private equity firm that owns nearly half of Pilot Flying J has voiced its support for the company, which was founded by the prominent family of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. Luxembourg-based CVC Capital Partners released a statement saying the investment firm supports steps taken by the company since revelations of an FBI investigation into a rebate scam in the company’s diesel fuel sales division. The written statement also says Pilot and the Haslam family have “demonstrated integrity and strong character” in the years that CVC has been an investor.
CVC Capital Partners, which owns the largest ownership stake of the Pilot Flying J chain outside of the Haslam family, voiced its support for the embattled Knoxville-based company Sunday, Knoxville News Sentinel reports. CVC has a less than 20 percent share of the company. Pilot Flying J is under federal investigation for allegedly withholding rebates to its contract customers. “CVC is a substantial investor in Pilot Travel Centers and CVC representatives serve on Pilot’s board of directors,” the Luxembourg-based firm said Sunday in a statement, according to the News Sentinel.
Sen. Lamar Alexander would like to see new rules implemented for the nation’s pharmaceutical compounding manufacturers, with the intent of preventing future harmful outbreaks similar to the fungal meningitis epidemic that has killed more than 50 people nationwide—including 15 in Tennessee. Last week, Alexander revealed a draft of legislation written with fellow members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He is the group’s ranking member.
State Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis says Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly are becoming like “Dixiecrats” – the Southern segregationist Democrats in the U.S. Congress in the late 1940s who formed their own party for a time. “They sound like Dixiecrats … in the sense that we disagree with the federal government’s position on a major policy issue – health care – therefore we are going to claim states’ rights and say that’s not what we ought to be about,” Kyle said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”
A bill that would allow states to collect sales tax from Internet retailers for online purchases is supported by both of Tennessee’s senators and championed by Gov. Bill Haslam. The measure is also backed by President Barack Obama. But when it comes to Tennessee House members, opinions on the Marketplace Fairness Act are tougher to gauge. The bill would give states the option of levying tax on sales from companies that don’t have a brick-and-mortar presence in the state where the purchase is made.
Officials of Arnold Engineering Development Center are upgrading a wind tunnel at the U.S. Air Force installation at Tullahoma. New flexible nozzle actuators have been installed in a 4-foot transonic tunnel known as 4T. The new actuators move the flexible top and bottom plates of the tunnel to provide variable wind speeds or Machs (mox). The tunnel is used to test aerodynamics. The upgrade will mirror the operations of the A, B and C wind tunnels, giving a similar feel to crews who conduct tests on models in any of the tunnels.
Cuts in federal funds will cost Shelby County 82 prekindergarten classes this fall, leaving 1,640 4-year-olds from poor families without the first school experience studies show dramatically improves their chances of success. There are now 214 federally funded pre-k classrooms in the county, serving 4,280 children, or about 30 percent of all 4-year-olds in the county. Next fall with the cuts, there will be 132 classrooms, room for 2,640 children. By far, the majority of the classrooms will be cut in Memphis, both in city schools and the pre-k programs it supports in neighborhoods across the city.
Thousands of jobless Americans could see their unemployment checks shrink by as much as one-fourth because their states have been slow to implement across-the-board federal spending cuts. States that implemented the cuts earlier have been able to spread out the impact over time, softening the blow. By contrast, as many as 32 states have delayed the reductions and are now being forced to make them in a shorter time frame, meaning deeper cuts to weekly benefit checks. The people who will feel the pinch have been out of work for six months or longer.
Dazzled by the potential of free online college classes, educators are now turning to the gritty task of harnessing online materials to meet the toughest challenges in American higher education: giving more students access to college, and helping them graduate on time. Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States arrive on campus needing remedial work before they can begin regular credit-bearing classes. That early detour can be costly, leading many to drop out, often in heavy debt and with diminished prospects of finding a job.
State financing for preschool fell by more than $548 million, or close to 10 percent, in the 2011-12 school year, the largest annual drop in a decade, according to a report released Monday. “The State of Preschool,” released by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, also showed that enrollment in state-financed preschool has stagnated at about 28 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds. The decline in financing worked out to about $400 per child. Of the 40 states that offer state-subsidized preschool, 27 states reduced per-child funds in 2011-12. The overall financing figures were adjusted for inflation.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has approved more than 250 small-scale renewable energy projects for 2013, the overwhelming majority relying on solar energy. TVA officials say the demand for renewable energy projects across the Tennessee Valley is strong — so strong that the agency has met its application goals for 2013. TVA has been working with local power companies since January to approve applications for renewable energy systems as part of its Green Power Providers program.
Bidders may get new life on $22B prize In a stunning turn of events Monday, the Government Accountability Office upheld at least a portion of the protests lodged against the National Nuclear Security Administration’s award of a $22 billion contract to manage the Y-12 and Pantex nuclear weapons plants. The GAO recommended that NNSA reopen the procurement and seek more information from bidders, adding new uncertainties to a contract offering that’s been in various stages of planning and preparations for more than five years.
More and more people are going to Metro’s General Hospital to get care they can’t pay for. The facility receives tens of millions of dollars from Nashville’s taxpayers. And the man in charge says it’s not financially sustainable. Metro General is subsidized for more than $30 million a year – an amount that’s shrunk substantially since the recession started. Still, the mayor’s office is looking at selling off a couple facilities outside the main hospital – the Bordeaux nursing home and Knowles assisted-living facility.
Tennessee’s biggest health insurer helped ensure its own fiscal health last year by boosting net income by more than 26 percent and swelling its reserves to more than 50 percent above what is legally required. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the state’s biggest nonprofit corporation with $5.6 billion in annual revenues, said Monday it earned record profits of $221.5 million during 2012. Even with its income gain last year, BlueCross officials said the 4 percent profit margin was still the lowest among the major health insurers operating in Tennessee.
Knox County students will find themselves at school longer, beginning with the 2014-15 school year. The Knox County school board was scheduled to vote on the proposed calendar at its meeting on Wednesday, but after members began discussing it on Monday night they decided they wanted to take some additional time. Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre told members at the work session that the state is now requiring students be in the classroom for a total of 180 school days.
Knox County Schools Security Chief Steve Griffin will lose 15 days of his pay after an independent investigation revealed he had a personal relationship with the president of a company that held a security contract with the district for five years. The review, conducted by private lawyer Ruth Ellis, revealed that Griffin and Mike Walker, president of Professional Security Consultants and Design, had lunch together, had been in each other’s homes for social occasions, played golf on at least one occasion, traveled out of town together at least twice and that Griffin attended a Christmas dinner hosted by the security firm.
Countywide school board members will discuss and vote Tuesday, April 30, on starting the process of closing 11 more schools, one agenda item during what promises to be a busy day in the schools consolidation saga. Before the board is a resolution that would begin the process of public hearings in the communities affected by the slate of closings proposed last week by interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson to take effect in the 2014-2015 school year. The slate of closings includes three high schools – Northside, Westwood and Carver – and affects Southwest Memphis the most.
The weekend rains dumped nearly 5 and 6 inches of rain on Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, and more is expected late this week. Chattanooga’s rainfall in 2013 to date is 27.48 inches — 9 inches above normal. And in parts of North Georgia — Chatsworth, for instance — that total is more than 10 inches above normal, according to National Weather Service officials. Tennessee Valley Authority river operations managers are spilling water at all nine main river dams to control flooding, and they have closed navigation at the Chickamauga Lock and in the Tennessee River Gorge below Chattanooga.
A battle is heating up in California over Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to boost funding for all schools, but funnel more money to districts where many students are poor and struggle with English and less to wealthier districts. Since Mr. Brown, a Democrat, unveiled the “weighted funding” plan in January, school chiefs in poorer areas have pushed hard for the state legislature to pass it. But superintendents in richer districts argue that the proposed redistribution is unfair and that they want a bigger slice of the pie now that the state’s finances have improved, thanks to a stronger economy and a tax increase.
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld a Virginia law Monday that limits out-of-state residents’ access to public records, dismissing arguments that the public and the press held broad rights of access to government information across state lines. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act grants “citizens of the Commonwealth,” but no one else, the right to inspect and copy “all public records.” Residents of California and Rhode Island challenged the Virginia law, contending that it violates Article IV of the Constitution, which provides that the “citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.”
When Gov. Bill Haslam decides sign or veto the “Ag Gag Bill,” he holds the fate of Tennessee livestock in the tip of his pen. A majority in the state Legislature and powerful agriculture interests such as the Tennessee Farm Bureau stand in favor of the legislation. On the pro-veto side stand those who fight against animal abuse, including the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and those who value a free press. A veto clearly is in order.
After a century and a half in the wilderness, the Republican supermajority was supposed to usher in a golden age of conservative governance in Tennessee. With their numbers giving them the ability to run roughshod over any idea proposed by Democrats, to quash any opposition, to govern without compromise. They said all the Right things, notably that there’s would be a fiscally conservative hegemony, that thriftiness would rule the day, that state government would never bloat to the outsized levels that Evil Washington had grown.
Between 2003 and 2009, the Tennessee Department of Education paid more than $89 million in contracts to six corporations that create the process of standardized tests our public school students are required to take. (Roughly half the money came from federal funds, according to U.S. Department of Education documents). A $41 million contract went to CTB/McGraw Hill to develop the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). Pearson, which makes more money off education than any other corporation on the planet, received just a pittance: a five-year, $19 million contract to administer the End of Course (EOC) exams.
We want to be “shocked” by the litany of problems in last year’s Davidson County elections. But we’re merely appalled. State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins said last week he was shocked to learn, through a review of the Davidson elections, that the reliance on “faulty technology” in electronic poll books during the Aug. 2 primary may have altered the outcome of two state House primaries. Davidson Elections Administrator Albert Tieche took exception to that characterization. But then, Tieche took exception to everything the state found in its review, including Tieche’s failure to open the polls on Saturday during early voting in the February primary; incorrect information about photo IDs distributed to voters in legal notices and sample ballots; and the election commission’s understaffing of precincts in November.
If initial U.S. intelligence reports turn out to be irrefutable, the Syrian government has now used chemical weapons in its brutal civil war against the nation’s rebel forces. President Barack Obama has warned that such an action would cross “a red line” that would prompt Washington to intervene. How the Obama administration might respond has not been defined, but it is clear that Washington — Republicans and Democrats alike — will not rattle their sabers too recklessly. Syria’s civil war is a serious concern for Washington. It has taken tens of thousands of lives, spread the burden and unrest of refugees into surrounding Middle East countries, and fueled the spreading sectarian rift and violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims that haunts Iraq and destabilizes all its neighbors.
It is a relief that Congress acted to end furloughs of the nation’s air traffic controllers. The last thing the nation needs is an air disaster that could be attributed to inadequate traffic control or overworked controllers. The move also calmed the nerves of countless travelers across the nation who found their flights delayed, and their lives and businesses disrupted. While we appreciate the efforts of our lawmakers to help resolve these issues, sequester cuts are no way to run the country’s budget or to provide important services to the nation. Congress now is scrambling and arguing about what to do about sequester cuts.
In recent weeks, there have been increasing expressions of concern from surprising quarters about the implementation of ObamaCare. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, called it a “train wreck.” A Democratic colleague, West Virginia’s Sen. Jay Rockefeller, described the massive Affordable Care Act as “beyond comprehension.” Henry Chao, the government’s chief technical officer in charge of putting in place the insurance exchanges mandated by the law, was quoted in the Congressional Quarterly as saying “I’m pretty nervous . . . Let’s just make sure it’s not a third-world experience.”