This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Residents throughout the Tennessee Valley Region should stay alert for floods through Tuesday night. The National Weather Service said a slow-moving storm system moving east is dumping inches of rain across the Southeast. Rain, sometimes heavy, is expected to continue into Monday morning and a chance of thunderstorms continues into Tuesday. Area dispatchers said Saturday night that local officials were on the alert for flooding and the weather service said water was across roads in some areas.
Charles Gulotta steers his pickup to the peak of Millington’s new Veterans Parkway, the overpass that lifts motorists above the CN Railroad. “As we go over the bridge and you look to the right,” he tells his passenger, “and you look at the lay of the land — really just the lay of the land — from an industrial developer’s point of view, it’s just a spectacular site.’’ Others may see just a vacant or a farmed field. The president and chief executive officer of the Millington Industrial Development Board and Chamber of Commerce sees a job mecca.
As a high-profile FBI investigation of Gov. Bill Haslam’s lucrative family business grinds on, a loophole in Tennessee law is increasing the secrecy that has long surrounded his personal wealth. The scope and detail of Haslam’s assets are largely missing from his most recent Statement of Disclosure of Interests, an annual accounting of investments and income that elected officials are required to make public. That’s because, much as former Gov. Phil Bredesen before him, Haslam created a blind trust that shields most of his vast financial portfolio from public disclosure.
Karla Davis’ rise was fast, by any measure. At 44, just five years after moving to Tennessee, the Chicago transplant held a position many might covet — commissioner of a major state agency. The job brought with it a six-figure salary, a staff of 1,500 people and oversight of a $220 million budget. Davis, who is black, brought diversity to a position that previously tended to be held by white businessmen and labor leaders. Still, her résumé carried little to suggest she would become the leader of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Top-ranking state labor department officials have resigned and been replaced in recent months, but complaints against them still linger in lawsuits. Filed by two former employees, one suit in local court and another in federal court allege that leaders in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development forced out employees based on race — that white staffers were replaced by blacks. The complaints, which cite the labor department and former Commissioner Karla Davis, stem from the two years Davis ran the agency.
Strict eligibility requirements mean that many laid-off workers are turned away If you’re unemployed in Tennessee, you are less likely than most jobless in other states to get a benefit check. And if you do get one, it will be for less money, according to federal data. In the past year, Tennessee’s average weekly unemployment check paid $235 — sixth-lowest in the nation — and just 17 percent of the state’s unemployed actually got benefits, ranking fourth-lowest among the states.
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.
After much grumbling, state legislators on two government oversight committees have reluctantly acquiesced to fee increases that will extract millions of dollars from the Tennessee Valley Authority, dentists, veterinarians and an array of Tennessee businesses. “We had a choice between bad and worse,” declared Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, after his committee and its House counterpart, meeting jointly, more or less signed off Wednesday on the fee increases.
John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said Friday in a Facebook post that the group’s members must “refocus efforts to remove” lawmakers who he says oppose gun rights. State Sen. Brian Kelsey, the Germantown Republican who has transformed in the past few years from a firebrand backbencher to a committee chairman willing to openly lecture colleagues on the limits of state sovereignty, tops Harris’ list of lawmakers in need of removal. He also names freshman Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon; Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson; Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville; and state Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah.
State Rep. John Ragan says he is irked critics have brought up the “Don’t Say Gay” bill again after he was named state Reformer of the Year by StudentsFirst, a national organization that advocates changes to the education system. Ragan sponsored the House version of Senate Bill 234, the latest in a string of bills filed by state Sen. Stacey Campfield dealing with discussions of homosexuality in schools. The legislation generates controversy annually. But in an interview this week with the Knoxville News Sentinel, Ragan said he wanted to do something completely different with the bill, formally known as the Classroom Protection Act, and would have rewritten it before it ever came up in the House.
Gina Head-Hieber’s heart broke when her son, Tyler Jackson Head, tragically lost his life in a violent wreck. Tyler Jackson Head, 20, of Springfield, was killed in a head-on collision on Madison Street while en route to class at Austin Peay State University on Feb. 3, 2012. His passenger, Lucas P. Haley, 19, of Springfield, sustained multiple traumatic injuries and was in critical condition following the wreck. Lucas was met with a long recovery and intense therapy. Devastation and grief were not powerful enough words to describe the feelings of the Head-Heiber and Haley families.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s refusal so far to expand Medicaid under federal health reform could mean that Tennessee’s poorest residents won’t have access to health coverage in 2014 but some lawful immigrants will, experts say. That’s because legal immigrants with incomes below 100 percent of the poverty level — $11,170 for a single person or $23,050 for a family of four — will be eligible for federal subsidies to buy private coverage through health insurance exchanges. American citizens with the same income levels, however, can’t participate in the exchange because the law envisioned those with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty level would be covered through the Medicaid expansion.
Moments after his Toyota Corolla cleared a battery of pollution and safety tests, Larry Wall pulled out of the Memphis vehicle-inspection station off Appling last week armed with an approval certificate and unswerving opinions about the antipollution program that exempts Shelby County residents living outside the city. “I think everybody ought to do it,” said Wall, 70. “They contribute to it (pollution) as much as anyone.” For months now, similar claims of unfairness have resounded from City Hall and elsewhere across Memphis.
Cash on hand for many exceeds 2012 race totals It’s one of the folkways of Capitol Hill: incumbents keeping large amounts of cash in their campaign accounts as a way of scaring off potential challengers. “No one knows what the next election holds,” Cal Jillson, political analyst at Southern Methodist University, said of why lawmakers like large war chests. Some in the Tennessee congressional delegation seem especially good at it. As of March 31, Republican Reps. Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump and John Duncan of Knoxville, along with Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville, had cash-on-hand totals for their 2014 races that exceeded what they spent on getting re-elected in 2012.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper had a big week in his district. On Tuesday, the Nashville Democrat and U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois talked to reporters about immigration reform. A day later, in a speech to the Nashville Bar Association, Cooper proposed a 28th amendment to the United States Constitution that would guarantee the right to vote. The flurry of activity got us wondering if the congressman might be thinking about running for the Senate in 2014. He tried that in 1994, when he was based in Shelbyville, but got steamrolled by Republican Fred Thompson.
State Rep. Joe Carr of Lascassas made his run for Congress official on Sunday, while State Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, already in the race, has announced additional supporters on his leadership team. Both Republicans are running for the 4th District seat currently held by another Republican, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburg. Another Republican, Chase Williams, had announced a run as well but has since suspended his campaign, according to an announcement at his web site.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission tracking of whistleblower complaints at nuclear plants lists both of TVA’s plants in Tennessee among the top five. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in northern Alabama also had several internal complaints. The NRC report showed there were 21 complaints against Watts Bar, 19 at Sequoyah and 16 at Browns Ferry in 2012. TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said the utility took action after conducting its own analysis for the NRC.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the Tennessee Valley Authority “neither fish nor fowl” when he proposed the federal utility as one of his New Deal programs in 1933. Roosevelt described TVA as “a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise.” On May 18, TVA will mark its 80th birthday. As it does, it may also face an accounting of whether it should wear the cloak of government or take on the trappings of a free enterprise operation.
A Y-12 worker received chemical burns when lithium hydride powder discharged into his face while he was checking out a problem with a system in the plant’s Beta-2 facility (Building 9204-2) that’s used to recycle the material. Information about the incident, which occurred in early April, was contained in a newly released activity report by on-site staff of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. According to the staff memo to board headquarters in Washington, D.C., doctors expect the Y-12 worker to make a full recovery from the burns to his face and eyelids.
The idea of an Al-Jazeera news bureau in Nashville is drawing mixed reactions from Middle Tennesseans. Some say it would offer a fresh perspective and greater coverage of world issues. Some, though, say it could promote anti-Semitism. Still others are asking: Why Nashville? The news organization, which bought Al Gore’s Current TV for $500 million earlier this year, has said it will begin broadcasting Al-Jazeera America sometime late this summer and will have news bureaus in 12 cities across the country, including Nashville.
Chandler Slate didn’t have high hopes of landing a summer job. The McGavock High School sophomore never heard from the Hermitage barbecue restaurant where she had turned in a job application. By the time the 16-year-old applied for a lifeguard position at Nashville Shores in mid-April, she thought she was too late and no positions would be available. However, the water park called Slate the next day, and she soon will start her first job. “It was surprising they got back to me so quick,” Slate said.
At the end of the month, 22-year-old Tyler Dixon will pack his life into his 1997 Toyota Camry and make a 36-hour drive to California to put his newly minted bachelor’s degree to use. The soon-to-be Bryan College graduate landed a job with a startup film company — he’ll be controlling the camera on remote-controlled helicopters used to get aerial shots for films. It’s a part-time job on the other side of the country, and Dixon is leaving everything familiar to do it. “It’s a ‘I’m going with the clothes on my back’ kind of thing,” he said.
State-developed standards ensure our kids will be on level playing field There is really just one main question for the throngs of upset parents who have spoken out against the Common Core State Standards at public meetings over the past week: Where have they been until now? Common Core has been in the works since 2008, as a set of expectations for what each student should know in each grade through 12. Tennessee political, business and educational leaders had loudly called for more rigorous education standards, because the measurements for progress in Tennessee’s schools gave a false impression of success.
Later this month, at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, a massive layoff will occur. As a result of slower-than-expected growth in Passat sales, about 500 Chattanooga-area workers will find themselves jobless, most not knowing how — or when — they’ll get their next paycheck. The VW layoffs are just the latest in a long line of examples of failed corporate welfare handout schemes that have left workers without jobs and taxpayers holding the tab. In an attempt to lure — some would use the term “bribe” — new businesses, state and local governments have increasingly relied on a cocktail of tax breaks, free land, training grants, infrastructure handouts and giveaways of cold, hard cash.
More 2013 supermajority session superlatives: Celebrity of the Year: Sen. Stacey Campfield, of course. Hands down. From Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert to Jon Stewart and Piers Morgan on national TV, from TMZ to Huffington Post on the national blogosphere, they all talked with — or at least about — the red-haired Knoxville Republican on the cutting edge of red state conservatism. He’s been there before, of course, but this session his national media stature grew — and much of Tennessee’s media, including bloggers, went into an absolute tizzy, sometimes just to report that national celebrities had noticed the senator or one of his blog posts.
Nonprofits actually contribute to the economy? It may surprise many to learn that our nonprofit sector is a major factor in making our diverse economy successful. In Nashville, we are proud of our healthy, thriving economy. Last week, we were rated the No. 1 metropolitan area in the country for job growth. We are diverse, with strength in health care, music and tourism. While we congratulate our for-profit industries for their growth, we often look at nonprofits in a different way. We recognize that hundreds of organizations pursue their missions to feed the hungry, care for the sick, educate our young people and improve our quality of life.
Some members of the Memphis and Shelby County unified school board were patting themselves on the back last week after the board processed the last of 172 recommendations for the merger of city and county schools. They took the opportunity to take a shot at critics who said the board was so politically and territorially polarized that it could not make decisions on issues important to making the schools merger work from an organizational and fiscal standpoint. And yes, they finally got through all of the recommendations of the Transition Planning Commission, the group formed to develop a road map for the merger and recommend how to reduce some of the costs associated with it.
When Congress adopted the president’s idea of sequestration to force a budget compromise, the word from Washington was that its implementation would be a disaster. The cut in discretionary spending amounted to $85 billion dollars. Of course this is a piddling 2.4 percent of the federal budget. Nevertheless, the White House said the cuts would “threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs, and cut vital services for children, seniors, people with mental illness, and our men and women in uniform.” It further stated “these cuts will make it harder to grow our economy and create jobs by affecting our ability to invest in important priorities like education, research and innovation, public safety, and military readiness.”