This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Automotive supplier Van-Rob Manchester is adding 104 jobs to its Coffee County facility as part of a $16.8 million expansion, according to a news release. “As a rapidly expanding tier one auto supplier, location is a critical component to our success. Tennessee’s dedicated workforce, great infrastructure and pro-business climate make the state the perfect place to expand our operations of engineered lightweight automotive solutions,” Van-Rob CEO Dennis Berry said in a news release.
The automobile body factory turned tissue mill in North Memphis isn’t back where it used to be, but it’s moving in the right direction. State and local officials onWednesday joined owner Joseph Kruger II in celebrating the end of an eight-year, $316 million project to expand and modernize the Kruger Products mill. For one of the largest investments in Memphis manufacturing in recent years, it produced surprisingly few new jobs, about 100. But the back story of Kruger Inc.’s Project Redbird is it freshened aging infrastructure to maintain hundreds of decent-paying factory jobs and create new ones.
State senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) got some notoriety late in the recently concluded 2013 legislative session when Lieutenant Governor/Senate speaker Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), who has been in sympathy with many of Kelsey’s conservative aims, publicly blamed him for scuttling a looming bargain on a state school-voucher program. Governor Bill Haslam, desiring a more limited version than one being pushed by Kelsey and state senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), had responded by yanking his own bill for a modest pilot program, effectively postponing the issue until next year.
After a long day of slogging through the woods, Arkansas hunters used to have to check in their game at the nearest mom-and-pop establishment. At the end of the season, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission staff would drive around the state to collect the paperwork. Times have changed: Now Arkansas hunters can use a Game and Fish Commission app on their smartphones to upload the information immediately, allowing the state to enforce hunting regulations and manage game populations in real time.
State officials have given Piedmont Natural Gas the go-ahead to resume drilling for a new pipeline under Radnor Lake State Park, in south Nashville. Earlier this month Piedmont halted a horizontal drill there, after 300 gallons of wet clay lubricant seeped out into Otter Creek. Radnor Lake is in a neighborhood of posh houses, and it took Piedmont some heavy lifting to convince people it could run a pipeline under the pristine park without sullying it. Now the company says they’ll add more safeguards to keep mud from spilling when it’s pumped underground to lubricate the drill.
The state Department of Labor says it has recovered $15.3 million in fraudulently paid unemployment benefits this year by garnishing the federal tax returns of workers. The department began using the Treasury Offset Program in July to recover the fraudulent unemployment benefits, according to spokesman Jeff Hentschel. The Labor Department was scorched by an audit this year that showed the state had accrued $73 million in unemployment benefit overpayments and payments due to possible fraud.
Some 17 thousand Tennesseans who fraudulently took state unemployment benefits saw their federal tax refunds garnished this spring as payback. The State Department of Labor and Workforce Development says the IRS helped it recover more than $15 million this tax season. Earlier this spring an audit found the state overpaid roughly five times that amount in benefits, and the department’s commissioner has stepped down. Overpayments often occur when claimants keep taking unemployment benefits after going back to work.
Federal officials have set aside more than $1 million for Tennessee landowners who help conserve wildlife. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency said owners of agricultural and forest land can apply by June 10 for funding under the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program. Grants are available to help eligible landowners and operators develop or enhance planned upland, wetland, riparian and aquatic habitat areas on their property. Only “ready to implement” projects will be ranked for funding.
Will start offering courses in fall 2014 UT Martin Parsons Center will have openings for up to 30 students annually for the program, with 20 slots designated for traditional students and 10 slots for licensed practical nurses, according to a news release. Graduates of the BSN program will be eligible to take the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses and obtain licensure as registered nurses. “Health care providers are frequently in need of registered nurses,” said Tom Rakes, UT Martin chancellor, in the release.
In a May 7 after-hours email to his boss, the University of Tennessee’s vice chancellor for student life lamented a lack of administrative support, referenced “an intolerable situation” and indicated his intent to retire. The next day, Tim Rogers told his staff that he would be stepping down on June 30. UT on Wednesday released dozens of emails between Rogers, who had more than 38 years of service, and Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, along with other documents requested by the News Sentinel. In the messages, Rogers did not elaborate on what triggered his decision.
For several county and municipal road crews, business owners and homeowners, much of the day Wednesday was spent cleaning up after a storm rolled through the area Tuesday evening, bringing with it heavy rainfall. Unicoi County Emergency Management Director Ed Herndon said the county was hit hardest from downtown Erwin north to the Unicoi County line. Herndon said the Rock Creek area in Erwin was struck particularly hard with high waters, as culverts in the area overflowed. He said water found its way into several homes.
The Tennessee General Assembly’s joint committee on government operations on Wednesday signed off on new fracking rules after more than two hours of testimony from state regulators, environmental groups and gas industry officials. The regulations will take effect June 18. Hydraulic fracturing — fracking as it is often known — is a method in which water and chemicals are injected into shale to break apart the rock and release natural gas. The practice, combined with the ability to drill horizontally deep underground, has led to a natural-gas boom in the United States.
As sex trafficking has garnered newfound attention, Tennessee has developed one of the nation’s most comprehensive anti-trafficking programs. An additional 12 new laws approved by lawmakers this year include harsher criminal penalties on traffickers, an extended window of time for prosecutors to bring charges and the creation of a state trafficking task force to study and respond to the issue. The measures amplify a wave of attention since a statewide study in 2011 documented incidents of sex trafficking — which officials define as coercive adult prostitution and any sexual exploitation of children.
A former Democratic candidate for the state House has filed notice that he will appeal the dismissal of his libel lawsuit against state Sen. Stacey Campfield. Campfield, a Knoxville Republican, blogged before the 2008 election that he had heard candidate Roger Byrge had multiple drug arrests, and that the mug shots were “gold.” It was later determined the arrest record belonged to Byrge’s son. Circuit Judge John McAfee, a Republican, last month found that Campfield had gotten it wrong on his blog, but he agreed with defense attorneys that the lawmaker did not know the information provided by House Republican leadership was false when he posted it.
Citing “significant concerns” that she charged excessive fees to her clients, Davidson County Probate Judge David Randy Kennedy on Wednesday permanently suspended public guardian Jeanan Mills Stuart and vowed to help seek her replacement. Stuart, who had held the job for five years, submitted a resignation letter effective in a week. Her letter was forwarded to members of Metro Council along with a letter from Kennedy announcing her termination. In her letter, Stuart defended all her actions and blamed controversy for her departure.
The Memphis City Council meeting was tense. The deadline was tight. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton chose easy-to-understand metaphors to explain a complicated situation. The city has been flirting with trouble, but it isn’t on such a list yet, according to a report by State Comptroller Justin Wilson. Wilson’s report said if the City Council didn’t take the actions it took Tuesday night, he’d have to put Memphis’ name on that embarrassing list that basically would prevent the city from borrowing any more money.
When the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. went to the state earlier this year for approval of a $112.4 million refunding bonds issuance, it was the second time in four years City Hall had used a debt tactic known as “scoop and toss.” It set off red flags in the office of State Comptroller Justin P. Wilson. He and his staff stepped in and issued a report in April that became public Monday, May 20, that has scrambled the city’s budget process near its end.
Memphis City Council members said they were surprised to see a $3.5 million request in Mayor A C Wharton’s capital budget for improvements to International Paper’s budget and said surprising requests like it were “like a gun to our heads.” The budget includes a project that would add a pedestrian overpass and intersection improvements for the company’s East Memphis campus. Council members said they did not recall ever taking a vote on the project when the company was applying for its payment in lieu of taxes deal last year that it said it needed to keep its headquarters here.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander listed assets in 2012 valued between $6.6 million and $19.2 million, a personal financial disclosure report released Wednesday showed. Sen. Bob Corker, also a Republican, received an extension that gives him until Aug. 13 to file his. House members’ forms become public in June. Alexander listed 67 assets ranging from corporate stock holdings to property management accounts and checking and savings accounts in First Tennessee Bank of Knoxville. He also listed several out-of-state properties.
Eighty years after it was birthed by the federal government as a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Authority might be better off severed from Uncle Sam, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Wednesday. Corker said he isn’t pushing to sell TVA to try to cut the federal debt, as President Obama proposed last month in his fiscal 2014 budget plan. With nearly $25 billion in debt, TVA probably wouldn’t fetch enough from buyers to pay what it owes, Corker said. B
Several Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers grilled former Internal Revenue Service officials this week. At two dramatic Capitol Hill hearings, Southern Republicans emphasized three distinct topics in committees that are investigating the federal agency. But the GOP trio focused on one essential belief: The IRS isn’t fit to lead after employees admitted discriminating against conservative groups asking for tax-exempt status. A Georgia senator asked outgoing officials what advice they would give a new IRS commissioner; a Knoxville lawmaker questioned whether the nation’s tax agency should inquire about a group’s prayers; and a Jasper congressman wondered if the IRS responsibly can enact aspects of the health care law as the scandal develops.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais questioned witnesses during today’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on actions taken by the IRS to target conservative groups. He made this statement afterward: “Today’s hearing made one thing clear: While the administration shows a great deal of disdain for our First and Second Amendment, they seem to hold the Fifth Amendment – the right against self incrimination – in high regard. It was terribly disappointing that those responsible for this gross abuse of power either refused to testify or feigned total ignorance.
Tennessee Congressman Scott DesJarlais got in a few words as Internal Revenue Services officials testified to a House Oversight committee Wednesday. He asked the former IRS commissioner if he failed to report on conservative groups getting extra scrutiny because he thought it might hurt President Obama. “Do you think that that kind of information could potentially harm the president in an election year? Did that cross your mind?” Former IRS chief Doug Shulman said “no.” DesJarlais – a Republican – suggests IRS officials have “feigned total ignorance” about singling out Tea Party-related organizations applying for tax-exempt status.
State Rep. Joe Carr announced this week that veteran political strategist Chip Saltsman is joining his 4th District bid to unseat Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais. “Chip has absolutely the best performance pedigree in the state of Tennessee,” Carr, R-Lascassas, said in an interview. “It’s his ability to win.” State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, also is challenging DesJarlais. Saltsman’s entry into an already volatile scrum invites several intriguing storylines 15 months before the August 2014 primary.
A proposed law to set clear oversight authority over compounding pharmacies that make medicine on a large scale is on its way to a vote before the full Senate. The legislation, which is intended to prevent another fungal meningitis outbreak, emerged from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on a voice vote Wednesday morning without any amendments. Infections linked to contaminated medicine made by New England Compounding Center last year have sickened 741 people across the nation with 55 deaths.
The signs of growth are hard to miss. New housing developments are under construction in Franklin and across Middle Tennessee. A Walmart is going up in Spring Hill. Cranes dot Nashville’s skyline. And, of course, there’s plenty of traffic on the region’s roads. New Census Bureau population estimates released today show Middle Tennessee cities among the nation’s fastest growing over the last year. Clarksville was the nation’s fifth-fastest-growing city with at least 50,000 people. The Montgomery County city grew by 4.43 percent and now has more than 142,000 residents.
Whitewater rafting is good for more than just screams and splashes, tourism officials said Wednesday at the unveiling of the first-ever economic impact study of the Ocoee River. The Ocoee, site of the 1996 Olympic canoe competition and the most visited whitewater river in the U.S. for 2012, generated a deluge of more than $43 million in economic activity last year for the surrounding 30-county region, and could double its impact within a decade, officials said. Steve Morse, economist and associate professor at the University of Tennessee, said Chattanooga officials are “doing it right” by marketing the entire region, including the Ocoee River, to potential tourists.
Attorneys for Smithson-Craighead Middle School were scheduled to appear in federal court Wednesday to present their argument for why the school shouldn’t close at the end of this week. SCMS won’t get that day in court. Instead a judge’s order issued Wednesday morning moves the school closer to shutting down Friday. The charter school sued the Metro Nashville Board of Education in April, after the school board decided to revoke its charter. A court hearing was cancelled Wednesday morning after U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Sharp issued a 19-page memorandum dismissing all of SCMS’s claims.
Smithson Craighead Middle School will close for good on Friday after a federal judge dismissed an attempt by parents to keep it open. U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Sharp released a 19-page memorandum Wednesday dissolving a class-action lawsuit filed by two parents after Metro Nashville Public Schools decided in November to close the school because of lagging academic performance. The suit claimed the closure was discriminatory and asked to halt plans to shut down the school. Sharp listed several reasons for dismissing the suit, stating enrollment has dropped 20 percent since the announced closure.
Clayton-Bradley Academy classes set to begin July 19 It took only four months but Kevin Clayton and Patricia Bradley’s vision of creating a science, technology, engineering and math school in Blount County will soon become a reality. Clayton-Bradley Academy, which offers students an alternative choice for education in Maryville, is nearing completion and will become the first nonreligiously affiliated K-12 private school in Blount County. “I’m excited to look at student learning in a different way,” said Bradley, who came out of retirement to serve as the academies’ principal.
Students demonstrated the usual end-of-the-school-year glee at Memphis City Schools on Wednesday. The first day of the unified district’s 2013-14 fiscal year on July 1 will mark the end of a long and arduous process that began in December 2010 when a slim majority of MCS board members voted to put the issue of city-county school consolidaton before the city’s voters, who ultimately approved.
Presenting a budget described as bare bones, representatives from the unified Memphis and Shelby County Schools made its case Wednesday to the County Commission’s budget and finance committee as to why the requested $30 million increase is necessary to education the county’s children. The proposed $1.18 billion budget is $75 million less than the combined budgets for city and county schools for 2012-13. Most of that $75 million can be accounted for in the $64 million the city of Memphis no longer contributes to education.
All of the recent attention given to Nashville as a top city for job growth seems to be causing a ripple that is prodding decision makers. There was the news that the Music City Center had hit the symbolic mark of 1 million hotel rooms booked. Planning for a major bus rapid transit system is moving forward. And the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which had already accepted Metro planners’ assessment that a portion of Donelson Pike near Nashville International Airport would need to be altered, decided to expedite a relocation of an 0.8-mile stretch of the road, with a price tag of $70 million.
On Monday, the 8-year-old Hamilton County Drug Court celebrated its 100th graduate — a nearly 30-year addict who officials said had been arrested on at least 96 different charges. Nothing had changed the course of Jonas Richardson Jr.’s life and energized his own willpower to overcome drugs until he began his journey through drug court two years ago. Program coordinator Elaine Kelly has said the program, begun in 2005, has functioned on a shoestring budget, funded with grants that are renewed each year. Participants also funded their own rehab by paying just over $97,000 in court fees and fines and more than $30,000 in child support payments as of late 2012.
The administration of Mayor A C Wharton and some members of the Memphis City Council over the past year have publicly stated that the city needs to find a path to long-term financial stability. That point received an exclamation point when the Tennessee state comptroller, in a letter sent to city officials on May 19, said that under state law the city’s financial house is not in order. The underlying issue: Memphis is borrowing too much money, running up its debt obligations and not maintaining a sufficient reserve fund. The comptroller also knocked the city for kicking debt service payments down the road, thus increasing its debt service costs and endangering Memphis’ financial stability.
Knox County Schools is taking needed steps to standardize and upgrade security systems at its 88 schools. Last week a committee formed by Superintendent Jim McIntyre finalized a draft set of standards for the system. Each school has an individual security plan, but there are no systemwide guidelines in place. While the standards have not been made public, McIntyre said they include “comprehensive, robust video camera systems.” The proposed budget for next year includes funding for current-generation video systems, access control and the hiring of an additional 58 armed officers, which will expand the resource officer staff enough to assign at least one at all schools.