This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
State Finance Commissioner Larry Martin says overall May revenues were $31.5 million more than the state budgeted. Martin said Tuesday the sales tax growth rate rebounded in May mainly because of the sale of building materials and purchases of new automobiles. He says sales tax collections were $11.2 million above the budgeted estimate, and the franchise and excise taxes were $8.8 million more than budgeted. The general fund went over by $35.3 million.
Tennessee continues to bring in more tax money than anyone thought it would. May revenues for state government were up four percent over last year. Tax collections have grown every month in the last year, but May was a bigger improvement. Finance Commissioner Larry Martin says people are buying more building material and automobiles, giving a boost to sales tax revenue. At this point, the state has already taken in nearly $320 million more than it expected. And there are still two months to go in the fiscal year.
Columbia State Community College President Janet Smith publicly unveiled the first drawing of a new $36.4 million Franklin campus on Tuesday and said she expects its first phase to be completed by 2016. Smith, who addressed Franklin aldermen, said she expects about $32.4 million in public monies to be set aside by Gov. Bill Haslam for the campus in next year’s budget. The remainder would come from privatedonations. “I’m very, very hopeful that we’re going to be breaking ground next year,” Smith said.
Interim Commissioner Burns Phillips told a panel of state lawmakers that the number of claims in adjudication has been cut nearly in half to 15,000, mainly through a change in management and greater use of self-service machines. The state’s backlog had nearly topped 30,000 in September. The backlog had caused long delays for thousands of people who applied for unemployment benefits. The average wait time for a first check in 2013 has been as high as six weeks, but that number is steadily improving.
Gov. Bill Haslam in 2010 held a financial stake in a Chicago-based real estate services firm that since the Republican took office in 2011 has seen what began with a $1 million consulting contract mushroom into millions of dollars more in state business, records show. But it’s unclear whether Haslam still has any investment at all in Jones Lang LaSalle LLC, which in April won a competitively bid, five-year, $330 million outsourcing contract to manage and maintain state office space. That’s because Haslam, a multi-millionaire, placed many of his investments in a blind trust upon taking office.
A Democratic legislative leader said Tuesday he will ask legislative committees to review a five-year $330 million contract with the Chicago-based multinational consulting firm Jones Lang LaSalle — in which Gov. Bill Haslam disclosed an investment of greater than $10,000 in 2010 — to manage state government’s leased and owned office space. Jones Lang LaSalle is the firm that last year recommended the state move out of its 43-year-old Donnelley J. Hill State Office Building in Downtown Memphis and five other state-owned buildings in Nashville and Chattanooga because it said they are “functionally obsolete.”
A board composed of three state officials has upheld the Department of Correction’s award of a $241 million contract to a company that employs Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield’s wife and which submitted a bid more than $15 million higher than a competitor. The decision of the state Procurement Office’s “protests board” was announced to members of the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee, some of whom have separately raised questions about the contract for providing medical services to inmates in the state prison system.
The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow police to continue collecting DNA samples when arresting violent offenders supports use of a powerful investigative tool, a law enforcement spokeswoman said. “DNA is a tool like no other tool law enforcement has ever had,” said Kristin Helm, with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “It is better than a fingerprint, better than a photograph. It’s just instrumental in making sure that you have the right person.” Twenty-eight states have practiced this collection method for years.
Like a return trip to the 1970s, the speed limit on 25 miles of Interstate 24 later this week will drop to 55 mph to improve safety for travelers during the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. It’s all about safety, officials said. The temporary speed limit, now in its second year, affects I-24 from mile marker 104.6 to mile marker 129.4 and remains in effect until the festival is over Sunday night.
A judge’s decision to freeze layoffs of hundreds of state employees calls into question whether Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has followed through on concessions made in exchange for backing civil service reforms. Circuit Court Judge Amanda McClendon will hear testimony next week in a suit filed by the Tennessee State Employees Association, along with 15 career government workers, that says the Haslam administration took down a website meant to help state employees find jobs in other departments.
A state senator Tuesday said he’s planning to introduce a bill to require either pharmacists or physicians to write prescriptions for cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, the precursor used to make methamphetamine. “It’s just another way to try to make it a little harder for those who are using it illegally to get the pseudoephedrine product,” said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville. Bell called his proposed bill a compromise in a bid to dethrone Tennessee of its dubious title of being tops in the country in meth lab seizures.
The Metro Council approved Mayor Karl Dean’s $300 million capital spending program Tuesday, sending the mayor’s controversial bus rapid transit plan to the next station while pumping nearly one-third of the new money into school building and renovation projects. Dean’s plan includes $7.5 million for final engineering and design of the mass transit project known as “The Amp,” a 7.1-mile rapid bus line from the Five Points area of East Nashville to the White Bridge Road area along West End Avenue.
Measure defeated by 2-1 margin For the second time in five years, Blount County voters have rejected a wheel tax, this one designed to help fund the county’s school system. The vote was 4,087 in favor and 8,885 against. The vote leaves Blount County Schools facing sharp cuts in classroom technology and possibly personnel unless County Commission addresses the shortfall through a property tax increase. The wheel tax was projected to bring about $2.4 million into county coffers, about 60 percent of the total which, under state law, must be shared with the other two school systems in Blount County — Alcoa and Maryville.
Sometimes it seems like all of social media turns on humor, with anywhere from 15 minutes to a lifetime of fame thrust upon the coiners of clever phrases and propagators of ironic viral images. But Memphis got a harsh reminder about the cost of a badly-landed joke Monday when news broke of the temporary suspension of Memphis Police Officer Brian Hall for statements he made via Twitter during a Ku Klux Klan rally. Hall joins a growing roster of public employees and elected officials who now face scrutiny on an unprecedented scale thanks to the continued rise of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
As the Senate begins debate on comprehensive immigration reform, some Middle Tennessee members of Congress remain wary while others focus on key characteristics any such legislation must have to win their approval. At the heart of Senate Bill 744 is a series of “triggers” or border-enforcement steps that must be enacted before undocumented immigrants already in the country could apply for citizenship or legal permanent residence. The Department of Homeland Security would have to reach 90 percent “effectiveness” in apprehending and returning undocumented immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, for instance.
If you’ve got a policy against hiring anyone with a criminal record, you better review guidelines issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC today filed lawsuits against BMW’s manufacturing plant in Spartanburg, S.C., and Dollar General, which is based in Goodlettsville, Tenn. The agency contends the companies’ policies against hiring people who have been convicted of a crime violate the Civil Rights Act because they disproportionately cost African-Americans jobs.
Dollar General Corp. has been hit with a lawsuit from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which alleges the discount retailer’s criminal background check policies are discriminatory. At the center of the suit is Dollar General’s policy that “excludes from employment individuals with certain criminal convictions for specified periods,” according to a Dollar General SEC Filing. The EEOC alleges that the company’s criminal background check policy has a “disparate impact” on black job candidates and employees, a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed lawsuits Tuesday against discount retailer Dollar General Corp. and a BMW manufacturing plant in South Carolina over their use of criminal background checks to screen out job applicants or fire employees. In both cases, the agency claims the practice discriminates against African-Americans, who have higher arrest and conviction rates than whites. The two lawsuits are the first since the agency issued revised guidance last year to warn employers against using overly broad criminal checks in a way that could limit job opportunities for people with past convictions.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Dollar General Corp. over its criminal background checks of new hires and employees, a case that legal experts say could affect hiring practices nationwide. In a civil lawsuit filed in Chicago on Tuesday, the federal agency said the Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based retailer has “engaged in ongoing, nationwide race discrimination against black applicants” for nearly a decade. The suit contends the company’s practice of using criminal background checks disproportionally affects blacks, who have higher arrest and conviction rates than whites.
A waterline rupture at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant resulted in a fish kill over the weekend, with the death toll estimated at about 8,500, a plant spokeswoman said Tuesday. According to information from B&W Y-12, the government’s managing contractor, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the fish kill resulted from the release of chlorinated water into East Fork Poplar Creek. B&W Y-12 issued a statement Tuesday saying the contractor took actions over the weekend to isolate the broken pipe and monitor the creek conditions.
Erlanger hospital’s CEO said Tuesday that he has narrowed down applications in the search for the hospital’s new chief legal officer. “I need to conduct interviews, and I anticipate that we will be making a selection shortly,” said Kevin Spiegel, Erlanger’s chief executive. Dale Hetzler, who previously held the position for five years, resigned earlier this year. His annual salary was $306,015. Since then, the hospital has relied chiefly on one in-house attorney and has been supplementing services with an attorney from the law firm Baker Donelson, Spiegel said.
Another Alabama trucking firm has filed suit in the aftermath of a federal raid on the Knoxville headquarters of the Pilot Flying J truckstop chain. In a class action suit filed in U.S. District Court in Montgomery, Ala., attorneys for Eagle Motor Freight charged that Pilot and its top executives, including CEO James A. Haslam, engaged in a scheme to “secretly and unlawfully withhold diesel fuel price rebates.” The 36-page complaint, like some dozen others filed in courts in five states including Tennessee, cites a 120-page affidavit filed by an FBI agent to justify the April 15 raid on the Pilot headquarters.
Pilot Flying J faces another federal lawsuit, this one filed by an Alabama trucking company, as a federal fraud probe continues. The latest lawsuit, filed Friday by Montgomery, Ala.-based Eagle Motor Freight, seeks class-action status and names Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam, Pilot President Mark Hazelwood, and sales executives John “Stick” Freeman and Brian Mosher personally as defendants. Haslam has denied any wrongdoing. “The above-referenced wrongful acts violated all concepts of moral uprightness, fundamental honesty, fair play and right dealing in the general and business life of the members of society,” attorneys for Eagle wrote in a complaint.
After months of failing to convince Metro government officials to further boost funding for the school district’s operating budget, the school board unanimously settled on a spending plan which includes an extra $26 million. While Metro Nashville Public Schools doesn’t necessarily dish out dollars to schools on a per student basis, next year’s budget represents a total increase of $137 per student. “We’re still moving into positive territory,” said Will Pinkston, a board member chairing the panel’s finance committee which unanimously approved the budget.
The Metro Nashville school system may drop intersessions — the spring and fall breaks designed to give struggling students extra academic time — and instead add extra school days for everyone. The controversial balanced calendar that causes an early August start date each school year isn’t likely to change, though. Intersession will continue through the next school year, but Director of Schools Jesse Register is supporting a change for the 2014-15 school year. He presented three options to the school board on Tuesday. His preferred route is to drop the intersessions and add mandatory school days for everyone.
Countywide school board members approved Tuesday, June 11, the use of $12 million from the reserves of the two combined school systems to bridge a funding gap in the budget for the first fiscal year of the consolidated school system. The fiscal year begins July 1 and Tuesday’s special meeting was called as leaders of the school district prepare for that fiscal year and the Aug. 5 start of classes. The $12 million from the unassigned reserve fund totaling $44.1 million bridges a gap between expenses and revenues for the merged school district.
A proposal to prohibit corporal punishment in the new consolidated school district ran into a roadblock at Tuesday’s special called meeting of the unified Memphis and Shelby County school board when administrators were asked to bring back the latest research on the disciplinary tactic. Spanking was outlawed in Memphis City Schools in 2004. It remains among the options available in Shelby County Schools, but is no longer applied.
Tennessee has jumped back into the top spot in the nation in what prosecutors and police officers say is a loathsome category: the number of methamphetamine labs found by law enforcement agencies. That dubious distinction, and how to address it, was the subject of the annual meeting of the 9th Judicial District’s Drug Task Force. Lawmakers, prosecutors and police personnel from a multicounty region convened Tuesday at the Kingston Community Center to hear new developments in the war against meth.
The bar is set extremely high for those who want to see overturned Tennessee’s law that prevents municipalities from extending legal protections to gay, lesbian and transgender people in the workplace. That does not mean that they should be discouraged, however. This is the fight worth having. The discussion over House Bill 600, enacted two years ago, is entangled in legal confusion induced by the supporters of the state law, who argue that their version of the law is fair because Metro Nashville’s nondiscrimination ordinance created a separate class of protection for gays and lesbians.
TVA already has met its solar energy purchase quota for 2013. More than half of 2013 remains, and there is a considerable amount of unmet demand for solar power quota in the market. This is unfortunate, given that prices of solar panels are currently in historically low levels. TVA buys solar energy at a premium from private producers. Under the current arrangement, increasing the quota at the prevailing level of premium may require substantially more budget, which may be difficult to find. There may be two more ways TVA could have improved the efficiency of its solar energy program. Both of these proposals involve TVA participating in auctions.
Yet another security breakdown at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant raises concerns that what is supposed to be one of the most secure national security facilities in the country is not safe. Three security police officers and a supervisor have been “removed from duty” pending the outcome of an investigation of the most recent incident in which a civilian drove through the plant’s property. The security breach occurred less than a year after three protesters cut through a series of security fences and walked to the innermost sanctum of Y-12, the country’s largest repository of weapons-grade uranium.