This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
State officials say that call center company U.S. Solutions Group Inc. is expanding its operations in Bristol, adding 128 jobs in the process. Gov. Bill Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty say the expansion includes a $117,000 investment in Sullivan County. U.S. Solutions opened its first call center in Tennessee in October 2012, investing $4.1 million and creating 548 jobs. The company provides services including inbound toll free customer care, billing support, national hotlines, web inquiry support, technical support and professional contact management services.
While the head of Tennessee’s newly centralized procurement system provided examples to legislators of savings to taxpayers last week, declaring they collectively total $113 million to day, state Rep. Jeremy Faison offered another example that didn’t sound so good. Chief Procurement Officer Mike Perry’s examples included a dozen “ballpoint stick pens” that previously cost the state $1.55 for a box of a dozen versus 47 cents today and a ream of paper, previously $3.10, now $2.77.
When the final gavel of the 107th General Assembly sounded in April, the Republican-dominated state legislature had addressed the contentious “Ag-Gag” bill and specified that guns could be allowed in parking lots and carried by teachers. Through all the debate, one issue was scarcely addressed by the state legislature: overcrowding in state prisons. Gov. Bill Haslam mentioned the topic in his State of the State address, as he noted a large budget increase for the Tennessee Department of Correction. But a local group known as the Tennessee Consultation on Criminal Justice is starting to stir up support through state legislators to bring the issue to the forefront.
Tennessee’s new commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development says cutting jobless services at 34 sites next month shouldn’t hurt out-of-work Tennesseans seeking employment. In fact, Commissioner Burns Phillips told members of the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee last week, things actually should improve. The ability to offer services over the Internet will help, he said. And nonprofit Local Workforce Investment Act partners in communities across the state are stepping up to offer services, with the state pitching in computers and other equipment, Phillips said.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam began the year by dismissing what he called misguided predictions that the new Republican supermajority in state government would devolve into infighting. Haslam went so far as to announce in his annual State of the State address in January that that narrative “makes caricatures out of us and sells all of us short.” But GOP relations soon turned turbulent, and by the end of the session key legislative proposals had gone off the rails.
Early projections show growth could bring Chattanooga at least $4 million more in revenue in the fiscal year beginning July 1. The largest growth in revenue is expected to come from building and trade permits, with an anticipated 8 percent increase. Property tax revenues are expected to increase slightly, by 0.85 percent, records show. Overall, the city estimates revenues will be up about 2 percent, to $213 million. “You’ve got a pretty healthy situation,” said Councilwoman Carol Berz, chairwoman of the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee.
The Memphis city budget process was rolling along, sometimes raucously, until revelations about the city’s debts brought things to a sobering stop and forced Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and the Memphis City Council to adjust their priorities. The cost of the city’s debt service, it turned out, was higher than council members expected and about to greatly increase in coming years. A letter from State Comptroller Justin Wilson brought a dim view of Wharton’s proposal for further refinancing of debt, known as “scoop and toss,” that called for pushing some debt payments into the future to free up $10 million for the city to spend on operations.
Sullivan County Commissioners could soon see a reduction in pay. Commissioners’ pay is tied to the pay of the county mayor. Each commissioner now makes $592 a month. The Tennessee General Assembly approved a 4-percent increase for elected officials, so the county commissioners are set to make $327 more a year. Some commissioners do not want the increase to go into effect and are pushing for a decrease in commissioners’ pay. Under a current proposal, the county commissioners’ pay would be reduced to $500 a month.
The Madison County board of commissioners will meet at the West Tennessee Researchand Education Center today to finish one year while preparing for the next. The 2013 fiscal year ends June 30. Commissioners will have a first reading for the 2014 budget, which begins July 1. The proposed budget is $179,300,000 compared to $179,009,342 for 2012-13. Commissioner Doug Stephenson said $2.7 million will be requested in educational capital, with $1.4 million earmarked for devices for the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
Franklin County, Tenn., is just a few readings away from rules making pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines available only by prescription. Cowan, Decherd and Estill Springs are the remaining municipalities in the county set to pass new rules on pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines as law enforcement takes a new step in the battle against methamphetamine. Pseudoephedrine is the primary ingredient in meth production. “The only way it’s going to be successful is if the entire region does this,” Winchester police Chief Dennis Young said.
Republicans warn costs are about to soar, but others see positive signs With less than seven months until President Barack Obama’s health care reforms take full effect, Tennessee Republicans in Congress contend steep premium increases, job losses and denial of access to needed care lie in wait for constituents. But liberal policy analysts say such claims reflect an insurance industry scare campaign and that significantly increased access and more competitive and stable premiums will be the story. No matter which side proves right, the consequences for the state could be immense.
The House lawmaker who controls the fate of American infrastructure says he’s “looking very closely” at a Senate-passed bill that could jump-start the stalled lock at Chickamauga Dam. “It makes sense to give it a hard look,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster told the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week before a congressional baseball game for charity at Nationals Park. A pledge to mull a proposal isn’t the same as endorsing one. But the Pennsylvania Republican said the Tennessee River will be on his mind as his committee shapes funding measures for locks, dams, levees and other public works projects.
As data dragnets and information breaches dominate the news, states are scrambling to cash in on a rapidly expanding business sector by offering tax incentives to firms that protect sensitive information from outside attacks. While ordinary Americans wonder if their private phone calls and emails are being monitored by their government, businesses are concerned that proprietary and sensitive business information could be stolen by competitors — at home and from overseas. State and local governments also are working to tighten safeguards to prevent outsiders from hacking into their information.
When a typical 40-year-old uninsured woman in Maine goes to the new state exchange to buy health insurance this fall, she may have just two companies to choose from: the one that already sells most individual policies in the state, and a complete unknown — a nonprofit start-up. Her counterpart in California, however, will have a much wider variety of choices: 13 insurers are likely to offer plans, including the state’s largest and best-known carriers. With only a few months remaining before Americans will start buying coverage through the new state insurance exchanges under President Obama’s health care law, it is becoming clear that the millions of people purchasing policies in the exchanges will find that their choices vary sharply, depending on where they live.
The Supreme Court has devoted decades to giving meaning to the Constitution’s promise of equality for all before the law. Now, as the court heads into the final two weeks of this year’s term, the justices may be about to close one chapter of that long story even as they open a new one. The court is set to decide whether to pull back on 1960s-era remedies for racial discrimination that critics say have outlived their need. One case tests a race-based affirmative action policy at the University of Texas that gives an advantage to black and Latino students at the expense of some white applicants.
When Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies pitched a charter school in West Nashville after a push by affluent parents, it sparked a raging debate last summer. Now, a year later, another charter group is looking to break new ground here by tailoring a school for all economic backgrounds, including middle and upper class — and this time, there are no signs of a looming fight. In fact, some are already praising it for entering Nashville in a way Great Hearts didn’t. Valor Collegiate Academy, a fifth- through 12th-grade school proposed by California transplant Todd Dickson, whom Mayor Karl Dean personally recruited to Nashville, is one of six charter applications set for consideration at the Metro school board’s June 25 meeting.
Bradley County may become one of the first school systems in Tennessee to allow some teachers to arm themselves in the classroom. Legislation passed this spring allows certain school employees to carry concealed weapons beginning July 1. They must have a handgun carry permit, complete a 40-hour school policing course and have the superintendent’s permission. The policy isn’t mandatory but leaves discretion up to local superintendents. Tennessee’s law was written in response to the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Both Blackman Middle and Smyrna Primary are expected to get some relief from overcrowding by the start of the 2014-15 schoolyear. Both projects won the support of the Rutherford County Commission in March. Blackman Middle opened in 2002 and was designed to handle 850 students. This year’s enrollment was close to 1,100 and the school relied on six portable classrooms. The 50-year-old Smyrna Primary has about 540 students and four portables on its campus. The Blackman campus will get an annex anticipated to be used exclusively for sixth-grade students.
Court records indicate former Knox County Trustee Mike Lowe and one of his so-called ghost employees, a worker he allegedly paid to do little if any work, participated in a property title search scheme in which the employee’s company bilked taxpayers for possibly as much as $392,500. The accusation, according to court records, suggests that Ray Mubarak and Lowe sent fraudulent payments to Tennessee Residential Services, a business set up by Mubarak, and whose sole purpose was to sell title abstracts to Knox County at higher than usual rates.
During last week’s budget discussions, Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland, who opposes a proposed 36-cent county property tax increase, made this comment, which he said was a modified version of an old saying: “It’s two things you can’t get rid of, that’s HIV and a house in Shelby County.” The HIV comment was outlandish and insensitive, and the crack about home sales is not substantiated by a recent report by the Memphis Area Association of Realtors. Wednesday’s utterance and other off-the-wall outbursts by Roland provide a cautionary tale for other commissioners and Memphis City Council members who have demonstrated a propensity to act in a similar manner during public meetings.