This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Larry Martin is a man with a “mediator mindset,” according to Gov. Bill Haslam, who has been assigning negotiation tasks to the 65-year-old former banker for several years now. The most recent assignment is perhaps the most formidable — overseeing $32 billion in spending by almost 40,000 state employees as commissioner of the state Department of Finance and Administration and resolving the inevitable conflicts that come up in doing so. “F&A is an intense workout. … If I’d known there were 43 different committees and commissions I have to serve on, my answer to the governor might have been different,” said a smiling Martin in an interview at his office in the state Capitol last week.
A new $40 million Volkswagen facility in East Tennessee will distribute domestic auto parts to global markets, including the Chattanooga-made Passat. Located in Roane County, about an hour and a half from the automaker’s VW production plant, the 459,000-square-foot facility addresses the need for increased warehouse and parts delivery to dealers and customers, the company said during a grand opening celebration last week…Gov. Bill Haslam, R-Tenn., said in a statement that focusing on growth in existing companies is “an important part of our strategy, and we appreciate the additional investment in our state.”
With no panel to nominate, filling judge vacancies open to question With the Tennessee Judicial Nominating Commission expiring at midnight today, its members on Saturday wrapped up a three-day meeting marathon and forwarded the last list of nominees to Gov. Bill Haslam for filling three upcoming Court of Appeals vacancies in 2014. What happens next to the state’s merit-selection system for screening and recommending applicants for appellate and trial court judges is anyone’s guess. There’s a long-simmering dispute over the constitutionality of Tennessee’s system of appointing appellate judges.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has touted its ability to give taxpayers more bang for their buck when it comes to economic development by leveraging increasingly smaller grants for projects that promise more jobs than deals under previous governors. But the administration deviated from that pattern when it doled out $30 million to Eastman Chemical Co. in May. Eastman has promised to pump $1.6 billion of its own money into renovating and expanding its facility in Kingsport, where the publicly traded company has operated since 1920.
For generations, teachers taught and students learned. And if little Johnny didn’t learn, the presumption was that he didn’t study hard enough. But reforms at the state level in Tennessee are turning that model on its head. Today, teacher performance is getting closer scrutiny as education officials look for broad improvement in a system where only about half of students in third through eighth grades met grade-level expectations in math and reading on 2013 state exams. And teachers fear that the changes point to a conclusion that they are the problem with our schools.
Shirley Raines closed out her history-making stint as University of Memphis president on a high note Saturday night, celebrating a major fundraising campaign that exceeded its goal by $6.6 million. Appearing at her last official event as president, Raines hailed the success of the “Empowering the Dream Centennial Campaign,” the goal for which had been set at $250 million. “It’s astonishing and another example of the support that this community and alumni, wherever they are throughout the country, give to the university,” Raines said.
Amanda Wright, a junior at Middle Tennessee State University, can feel the weight of more than $70,000 in debt bearing down on her. She would like to get married, buy a house, have pets and fulfill a dream of owning a business. But with thousands of dollars in student loan debt, Wright will put her dreams on the back burner — maybe for as long as the two decades it will take to pay her loans off. “I feel like it’s just creating this huge boulder that will drop when I graduate,” Wright said. “I’m waiting for the rope to fray.”
Dandridge could be considered one of the best kept secrets in the Southeast. But the cat has officially been let out of the bag. Life on the Water magazine, a Southern waterways-based publication based in Huntsville, Ala., recently named Dandridge as the “Best Small Town on the Water” and will feature the town in its upcoming fall issue. In honor of the award, Town Mayor George Ganette is inviting residents out on July 3 to join a celebration and awards ceremony that runs from noon til 9 p.m. at the dike in downtown Dandridge.
It’s an old river town that ran up debts and pension obligations in better times. Today, school woes, middle-class out-migration, falling family incomes, home foreclosures and job losses have riddled the tax base. Say hello to Detroit. Now run by a bankruptcy lawyer appointed by the state of Michigan as the emergency city manager, Detroit is mulling Chapter 9 bankruptcy to handle more than $4.6 billion in debts. When it comes to municipal finance, Memphis is no Detroit. But the problems rocking Detroit also rake Memphis.
In one four-hour stretch, the nation’s political polarization was on stark display. Just after 10 a.m. Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Republicans in several Southern states moved to impose voter identification laws that had been delayed under the law. The court’s decision devastated Democrats. Hours later, President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions to combat climate change, dismissively comparing skeptics of global warming to members of the flat-earth society and implementing an ambitious environmental agenda. Republicans cried foul.
Twinkies aren’t the only cakes getting ready for a comeback — so are Drake’s cakes, which include Devil Dogs, Funny Bones and Yodels. After Hostess Brands Inc. went out of business last year, the company sold off its brands in chunks to a variety of buyers. Many of the most famous cakes — such as Twinkies, CupCakes and Donettes — were purchased by a pair of investment firms that say they plan to have them back on shelves by July 15. Drake’s cakes, meanwhile, were snapped up by longtime Hostess rival McKee Foods, which makes Little Debbie snacks.
It’s been two years since Brenda McCroskey took a leisurely trip to London, but the CEO of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce still chuckles in amazement at the familiar face she saw smiling at her as she walked out of the airport. “You go across the ocean and the first thing I see when I get out of the airport is Dolly Parton. Her picture was right there on a taxi cab. It was awesome, so awesome,” recalled McCroskey, who has spent the past 13 years promoting tourism and economic growth in the country music star’s hometown.
School districts across Tennessee quietly extended a long-utilized standardized test to students as young as kindergarten last year, a move getting a second look in Nashville over its age appropriateness. The Stanford Achievement Test, or “SAT-10” – a program educators nationally have turned to for decades – arrived in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms at 117 of 137 Tennessee school systems last year. Only second-graders took the test the year before, at the state’s expense, but the state paid for all three grades for 2012-13.
Sullivan County school officials plan to have a balanced 2013-14 budget ready for approval Monday night. The almost $85.2 spending plan requiring no property tax increase for education is down from the amended 2012-13 budget of $90,011,410. However, the budget includes layoffs and position reductions throughout the system, a reduction in hours for maintenance workers, no cost-of-living or step increase raises, increased health insurance premiums starting in January, elimination of behind-the-wheel drivers education programs at the high schools and other cost- cutting measures.
In Huntsville, Ala., pre-kindergartners and kindergartners use iPads in their classrooms to learn to write letters of the alphabet. Fifth-graders take quizzes and communicate with their teachers electronically using laptops, not only from their classrooms but from Wi-Fi locations anywhere. “I think having the computers is better,” said Makayla Hereford, who will be a sixth-grader at the Academy for Science Technology & Foreign Language in Huntsville in August. “It’s better for our planet because we’re using less paper.” Makayla also is enrolled in the Summer Learning Lab at Highlands Elementary in Huntsville.
The retirement of state Supreme Court Justice Janice M. Holder, announced Wednesday, could show the Legislature’s folly in allowing the Judicial Nominating Commission to expire. The demise of the commission leaves Tennessee without a method of replacing judges until voters weigh in on a constitutional amendment referendum next year. Or does it? According to a Vanderbilt University law professor, there are other remedies. Gov. Bill Haslam should explore them to keep the Supreme Court at full strength after Holder leaves the bench in August 2014.
A 2012 survey of Tennessee voters reveals that while people believe their local schools are strong, high-quality schools, they do not feel the same way about schools outside their community. Is this a direct result of the constant stream of negative rhetoric coming out of Nashville from some state legislators and our own Department of Education? Every new “reform” effort from our state government starts with the fundamental premise that Tennessee public schools are bad. People hear this, and while they know it isn’t true of their local schools, they think it must be true elsewhere in the state.
About the same time that the most despicable figure in recent Tennessee political history was found dead in a prison cell last week, a small group of folks gathered in the state House chamber to remember a man they saw as one of the most admirable and respected figures in that history. I never knew William L. “Dick” Barry, who during tumultuous times presided over 98 other representatives in that ornate chamber as House speaker for four years, from 1963 to 1967, then served as right-hand man to Gov. Buford Ellington and then as mentor and adviser — plus, at least once, also as a backstage organizer of an unorthodox bipartisan coalition.
The face of public education in Memphis and Shelby County officially changes Monday when Memphis City Schools goes out of business and the new Shelby County unified school district takes over. The new district, which will start classes Aug. 5, was born in an atmosphere of persistent urban-suburban acrimony, fed by class and racial issues. Suburban leaders and many suburban parents are unwilling partners in the merged district, with the suburban municipalities embarking on steps that could lead to Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington having their own school districts by the 2014-2015 school year.
We will look back on the week of June 24, 2013, as one the Supreme Court of the United States reset America’s view of civil rights — delivering decisions on same-sex marriages and affirmative action, and overturning arguably the most effective civil rights legislation in our history. Although recent election rules enacted and proposed by our General Assembly may have sparked a wish that Tennessee was under the Department of Justice microscope, unlike our southern neighbors, our state was not required to have changes in its election rules and processes approved by the U.S. attorney general, a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Congress enacted to enforce the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude.
For Tennesseans, the decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 are perhaps best understood in terms of what they did not do. Neither decision held that natural marriage — the union of one man and one woman — is unconstitutional; or, put another way, neither decision ruled that there is a constitutional right to homosexual marriage. The Supreme Court’s decisions preserve, not undermine, the definition of marriage that over 81 percent of Tennessee voters enshrined in our state constitution. Marriage, in Tennessee, is still the union of one man and one woman.