This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today appointed Richard Montgomery as chairman of the Board of Parole. Montgomery replaces Charles Traughber who retired last week after serving nearly 40 years on the board, much of that time as chairman. “I am grateful for Chairman Traughber’s many years of service and dedication to our state,” Haslam said. “His experience and counsel was extremely helpful as we restructured the board to transition probation services to the Department of Correction to provide a more seamless and accountable process.”
Starting July 1, Abbie Hudgens has been appointed to lead the revamped Workers’ Compensation Division in the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development (TDLWD). Gov. Bill Haslam announced the move June 28, with Hudgens, 67, tapped to serve a six-year term. “I want to thank Abbie for taking on this new opportunity with the workers’ compensation system in Tennessee,” Haslam said. “Abbie has experience in both the public and private sectors and at the state and local levels, giving her an incredible depth of knowledge of the system. She played an integral part in shaping this reform effort, and I appreciate her willingness to serve.”
The Tennessee Department of Education said Tuesday that it has awarded 17 struggling schools more than $27 million in grants. Schools in Hardeman, Knox, Shelby and Hamilton counties will divide the latest round of state School Improvement Grants. All of the schools receiving funding were among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee. Metro Nashville Public Schools were not eligible for the current round of grants, having received funding in the previous two rounds.
The Tennessee Department of Education has awarded three-year school improvement grants totaling more than $27 million in federal funds to 17 schools. The schools are among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state, in terms of academic achievement. Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says a priority of the administration is to turn around those low-performing schools, and he believes the grant will give them the necessary resources, time and personnel to do that.
On Monday, unemployed Tennesseans with children were supposed to have their benefits cut, but that plan is now on hold as the state Department of Labor attempts to determine if the cuts will run afoul of federal guidelines. Currently, the state pays the first 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. The federal government picks up the additional 37 weeks beyond that. However, federal guidelines state that those additional federal funds may be withdrawn if states cut benefits. People in Tennessee had been getting an additional $15 of unemployment benefits per week, per child.
Tennesseans facing a cut in their unemployment benefits are getting a reprieve – thanks to the federal government. The elimination of dependent allowances of up to $50 a week was supposed to take effect July 1 with the enactment of the state law. Jeff Hentschel, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, told The Tennessean the cuts did not take effect because federal officials warned the action could cause a loss of federal funding for other benefits. Hentschel did not immediately return a call to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Bowing to belated federal government objections, state officials have decided to continue paying extra unemployment benefits — at least for the rest of the year — to jobless Tennesseans who have dependent children. The move comes despite a law enacted by the Tennessee Legislature earlier this year that declared the bonus benefits for children would end Monday, July 1. Notices were sent out last month to about 30,000 Tennesseans who had been receiving the money. The extra payments amount to $15 per month for each child, up to a maximum of $50.
The two state commissioners that helped institute “new rules” for Occupy Nashville protesters on War Memorial Plaza in 2011 are appealing a federal judge’s ruling against the state. Department of General Services Commissioner Steve Cates and Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons filed the appeal through the state attorney general’s office on June 27. In an opinion last month, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger criticized Cates and Gibbons for failing to consult with the attorney general before creating rules that led to the arrest of Occupy protesters.
Attorneys representing Gov. Bill Haslam and various state agencies are appealing a recent federal ruling that found the state unlawfully arrested members of the Occupy Nashville group. According to a notice of appeal filed late last week, the state objects to U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger siding with the Occupy Nashville plaintiffs. Trauger wrote that the state “cannot make law by fiat” and that the protesters’ First Amendment rights were violated when they were arrested. The appeal, which will be heard by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, will be spelled out in detail in about a month, when the appeal’s legal brief is filed, according to attorney Dawn Jordan, who is representing the state.
State attorneys on Tuesday served notice they are challenging last month’s ruling by a U.S. District Court judge in Nashville who found Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration violated the free speech rights of Occupy Nashville protesters arrested during 2011 demonstrations on War Memorial Plaza. In a filing with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper’s office said it is contesting U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger’s June 12 ruling. State Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons and General Services Commissioner Steve Cates are listed on the appeal of the suit, filed against Haslam and top administration officials.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation demoted the official who told a group of Mount Pleasant residents that unfounded complaints about water quality could be considered terrorism. Sherwin Smith, who was deputy director of TDEC’s Division of Water Resources, was demoted effective June 26, the agency said Tuesday. He returns to his prior position with the state’s Revolving Fund Program, which helps fund water projects in the state with low-interest loans. “This is a lower-ranking position,” said Meg Lockhart, spokeswoman for TDEC. “It is my understanding the salary will be less than what he would be making had he not been removed from that position.”
Tennessee transportation officials are clearing the road ahead for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. TDOT has told its crews and contractors to knock off work by 6 p.m. Wednesday and not resume construction until 6 a.m. on July 8. That means temporary lane closures will end for the long weekend, but there are still construction zones with lane barriers in place and there could be workers in those zones. Lowered speed limits and doubled fines still apply in the zones. TDOT also reminds drivers they can dial 511 from any phone to get travel conditions.
Chattanooga city government’s use of Internet sales sites to establish fair market value for used equipment purchases is no legal substitute for public advertisements and competitive bidding, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper says. Records show officials used the method on at least one occasion with the City Council on Feb. 26 approving the then-Mayor Ron Littlefield administration’s recommended purchase of a $168,000 used Caterpillar hydraulic excavator. The opinion was requested by state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.
A new Tennessee attorney general’s opinion says the state has authority to set up a vehicle emissions testing program in Shelby County and charge motorists a fee to pay for it, as it has in six counties in the Nashville and Chattanooga areas. But the opinion says the state probably could not impose a countywide fee to pay for vehicle testing only in the City of Memphis, as it suggests was being considered by state officials. Atty. Gen. Robert E. Cooper’s advisory opinion comes after Memphis ended its vehicle inspection program Friday.
Chad Tindell, a former tax attorney for the Knox County Trustee’s Office, has been officially censured by the Board of Professional Responsibility, the arm of the Tennessee Supreme Court that governs lawyers. Tindell pleaded guilty in Knox County Criminal Court earlier this year to official misconduct for his role in a plan that gave bonuses to some employees in the Trustee’s Office based on credit for classes they did not complete. He was placed on probation. According to a statement released today by the Board of Professional Responsibility, Tindell’s “criminal act adversely reflected on his honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.”
As a Tennessee General Assembly committee prepares to review a Chicago-based company’s dealings with state government, an administration plan to raze a state office building is being questioned. State Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, told The Tennessean the Cordell Hull Building next to the state Capitol is an impressive structure. “The building is just beautiful,” she said. “It shouldn’t be torn down just because one consultant says it should be.” The Fiscal Review Committee, which Gilmore leads, will review how Jones Lang LaSalle parlayed an initial $1 million contract into a multimillion-dollar deal to lease space for state offices.
A group of North Nashvillians, led by Democratic state Rep. Brenda Gilmore and the NAACP, outlined a series of demands Tuesday as a consolation for not locating a bus rapid transit line near them. As it stands, one of Nashville’s poorest neighborhoods feels left out of plans for The Amp, Mayor Karl Dean’s proposed bus rapid transit project that would run along the West End/Broadway corridor. Three weeks ago the project received a critical preliminary funding boost from the Metro Council. Gilmore, increasingly vocal over North Nashville’s absence from the 7.1-mile route, has discussed some these demands in the past.
The Bradley County Commission has approved the county’s 2013-14 budget, which includes a 1.5 percent salary increase for full-time employees and maintains current levels of service without a tax increase. The Monday night budget vote was not unanimous. Commissioner Jeff Yarber opposed 13 other commissioners, saying he was concerned about expected changes in the tax rate caused by the recent state-mandated property reappraisal. Overall, property values have fallen in Bradley County, according to previous statements by Lynn Burns, the county’s financial director.
Knox County Trustee John Duncan III pleaded guilty Tuesday to official misconduct and resigned. Duncan entered the plea to the felony charge in Knoxville and was sentenced to one year of probation. He also agreed to cooperate with any other investigations related to the $42,000 in bonuses he gave himself and others under his supervision for completing certified public administrator coursework that they didn’t actually finish. The Knoxville News Sentinel reported Duncan’s father, Republican U.S. Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr., attended the hearing but declined to discuss the specifics of the case.
John Duncan III will be eligible for diversion despite a law enacted by the General Assembly last year that prohibits the practice in cases where a public official is convicted of a crime related to service while in office. The new law took effect on July 1, 2012. Duncan’s guilty plea to a charge of official misconduct was based on events occurring in late 2010. Thus, the law does not apply in Duncan’s case, according to District Attorney General Randy Nichols and Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, who sponsored the bill in question.
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), lead Republican on the Senate’s health committee, is renewing his push for more stringent oversight of drug compounders, as the fungal meningitis death toll stemming from a Massachusetts-based company rises to 61. Alexander, along with health committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), is calling on the full Senate to take up a vote by the end of July on legislation that the health committee passed in May. The Pharmaceutical Compounding Quality and Accountability Act, introduced by Alexander and Harkin, with Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), calls on compounding manufacturers to be regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, while preserving states’ roles in regulating traditional pharmacy activity.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and his wife, Brenda, contributed a combined $605 to President Barack Obama’s inaugural committee. Political observers may find the donations unusual because the Ooltewah Republican supported Mitt Romney and generally lines up against Obama whenever possible. But records show Fleischmann was the only Tennessean in Congress to give at least $200 to the president’s second-term kickoff. Even the Volunteer State’s two congressional Democrats aren’t listed in the report naming inaugural donors, who gave more than $43 million.
The Obama administration is delaying health care reform’s employer mandate until 2015 to give businesses another year to prepare for this requirement. Mark Mazur, assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy, made this news official in a blog on the Treasury Department’s web site posted shortly after Bloomberg broke the news late Tuesday afternoon. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers with 50 or more workers are required to provide health coverage to their workers or pay a penalty. The mandate was scheduled to begin in 2014.
In a major concession to business groups, the Obama administration Tuesday unexpectedly announced a one-year delay, until 2015, in a central requirement of the new health care law that medium and large companies provide coverage for their workers or face fines. The move sacrificed timely implementation of President Barack Obama’s signature legislation but may help the administration politically by blunting a line of attack Republicans were planning to use in next year’s congressional elections.
CVS Capital owns minority stake An Illinois trucking firm has joined more than a dozen other transportation companies by filing a lawsuit against Pilot Flying J, the national truck-stop chain charged in a federal affidavit with cheating truckers out of promised diesel fuel rebates. The suit filed Tuesday by Arka Logistics not only names Pilot and its top executives as defendants but also London-based CVC Capital Partners, which owns a minority stake in Pilot. The suit, filed as a class action, charges that Pilot and its top officials engaged in racketeering and mail fraud when they developed the plan to cut promised rebates.
Your power bill may be lower than usual this month largely due to heavy rains in May. The Tennessee Valley Authority recalculates its wholesale rates at the beginning of every month based on fuel and purchased power costs. This July’s rate is about 10 percent lower than last year. The Knoxville-based utility says the unusually wet weather caused hydroelectric power generation to stand at 138 percent of normal levels through the first half of the year. That means TVA didn’t have to buy as much other fuel to meet increased demand during the summer months.
Results from standardized tests taken during the past school year by students in both the legacy Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools will reflect continued improvement when they are released in the near future, Interim Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson said Tuesday. Figures released last July showed that Memphis and Shelby County students were making greater progress than their peers in many subjects, including science and Algebra I. SCS students outpaced state gains in all four subjects tested in grades 3-8, while MCS students advanced in every subject except math.
Authorities raided nine suspected labs and arrested dozens of people during a two-month methamphetamine investigation in Grundy County, Tenn., that began in April. Sheriff Brent Myers said the investigation struck a major blow. “We have been working very hard on this case, and we will continue to aggressively pursue anyone involved in making methamphetamine here in Grundy County,” Myers said. “We will do anything and everything we can to stop this.” The investigation relied on pseudoephedrine-based cold medicine purchasing data collected under state law.
As lawmakers in Washington remain at loggerheads over the student-debt crisis, Oregon’s legislature is moving ahead with a plan to enable students to attend state schools with no money down. In return, under one proposal, the students would agree to pay into a special fund 3% of their salaries annually for 24 years. The plan, called “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back,” would create a fund that students would draw from and eventually pay into—potentially bypassing traditional education lenders and the interest rates they charge.
Tennessee education reform is unlikely to reach its goals of a highly educated, career-ready workforce despite statements from educational and governmental leaders. Why? Because the multiple reform initiatives being promoted across our state are absent the critical first step: an objective, integrated assessment of each student’s learning skills, behavioral traits and career interests. We need an assessment to guide students’ education plans based on strength-based aspirations and capabilities.
So now it’s become good public policy for Republicans to tear down a historical building that happens to be named for a Democrat, even if it honors one of the most significant of Tennessee’s historic figures. So it appears for the Gov. Bill Haslam administration, particularly if a hired consultant — with whom the governor once invested — says efficiency is more important than history. Haslam wants to tear down the Cordell Hull Building. Such thinking came close to bulldozing the Ryman Auditorium and Union Station. Hull lives on through the rare black and pink marble of the state building that bears his name next to the state Capitol.
Peter Drucker said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” While I am reluctant to vote for a property tax increase, I need to consider doing what is in the best interest of Shelby County despite the political consequences. To keep the county tax rate at $4.02, we would need to reduce spending by about $57 million. If the County Commission voted to keep the tax rate at the current level, the administration would be forced to cut 800 to 900 jobs. I do not believe that level of cost reduction would be in the best interest of the county at this time. If the city of Memphis were to pay its $57 million obligation toward education, we would be able to keep the tax rate at current levels.
On most Saturday mornings for four and a half years, Robert M. “Bob” Deacy has sat at a particular spot on Swan Pond Circle in Harriman, Tenn., to sip coffee and reflect on the cleanup of one of the nation’s largest industrial environmental accidents. Deacy is the Tennessee Valley Authority senior vice president and executive in charge of the $1.1 billion Kingston Ash Recovery Project. His quiet-time reflection spot was ground zero where, in 2008, a 60-foot wall of toxics-laden coal ash spilled across the Emory River and over nearly 400 acres of a rural residential community — the infamous Kingston Ash Spill.