This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris visited BMW’s corporate headquarters during an economic tour of Germany by a group of Southern state legislators last November. At BMW, he learned about the automaker’s long-running apprenticeship program, which retains more than 90 percent of its recruits for careers at the company. About the same time, Gov. Bill Haslam was concluding seven roundtable discussions among business leaders and educators in regions across Tennessee about how to match what students learn at state higher education institutions with the skills that employers need.
Armed with a cotton swab, Breaton LaLonde wandered through the Boys & Girls Club looking for places bacteria would likely call home. He stopped at the water fountain and restroom before heading into the gym. “The main thing most kids do here is play basketball. I figured with so many kids playing basketball, the gym floor might be a good place to check. I just tried to think of the placed I see a lot of people touching,” LaLonde said while adjusting safety goggles on his forehead. LaLonde, who attends Lascassas Elementary, is among those participating in the club’s summer STEM program, focusing on the academic areas known as science, technology, engineering and math.
There’s new hope for heavy people desperate to lose weight: Many insurers are stepping up their coverage of obesity. Some insurance companies have helped obese patients fight fat for years. They’ve offered weight-loss and wellness programs at businesses, schools and in communities. Some have paid for prescription obesity medications and even covered expensive bariatric surgeries, including gastric bypass. But now screening and counseling for obesity must be covered with no patient cost-sharing (co-payments, co-insurance or deductibles) by most insurers under the preventive services benefit of the Affordable Care Act, says Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the national trade association for the health insurance industry.
The Tennessee Department of Education has awarded three-year School Improvement Grants totaling $27,228,598 in federal funds to seventeen schools that are among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state, in terms of academic achievement. “It is a priority of this administration to turn around the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “We believe that this grant will provide schools with the necessary resources, time, and personnel to make this a reality.”
Today’s national job figures, while a significant improvement, underscore the difficulty in building job momentum and give similar insight into struggles in Tennessee. Recently an analysis by On Numbers pointed out that Gov. Bill Haslam was the fourth best governor for private sector job growth, yet Tennessee’s unemployment rate is well above the national average. Similarly, national job growth in the private sector has been solid. In the July 5 employment report, jobs increased in various industries including leisure and hospitality, professional and business services, retail trade, health care and financial services.
In an email to university employees, David Zettergren, vice president of business and finance at the University of Memphis, announced that the Tennessee Board of Regents has approved a 1.5 percent cost-of-living pay raise for all regular full-time and part-time university employees. The pay raise went into effective July 1. The minimum pay increase will be $250, or 1.5 percent of current salary, whichever is greater. The increases do not apply to employees on terminal leave, adjunct faculty, temporary employees, graduate assistants or student workers.
A new report by Tennessee’s Council on Children’s Mental Health outlines recent efforts to improve the state’s response to youth needs. The council, made up of health experts and child advocates, has been using federal grant money to create a new “system of care” for children with mental health issues. The council’s goal is to better coordinate between state departments when treating children with multiple needs, and to provide services in all communities across the state, and in family homes when possible.
State Sen. Stacey Campfield has requested a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into an automated telephone poll last month that asked voters about their opinion of him, saying the survey may have violated anti-harassment laws by making repeated calls to the same households. The Knoxville Republican said he met with a TBI agent, providing him with information, including emails from people saying they got multiple calls — 20 or 30 in some cases — that began with a declaration that “Citizen Opinion Research” was conducting a “quick one-minute survey” of voter opinions on Campfield.
Early voting signs line medians and roadways and a rally is planned Saturday, as hopeful school board members urge suburbanites to vote again in favor of forming their own municipal school districts. Voters previously approved municipal districts, but a federal judge threw out the election results last year. The next special election about suburban school districts is set for July 16. Early voting starts Saturday in Bartlett, Collierville and Germantown. So far, a total of 1,336 people have voted on the referendum in Arlington (671), Lakeland (454) and Millington (211), where early voting started June 29.
Medicare would be required to rebid contracts for wheelchairs and other medical equipment in Tennessee under legislation introduced in Congress this week by U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. The bill is in response to problems with a new nationwide competitive bidding process for metropolitan areas. Nearly a third of the contracts that had been awarded in Tennessee were voided because 30 out-of-state suppliers did not meet Tennessee licensing requirements.
U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have introduced legislation that may re-open the competitive bidding process for durable medical equipment suppliers in Tennessee. The bill would require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to conduct a rebid for contracts to supply durable medical equipment like wheelchairs and blood pressure monitors to Tennessee’s Medicare beneficiaries. The competitive bidding program requires Medicare beneficiaries to purchase equipment through select businesses that have won government contracts based on pricing, capacity, quality and licensing.
Lamar Alexander’s first ads of his re-election campaign feature fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite from neighboring Kentucky. The Alexander campaign announced Friday it has bought $180,000 worth of ads to run over two weeks on broadcast and cable television and on the radio. The ads highlight Alexander’s successful effort to place a moratorium on an Army Corps of Engineers plan to erect barriers to prevent people from fishing below dams on the Cumberland River. The spot includes video of Paul saying: “Nobody wants to say no to Lamar Alexander.”
State officials across the South are aggressively moving ahead with new laws requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls after the Supreme Court decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. The Republicans who control state legislatures throughout the region say such laws are needed to prevent voter fraud. But such fraud is extremely rare, and Democrats are concerned that the proposed changes will make it harder for many poor voters and members of minorities — who tend to vote Democratic — to cast their ballots in states that once discriminated against black voters with poll taxes and literacy tests.
Two more lawsuits have been filed against Pilot Flying J. R&R Transportation, a trucking company based in Audubon, Minn., filed a suit in U.S. District Court in that state, alleging that Pilot and several of its executives had committed fraud against R&R in connection with rebates owed to the company, and had engaged in racketeering activity. The suit specifically alleged that after a government investigation against the company became public, Pilot in a July 1 letter told R&R that an audit had uncovered “a potential discrepancy” in the company’s accounts, and sent R&R a check related to the discrepancies.
What nature gives with one hand, it takes away with another. Abundant rain this year has given plenty of water flow for America’s top whitewater rafting river in Polk County, Tenn. But the cool and wet spring also hurt business for the commercial rafters that carry more than 200,000 visitors a year through the rapids of the Ocoee River. The July 4th weekend — usually one of the busiest for the two dozen licensed rafting companies on the Ocoee — didn’t sell out this year, and most rafting companies said cool and wet weather this spring kept many potential rafters off the river during May and June.
To illustrate the stiff competition Memphis faces in landing conferences and conventions because of hotel room capacity available in the city, Memphis-based hotel consultant Chuck Pinkowski points to a formidable foe just three hours away. By his reckoning, there are about 23,000 hotel rooms when looking at Shelby, Crittenden and DeSoto counties in aggregate. By the time everything that’s in the pipeline gets built in Nashville, though, it will have between 34,000 and 38,000 rooms to dangle like an irresistible lure before meeting planners, convention organizers and event consultants.
Rain dampens ET crops, but no fears of shortages Don’t worry, farmer’s market fans — you’ll still be able to find your favorite produce this weekend, even after this summer’s heavy rains. Steve Colvin of Colvin Family Farm in Spring City, Tenn., said farmers like him are doing their best to work around the drenching weather. The farm grows a wide range of fruits and vegetables, but recent heavy rains have interfered with plowing and planting. “It is a challenge right now,” Colvin said.
Detroit on Friday accused a bond insurer of improperly trying to block access to $170 million in annual tax revenue the city said it needs to shrink its debt with some large creditors. The lawsuit filed in state court is part of an effort by the city’s powerful emergency manager to streamline the process for a potential bankruptcy by cutting as many deals as possible before any court filing, which could come in a matter of months. A filing by Detroit would be the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. In the latest move, the city sued Syncora Guarantee Inc., a bond insurer, over access to the city’s casino tax revenue, estimated at $170 million a year.
Gov. Jay Nixon on Friday vetoed a bill that would have called on the state to prosecute federal officials who try to enforce federal gun laws in Missouri and prohibit publication of the names of people owning guns. Noting that federal laws supersede state laws, the governor, a Democrat, said the bill was unconstitutional because it would nullify some federal gun laws and infringe on free speech rights by punishing anyone who published names of gun owners in Missouri.
It might be well established by now that money cannot buy happiness. But can it buy public safety? If you ask Sgt. Todd Moran of the Grants Pass police, the answer is unquestionably yes. Burglaries were up almost 70 percent last year in his city of 35,000 about an hour north of the California border. Theft cases, up almost 80 percent. And at least part of the reason, he said, is an awareness by criminals that their actions are increasingly without consequences in cash-starved Josephine County, where the jail the city depends on is mostly closed for lack of money. Even a felony suspect arrested with stolen goods or drugs in hand is usually just given a citation and released.
A new convention center is not going to happen any time soon. There is no political will to finance another large public space built on the premise of “if you build it, they will come.” But the political dead space we find ourselves in is an opportunity for us to lay some basic groundwork that gets at the larger issue of becoming a year-round destination for all kinds of tourism. That’s the family vacation, the pilgrimage to Graceland in August and the annual business conference or convention as well as a weekend getaway to someplace fun. How many of us have done that recently to Nashville? No need to raise your hand. You know who you are.
The June unemployment figures should make everybody happy — except large borrowers from the government and the 11.8 million unemployed who didn’t get one of the 195,000 jobs created last month. The unemployment rate, which was a big deal politically leading up to the November election but is rarely mentioned outside of economic circles now, was unchanged at 7.6 percent. That the rate remained static is actually good news because it means workers who had been sitting out the recession are coming back into the job market. The labor-force participation rate — those with a job or actively looking for one — rose to 63.5 percent, briefly halting a long-term decline from a peak of 67.3 percent in 2000.
With the student debt crisis already hurting the economy and hobbling the young, the last thing the country needs is a federal policy that makes college even more costly. But that’s what the country got earlier this week when Congress allowed the interest rate on the subsidized federal loans to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. If this increase is allowed to stand, more than seven million mainly low- and middle-income borrowers who begin college in the fall will pay an average of about $1,000 more per loan. That would mean about $4,000 more in debt for students who finish in four years, with the burden falling on people who could least afford it.