This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee is receiving federal grants totaling $17,375,022 to help its health system better respond to a disaster, such as an earthquake, pandemic or terrorist attack. The money comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While a natural disaster like last year’s Hurricane Sandy or a man-made crisis like this year’s Boston Marathon bombings grabs attention, other threats keep health workers busy.
Tennessee has emerged as one of the national leaders in sculpting laws to protect victims of sex trafficking and send their abusers to prison longer. That’s thanks to a dozen new laws that took effect Monday. Two Memphis-based state representatives, Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, have led the charge. It wasn’t easy to get the measures approved in lean budget times, because sending traffickers to prison longer costs thousands of dollars, lawmakers have said. But Gov. Bill Haslam stressed the need to address the growing problem two years ago when he issued a proclamation calling human trafficking one of the nation’s top crimes targeting victims whose average age ranges from 12 and 14.
Chattanooga’s economy is still more than 10,000 jobs short of its pre-recession peak reached five years ago, but one sector of the economy has been healthy enough to grow through the recession and its aftermath. The health care industry has grown to employ nearly one of every nine workers in the Chattanooga area, according to a new report. Although government budget cuts and consumer economic concerns have cut some hospital jobs, health care employment nationwide grew more than 10 times as fast as the economy as a whole over the past decade, expanding 22.7 percent, or 2.6 million jobs nationwide, from 2002 to 2012, the Brookings Institution found.
With the recent adoption of a controversial teacher pay plan, Tennessee has moved closer to three states that have carved out reputations for dramatically overhauling their pay policies. Florida, Indiana and Louisiana have implemented pay plans in recent years that give more weight to performance and less to the number of degrees racked up by teachers. Though Tennessee’s plan doesn’t go quite as far — some states have actually stopped tying pay to higher degrees altogether — districts here must now consider new factors other than experience and advanced degrees when they create pay scales for the 2014-15 school year.
Middle Tennessee will begin drying out Sunday after breaking the July 6 record for rainfall. A flash flood watch remains in effect until 7 a.m. Sunday, with rainfall totals predicted to range from 4 to 10 inches of rain into the morning. Despite rain since late Wednesday, the region escaped almost unscathed from floodwaters. “The problems have been generally minor,” National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Johnstone said. Rainfall totals were 1.18 inches at the Nashville International Airport by late Saturday, breaking the July 6 record of 1.01 inches set in 1932, meteorologist Bobby Boyd said.
The rain that has soaked the Knoxville area and caused flooding on some streets should come to an end just as the week begins, according to the National Weather Service. Meteorologist Jessica Winton in Morristown said rain chances will decrease Sunday and Monday as the weather system that has dumped rain on the area for several days begins to break up in the early morning hours Sunday. Winton said there should be light precipitation throughout the day as the system begins to move out a little faster.
The Collierville Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Monday night will consider a long-term lease agreement with the University of Memphis to build a 27,000-square-foot building as part of the school’s relocation of its Collierville campus. The university has agreed to pay $324,000 — or $27,000 a month — in an annual lease for 20 years. In addition to voting on the lease agreement, the board is expected to hire Haizlip Studio for the architectural, engineering and landscape design services. Building a new $5 million satellite campus close to Town Square has been in the works the past several years.
Hundreds of layoffs could loom if Shelby County Commissioners fail again this week to raise property taxes sufficiently to fund the $374 million budget they’ve approved. On Monday afternoon — eight days into the budget year — the commission is expected to vote for a third and final time on a $4.38 tax rate, which includes a certified rate of $4.32 plus a 6-cent increase for schools. The current certified rate is $4.02. The tax rate ordinance passed on first reading, but failed on second reading to gain the necessary seven votes.
Tennessee’s senators insist otherwise, but critics say the immigration reform legislation they helped pass amounts to amnesty for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. They also say many of the border security provisions Republican Sen. Bob Corker wrote into the bill — and fellow Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander co-sponsored — probably won’t be realized, either because of cost or impracticality. The arguments show debate over immigration reform continues to be fierce, even after Senate passage last week of a more than 1,000-page bill, with Corker as a central figure in the effort.
The countdown is on until the Affordable Care Act’s mandates take effect. It’s a law intended to bring health coverage to uninsured Americans, including about 900,000 in Tennessee. They range from healthy young people who think they don’t need coverage to desperate 50-somethings with pre-existing conditions who can’t get a policy. However, few people understand exactly what the law means for them, even though three months from now they can start signing up to buy coverage on a federal insurance exchange.
Biggest expansion of society’s safety net in decades Three months before uninsured people can start shopping for coverage, some big unknowns loom over President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. The surprise announcement that the White House is delaying a requirement that many employers offer coverage raised questions about other major parts of the biggest expansion of society’s safety net since Medicare nearly 50 years ago. One delay may not matter much in the end. People will judge Obama’s law on three main points: premiums, choice and the overall consumer experience.
Dan Lopez rarely gets sick and hasn’t been to a doctor in 10 years, so buying health insurance feels like a waste of money. Even after the federal health overhaul takes full effect next year, the 24-year-old said he will probably decide to pay the $100 penalty for those who skirt the law’s requirement that all Americans purchase coverage. “I don’t feel I should pay for something I don’t use,” said the Milwaukee resident, who makes about $48,000 a year working two part-time jobs. Because he makes too much to qualify for government subsidies, Lopez would pay a premium of about $3,000 a year if he chose to buy health insurance.
Republicans and Democrats put goodwill to the test as Congress returns this week to potentially incendiary fights over nominations, unresolved disputes over student loans and the farm bill, and the uncertainty of whether lawmakers have the political will to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws. The rare cooperation on display in the Senate last month with passage of a bipartisan immigration bill could be wiped out immediately if Majority Leader Harry Reid, frustrated with minority Republicans’ delaying tactics on judges and nominations, tries to change the Senate rules by scrapping the three-fifths majority for a simple majority.
Formed in 1933 under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to spur economic development during the Great Depression era, the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority for decades has been known for providing some of the lowest electricity rates in the nation. That gave the Tennessee Valley an edge in recruiting large, power-hungry industries such as chemical, steel and aluminum, bringing such giants as Du Pont, Alcoa, Eastman and others to Tennessee, with the accompanying thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs.
TVA has seen some leadership changes of late, and that has brought not only some new faces but a shuffling of responsibilities. One of the biggest changes is putting all of TVA’s nuclear and non-nuclear power generating divisions under more centralized control. In February, Kimberly S. Greene, who was TVA’s chief generation officer, left the organization to take a role with Southern Company Services. She was succeeded by Charles G. “Chip” Pardee, but the change amounted to more than a switch of personnel.
In 2009, as the economy still sputtered from the Great Recession, business was really taking off for a Bartlett company called American Access and new workers needed to be hired quickly. The family-owned business, which manufactures modular aluminum wheelchair ramps sold in 48 states, turned to temporary staffing firms to find reinforcements for its workforce. “I guess the main advantage is that as you’re growing, it takes so much time to find good, qualified people,” said Fred Palmer, director of operations for American Access.
On the macro level, the inaugural year of the reconfigured Shelby County Schools — the complex and controversial consolidation of Memphis City and Shelby County schools that has been in the works since 2010 and was completed Monday — brings major upheaval to the county’s public education system. For students heading off to the first day of classes on Aug. 5, however, few changes are in store. What district officials are aiming for, interim Supt. Dorsey Hopson said in a meeting with reporters last week, is a “seamless transition.”
In a way, offering tax incentives to attract jobs and keep businesses is almost a Catch-22 situation. Government officials battling to attract industry and the accompanying jobs say they don’t like it, but they have to relinquish badly needed tax dollars to be competitive. Critics call it corporate welfare and, in the case of existing companies implying they may relocate if they don’t receive a tax break, a form of coercion. So complaints are acknowledged, but the incentives continue because everyone is afraid to say enough is enough. In Memphis and Shelby County, tax breaks have drawn the ire of some members of the City Council and County Commission as both bodies struggled to fund balanced budgets amid declining property tax revenues.
Sometimes, our long-held notions of what is the right thing to do can be overtaken by seemingly unrelated events. Such is the case with the process for choosing the Tennessee attorney general. In the past, the editors of this newspaper have praised Tennessee’s status as the only state whose chief lawyer is chosen by the judiciary branch. But the world changes, and with it our expectations. In this era of ever-more-divisive government and heightened risk of corruption through big, anonymous campaign contributions, some priorities have shifted — although not those that matter most: fairness and the belief that the will of people should prevail.
The recent announcement of the retirement of Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Janice Holder highlights the need to vote “Yes” next year for the “Founding Fathers Plus” Plan. The “Founding Fathers Plus” Plan is a constitutional amendment for selecting appellate judges that was approved by two-thirds majorities in the Legislature and will appear on the November 2014 ballot for ratification by the voters. The plan follows the tried and true system of the American Founding Fathers for choosing judges. It will allow the governor to appoint appellate judges, subject to confirmation by the Legislature. It is called the “plus” plan because the Senate plus the House are included in confirmation, as opposed to the federal plan, in which confirmation is limited to the Senate.
If it seems like Metro Council members are doing nothing these days, you are wrong. Most of them are busy running for something else. That’s why they examine every action through the prism of their political futures. It makes them gun-shy about filing any meaningful laws that would actually impact the city. Meanwhile, whatever Mayor Karl Dean proposes passes the council with minimal examination. We have only ourselves to blame. Voters passed an amendment to the Metro Charter in 1994 saying all council members could serve only two terms in a row. Term limits have created a mayor-dominated political system in Nashville that leaves a room full of lame ducks.
John Duncan III resigned in disgrace as Knox County Trustee on Tuesday and pleaded guilty to one felony count of official misconduct, tarnishing the reputation of East Tennessee’s most prominent political family. For longer than half a century, the Duncans have earned the public’s trust. Duncan, who was elected Knox County trustee in 2010, violated that trust — and the law — by paying himself and others public money they had not earned. John J. Duncan Sr. was elected mayor of Knoxville in 1959 and in 1964 embarked on a 24-year career in Congress.
The Madison County Commission has thrown a monkey wrench into the workings of the Jackson-Madison County school system’s need to update school technology. By waiting until the last moment to cut more than $900,000 intended for the purchase of new computers from the school system’s capital budget, commissioners created a crisis where a more timely discussion of the issue could have led to better planning and progress. We understand some commissioners’ desire to see a long-range plan in place for school technology before spending large amounts of money on new computers. But commissioners have known about this for months.
A sure sign the economy is improving is when businesses announce plans to hire hundreds more workers. Last week, Nissan announced it would be hiring 900 new workers at its Smyrna plant, which will push the total number there past 7,000. And this week, Taylor Farms, also in Smyrna, announced that it planned to invest $5.9 million to expand its facility and create 170 jobs there. Nissan recently reeled in the Rogue to the roster of vehicles rolling out of the Smyrna plant and will begin production on it this fall. As a result, the plant will need more workers, which will be hired through Nissan contractor Yates Services and will pay $13.25 to $15.25 an hour.
Solar energy is a popular technology in Tennessee, having experienced rapid growth in the past. Although the Tennessee Valley Authority has played a critical role in building the solar market in Tennessee, the effects of its actions this year have begun to send the market rapidly backward, with the closure of the TVA’s solar programs two months ago. In an industry that grew 76 percent across the United States last year, that’s a severe misstep. The current structure of the Green Power Providers and Solar Solutions Initiative poses a significant and unnecessary threat to Tennessee’s solar industry.