This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennesseans looking to attend a two-year public community college are getting some assistance. Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday held a ceremonial bill signing at Chattanooga State Community College for a measure that establishes an endowment of at least $35 million through the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation for need-based students. The bill was part of the governor’s legislative agenda this year. It is a component of his “Drive to 55” initiative to increase the number of Tennesseans with at least a two-year college degree or certificate.
Tennessee has not done a good enough job giving scholarships to poor college students, Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday morning. He hopes that soon will change. In front of state representatives, senators and more than 100 students inside the Chattanooga State Health Science Center, Haslam signed a bill that will dedicate “at least” $35 million to scholarships for community college students. The signing was one of two quick stops the governor made in the area Thursday. At another bill signing and media briefing in Cleveland, Tenn., Haslam announced a pair of grants dedicated to local energy programs.
Gov. Bill Haslam made a brief stop in Chattanooga Thursday to preside over the ceremonial signing of a bill that will make at least $35 million in funds available for a needs-based scholarship program for students attending Tennessee’s two-year public community colleges. The measure will apply to institutions like Chattanooga State Community College, where the signing was held. More than 150 students, teachers and elected officials gathered in the atrium of the Health Science Center to mark the occasion, where the governor offered brief remarks before signing the bill.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam today formally signed bill SB0194/HB0188 establishing an endowment of at least $35 million through the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) to provide need-based grants for students at the state’s two-year public community colleges. “For us to attract and grow Tennessee jobs today and in the future, we have to do a better job of building a skilled workforce, which means removing barriers that stand in the way of Tennesseans furthering their education,” Haslam said during the ceremonial bill signing at Chattanooga State Community College.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner John Schroer announced today a $256,791 transportation grant for Ducktown to replace sidewalks and install new street lighting, landscaping and new crosswalks at the intersection of Main Street and State Route 68. The project is Phase I of the Pedestrian Enhancement Project located on Main Street within Ducktown’s historic downtown area. The improvements are the first in a two-phase project to rehabilitate Main Street.
Ducktown’s fate is a common one: a highway bypass sucks all the life and businesses from the old downtown circuit. James Talley, mayor of the small Polk County town, hopes a $256,791 grant will help reverse that. “When you take all the traffic out of the downtown area, it’s hard for businesses to survive,” Talley said Thursday evening. Ducktown was presented an 80/20 matching grant by the Tennessee Department of Transportation Thursday to help combat the withering of its historic downtown area.
The state of Tennessee is establishing an endowment of $35 million through the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation to provide grants for students at two-year public community colleges. A portion of Tennessee’s operating fund for administering the Federal Family Education Loan Program is being used to establish the endowment, and TSAC will work with the Tennessee Department of Treasury to set the best investment option for the endowment. Grant payments will be made directly to a community college on behalf of grant recipients.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation says state aeronautics grants totaling more than $175,000 have been approved for six Tennessee airports. Those receiving the grants announced this week include the McMinn County Airport, Collegedale Municipal Airport, Fayetteville Municipal Airport, Lebanon Municipal Airport, Moore-Murrell Field in Morristown and the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport. The grants are made available through the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division.
State Finance Commissioner Larry Martin says overall June revenues were $3.2 million more than the state budgeted. Martin in a release Thursday said state tax collections for last month were weak, but he said it marks the 11th consecutive month this year of positive growth in total collections. Sales tax collections were $100,000 less than the estimate for June, but franchise and excise taxes combined were $2.3 million more than budgeted. The general fund went over by $8.9 million.
Tennessee’s transportation and infrastructure system remains among the nation’s best, according to CNBC. State Transportation Commissioner John Schroer on Thursday ballyhooed the state’s No. 2 ranking, its fourth listing in the top ranks in as many years in that category by CNBC’s “America’s Top States for Business.” The state’s No. 2 ranking is up from fourth place last year. Officials noted Tennessee is the only state at or near the top with no transportation debt. “We are striving to be the best DOT in the nation,” Schroer said in a news release.
For the fourth year in a row, Tennessee’s transportation system ranks as one of the best in the nation, according to CNBC’s 2013 study “America’s Top States for Business. Tennessee ranks second best in America in the category of “Transportation and Infrastructure,” up from fourth place in 2012. “We are striving to be the best DOT in the nation,” said Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner John Schroer. “This ranking is an affirmation of the efforts TDOT has made in the last two and half years to be innovative, efficient, and responsible. Prioritizing and maximizing our investments will continue to provide economic benefits to communities across the state.”
The State Building Commission on Thursday gave the green light to more than a half-billion dollars worth of construction and upgrades for dozens of projects, including a $30 million, 512-bed expansion of the Bledsoe Correctional Facility in Pikeville. The expansion will handle medium-security prisoners. The project also will provide minor modifications to house female inmates in separate security facilities within the complex. Commission members also approved some $21 million to beef up security at state prisons, including $4.4 million for a specialty security contractor to replace what a Building Commission document described as “aging and failing locking systems” in facilities statewide.
Open less than four years, the Roane County Jail has been overcrowded for about a year, and state officials warn decertification looms unless the county comes up with a plan to solve the problem. Decertification could open the county up to a host of potential legal liabilities, officials said. The jail was built after years of Roane County Commission wrangling over how best to resolve overcrowding in the previous lockup, located next to the Roane County Courthouse. During that time, Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton said he urged commissioners to consider constructing a minimum-security work farm for nonviolent offenders, “but that was put to the side for some unknown reason.”
Bids under seal with state officials could move the first workers out of the Cordell Hull Building and into private office space by March of next year. Six firms, including Lifeway Christian Resources and Bellsouth Telecommunications LLC, have submitted offers to lease out space for 301 workers in the Department of Children’s Services. The state plans to settle on a deal no later than Aug. 19. The offers were made last week under a bidding process that also names Jones Lang LaSalle as the state’s broker, giving the Chicago real estate firm a 4 percent commission if a deal is closed.
The State Building Commission has approved a project to build a new football stadium for East Tennessee State University. The approval this week authorizes the selection of a designer who will plan the first phase of the project and begin preplanning the entire project. The first phase of the stadium will be funded entirely from student fees. The fee was approved by the university’s Student Government Association in January. The proposed stadium will seat about 10,000 people and is expected to cost $18 million.
Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) today announced the Tennessee State Building Commission’s approval of a project to build a new football stadium for East Tennessee State University. After a decade-long hiatus, ETSU has recently rebooted its football program under the supervision of former University of Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer. Last month, ETSU hired former University of North Carolina coach Carl Torbush as the university’s new head coach for the program.
An $18 million football stadium project for East Tennessee State University was approved Thursday by the Tennessee State Building Commission, according to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey; however, any funding the state may provide still needs to be included in a future budget. The SBC, of which Ramsey is chairman, met Thursday to consider numerous projects. “I’m so proud to have football coming back to the East Tennessee State University,” he said. “College is first and foremost about academics but a full and complete college experience is crucial to attracting top top-quality students to the university.
The long-delayed Highland Row project near the University of Memphis may finally start construction this fall, as a result of a new affiliation agreement U of M is proposing with a private nonprofit developer for the residential space in the upper floors of the multiuse center. The university asked the State Building Commission Thursday to fast-track approval of an agreement with Alabama-based Collegiate Housing Foundation that will help arrange financing. Under the agreement, rental of the apartments will be limited to U of M students, faculty and staff and the University of Memphis name will be affixed to the privately owned and managed facility.
UT head shapes mission statement for university In his second year as president of the University of Tennessee system, Joseph DiPietro said his job is not easy, but he loves it. “It’s a privilege to have this job, it’s a challenge,” said DiPietro, who was in Jackson on Thursday to visit with The Jackson Sun’s Editorial Board and to attend the UT Institute of Agriculture’s Summer Celebration Lawn & Garden Show. The event was held at the West Tennessee AgResearch & Education Center. Before serving as president, DiPietro served as chancellor of the UT Institute of Agriculture from 2006 to 2010.
House Speaker Beth Harwell has replaced Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, on the powerful Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations after appointing him to the position in April. She replaced him last month with Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, but Hill said Thursday the replacement is temporary and that Carter was put on to help a TACIR study that could lead to changes in the state’s annexation law. The timing is odd, though. Shortly before it was announced officially that he was being appointed to TACIR, Hill surprised Harwell by casting the deciding vote in the House Local Government Committee against advancing a measure to allow local referendums on permitting grocery stores to sell wine.
Metro’s plan to shift more than $7 million in federal flood aid from housing assistance to west bank riverfront redevelopment work cleared a key hurdle Tuesday as officials sought to explain why dollars are no longer needed for victims. The Metro Development and Housing Agency unanimously voted to amend a $33 million U.S. Housing and Urban Development community development block grant awarded to Nashville following the May 2010 flood. The amendment reallocates a total of $8.3 million, the rest of which would help cover the cost of a 35-unit residential development on Jefferson Street.
Commission to review names Monday More people with experience working in Knox County fee offices are among applicants emerging for the Knox County trustee’s job after last week’s resignation by John J. Duncan III. And sitting Knox County Commissioner Ed Shouse told the News Sentinel Thursday that he plans to apply for the job. News outlets, columnists and local blogs watching the open seat have mentioned people such as Shouse and other high-ranking workers in county fee offices as possible applicants since Duncan stepped down.
Even as the fate of Shelby County’s schools was an inevitable and implicit backdrop to budget and tax negotiations on the Shelby County Commission (see below), six suburban municipalities were launched on their second effort to approve the separate suburban school systems that they are already collecting taxes for. The municipalities of Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, Arlington, and Millington all voted in 2012 in favor of establishing separate school systems for themselves in conformity with legislation in Nashville, as well as for the half-cent sales-tax increases to pay for them.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said some critics of cuts this week in the Memphis Fire Department are the same Memphis City Council members who were critical of his administration for not cutting enough during the just-ended city budget season. “By George, we have cut, and the very folks who say cut, cut, cut will be the very ones you will see in the days ahead who will be blasting me for the attrition plan in the Fire Department,” Wharton said at the Thursday, July 11, taping of the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”
Despite some calls to mount a primary challenge against Republican Senator Lamar Alexander next year, Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey says he’ll stay out of the race. Ramsey says he’s advised a fellow lawmaker to steer clear of the contest as well. Ramsey jokes he wouldn’t want to “step down” and be a U.S. Senator. He’s enjoyed strong tea party support in the past, and says he routinely turns down calls to take on Alexander, who some conservatives see as too moderate. “I’m not exaggerating, I get a dozen emails a week asking me to run. So there is a groundswell – I don’t want to say groundswell, whatever. The tea party groups are out there looking for an opponent, and I think they’ll have a hard time finding one against Lamar.”
A scaled-down version of the Farm Bill passed the US House Thursday, and Tennessee’s Congressional delegation voted along strict party lines today—with one exception. Knoxville Representative John Duncan is one of only 12 Republicans voting no. The bill strips out any language governing food stamps, and that’s a big reason why Democrats don’t like it. Duncan takes issue with a measure that would expand crop insurance for farmers. ”You start a small business you have to pay 100% of your insurance, and then on top of that you have the subsidies. And with the farm prices and farmland as high as it is now, they don’t need it.”
The head of the state’s largest insurance company says most Tennesseans’ earnings are low enough to qualify for some degree of government aid for healthcare. That’s led to speculation employers who offer coverage will stop, says Bill Gracey, CEO of BlueCross BlueShield Tennessee. But he argues such a shift won’t be widespread – at least right away. A family of four making up to $90 thousand a year could qualify for some help buying insurance through a federally run exchange in Tennessee, if their jobs don’t offer coverage.
Remember when BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee launched a website (Know the Cost TN) warning its members that health care reform will drive up premiums? It turns out the powers that be in Washington didn’t like that so much, Bill Gracey, CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee told a business crowd at a Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce event this morning.vThe official talking point, he said, has been changed to “with new benefits comes new costs.” But the company’s point remains the same, and it’s the same message Gracey delivered today – health care costs will go up.
A Mobile, Ala., trucking firm has joined the long list of transportation firms filing suit against Pilot Flying J in the wake of a federal investigation of allegations of a rebate skimming scam. The class action suit filed Thursday in federal court in behalf of Wright Transportation charges that Pilot Flying J and its CEO, James A. Haslam III, devised a “nationwide scheme to defraud and cheat” its customers. The 37-page complaint charges that Haslam and other top executives at Pilot violated federal racketeering laws, state deceptive trade practices laws “and common laws of unjust enrichment.”
A new proposed class-action lawsuit takes aim at Pilot Flying J, this one filed by an Alabama trucking company over the continuing federal rebate-fraud probe. Wright Transportation of Mobile County, Ala., filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court. More than a dozen similar lawsuits have been filed around the country. FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents raided Pilot’s corporate headquarters April 15 as part of a probe into accusations the company shortchanged trucking clients for years on promised diesel rebates.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has fixed the immediate problems that led to a serious safety violation at its Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama, but it must still demonstrate long-term improvement, federal regulators said Thursday. The initial findings by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission come from an in-depth inspection triggered by a serious safety violation issued in mid-2011 against the plant near Athens, Ala. The NRC had issued only five such red findings — its most severe citations — up to that point.
Plans to develop a $135 million dollar luxury Hyatt Regency Hotel on Lower Broadway are moving forward with the help of public financing. Denver-based Swerdling and Associates intends to build a 450-room, full-service Hyatt Regency hotel that will sit on Broadway between Second and Third Avenue South, according to a news release from the developer. The Nashville Business Journal broke news of Swerdling’s plans in October. The developer will seek tax-increment financing from the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency.
Mayor Karl Dean has committed tax incentives to two separate developers planning full-service, 400-room-plus hotels south of Broadway to help fill the anticipated lodging demand of Music City Center. Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling confirmed Thursday that the city has offered incentives to Denver-based Swerdling & Associates, which is planning a 450-room, $135 million Hyatt Regency near Second Avenue and Broadway, and longtime Nashville developer Tony Giarratana, who has proposed a 400-room Marriott Hotel at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Demonbreun Street.
Baptist Memorial Hospital stepped up its East Memphis presence on Thursday, breaking ground for a $14.1 million pediatric emergency department at the Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women. Memphis’ biggest hospital system has steadily expanded into the suburbs, following the neighborhoods that sprouted up, but hospital officials say the new unit planned by Baptist won’t compete head on with LeBonheur Children’s Hospital. What’s going on in the Eastside medical complex reflects the larger growth trend.
The gap between what schools pump out in their graduates and what businesses want in their employees may shrink with the addition of a new Southeast Tennessee program aimed at boosting career and technical education. The Southeast Tennessee Pathways to Prosperity will work with teachers in Hamilton, Bradley, Marion and McMinn counties. The program, funded through a state grant, first will focus on beefing up preparation for advanced manufacturing and information technology careers.
Sometimes doing the right thing comes after a game of cat-and-mouse, like the reinstatement of benefits for unemployed Tennesseans who have dependent children. That recent action followed the state’s wrangling with the federal government over the issue last spring. The Legislature in May approved a law to end the bonus benefits on July 1. About 30,000 unemployed Tennesseans would have been affected. The extra payments were $15 per month for each child, up to a maximum of $50.
As I gathered my thoughts Wednesday afternoon about why Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t even a reasonably OK governor for Tennessee when he had been a good mayor of Knoxville, thunder started rolling in from the east. Oh, initially the sky was sunny and blue to the west, but the thunder was clearly bringing in yet another storm much like the many we’ve experienced in recent weeks. It’s not unlike politics and government since Haslam took office in January 2011. Haslam keeps trying to paint pretty pictures, but the rumblings of problems keep coming.
Sometimes when numbers don’t add up, the reason is just error. Sometimes when one plus one isn’t two, the reason is more insidious. In the case of Tennessee’s continuing rejection of the federal offer to cover all the cost of expanding TennCare/Medicaid for three years and 90 percent of it thereafter, the bottom line — throwing away free money — seems simply to be partisan obstructionism. This week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and his TennCare chief Darin Gordon said they reviewed the final federal rules on the Medicaid expansion, a part of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and they still aren’t happy with it.
While the Senate missed a July 1 deadline to prevent interest rates on certain student loans from doubling to 6.8 percent, it continues to negotiate a solution. But it shouldn’t compromise by incorporating the House of Representatives’ proposed market-based approach to setting rates. The House-passed bill would peg interest rates at 2.5 percent above a variable rate, determined each year by the yield on 10-year Treasury notes. The Congressional Budget Office estimates those rates would rise to 7.7 percent within the next 10 years. President Barack Obama also has suggested pegging interest rates to a 10-year Treasury note but having them fixed, not variable, for the term of the loan.
Health care is changing today more rapidly and dramatically than I have ever seen in my 40 years as a surgeon and health administrator. These changes require us to approach care differently — not just treating patients when they are sick, but partnering with people to maintain health and prevent sickness in the first place. We embrace this new idea of “population health management,” knowing it will be a better way for our neighbors to receive care and a more rewarding way for our caregivers to deliver it. One way we’re going to accomplish that goal is by drawing Saint Thomas Health closer together as “one healing community.”