This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
This is why they call it a flash flood. Wednesday’s rainy night in South Pittsburg quickly turned into something legendary. Relentless rains spawned a newborn river that decided to make its way right through houses, shops and City Hall. It came with no warning. No sirens. No weathermen urging people to seek shelter. Residents were eating dinner, watching television and heading for bed when the bizarre storm forced water, mud, sand and stones into homes, cars and businesses across town. Overhead, the stubborn storm sat right on top of South Pittsburg, relentlessly dumping rain.
The one instructor Tennessee Highway Patrol cadet Frank Yates-Matoy will never forget is assistant academy director Lt. Robert Bighem. “The lieutenant is a different animal,” said Yates-Matoy, “but you can tell he just wants us to perform at our best all the time.” He’ll get no argument from the lieutenant. “I’m that intense to instill discipline and let them know that the training staff is running things, and you are going to do things like we tell you,” Bighem said. Bighem believes that if the recruits can’t handle the “controlled stress” in the academy, they will not be able to handle the stress out on the roads.
On Wednesday night before graduation, Bill Gibbons, Tennessee commissioner of safety and homeland security, and his entire command staff serve a steak dinner to the cadets and training instructors. “I want to be here to express my personal appreciation for their hard work during the academy and their willingness to be away from their families,” said Gibbons. On Thursday night, cadet families arrive to view the complex and various Tennessee Highway Patrol equipment like a helicopter, mobile command van and motorcycles. Spouses are also offered an hourlong class about what it will be like being the spouse of an officer.
Bobby Phillips was at a loss when the company he worked for closed during the recession. His job had kept him away from his family, and he wanted to find employment that would allow him to spend more time with his wife, daughter and grandson. Having the skills of a construction worker, Phillips went searching for a job — but he didn’t find one until he walked through the doors of Nashville’s Workforce Development and Training Program. The program, he said, “has changed my life.”
Seems there hasn’t been much to trust about the Knox County Trustee in recent years. The most recent Trustee, John Duncan III, resigned July 2 after he pleaded guilty to a low-level felony for paying himself and staffers more than $18,000 in bonuses he knew they didn’t earn. Before him, Mike Lowe, who served as trustee from 1994 until being term-limited by the state Supreme Court in 2007, surrendered to authorities in April 2012 amid charges from a grand jury for multiple counts of felony theft of more than $60,000.
Before 2013 is over, Pilot Flying J expects to open at least 16 truck stops in North America, continuing its full-speed-ahead approach that made it the sixth-largest privately held company in the U.S. last year. But the smooth highways the company once traveled have now been replaced by considerably more uncertain terrain amid an explosive FBI investigation. Beyond the possibility of prison time for Pilot employees who have already reached plea bargains with the feds looms a potential for millions of dollars in legal fees, criminal fines and lawsuit settlements, experts say.
Health insurers will refund to their customers next month only a fraction what they did a year ago under requirements of Obamacare. Tennesseans will get back $5.6 million and Georgians will receive more than $15 million in refunds next month from health insurers that didn’t meet the medical pay-out ratios under the Affordable Care Act. The payments are part of $500 million in rebates being distributed nationwide in August to 8.5 million enrollees, who will share an average rebate of around $100 per family. A year ago in the first year of the new requirement, insurers nationwide refunded $3.9 billion to customers — including $29.5 million in Tennessee — for premiums collected that didn’t pay out enough to hospitals, doctors and other medical providers.
Several regional and national environmental groups have teamed up to fight a proposed new air-pollution permit for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis, saying the document doesn’t ensure that Shelby County’s largest polluter will comply with state and federal laws. In a letter to the Health Department, the five groups said the draft permit, which would replace a current operating permit, fails to ensure adequate monitoring of plant discharges and doesn’t fully enforce pollution standards.
Just two years ago, it was still unclear whether Nashville’s new Music City Center would in fact be the jolt for new development that boosters had predicted. And while it hasn’t spurred new retail stores, commercial buildings or condos, the hotel boom is happening. In fact, it’s a boom reverberating across downtown, from West End to The Gulch, as surface parking lots get turned into places for tourists and conventiongoers to sleep. South of Broadway, above all, is poised to become ground zero for Nashville’s overnight lodging industry so long as recent announcements pan out.
Beyond the faded signs and encroaching weeds that hint at jobs long gone, demolition crews are busy in the bowels of Velsicol Chemical Corp. plant dismantling a manufacturing facility whose environmental legacy will persist long after its rows of storage tanks, pipes and World War II-era buildings have been leveled. Over the next 14 months or so, a Velsicol contractor will be tearing down the plant at 1199 Warford in North Memphis, where as many as 350 people once worked, to make way for a warehouse and distribution operation.
Jason Elliott had one of his best stands of burley tobacco growing until the rains started. Five days and seven inches of precipitation later, about a quarter of his crop was ruined, trimming thousands of dollars from his payday when he hauls his leaf to market in a few months. Fields all over tobacco country have been soaked, and without a good stretch of dry weather in coming weeks, Elliott’s predicament could play out many times over. In Kentucky alone, the nation’s second-leading producer, the toll could hit as much as $100 million if the crop doesn’t rebound. More than half of top grower North Carolina’s crop is in jeopardy.
The settlement hearing for three Robertson County school administrators charged with failing to report child abuse accusations to authorities has been delayed. Donna Dorris, Renae Fehrman and Kecia Young were arraigned in Robertson County Circuit Court on May 2, following indictments by the Robertson County grand jury. All three administrators pleaded not guilty. The next court date is Aug. 23. Dorris is supervisor of student services with Robertson County Schools. Fehrman is the principal of East Robertson Elementary School, where the incident allegedly occurred in September. Young was the assistant principal of the same school.
Shelby County Board of Education members are clinging to the belief that the bare-bones school budget approved by the County Commission eventually will be funded, and at least one commissioner is offering encouragement. “That’s not only possible, but that’s the scenario that I think is going to happen,” said Commissioner Steve Basar, who voted with the majority of commissioners Monday against a 6-cent increase in the property tax rate earmarked for schools. “But you never know until the votes are cast.”
The angry reaction to a new pay plan for Tennessee teachers approved last month surely must have been expected by state officials, from the State Board of Education to Gov. Bill Haslam and the focus of most of the outrage, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. One has to wonder, however, if the decision had to be this contentious. Two years ago, the Haslam administration instituted changes in how schoolteachers are granted tenure. Last year, a new points system for evaluating teachers was begun. Now, teachers will no longer be assured annual step raises.
Members of the Metro school board have an opportunity before them. They can show they support their teachers. Or they can slap them upside the head. The Tennessee State Board of Education just passed a controversial new rule that says teachers will no longer automatically get a raise just because of seniority or they go to graduate school. Fair enough. It’s an effort to go toward a merit-based, performance-driven pay system. But it’s now up to 137 local systems, including Metro, to decide how much weight to give teachers who try to better themselves by learning more, or who stick around despite the vast obstacles they have to navigate these days.
As he approaches the end of his first term, Gov. Bill Haslam should consider whether he could better serve Tennessee by returning to Knoxville to run Pilot Corp., the family-owned business he helped run for 18 years. Whatever you think of Gov. Haslam’s policies — and I disagree with him vehemently on more than a few issues — no one disputes that Bill Haslam is an exceptional businessman and business executive. His business-executive approach is sometimes welcome in government, but it sometimes leads to questionable policy choices, like disempowering teachers organizations or rapid-fire outsourcing and privatization of government functions.
Nichole “Nikki” Goesner first appeared on the Tennessee political stage during the 2009 debate over “guns in bars” legislation, invited by a state senator to tell the story of how her husband was killed in cold blood as she watched and how she has wished ever since that she had a pistol in her purse on that night. “Had I not been disarmed, I could have had a chance to save Ben,” she writes as she retells the story in the recently published book “Denied a Chance: How Gun Control Helped a Stalker Murder My Husband.” In her mind, Goesner writes, she constantly replayed scenarios in which she would have acted differently if the .38 she was licensed to carry had been with her.
The News Sentinel has had its problems with state Sen. Stacey Campfield through the years. Partly it’s because of his behavior beyond the legislative chambers, which has, shall we say, lacked a certain decorum at times. Even before he was in office, Campfield was ejected from one of Jimmy Duncan’s barbecues because he was harassing Phil Bredesen with a bumper sticker reading “Tax ‘n’ Spend Governor.” A few years later he was ejected again, this time from a Vol football game for refusing to cooperate with a police officer who asked him to remove a “luchador” wrestling mask.
“One who loses wealth loses much. One who loses a friend loses more. But one who loses courage loses all.” — Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. On Friday, Nashville’s knight errant, John Jay Hooker, may be saddling up for his last tilt at righting the wrong perpetrated on the good citizens of Tennessee 40 years ago, when the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the Tennessee Plan, a new method of selecting judges, as constitutional. Hooker will appear before a Special Supreme Court to hear his challenge, which is the seventh lawsuit he has brought in his attempts to force the state to amend the constitution or repeal the plan.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s report of the probe that led to the downfall of former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner is part of the disgraced jurist’s federal case file and could be made available to the public in the coming weeks. U.S. Magistrate Judge C. Clifford Shirley Jr. has temporarily sealed the contents, because Baumgartner’s attorneys, Donald A. Bosch and Ann Short, did not redact personal information or submit the file in the appropriate digital format. Shirley has ordered them to rectify the situation, and once they have done so to his satisfaction can make the document available for public inspection.
The agreement reached between the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association and the Shelby County Schools district is a fair and reasonable solution on what to do with high-performing teachers who are”excessed” — no longer needed in their current positions. The deal, while not perfect, seems to go a long way in taking the subjectivity factor out of which teachers are excessed and ensures the district’s highest-performing educators have the first shot at teaching jobs as they become available. Students will reap the benefits of the new policy.
If all the painstaking preparation for a new school year in Shelby County breaks down because of financial chaos, you’ll have the County Commission to thank for it. Specifically, you can thank Commissioners James Harvey and Justin Ford — along with newcomer Steve Basar, who, because of Ford’s and Harvey’s startling votes, was unwilling to stick his neck out for a tax increase. Such is life with these elected officials who have given new meaning to the term dysfunction. Only this time, their action could adversely impact public education at a time when stability and cooperation are sorely needed. It’s not so much that the commission voted last week against a 36-cent increase in the county’s property tax rate after signaling that the increase would pass.
The KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools opened Monday, holding half-day sessions until full-day classes start July 26. A story Tuesday by The Commercial Appeal education writer Jane Roberts detailed how “KIPPsters” are being introduced or reintroduced to the culture of KIPP, the soon-to-resume 10-hour school days, the daily homework and the adherence to rules large and small designed to thrust them to college graduation. During these half-day sessions, the students are receiving a no-nonsense presentation of what will be expected of them this school year, which is the closest thing the city has to a year-round school. KIPP officials and students’ parents have also agreed on what is expected of the parents.
The very idea that the U.S. military establishment would seek to reduce the pay of soldiers, sailors, marines or any other member of the military is unthinkable. Yet, that is exactly what is being proposed in Washington as a way to save what, in overall military expenditure terms, is small change at $120 million a year. Americans everywhere should voice opposition to this ill-advised idea. It seems we can’t get through a few months without someone suggesting cuts to military pay, benefits, retirement, veterans’ benefits, health care or some other compensation paid to our service men and women and our veterans. When each national holiday comes along, the flags come out, and lawmakers and government officials begin saluting our military personnel and military veterans. Frankly, it smacks of phoniness of the worst kind when followed by proposals to cut military pay and benefits.