This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
A growing number of states are trying to improve the quality of teachers by transforming the programs that are supposed to prepare them for the classroom. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell last month signed a bill requiring his state’s teacher preparation programs to include at least 10 weeks of full-time student teaching and to collect and report data on the performance and effectiveness of their graduates. In the last two years, Connecticut, Indiana, Colorado Ohio and North Carolina have approved similar measures aimed at improving teacher preparation.
Tennessee’s newest state park to be located in the middle of Rocky Fork At this early stage not much has been determined about Tennessee’s newest state park except the location, but that speaks volumes. On July 1, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officially acquired 2,036 acres in the middle of the Rocky Fork tract located in the mountains of upper East Tennessee. Surrounding the state park’s future site is 7,600 acres that have been added to the Cherokee National Forest thanks to $30 million in funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund under the leadership of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Armed with a $33.1 million state loan, Chattanooga is kicking into gear to address a $250 million federal consent decree to fix long-standing sewer and stormwater runoff problems. The money will pay for various improvements under last year’s consent decree, including an $18 million overhaul of East Brainerd’s sewer basin that includes a new pump station and new lining throughout the area’s sewer system. Tennessee Local Development Authority members recently approved the 20-year loan, which is coming from the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund and carries a 1.15 percent interest rate.
A review of a Pellissippi State Community College building purchase has concluded that while there were some missteps and misinformation along the way, it was reasonable for the state to pay $10 million, twice its previous purchase price, for a long-vacant office building in need of extensive repairs. In a nine-page report recently forwarded to John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the director of audits in the state comptroller’s office concluded that “the price of the property was negotiated and the acquisition price appeared reasonable.”
The University of Tennessee is showing off the value of native grasses to livestock feeding. UT’s Center for Native Grasslands Management has a Twilight Forage Tour on July 30 at the research center’s Blount Unit, south of Knoxville. There is no cost, but preregistration is required by July 24. Pat Keyser, the center director, said the drought tolerant native grasses are long-lasting, warm-season perennials and can produce high yields of hay and excellent animal performance when grazed during the summer.
Researchers at Tennessee State University will demonstrate how to turn oilseed crops into biodiesel with a new mobile lab at the school’s Small Farm Expo. The demonstration takes place on Thursday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. According to the school, the mobile biodiesel lab is the showpiece of the University’s alternative fuels program. After the expo, researchers will be taking the lab across the state to demonstrate the process to farmers. Jason de Koff is assistant professor of agronomy and soil sciences at TSU’s College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Sciences.
The Longs Bend Road Bridge in Surgoinsville may be closed this week until the Hawkins County Highway Department can repair deficiencies identified in a recent state inspection. County highway superintendent Lowell Bean received an email from the Tennessee Department of Transportation on July 3 stating that the bridge should be closed immediately and giving him until Wednesday to close the bridge. Among the repairs that must be made before TDOT allows the bridge to stay open: replace steel stringers in three sections of the bridge that have rusted completely through, repair the bearing pier on pier number one, repair areas on the I-beams that have corroded, and repair the bridge decking itself.
Gang members charged in Tennessee courts will be eligible to be charged with tougher felonies, leading to longer prison sentences as a new enhanced sentencing law simplifies how organized crime is prosecuted. The new legislation, which went into effect on July 1, rewrote the state’s definition of a criminal gang offense and categorizes 26 crimes as such, including aggravated assault, carjacking and possession with intent to sell. Prosecutors can increase the felony level and request a harsher sentence by proving the offense was committed as part of a criminal gang with less evidence than required under the previous statute, which Assistant District Attorney Rob McGuire said was “tougher to work with.”
As former Mayor Bill Purcell rode around East Nashville in his trademark antique fire truckduring a rainy Fourth of July, another politico was enjoying the visibility of riding shotgun. Metro Councilman Jason Holleman, of course, is running in the Democratic primary to replace departing longtime 21st Senate District lawmaker Douglas Henry.And though the Purcell-Holleman image lacked the pageantry of campaign yard signs and bumper stickers, consider it the kickoff to what will be perhaps Nashville’s most watched local race of 2014.
Tennessee employers, public and private, are declaring that the state’s “guns in parking lots” law, which took effect July 1, does nothing to change policies prohibiting their employees from bringing weapons onto their property, even if they have a handgun carry permit. That has prompted Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a leading supporter of the new law, to declare that he will “probably” support an anticipated push to change the law next year to clarify that permit holders cannot be fired solely for having their gun in a locked car in their employers’ parking lots.
Tea party activists can scratch Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey off their wish list of U.S. Senate candidates. Ramsey, a tea party favorite in the 2010 gubernatorial race, said Thursday that he’s rebuffed several calls to consider running in next year’s Republican primary. The Blountville Republican acknowledged that some tea party activists are desperate to find a Republican who will run against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, but he said he’s not going to be the guy. “I think they’ll have a hard time finding one,” he said before quipping, “Why would I want to step down to be a U.S. senator?”
Early voting in six suburban referendums on whether to form new municipal school districts ended with almost 35,000 fewer voters than those who went to the polls the first time the schools were on the ballot in 2012 early voting. Suburban mayors said the low vote turnout this year is no indication of a drop in support for the so-called munis, separate municipal school systems that would be operated outside the unified school system. “I don’t anticipate the percentage to be any less. I think our vote was like 87 percent in favor in the referendum last year,” said Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner.
In Shelby County, the elections for two county officials — assessor of property and general sessions court clerk — are on a different four-year cycle than all other elected county officials. That’s already being changed for the assessor, and could change for the clerk’s office if the state legislature and the county commission or voters countywide agree. State Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, asked the state attorney general for an advisory opinion on whether the four-year term of the Shelby County General Sessions Court clerk could be changed, for one time only, to put it on the same election cycle as the county’s other elected officers.
Speaking of Alexander, the senator’s re-election campaign put out its first television ad of the 2014 campaign over the July 4th weekend., a 30-second spot focused on his efforts to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from enforcing a new ban on fishing around dams. But its most noteworthy aspect wasn’t the message. It was the prominence of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, quoted briefly as saying, “Nobody wants to say no to Lamar Alexander.” Tea party activists quickly assailed the spot, claiming that Alexander had falsely implied Paul’s endorsement.
Aides to Sen. Rand Paul said the Kentucky Republican’s participation in Sen. Lamar Alexander’s campaign ad should not be construed as an endorsement for a third term in the Senate. Paul, a tea party favorite who praises Alexander in the Volunteer State Republican’s statewide ads, said through a spokesman his remarks should be viewed in a very narrow context. “The footage that Sen. Alexander’s campaign is using is from a public press conference in regards to a bill they both cosponsored,” spokesman Sergio Gor said. “At this time Senator Paul has not made an endorsement in this race.”
The long upward curve of U.S. health-care spending finally seems to be flattening. But is it temporary or the start of a lasting change? With health-care costs nearing 18% of the nation’s gross domestic product—$2.7 trillion in 2011—the health of the economy itself is at stake. There have been plenty of hopeful signs. U.S. spending on health care rose at a 3.9% rate for the third consecutive year in 2011, about half the previous decade’s pace and the lowest since the 1960s. Spending on prescription drugs actually dropped 1% in 2012, to $325.8 billion, the first decline since 1957, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.
Hiring is exploding in the one corner of the U.S. economy where few want to be hired: Temporary work. From Wal-Mart to General Motors to PepsiCo, companies are increasingly turning to temps and to a much larger universe of freelancers, contract workers and consultants. Combined, these workers number nearly 17 million people who have only tenuous ties to the companies that pay them — about 12 percent of everyone with a job. Many workers have begun “seeing it as an opportunity to get their foot in the door with companies,” said Laura Curtis, branch manager for the Nashville and Franklin offices of Staffmark, a staffing agency.
Efforts to unionize Volkswagen of Chattanooga are underway, but forces of opposition are also organizing. And although there is work being done on both sides, some people, such as VW workers and community and political leaders, are hesitant to talk about it. “It’s always been hard to be the guy who rocks the boat,” Bill Visnic, senior analyst with online automotive shopping and research outlet Edmunds.com, said. Volkswagen employees might be reluctant to discuss the issue of unionization because they fear backlash from company leaders or fellow co-workers, he said.
More than two years of legal fighting, political acrimony and parental anxiety are culminating in a massive merger of the Memphis and suburban Shelby County school districts, but a key vote Tuesday could change the landscape of the new system after just one year. The consolidation creates the Unified School District, a system of 150,000 students in Memphis and Shelby County, and officials are ramping up preparations for the start of classes next month. Experts call it one of the largest U.S. school consolidations in recent history.
Just six months after declaring “the prison crisis is over in California,” Gov. Jerry Brown is facing dire predictions about the future of the state’s prison system, one of the largest in the nation. A widespread inmate hunger strike in protest of California’s policy of solitary confinement was approaching its second week on Sunday. The federal courts have demanded the release of nearly 10,000 inmates and the transfer of 2,600 others who are at risk of contracting a deadly disease in the state’s overcrowded prisons.
Previously undisclosed gifts from a wealthy donor to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell have dimmed a onetime Republican star and now are washing into the race to succeed him, with the candidates in both parties trying to distance themselves from the beleaguered governor. That task is trickiest for the Republican nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who had hoped to receive campaign help from the still-popular governor, despite differences between them on policy. Both parties nationally are looking to the Virginia governor’s race as this year’s key test of their appeals to voters and organizational strength on the heels of last year’s presidential contest.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is doing what he said he would when he ran for office three years ago. He continues to focus on creating Tennessee jobs, improving education — both K-12 and higher education — and creating a more efficient and effective state government. Last year, Barron’s magazine rated Tennessee the third-best-managed state in the country. Gov. Haslam’s approach to running state government is to run it like a business, and it is paying off. He’s attracting talented people to public service, and he has implemented a customer-focused culture in which the Tennessee taxpayer comes first.
You have to give Gov. Bill Haslam credit for keeping his promise to place a sharp focus on higher education in Tennessee. The governor announced the latest move on that front last week with the formal launching of Western Governors University, an online school offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees, geared primarily toward working adults with some college credit. It is another tool in the governor’s push to increase the number of community college and university graduates in the state. Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor, for example, recently signed a bill that provides some $35 million for scholarships to community colleges.
Tennessee Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker demonstrated wisdom and leadership when they voted for the bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate June 27 by 68 to 32. Their votes supported what Tennesseans and the American people overwhelmingly want. Those who strongly support comprehensive immigration reform include: • 77 percent of Tennesseans. • Business leaders such as the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, the Nashville Area Chamber and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. • Religious leaders such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Jewish Federations of North America, the United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Association of Evangelical Churches.