This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
After the controversial removal of William “Chink” Brown from the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission in February, Gov. Bill Haslam has finally appointed a replacement. David Watson, an executive and part owner of Mountain View Ford Lincoln in Chattanooga, will serve out the remainder of Brown’s term as the District 4 representative on the TFWC. The TFWC is the governing body over the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The 13 members have authority over hunting, fishing and boating regulations in Tennessee.
A TV reporter from WXIA in Atlanta interviewed Gov. Bill Haslam Thursday about the dispute between Tennessee and Georgia over access to the Tennessee River. In March, Georgia’s legislature passed a resolution claiming a sliver of Tennessee land at Nickajack Lake. Their goal is to divert water to Atlanta. In the event that Tennessee doesn’t go along voluntarily, Georgia’s attorney general has been directed to sue. Georgia maintains that a discrepancy over where the state line is and where it ought to be has cheated the Peach State out of access to Tennessee River water.
Leaders of startup companies that have come through Tennessee’s nine regional accelerators—such as The Company Lab in Chattanooga—now have a chance to get more exposure and funding through a new state initiative called the TENNProgram. The new program is part of public-private partnership Launch Tennessee, which aims to support the development of high-growth companies throughout the state with the goal of job creation and economic growth. The Blackstone Foundation gave $100,000 to support the program, CEO of Launch Tennessee Charlie Brock said.
Education commissioner wants classroom success to be key component A plan to tie teacher licenses to student test scores is once again thrusting Tennessee into a small group of states making radical changes to education policy even as it generates kudos for the state’s head educator. Teachers are hesitant to throw their full support behind the plan recently presented by Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman because of its link to student achievement scores. But they appear to appreciate the intent — to weed out those failing at the job and ensure quality in the classroom.
During her first superintendent’s report to the Jackson-Madison County School Board Monday night, Verna Ruffin and elementary education leader Versie Hamlett shared how teachers will use the Common Core standards. “They’re going to be teaching students in a different way that is more rigorous and helps students become critical thinkers, to analyze and infer,” said Hamlett, who gave the board a brief presentation. Board member Jeffery Head encouraged Ruffin and her administrative staff to take the presentation out into the community so Madison County Commissioners, parents and residents can understand the purpose and the impact that Common Core standards are supposed to make.
Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register does not favor halting the longtime practice of paying teachers more for obtaining higher degrees in their fields despite a new state policy that gives school districts that option. “We are not interested in eliminating pay-for-experience or for degrees,” Register told The Tennessean, stressing that no decisions have been made. “We want to pay for good degrees that add value to the work that people do.” After a controversial move by the State Board of Education last month, Tennessee’s 137 school districts are now obligated to create new differentiated pay plans for the 2014-15 school year that must include alternative ways of paying teachers.
States running their own health insurance exchanges have begun to unveil their marketplace names and advertising campaigns in recent days, including Rhode Island today and Oregon last week, but Tennessee’s federally run exchange has far less fanfare attached to it. The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance will approve rates and plans submitted for sale on the Tennessee exchange by July 31. The decision will then be punted up to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for final approval, meaning rates are still subject to change after state officials weigh in.
A former Bradley County finance department employee is under investigation, accused of using county money for personal use. The employee, who resigned last week and has not been identified, has been under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation since July 11 in response to a request from the 10th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said. The employee is alleged to have used “several thousand dollars” in county money to buy office supplies and have those items shipped to the employee’s home address, Helm said.
A federal grand jury in Greeneville returned an indictment July 9 against Gary Dean Stump, D.M.D., 57, of Bean Station, Tenn., charging him with health care fraud for submitting false claims to TennCare’s program for dental services to children, TennDent. Stump appeared in court on Jul. 15, 2013, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis H. Inman and pleaded not guilty. He was released pending trial, which has been set for Sept. 16, 2013, in U.S. District Court, in Greeneville, Tennessee, before the Honorable R. Leon Jordan, U.S. District Court Judge.
A legislative watchdog group agreed Monday to delve deeper into the state Department of Correction’s awarding of a $200 million-plus contract to handle inmate health care to a relative newcomer despite its $6.4 million higher bid. Fiscal Review Committee members want the winner of the contract, Centurion LLC, to come before the panel in September. Correction Department officials went before Fiscal Review for approval of their request to extend the current contract of Brentwood, Tenn.-based Corizon until Sept. 30 to provide Centurion additional time to prepare taking over the service.
Lawmaker suggests food tax cut If the Marketplace Fairness Act now pending in Congress is approved, state Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said the resulting influx of money shouldn’t be considered a boon to state government. “It would be my preference, as well as that of others, to not receive it as a windfall,” McNally said of the potential new revenue stream, estimated by some to be as much as $600 million a year for the state. The veteran legislator made his remarks during a legislative forum Monday morning sponsored by the Anderson County Chamber of Commerce, which is supporting the act.
Democrats aren’t waiting for formal announcements to choose sides in the upcoming state Senate District 21 primary between Jason Holleman and Jeff Yarbro. Financial disclosures filed Monday showed Yarbro, an attorney, with a more than 4-to-1 lead in fundraising just outside of a year from election day. Yarbro’s full disclosure is not yet available online, but he told The City Paper that he brought in nearly $95,000 this quarter, giving him a total of $101,089.90 on hand. Holleman, who is also an attorney as well as a Metro Councilman, received $22,200.
Attorney Jeff Yarbro has taken a commanding fundraising lead in the Democratic primary to replace longtime state Sen. Douglas Henry, hauling in more than four times the figure of his opponent, Metro Councilman Jason Holleman. Yarbro raised $95,225 in the financial quarter that ended June 30, giving him a total war chest of $101,089, while Holleman raked in $22,200. The deadline to submit financial disclosures for 2014 state elections was Monday. The early fundraising gap reinforces an advantage many predicted Yarbro would enjoy when the two confirmed their candidacies for Senate District 21.
The Tennessee Republican Party’s annual Statesmen’s Dinner Friday night saw the ballroom at Nashville’s new Music City Center packed with a who’s who of state GOP-ers from up and down the ticket including Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander and seven members of the state’s U.S. House delegation. But the big draw of the evening’s program — part award ceremony for local party stalwarts, part partisan pep-rally — was a fresh senator from another southern red state, Tim Scott from South Carolina.
Bradley County’s certified tax rate has increased by almost 2 percent as a result of a state-mandated reappraisal. The new rate, which is $1.8254 per $100 of assessed value, is a 3.34 cent increase on the old rate of $1.792. The new rate is intended to offset expected revenue losses from decreases in property value. “State law says that you can’t bring in more or less revenue due to a reappraisal — it’s got to be revenue neutral,” Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis said. The county had a 2 percent decrease in property values overall, he said.
While the next Knox County trustee remains undecided by county commissioners, it is apparent that they want the office run more openly than it has been. In 12 interviews during a public hearing Monday to fill the remainder of the trustee’s term, commissioners asked whether applicants would open up the books if given the job. Previously the trustee’s office had given only bottom-line information on its operating expenses. It is not required to release more to the County Commission. “Are you going to seek this office and will you submit a budget?”
Members of A C Wharton’s administration must explain Tuesday to the Memphis City Council why the implementation of a 2014 budget that was to have no impact on public safety has led to the closure of a fire station and may lead to the closing of police precincts. Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong indicated Monday that some police precincts could be forced to close because of cuts to his department’s budget. “In the days to come, it’s going to be extremely difficult to staff those (precincts),” Armstrong said.
The newly minted Memphis property tax rate is 5 cents higher than it needs to be to fund the city’s new budget, according to Memphis City Council member Harold Collins. Collins said Monday he and members of the city council staff ran the final budget numbers — with all of the additions and subtractions approved by the council — and found funding the city government this year requires a property tax rate of $3.35, not the $3.40 rate passed by the council last month.
The television ad that Sen. Lamar Alexander’s campaign is running — more than a year before his 2014 Republican primary election — may need some explanation for its West Tennessee viewers. The Alexander camp is spending about $155,000 running the ad on Fox TV affiliates across the state for two weeks and another $24,000 on radio. Called “Fishing,” the TV spot touts Alexander’s victory over the Corps of Engineers in a dispute that pitted the senator and fishermen against a restricted-area policy the corps implemented below its Cumberland River dams in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Two of the three candidates for the Congressional district spanning from Murfreesboro to the outskirts of Chattanooga are trying to tamp down expectations ahead of Monday’s required fundraising disclosure. That’s after last week State Senator Jim Tracy of Shelbyville reported his campaign raised some $303 thousand this spring. Tracy is hoping to unseat embattled Congressman Scott DesJarlais, who limped through reelection last fall amid ugly revelations of a sex and abortion scandal. DesJarlais insists he’ll run again next year, but last week he downplayed the race for campaign cash.
The effects of federal budget sequestration are finally becoming reality at Fort Campbell. The post’s commissary – as an example – is now closed on Mondays “due to the furlough,” according to an automated message to callers. Thousands of civilian employees are beginning to take their unpaid time off. At the end of last week, Blanchfield Army Community Hospital was as quiet as it has been in a long time. Some 1,200 employees are now taking forced furloughs, leaving only a skeleton crew on Fridays through the end of September.
If you’re confused about the federally-run online insurance marketplace that kicks into gear this October through the new health care law, you’re far from alone. Nationwide, 79 percent of Americans and 87 percent of uninsured people said they knew little or nothing about the health exchanges, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported this month. That’s one reason why the federal government has agreed to funnel millions of dollars in grant money to community health centers this month. The money is meant to get boots-on-the-ground assistance for consumers, allowing local federally-funded health centers to spearhead outreach programs.
Six members of Pilot Flying J’s sales team have quit or been fired and three others have been placed on administrative leave, including the vice president of sales, whose expletive-laced language is quoted extensively in a recent federal criminal court filing. In a letter made public Monday, but dated July 12, Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam informed his customers of the personnel changes without naming the nine employees negatively affected. He also disclosed that an initial audit has been completed of truckers who may have been shorted on promised rebates.
A top executive at Pilot Flying J who has been linked to a fuel-rebate fraud scandal has been replaced. In a recent letter to customers, Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam said the company has named a new vice president of sales. The letter was dated July 12, and outlines new details about the company’s response to an ongoing federal investigation that has already netted guilty pleas from five employees. Haslam’s letter said six members of the company’s sales team have resigned or were terminated, while three more are on administrative leave.
Pilot Flying J, in the midst of an FBI investigation of alleged fraud by its sales staff, has sent checks to trucking companies shorted on rebates, according to a letter to the company’s customers. In the July 12 letter made public Monday, CEO and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said that after an audit, “checks have been sent with interest to all who were found to be owed money.” He didn’t say how large the checks were or how many were being distributed, but he did note there were numerous accounts with a “zero balance and even some accounts that owed money to Pilot Flying J.”
With summertime temperatures heating up after a mild and wet spring, Tennessee Valley consumers won’t have to sweat quite so much when they pay their monthly air conditioning bills in August. That’s because TVA is cutting what it charges for electricity again next month because of another drop in its fuel costs. The decline in TVA’s August fuel cost adjustment will trim the typical residential power bill by only about 28 cents compared with what consumers would pay for the same amount of power this month.
TVA leadership changes continue as the federal utility announced two executives are leaving for positions at other power companies. John Trawick, senior vice president of Power Supply and Fuels, is leaving TVA to join Southern Company and Steve Birchfield, vice president of risk management, has left TVA to become chief financial officer of Essential Power, TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield said Monday. He wasn’t certain of Trawick’s exit date. “Permanent replacements in both positions may wait until TVA completes a review of organizational structure and staffing,” Mansfield said.
Memphis tax breaks offered by the government’s Economic Development Growth Engine have produced more jobs, higher wages and larger investment commitments than required. Although the EDGE board’s tax break program was singled out as controversial by a state official, a new report by the agency shows, as a whole, companies exceeded the hiring, wage and investment commitments they made to receive property tax breaks from Memphis and Shelby County. The EDGE board on Wednesday is to approve the minutes of its PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) Performance Review and Compliance Committee, which met June 11.
Five years after picking Chattanooga for its only U.S. production plant, Volkswagen officials are ratcheting up talk about assembling a new sport utility vehicle for American motorists. VW officials in Chattanooga are making a strong case for producing the new SUV, which the company wants to build in 2015. “With VW’s past success in every level [at the plant], from quality to positive economic impact, VW has no reason not to consider expanding its presence,” said Karl Brauer, Kelley Blue Books’ senior director of insights.
Five Knoxville area hospital got a “strong performance” rating in the latest rankings from U.S. News and World Report. The news site has released its 2013-14 “Best Hospitals” list. The list includes rankings by state. For Tennessee, the highest ranking Knoxville area hospital is the University of Tennessee Medical Cennter. No. 1 in Tennessee is Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Of the 56 hospitals in East Tennessee, just nine met U.S. News and World Report’s standards for “strong performance.”
Oreck’s future owner plans to downsize the company’s Nashville headquarters and keep its Cookeville vacuum manufacturing facility up and running, according to court records. “We think that the Cookeville facility would be a valuable addition to our competitive offer,” said Simon Lawson, CEO of TTI Floor Care North America, at last week’s bankruptcy auction, according to a court-filed transcript. “We include in that the manufacturing and the good sense facility that’s now based in Cookeville which we also see as a key part of what the Oreck business has to offer.
Voters in six Memphis suburbs are heading to the polls to decide whether the municipalities should start separate public school districts. The vote on Tuesday will determine if the suburbs of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington can start their own school districts. Suburban leaders and many parents want to avoid the massive merger between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. They fear that education quality and academic achievement will suffer if they join the huge merged system.
Voters in Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities go to the polls Tuesday, July 16, in a repeat of the set of 2012 referendums on forming municipal school districts. Polls in 43 precincts with 143,334 voters are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Once the polls close, results will be posted at twitter.com/tdnpols as they come in with Web stories recapping the early vote and the final unofficial returns at The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com. The referendum questions are a set of elections with separate results for each of the cities and towns.
The Wilson County Commission approved Larry Tomlinson on Monday night as a replacement for the Wilson County School Board seat vacated by Greg Lasater’s resignation last month. State law requires the 25-member commission to fill the vacant seat with a majority vote from recommendations from the floor. Of the 24 commissioners present Monday, Tomlinson received 18 votes. He was one of five candidates for the position and was sworn in after the vote. Tomlinson, 66, was a Wilson County School Board member from 1998 to 2004, and a former county commissioner as well from 1978 to 1990.
47 new hires halfway through training academy A new crop of school security officers are halfway through a five-week training academy that will prepare them to protect the students of Knox County Schools. Forty-seven officers have been hired to date, and on Monday one of the top focuses was on training them how to recognize a number of drugs, from prescription pills to marijuana to cocaine. “A fundamental of any training is you don’t necessarily train for what you’ll do, you train for what you might have to do,” said School Security Chief Gus Paidousis.
Sullivan County Commissioner Eddie Williams clarified to the Times-News on Monday comments he made last week regarding his estimate that it would take a 72-cent property tax increase to “equalize education” in the county. Williams said Monday when he used that figure last week he was talking strictly about the four high schools operated by Sullivan County’s school system, not any of the county system’s elementary or middle schools — nor any city schools.
Pennsylvania’s voter identification law, one of the strictest in the nation, was back before a court on Monday in a case that opponents hope will end once and for all requirements that were suspended by a judge a few weeks before last year’s presidential election. Lawyers representing a group of voters without proper ID made the case in opening arguments that by requiring people to present photo identification to obtain a ballot, Pennsylvania was taking away the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of registered voters who could not obtain the right document.
The news cameras have packed up. People have shifted their focus to the next tragedy. But those affected by last week’s flooding in and around Marion County, Tenn., and Jackson County, Ala., face the daunting task of cleaning up and restoring their homes, businesses and lives. The destruction was staggering, especially in South Pittsburg where nearly every business on the town’s main drag suffered damage. The flash flooding, caused when at least 3.5 inches of rain fell over the course of about two hours late last Wednesday night, destroyed three bridges and inundated the South Pittsburg City Hall and fire department with water.
The July 7 editorial that appeared on this page saying Tennessee’s attorney general ought to be popularly elected was no doubt good reading for some aspiring politicians, but it ignored the relevant Tennessee history. Our state is unique in how the attorney general is chosen. He is selected for a fixed eight-year term by the five members of the State Supreme Court. This method, giving the government’s top lawyer an independent footing, has served Tennessee well since 1870. Our AG was at center-stage in 1979 in the final resolution of Tennessee’s infamous clemency-for-cash scandal, which one FBI agent called “the most heinous political crime in half a century.”
Middle Tennessee State University has evolved into a world-class college, and a crowning jewel for Rutherford County’s higher education system. For those parents who have a child starting at MTSU next month, we think any questions of what kind of education your student will receive can be answered by recent graduate Jacob Basham. Along with earning his degrees in professional mathematics and general science, he won a $5,000 fellowship from The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi. Basham is one of 56 students across the country to receive the fellowship. He will use the money to help fund medical school.
Republicans probably don’t like the idea of extending the term of General Sessions Court Clerk Ed Stanton Jr. by two years to put it on the same four-year election cycle as other elected county officials, but the idea has merit. State Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, asked the state attorney general for an advisory opinion on whether the four-year term of the General Sessions clerk could be changed for one time only. Atty. Gen. Robert E. Cooper Jr. opined that the state legislature can’t cut the clerk’s current term but can extend it two years with this provision: The bill also requires approval by either two-thirds vote of the County Commission or a majority of the voters of Shelby County.
As Murfreesboro citizens read about the new five-year agreement between China and America, namely Murfreesboro City Schools, MTSU and Hangzhou University, they may wonder, “Why China? Why Chinese?” In an attempt to answer that question, which has been put before me many times as I initiated a Chinese language and culture program in Murfreesboro City Schools, and later in Shelbyville at Thomas Magnet School, let me make a few points. There are several answers to the question, “Why China?” 1. Competition: China is our largest competitor, a super power. While Spanish is a relevant and rather easy language to learn, the Hispanic countries, at this time, are not super powers.