This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
The Governor’s Children’s Cabinet co-chaired by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and First Lady Crissy Haslam today launched two major initiatives: the Tennessee School Readiness Model and kidcentraltn.com. The first lady introduced both projects today at the Early Childhood Summit in Nashville. “We are thrilled to launch these initiatives to help support Tennessee families in raising healthy children,” Mrs. Haslam said. “Students can be more successful in school and life when they enter the classroom healthy and prepared to learn.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau announced today nearly $304,000 in grants to support solid waste management activities in communities across Tennessee. The Tennessee General Assembly established development districts in 1966 to do general and comprehensive planning and conduct development and administration activities for local governments, and the state’s nine development districts will receive grants totaling $303,674 in fiscal year 2013-2014.
Gov. Bill Haslam expressed appreciation for the GOP-dominated state General Assembly at a Tennessee Republican Party fundraiser on July 12. Haslam called it “the best legislature that we have in the country.” “Those supermajorities (in both the House and Senate) help make the governor a lot smarter,” he said. Haslam added, “One of the things I am most proud of with this Legislature is that we are all about producing results. Tennessee in the last year has led the Southeast in job-creation and is fourth in the nation.”
Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration will reassess a plan to close and tear down the Cordell Hull Building, but senior aides defended the decision to outsource state real estate contracts, saying it will save Tennessee money. Chief of staff Mark Cate said at a hearing Tuesday that the administration will put “another set of eyes” on a determination that the Cordell Hull Building in downtown Nashville is too costly to repair. But administration officials also disputed suggestions the plan had been biased because the real estate firm that made it stands to benefit when state workers move out.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration finally presented to legislators on Tuesday details of its outsourcing of state office space and real-estate management, and acknowledged it could have been more transparent about the huge change in policy. The state awarded Chicago-based professional services giant Jones Lang LaSalle two contracts to manage about 9.6 million square feet of the state’s owned and leased office space over the next five years. Haslam’s chief of staff, Mark Cate, said the arrangement makes Tennessee “the first state in the country as far as we can tell that has done integrated, comprehensive outsourcing” of its real estate.
Plans to demolish the historic Cordell Hull Building downtown aren’t set in stone, according to the governor’s office. The Haslam administration plans to reassess plans to tear down the nearly 60-year-old structure sitting across the street from the Capitol Building, Chief of Staff Mark Cate told members of the legislative Fiscal Review Committee Tuesday. “Quite frankly, we understand there is a lot of interest in this building,” said Cate who called the Cordell Hull building “functionally obsolete” and “inefficient operationally” from a business standpoint.
A top Haslam administration official Tuesday hailed the state’s controversial multimillion dollar outsourcing of its real estate services, although he acknowledged the change could have been handled in a more transparent way. “We think this is a great story that has not been told,” Mark Cate, chief of staff to Gov. Bill Haslam, told members of the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee, who had sought information on the contract with Chicago-based real estate services firm, Jones Lang LaSalle. Cate said Tennesssee is “the first state in the country as far as we can tell that has done integrated, comprehensive outsourcing” of its real estate.
Mark Cate, the governor’s chief of staff, acknowledged to state legislators Tuesday that mistakes were made in handling a multi-million-dollar contract for management of state buildings but declared the overall effort a huge success that other states now want to emulate. Appearing before the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee, Cate said Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration entered “unchartered territory” in contracting with Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle with inherent “complications and confusion” occurring at times.
Tennessee lawmakers got a chance Tuesday to ask questions over a state contract that sparked allegations of cronyism. A growing deal to manage state office space went to contractor Jones Lang LaSalle, in which Governor Bill Haslam held a stake before moving his investments to a blind trust. Jones Lang LaSalle won a bid to help find ways to run state buildings more efficiently. Over time its role grew, and its price ballooned from $1 million to tens of millions, drawing questions from reporters. But the deal was intended from the start to grow when more funds became available, says Haslam’s chief of staff, Mark Cate.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s 2014 re-election campaign netted only about a $120,000 gain in the first six months of this year because of expenditures that included payments to three campaign workers who were on the state’s payroll at the same time. The campaign reported $347,913 in contributions from Jan. 15 until July 1 of this year, along with $226,968 in spending. Thanks to earlier fundraising and an $8,320 carry-over from the 2010 campaign, the governor’s re-election fund still had a balance of more than $2 million cash on hand, records show.
When Cheryl Mish saw the new brown-and-white highway signs that said “International Towing & Recovery Museum” on Interstate 24, she started to cry. “I cried all the way in that morning that they put them up,” she said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Look what we got!'” The Tennessee Department of Transportation installed 10 of the brown guide signs to advertise the towing museum. A sign at exit 178 lists two attractions: the Tennessee Aquarium — arguably one of Chattanooga’s most well-known attractions — and the International Towing & Recovering Museum — arguably one of the least-known attractions.
Law enforcement officials across the state are stepping up a campaign to increase highway safety. Richard Holt is the Governor’s Highway Safety Office Law Enforcement administrator. He says law enforcement statewide will be out in force from July 18 to July 21 and from July 25 to July 28 for the final phase of the More Cops-More Stops campaign to crack down on drivers who are speeding, drunk, distracted or not wearing a seat belt. In 2011, officials say more than 700 people died in Tennessee traffic crashes.
Barricade equipment specified by the Tennessee Department of Transportation for bridge closures hadn’t arrived in Hawkins County as of Tuesday, giving the Longs Bend Road bridge in Surgoinsville a temporary reprieve from closure. The Tennessee Department of Transportation has ordered the bridge closed, but that has local officials concerned because of the hardship it will create for Surgoinsville and county residents who live on the more rural south side of the bridge. The new bridge is under construction beside the old bridge, but it isn’t scheduled for completion until May.
Fueled by its ninth straight year of record sales, the Tennessee Education Lottery Corp. on Tuesday announced a nearly 5 percent increase in proceeds for state education programs in the just-completed fiscal year. An all-time high of $339.7 million will be going to college scholarships and other education programs, an increase of 4.95 percent, or $16.2 million, over last year’s then-record $323.4 million. The lottery had $1.36 billion in total sales for the 2013 fiscal year that ended June 30. That’s what lottery officials describe as a “hefty increase” of $56.3 million over last year’s previous sales records of $1.31 billion.
Tennessee may be running out of steam in its months-long search for a compromise to expand Medicaid as part of the federal healthcare overhaul. Skipping it means passing up hundreds of millions of federal dollars to treat poor people, but Republicans in the state still want little if anything to do with ‘Obamacare.’ Governor Bill Haslam has been in talks with Washington for months, trying to find a deal that meets federal requirements but is palatable to state lawmakers. The hangup, says House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, is all that free money wouldn’t stay free forever.
Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who backed a new law allowing handgun carry permit holders to keep weapons in their vehicles at work, says the law needs to be clarified. Employers point to an opinion by Attorney General Robert Cooper in saying their policies banning weapons from their property have not changed. “I hate that the attorney general has muddied the waters on this,” Ramsey told the Knoxville News Sentinel. Cooper said Tennessee employers can terminate workers “at will,” for any reason or no reason.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, speaking at the 2013 GOP Statesmen’s Dinner in Nashville on July 12, says rolling back teachers’ union power and tightening restrictions on the issuance of tenure have improved the state’s education picture — despite claims by unions and Democrats to the contrary. Ramsey also defended Tennessee Education Department Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who has been the target of an ouster petition by critics of the state’s education reform efforts under the Republicans.
Among celebration parties in Bartlett, Germantown and elsewhere, suburban school supporters sipped soft drinks and toasted their success Tuesday night after voters again approved the formation of municipal school districts. Back at the polls because a federal judge threw out last year’s vote approving the districts, voters turned out in smaller numbers in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington but approved the districts by an overwhelming margin. Approval numbers ranged from a high of 94 percent in Collierville to a low of almost 74 percent in Millington.
It was never close Tuesday, July 16, in any of Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities in the second set of referendums in less than a year on forming municipal school districts. As they did in August 2012, voters in each of the six towns and cities approved the formation of the school districts separate from the consolidated countywide school system. In Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville and Germantown, the ballot proposition won with more than 90 percent of the vote. The “yes” percentage in Lakeland was 87 percent and 74 percent in Millington.
Memphis Fire Station No. 6 will remain open until at least Sept. 1 after Memphis City Council members voiced surprise and dismay Tuesday on the implementation of the public safety cuts in their new budget. Memphis Fire Department director Alvin Benson announced last week his decision to close the station on Aug. 1, decommission its fire engine and to decommission another ladder truck. Benson’s announcement was followed with a Monday announcement from Memphis Police Department director Toney Armstrong that implementing the council’s budget could lead to closing some police precincts.
Memphis City Council member considered briefly Tuesday, July 16, using $1.1 million from the $48 million city reserve fund to keep a North Memphis fire station open. But they dropped the idea after Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. agreed to keep Fire Station #6, on Danny Thomas Boulevard north of Chelsea Avenue open at least until Labor Day. During that time, the administration and council will explore ways to keep it open or develop criteria for such closings.
As members of the Shelby County Commission prepared to meet for their normal committee sessions on Wednesday, Item Number One on the agenda was that of the county tax rate for fiscal 2013-14. Scheduled to be taken up bright and early by the Commission’s budget committee, the tax-rate issue experienced a surprise unraveling last week when, on third and final reading of County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s proposed $4.38 tax rate, two Commission Democrats who had previously supported that rate defected and voted no, along with five of the Commission’s Republicans (all save outgoing chairman Mike Ritz).
Shelby County Commissioners have several important questions to consider Wednesday, July 17, in committee sessions, all of them having to do with that most volatile of political questions – taxes. More than two weeks into the new fiscal year, Shelby County government has no new property tax rate. The commission last week on third and final reading voted down the $4.38 tax rate proposed by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. Until a tax rate of some kind is approved, commission Chairman Mike Ritz is proposing a hiring freeze and a freeze of spending on county travel, dues and memberships, and grants to nonprofits.
Last week, during the Shelby County Commission’s debate on third and final reading of his proposed property tax rate increase, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, a Republican, made an appeal to the Republican commissioners. For weeks the majority of the commission’s six Republican commissioners have resisted raising tax rates at all, not even to lift them 30 cents to put them at a the new “certified” level needed to generate the same property tax revenue this coming fiscal year as it raised last fiscal year, due to a decrease in property values.
As the water pounded Ashley Todd’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo last Wednesday night, she lost control. The car spun, through the road and through the water, and she didn’t know what to do. Finally, at the corner of Third Street and Oak Avenue, the driver’s-side door bumped a wooden light pole, and the car stopped. Like many South Pittsburg residents, Todd said the storm happened faster than she expected. She knew it would rain — 3 to 5 inches by the end, WRCB-TV meteorologist Paul Barys later said — but she didn’t know a flood would follow.
Metro officials say they have already set aside $19 million to pay for a parcel of land where the Music City Center now sits. However, they haven’t written the check just yet. In 2011, a Nashville jury found Metro paid Tower Investments less than half of the land’s worth.The decision was upheld by the courts in April, though Metro could appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. “We’ve already accounted for that money, as if we don’t have it,” said Music City Center CEO Charles Stark. “Certainly, if we have a favorable ruling in the case, that’s money that will be coming back to us.”
Sewer rates are about to go up for Jasper residents. After meeting with state officials, the Jasper Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted unanimously to increase the current sewer rate by $1 per month on a minimum bill. Under the new rate, a minimum bill will increase from $8 per month to $9, but a typical monthly sewer bill will increase by about $4, officials said. “This is something that none of us want to do, but unfortunately, the state of Tennessee has suggested, to put it strongly, that we do this,” Mayor Paul Evans said.
A threat from Senate Democrats to circumvent traditional rules to clear the way for GOP-blocked nominees of President Barack Obama was averted Tuesday, enabling the group to finally move toward a proper confirmation vote on the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—two years after he was first appointed. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker split their votes to end debate on confirming Richard Cordray as the agency’s head, casting votes against and in support of the measure, respectively. Later Tuesday afternoon, Alexander and Corker cast additional nay and yea votes on officially confirming Cordray’s nomination.
State Sen. Jim Tracy outraised incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and state Rep. Joe Carr in his bid for the 4th Congressional District seat, according to new filings with the Federal Election Commission. Tracy, R-Shelbyville, saw his haul dip in the second three-month period of his campaign, but he still raised $296,393 this spring, more than eight times DesJarlais’ $35,155. Carr, R-Lascassas, finished second, with $100,225. The most recent FEC filings revealed dismal fundraising this spring for DesJarlais, a two-term Republican physician from South Pittsburg.
Republican 4th Congressional District hopeful Jim Tracy raised seven times the amount of money that U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., raised during the second quarter and almost three times as much as state Rep. Joe Carr, federal filings show. State Sen. Tracy, R-Shelbyville, reported raising $303,000 from April 1 through June 30, while DesJarlais disclosed raising just $39,153. Carr, R-Lascassas, said he raised $100,255. Net contributions for Tracy and DesJarlais were slightly lower after refunds to contributors. Tracy’s net was $296,393 while DesJarlais netted $35,155. Tracy also dominates in the amount of cash on hand with $656,201.
Tennessee Congressman Scott DesJarlais raised more than his challengers in the second quarter. But he still lags behind in the overall money race for next year’s Republican primary. DesJarlais raised over $391,000. He spent almost as much as he brought in, leaving his campaign with a little more than $88,000 on hand. In addition to individual donations, DesJarlais received donations from nearly a dozen political action committees. Two of those PACs are controlled by sitting members of Congress. State Senator Jim Tracy also topped the $300,000 mark. He now has more than half a million in his campaign war chest.
Colleges are ramping up strategies to ensure that the student who gets the grade for taking an online course is the same person who does the homework and completes the exams. The impetus is a federal law, passed in 2008, requiring colleges that are eligible for federal student aid for online programs to take steps to discourage financial aid and academic fraud. Federal regulations require students to have secure logins and passwords for online course offerings, but industry experts expect more stringent standards to come.
The truck-stop company owned by Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has agreed to pay back the trucking companies that were cheated out of fuel rebates, according to a settlement given preliminary approval Tuesday. Under the agreement approved by a federal judge in Arkansas, Pilot Flying J would pay the companies what they are owed with interest. Federal agents raided the Knoxville headquarters of Pilot Flying J earlier this year after an employee claimed the nation’s largest diesel retailer was systematically cheating its clients.
In an effort to avoid the potential of being hit with millions of dollars in punitive damages, lawyers for Pilot Flying J have reached a settlement in eight civil lawsuits filed by trucking companies who claim they were shortchanged when their promised rebates were secretly cut in a scheme by the truck stop chain’s sales executives.. U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Tuesday gave initial approval to the proposed class action settlement reached by Pilot and lawyers for eight trucking companies. Under the settlement proposal, Pilot — the country’s largest truck stop chain — did not admit to any wrongdoing but did agree to repay the companies for any rebate amounts that they are owed plus 6 percent interest.
Moving aggressively to head off a mounting tide of civil lawsuits, Pilot Flying J has reached a settlement with several trucking companies that have sued over allegations of fuel-rebate fraud. U.S. District Judge James M. Moody on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to the proposed agreement, which the lead attorney for the plaintiffs described as “the best settlement I’ve ever seen for a class.” The attorney for the nation’s largest truck stop chain said the settlement could lead to paying up to $35 million if all the Pilot customers that were shorted accept the deal.
The head of Volkswagen’s global works council says he’s willing to engage in “confidential talks” with Republican U.S. politicians who are worried about such a panel being set up at VW’s Chattanooga plant. “I am happy to sit down with the Republican politicians around the table to hear where their concerns lie,” Bernd Osterloh told the German daily newspaper Handelsblatt on Monday. Osterloh, who also sits on the German automaker’s powerful supervisory council, added that whether VW’s Chattanooga workers pick the United Auto Workers to represent them at the plant is their decision.
Packing the Bridgestone Arena used to have a little more cachet — before it started happening all the time. Already this year, the downtown Nashville venue has hosted 11 sold-out events — not counting the Predators hockey games — with acts as diverse as Pink, Eric Clapton, The Black Keys, One Direction and Beyonce performing within weeks of each other. Bridgestone Arena booking agents are confident the trend will carry through the year to Bruno Mars, three Taylor Swift shows and beyond.
Four people were arrested early Tuesday morning after Anderson County deputies were told of “drug activity” at a residence on Blacksferry Road in the Powell community, according to an incident report. There was a “strong chemical smell in the air” when he and another officer arrived at the 237 Blacksferry Road address about 2 a.m., Sgt. Mark C. Hobbs reported. While the deputies could see several people moving inside, no one answered repeated knocks on the front door, Hobbs reported. A side door was finally opened, and Hobbs said he made contact with homeowner Lloyd Freeman, who said he didn’t know how many people were inside.
Last week, Gov. Bill Haslam and Bob Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, officially launched a new higher-education choice for Tennesseans: WGU Tennessee. WGU Tennessee is an accredited, not-for-profit online university aimed at expanding access to higher education for all Tennesseans. Tennessee has excellent higher education programs through both its University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents systems. The addition of WGU Tennessee brings a new option to the table, a nationally recognized university created with the needs of working adults in mind.
“Trust, but verify” is an old Russian proverb that President Ronald Reagan liked so much that he used it repeatedly in U.S.-Soviet relations. These days, it’s a good credo regarding our governmental institutions at every level. We know exactly whom we voted for, but we may be surprised by their decisions in office — or we may be completely oblivious to the actions and decisions of those who work for them Maybe that is why, in Tennessee state government, with its 40,000 employees in multiple departments and agencies, some surprises are in store for us. It came as a surprise this year when Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration recommended tearing down the Cordell Hull Building next to the State Capitol.
A well-compensated, well-respected, thoughtful political consultant with a proven track record of success would probably call it “bad optics.” Fortunately for Gov. Bill Haslam, his chief political consultant, Tom Ingram, is well-compensated, well-respected, thoughtful and has a proven track record of success. Unfortunately for the governor, the latest bit of bad optics for his administration was caused by Ingram himself. In a series of emails revealed as part of an investigation by WTVF-Channel 5, Ingram’s eponymous consulting firm is shown to have high-level access to top people in the administration.
It seems like every time you turn around these days, someone has come up with a new plan to improve education. It makes us long for the day when teachers can teach and kids can learn and everybody’s comfortable with their roles. That time is not yet, apparently. The latest rabbit to be pulled out of the hat is a plan by Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman to set higher standards for teachers’ licensing tests. All things being equal, high standards are always commendable. But the state’s teacher corps is looking at this new plan with some suspicion.
Gun money is running rampant in Tennessee. From billboards here to the General Assembly in Nashville, gun and ammunition supporters are clearly spending some bucks to whip up more fear and sell more guns and ammo. When they use a photo of the master of haters, Adolf Hitler, along with a made-up quote on a U.S. Highway 27 billboard, you know they’ve pulled out all the stops. Like three-quarters of the incendiary email pass-along messages that float through inboxes every day, the quote about Hitler praising Germany for adopting the first ever gun registration program is probably not even real.
The Shelby County Commission Wednesday morning begins the process toward a second shot at coming up with a county budget and a tax rate to fund it for the fiscal year that began July 1. In a shameful display of dysfunction fueled by partisan fractiousness, flip-flopping, unreasonableness and inflexibility by some of the 13 commissioners, the body failed on July 8 to pass a tax rate that would have funded a budget they already had approved — an unprecedented occurrence in recent commission history. For the sake of citizens, and the agencies and organizations stuck in financial limbo because the commission failed to act rationally to fund a budget, we hope level heads rule in the renewed budget deliberations.
Five Knoxville area hospitals were recognized for excellence this week by U.S. News and World Report. East Tennessee hospitals are not resting on their laurels, however. Area service providers are building new facilities or expanding throughout the region. The upgrades mean state-of-the-art care will be more broadly available in the region. U.S. News and World Report evaluated nearly 5,000 hospitals — 56 of them in East Tennessee — to compile its rankings. The University of Tennessee Medical Center, Methodist Medical Center of Oak Ridge, Parkwest Medical Center, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center and Physicians Regional Medical Center met the standards for “strong performance.”
I’ve talked a lot this year about the disruptions and distractions at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. The workforce has been bedeviled by uncertainty, in part due to the ongoing and long-going process to determine who the new contractor is going to be. It took a couple of years for the National Nuclear Security Administration to run its procurement and ultimately choose the Consolidated Nuclear Security — a team led by Bechtel National and Lockheed Martin — to manage Y-12 in conjunction with the Pantex nuclear weapons facility in Texas.