This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
A rough round of weather moved through the Mid-South Thursday leaving behind a mess in some areas. Snapped power lines remain in Brownsville as the West Tennessee town was hit hard with strong winds. It left people like Tim Schmidt is the dark. “It’s pretty hot in [the house], lots of tree branches down, both our neighbors’ roofs got tore off,” he said. Crews from the city’s utility company and Southwest Tennessee Electric are busy getting power turned back on in the hot summer heat.
As residents cleaned up from Thursday’s fast-moving storm, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton agreed more must be done to keep the city’s drainage system clear. drains flooded several streets, including Coleman Avenue near the intersection of Austin Peay. “Our parking lot was completely flooded,” said Aubrey Semien, the executive director of The Hair Design Design School. “Water was up to the tires.” According to Semien, Coleman Avenue floods every time there is a hard rain. Two years ago, the flooding was so severe it poured into the school, forcing students elsewhere.
Tennessee is the lowest indebted state, according to a new report from the bond rating agency Fitch. The Volunteer State has the lowest net tax-supported debt and unfunded pension obligation as a percent of personal income. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey heralded the news Friday, claiming Tennessee pays what it owes and doesn’t burden future generations like other states. “Tennessee can outperform any state in the union,” Ramsey said.
It is going to take Tennessee drivers longer to get a hard copy license. All state driver license bureaus will hand out a temporary paper license to people getting a license for the first time, or renewing. Before, applicants could apply for a driver license and receive a hard copy on the same day. Their card will now be mailed to them within 20 days. Currently, the change is being implemented in Knoxville. “We’re replacing a very outdated issuance system that we have now,” said Wanda Adams, executive project manager for the Department of Safety and Homeland Security Driver Services Division.
A new study of the state’s agritourism industry estimates that its economic impact in Tennessee more than doubled between 2006 and 2012. Researchers with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture estimate visitors to Tennessee agritourism operations in 2012 spent more than $34.4 million directly and more than $54.2 million total. Those estimates are based on survey responses from 171 Tennessee agritourism farms. The 110 agritourism operators who reported visitor numbers on the survey estimated they hosted more than 1.75 million people on their farms in 2012.
The Channel 4 I-Team has learned of a criminal investigation into five former state employees accused of abusing patients within a state mental institute. This is just the latest development in an I-Team investigation over the past 1 1/2 years into the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute. During that time, we’ve exposed the deaths and abuse of patients, along with photo evidence of employees sleeping on the job. Now, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation confirms it has launched a criminal investigation into the reported abuse that happened inside MTMHI.
A popular highway for motorcyclists in Blount County has been reduced to one lane. The construction is happening on a portion of Highway 129, which is also known as The Dragon to locals. TDOT crews are in the process of stabilizing a rockslide. The road will be down to one lane until the August 31. The work is causing some concern for business owners along the Dragon who rely on bikers for business. The construction on The Dragon is not very long. “It was pretty small, maybe not a tenth of a mile,” said biker Walter Sauerwen.
Former Tennessee Gov. Winfield Dunn, who in 1971 signed a bill into law that changed the way the state selects appeals judges, on Friday said that enacting the bill was a mistake. “At the time I signed it, I felt constrained by many other issues,” Dunn said. “I regret signing the retention election bill.” Those comments followed a hearing at the Tennessee Supreme Court in which attorney John Jay Hooker, merciless critic of judicial appointments, presented his argument that state law says appeals judges ought to be elected by voters, not appointed.
Shelby County Board of Education member David Reaves may ask colleagues to approve a resolution to seek help from the legislature collecting $57.4 million from the city of Memphis. The debt was incurred at the end of a long legal battle over the City Council’s decision in 2008 to withhold part of its annual allocation of funds to Memphis City Schools. A chancery court decision was upheld by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in January 2010, but counterclaims by the city involving bonds issued by the city that MCS was obligated to repay have complicated efforts to settle the dispute.
Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell plans to furlough the county’s roughly 400 employees for two hours a week until year’s end to save the county $250,000. She thinks the two-hour-per-week furloughs are a relatively painless way to help offset what she said is a $3 million reduction in revenues over the past three years in the face of higher costs for items such as asphalt to repave roads and gas for county vehicles. “This is not a chunk out of anybody’s pay,” Heiskell said. “Two hours a week is not bad.”
Coaching supplements were saved, along with the Roane County Alternative School, albeit with a smaller staff. A planned purchase of new textbooks was shelved, trimming $500,000, and $210,000 earmarked for high-tech devices for state-mandated testing also went on the chopping block. Those are some of the measures members of the Roane County Board of Education have approved to offset a nearly $1.6 million shortfall in their new budget, which began July 1. The budget-cutting was the result of Roane County Commission’s recent, unanimous vote to keep the county property tax rate unchanged, nixing the school system’s request for a 14-cent property tax increase.
On Monday afternoon, County Commission is scheduled to proclaim Knox County to be a “Purple Heart County” — making Knox the first county in Tennessee to be designated as such. The “Purple Heart County” designation is part of a nationwide effort spearheaded by the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Once the proclamation is approved, the military order’s local chapter, No. 356, will present a plaque and flag formally recognizing the designation. The proclamation was proposed by Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett.
A bipartisan deal announced this week in the U.S. Senate to reduce the interest rates on student loans might be just the beginning of a legislative push to make college more affordable. Lawmakers in the House and Senate are promising to take a comprehensive look at federal student financial aid programs this fall as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. “What we are doing with interest rates now makes student loans cheaper and simpler,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who helped negotiate the agreement.
A pair of local college students have met with members of Congress and even the president this summer. Mekal Smith, a Chattanooga native studying at Tuskegee University, went to the Capitol in late June to advocate for a program that is supposed to help poor kids go to college. And Robert Fisher, the student body president at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has spent the whole summer in Washington, D.C. He has met with lawmakers and pushed for a solution to the student loan interest rate debate. Congress has gone back and forth on the issue for months.
A union-fed culture of animosity between companies and workers helped put Detroit on track to its current ills, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Friday. That’s why he and some others are worried about a United Auto Workers presence at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, the Tennessee Republican said. But, blaming the UAW for what happened in Detroit is “purely ideological,” a professor at Cornell University and the director of its Worker Institute said. “It’s a bias against unions,” said Lowell Turner, a professor of international and comparative labor.
Small business owners gathered in Market Square Thursday, urging support for a measure to collect sales taxes on internet purchases. The group Stand With Main Street is calling on Congressman Jimmy Duncan to support the bill dubbed the Marketplace Fairness Act, which has already passed in the Senate. The group handed out a new study from economist and advisor to President Reagan, Arthur Laffer, which suggests the move would lower tax rates for all taxpayers and give a $500 billion boost to the economy over 10 years.
Supporters of the Marketplace Fairness Act hope that a new study by conservative economist Art Laffer will build support among House Republicans for legislation that would allow states to collect more sales taxes from Internet purchases. The bill, which passed the Senate in May, would allow states that simplify their sales tax systems to collect taxes on purchases made by their residents from online businesses based in other states. Under current law, retailers have to collect sales taxes only for states where they have a physical presence.
The Tennessee congressman who learned he’s actually not the father of a woman with whom he had an affectionate Twitter exchange during the president’s State of the Union address says it was still nice to feel like he had a daughter. In an interview aired Friday on “CBS This Morning,” U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen said he loved 24-year-old Victoria Brink, whom he first learned about three years ago, and tried to do everything he could for her. But Thursday, CNN reported that DNA tests showed Cohen isn’t Brink’s father.
A day after the much talked about DNA test reveals Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen is not a father, he says he’s feeling the love from his constituents back home in Memphis Cohen spoke out in an interview today about the DNA test that revealed 24 year old swim suit model Victoria Brink was not his daughter. He answered questions about why he waited more than 3 years to have a paternity test to prove Brink was his daughter. “I wanted her to know that I loved her and I wanted her to be my daughter and I wanted to be her father and I didn`t want her to think in any way I was trying to shirk responsibility,” said Cohen.
House Republicans voted Friday to dismantle the troubled No Child Left Behind law for evaluating America’s students and schools. The legislation would eliminate federally required testing of students, which has been controversial from the start. But the measure passed with no Democratic support and drew a veto threat from the Obama administration, which said it would be a “step backward” in efforts to better prepare children for college and careers and to bring improvements to low-performing schools.
The Tennessee Valley Authority said Friday it accepted a regulatory penalty for the way material was installed at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant and paid a $70,000 fine to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield said the utility agreed with the NRC finding that TVA had failed to adequately verify the nuclear quality of some equipment installed at Watts Bar, but TVA consultants have since proven the adequacy of what was used at the plant.
ProFlowers will spend $2 million on a new distribution plant in Memphis. The e-commerce retailer, which does business only on the telephone and online, is moving a few miles within the airport area — from 4300 Air Trans to 3300 Jet Cove. But the new warehouse has doors in front and back that will enable ProFlowers to improve its work flow, operations manager Wade Orvis said. The renovation occurring now at 3300 Jet Cove includes a refurbished office, but the major work is building giant new coolers that will keep the boxed flowers fresh at 38 degrees.
Truck firms assign rights in rebate case National Trucking Financial Reclamation Services was one of the first plaintiffs to sue Pilot Flying J in the wake of a federal investigation of fuel-rebate fraud. It’s also one of the first to make a deal with the Knoxville-based chain of truck stops, a proposed class-action settlement that would pay class members 100 percent of their losses plus 6 percent interest, and cover attorney’s fees. But National Trucking — which was formed on April 22, only four days after the government released an affidavit outlining the fraud allegations — isn’t a trucking company at all. Instead, according to documents filed in the case, it is “an assignee of the legal interest and claims of companies” that bought diesel fuel from Pilot.
Sparse attendance and a lack of funds are forcing some Middle Tennessee school systems to rethink the breaks they have set aside in the fall and spring for academic camps and consider returning those days to the school calendar as additional classroom time. In Metro Nashville, school officials are ready to declare last year’s intersessions a bust and move forward with other achievement-boosting plans that include adding days to the school year. But experts have differing opinions on whether additional school days really help the students who lag behind their peers.
Summit High School student Jacob Bell likes to call the group of seniors he has been working with this summer “hope dealers.” Rather than leave a park bench or plant a tree as a legacy of the Class of 2014, the spin-off group of the Williamson County Schools student advisory council are attempting an impressive challenge for the fall: Get every senior in the class of 2014 to achieve a composite score of 21 or higher on the ACT. For their efforts, they want to give students free laptop computers.
With just 18 days before Hamilton County students return to classes, the countdown is on to finish $50 million worth of new school construction. Construction on the mammoth new Ooltewah Elementary School and replacement Red Bank Middle School is winding down. On Thursday, the new Ooltewah school was filled with the sound of power drills and hammering. Power flickered on and off. “There it goes again,” Principal Tom Arnold said. “That’s the third time.” Ooltewah’s titanic, 136,000-square-foot schoolhouse will be the largest elementary school in Hamilton County.
Hamilton County officials and the county’s banker scrambled Friday to fix a $3.8 million oopsy that left some 3,700 school teachers, aides and assistant principals without paychecks. Somehow, somewhere, a button didn’t get pushed and direct deposits didn’t show up Friday in the accounts of about half of the school district’s employees. But school officials and the county trustee said they were focused on fixing the problem rather than laying blame. “We’re not putting the blame down anywhere,” said Board of Education Chairman Mike Evatt.
Some Hamilton County teachers are angry. They just found out they did not get paid. The department of education contacted 12-month salary employees Friday morning to alert them of the direct deposit snafu. They’re currently working on a solution. Teachers are being told to document in writing any fees charged because of insufficient funds. The Hamilton County Education Association will work with the district to try and get those costs reimbursed. Shortly after 5:00pm Friday evening, WDEF News12 got a call from the Tennessee Valley federal Credit Union. All of their member’s accounts have now been paid.
It has been a frustrating, confusing and upsetting day for Hamilton County’s teachers. This morning they learned that their bi-weekly paychecks had NOT been deposited. Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander said there was a breakdown in communication somewhere along the chain among the Trustee’s Office, the Hamilton County Department of Education and First Tennessee Bank. That added up to an almost $3.8M mistake for 3,700 people. Solutions started surfacing just after noon. Superintendent Rick Smith (pictured) and Hullander say First Tennessee Bank customers should already have their checks in the bank and fees waived.
With more than 20 new school resource officers headed for Williamson County elementary schools for the start of the school year, school officials are getting prepared, purchasing gun safes for officers to store equipment they may need while on the job. The district is requesting bids for gun safes for approximately 23 schools, according to a legal notice seeking interested companies. The safes will be used to store guns and ammunition and should cost about $200 each, Director of Schools Mike Looney said Friday.
A billboard designed to get people to turn in suspected meth cookers has already paid off in Blount County. Wednesday evening, the Blount County Sheriff’s Office was investigating a tip they received about suspected meth-related activity at a house on Terry Way in Maryville. When deputies arrived, two suspects took off on foot. Five other people were arrested. Deputies found 15 separate “one pot” method meth labs. Investigators later found another related lab at a separate location.
When I first arrived in the state Senate in 1996, Republicans were in the minority. That fact didn’t bother me in the least. I’ve embraced challenges all my life. So when I got to the Senate, my primary goal was to build a conservative majority in the state Senate. The guardians of the status quo had other ideas. Democrats, of course, pushed back against us. But even those on “my side” warned that talk of a GOP majority was “dangerous” and that I shouldn’t upset the apple cart. It took a lot of hard work, but today we have not only a majority in the Senate but also a supermajority in both houses of the General Assembly.
Saying the word “recovery” is easier than finding consistent indicators that are crucial to a recovery actually occurring. In these pages we have chronicled the transfer of property for more than a century from one name to another. And that is economic movement. But as in most of our affairs as a community, we must have a plan beyond that daily or weekly movement that gets to the root of what a recovery means. It means more people at work with jobs that pay a decent wage. Our goal should be an expansion that includes those left out for too long in a city with a historically high poverty rate.
The Shelby County Commission’s property tax fracas — that is what it has turned into among some commissioners — borders on the illogical since the commission already has approved a bare-bones budget, but cannot agree on a property tax rate to fund it. It is time to stop the bickering and fund the budget. County Mayor Mark Luttrell submitted a budget asking the commission to raise the rate from $4.02 per $100 of assessed value to $4.38. Thirty cents of that amount is to recoup $57 million in reduced property tax revenues because of a decline in property values. Holding the hike to $4.32 would result in most homeowners seeing their property taxes drop or they would pay the same amount as last year.