This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
For states to succeed in today’s global marketplace, they have to look beyond just keeping taxes low and competing for jobs regionally. In Tennessee, we put as much effort into ensuring our state continues to have an attractive business climate as we do economic development recruiting. By constantly working to make the state’s business climate better, we are working toward long-term economic competitiveness as well as short-term economic wins. Tennessee is the best state for business because we pair our business community’s proven track record of scaled growth and innovation with an approach by the public sector to constantly upgrade our business climate.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam highlights the state’s business friendly atmosphere in a column written for CNBC. “In Tennessee, we put as much effort into ensuring our state continues to have an attractive business climate as we do economic development recruiting,” writes Haslam. “By constantly working to make the state’s business climate better, we are working toward long-term economic competitiveness as well as short-term economic wins.”
A recent study shows Tennessee’s debt ratio is the lowest in the nation. The state comptroller’s office said in a release this week that the study was conducted by New York-based Fitch Ratings, one of the country’s top bond rating agencies. The agency analyzed debt ratios in all 50 states and concluded that Tennessee’s ratio is the lowest. It uses a metric that is calculated by combining the state’s net tax-supported debt and unfunded pension liabilities then measuring them against the state’s personal income level. Tennessee’s ratio of debt and pension liabilities to personal income was 1.8 percent.
A new recovery option is opening in August for Tennessee’s drug-addicted criminals — a recovery court intended to treat substance abuse and free up prison space for violent offenders. The Tennessee Department of Correction said the program is the nation’s first statewide residential recovery court, diverting offenders in need of substance abuse treatment from prison. TDOC partnered with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse to open the treatment center, which will be operated by the private Davidson County Drug Court Support Foundation.
It’s been one of state Mental Health Commissioner Douglas Varney’s biggest “wants”: a statewide, intensive residential facility to deal with drug addiction — especially prescription drug addiction, which Varney has long said is spiraling out of control in Tennessee. Next month, in the quiet Morgan County city of Wartburg, Varney’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, along with the Tennessee Department of Correction, will open what the state says is the nation’s first statewide residential Recovery Court.
The state’s Achievement School District says its students have shown signs of progress a year after it started operating some of the state’s lowest performing schools. The goal of the district is to move the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state to the top 25 percent in five years. ASD officials announced Wednesday that the district earned a “level 5” growth rating and that its students made solid gains in math, science and social studies. Reading scores dropped, but officials say schools have taken steps to turn that around with changes that include hiring literacy experts and building schedules with extra time in reading and writing.
In the first year of one of the largest experiments in Memphis public education, the Achievement School District showed overall modest gains in test scores, including increases in science and math. But the number of children testing proficient in reading dropped from 18.1 percent to 13.6, an indication of the task facing the ASD. The Achievement School District, run by the state Department of Education, takes over chronically under-performing public schools. By state law, it has five years to move schools from the bottom 5 percent to the top 25.
Student achievement test scores for the first school year of the Achievement School District shows students in the set of historically low performing schools made gains in science and math proficiency but fell further behind in reading. Results of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program – or TCAP – tests were released by school district starting Wednesday, July 24. Countywide school system leaders expect to get results Thursday for the last school year of the separate city and county school systems.
A new state entity that has taken over failing schools in Memphis and Nashville, garnering both acclaim and criticism as it hands keys to outside charter operators, saw gains and regressions during its first full year of intervention. Still, the data-driven reformers behind the Tennessee Achievement School District believe the overall arc leads to their ambitious five-year turnaround goal. The six schools that make up the ASD, which is set to steadily expand in size, particularly in Memphis, collectively produced a 7.7 percentage point increase in the number of students proficient or advanced in science during the 2012-13 school year and a 3.3 percentage point bump in math.
Students in the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System continue to outperform statewide averages in academic achievement measured by the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program. School Board members were briefed about district-level TCAP results during Tuesday evening’s work session, and the bottom line was that the local school system scored significantly higher in 2013 than the state average in achievement and in closing the proficiency gap in certain groups of students.
Tennessee may end up spending even more to test students at the end of the year under new national Common Core standards. Estimated costs for the new testing came out this week, and some states are making other plans. Currently, Tennessee spends between $40 – $50 million a year to test students for the purposes of monitoring improvement. The new test that will be given in more than 20 states – known as PARCC – will be on the high end of that range, says state Education Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier.
Tennessee’s top labor economists are having a hard time explaining what’s going on with the state’s unemployment rate. It continues to rise even as the number of people filing for unemployment benefits drops. The state’s unemployment rate has gone up for six months straight, and it’s not just that more people have restarted their job searches. Middle Tennessee State University’s David Penn says there may be a problem with some of the household survey data that feed into the unemployment rate. “I think it’s more of a glitch in the figures than it is reflective of actual labor market conditions.”
The state of Tennessee has postponed the announcement of its decision for leasing 100,000 square feet of office space in Downtown Memphis until August. The Tennessee Department of General Services and Jones Lang LaSalle have been looking to relocate 480 employees currently working at the Donnelley J. Hill State Office Building and outlined which companies submitted bids earlier this month. The notice of intent to award has been rescheduled for Aug. 19 at the executive subcommitteee meeting of the state building commission.
Groups hoping to garner the state’s real estate needs Downtown will have to wait a little longer to find out if they placed the winning bid. The state had originally planned to issue a notice of awarding the lease for its office space needs Tuesday, July 23, but that date has been changed to Aug. 19, when the executive subcommittee of the State Building Commission meets. Last year, the state agency that handles real estate said the 12-story Hill Building, which opened in 1968, was functionally obsolete and it would be cheaper to sell the 12-story structure than spend $9 million to improve it.
A Dickson County judge has ordered New Life Lodge to produce personnel files for several employees and records for two former patients who were at the facility when 29-year-old Lindsey Poteet took ill and later died. Circuit Judge George C. Sexton, however, declined to order the drug treatment facility to release the names of other patients who were at New Life in late August of 2010. Reid Leitner, New Life’s lawyer, argued Tuesday that both state and federal privacy laws required that the information be kept confidential.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tré Hargett is the new president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Hargett and other new officers of the association were inducted Monday during the group’s annual summer conference in Anchorage, Alaska. “I look forward to continuing the strong leadership that my predecessors have provided to NASS for almost 110 years,” Hargett said in a statement. “Now more than ever, citizens are looking for collaborative bipartisan leadership from their state officials.”
The Tennessee Lottery plans to relocate its headquarters from Nashville’s MetroCenter business park to nearly 56,000 square feet of leased space at the One Century Place office building near Nashville International Airport. The quasi-public entity’s move next spring would increase the vacancy rate in a MetroCenter office market already bracing for a hit from the state’s reshuffling of its office space. One Century Place was chosen because an analysis of the lottery’s options found the airport-area building offered the best overall value, lottery officials said.
A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the Food and Drug Administration was wrong to allow a misbranded and unapproved new drug to be imported for use in executions by lethal injection.The three-judge panel affirmed a lower court ruling barring the FDA from allowing the importation of sodium thiopental — rejecting the agency’s argument that it had discretion to allow unapproved drugs into the U.S. The FDA policy “was not in accordance with law,” wrote Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, joined by Judges David Sentelle and Judith W. Rogers.
A Bradley County man’s quest to have the Cleveland city manager and a councilman charged for ripping up his protests signs came to naught Tuesday. Dan Rawls said Bradley County General Sessions Judge Sheridan Randolph refused to issue criminal summonses for City Manager Janice Casteel or Councilman George Poe on charges of vandalism, criminal trespass and official oppression. After meeting with the judge to make his request, Rawls said Randolph told him that even if he signed the papers, the prosecutor’s office was likely to dismiss the charges.
Knoxville city staff joined talks Tuesday on a proposed safety center for the intoxicated or mentally ill that law enforcement pick up in Knox County. Mayor Madeline Rogero and deputy mayor Bill Lyons sat with county officials and others who back the concept of a facility where people who would otherwise land in jail could receive treatment for their ailments. “Obviously, jail overcrowding is an issue, as are mental health issues” Rogero said. “We want to see a real solution.” She and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett appeared at the meeting’s start but left after making comments to the Safety Center Task Force.
The Shelby County property tax rate of $4.38 is ready for the tax bills that are to go out starting later this month. But with the county budget season now over, some of the major themes of the Shelby County Commission’s debate over taxes are likely to remain in play. The setting of the tax rate was just the latest wave for a commission that has major ideological differences. The $4.38 property tax rate is a 36-cent increase from the former rate of $4.02. Thirty cents of the rate increase is to generate the same amount of revenue county government got from the old rate of $4.02 taking into account property value lost in the 2013 property reappraisal.
Lamar Alexander, Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator, may have solid backing from the state’s Republican establishment. But he’s getting no love from local Tea Party groups and hard-core conservative voters who hope to see him unseated in next year’s GOP primary election. Alexander was on hand at the Smyrna airport Saturday for an event honoring local Republican party chairmen, joined on stage by state GOP party head Chris Devaney and former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate-turned-TV-talking-head Mike Huckabee.
The person who heads Medicare and Medicaid will testify before a congressional committee about why a key provision of the Affordable Care Act — the employer mandate — was delayed. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce announced Tuesday that Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, will answer questions during an Aug. 1 hearing. The employer mandate, a provision that would have required businesses with more than 50 workers to provide health coverage, was supposed to take effect Jan. 1, 2014, but the Obama administration delayed the mandate for one year.
A Democratic activist from Monteagle, Tenn., says she’s eyeing a potential run in Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District in 2014. Lenda Sherrell, a retired CPA who worked last year as a Tennessee volunteer for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, said she is in a “very early exploratory” stage of seeing whether to run in the sprawling district, which takes in all or parts of 15 counties. “Frankly, I’m just not far enough along to know for sure that’s what I’m going to do,” said Sherrell, who formerly lived and worked in Chattanooga.
The nation’s governors on Tuesday weighed in on a possible comprehensive federal tax overhaul, telling two top U.S. Senate Finance Committee members that “federal tax reforms should not simply shift costs or impose unfunded mandates onto the states.” In their letter, governors urged Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and ranking Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, to preserve current exemptions from federal taxation on interest on bonds issued by state and local governments. They also urged lawmakers to maintain the current deductibility for payments of state and local taxes on federal tax returns.
On the day that President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law in early 2002, he flew to a high school in Hamilton, Ohio, the home district of Representative John A. Boehner, a leading Republican supporter of the bill. Later that afternoon, the president appeared in Boston and praised the bill’s Democratic sponsor in the Senate, Edward M. Kennedy. Nearly a dozen years later, that bipartisanship spirit in federal education policy has evaporated. The House of Representatives on Friday passed a bill aimed at greatly narrowing the federal role in public education that was expanded under No Child Left Behind.
College costs are driving decisions about which schools to attend, what to study and even where to live, according to a report from loan giant Sallie Mae. Parents no longer foot the largest portion of the bill, according to the lender’s annual survey. That role goes to grants and scholarships, with student loans coming in third. While the recession has largely passed, economic worries have not and many families are making college choices driven by fears of tuition hikes and job losses, according to the survey.
Study: 60 percent don’t have a financial plan for kids’ college As families continue to recover from the recession, they’re relying less on their own income and savings to finance a college education than in previous years, according to Sallie Mae’s How America Pays for College study, released Tuesday. The study, which surveyed a group of 1,602 undergraduates and parents of undergraduates earlier this year, shows that grants and scholarships are used more than any other type of funding, covering 30 percent of total college costs for a typical family.
The coal industry is woefully unregulated, according to a coalition of environmental groups, and Tennessee’s plants are no exception. A group of five environmental organizations has released a report on regulation for coal-fired power plants in the U.S. It pointed to the Tennessee Valley Authority, and specifically named some of its Tennessee plants, as part of the problem. The report criticizes TVA’s Gallatin plant, among others, for using “ash ponds,” which store ash produced in coal combustion by mixing it with water.
Put your pencils down — Hamilton County students showed general improvement in 2013 test scores, according to a news release by the Hamilton County Department of Education. Hamilton County students in grades 3-8 posted improved results in seven of the nine returning test categories this year, English I and II being the two exceptions. Approximately 52.4 percent of 2013 student results were considered “proficient or advanced” after finding the average results of the nine subjects, a slight increase from 2012’s rate of 49.2 percent.
Metro Nashville Public Schools officials are opting to use poor teacher evaluations for the first time this year to help justify firings, but members of the school board expressed little concern about the new expected practice. Instead, the members appeared more concerned with aspects not under their control, such as the formula for grading certain teachers and the board’s statutory role in processing dismissals, which are dictated by state law. The board met Tuesday to review the 16-step process the district plans to use when firing teachers.
As many as 63 Metro teachers could be fired this fall under a new policy orchestrated by Director of Schools Jesse Register to dismiss teachers with chronically low-performing state evaluation scores. At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Metro school officials said 195 out of some 6,000 Nashville teachers received a score of 1 out of a high of 5 on state-mandated evaluations during the 2011-12 school year, but only 63 of these teachers remain employed today. For the first time since Tennessee adopted a controversial teacher evaluation system two years ago, Register is preparing to use its data as a reason to remove low-performing teachers, as The Tennessean reported last week.
Director says balanced plan ‘a step back’ The $81 million budget that Blount County school board members passed on Tuesday was balanced, but it was a step back from progress, Schools Director Rob Britt said. The Blount County Commission refused to fund the original $86 million budget the school board submitted in February. Britt said the cuts to reach a balanced budget result in 84 teaching or teaching assistant positions that were filled in 2012-13 that won’t be filled in 2013-14.
The Shelby County Board of Education couldn’t avoid the topic altogether Tuesday but delayed a robust discussion on the suggested repeal of a policy that permitted corporal punishment. Although the agenda didn’t call for a vote on the measure, a few board members managed to make their feelings known after Margaret Carne, a research analyst in the Office of Research, Planning and Improvement, delivered a strong case for repeal. There has been a steady decline in the use of the paddle in school districts since the early 1980s, she reported.
We appreciate Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry and his top staff taking time to visit Jackson and West Tennessee on Monday. It is important for DCS to connect with child welfare workers, medical, education and law enforcement professionals, and the general public, to talk about what the department does, and to keep everyone focused on its No. 1 goal, helping Tennessee children who find themselves in difficult circumstances. The daylong event was organized by Madison County Juvenile Court Judge Christy Little. As the new head of DCS, Henry brings a wide background of experience and knowledge to the difficult task of managing the department.
Tom Ingram is all about relationships. Democrats, Republicans, little people, big people. It’s the base of his power. And he’s extraordinarily good at it. It’s why if you want a deal done, whether in the small sandlot that is the Metro Council or all the way up to the major leagues in Washington, D.C., you call Ingram. But that doesn’t give him a bye from the rules. Ingram has been publicly spanked a couple of times lately for failing to register as a lobbyist even though he was clearly lobbying. Ingram is smart and savvy. His integrity has never come under fire. The roots of his reputation as a power broker and major player date back to helping a fairly unknown politico re-craft his image from wonky man in a suit to a red plaid shirt-wearing everyman who walked the state.
Three years ago, Tennessee stunned the nation when it became one of the first two states to be awarded federal “Race to the Top” education reform grants. President Barack Obama, who made Race to the Top one of his top domestic priorities, and then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, who called a special legislative session to enact the reforms necessary to compete, made Tennessee’s win possible. Obama and Bredesen were on the leading edge of what has become a nationwide cadre of Democrats willing to challenge the education establishment to enact the types of policies necessary to provide every child the opportunity to learn to his or her utmost potential.
I have been proudly teaching for 20 years in Tennessee. While it has never been an easy job, I have generally felt appreciated. In return, I have tried to earn that appreciation. Professionally and personally, I need to say that I did my best to help my students, who now number more than 3,000 kids over my career. I am not alone; Tennessee is blessed with many teachers who truly take pride in what they do. I know that those teachers must truly care for their students, because in recent years, they have had to put up with Tennessee legislators who have taken steps to “improve” education that have been nothing but masked animosity for teachers.
True leaders make the right decisions for the right reasons. That statement makes sense in the context of the Shelby County Commission’s 7-5 vote on Monday to raise the property tax rate from $4.02 to $4.38 to fund a county budget commissioners already had approved. Commissioner Justin Ford, who earlier had voted not to raise the tax rate, voted yes Monday, joining Commissioners Sidney Chism, Walter Bailey, Henri Brooks, Melvin Burgess, Steve Mulroy and Mike Ritz in getting the tax rate approved. Ford said he changed his mind after meeting with county administration officials and looking at four or five possible budget changes to try to avoid a tax increase — all of which would have resulted in wage cuts or the loss of hundreds of jobs.