This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee’s annual sales tax exemption weekend sent consumers out in full force, turning back-to-school shopping sprees into a larger frenzy of deals. Tennessee joined nine other states this weekend for an annual sales tax “holiday.” Purchases on most clothing and school supplies and some computer systems were spared the Volunteer State’s 7 percent sales tax. Parking lots jammed with cars represented a sure-fire sign of the special deal authorized by the Tennessee General Assembly. “There’s been a lot of effort in the last few weeks to get ready for the additional traffic,” said Ronnie Harris, manager of the Best Buy on Gunbarrel Road.
Although the Tennessee Department of Education is reporting strong gains from school districts across the state on standardized tests, Jackson-Madison County Schools is not completely a part of that trend. While the school system showed more than 2 percent growth in third- through eighth-grade math scores on last spring’s Tennessee Comprehensive Program Assessment (TCAP) tests, those grade levels’ performance in reading decreased by 1.2 percent. In achievement gap closure, which is another measure state officials use to determine school and district progress, Jackson-Madison County’s performance was better, but not where school officials have said they want it to be.
General Sessions judges in Stewart and Houston counties say they have concerns about a proposed change of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to move the two counties into a different service area across the Tennessee River. “My first instinct is to think this is not good,” said Stewart County Judge Andy Brigham. “It may affect the provision of services to us.” However, after a meeting with DCS Commissioner Jim Henry a couple of weeks ago, Brigham said he is “hopeful it will work out.” DCS Spokesman Rob Johnson said the proposed change is administrative and numbers-based.
An audit conducted by the Tennessee Ethics Commission says that a lobbyist receiving 10 percent of the state funding provided to the Tennessee Disability Coalition — more than $64,000 in one year — “appears to be in violation” of a state law banning lobbyist “contingency fees.” An attorney for lobbyist Jennifer Murphy of Nashville disputes the contention and says that, even if the contractual arrangement was a contingency fee, it dates from 2002 — four years before the prohibition was enacted as part of an ethics reform package.
When Bob Peterson’s friend at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville wants to call him at his home in Michigan, it costs her $3.62 just to connect and then 62 cents for every minute they spend talking. They rack up more than $22 for a single 30-minute call, he said. At those rates, Peterson said, some families can afford to talk to imprisoned relatives only once or twice a year. The state’s contract is with a company called Global Tel Link, one of a handful of companies that specialize in providing phone services for inmates throughout the country — and for every dollar that Global charges, the state gets a little over half.
Jamie Campbell and Shawn Gehrisch are going to lose their Blount County mobile home if the proposed Pellissippi Parkway extension is approved. And they are just fine with it. Campbell said they were told 12 mobile homes will be affected on the back side of the Kensington Place mobile home park property after the Tennessee Department of Transportation moved the planned route 150 feet to the west to avoid an American Indian archaeological site. All but two of the residents own their mobile homes and rent the property, and the state would have to buy their homes.
Renovations at a Tennessee state park are starting with some popular fishing cabins. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that $1.4 million will be spent to renovate the structures that feature covered porches jutting out over the water at Fall Creek Falls State Park. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill says the cabins that sit on along a portion of the 345-acre Fall Creek Falls Lake will get updates inside and out including new furnishings.
Knoxvillians can get a deeper look into local Civil War history on Aug. 15-16 when representatives from the Tennessee State Library and Archives and Tennessee State Museum visit the East Tennessee History Center. Archivists and curators from both locations will be visiting the center to record and digitize local individuals’ Civil War memorabilia and store them in an online state database for an exhibit titled, “Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee.” “This is a celebration of the 150-year anniversary of the Civil War,” said Cherel Henderson, director of the East Tennessee Historical Society.
A professor at Middle Tennessee State University is one of 16 people in the nation to win a $25,000 grant to aid his work in translating literature. Mohammed Albakry, an associate professor of English and applied linguistics and director of graduate admissions for the English department, won the fellowship for fiscal 2014 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Albakry is translating “Tahrir Plays and Performance Texts from the Egyptian Revolution,” an anthology of six contemporary Egyptian plays written by established and emerging playwrights. The work is to translate the Arabic works to English.
Call it a verbal cease-fire. At last Tuesday’s Kingsport Chamber of Commerce legislative barbecue, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TCCI) President Catherine Glover highlighted this year’s pro-business legislative accomplishments, including workers’ compensation reform. One topic, however, was intentionally left out of her talk to about 150 business leaders at the barbecue held at the Kingsport Farmers Market. “I’m not going to talk about guns in parking lots,” Glover told the crowd.
State Sen. Lowe Finney’s decision last week not to run for re-election sparked immediate speculation about the 37-year-old Democrat’s political future. Finney said he is not running for governor next year but was coy about running for mayor of Jackson, his hometown. We initially failed to ask him about another race, U.S. Senate, but in a follow-up email exchange he advised us, “Don’t sit by the phone.”
As more Tennessee municipalities pass ordinances requiring a doctor’s prescription for pseudoephedrine-based cold medicine, Manchester, Tenn., officials and a state advisory service are casting a wary eye on the new rules. The city ordinance now passed in every municipality in Franklin County targets the retail sale of cold medicines that contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in home-cooked methamphetamine. Supporters of the ordinances say they answer a lack of action from state lawmakers, while others worry about the validity of civil rules that go after retailers.
A new political action committee has formed to get more progressive-minded women into Metro and state offices — and right now, that means electing Megan Barry the next mayor of Nashville. The PAC, called Women for Tennessee’s Future, gave $3,000 to the at-large councilwoman’s 2015 mayoral campaign during the last financial quarter, its sole contribution, nearly emptying its modest war chest. Meanwhile, its next fundraiser, set for Friday, is at Barry’s Belmont-area home, where visitors will be asked to contribute a small amount.
As Tennessee Democrats’ electoral fortunes continue crumbling at the state and federal level, some of the party’s bright lights are alive, well and leading the state’s six largest cities as mayors elected in nonpartisan races. Former state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, joined the select group when he was elected Chattanooga mayor in March. Now there’s intense speculation the state Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, is eyeing a bid for mayor of Jackson after announcing last week he would not seek re-election next year to the Legislature.
While recovery efforts from the July 10 flood that devastated most of the town continue, city leaders and residents paused recently for a community prayer service at the Princess Theatre. WRCB’s David Carroll worked in radio in South Pittsburg early in his career and helped emcee the event Thursday night. “Never take living in South Pittsburg or Marion County for granted,” he said. “It’s special. I really feel like I owe South Pittsburg something. This is where I got started. I love this town, and I love its people.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat who called himself “a huge Paul Ryan fan” more than a year before Ryan became the Republican vice presidential nominee, is now joining forces with the Wisconsin congressman on legislation that would limit the impact of certain budget cuts on national security. Cooper and Ryan announced Thursday that they’ve introduced the Defense Flexibility Act “to give the Department of Defense (DOD) discretion when applying cuts from sequestration.” Sequestration is a program of automatic federal budget cuts that began to take effect in March.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking public input on a proposal to list two Tennessee plants as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. They are the Short’s bladderpod and whorled sunflower. Short’s bladderpod is a mustard plant with several stems and yellow flowers that is found in parts of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. The whorled sunflower is a perennial with whorls of leaves on its stems that is found in parts of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. The Service is seeking all available information on the plants, including their distribution, status and population size.
A yellow flower that grows on steep and rocky glades along rivers in Middle Tennessee is being eyed by a federal agency for addition to the endangered species list. The Short’s bladderpod is among two plants in Tennessee that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it wants to add to the list of rare species that need special protection to prevent their extinction. The other is the whorled sunflower, a long-stemmed sunflower that grows along roadsides and near train tracks in Madison and McNairy counties.
McNairy County could soon be home to the two largest solar energy installations in the state. According to a news release from the Tennessee Valley Authority, Chapel Hill, N.C.,-based Strata Solar is planning to build two 20-megawatt solar farms near Selmer. Current plans call for the solar farms to have more than 160,000 solar panels on over 300 acres. That will make each farm four times bigger than the largest current solar installation on the TVA system. TVA will buy the electricity generated from the panels at market rates under its Renewable Standard Offer program.
Drew Johnson, the editor of the conservative editorial page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, rarely shied from controversy. But a dispute with his superiors over a headline appears to have cost him his job. Johnson wrote an editorial critical of President Barack Obama that ran on the day of his nationally televised speech from an Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga. The editorial was approved by Johnson’s higher-ups, but his headline riffing on a classic Johnny Paycheck country song, “Take your jobs plan and shove it, Mr. President: Your policies have harmed Chattanooga enough,” was too much for them.
Nashville Prep founder Ravi Gupta’s accusation that Metro school board member Will Pinkston was in a “drunk rage” during a fight on Facebook stirred up a lot of dust last month, but it wasn’t his first online spat with a school board member. Gupta compared another board member, Amy Frogge, to a “birther” in one of a series of emails from April obtained by The Tennessean. Gupta also accused Frogge of waging a “whisper campaign” against his school. At that time, the issue was charter school attrition — the number of students who return to traditional public schools.
About 150,000 public school students are heading to class under Shelby County’s newly-merged school district. Classes are beginning Monday for elementary, middle and high school students who are now part of the Unified School District. The new school system is the result of a merger between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. The merger has been described by experts as one of the nation’s largest school district consolidations in decades. Interim Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says the district is ready for the start of classes, but acknowledged there may be some hiccups.
Shelby County residents wake up to a new public school district Monday as the first day of classes are held in what is formally known as Shelby County Schools. SCS is the product of the merger of what administrators refer to as the legacy Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools, a institutions dating to the mid-1800s that have now faded into history, at least temporarily. The administration of the city school system was turned over to its county counterpart by Memphis voters in a 2011 election.
Chung Shuang, 15, struggled with her English to explain some differences between her own country of China and the United States. With loose dark curls pinned in the back and a quick smile, Shuang was among nearly 40 teens from China to participate in a special session of Kids on Stage at Grace Chapel Academy. The well-known Leiper’s Fork-based arts camp paired Williamson County students with the students from Beijing to explore artistic endeavors from jazz to fine arts taught by local music industry and arts professionals.
Tennessee opened the nation’s first statewide Recovery Court last week at the Morgan County Correctional Complex. The facility will house up to 100 nonviolent offenders, freeing up traditional prison beds for more hardened criminals. The program promises to cut incarceration costs and recidivism rates by treating the substance abuse that so often is at the core of criminal activity. With Tennessee’s drug abuse problem — especially with prescription medications and methamphetamine — at epidemic levels, such an initiative is sorely needed and offers hope of stemming the tide of addition.
Wright Medical Technology wants to move its corporate headquarters from Arlington to Memphis, but they want a $4.6 million tax break from local government. The global orthopedic medical device company let it be known the company also is considering moving the office headquarters out of state, taking with it 35 new jobs, 225 retained jobs and a $10.6 million capital investment. Normally, this would be considered good news for the city’s economic development efforts, but not so much in these financially strapped times. Tax breaks have become unpopular in some circles of city and county government and among taxpayers.
Why was Drew Johnson fired from his post at the Chattanooga Times Free Press? Whose fault is it? A disaggregation of the various myths and truths, doused heavily with caffeinated observations, fails to definitively answer the first question. But on the second, there is reason to fault both the paper and its former employee. Theory No. 1: It was the headline “Take Your Jobs Plan and Shove It, Mr. President: Your Policies Have Harmed Chattanooga Enough.” Fired over an offensive headline? Look, people. Johnson heroically saved our city from the supertitles that used to appear atop the conservative page’s editorial cartoons—with exclamation points and quotes around them. “Precious!” Those were more offensive than almost any David Allan Coe song, and they caused much anguish.