This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Recently, I was proud to stand with Dr. James Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State Community College, and announce an agreement that allows graduates and staff of Chattanooga State to seamlessly pursue their bachelor’s or master’s degrees through WGU Tennessee and receive a five percent discount on tuition. For those of you who haven’t heard of WGU Tennessee, it is an accredited, not-for-profit online university aimed at expanding access to higher education for all Tennesseans, particularly nontraditional students. WGU Tennessee launched in July and was established through a partnership with the state of Tennessee and Western Governors University.
Tennessee currently lags behind the national averages in residents with higher education, ranking 42nd in working adults with certificates and degrees. Only 32 percent of working adults in Tennessee currently have certificates or postsecondary degrees. This is compounded when one considers that 70 percent of students require remedial math or English upon entering college — significantly increasing their risk of dropping out. Graduation rates after six years in our community colleges is a whopping 26 percent and in our universities it’s slightly better than 50 percent.
MTSU unveiled Wednesday a sweeping set of reforms that its president and provost say will target processes and practices that create barriers to student success. The plan, advanced by Provost Brad Bartel and endorsed by President Sidney A. McPhee, calls for the university to identify and rework general core courses with high academic failure rates. It outlines plans to revamp academic advising and develop customized graduation maps for each student. In a letter to the campus community, McPhee summarized the plan as helping to focus university efforts on just one question: “How can we help more students learn more?”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says that it will be about 10 days before Tennessee begins to feel the full impact of the government shutdown. According to the Nashville Post, staff will be reduced at the state health department’s Women, Infants and Children department about that time and there will be no staff to deal with licenses for firearms or commercial drivers license. Below is a list of agencies the governor’s office says will expect some impact if the shutdown drags on.
Tennessee officials will begin sending “Welcome Baby” packets this month to families of newborns. Officials say the packets will be sent within a few weeks of each birth reported to the state and contain information about child development, parenting and programs offered by the Tennessee Department of Health. The tall, white envelopes will also contain a letter of congratulations from first lady Crissy Haslam. Loraine Lucinski, who is state administrator for early childhood initiatives, told The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/15Li6X8) that the initiative aims to help parents during the early months of a child’s life.
Tennessee unveiled a new mobile phone app on Wednesday that allows families to search through hundreds of state services and programs for children. The app is the latest way the state is offering services that first debuted online in July at www.kidcentraltn.com. The website and app collects information that had been spread out across multiple government websites and can tell families about programs near where they live based on ZIP code. The app also allows family to send information to friends, relatives and caregivers.
A third industrial site in Roane County has been certified by a state program as ready for development, the Roane Alliance and the Roane Industrial Development Board announced. The Jones Road site in the Roane Regional Business & Technology Park was evaluated through SelectTN, a program created to help communities prepare sites for investment and expansion. It sets standards that companies and site selectors can use in making location decisions. The 655-acre business and tech park is in east Roane County fronting on Interstate 40. The park is anchored by H.T. Hackney, a wholesale food distributor.
A bus taking a church group home to North Carolina blew a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer Wednesday in a fiery wreck that killed eight people, authorities said. Fourteen other people were hurt in the accident in northeastern Tennessee, including eight who were in critical condition. The bus was carrying members of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C., which is about 140 miles east of the crash site. The group of seniors, known as Young at Heart, had been to the 17th annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn., a three-day event featuring gospel singers and speakers.
At least eight people died after a front tire of a chartered bus blew out along Interstate 40 in Tennessee on Wednesday, sending the vehicle across a grassy median and into a tractor-trailer and a sport utility vehicle, the state authorities said. The accident in Dandridge, Tenn., just east of Knoxville, closed the interstate for hours in both directions, shuttering a major highway that runs the length of Tennessee as emergency responders from nearby counties traveled to the scene to help.
In what officials are calling a “horrific event,” a church bus from North Carolina was involved in a fiery crash on I-40 Wednesday afternoon that killed at least eight people and injured 14. According to a preliminary report from the Tennessee Highway Patrol, six of those killed were passengers on the bus, one was in the tractor-trailer, and one in an SUV. “We hope and pray that there will be no more,” said THP Spokesperson Sgt. Bill Miller. He added that the agency’s thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.
Two teenage boys who ran away from a Department of Children’s Services home for boys in Crossville on Sept. 5 were found Wednesday afternoon some 20 miles away, according to one father. Jacob Crow and Hunter Smith, both 15, had run away from the Cumberland Mountain School for Boys last month. The low-security residential facility houses boys in DCS custody who have had minor brushes with the law or who have been removed from homes due to neglect or abuse. DCS spokesman Rob Johnson said the state never thought Crow belonged in DCS custody.
Since the demise of Wagner Ware 15 years ago to cheaper imported cookware, Lodge Manufacturing has survived as America’s last major cast iron cookware manufacturer. But the South Pittsburg maker of cast iron skillets, pans and dutch ovens isn’t just surviving these days in the international market. Lodge is boosting its own balance of trade in the global market by growing its export sales last year to more than $3 million. “The economy has helped out some and currency rates are a bit better, but cast iron remains very popular around the world and American-made products are seen as the best,” said Mark Kelly, marketing director for Lodge Manufacturing.
Driving on Highway 90 from Campbell to Claiborne County, as it winds through the valley next to Clear Fork, with the bright September sun dappling your windshield as the leafy trees above begin to change their color, it’s hard not to think you’re in one of the most beautiful places in Tennessee. Going up and down the Appalachian ridges on the winding road, the scenic vistas and picturesque terrain look like an ideal destination for mountaintop resorts. Then you look closer—not just at the rotting buildings covered with kudzu and the rusted-out cars on the side of the road, the most visible signifiers of the extreme poverty in the area—but at the mountaintops themselves. One ridgetop seems to sharply plunge down, as if a giant took a bite out of it.
Each February, the Clarksville Parks and Recreation Department updates their annual Strategic Plan. This past February the planning summit with staff was conducted by Gary Jaeckel, from the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS). Throughout two days, staff developed Goals, Targets and Measures to serve as a guide for 2013 and into 2014. One of the primary Goals identified was “Maintain parks and recreation assets in accordance with national standards developed by the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA), with one of the measures being “development of a parks improvement plan.”
A Kingsport woman has been charged with TennCare fraud after doctor shopping, the Office of Inspector General announced Wednesday. Marty A. Mullins, 34, Kingsport, is charged with fraudulently using TennCare to obtain controlled substances by doctor shopping, using TennCare to pay for the physician visits and/or the prescriptions. She is also charged with selling buprenorphine. Mullins is alleged to have used TennCare to go to multiple doctors to obtain controlled substances. She is also alleged to have sold the drugs.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country’s most visited, and October is typically one of the park’s busiest months. So far this year, the visitor count is at zero, and businesses that depend on tourism are feeling the pinch. More than a million visitors flock to the park in an average October. They arrive by the busload to take in the yellows, oranges and reds of the fall foliage “This time of year, we’re usually swamped,” says Zack Neubert, who works at a restaurant outside the park in Townsend. “This is how I make my living, and if there’s no business here, there’s no money in my pocket.”
Annoyance and anger are common responses among Chattanooga-area residents to the federal government shutdown — mirroring polls that show Americans oppose the suspension of a wide range of federal services by a ratio of about three to one. “The people that I voted for that allowed this to happen — I probably won’t vote for again. Over the last five years, we’ve had such a difficult time with [the economy], to allow that to happen is almost criminal,” said Bob Campbell, a 59-year-old engineer from Hixson, as he walked downtown.
Until the federal government runs again, the planes stay parked. This week’s shutdown means a temporary layoff for 90 percent of the technicians and other support staff at Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base — the people who make the planes fly. “We’re down to a skeleton crew,” said Col. Tommy Cauthen, commander of the 134th Air Refueling Wing. “We’re maintaining the critical operations that are necessary. We’re basically just keeping the base secure and keeping the minimum operations going.”
Shutting down the U.S. government hasn’t hurt Memphis — yet. Economists say the massive federal presence in the Memphis metro area could pain the region if a prolonged shutdown disrupts U.S. government spending. Federal social programs alone disburse about $375 million per month throughout Memphis and Shelby County, while the U.S. government is the No. 2 employer after FedEx Corp. A University of Memphis researcher described the first few days of the furlough for federal employees as being “like snow days” for school students, but beyond that people will begin to worry whether they are falling behind.
While 800,000 federal employees are on unpaid furloughs due to the government shutdown, taxpayer-funded checks are still going to the people responsible for the situation. That would be members of Congress and President Barack Obama, whose salaries are authorized by the U.S. Constitution and paid with mandatory funds. Republicans and Democrats are involved in a partisan standoff over continuing funding for the federal government, which led to the shutdown Tuesday.
U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn said she would not vote to end the federal government’s partial shutdown unless the deal included significant changes to the Affordable Care Act’s implementation. “No, I will not vote for a continuing resolution that does not include appropriate guidance for how we move forward on the nation’s spending,” Blackburn, R – TN, told The Leaf-Chronicle Wednesday. Blackburn blamed inaction by the Democrat-controlled Senate for the shutdown gripping the federal government since Tuesday morning. “We are going to continue to try to work with them,” Blackburn said.
David Waddell, president and CEO of Memphis-based Waddell & Associates, had a two-word response when asked what financial and economic impact there might be from the current dysfunction in the nation’s capital. “Not worried.” The federal government went into a partial shutdown Oct. 1 when the U.S. House and Senate didn’t reach an agreement on funding the government’s everyday operations. And another spat looms: in mid-October, the government will need to raise its borrowing capacity – the so-called debt ceiling – to keep funding itself.
With the launch of the Affordable Care Act nationwide, substitute teachers are among those apparently suffering “uninteded consequences” of the law meant to extend health benefits to millions of people without any form of insurance. Beginning on Tuesday, the Franklin Special School District began limiting substitute teachers to working four days a week to avoid paying for healthcare that could strain the small district’s budget. Substitute teachers have always been considered a contract worker in the district, Snowden said.
Macy’s is hiring for 1,500 positions in Portland as it prepares for the upcoming holiday season. According to a news release from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the company is hiring pickers, packers, forklift operators and general warehouse employees for its Robertson County distribution center. Macy’s will host a job fair Thursday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. at RiverGate Mall. Macy’s said this week it is hiring 83,000 employees across the country to prepare for the holidays.
Anti-United Auto Workers petitions circulating at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga auto assembly plant have captured signatures of about 30 percent of the plant’s workers, an official said Wednesday. But a UAW regional director is discounting the effort, saying he doesn’t think the petitions will have any bearing on discussions the union is having with VW. All this activity at the plant comes as a top VW labor leader postponed a planned Wednesday visit to the Chattanooga plant, and a meeting with Gov. Bill Haslam, because of plane trouble flying out of Germany.
Volkswagen AG Works Council Chairman Bernd Osterloh was scheduled to visit Tennessee today, but, after plane trouble has postponed a meeting with Gov. Bill Haslam, who has voiced his opposition to unionization of the local plant. Several media outlets, including Rueters and The Chattanooga Times Free Press, reported that Osterloh was also scheduled to meet with VW workers today. A Volkswagen spokesman said that isn’t happening today and they won’t speculate about potential future meetings. A spokesman for Haslam confirmed that Osterloh was to meet with Haslam, but said that plane problems kept officials in Germany, so plans have been postponed.
With the federal government already shut down, the Hawkins County Commission meets Thursday morning to prevent a possible shutdown of its own. Director of Schools Charlotte Britton told the Hawkins County Board of Education Tuesday that approval of the county budget this week is imperative. If the state doesn’t have the approved county budget by Oct. 7, Hawkins County won’t be included when state funding checks are cut in Nashville on Oct. 15. The First Tennessee Development District told the school system Tuesday that if the budget is not approved this week, the Tennessee Department of Education will withhold BEP funding.
These letters could carry the greeting: “Welcome to Tennessee.” The latest effort by the state to address its above-average infant mortality rate will be greetings and information sent soon after the birth of a child to help parents become familiar with state health department and other state resources aimed at ensuring Tennessee’s newest residents get off to a good start in life. Many factors contribute to infant mortality. But no infant should die because parents lacked basic information about infant safety, health care, public health department services and other family-life resources. The latest effort will send such information to parents of newborns as soon as the state is aware of the birth.
Here we are, yet again, scratching our heads in disbelief at Congress. The federal government has shut down. Few people I know actually thought this day would come, particularly in the midst of a fledging economic recovery. But the fact that it did happen demonstrates a level of dysfunction in our political system that has rarely been seen in American history. Who only knows what is in store for us during the next manufactured crisis — that is, the debt ceiling fight in just a couple weeks. In an attempt to make sense of this nonsensical behavior, people have resorted to the blame game. Someone needs to be at fault, right?
Many Republicans seem to be celebrating the government shutdown as an opportunity to show that less spending isn’t really so bad. “People are probably going to realize they can live with a lot less government than what they thought they needed,” said Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee on Fox News. Her upbeat attitude helps explain why so many in her party thought nothing of shutting down a government they distrust, all to dismantle a health care law they oppose. What these lawmakers aren’t telling Americans is that the shutdown will actually be very expensive and will wind up costing the taxpayers and the economy far more than the regular operations of government.