This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam has issued an executive order to create a panel to nominate candidates to fill judicial vacancies after fellow Republicans in the Legislature let the Judicial Nominating Commission expire in June. Haslam in a release Thursday said the creation of the new panel was necessary to sustain the judicial branch. A legal opinion from state Attorney General Bob Cooper last week said the governor continues to have the power to fill judicial vacancies despite the end of the commission tasked with nominations.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday that he will form a new commission to advise him on judicial vacancies while Tennessee resolves a long-standing debate over how judges are selected. Haslam announced he had signed an executive order setting up the Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments. The group replaces the Judicial Nominating Commission, which ceased work on June 30. The Governor’s Commission will consist of the 11 members of the old panel whose terms did not end June 30 plus six more chosen by the governor in consultation with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell.
Iraq war veteran Josh Wallin shook hands and collected business cards and looked for work. “Right now, any work,” he said, moving from table to table at the job fair aimed specifically at veterans Thursday. He’s been off active duty for five years but is still in the U.S. Army Reserve, and says that can make it tough to find a job in the maintenance, corrections and construction fields he’s qualified for. “Some companies try to skirt around hiring a reservist because they don’t want to schedule around that weekend or two-week tour,” he said.
Employers at Thursday’s “Paychecks for Patriots” hiring fair said that veterans bring a much-desired skill set to the workplace. “Veterans bring a willingness to learn, they follow the rules, they’re on time and they still say ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am,’ which is very unusual,” said Jack Kreyling, the human resources manager for LISEGA’s Kodak plant. LISEGA, a global leader in the design and manufacturing of pipe supports used in major plant engineering and construction, was one of 25 companies on hand for the career expo for veterans at the University of Tennessee Visitors Center on Neyland Drive.
A surprising number of men and women who have served in the military are having trouble finding a job, but a statewide initiative is designed to change that. The program called Paychecks for Patriots hosted a job fair Thursday at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel. “I’m a big believer of ‘hire the talent and train the skill.’ And what military members are asked to do and adapt to, it’s a great mix of those skills and capabilities that any employer could want,” said Bob Ravener, with Dollar General. Massive job fairs like the one Thursday in Nashville were held at more than a dozen locations across the state.
State and county governments will be refunded money they paid for four of the five days they anticipated keeping Great Smoky Mountains National Park open this week, officials said. The question now is when or if they’ll be reimbursed for the one day they paid to reopen the park while the federal government was closed. To great fanfare from visitors, the park reopened Wednesday morning after being closed 15 days. Sevier County helped with plans to re-open. On Tuesday night officials there wired $300,100 to the Department of Interior in Washington to cover the five-day cost. Tennessee and Blount County had agreed to contribute, with the state picking up the bulk.
Transportation officials are taking steps to try to curb the number of traffic fatalities in Tennessee. As of Oct. 17, they say there have been 800 people killed on Tennessee roadways in 2013. That’s about the same number of fatalities around this time last year. Transportation Department Commissioner John Schroer says the daily traffic fatality figure on the department’s message boards across the state will be updated each weekday and will be compared with the number of fatalities on the same date in 2012.
State officials are bringing back a controversial initiative that will put traffic deaths face to face with Tennessee drivers on a daily basis. Interstate message signs will begin posting daily tallies of state traffic fatalities again, according to Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer. The figures had been posted only on Fridays for most of the year. On Thursday, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security had logged 800 deaths on Tennessee roads, the same as the year-to-date total on Oct. 17, 2012.
State officials say Tennessee is losing in the battle against deadly traffic accidents. Even after raising awareness and stepping up enforcement, just as many people have died on Tennessee roads in 2013 as compared to this time last year. So the Tennessee Department of Transportation is trying something different with its highway message boards. They will now be updated every day to reflect how many people have been killed on Tennessee roads this year. Previously, the numbers were only updated every Friday.
Highway fatalities in Tennessee have spiked and are now on pace to top last year. State troopers say texting-while-driving is to blame. Roadway deaths were actually down for the first half of the year and then began to spike after July 4. The number of alcohol-related crashes has actually dropped by more than 10 percent. There’s no hard data that proves it, but Col. Tracy Trott guesses half of this year’s 800 fatalities nvolved a distracted driver. “Not many people are going to admit to that being the cause of the crash, but we know that we see it all the time. Everybody is on an iPhone. Everybody is on a Blackberry. Everybody is talking, texting, emailing.”
Kevin Asberry has a tool that can measure the success of a government program. It takes about five minutes. The Goodlettsville-based home repairman makes houses better insulated from hot summers and cold winters through a federally funded effort overseen by the state. After sealing windows, adding insulation and clearing vents, he sucks air through the home with a large fan, then watches a pressure gauge to see how airtight the house has become. Once the weather changes, the improvements will be easier to feel than see — though everyone likes the look of a lower energy bill, too.
Three years ago, six kindergarten classes’ worth of Tennessee babies died in their sleep. That’s the unit of measurement Dr. Michael Warren has used while trying to draw more attention to a major factor in the state’s bleak infant mortality rate: Unsafe sleeping conditions. One in five infant deaths in Tennessee is due to preventable causes, such as suffocation or strangulation while sleeping, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. “In a given year we have close to 600 overall infant deaths, and there are many causes for that,” said Warren, director of maternal and child health for the department.
Efforts to clear a longstanding backlog at Tennessee’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development were hampered by the partial government shutdown that just ended. The department has several hundred federally funded workers who are among the many returning to work today after being furloughed for two weeks. The 400 workers including many who handle disputed unemployment claims. It’s an area where Tennessee has had a backlog dating back to the recession.
Motorists on Thursday morning using the partially reopened Henley Bridge were reminded by a small throng of demonstrators that two men had died on the project and that improved workplace safety is needed. As a steady rain fell, members of the coalition group “Bridges to Justice” stationed themselves on each side of the bridge, holding signs. At a press conference, they called on the Tennessee Department of Transportation and Britton Bridge LLC, chief contractor on the bridge repair project, to take steps to boost safety for workers.
Traffic congestion remains a problem on Interstate 65 south of Nashville, creating a nightmare commute for many drivers, so officials plan to soon widen the roadway. “During rush hour, it’s crawling usually, especially coming south in the evenings, 5 miles per hour or so,” said commuter Jeff Lomenick. The Tennessee Department of Transportation is starting another round of construction Sunday to relieve some of that daily congestion. Crews will pick up where a recent widening project left off at the Goose Creek Bypass, making I-65 four lanes all the way to Highway 840, along with an expansion on the bypass.
Visitors to Tennessee now have the chance to better understand the state’s role in the Civil War. As part of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration, the state is installing Civil War exhibits in Welcome Centers across the state. The exhibits display the state’s overall place in Civil War history as well as the battles and buildings specific to each area. On Thursday, the exhibit at the Interstate 81 Welcome Center was unveiled. A couple dozen elected officials, state workers and community members attended the ceremony. “This history is a big part of Tennessee,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.
The Tennessee Supreme Court said Thursday that it has declined to overturn the state’s voter identification law after it was challenged by the city of Memphis and two voters. Shelby County residents Daphne Turner-Golden and Sullistine Bell sued the state last year, arguing that the law requiring voters to present a government-issued photo ID in order to vote in state or federal elections was unconstitutional. Bell and Turner-Golden tried to vote in the August 2012 primary using their Memphis Public Library cards — which they argued was valid ID — but they were turned away. The trial court ruled against them.
The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a 2011 law requiring photo identification at the polls, ruling that lawmakers had the authority to take steps to guard against fraud. The court ruled unanimously Thursday against the city of Memphis and two voters in Shelby County who had argued the ID requirement placed an unfair burden on the poor, elderly and others who lack driver’s licenses. Chief Justice Gary R. Wade wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court and many other state courts have upheld similar voter ID requirements. He also said that, while instances of people impersonating voters at the polls have not been documented in Tennessee, such cases have occurred elsewhere.
The Tennessee Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the state law requiring photo identification to vote, ruling against the City of Memphis’ efforts to overturn the law and to require election officials to accept photo IDs issued by the public library for voting purposes. Unless the city or the two Memphis residents who joined the city’s lawsuit take their challenge into federal court, the unanimous ruling ends the city’s efforts to allow the library-issued cards to qualify for voting. The Memphis Public Library created the cards at the request of Mayor A C Wharton in early 2012 because he was concerned that the state’s Voter Identification Act of 2011 would block citizens from voting for lack of driver’s licenses or other acceptable forms of photo ID required by the act.
Senate Republicans Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are drawing fire for including money for a Ohio River lock and dam in the budget package to end the government shutdown. The Senate Conservatives Fund today called a provision of the budget bill “the Kentucky kickback” since it would help a project along the northern border of McConnell’s home state of Kentucky. “In exchange for funding ObamaCare and raising the debt limit, Mitch McConnell has secured a $2 billion earmark,” the Senate Conservatives Fund said in a statement today.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell were criticized Thursday for a provision — included in a bill ending the partial federal government shutdown — that will provide $2.9 billion in federal funding for a Kentucky project. According to various media accounts, McConnell said the decision to include the provision was made by Alexander and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and he did not request it, though he supports the project — construction on the Olmsted Dam Lock on the Ohio River at Paducah, Ky. Alexander said the move will actually save taxpayers money.
U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. said he had friends who voted for the 11th-hour legislation that ended the federal government shutdown and raised the nation’s debt limit, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. “I would have got more praise and a lot less criticism if I voted for it, and I knew that would be the case. But I didn’t think that was the right thing to do,” the Knoxville Republican said. While U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Maryville, and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Chattanooga, voted for the measure in the Senate, no Tennessee Republican in the U.S. House supported it Wednesday night.
State and federal agencies ramped back up Thursday, as hundreds of workers returned to their jobs after the partial shutdown of the government. More than two weeks of uncertainty ended for countless public servants late Wednesday, when the House of Representatives approved a Senate plan to fund the government until January and raise the nation’s debt ceiling until February. But they came back to a mountain of unanswered messages, as well as plans thrown into disarray by the disruption.
Federal employees are returning to work after Congress agreed to end the government shutdown, and the workers expect to receive pay for all the days they were furloughed. Campgrounds and parks run by the Army Corps of Engineers reopened for business Thursday in Tennessee. “Just glad to be back at work and ready to open it up,” said Noel Smith, a ranger at Cages Bend Campground. Smith and all other employees at the Corps of Engineers’ 11 campgrounds were on furlough for more than 16 days. Federal employees got a text message at 5:15 a.m. Thursday to come back to work. At the Corps’ downtown office, it meant time to catch up on work that piled up.
Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky and Tennessee is set to reopen with the government shutdown ending. The area will welcome visitors starting Friday at noon CDT. Officials with Land Between the Lakes apologized to would-be visitors for any inconvenience caused by the shutdown. The largest inland peninsula in the United States, Land Between the Lakes closed to the public earlier this month when a congressional battle over spending and funding forced the government to close multiple attractions across the country.
Rutherford County’s No. 1 tourism site reopened Thursday after a 16-day shutdown of the federal government. The Stones River National Battlefield, part of the National Park Service, hosts about 240,000 visitors annually or a little more than 660 per day. The battlefield is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 363 days a year, closing only for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Based on those numbers, the site could have missed out on as many as 10,500 visitors, including school groups that had trips scheduled. Gib Backlund, chief of operations at the battlefield, said October is the site’s second busiest month of the year.
The federal government reopening after Wednesday night’s bipartisan vote by Congress also means the reopening of national parks. A special arrangement was made for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but Thursday night’s deal cleared the way for other attractions across the state. This included the Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area on the Cumberland Plateau. Park workers were taking down barricades most of the day on Thursday. “We are just going around collecting anything that actually resembled the fact we were closed,” said park spokesman David Carney, “That should happen really fast.”
Watch out, Washington: “Walmart moms” say they’re angry, even disgusted over the antics that led to a partial government shutdown and left the nation tottering on the brink of defaulting on its bills. Even as Congress voted Wednesday night to crawl out of the mess until early next year, a group of 10 swing voters in Nashville, known as “Walmart moms,” were brought together around a table where they blasted the politicians they held responsible for the situation. “It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion,” said Cathy, a 53-year-old nurse and mother of three who voted for President Barack Obama last year.
Insurers say the federal health-care marketplace is generating flawed data that is straining their ability to handle even the trickle of enrollees who have gotten through so far, in a sign that technological problems extend further than the website traffic and software issues already identified. Emerging errors include duplicate enrollments, spouses reported as children, missing data fields and suspect eligibility determinations, say executives at more than a dozen health plans. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Nebraska said it had to hire temporary workers to contact new customers directly to resolve inaccuracies in submissions.
News of a budget agreement was greeted gladly in this government town, which depends on the flow of federal dollars, but nowhere more than at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. More than 3,700 Y-12 employees were facing furloughs, starting today, because of the loss of appropriations. General Manager Chuck Spencer officially called off the furlough plan in a message to workers Thursday afternoon. “I’m happy to announce that a shutdown to a minimum staffing of Y-12 has been averted and the furloughs that were to begin at close-of-business today will no longer be necessary,” Spencer said.
A new Oak Ridge landfill for hazardous and radioactive wastes would cost an estimated $817 million, according to a preliminary estimate by the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s a lot, but the alternative — shipping the waste to an off-site disposal facility — would cost almost three times that much, the agency said in its analysis. DOE is running out of space at its current landfill, known officially as the Environmental Management Waste Management Facility, in Bear Creek Valley west of the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. It is the only Oak Ridge facility approved to receive wastes from Superfund cleanup projects.
When it comes to union organizing at an auto plant, the tension is typically between the workers and the management. But not at Volkswagen. The United Auto Workers is attempting to finally unionize its first foreign-owned plant in the South. And so far, Republican officials are the ones trying to stand in the way. Just outside of Chattanooga, in an idyllic industrial park surrounded by green hills and even a nature preserve, Volkswagen built a plant that remains its only facility in the U.S. It’s also Volkswagen’s only plant around the world that hasn’t been unionized, and the company isn’t trying that hard to keep workers from organizing.
Metro school officials continued pointing to the rising cost of operating charter schools Thursday, but this time they had Metro Council members to their side as the two parties began a dialogue on a projected $23 million shortfall. The message from Metro Nashville Public Schools didn’t change: the expansion and increase of charter schools — 22 will be operating in Nashville next year — is expected to place a $62.2 million burden on the 2014-15 budget, up from $4.6 million just five years ago.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, acted as though the end of the American government shutdown was just another game of inside baseball in the nation’s capitol. “We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” he said. Guess what, Speaker Boehner: Nobody else won either. Are you so myopic that you can’t see there are no winners in this misguided debacle you called “the good fight”? While you and Sen. Ted Cruz and his band of 30 or so government haters frittered away 16 days and badmouthed federal workers who were going without paychecks while you did some grandstanding to toss away barricades at national parks and veterans monuments, the country lost $24 billion in economic output.
In a perfect world, Congress’ near-death experience with sovereign default this week would be an opportunity to restore this country’s reputation for economic stability and the status of our Treasury bills as the world’s safest investment, and return our shambles of a budget process to something approaching orderliness. Efficiency, perhaps, is too much to ask for. House Republicans will need a brief period to get over their hurt feelings that they forced a 16-day partial government shutdown, idled about 450,000 federal workers and inflicted at least $20 billion in direct damage to the U.S. economy, and got absolutely nothing for it, except a major decline in the party’s standing with the public.
Like many Americans, we are frustrated and disappointed in Congress, the White House and the general demeanor of Washington politics. When every important issue affecting government comes down to a fight over Obamacare, something is terribly wrong. Where is the political courage and leadership? Where are the adults in the room? Shutting down government and holding the nation’s ability to pay its bills hostage for political gain is shameful and unacceptable. And let us not forget the unfortunate behavior of many of our colleagues in the media who portray every political development in terms of winners and losers, as if it was some game.
A proposal making the rounds among state lawmakers would have members of the Tennessee congressional delegation summoned periodically to Nashville, a move that seeks to establish some clout by legislators over the Washington delegation. The proposal by Republican Rep. Judd Matheny, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, might be an outgrowth of a proposal offered three years ago by then-Rep. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains. Niceley, now a state senator, sponsored a bill to create a panel of legislators who would meet with the state’s representatives in Congress and advise them on pending federal legislation.