This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
How well run is your state? It can be difficult to objectively assess the quality of a state’s management. The economy and standard of living can be affected by decisions made decades ago, forces outside the control of the state’s government and administrators, as well as the government’s own actions. Every year, 24/7 Wall St. tries to answer this question by conducting an extensive survey of every state. To determine how well states are managed, we examined their financial data, as well as the services they provide and their residents’ standard of living.
German investment in the Chattanooga area — already in the billions of dollars — stands ready to ramp up in the future, especially if Volkswagen lands new production, officials said Friday. “We’ve had a lot of interest from German suppliers,” Martina Stellmaszek, chief executive of the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern United States, which is shifting its Tennessee office from Nashville to Chattanooga. German companies have invested more than $3.13 billion in Tennessee, and most of that has been in the Chattanooga area.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has announced he has issued executive order no. 34 establishing the Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments, a necessary step to sustain the judicial branch of government and its operations. Local attorney Michael E. Spitzer has been named as a member of the Commission. The new 17-member commission will send a panel of three nominees to the governor to make an appointment when a vacancy occurs or is impending. The Tennessee Attorney General issued an opinion last week confirming the governor’s authority to continue making judicial appointments after the termination of the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) on June 30, 2013.
The state’s top tourism official says it’s not “delusional” to think of Tennessee competing as a “global destination” for tourists who love music. Commissioner Susan Whitaker told the governor during a budget hearing this week that music has reached a new level as a selling point for the state. Some of the attractions are familiar: Graceland, Dollywood and Nashville’s brand as “Music City.” Others feel more recent: the “Nashville” TV show, and the huge Bonnaroo music festival each summer. Commissioner Whitaker says there’s something for everybody – and that surprises people.
State and local officials on conducted a ribbon-cutting Friday to open the last remaining segment of Tenn. 385, completing a 55-mile highway route that loops from Millington to Arlington and Collierville before winding back to Interstate 240 in Memphis. Tennessee Department of Transportion officials planned to allow traffic onto the final 8-mile section, which extends from Macon Road to Tenn. 57 in Collierville, at 2 p.m. Friday. The total cost of the project was $74 million, which includes a base contract of $53.47 million for the road bed, plus about $20 million for paving and additional work.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation today officially opens the final, $74 million section of state Route 385 connecting Poplar and Macon Road State and local officials joined former Gov. Winfield Dunn for a ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning, christening the 8-mile section of the corridor called the Governor Winfield Dunn Parkway, according to a release The section, started in November 2009, will complete Route 385 – which runs from Interstate 240 in Memphis to Piperton, then up through Arlington and over to Millington – when it opens at 4 p.m.
Hit the road. You can now get around the Mid-South quicker and easier. The very first drivers burned rubber on Highway 385 in Fayette County this afternoon. The last eight mile section of the highway is now complete. This day was 30 years in the making. You can now drive from Millington to Arlington and Collierville on one road in just a matter of minutes. “This is a great day,” said John Schroer, TDOT commissioner. “This is a project that’s long in the making and long in the finishing. Progress to us…it means orange cones.”
The State of Tennessee has now signed the lease for 104,673 square feet in One Commerce Square, where 596 state employees will work. The broker, Cushman & Wakefield/Commercial Advisors, also revealed Friday that the state is expected to move into the landmark building June 1 instead of the April 1 date that had earlier been announced. One Commerce Square took a big hit this year when bankrupt Pinnacle Airlines moved out of the 30-story, 475,000-square-foot tower at Main and Monroe. Arrival of the state workers will double the tower’s occupancy rate to about 60 percent full.
Tennessee and Georgia added 118,700 jobs over the past year to boost employment totals in both states to the highest level since President Obama was elected. But a new report shows the unemployment rate remained above the U.S. average during October in both Tennessee and Georgia. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Friday said Tennessee’s 8.4 percent jobless rate in October remained above the U.S. rate of 7.3 percent and was up from the 7.8 percent unemployment level in the Volunteer State a year ago. Tennessee was among 11 states with no change in the monthly jobless rate during October.
Around 2,600 Tennesseans will be learning soon that they will be able to keep their AccessTN health care policies temporarily. The board of the state agency that oversees the program decided late Thursday to extend the AccessTN coverage until April 30, 2014. The coverage is designed for high-risk individuals who had been deemed uninsurable because of pre-existing conditions. Their policies were scheduled to end December 31 because most of the enrollees were expected to obtain policies through Obamacare.
University of Memphis Provost M. David Rudd unveiled plans Friday to consolidate four colleges into two and to relinquish control of a speech therapy clinic as part of an effort to reduce the university’s $20 million budget deficit by about $7 million. Rudd’s presentation to the faculty Senate laid to rest — for now — a week of worry and rumor over possible faculty layoffs. However, Rudd’s plan, which he characterized as a recommendation for the Senate’s review, no doubt will face painful choices as officials look to plug an additional $13 million hole in the projected $20 million deficit for the next academic year.
Tennessee’s Attorney General says predatory lenders are still targeting members of the military, despite a federal law that’s supposed to stop the practice. Bob Cooper travelled to Capitol Hill this week, to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee. Cooper’s office has experience prosecuting companies that prey on soldiers at Fort Campbell. He pointed to one that sold computers on a rent to own basis. Getting ready to deploy and eager to stay in touch with their families, soldiers would make payments as much as 400 percent over the regular retail price.
State Rep. Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, announced that The Tennessee Housing Development Agency’s (THDA) Board of Directors has approved Buffalo Valley, Inc., to receive a grant from the Housing Trust Fund (HTF) to serve the housing needs of elderly, very-low income and special needs Tennesseans. Buffalo Valley, Inc., will use $208,400 in HTF funds to rehabilitate 10 units of transitional rental housing in Montgomery (five units), Lewis (one unit) and Marshall (four units) counties. These rental units will serve very low-income, homeless veterans, said a news release.
Two weeks after a key state leader said she opposes putting $35 million into a proposed bus rapid transit line through the heart of Nashville, city officials said they continue to plug away at making the case for the project. But another top lawmaker indicated he, too, will have to be persuaded to support Mayor Karl Dean’s plan for the mass transit project known as the Amp, a 7.1-mile route from the Five Points area in East Nashville to the White Bridge Road area in West Nashville. “It is a bit premature to talk about state funds for a project still in its formative stages,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the East Tennessee Republican who leads the state Senate, said in an emailed statement Friday.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Friday he’s not opposed to the idea of a works council at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, but he called the United Auto Workers “a destructive force.” Also, Corker said he feels “very good” about potential production of a new sport utility vehicle coming to VW’s Chattanooga plant. “We’re sitting in good shape,” the Tennessee Republican said, though he added that he doesn’t know whether the automaker has made a decision to build the SUV here. Corker, who was in Chattanooga for the unveiling of the new local office of the German-American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern United States, said he told a top VW labor leader in a meeting in Nashville last week that the idea of a works council labor board is an interesting one.
Knoxville attorney Pamela Reeves’ pathway to winning confirmation as a federal judge got a little easier on Thursday after U.S. Senate Democrats voted to make it harder for Republicans to block final votes on President Barack Obama’s nominees. Reeves is awaiting Senate confirmation to become U.S. District Court judge for East Tennessee. She would replace U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Phillips, who retired in July. While no senator has expressed opposition to her nomination, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had threatened to hold up all of Obama’s nominees until the administration made witnesses available to testify about last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
The Obama administration said Friday that it would give people eight more days, until Dec. 23, to sign up for health insurance coverage that takes effect on Jan. 1 under the new health care law. Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the government recognized that consumers might need more time to compare and select health insurance plans because of technical problems that have plagued the online federal insurance marketplace since it opened on Oct. 1.
On a sultry day in late August, a dozen staff members of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gathered at the agency’s Baltimore headquarters with managers from the major contractors building HealthCare.gov to review numerous problems with President’s Obama’s online health insurance initiative. The mood was grim. The prime contractor, CGI Federal, had long before concluded that the administration was blindly enamored of an unrealistic goal: creating a cutting-edge website that would use the latest technologies to dazzle consumers with its many features. Knowing how long it would take to complete and test the software, the company’s officials and other vendors believed that it was impossible to open a fully functioning exchange on Oct. 1.
Federal regulators have granted another nine-month extension of TVA’s construction permit for the oft-delayed Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant to give TVA a cushion in meeting its targeted completion of the plant’s second reactor. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Friday it approved the extension after assessing work being done at the plant. NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said the construction permit is one of the last of its type — the only other is at TVA’s Bellefonte Nuclear Plant — since new plants started today come under a single construction and operating license.
Metro school officials will likely have to look outside the district’s rainy-day fund to pay for $14.8 million in new technology, a scenario they say will add to existing budget strains. Mayor Karl Dean’s administration alerted Director of Schools Jesse Register this week that it won’t support the school board’s request to tap its fund balance for that purpose, though it will recommend an appropriation of $4.3 million from the same pool to fund a retirement incentive program for school employees. Amid expected budget woes, the school board this month voted to use $19 million from that fund to cover both one-time costs.
Whatever arguments can be made about the merits of Tenn. 385, opening its final segment on Friday had one inarguable benefit: At least some motorists will be able to avoid the troublesome reconstruction project in East Memphis where Interstates 40 and 240 intersect. In fact, the opening is timed to give motorists a possible detour around the $109 million project at I-40/240, which is expected to take four years to complete. The final segment of Tenn. 385 runs between Macon Road and Tenn. 57 in Collierville, giving motorists in southeastern Shelby County quicker access to Interstate 40 east. The loop consists of three sections.
The 7 percent turnout for the Memphis sales-tax referendum is subject to a variety of interpretations, from sheer apathy to the presumption that no tax increase has a chance of passing. Fears that the “politicians” behind universal prekindergarten really weren’t planning to spend the money for that cause may have contributed to the belief by some voters that a trip to the polls would be a waste of time. Most of those who showed up on Thursday voted against the measure, in Mayor A C Wharton’s opinion, because of a general distrust of government that has been building at every level.