This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam and his wife, Crissy, are hosting their third annual “Tennessee’s Home for the Holidays” open house at the governor’s mansion in Nashville. Tours began Monday and will run through Dec. 14. This year’s theme is “Tennessee Legends,” showcasing influential historical figures like President Andrew Jackson, frontiersman David Crockett and Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee alphabet. It also features contemporary figures like Dolly Parton and Pat Summitt. The decorations include Crockett’s hunting rifle called “Old Betsy” and a Cherokee hunting jacket illustrating the type of clothing worn during Sequoyah’s time.
Millions of people logged in to their computers to shop on what’s become known as Cyber Monday. And if you snagged a gift from amazon.com, there’s a good chance it’s being shipped from a giant warehouse right here in Tennessee. But this holiday season will be the last one you’ll be able to shop tax-free. It was a Cyber Monday world record breaker in 2012. “Last year we had over 26 million orders on Cyber Monday,” said Amazon spokesman Erik Fairleight. “That’s an astounding 306 items per second.” And Tennessee will soon get its share of online sales tax revenue on many of those items starting in January 2014.
Unemployment edged higher in October in most counties of Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia after dipping to or near 5-year lows in some area counties during September. Joblessness remained below the U.S. average in the three Northwest Georgia counties in metropolitan Chattanooga — Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties. But all other counties in the Chattanooga region continued to have jobless rates above the U.S. average of 7.3 percent in October. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Tennessee had an unexpected drop in employment from October 2012 to October 2013, with the Volunteer State shedding 56,400 jobs in the past year.
Critics are relentless in warning about what they see as the folly of the new Common Core academic standards, designed to prepare students for college or a job by the time they graduate from high school. The standards are being implemented in 45 states and the District of Columbia, but critics say they were written in private and never tested in real classrooms, and that educators aren’t familiar enough with the standards to use them. The standards also come with a multibillion-dollar price tag. “Children are coming home with worksheets and their parents don’t recognize it,” said Emmett McGroarty, a director at the American Principles Project, a conservative group that opposes the standards.
If everything goes according to schedule, a new computer system will go online next year for tracking the services Tennessee provides to people with disabilities–but it’s twenty years overdue. On its website, the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities has a video in which Deputy Commissioner Lance Iverson touts what’s being called Project Titan. His message to service providers, family members and department staff is that the new computer system will be a huge change for the better. And that it really will exist.
There is more trouble for job seekers in Tennessee. Last month, the Channel 4 I-Team investigated after viewers said they couldn’t get through to the state’s unemployment benefits system. Time and time again, the state has promised upgrades and even told us about a new improvement they said would help those who are struggling with long wait times. But once again, we have found the unemployed facing another hang-up. “I am definitely hurting. I have had to borrow money from my credit union,” said job seeker Jim Narveson.
More than a year after the Supreme Court upheld the central provision of President Obama’s health care overhaul, a fresh wave of legal challenges to the law is playing out in courtrooms as conservative critics — joined by their Republican allies on Capitol Hill — make the case that Mr. Obama has overstepped his authority in applying it. A federal judge in the District of Columbia will hear oral arguments on Tuesday in one of several cases brought by states including Indiana and Oklahoma, along with business owners and individual consumers, who say that the law does not grant the Internal Revenue Service authority to provide tax credits or subsidies to people who buy insurance through the federal exchange.
The White House is offering more money to insurance companies as an incentive for them to let people keep insurance policies that were to have been canceled next year. The administration floated several proposals on Monday to “help offset the loss in premium revenue and profit” that it said might occur if insurers went along with President Obama’s request to reinstate canceled policies. Millions of people have received notices saying their policies were being canceled because they did not comply with minimum coverage requirements of the new health care law.
The Tennessee Valley Authority will start inspecting another four of its 49 dams this month. The geotechnical evaluations, the most comprehensive ever for TVA, will inspect the concrete, earth and rock structures of the Nickajack, Tims Ford, Wheeler and Guntersville dams. TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said the dams are safe. “The health checks are part of a continuous improvement campaign to make sure TVA’s dams meet today’s stringent industry safety standards.” he said. Temporary road closures and other access restrictions may be necessary to ensure the safety of the public and the work crews at various phases of the project.
Crews are lowering into place 3 and a half ton rotors at Raccoon Mountain. The hydroelectric power plant, near Chattanooga, has been offline for more than a year. And the CEO of Tennessee Valley Authority says it can’t come back fast enough. TVA found a crack in one of the massive rotors in March, 2012, but realized all dozen or so rotors were susceptible and needed replacing. The project should’ve been finished by October, but now it won’t be done until next spring. Racoon Mountain makes more electricity than one nuclear reactor.
A special facility to process highly radioactive sludges — including some waste that dates back to Oak Ridge’s work on the World War II Manhattan Project — will cost at least $100 million to design and construct, according to the Department of Energy. The planning is still in a preliminary stage, but DOE spokesman Mike Koentop said the agency’s “early estimates” suggest the price tag will likely exceed $100 million. The new plant is to be built at the site of DOE’s Transuranic Waste Processing Center, which is located west of Oak Ridge National Laboratory off Highway 95.
Jason Boyd is leaving the helm of Nashville’s struggling safety net hospital at the end of January for another job. The board for the Metropolitan Nashville Hospital Authority accepted his resignation at their meeting Monday night and plans to meet later this month to discuss naming an interim chief executive officer. Boyd has been an administrator at the hospital for five years, serving in the top post since 2010. He said the job had made him a better person. “It has been a tremendous opportunity working with tremendous people that fulfill a critical mission,” Boyd said at Monday’s board meeting.
Williamson County school officials, concerned that advocacy groups are getting more face time at school board meetings than residents, are considering a policy that would limit public input at meetings to county residents only. School officials say there is not one particular reason for the proposal, which has received first-reading approval, except to say that a least a couple of school board members were concerned that county residents were not being heard. County school board meetings set aside a 15-minute period for public comment at each regularly scheduled meeting.
Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre has a plan to begin to address a number of teacher concerns and frustrations about teacher evaluations, student testing, teacher morale and how all of those things are affecting students. Over the past couple of months, teachers have been speaking up after a YouTube video of Knox County teacher Lauren Hopson addressing the board that was posted in October went viral. At their workshop meeting on Monday, McIntyre presented four strategies to school board members to address teacher concerns.
Suburbs from Millington around the outskirts of Memphis to Collierville held ceremonies Monday night to swear in their new school boards, putting in office the people who will make decisions on the formation of six municipal education districts in Shelby County. And in the midst of the events, word emerged that former Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken withdrew his name from consideration as superintendent in Arlington and Germantown. And with Aitken out of the picture, Germantown was left with two finalists for superintendent. “We were trying to work on a major deal for the superintendent,” Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman told the crowd before the Arlington ceremonies.
Shelby County Commissioners on Monday, Dec. 2, approved agreements for suburban school districts in Millington, Collierville and Bartlett, with little discussion at a special meeting of the body. The commission approved similar agreements with elected leaders in Arlington and Lakeland in November. The commission’s decision Monday leaves only an agreement on a Germantown school district still in negotiation. The five suburban school district agreements approved by the commission now go to municipal school boards in each of the five suburbs, all of whom take office this week.
A “staggering” $48.4 million in school equipment is missing from Shelby County Schools, according to an outside audit ordered by the school board. Maryland-based ProBar was unable to account for more than 54,270 pieces of equipment — laptops, hard drives, tools, even driver training cars. The equipment had been accounted for on June 30 by the district’s internal auditing department, according to school board member David Pickler. More than 44,000 pieces of equipment from a total of 189,000 pieces (23 percent) were missing from legacy Memphis City Schools, and 10,200 pieces from a total of 56,290 (18 percent) were missing from the formerly all-suburban SCS.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s refusal to expand Tennessee’s Medicaid program (TennCare) will cost Tennesseans dearly. Haslam has yet to offer a sound explanation for turning down billions of federal dollars and putting the future of hospitals, jobs and health care services at risk. His attempt to get the federal government to approve his Tennessee Plan has proven to be dead-end street. The only motivation we can see behind his lack of action is politics. While we are certainly not fans of the Affordable Care Act, it is time to put partisanship aside and do what is best for Tennesseans.
For members of the boards of the six new municipal school districts, the rubber hit the road Monday night in the suburban cities’ efforts to have their own schools ready to begin classes next summer. Thirty-two individuals divided between school boards in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington were sworn in Monday. Most of them have no experience serving on an elected body. Yet they are embarking on the herculean task of formulating policies and procedures, and deciding staffing and budgeting issues that will impact the kind of education children in those school districts will receive.
The Obama administration says it has made enormous improvements in its website for enrolling consumers in new health insurance plans. There are still major hurdles to surmount, but the strides made raise the prospects that the website will be able to help millions of Americans buy policies from private insurers on new insurance exchanges, either by Dec. 23, the deadline for policies that will take effect on Jan. 1, or by March 31, the deadline for taking out coverage without being fined. There will be federal subsidies to help those on modest incomes pay the premiums. The website, HealthCare.gov, was supposed to be ready on Oct. 1, but an array of technical problems made it impossible for all but a trickle of customers to compare policies and enroll in a plan.