This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
A Columbia Central graduate is stepping up to the bench to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court. Gov. Bill Haslam appointed Holly M. Kirby to the court to succeed Janice M. Holder, who is retiring from the bench upon the expiration of her term. Kirby will take her seat on the state supreme court on Sept. 1, 2014. Kirby grew up in Memphis, but her family moved to Columbia during her sophomore year of high school. “We moved to Columbia for family reasons and settled there,” she said. “It was a great place to be a teenager and finish up high school.” She said she enjoyed the change from an urban center to Columbia’s small-town environment.
Tennessee’s lawmakers and lobbyists are gearing up for a booze battle in 2014 that could determine whether or not grocery stores can legally sell wine in the Volunteer State. The upcoming fight, which in many ways will mimic ferocious annual clashes held in Nashville since 2008, will pit grocery and convenience stores owners, who wish to see wine sold alongside food, against the strange bedfellows of liquor retailers and alcohol critics, who prefer to keep the system just the way it is. It’s a fight over thousands of jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in wine sales and an estimated tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
When the 132 members of the Tennessee House and Senate convene for the 2014 legislative session in next month, Gov. Bill Haslam will have 40 “legislative liaisons” — collectively drawing state salaries totaling more than $3 million — on hand to explain the governor’s position on issues they consider. “Everything we do in the (Legislative) Plaza has been part of the process (of)… speaking with one voice and that is the governor’s voice,” says Leslie Hafner, who oversees the Haslam team, holding the title senior adviser for legislation with a salary of $153,000 per year.
Plans for a new Walmart Supercenter in Claiborne County this year put legislators into action and a pair of neighboring small towns into the legislative lobbyist market, where they spent a few thousand taxpayer dollars that may have affected spending of millions of taxpayer dollars. Tazewell and New Tazewell, located just a couple of miles apart, were newcomers to the hiring of Nashville contract lobbyists, each town motivated by a desire to have the new Walmart located inside its city limits after learning that state law could influence the outcome of the competition.
Reports filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission indicate the leading in-state, government-funded lobbying groups are outspent by more than $2 to $1 by out-of-state organizations in trying to influence the state Legislature’s action on education reforms. And that may not tell the full spending story in the quest to influence legislation, since Tennessee affiliates of national groups such as StudentsFirst, American Federation for Children and Stand for Children operate political action committees donating to Tennessee candidates. Tennessee’s leading government-related education groups do not.
Republican leaders in Nashville don’t expect to expand prekindergarten access in 2014, turning down potentially $64.3 million in federal funds from President Barack Obama’s Preschool for All program. “I don’t believe it will be a priority here,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters last week. “It’s always been our priority to provide pre-K for the neediest of children, those that perhaps do not receive in their homes the necessary instruction at home to enter school on Day 1 and be ready to learn,” Harwell said. “ I don’t see a level of comfort to be able to expand beyond that.”
The recession may have ended, but many of the nation’s school districts that laid off teachers and other employees to cut payrolls in leaner times have not yet replenished their ranks. Now, despite the recovery, many schools face unwieldy class sizes and a lack of specialists to help those students who struggle academically, are learning English as a second language or need extra emotional support. Donna Guy’s fourth-grade class at Caln Elementary School here is too big — 30 pupils — for the room, so some of them sit halfway into a coat closet.
As Tommy Charles looks out of his dining room window, it’s easy to see why he and his wife moved to Lakeshore Drive in Harriman nearly 50 years ago. The Emory River widens as it passes his house. Great blue herons glide above the placid, gray water. It’s an idyllic place to live and raise a family. Because others saw the same potential, the neighborhood grew to more than 25 homes. No one seemed to mind the Tennessee Valley Authority power plant looming just a short distance away. That was how things were, at least, before the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 2008.
The thick, grayish-black coal-ash slurry that came barging into lives in the dead of night is gone now, much of it loaded onto train cars and hauled away. Around Swan Pond, ground zero for the catastrophe, the most heavily damaged homes have been torn down. New walking trails, fishing piers, docks and picnic areas have sprung up as part of a major restoration project. The wounds to the landscape are gradually disappearing five years after the devastating coal-ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant. But no matter how much time passes or how much money is spent to undo the damage, some scars never heal.
Gov. Bill Haslam has firmly rejected all the logical arguments for accepting millions of your federal tax dollars to expand Medicaid to 170,000 Tennesseans who have no health insurance. Instead, the governor is trying to persuade the federal government to allow Tennessee to use federal dollars to pay private insurers to take on those people. That “Tennessee Plan” is still under review. The governor “is trying to get something worked out to get the Tennessee Plan approved,” said Dave Smith, Haslam’s spokesman. “He’s trying to see what we can work out with the feds.” He has not been swayed by arguments that other states will get our federal tax dollars.
Disaster struck with terrible swiftness five years ago today in the Swan Pond community of Roane County; recovery is being achieved at a much slower pace. On Dec. 22, 2008, shortly after midnight, the coal ash storage pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured, unleashing 5.4 million cubic yards of sludge into the Emory River and onto about 300 acres of adjacent land. No one was killed, but houses were damaged beyond repair and lives altered forever. After the spill, TVA officials, led by then-CEO Tom Kilgore, promised to restore the area to the way it was before — or even better.
Chicago and Philadelphia have been rocked by street protests against large-scale school closings in poor and minority neighborhoods this year, which may give Memphis a hint at what could happen here if a school closing agenda is not handled well. On the table at the Shelby County Board of Education is a proposal to close 13 schools in the southwest and northwest sectors of the city. The district’s school closing policy calls for an orderly and deliberate process before any final decisions are made. That’s not expected to happen until February. But now is the time for Shelby County Schools and City Hall to begin working together to mitigate the potential impact to affected neighborhoods. Mayor A C Wharton’s campaign against neighborhood blight will suffer a setback if many of these buildings, assuming the school closing proposals are approved, are left vacant to deteriorate.