This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
A law that could boost the state’s revenue is among those taking effect on Jan. 1, as are statutes that govern concussions in school-age athletes and workforce development. Starting Wednesday, Amazon.com will begin collecting sales tax in Tennessee. Under a deal struck with the administration of former Gov. Phil Bredesen, Amazon was absolved from collecting the state sales tax. Customers were responsible for paying them on their own to the state Department of Revenue. However, the online retailing giant’s brick-and-mortar competitors argued that arrangement wasn’t fair.
From Hemlock to Hankook, 2013 was a tale of two companies going in very different directions in Clarksville. One of them, Hankook Tire, brought jubilation to the city with news that it would build an $800 million plant, creating at least 1,800 local jobs. The other, Hemlock Semiconductor, threw cold water on the city when it announced the permanent layoffs of close to 300 newly trained workers, just as Hemlock’s $1.2 billion plant was supposed to launch polysilicon production. Enter Hankook Way back to 2001, local government took a leap of faith and spent $28.6 million to buy a largely vacant tract of land in hopes that someday a major employer would be drawn there.
The GED test, for decades the brand name for the high school equivalency exam, is about to undergo some changes. Today, an upgraded GED exam and two new competing equivalency tests offered in several states will usher in a new era in adult education testing. The General Educational Development exam was created in 1942 to help World War II veterans who dropped out of high school use college benefits offered under the GI Bill. This will be its first face-lift in more than a decade. The revamped test is intended to be more rigorous and better aligned with the skills needed for college and today’s workplaces. It will only be offered on a computer, and it will cost more.
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau has awarded approximately $2.3 million in Recycling Equipment and Hub / Spoke Grants for FY 2014 projects to help reduce landfill waste in Tennessee, according to a news release. “We are pleased to fund these projects through the state’s Solid Waste Management Fund,” Martineau said in the release. “These grants promote and increase recycling across the state and engage partnerships among counties and municipalities.” Recycling Equipment Grants may be used to purchase equipment for new recycling programs, improve and expand the operation of an existing site or prepare recyclable materials for transport and marketing.
Deborah Merriman is struggling to understand why she’s been left out of the great Medicaid expansion that occurred across half the nation on New Year’s Day. “I’m in a wheelchair, and I’m going blind,” the 51-year-old Cleveland, Tenn., woman said. “I’ve been trying to get on disability. … It’s not easy. If you don’t have health insurance, you can’t even get in to see a doctor.” Merriman and her 29-year-old daughter, Peggy, both unemployed, were counting on help to get insurance coverage from the federal Affordable Care Act when major provisions of the law took effect Jan. 1. That didn’t happen.
Michael Copeland takes tiny steps under watchful eyes. A team of medical professionals analyzes how the 3-year-old never touches the floor with one of his heels. This boy, whose favorite storybook is “The Little Engine That Could,” has come a long way since he was born 12 weeks early weighing less than 2 pounds. He suffered from apnea that was so severe that he would stop breathing up to 10 times a day when he first came home from a neonatal intensive care unit. He also had stomach issues and sensory perception problems. Now, he’s getting ready to start preschool because of the help he has gotten from the people with the watchful eyes at the Vanderbilt NICU Follow-Up Program.
The president and CEO of the Tennessee Education Lottery Corp. is being recognized by a leading lottery trade organization with an award named after her. According to the lottery, the “Rebecca Hargrove Award for Mentorship” is given in recognition of an individual’s “generous spirit that supports the wise and responsible development of the next generation of lottery industry leaders.” Hargrove also is the first recipient of the award from the Public Gaming Research Institute. Institute CEO Paul Jason said in a news release that Hargrove is a “legend in the lottery industry.”
Budget issues will be a big deal when the Tennessee General Assembly gets together, but the wine in grocery stores bill is likely to dominate the public discussion. The Bristol Chamber of Commerce is holding a legislative breakfast on Friday. The event is an opportunity to speak with local elected officials and hear about their agenda for the upcoming state legislative sessions. The breakfast starts at 8 a.m. at King University. Tickets are $20. Elected officials from Virginia and Tennessee have been invited as well as U.S. Reps. Morgan Griffith and Phil Roe. Last year, Rep. Jon Lundberg, of Bristol, Tenn., sponsored legislation that would have allowed grocery stores to sell wine.
Tennessee’s population growth dipped in 2013 and trailed the rate in the nation and the otherwise fast-growing South, according to new census estimates released Monday. Tennessee added 41,064 residents in the past year and has a population of 6,495,978, still ranking 17th in the nation. The rate of growth was down slightly from the year before but still similar to the past five years. North Dakota’s population boom, driven by the state’s thriving oil and gas industry, led the nation in 2013, expanding at nearly twice the rate of the next-fastest-growing state. The West and South continued to drive population growth nationally, accounting for more than 4 in 5 new residents, while growth in the Northeast and Midwest continued to lag.
Shelby County is starting the third year of a program to help inmates re-enter society, and officials say it already is showing results. The Commercial Appeal reports inmates must be three to nine months away from release to be eligible. The inmates spend the first six weeks in the classroom, studying to get a GED certificate and learning other practical skills, like good parenting, interviewing for a job and managing money. The inmates then go into career tracks such as culinary arts, forklift certification or an electrical pre-apprenticeship program. Patricia Melton is the program and grants manager with the corrections division. She said the recidivism rate for inmates in the program is only 11 percent compared with an overall recidivism rate of 35 percent.
An obscure position in the Department of Homeland Security has triggered a nearly two-year battle between U.S. Rep. Diane Black and the administration of President Barack Obama. Black, R-Gallatin, has been locked in a fight with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the agency’s decision to hire a public advocate who would work with immigration groups and immigrants, including those charged with entering the country without documentation. Black describes the office as an “illegal alien lobbyist,” invoking a term that some immigration advocates regard as offensive.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen on Wednesday added his voice to those of other elected officials calling for the ouster of county elections administrator Richard Holden. Cohen’s comments came during Myron Lowery’s annual prayer breakfast at the end of a speech in which he talked about potential growth in the Memphis area in keeping with the breakfast’s theme, “Continuing to Move Memphis and Shelby County Forward.” There was also a call for civility in government by many of the speakers at the event, including Cohen. But Cohen didn’t hesitate to criticize Holden, calling for the county Election Commission to dismiss Holden.
Nearly four years after President Barack Obama signed his health initiative into law, the Affordable Care Act is officially reshaping America’s $2.75 trillion health-care system. A survivor of bare-knuckle political fights, a U.S. Supreme Court challenge and a technologically disastrous rollout, the law now faces a fundamental test: Can its mix of government subsidies and market-based competition extend health insurance to millions of people whose medical conditions, income level or personal choice left them without it? So far, there are some troubling signs.
Kathy Hornbach of Tucson is not wasting any time before using her new health insurance coverage, which took effect on New Year’s Day. Ms. Hornbach, 57, has an appointment with a cardiologist on Thursday for a stress test. “I’ve had some heart palpitations, and my mom’s side has a history of heart problems starting early,” she said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “So it’s mostly just to double-check that everything is O.K.” Ms. Hornbach, who has had breast cancer and retired early from the technology industry, said that insurance companies in Arizona had refused to cover her until about two years ago, when she got a policy with monthly premiums of $285 and a deductible of $5,500 a year.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s new security contractor in Oak Ridge got a “very good” grade on its first report card and earned a fee of $519,320. National Strategic Protective Services, a joint venture of Triple Canopy Inc. and Securiguard Inc., took over as DOE’s protective force contractor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other federal facilities in late March. The contractor won a competition and succeeded Wackenhut, which had held the DOE security contractor for more than a decade. The performance period was from March 24 through Sept. 30, the end of Fiscal Year 2013. The contractor received an overall performance score of 96.
TVA is developing a formal program for controlling combustible coal dust at its fossil plants and should reach all milestones in the effort later this year a TVA spokesman said this week. The program is in response to a report by the TVA Inspector General, which conducted site visits in August and September, 2012 and found more needed to be done to control coal dust, which in some areas had accumulated to levels that exceeded a 1/32 inch industry standard. The Inspector General’s report issued a number of recommendations.
Two days before Christmas, the nearly three-year-old federal court case that was a key part of the change in Shelby County public education passed what might be one of its final deadlines. Dec. 23 was the deadline for the many sides in the multifaceted court case to get back to U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays on what, if any, issues were left to be resolved by the court. When Mays first made the request in August, still left was the substantial argument to come over the Shelby County Commission’s third-party claim that permitting suburban school districts would racially “resegregate” public education in Shelby County – and in the process violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Tennessee in recent years has ranked among the bottom 10 states in regard to the quality of its schools and the health of its citizens. While the state appears to be making progress in education, it has shown less enthusiasm for health care improvements. Gov. Bill Haslam recently celebrated improvements in test scores that in some categories brought state students out of the bottom 10 states in regard to achievement. He credited reform efforts for this success, and part of the funding for those reforms came from a $510 million grant from the federal “Race to the Top” program. Phil Bredesen was governor when those federal funds first were approved, but both Bredesen and Haslam credit a bipartisan effort to gain that funding for the state.
This new year of 2014 presents many opportunities and challenges for Memphis and Shelby County. There is no shortage of plans, and several organizations, including the Greater Memphis Chamber, are all looking to make a positive impact. But setting realistic goals and objectives is a key to being successful, and I would like to propose we focus our efforts on three areas: education, jobs and greenways. Two primary challenges for Memphis and Shelby County are education and workforce development. Crime, blight and poverty are all important issues, but a better educational system and more jobs will lower crime, decrease blight and reduce poverty.