This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
With the first week of 2014 off to a galloping start, I find myself reflecting on a decision I made around this time last year. Though I was doing well in my career as an IT professional, I realized there were doors that would never open for me without a bachelor’s degree. Once I made the commitment to return to school, I faced the challenge of finding a program that would fit my congested schedule. As a working adult, a father of four and a husband, the traditional college experience of sitting in classrooms on a campus wasn’t a viable option. I had heard a lot about online universities, but I wanted to attend a school with affordable tuition and full accreditation.
Fewer people lost their lives on Tennessee roadways in 2013, but traffic safety officials say fatalities would drop considerably more if drivers and passengers buckled up. As a result, the state is shifting its focus to encouraging seat-belt usage. About 84.6 percent of Tennesseans use their seat belts, slightly less than the national average. For three years, traffic fatality investigations revealed about 50 percent of victims were not wearing seat belts. “That means over half of our fatalities come from 15 percent of our people,” Governor’s Highway Safety Office Director Kendell Poole said. “If we got our seat-belt usage rate up, it could make a major difference.”
Traffic fatalities in Tennessee last year dropped below 1,000, marking the fourth time in 50 years it’s happened, state authorities said. In Washington County, however, there were more people killed in car crashes last year than in 2012. Statewide last year, 988 people died in car crashes compared to 1,015 in 2012. In Washington County, there were 13 killed in 2013 compared to nine in 2012. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security released the statistics this week. Commissioner Bill Gibbons contributed the drop in fatalities across the state to better law enforcement.
Construction workers patched drywall and installed electrical wiring in the Fred Brown Residence Hall last week, as crews continue to work nearly seven days a week to ready the newest University of Tennessee dormitory for its August opening. Work on the $59 million,700-bed residence hall, which began in May 2012, is about 65 percent done, said Fred Cuevas, executive director of housing at UT. “The whole project has actually been fast-tracked to begin with to make sure we open on time and we can start getting furniture deliveries sometime in May,” Cuevas said. “Not only is it all under roof, but we’ve enclosed the whole building.
A Democratic legislator has filed a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would authorize prescription sales of marijuana for medicinal purposes in Tennessee under somewhat stringent regulations. “It’s just simply a matter of being rational and compassionate,” said Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, sponsor of HB1385. “It would apply to only the most severely debilitated people … children suffering a hundred (epileptic) seizures a day, people on chemotherapy, people with multiple sclerosis … people with a plethora of diseases” who now must either leave the state to get marijuana or make their purchases illegally.
Democrats in Tennessee are hoping for a comeback, but first they need to find someone who can lead them back. The 2014 election is expected to be a harsh one for Democrats in Tennessee. Republicans hold solid majorities in the state legislature, Gov. Bill Haslam so far faces very little challenge, and President Barack Obama’s low popularity has waned still more. The filing period for candidates to register for 2014 opened Friday, but time already is running short for Democrats to find people willing to carry the party’s banner in November. Earlier this week, Sara Kyle, one of the last Democrats to win statewide office, announced she would not take on Haslam. These bleak prospects come despite a few glimmers of hope for Democrats.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander wants to monitor how well the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is using a new law passed by Congress to prevent another fungal meningitis outbreak. He said Friday that he will push for an oversight hearing on the agency’s regulation of compounding pharmacies. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg has said the law does not give her agency all the powers it would have liked, but that it was a step forward in defining regulatory authority. Members of Congress criticized her agency for failing to do its job when a contaminated steroid made by Massachusetts-based New England Compounding Center caused an outbreak that sickened 751 people and caused 64 deaths.
The Obama administration, stung by the failures of the HealthCare.gov rollout, is considering loosening hiring rules for technology specialists and creating a new federal unit dedicated to big tech projects, officials said. The steps, some of which President Barack Obama could announce this quarter, are designed to address the lack of concentrated talent in civilian federal agencies to manage large technology projects—a shortcoming exposed by October’s disastrous launch of the federal health-insurance site. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services initially served as its own general contractor on the project, but its lack of technical expertise quickly became apparent.
The Obama administration on Friday urged the Supreme Court to allow enforcement of the federal health-care law’s contraception requirements, arguing that religiously affiliated nonprofits had no valid basis for seeking to block the provisions. The administration’s arguments, in a filing by U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, came in response to a request by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who on New Year’s Eve temporarily blocked enforcement of the contraception requirements against a group of nonprofit Roman Catholic homes for the elderly poor. Mr. Verrilli said the law didn’t place burdens on the Little Sisters of the Poor, which operates the homes and brought the case in federal court in Denver, because they could claim an exemption to the contraception mandate.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is spilling water through eight of its nine mainstream dams to help draw down TVA’s rain-swollen reservoirs to lower winter pool levels. At the Chickamauga Dam on Friday, TVA was running 38,000 cubic feet per second of water through its hydro generators and spilling nearly 33,000 cubic feet per second of water through its spillways. The heavy river flow, equa. to 532,000 gallons per second, restricts barge movement at night, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.