This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
“Where we are matters a lot,” Gov. Bill Haslam stated during a recent end-of-year visit to The Secret City. Keynoting the East Tennessee Economic Council’s annual meeting at the DoubleTree by Hilton, the governor shared what he’s learned about bringing jobs to the Volunteer State. “We have an incredible location in Tennessee,” said Haslam, adding that there is “predictability” in Tennessee and it’s a “comfortable place to invest in.” “We do stuff like pay for our roads as we build them,” stated the governor, who also touted a low tax rate, low debt “and a work environment people are attracted to.”
In an effort to boost college graduation rates, Tennessee universities have rolled out a new plan to help students who transfer out of community colleges get the associate degrees they may still lack. Under a “reverse transfer” program unveiled today, Tennessee community college students who transfer to four-year colleges in this state without completing their degree will next year have a chance to finish what they started. The state currently lacks a system for students who transfer from community colleges to receive an associate degree after they arrive at their new four-year school.
Students who transfer into a four-year college from a community college will have a fail-safe in their back pocket, thanks to a new “reverse transfer” program. The effort will help about 1,300 students each year who have completed at least 45 of the 60 credit hours required for most associate’s degrees. The program is designed to boost college attainment rates — the primary goal of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 effort that is aimed at boosting college completion from 32 percent to 55 percent of Tennessee’s adults by 2025. The reverse transfer program will go after the low-hanging fruit of people already well on their way to earning some type of degree.
A new effort will help more college students to complete their associate degrees while making the transition from a community to a four-year college, University of Tennessee officials said Tuesday. The effort, funded in part by a nearly $400,000 grant from the private Lumina Foundation, should make transferring credits and meeting degree requirements as simple as surfing online, UT President Joe DiPietro said. “We think this bodes well for us,” he said. “UT will be the lead institution in carrying it out. This puts us in a leadership role from a standpoint not only in the state but across the nation.”
Nine people from Nashville and its surrounding counties have died from complications of the flu so far this flu season, and deaths also are being reported from the Cumberland Region. With the same strain in wide circulation that caused a pandemic in 2009, health officials in Tennessee are urging more people to get flu vaccinations. “We’re in the midst of a substantial influenza year,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious disease professor who tracks cases in Nashville and seven neighboring counties as part of a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schaffner said the nine deaths from flu complications occurred in hospitals where cases were laboratory-confirmed.
Nashville graphic designer Leslie Haines likes the idea of her artwork rolling along Tennessee roadways, right there above thousands of bumpers, in the vibrant turquoise license plate she designed to promote the arts. But what she couldn’t picture, before her design won a statewide competition three years ago, was just how important a new specialty license plate — of all things — could be for artists across the state. It turns out there isn’t much that matters more. In Tennessee, specialty plate sales account for a majority of public funding for the arts — almost two-thirds of the money given out each year by the Tennessee Arts Commission.
Commuters could be driving on the new state Route 109 bridge by early spring, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. The new bridge, which extends 1,600 feet across the Cumberland River, initially was expected to be complete by Oct. 31, but was delayed because of additional work required on one of its piers, TDOT spokeswoman Deanna Lambert said. “Concrete had to be poured underwater on the deepest bridge pier, which was a complicated and timely process,” she said. The project is expected to be finished by the fall, Lambert said, with minor work still to be done once traffic moves over.
Tennessee is joining a national campaign to raise awareness about funding needs at public libraries. The “Geek the Library” campaign encourages people to talk about subjects they are passionate about, ranging from engineering to superheroes. It stresses that public libraries have books and other materials that cover a wide range of interests. Secretary of State Tre Hargett says that more than 170 libraries around the state are participating in the campaign that stresses that everybody is interested in something. In Hargett’s words: “No matter what your interests are, you can learn more about them at your local library.”
Four days after someone won the Mega Millions jackpot at a Bellevue gas station, Tennessee Lottery officials are still waiting for the winner to claim the $61 million prize, the largest given in state history. From what lottery President and CEO Rebecca Hargrove said Tuesday, they might have to be in for the long haul. Prior winners of million-dollar prizes varied in their response time. “Sometimes people are on our doorsteps the minute we open for business,” Hargrove said. “And sometimes they’ll wait six months or so before they claim it.” Lottery officials awarded a much smaller check Tuesday to the owners of the gas station where the winning ticket was sold.
A $61 million prize is still waiting to be claimed by someone who bought a lottery ticket in Bellevue. The Mega Millions winner – announced Friday – is expected to come out of the woodwork eventually. But millions of dollars goes unclaimed each year in Tennessee. They’re often small prizes – a few dollars. But a handful of million-dollar tickets have expired after no one came forward within the 180-day window allowed by state law. The no-shows are often inexperienced and have non-jackpot tickets that still pay out, says Tennessee Lottery CEO Rebecca Hargrove.
Republican businessman and farmer Paul Bailey has been appointed by the White County Commission to succeed Democratic state Rep. Charles Curtiss in the General Assembly. Bailey, also a county commissioner, said Tuesday that he plans to serve out the remainder of Curtiss’ term, but will continue to run for the state Senate seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Charlotte Burks this fall. “I had several fellow commissioners approach me and ask if I would serve out the remainder of this term, which would allow someone to come forward and run for that position and put everyone on equal footing,” he said. The vote in his favor was 7-6, he said.
Democratic leaders in the state House of Representatives say they’ll push for a state minimum wage in this year’s legislative session. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner and Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh said at a news conference Tuesday that the state should set a minimum wage over and above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour to help workers amid a sluggish economy. “We’re one of the poorer states in the Union, and the minimum wage — you cannot make a living on the minimum wage,” Turner said. “I doubt they (Republicans) will go along with it, but there’s a lot of people in this state that make the minimum wage.”
Democrats in the Tennessee legislature plan to keep pressing Republicans to accept federal money and expand the state’s Medicaid program. The minority party is sticking with the same legislative priority after failing to make headway last year. Seen one way, Tennessee is passing up a windfall over the next three years that would provide health coverage for at least 150,000 of the state’s working poor. The White House offered the money as a way to entice states to expand their Medicaid programs. Tennessee and other Republican-led states in the south have balked at the offer. Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) says he and other supporters of President Obama have failed to make a compelling case.
A spokesman says Gov. Bill Haslam never received a petition seeking return of a pet raccoon to Mark “Coonrippy” Brown, but his staffers did talk with the Gallatin, Tenn., man who has since declared himself a Republican candidate for governor. In declaring his candidacy against Haslam in the August GOP primary, Brown, 55, told the Gallatin News Examiner that Haslam had “ignored the cries from the entire United States” asking for the raccoon named Rebekah to be returned to him by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He said a letter to TWRA officials seeking a permit went unanswered and a petition to Haslam with more than 60,000 signatures was returned unopened.
Both of Tennessee’s Republican Senators say they’re against extended long-term unemployment benefits that expired just before the new year, but the two oppose the measure for different reasons. Tuesday morning, Senators voted on whether to bring the bill to the floor. Six Republicans voted in favor, but Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander voted no. He says there needs to be more debate on extending long-term jobless benefits for three months. “The Democratic leader [Sen. Harry Reid] brings a bill to the floor that hasn’t been considered by committee. That doesn’t allow any votes, he cuts off all amendments,” Alexander said to reporters after the vote.
Legislation to resurrect benefits for the long-term unemployed overcame an important procedural hurdle in the Senate Tuesday, triggering a debate over how to cover the cost and whether other changes could ease the bill through the Senate and a wary House. The bill took a surprising leap forward with the Senate’s 60-37 vote to begin formal debate. Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) all but predicted defeat. But six Republicans joined with Democrats and independents to produce the 60 votes needed to keep the measure alive Many obstacles remain before the proposed three-month revival of the jobless benefits becomes law, as the parties remain at odds over whether and how to cover the $6.5 billion cost.
Power demand in the Tennessee Valley peaked early Tuesday as frigid weather moved across the region, TVA said today. Electricity demand has since started coming down, the utility said in a statement released to the media. “We appreciate all the efforts by our local power companies to reduce voltage, along with any appeals for power conservation locally during the heaviest demand period Tuesday morning,” TVA said. A preliminary peak power demand of 32,460 megawatts was reached at 9 a.m. today with the valley’s average temperature at 4 degrees, according to the news release.
Tennessee banks are reporting a jump in lending rates after joining the U.S. Treasury Department’s Small Business Lending Fund, a program intended to spur loans to small businesses and create jobs. Participating Tennessee banks have increased lending by $518.3 million since baseline levels established in 2010, with a $99.2 million increase in the third quarter of 2013, according to a Treasury report. The fund program, part of the Obama administration’s Small Business Jobs Act, provides capital to community banks with less than $10 billion in assets at low interest rates of 1 to 5 percent, so they can make loans more easily to small businesses after lending markets slowed during the financial crisis and recession.
Even as Shelby County’s civil war over public schools winds down, with legal deals clearing the way for six new municipal school districts, Wednesday’s interviews for a vacant County Commission seat likely will include an airing of past educational grievances. And the discussions could serve as a preview for education funding debates expected in upcoming county budget deliberations and commission elections. In all, 15 people have applied for the suburban District 4 seat left vacant when recently-elected Lakeland Mayor Wyatt Bunker resigned with less than a year remaining in his term. The vote is Monday.
Tennessee could be on its way to another ignominious ranking: the top meth lab state in the nation. In 2012, Tennessee ranked behind just Missouri for the top spot with 1,585 known meth labs compared to the Show Me State’s 1,825. Mark Gwyn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, warned in a November budget presentation of Tennessee’s potential rise. “We’re headed to be number one this year in meth lab production,” Gwyn said. State Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, is joining with state Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, to make the penalty for cooking meth more punitive for parents who expose their kids to their drug production.
The state audit of Madison County government appears to reflect a reasonably well-run county government that is responsive to sound financial accounting rules and committed to correcting oversights and resolving problems. That is good news for Madison County taxpayers. Most of the 10 state audit findings reflect procedural issues that Madison County Finance Director Mike Nichols said already have been corrected or soon will be corrected. The most troubling findings involved cash shortages and employee fraud involving improper use of county gas cards and an employee diverting funds from vehicle title registration transactions.
Late this past summer, my senior biking club pedaled our way 120 miles along the spectacular Pine Creek Rail Trail in north central Pennsylvania’s Tioga County. We stopped in Wellsboro, where the commercial buildings and trendy shops all had been carefully restored and preserved, the Victorian houses were spacious and grand, and the town square and park were perfectly manicured. The roots of its wealth are in the timber industry, which dominated the local economy for a century, from 1820 to 1920. Later, recreational tourism— everything from biking, hiking, fi shing and rafting to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing flourished.