This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
We continue to watch, and applaud, the evolution of higher education in Tennessee, and the state’s “Drive to 55” efforts to put more college degrees and technical certifications into the hands of more Tennesseans. The latest evidence of progress is the new “transfer down” plan being adopted by the state’s public four-year universities and some private universities. “Transfer down” enables students who transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions before completing their associate’s degree to use credits from their four-year school to complete the two-year degree.
Officials say whiskey maker Popcorn Sutton Distilling is opening a new facility in Newport. In a Wednesday news release, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty and company officials said Popcorn Sutton is completing construction on a new craft distillery in Cocke County. The news release says the late Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was a third-generation moonshiner who lived and distilled his white whiskey in Cocke County. Officials said the new facility represents a homecoming for Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey and Sutton’s family.
It took longer than originally expected, but Popcorn Sutton Distilling LLC expects to begin producing Tennessee whiskey in Cocke County early this year. The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and distillery officials announced today that the company is completing construction of the 46,000 square-foot facility in Newport, Tenn. The whiskey maker expects to create 36 new jobs in Newport over the next five years, according to a statement released to the media. The News Sentinel previously reported that Popcorn Sutton Distilling planned to build a distillery in Cocke County, where Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton ran his illegal moonshine operation for years.
Nashville-based Popcorn Sutton Distilling LLC has announced plans for a new craft distillery in Cocke County that will create 36 new jobs over the next five years. Tennessee whiskey legend Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, who died in 2009, was a third-generation moonshiner who lived and distilled his white whiskey in Cocke County. Building the new 46,000-square-foot facility represents a homecoming for Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey and Sutton’s family, officials said. “Whether it’s whiskey, cars or guitars, Tennessee’s brand and reputation for high quality craftsmanship is world-renowned,” said Bill Hagerty, Tennessee’s economic and community development commissioner.
Every year, about 1,300 Tennesseans complete 60 credits for an associate degree but don’t get the diploma because the paper trail is lost when they transfer from a two-year school to a four-year, a significant lapse for a state starved for degrees. This summer, the state will test software that alerts students when they reach the milestone, then flags the community colleges where they started their college career so the degree can be awarded. The process, called “reverse transfer,” rolled out in a handful of states last year when philanthropists, including Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, awarded grants to help them trace student work in four-year colleges back to two-year schools where they started.
After four years of a fragile and uneven recovery, the U.S. job machine is likely to kick into high gear in 2014. Even recession-battered states such as Arizona and Florida are expected to generate jobs at a healthier clip. Overall, the U.S. economy is projected to generate 2.6 million jobs in 2014 year, up from 2.2 million last year, largely on the strength of the country’s booming health care, energy and high-tech sectors. Nearly 572,000 of the new jobs will be added in just two states, Texas and California, according to Moody’s Analytics, a global economic forecasting company. Florida will add 176,000 jobs, while Arizona is expected to add 77,000, Moody’s estimates.
This week, Stateline the nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts which provides analysis on trends in state policy, released its predictions for job creation for 2014 and citizens of the Volunteer State will not be pleased with the findings. According to Stateline, Tennessee will be among the slowest when it comes to job creation this year. Stateline is predicting that the state will be 44th in overall job creation with a growth rate of 1.23 percent in jobs, adding only about 34,000 new jobs in 2014. The pill is even harder to swallow when compared with the state’s neighbors in the south, which are predicted to have some of the best job creation numbers in the nation.
The first child death in Tennessee from the 2013-14 flu season has occurred, the Tennessee Department of Health said Wednesday. The state tracks deaths among people younger than 18 and pregnant women, then reports those numbers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For privacy reasons, the state agency does not release information about where the death occurred. Nine other people from Nashville and its surrounding counties have died from complications of the flu this season, and deaths also are being reported from the Cumberland Region.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation on Wednesday began the Yellow DOT Program, which is designed to assist first responders in identifying vital medical information for senior drivers, according to a news release. The program features yellow stickers that are placed in the bottom left side of the rear window of vehicles, and yellow envelopes containing a photo, medical history and prescription drug information for glove compartments. The program will allow emergency personnel to make the most of what’s known as the “golden hour,” the first hour after an injury or medical emergency during which medical treatment can dramatically increase a patient’s chances for survival, the release said.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is inviting the public to comment on a new strategic plan that will guide the agency over the next five or six years. The plan, to be unveiled in 2014, is unlike any previous effort implemented by TWRA. The agency’s No. 1 priority in the past was restoring the state’s fish and wildlife. Now that species such as black bear, white-tailed deer and turkey have rebounded, the agency is shifting its focus on maintaining the habitats that support the state’s wildlife populations.
Dr. Bill Seymour began work this week as the new president of Cleveland State Community College. On Wednesday, Seymour introduced himself to faculty and staff and shared with them his priorities, including engaging students and meeting existing needs of education, the community and the workforce. “Engaging every student is the linchpin to doing everything we need to do as an educational community,” he said. “Every student matters. Every student comes with a different set of goals, and we need to assess what those are.”
The state of Tennessee is honoring Lady Volunteers Head Coach Emeritus Pat Summitt by dedicating the new edition of the Tennessee Blue Book to her. The Blue Book is the Tennessee’s definitive manual on state government. It includes information about Tennessee history and the three branches of state government and biographies of all members of the Tennessee General Assembly. The Blue Book is published every two years by the secretary of state’s office, and the new edition will be available soon. Secretary of State Tre Hargett said in a news release that Summitt has inspired countless Tennesseans, first as a basketball coach and more recently as an advocate for Alzheimer’s research.
When state lawmakers begin their legislative session next week, education policies, transit options and workers’ rights reforms will be among top priorities for Nashville and state business leaders. The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce plans to support dual enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credits, as well as the implementation of the Common Core program, a set of benchmarks meant to raise education levels nationwide that has stirred controversy among parents and special interest groups, according to its 2014 legislative agenda.
State Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, introduced legislation this week dubbed the Koozer-Kuhn Medical Cannabis Act, which would allow statewide legal protections for qualified patients authorized by their physicians to engage in cannabis therapy. “I’m sure it’s going to die,” state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said Wednesday following a brief town hall meeting in Johnson City. “I ask this question of my constituents in an annual survey, and I’ve been seeing about 40 percent support for it. It’s trending upward, but I’ve got to have tons of information.” Hill is chair of the General Assembly’s House Local Government Committee; Jones is a member of that committee.
State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, was roughly halfway through an hourlong town hall meeting at Johnson City’s Memorial Park Community Center Wednesday when he leaned an elbow on the podium and spoke into the microphone: “Anyone want to talk about wine in supermarkets? I do.” Hill was heavily criticized by proponents of the bill in March for voting for an earlier version of the legislation in a subcommittee, only to cast the key vote against the measure when it reached the House Local Government Committee, which he chairs.
It was the Friday before Christmas, and state Rep. Gloria Johnson was on the Knox County Democratic Party’s live call-in show on community access TV. She was there to introduce Cheri Siler, a first-time candidate who’s going to challenge Stacey Campfield. A couple of prank callers decided to target Johnson for abuse, but all their semi-coherent badgering accomplished was to make her laugh. She finished the show without a hitch, and was still laughing days later. “They called me ‘Miss Piggy,’“ she says. “Who’s going to think that’s cute except a bunch of 20-year-old Republicans? I’ve been in a classroom full of emotionally disturbed kids who did much better than that. Those guys weren’t even clever. ‘Miss Piggy?’ I say, keep it coming, because it’s such a reflection of who they are.”
State Sen. Douglas Henry has been hospitalized for dehydration but is expected to be released before the start of the legislative session next week. Henry, who represents East Nashville, Antioch and parts of West Nashville, checked into a Nashville emergency room Monday. He is slated to be released Thursday, aides said. Henry, a Democrat, was first elected to the General Assembly in 1954 and, after a 14-year absence, to the Senate in 1970. Henry primarily has represented West Nashville during his legislative career, but after redistricting, Henry announced he would not seek another term this November.
Health insurance shoppers looking to bypass the glitchy federal HealthCare.gov exchange site have another new option in Tennessee. Virtus Benefits, a Nashville-based employee benefits advisor, has launched an exchange specifically for Tennessee residents. Dubbed TNHealthcare.com, the exchange website enables individuals to input basic info (age, zip code, any dependents) into a Web portal, and in turn, generates all available plans and pricing, specific to the individual. It’s the latest example in Nashville of a traditional broker launching new services to capture an individual market that is expected to expand under health care reform.
The Obama administration Wednesday pressed the nation’s schools to abandon what it described as overly zealous discipline policies that send students to court instead of the principal’s office. Even before the announcement, school districts across the country, including Nashville, have been taking action to adjust the policies that disproportionately affect minority students. Attorney General Eric Holder said problems often stem from well-intentioned “zero-tolerance” policies that can inject the criminal justice system into school matters. “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Holder said.
Homes and businesses have set a single-day record for electric use in the seven-state Tennessee Valley Authority region. The TVA says it supplied a total of 703 gigawatt-hours of electricity over 24 hours on Tuesday amid a wave of arctic weather. The previous record was 701 gigawatt-hours set on Jan. 8, 2010. Temperatures in the region never got above 21 degrees on Tuesday, and the average was just 4 degrees in the morning, when the TVA power system hit its second-highest winter peak power demand. TVA is the nation’s largest public utility, supplying power to about 9 million people in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
The Arctic blast of coldest weather this week put the heat on for TVA, which sold a record daily amount of electricity on Tuesday following one of the highest demand days on Monday. As homes, offices and factories cranked up electric furnaces and heaters to cope with the coldest day in the Tennessee Valley in nearly two decades, TVA sold a record 703 gigawatthours of electricity on Tuesday. That beat the previous daily record set of 701 gigawatt hours set in January 2010, TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield said Wednesday. Tuesday’s record use of power followed Monday’s 678 gigawatt hours of power consumption — the fourth highest date for daily power sales in TVA history — when temperatures fell into single digits late in the day.
The Tennessee Valley Authority broke a record during the cold snap – more power used than on any 24-hour period in the utility’s history. It took more than 700,000 megawatt hours to keep homes and businesses warm, breaking a record last set in January 2010. When energy use approaches max capacity for TVA’s seven-state region, engineers gather in a control room in Chattanooga full of monitors and alarms. “You can see everything coming online and going offline,” says spokesman Scott Brooks. “And yeah, there we some raw nerves down there on Tuesday.” Brooks says it’s always a balance to produce just the right amount of power that’s needed. And this week, it has taken everything TVA’s got.
A Tennessee city is back on Movie Maker’s ranking of the best places for filmmakers–and it’s not Nashville. The industry magazine gave Memphis high marks for special assistance that goes above and beyond the state’s financial incentives. The city provides things like free office space on Beale Street and retired financial experts who volunteer business advice to independent films. The result has been productions that don’t just shoot in Memphis, but showcase the city. The output ranges from Undefeated, an Oscar-winning documentary about a local high school football team to an MTV web series set in the city’s music scene, called $5 Cover.
Some Knox County teachers say they aren’t surprised by the results of a systemwide survey that was released this week. “I think the results really do support the concerns the teachers have brought before the school board in these last couple of months,” said Robert Taylor, a special-education teacher at Amherst Elementary School teacher who has addressed the school board at its meetings. “I think it’s very vindicating as to what we’ve been saying. … I think what they show is that concerns we brought really are shared by many, a majority, of the teachers throughout the system.”
In a sign of how drastic the epidemic of drug addiction here has become, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday devoted his entire State of the State Message to what he said was “a full-blown heroin crisis” gripping Vermont. “In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us,” he said. He said he wanted to reframe the public debate to encourage officials to respond to addiction as a chronic disease, with treatment and support, rather than with only punishment and incarceration. “The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards,” Governor Shumlin said, “while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards.”
With an April 3 deadline for filing qualifying petitions to become a candidate in the Aug. 7 primary elections for the Nov. 4 general election, it looks as if Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is on his way toward seeking re-election to a second term without a strong opponent. No competitor has emerged to challenge the governor in the GOP primary and the Democrats lost a possible strong candidate when Memphian Sara Kyle announced this month she would not be a candidate for governor this year. We said “possible” because Kyle became the third woman to win a statewide office in Tennessee with her election to the old Public Service Commission in 1994.
Let’s be charitable and assume that Gov. Bill Haslam is not proposing an expansion of Medicaid because he thinks the super majority Republican Legislature won’t approve it—they hate Obamacare as well as poor people too shiftless to pay their hospital bills on their minimum wage salary. Besides, the legislators have insurance paid for by the taxpayers. So the governor has dithered, trying to find a third way out of the box. Neither proposing what he knows is right or being honest about rejecting an estimated $6 billion injected into the state’s medical infrastructure over the next five years.
Without question, methamphetamine is a critical problem in Tennessee, and every party in this debate shares a commitment to reducing abuse. As Tennessee lawmakers consider additional measures to address the methamphetamine problem, we must frame the debate on facts — not hyperbole and conjecture. Recently, supporters of a law to require Tennesseans to obtain a prescription before buying safe and effective medicines containing pseudoephedrine (PSE) have made misleading claims. Chief among them is the contention that Tennessee’s real-time PSE tracking system — known as the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx) — is ineffective in targeting criminals and keeping meth precursors off the street.
The Tennessee Valley Authority reported a near-record demand for power this week when frigid Arctic air moved into the region. The brief surge in demand will not reverse the long-term trend of decreasing power usage, however, which is leading TVA to cut capacity and almost certainly to trim payrolls. TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson will need to continue finding efficiencies to pare expenses to match revenues. If Johnson resorts to cutting jobs, as anticipated, every effort should be made to meet the utility’s goals through attrition, voluntary resignations and early retirements before imposing forced layoffs. Power demand peaked in the Tennessee Valley Tuesday morning, according to TVA, at 32,460 megawatts.