This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Here are some of the issues lawmakers are expected to tackle in the upcoming legislative session. BUDGET: Tennessee’s more than $30 billion budget is growing at a sluggish pace, and most of that growth is eaten up by increases in Medicaid spending. Lawmakers are required by the state constitution to pass a balanced budget. CHARTER SCHOOLS: A bill to create a statewide authorizer for charter schools failed in the closing days of last year’s legislative session, but proponents hope for a quick passage this year. Another proposal called the “parent trigger” would allow for a vote among parents at public schools to convert schools into charters. COMMON CORE: An effort to back away from a common set of standards for reading and math could pitch members of the GOP against each other.
The state legislature convenes Tuesday with an agenda affecting Tennesseans’ health care, taxes, school choices and standards, tuition — even where they can buy wine and pseudoephedrine, take guns and vote on municipal annexations. Year Four of Republican control of the statehouse — both legislative chambers and the governor’s office — will focus on several items on the GOP’s unfinished agenda before lawmakers head home, probably in April. School vouchers, which let parents use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuitions, tops that agenda. GOP leaders expect some limited voucher program to win approval but parents will want to stay tuned to who ends up eligible for the subsidies.
The 2014 Tennessee legislative session dawns this week with the ruling Republican supermajority divided on several key issues — so much so that Democrats think they could actually cast deciding votes despite their superminority status. “We may have the largest bloc of consistent votes up here on any given issue,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, suggesting that the supermajority is divided into smaller blocs. In the House, the Democratic bloc shrank by one vote last week when the White County Commission voted to appoint Republican Paul Bailey, himself a county commissioner, as interim successor to Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, who resigned his seat.
The Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes Tuesday for what is expected to be a breakneck session, one that Republican leaders hope will bring resolution to some of the most difficult questions lawmakers have grappled with in recent years. GOP leaders hope to settle the perennial debate over whether to let grocery stores sell wine. They are expected to confront bills on health care and education that hold the clear potential to divide the large Republican majority at the Capitol. The leaders, at least, hope to avoid one usual-suspect subject — that of where Tennessee gun owners should be allowed to take their weapons. But they will be forced to take on a state budget in which tax revenues so far have come in $171 million less than expected.
The state labor department has settled one former employee’s discrimination lawsuit but failed last week to persuade a Nashville judge to dismiss a second, similar lawsuit headed to trial. First, on Monday, a federal judge agreed to dismiss a 2012 lawsuit brought by former 27-year state employee Donald B. Ingram, who charged that the Department of Labor and Workforce Development forced him out because he is white, as part of a pattern that brought in 28 black replacements for white employees. The state will pay Ingram $215,000 to settle the lawsuit but won’t admit wrongdoing.
Tennessee Department of Transportation projects on tap for Bradley County include an overhaul of Interstate 75’s exit 20, a new interchange on APD-40 and improvements on Durkee Road, Benton Pike and Georgetown Road. “We’ve got our share of TDOT projects as we speak,” Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis recently told the Rotary Club of Cleveland. “We have urged, worked, begged and pleaded with the state for the last 15 years to do something about exit 20, and if you’ve gone through there lately, they’re finally doing something about exit 20.” Work at the exit 20 site now involves the construction of a new concrete bridge and grading, drainage and paving, Jennifer Flynn, community relations officer for TDOT, noted in a news release.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation is fast-tracking nearly $6.5 million worth of roadway improvements along Wilcox Drive and Lincoln Street in connection to Eastman Chemical Co.’s new corporate business center project. Last May, Eastman announced a $1.6 billion reinvestment plan, dubbed “Project Inspire,” aimed at focusing on safety and environmental projects at the plant, warehouse capacity and building renovations. The first major project of the plan calls for the construction of a new 300,000-square-foot corporate business center on the site of the company’s old ball fields on South Wilcox Drive, beside the Eastman Credit Union.
The Tennessee State Employees Association announced Friday that its executive director will retire this spring. Robert A. O’Connell plans to step down May 1 after four years as the TSEA’s head. He led the organization during negotiations with Gov. Bill Haslam over his civil service bill, known as the TEAM Act. O’Connell also served as the association’s staff attorney, assistant general counsel for the Tennessee Department of Health and a staff attorney for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health at Clover Bottom Development Center.
Controversy over Common Core standards has grown dramatically at both the state and national level in recent months, creating a new and divisive education issue for legislators to confront. On one side are national conservative activist groups such as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks and state organizations including Tennessee Against Common Core. They would like to ban the standards, reversing approval granted almost four years ago. “Common Core is the nationalizing and even globalizing of education. It is nothing more than the old outcome-based, school-to-work education nonsense that was defeated 20 years ago but with a new face and makeup to make it look good,” says Tennessee Against Common Core on its website.
Teachers hope the Tennessee General Assembly will find a better way to evaluate them. “When they are basing your licensure on TVAAS (Tennessee Value Added Assessment System), that’s just not fair,” said Emily Mitchell, a first-grade teacher at David Youree Elementary School in Smyrna “There are too many teachers going into those tests when they have kids who are sick or kids who are hungry or they have problems at home or kids who throw up,” said Mitchell, who also is the president of the Rutherford Education Association president. “All of those factor in.”
Could this be the time for wine? Top state lawmakers appear to think a matter that comes up year after year has finally aged to perfection. Legislation that would let grocery stores sell wine is expected to trigger a fierce debate at the state Capitol in 2014 — just as it has in years past. But Republican leaders are throwing more weight behind the bill, and they point to the progress the measure made last year — however slight — as a sign that a breakthrough could come this session. “I see movement,” House Speaker Beth Harwell told reporters recently. “I can’t always predict what the General Assembly will do, but I feel like the people want the right to vote on this issue.”
GOP leaders are content in this year’s legislative session to support Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision not to expand Tennessee’s Medicaid program for the poor. But Democratic lawmakers say they intend to spotlight the issue in every possible way when legislators return to the state Capitol on Tuesday. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said thousands of Tennesseans are losing out on needed health care benefits and struggling hospitals are missing out on an infusion of about $2.3 million of federal money per day in the last half of the 2013-14 fiscal year. Democrats will do whatever they can “to try to convince people that this is the right thing to do,” Fitzhugh said about pushing for Medicaid expansion.
Aspire Clarksville, an economic development foundation to benefit Clarksville-Montgomery County, will officially launch its new campaign at a kickoff breakfast in early February. The new five-year campaign aims to raise nearly $3.8 million for local business development, which is anticipated to bring over 3,500 jobs to the area, said a news release. Fifth campaign The new effort, “A Focus On The Future,” is the fifth campaign since the Aspire initiative was started in 1996. Recently, the Foundation nominated two local businessmen – Dr. Mark Green, Align MD (also the current 22nd District state senator), and Joe Pitts, Planters Bank (also currently the 67th District state representative) – to co-chair the campaign.
Enrollment in Shelby County Schools ballooned to 145,000 this year. Come July 1, the best guess is that will deflate by 30,000 students or more, making SCS the most elastic school district in the nation and Supt. Dorsey Hopson’s first year an obvious study in contrasts. “We’ll start off with about a $50 million deficit,” he said late Friday. “When 80 percent of your budget costs are in personnel, the place you have to start cutting and eliminating is in people and positions.” Even after finding $85 million in savings from pre-merger city and suburban school budgets, the unified district last year asked for, and received, the Shelby County Commission’s first increase in local education funding since 2008 — an additional $20 million.
It was 7 a.m. on a Saturday, and still Kendall Smith could not think about anything but school. The fourth-grader was dying to know if he was among those admitted to one of Metro’s optional schools through a lottery drawing known as selection day. The entire process, from application to acceptance, can be done from a computer. The majority of the 6,400 students who applied, about 73 percent, did so online this year. But about 200 still woke up early Saturday and drove to the Martin Professional Development Center to see the results, which were available there three hours before they were posted on Metro’s website. Kendall’s mother, Joni Smith, didn’t have much of a choice. Her 10-year-old son, who attends Dodson Elementary in Hermitage, needed to know about his future.
Robertson County officials have closed the auditorium at Springfield Middle School after an inspection by the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office determined the electrical wiring poses a fire hazard. The 800-seat auditorium not only serves the school but for decades has also been the primary venue for various events and theatrical productions in the community. Director of Schools Mike Davis said the results of the Jan. 7 inspection surprised him. This is Davis’ first year as schools director in Robertson County. “I did not have any idea that it was out of compliance,” Davis said.
Legislation to allow referendums on wine sales in grocery stores may be the toast of the General Assembly session that will convene this week, but education reform is most likely to be the main course. A whole slate of bills attempting to alter the landscape inhabited by children in grades K-12 will be forwarded. The minds of the kids are just part of what’s at stake. As a Tennessean report last week detailed, there also are hundreds of thousands of dollars in political-action money in play, as out-of-state reform advocates see opportunity in a legislature controlled by a conservative supermajority.
When the Tennessee General Assembly convenes this week, the state’s future will be on the line. This year K-12 and health care issues are already on the agenda, but higher education also should be included. The Association of Governing Boards, an organization of trustees and board members from campuses nationwide, recently noted that this is an extremely critical time for higher education, and it suggested historical practices must change. When serving as Tennessee finance commissioner, I had the job of putting together the annual state budget. Because of this, I am keenly aware that Tennessee, being a low-tax state, must make sure that every dollar it spends is done so effectively and efficiently. Our current system of higher education administration does neither.
The legislature will come back to Nashville this week, and, depending on your point of view, that signals it is time to: A. Lock up your liquor cabinet. A fair number of legislators still like to party hearty while they are in Nashville, no matter who is hosting. B. Hire more staff at Jimmy Kelly’s, Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris and The Palm. C. Think carefully about the laws that Tennesseans need and want that will improve our lives. Let’s all hope and pray the lawmakers choose “C.” There are key issues looming in the state that they need to take seriously. Some are about the safety and welfare of children, such as finding extra funding for the Department of Children’s Services.
While the nation last week acknowledged the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty, Memphis was laboring under a 28 percent poverty rate. Last Sunday, Kevin McKenzie, a business writer for The Commercial Appeal, reported that low labor costs here are a big asset for Memphis as manufacturers look to return jobs to American shores. Memphis has not been winning the war on poverty, and has actually lost ground over the last couple of years with the poverty rate jumping a couple of percentage points. The statistics are better nationally. The U.S. poverty rate has declined from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012, according to a new Council of Economic Advisers report.