This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Governor Bill Haslam will be in Nashville Wednesday to make a big announcement. A news conference is schedule for 10 a.m. at the State Capitol. The governor along with Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty are expected to discuss a significant economic development.
Gov. Bill Haslam has appointed a task force to study the state’s school funding formula. The panel is being formed amid criticism that the Basic Education Program, or BEP, is not adequately funding districts statewide. Last month, the Metro Nashville school board voted unanimously to ask officials to fund public education in a way that would allow those districts to meet rigorous new academic standards. The board said the program hasn’t been fully funded since it was overhauled six years ago under then-Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Gov. Bill Haslam took the podium in front of Tennessee’s most ardent “school choice” supporters but barely alluded to the item they covet most — a state voucher system that would allow public dollars to go toward private schooling. Up next, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called such a plan the single biggest area Tennessee must address after major education changes recently. “The one thing that we’re lacking is that school choice,” Ramsey told a crowd gathered in Nashville to celebrate National School Choice week. He called parents at failing public schools “trapped,” adding, “The time has come for that to change.” Their remarks reflect different paths into renewed Republican negotiations over vouchers, one year after a proposal died in the Senate.
The Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments is now taking applications to fill an upcoming vacancy on the state Supreme Court. Justice Bill Koch has announced he is retiring on July 15 to become dean of the Nashville School of Law. Candidates from Middle or West Tennessee can apply through Feb. 21. Koch has served on the state’s highest court since 2007. The panel is scheduled to interview qualified applicants on March 5 in Nashville and then present Republican Gov. Bill Haslam with three finalists to choose from.
In a State of Education in Tennessee report delivered Monday by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Common Core standards topped a list of state public education priorities. And the directors of Rutherford County Schools and Murfreesboro City Schools said they can see why. “It took me awhile to get here,” said RCS Director Don Odom. “I am for continuing with the standards because they’re rigorous, and we’ve seen results from what we’ve implemented. What really pushed me to this decision is that when we really started teaching Common Core in math, we saw an incredible increase in student achievement.”
In advance of Tennessee’s looming legislative fight over Common Core, dollars from its top philanthropic backer have arrived here to fight a rollback. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made three donations in Tennessee near the end of 2013 to help the push and implementation of the controversial education standards overhaul and its aligned test. One of those, a $400,000 grant in November to the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce for “improving college and career readiness,” came ahead of the chamber’s recent announcement of a group called Businesses for Tennessee Prosperity.
A new study shows Tennessee’s 4th grade reading scores have improved over the last decade at one of the fastest rates in the nation. But given how far behind the state began, those gains just bring the students’ scores even with the national average. And researchers say that average grade is unacceptably low. The Annie E. Casey Foundation looked at performance on a national test, known as NAEP. In particular, it focused how many students did not score well enough to be considered proficient. In 2003, almost 3-quarters of Tennessee’s 4th graders failed to reach the mark.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation says applications are now available for energy education camps for teachers. The program run by TDEC’s Office of Energy Programs is designed to instruct teachers about the science of energy conservation in the classroom, and how to teach students how to put that information into practice in their schools and communities. The four-day sessions will be held in June and July at Cumberland Mountain State Park in Crossville, Paris Landing State Park in Buchanan and Fall Creek Falls State Park in Pikeville.
Traffic stretching from the Signal Mountain Road exit off northbound U.S. Highway 27 almost to downtown Chattanooga on Monday during afternoon rush hour had motorists questioning the placement of a new traffic light at the end of the busy off-ramp. “Monday evening was bad,” said Bob Patel, owner of the Mountain Mart gas station on Signal Mountain Road, who said customers complained about travel times. A new traffic signal at the end of the Signal Mountain Road exit ramp directs motorist to either Signal Mountain or Dayton Boulevard. Thousands of northbound motorists have to use this exit as the Dayton Boulevard exit ramp will be closed until July. The ramp is being rebuilt as part of the ongoing widening project on Highway 27.
The nation’s college and university endowments — often used to fund scholarships and professorships — had strong growth last year, according to a report released Tuesday. That’s a bit of good news for higher education institutions under pressure to hold down tuition costs amid some enrollment declines. More than 80 institutions reported endowments from the 2013 budget year valued at more than $1 billion. Overall, endowments returned an average of 11.7 percent. A year earlier, returns had held relatively steady, with a decline of less than 1 percent, according to the analysis by National Association of College and University Business officers and Commonfund using data from the 835 colleges and universities that agreed to participate.
The House committee that killed last year’s version of a bill to allow wine sales in Tennessee grocery stores on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted in favor of giving cities the ability to hold referendums on the proposal. The House Local Government Committee voted 13-3 to advance the bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol. “I’m excited,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville and a lead proponent of the wine measure. “I think they’ve taken the appropriate action in listening to their constituents.” Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, who was one of the three no votes on the Local Government Committee, earlier complained to colleagues that it “offends me” that proponents crafted a detour that left the panel dealing only with the referendum issue.
Legislation that would let grocery stores sell wine started to roll through the state House of Representatives on Tuesday, as supporters sidestepped a hurdle that blocked the bill a year ago. A pair of House committees approved two separate bills that would lift restrictions on liquor stores and let local governments hold referendums on whether to let supermarkets, big-box retailers and convenience stores in their jurisdictions sell wine. Shoppers wouldn’t begin to see wine on grocery store shelves until July 1, 2016. The House legislation differs substantially from the Senate’s measure, which could come up for a vote as soon as Thursday.
The compromise wine-in-grocery-stores bill now moving through committees in the Tennessee legislature wouldn’t permit wine sales in grocery stores until July 1, 2016. And it wouldn’t permit grocers to sell wine within 500 feet of a liquor store until mid-2017 unless the nearby liquor retailer agrees. Despite the 2½-year delay for wine in grocery stores, the compromise would allow liquor stores to begin selling beer, beer kegs, cigarettes, mixers, party supplies, snacks, non-alcoholic beverages and a wide variety of other items starting July 1 of this year.
An amended bill that would permit the sale of wine in grocery stores beginning July 1, 2016, passed the House State Government Committee Thursday evening. Introduced in the committee earlier in the day, the proposed compromise aims to allow grocery stores to sell wine, but also gives liquor stores the ability to sell additional goods. As outlined by the measure, grocery stores within 500 feet of an existing liquor store would not be able to sell wine until July 1, 2017. However, grocery stores in close proximity to liquor stores could begin selling wine in July 2016 if the nearby liquor store gives the go-ahead to the Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
A legislative push to allow wine sales in Tennessee grocery stores has been revived and is moving quickly. The compromise revealed Tuesday would let liquor stores sell other items like corkscrews and ice, while leaving the decision to allow wine sales up to local referendums. The proposal has been split into two pieces, which backers say will probably be put together at some point. Both made it past committee votes with comfortable margins Tuesday, despite some objections from lawmakers like Kent Williams, who exclaimed at one point, “I’m not a hypocrite—I drink a cold beer, and I love a cold beer!”
Tennessee State Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, outlined the main points of a measure that apparently has backing from key players in the years-long fight over the effort to allow retail sales of wine in places besides liquor stores. The measure, House Bill 47, is being considered before the House State Government Committee. Another measure that stipulates rules for local governments to hold referendums giving voters power to approve expanded wine-sales in their communities is scheduled for discussion and a possible vote in the House Local Government Committee later today.
A Tennessee House Local Government Committee voted on Tuesday to reconsider and then advance state Rep. Jon Lundberg’s amended legislation that would allow localities to hold referendums on whether wine should be sold in grocery stores. Lundberg, R-Bristol, filed the amendment that stripped out much of the bill’s original language — eight and a half pages — but kept the ability for localities to hold wine-in-grocery- stores votes. His legislative maneuver drew fire from some Republicans on the committee although it passed by a 13-3 vote and now moves on to be considered by the House Finance Committee.
Two wine bills diverged in the state Capitol Tuesday, and that made all the difference for the effort to allow wine sales in food stores. The highly anticipated wine in grocery stores bill was split into two separate bills by House sponsor Jon Lundberg of Bristol and sent on different paths through the committee process on their way to a full floor vote. Hours before the bill, which aims to set up a referendum process to allow wine sales in supermarkets, convenience stores and big box retailers that sell food, was due for an appearance in the House Local Government Committee, the State Government Committee took up a similar piece of legislation.
A proposal that seeks to do away with local government’s power to decide whether to allow firearms in public parks advanced to a full Senate vote on Tuesday despite opposition from the governor. The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 6-2. The Legislature in 2009 gave city and county governments the ability to opt out of a new law that allowed firearms in public parks, playgrounds and sports fields. Under Campfield’s proposal, permit holders would be allowed to carry, unless there’s a school function.
A leading lawmaker is asking state auditors to investigate the Haslam administration’s claims about how much it’s really saving taxpayers. It follows an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation that aired Monday. Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, expressed concerns after our report on the Haslam administration’s Project T3 — which was supposed to reduce the amount of office space used by state government. But we discovered the state taking credit for millions of dollars in canceled leases that haven’t really been canceled, leases that were canceled for reasons that have nothing to do with T3 and leases that were canceled but replaced with new leases.
Parents wearing yellow scarves filled an auditorium near the Tennessee capitol Tuesday to advocate for school vouchers. Many traveled from Memphis to ask for help paying private school tuition. Karen Nelson already pays more than $5,000 a year for her son to go to a Catholic school in Memphis. She acknowledges that it’s her choice to be in private schools, but she says families like hers make sacrifices. “Even though we’re making it happen, if there is some assistance that would help, I am for it,” she said.
Lawmakers wrestled with Tennessee’s big questions confronting the merits of preschool on Tuesday after viewing early results from a Vanderbilt University study. At stake is the future of the state’s publicly funded voluntary preschool program, geared toward readying low-income children for kindergarten. Lawmakers want to know: Does preschool help children prepare, and do the benefits help them succeed long-term as they grow up? They’ve asked as they weigh expansion of state-funded preschool. That kind of proposal isn’t on the table this legislative session, but it has been debated in anticipation of the study.
If the goal for pre-K is to give students a permanent academic advantage, researcher Mark Lipsey says it doesn’t hit the mark. He’s working on an ongoing study for Vanderbilt’s Peabody School. Its initial results echoed those of analysis the state commissioned several years ago: in terms of test scores, it seems any initial boost pre-K gives to at-risk students is gone by the end of Kindergarten. But as his team continues to collect and drill into data, Lipsey says it’s clear there’s more to measure than just test scores.
“The Trouble with TVAAS,” a TEA production, is on the road and headed to the General Assembly in Nashville this year. With due apologies to “Star Trek” fans of the old “The Trouble with Tribbles” episode, Tennessee Education Association officials outlined the teacher group’s 2014 legislative agenda during a TEA Road Show stop at Sullivan Central High School Monday evening. That agenda is headlined by opposition to using the value-added scores as sole justification to remove a teacher’s license. But like the furry creatures in the 1960s science fiction television show, TEA’s agenda has multiplied to what Duran Williams, TEA’s assistant executive director over advocacy and legislation, called the most ambitious TEA legislative lineup in decades.
While Nashville’s for-profit health care leaders made their case for Medicaid expansion last week, some members of Nashville’s business community say expansion is still the wrong choice for Tennessee. Jim Brown, Tennessee state director for the National Federation of Independent Business — the lead plaintiff in the 2012 lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act — said the NFIB is the only Nashville-area business group opposed to expanding the program. Brown said the group’s polling data shows more than three-fourths of its members oppose Medicaid expansion as outlined by the Affordable Care Act, both because Medicaid is a “broken” system, and because businesses are leery of the costs a few years down the road.
He’s been called a “gadfly” and a “perennial candidate.” John Jay Hooker, an 83-year-old Nashville attorney who has run for most major elected offices over the last 50 years, is threatening again to run for office — this time against Gov. Bill Haslam — if he doesn’t get his way on how the state’s appellate and Supreme Court judges are evaluated and elected. Since 1994, when the current judicial system was adopted, he has vigorously opposed the state’s method of having “retention elections” for higher-court judges, meaning voters only get to vote “yes” or “no” on whether to keep a judge. Unlike with case with local and trial court judges, people can’t simply file to run against appellate or Supreme Court judges.
Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander is jumping on the school choice bandwagon. He wants to give low-income parents $2,100 dollars a year in federal money to spend on their child’s education. Alexander wants to combine $24 billion dollars worth of federal education programs into a single pot, which states can use almost any way they like. That includes giving money to low-income parents, which they can use to send their kids to private school, another public school district, or even pay for homeschooling. Alexander spoke about his plan Tuesday, at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
When President Barack Obama visits Nashville on Thursday to talk about jobs, he’ll be visiting a city that is making significant strides in terms of adding new jobs, even though those same economic fortunes have not spread evenly throughout the rest of the state. Nashville’s unemployment stood at 5.7 percent in December, below the 7 percent level from two years earlier, and also well below the national unemployment rate of 6.7 percent. While Tennessee has seen slight improvement in the unemployment rate over the past two months, the rate stood at 7.8 percent in December — still worse than the national average by a sizable margin, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
At the Volkswagen plant nestled in Tennessee’s rolling hills, a unionization drive has drawn national attention as business groups worry about organized labor’s efforts to gain its first foothold at a foreign-owned automobile plant in the South. In a region known as anti-union, many view VW’s response as unusual, if not topsy-turvy. Unlike most companies that confront unionization efforts, Volkswagen — facing a drive by the United Automobile Workers — has not mounted a vigorous campaign to beat back the union; instead VW officials have hinted they might even prefer having a union.
A common thread is running through a couple of major reports about education in Tennessee that thus far has eluded the decision makers in the state General Assembly and the Haslam administration: the value of prekindergarten programs. It should not be lost on elected leaders that both the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) and the Annie E. Casey Foundation support early childhood education. SCORE’s “2013-14 State of Education of Tennessee” released on Monday, focuses on K-12 education, but founder and chairman, Sen. Bill Frist, has called for universal prekindergarten for Tennessee children.
As the effects of the housing crisis linger, too many people remain at risk of foreclosure. Fortunately, there is good news for Memphis homeowners. Last month the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office announced a new mortgage settlement with Ocwen Financial Corp. and its subsidiary, Ocwen Loan Servicing. The lengthy agreement is complex but its goal is simple: Make foreclosure a last resort for Ocwen’s many homeowners. The settlement with Ocwen, the nation’s fourth-largest mortgage servicer, is massive.