This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
People convicted of second and third DUI offenses could shave off part of their jail time in exchange for completing treatment for alcohol abuse, including outpatient programs, under legislation before the Tennessee General Assembly. Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is seeking the law change. The goal is to reduce repeat offenses and use state money designated for addiction treatment more effectively. The bill stipulates that an alcohol abuse expert be primary in deciding who qualifies. Currently, judges can direct second offenders to serve up to 28 days of residential treatment as part of sentencing-reduction guidelines.
Gov. Bill Haslam reported raising more than $2.9 million in the second half of 2013, despite not yet having a major challenger. The Knoxville Republican told the state Registry of Election Finance in a report filed Friday that he had more than $4.5 million in the bank after collecting donations from more than 1,800 contributors. Haslam spent more than $16.7 million during his 2010 run for the governor’s office. That year he faced Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and then-U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp in the GOP primary and later Democratic nominee Mike McWherter in the general election.
Tennessee’s education leaders have been collecting national accolades since August, after the state board of education adopted a rare policy that ties teacher licensing to learning gains. Just last week, the National Council on Teacher Quality granted Tennessee a B on its annual report card — only Florida ranked higher — in large part over its new teacher accountability policies. Teachers fought the change, saying the state was endangering their livelihood based on an unfair measure. At its meeting in Nashville on Friday, the board stepped away from the new policy, promising an April rewrite eliminating learning gains as the overriding factor in whether teachers can work in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation has begun a Yellow DOT Program for senior drivers that provides quick medical information in emergencies. TDOT Commissioner John Schroer and two legislators who sponsored the bill creating the program in 2012 jointly announced its implementation in January. Officials said the free program involves obtaining an information packet from a designated contact and keeping the information in the vehicle’s glove box for first responders. There are six contacts in TDOT Region 1 that are listed in the state’s website at www.tdot.state.tn.us/yellowdot/.
Determined to survive the deepening economic crisis, Cherokee Millwright and Mechanical made the decision more than five years ago to “cut to the bone” everything, including its in-house training program. The Maryville company that installs, dismantles, and repairs machinery and heavy equipment for industrial and commercial customers eventually started to come out of the depths of recession and revamped training for its specialized work force. It partnered with Pellissippi State Community College to develop a four-year apprentice program that would give area employers the chance to “hire qualified young people ready to go to work and give them a place to do that,” said Dave Bennett, CEO of Cherokee, which opened its third location in Cleveland, Tenn., in October and continues to hire.
State Rep. Mike Carter said he is continuing to explore introducing legislation amending Tennessee’s strict anti-marijuana laws to allow possession of a cannabis-derived oil seemingly effective in treating a rare form of epilepsy. “I am considering and looking at filing a bill that allows a parent to have cannabidiol oils in their possession for the use with a person of intractable seizures as determined by a doctor,” the Ooltewah Republican and former judge said. “And you can’t get high on it.” Top House Republican leaders say they’re open to considering such a bill.
When he began promoting legalization of hemp, jokes state Sen. Frank Niceley, most people “thought I was crazy;” now they consider him “merely foolish.” Actually, Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, have come a lot further than indicated by the quip adapted from an old comedy routine. The state’s top legislative leaders said last week that — after initial misgivings — they now support the proposal filed by the East Tennessee lawmakers (HB1392). “I’m in,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell in an interview. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said he is “100 percent” in favor of the effort to make Tennessee the 11th state to legalize the cultivation and sale of hemp even though it is still classified as an illegal narcotic under federal law.
Within hours of President Barack Obama’s announcement that he was coming to Nashville last week, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn put out an acerbic statement. “Welcome to Tennessee,” she wrote on Jan. 25. “While you’re here take a look around because this is what a thriving economy looks like. Despite what your teleprompter may tell you, our success is not a result of your failed policies. It’s rooted in what’s always made our state and country great — hard work, ingenuity and fiscal responsibility.” No need to hear the State of the Union speech first. No need to think about whether Obama might offer something new that would benefit Tennesseans. No need, even, to see if the president might take a good idea from the Volunteer State and run with it nationally.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., raised just $17,580 for his re-election campaign during the fourth quarter, federal filings show, compared to $151,384 by his GOP primary challenger, state Sen. Jim Tracy, of Shelbyville. Federal Election Commission filings for Oct. 1-Dec. 31 show Tracy sitting atop a $884,688 campaign war chest. DesJarlais reported $154,474 cash on hand. But DesJarlais is battling back. “When I ran for Congress I promised Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional District that if elected, I would be an independent, conservative voice who would fight against the Washington status quo,” he said in a statement to the Times Free Press.
With the federal online insurance exchange running more smoothly than ever, the biggest laggards in fixing enrollment problems are now state-run exchanges in several states where the governors and legislative leaders have been among the strongest supporters of President Obama’s health care law. Republicans have seized on the failures of homegrown exchanges in states like Maryland, Minnesota and Oregon — all plagued by technological problems that have kept customers unhappy and enrollment goals unmet — and promise to use the issue against Democratic candidates for governor and legislative seats this fall.
Tennessee may be the Volunteer State, but a growing share of its workers are organizing to get better pay and working conditions. Last year, Tennessee had the fastest rate of growth in union membership of any state, according to new government figures. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 31,000 more Tennesseans were members of labor unions in 2013 than in the previous year, swelling the ranks of organized labor in the state by 25 percent last year and boosting union rolls to the highest level in nearly a decade. Georgia and Alabama were close behind Tennessee in the growth rate for union membership with union rolls growing in each state by more than 22 percent last year.
The legislative effort to have Tennessee reassume oversight of the state’s coal mining industry is intriguing, but much more information is needed before lawmakers can determine whether it would be in the state’s best interest. Tennessee is the only coal mining state that does not issue its own permits. The federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation has handled coal mining permits since 1984. The only similar arrangement is the OSM’s oversight of coal mines on American Indian reservations in the state of Washington. Two bills have been filed in this year’s legislative session that would authorize the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to assume permitting responsibility from the OSM.
Despite their depleted ranks, Tennessee’s Democratic legislators are showing somewhat more spunk at the outset of this year’s legislative session than in their past performance under the recent years of Republican supermajority rule. The most obvious and easily understandable example is on the matter of Medicaid expansion. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner acknowledged they were pretty mild-mannered. They and other Democrats bought into the proposition that Gov. Bill Haslam was seriously considering acceptance of $1 billion or so annual in federal money to add 180,000 or so low-income Tennesseans to TennCare coverage.
It’s about time. We’ve seen the Tennessee General Assembly get riled up over inexplicable things, from barely existent voter fraud to phantom U.N. plots, while ignoring the real problems that residents of our state grapple with every day. But last week, lawmakers were confronted with results of a state comptroller’s audit of the Department of Children’s Services that they couldn’t ignore. By now, the findings are not news to most Tennesseans, as news media across the state have reported extensively over the past couple of years about DCS’ handling of child-abuse investigations, its failure to report child deaths and its inadequate supervision of some juveniles on probation — all of which were reaffirmed in the audit.