This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Some heavy hitters are behind the fight to get truant students back in school. Governor Bill Haslam’s Public Safety Team and Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich are backing the plan to keep children off of the streets, out “There’s no getting around the fact that our children are our most valuable and our most vulnerable resource,” said Weirich. “When our kids are not in school, nothing good is happening,” she explained. The truancy mentoring program helped Rodney Jones, an eighth grader at Chickasaw Middle School.
The Shelby County Truancy Reduction Mentoring Program could be replicated around the state, but first it must figure out how to find enough mentors to match with students, state officials announced Thursday. “Until we can cross that hurdle, I don’t think we’re prepared to expand the program,” said Bill Gibbons, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security and former Shelby County district attorney general. Gibbons and two other commissioners on Gov. Bill Haslam’s Public Safety subcabinet said during a news conference with Dist. Atty Gen. Amy Weirich at Chickasaw Middle School that the Memphis program needs more volunteers.
The Haslam administration is looking into the possibility of privatizing the operation of services at several state parks. Eleven state parks, including golf courses, marinas and resort parks, are named in a Request for Information filed last week by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to learn more from private vendors about leasing and management options. “We have a responsibility to manage state parks and operations in a way that provides the best service for the best value to Tennessee taxpayers and visitors,” said Kelly Brockman, spokeswoman for the department.
Work is set to begin Monday to repair the damage caused by a rockslide along U.S. Highway 441, also known as The Spur, near Pigeon Forge. The right lane of U.S. 441 South will closed during the work, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Northbound traffic will not be affected, although all motorists are advised to use caution while traveling in the area. The repairs are expected to take two weeks. The rockslide occurred last month at mile marker 20.9.
Cities across Tennessee need to start paying school districts millions of dollars in unpaid mixed-drink taxes, the state attorney general says. Local school officials say the opinion released this week by Attorney General Robert Cooper means Chattanooga officials must pay the $11 million-plus it owes to Hamilton County Schools and can’t negotiate a lesser settlement or use land to offset the debt. “It’s wonderful news. It’s the best news since Santa Claus,” said school board member David Testerman. “Our school system is in desperate need of funds.” But Mayor Andy Berke’s spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said the city is still reviewing the opinion to decide what it means for Chattanooga.
Future Tennessee candidates for state and local office would face limits on how much they can personally lend their campaigns under a bill that passed the House on a 75-12 vote Thursday. The bill says candidates may lend their campaigns up to $100,000 per election. That includes loans the candidate obtains from a financial institution. Candidates also no longer could charge their campaigns interest on loans up to $100,000. The legislation does not limit how much candidates may spend. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that candidates may spend unlimited amounts of their own money when running for office.
Wealthy candidates for state and local office could find it more difficult to lend big money to their campaigns and then reimburse themselves later when donors might be more willing to give, under a bill that won state House approval Thursday. House Bill 1553 by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, passed on a 75-12 vote after a debate in which members differed over whether it might end up hurting or helping “working class” candidates who can’t afford to lend their campaign funds big money. The Senate version is still in committee and may face tougher going because there are more affluent members in the upper chamber.
After years of failure, a Tennessee State Government Subcommittee advanced on Wednesday state Rep. Jon Lundberg’s so-called “Pass The Bottle” legislation that would ban passengers from having open alcohol containers in vehicles. Lundberg, R-Bristol, had argued over the years that the legislation would save lives and bring more federal highway funds to Tennessee, but it repeatedly failed to get out of any committee. “It’s really quite sad. … It’s legal to drink alcohol in a car in Tennessee,” Lundberg told lawmakers on the subcommittee.
A bill that better aligns existing child custody laws is up for vote with the Tennessee House next week. The Senate already passed the bill that tries to create better communication among parents and children. For example, it would force parents who split time with their child to give the other a telephone number where the child may be reached. “The old parental right allowed telephone conversations, but technically didn’t require that the parties exchange phone numbers,” said family law attorney Stan Kweller. “Now it does.” The bill is considered a “clean up” bill in order to outline more specific laws when it comes to custody issues.
A new bill, passed by the Tennessee Senate, will force police departments to purge license plate numbers captured by high speed cameras at intersections. It’s common practice for some police agencies to use high speed cameras to read license plates. On Thursday, the Senate placed limitations on what they can do with the information. Police use these high speed cameras to read license plates to track down criminals. The sponsor of the bill said police shouldn’t be storing the data for extended periods of time. The legislation requires police purge the data after 90 days. “The government does not need to know where all Tennesseans are at all times while we’re driving,” said Senator Brian Kelsey.
The Tennessee Department of Corrections shows at least half the men and women who are released from jail will be arrested again within three years. For many of them, a criminal record prevents them from getting a job. Lawmakers are considering a bill that could put convicted felons back to work. When a released inmate with a record tries to get a job, employers can turn them down based on their past. For some, crime is the only way to put food on the table. Pastor De’Andre Brown’s Lifeline to Success program helps former inmates get back into society. But the current state law often keeps them from reentering the workforce.
A battle of big city vs. small town is underway in the state legislature as lawmakers mull whether voters should be allowed to decide if a city can pull rural areas into its boundaries. Tennessee is currently one of only three states that allows governments to annex areas by petition or ordinance, but that could soon change. There is certainly an upside. Cities are often engines of economic development, but what about the citizens of Tennessee who choose to live in the country outside of city limits? Should they be forced to become city folk? “The word annexation, in Tennessee, is the ugliest word in the urban growth dictionary,” said Bill Haupt.
Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris is among two southerners leading the Council of State Governments this year. The Collierville Republican will serve as chair of the group headquartered in Lexington, Ky. Former chair and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will serve as president. CSG executive director David Adkins says Tomblin was an effective advocate for the states during his legislative service when he served as chair of CSG’s Southern Legislative Conference and then as CSG’s national chair. Adkins says Norris has gained a national reputation for his willingness to take on tough issues and find consensus.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said Thursday he won’t seek re-election to the state Legislature in November. “I’ve served here 14 years, and I can honestly say there’s no one I’ve served with I don’t personally like,” Turner announced to colleagues on the House floor. “And I’ve tried not to like some of you. This is a hard place to quit.” The 59-year-old Nashville firefighter has served as the House’s No. 2 Democrat since 2009. An unabashed liberal and union supporter, described by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, as a “bull,” he is quick to anger but generally equally fast to cool down.
One of the leading liberals in the state legislature will retire at the end of this year, an announcement that could ripple through races for city hall and the statehouse. Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said Thursday on the floor of the state House of Representatives that he will not run for re-election this fall. One of the Capitol’s most well-liked lawmakers, Turner left open the door to running for Nashville mayor in 2015. Turner has represented parts of East Nashville and Old Hickory since 2000, and he has led the Democratic caucus since 2009. A firefighter and labor leader, Turner clashed with party elders early in his career, yet he will leave as one of Democrats’ most forceful spokesmen.
Nashville Democrat Mike Turner announced this morning he will retire from the state House after serving 14 years in office. In a legislature increasingly dominated by Republicans, Turner said his job wasn’t as fun as it once was, and he wanted to get out before growing cynical. But he says leaving comes with feelings of guilt: “We’ve still got a fight on our hands up here, and I kinda feel like I’m leaving my guys here… I feel a little guilty I’m not gonna be in the trenches with them.” Turner ran uncontested in 2012, but has recently butted heads with other leaders in his party—something he said didn’t play into his decision.
The Tennessee Walking Horse industry is applauding a bill filed late Wednesday that supporters say will eliminate abuses while preserving the sport. U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., is calling for scientific tests to detect soring instead of manual checks. Her bill, which has nine cosponsors, also keeps the tall shoes and ankle chains that mark the breed’s performance divisions. It’s in response to a bill filed last year by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., supported by the Humane Society of the United States, that would eliminate that equipment, which they say can be part of the soring process.
As a fifth generation insurance broker, selling insurance is in Bobby Huffaker’s DNA. The 26-year-old Chattanoogan thought he would join his father’s business selling health plans to area employers after earning his degree in risk management at Ole Miss. But when Congress adopted Obamacare in 2010 as he was picking up his college diploma, Huffaker saw a new insurance market opening up in the individual market. After a couple of years of planning and the re-election of Obama to ensure health care reform would be implemented, Huffaker joined with a veteran insurance broker and call center manager, David Yoder, to launch American Exchange last year.
Insurers are rushing to gather health information from the new customers they won on public marketplaces in a high-stakes outreach effort crucial to their hopes of profiting from the health-care law. Health plans need to know the health status of those signing up for coverage so they can project whether the costs are likely to outrun the premiums coming in. That information will be critical in figuring out prices for next year, among other things. But, under the law’s new rules, enrollees don’t have to disclose pre-existing conditions to buy insurance. Insurers still generally have only early signals, including age and gender, on the four million people who federal regulators say have signed up so far for marketplace coverage.
Friday marks the end of the two-week period within which U.S. Sen. Bob Corker promised Volkswagen would announce another line at its factory in Tennessee if workers there rejected representation by the United Auto Workers union. So far there’s little sign of any pending announcement. Workers at the Chattanooga plant ended up voting 712-626 against the UAW, in an election the union claims was tainted by threats and intimidation from Republicans like Corker, Gov. Bill Haslam and state lawmakers. The UAW last week filed a challenge with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking to have results voided and a new election to be held.
Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare has received approval from the state to move forward with a pair of major projects in Shelby County. The first project will consolidate cancer services from multiple sites into an existing building at 7945 Wolf River Blvd. to be called The West Cancer Center. The second project will establish a Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital pediatric outpatient center where The West Clinic is now at 100 N. Humphreys Blvd. in Memphis. Both projects are designed to consolidate services already offered at multiple sites with the goal of increasing access for patients and families, says Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare President and CEO Gary Shorb.
Nashville officials expressed cautious interest Thursday in bidding to host the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The Democratic National Committee has invited Nashville and more than 30 other cities to apply to host its next presidential nominating convention, CNN reported. Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, received a letter from DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz dated Feb. 7. “It’s an honor for Nashville to be considered for a national convention like this one,” Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson said. “Interest like this reaffirms that Nashville is a major league city.
Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said Thursday that he wanted to reject a full Medicaid expansion to enroll more people in the government program and instead seek federal dollars to cover the poor in private plans. His plan would set up a three-year pilot program that would use money Utah would have received and help eligible people buy insurance in the private market. The plan would need receiver a waiver from the federal government and the approval of the state Legislature.
It’s time for Tennessee to try something new when it comes to dealing with drunken drivers, especially those who are multiple offenders. Members of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference say they want to attack the problem of drunken driving by reducing jail time. No, that’s not a misprint. What the DAs want is to trade more jail time for alcohol treatment programs. The Recidivism Reduction Act pending in the General Assembly would do that, and it deserves serious consideration. If passed, the act would give less jail time to multiple DUI offenders while requiring them to enter intensive, strict rehabilitation programs.
There are glimmers of good news in the struggle to control obesity, one of the greatest health risks confronting the United States and other affluent nations. The latest federal report shows a significant reduction in the obesity rate among children ages 2 to 5, a vulnerable period when obesity patterns are often locked in for a lifetime. It is only a modest step in the right direction for a small slice of the population, but it suggests that further gains may be possible with a determined effort. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association this week that the obesity rate for these young children dropped from 13.9 percent in 2003-4 to 8.4 percent in 2011-12.