This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Crissy and I returned Monday from the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington, D.C. It was a good conference, full of productive conversations with other governors, and it’s always nice to be able to talk about all of the good things happening in Tennessee. In addition to the NGA meetings, I joined Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper for “Powering Advanced Industries: A Bipartisan Dialogue on State Strategies,” an event hosted by the Brookings Institute. Tennessee’s leadership in growing advanced industry jobs, particularly in the automotive sector, was a central focus.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced the launch of “Transparent Tennessee,” an overhaul of the state’s transparency website to offer more user-friendly information online to Tennessee taxpayers. Haslam said Transparent Tennessee is a one-stop shop for searching public data on how state dollars are spent. The site includes a searchable checkbook with more interactive data related to state agency expenses, vendor payments and travel reimbursements. “A state government that is accountable to Tennessee taxpayers is an important part of being customer-focused, efficient and effective,” Haslam said.
A plague is sweeping Tennessee. They call it crank, ice, tweak, Okie coke, shards, tina or, as one father recently called it when enlisting his son’s help obtain it in Carter County, “Halloween candy.” Its common name: meth. This drug has become a menace here, one that has eluded easy remedy despite success in other states in regulating its key ingredient: the over-the-counter decongestant pseudoephedrine. It touches — directly or indirectly — every person in this state. Tennessee is the buckle of the Meth Belt, which stretches roughly from Oklahoma to South Carolina.
Methamphetamine is a dangerous drug that has taken its toll on Tennesseans across the state. But the costs of meth go far beyond addiction and lost lives. Cost to nation: $23.4 billion to $48 billion In a 2009 report, Rand Corp. studied the costs of methamphetamine around the nation, ranking Tennessee at the top. A Rand study estimated the economic costs of meth reached $23.4 billion a year — with some estimates reaching as high as $48 billion. Tennessee represents more than 7 percent of the $23.4 billion nationwide costs of the problem.
In the war on methamphetamine in this East Tennessee county, the man meth cooks fear the most is a 70-year-old, ex-General Motors exec who got bored with retirement. He’s folksy but no-nonsense in his approach: Find the smurfers — the people enlisted by meth cooks to buy up pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the drug — and turn them into informants. Meet Sgt. Harmon Duncan, drug unit supervisor for the Carter County Sheriff’s Office. Nickname: “Gargamel,” after the villain from the popular children’s cartoon “The Smurfs.”
Charles A. Haynes had been out of work for four months after he got laid off from his job as a diesel mechanic. A relative — known by police to be a major methamphetamine cook — promised Haynes and a friend $50 each if they’d bring him a box of pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient used to make meth. “I ain’t no meth head. I’m just looking to keep the electricity on,” Haynes says. “He knows I don’t have a job, and he knows he can throw some change in my pocket real quick.” Now that money won’t be coming. Haynes, 31, stands outside his aging, brown pickup truck, gas gauge on “E,” as Dyer County Sheriff’s Lt. Ken Simpson and investigator Stoney Hughes shake down him and a friend for information about the meth cook.
Putting pseudoephedrine behind the counter would curb the meth problem in this region, local sheriffs and police chiefs said, so they’re asking Tennessee lawmakers to make the common allergy medicine available only by prescription. Members of the Tennessee Public Safety Coalition, which is made up of district attorneys, police chiefs and sheriffs from across the state, visited with the Bristol Herald Courier editorial board on Thursday to outline their legislative agenda for the year. Among the top concerns, they said, is the need to take decisive action against meth-making in Northeast Tennessee.
Immigration reform continues to be one of those divisive issues about which common ground usually is difficult to find, but, as often is the case, the well-being of children has interceded. Several states have approved laws that allow children of undocumented aliens to receive in-state tuition to begin their post-secondary education, usually under certain conditions. These laws particularly may make a distinction between young people whom their parents brought to the country when then were too young to have much say in the matter and older children who left with their parents to come to the United States.
The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has endorsed legislation that would make going to college in Tennessee more affordable for undocumented immigrants and their families. The chamber announced Friday that it supports two bills working their way through the House of Representatives that would extend in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants and their families. A House committee last week approved House Bill 1929, sponsored by Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, which would extend in-state tuition to high school graduates whose parents are undocumented immigrants… The chamber has also endorsed Tennessee Promise, Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to let all Tennessee high school graduates attend community college at no cost.
Gov. Bill Haslam reiterated his stance on his community college tuition proposal in response to a letter from Metro Schools Director of Schools Jesse Register, who said the program should be open to undocumented immigrants in the state. While Haslam said there was merit in discussing ways to provide in-state tuition to undocumented students, he would not support expanding his Tennessee Promise proposal that would provide free community college tuition to Tennessee residents to include them because of its ties to student aid. Students must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to become eligible for the potential scholarship, Haslam said.
Tennessee may be poised to become the 14th state to issue publicly funded vouchers to students to pay for all or part of a private school education, a move that would not produce significant gains in academic performance, research cited by the independent and influential Center on Education Policy has shown. But research also has shown that voucher programs make taxpayers happier government customers, especially parents who like the idea of choosing where to send their kids to school. Voucher proponents also argue that while wealthy parents can choose their schools, the current system puts poor parents at a disadvantage.
Since WGU Tennessee was launched in July 2013, the number of Tennesseans in the online Western Governors University program has grown from about 600 to almost 1,000. WGU Tennessee Chancellor Kimberly Estep said this is a step in the right direction for a goal of having 5,000 active WGU students, which as a group are an average of 37 years old and generally have families and full-time jobs. “Our goal is for 5,000 students in five years,” Estep said, adding that WGU Tennessee has about 700 alumni. Estep said the WGU growth, in turn, will help propel Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 program, an effort to have 55 percent of Tennesseans with a certificate or at least two-year degree by 2025. That number is 32 percent now.
The state House version of a bill that would give Tennessee’s governor and the General Assembly power over the state attorney general is on a subcommittee calendar for debate Wednesday. The state Senate version of the bill passed out of committee last week on a 5-3 vote and is set to be scheduled for a full Senate vote. Supporters say the bill would make the state attorney general’s office more accountable to Tennessee citizens. The attorney general now is appointed by Tennessee Supreme Court justices, who themselves are appointed by the governor. Bill opponents, who include Gov. Bill Haslam, say the legislation is a power grab that could violate the state constitution and politicize the independent office.
Tennessee’s Republican chairman worries legislation to curb crossover voting in party primaries will hurt the GOP’s fledgling “red to the roots” campaign, while Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander are concerned about upsetting a system that helped them get elected. State Democratic Chairman Roy Herron has criticized the Republican campaign to turn more local elections into partisan contests that will put the party label on more judges, county commissioners and city councilmen. He vows to counter “red to the roots” with “blue to the bone.” But Herron agrees with state Republican Chairman Chris Devaney, Alexander and Haslam that the bill on crossover voting pushed by Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, and Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, is a bad idea.
For Shelby County residents who want to buy wine in food stores, the numbers to watch are: 17, 4, 1, and 22,941. It takes 17 votes in the state Senate Monday to concur with each of four House amendments to the wine-in-food-stores referendum bill, followed by one Gov. Bill Haslam to sign it into law, and then the signatures of 22,941 registered Shelby County voters on petitions to call a countywide referendum on whether to allow wine sales in food stores across the county. If senators give it final legislative approval as expected, look for a local petition drive to launch in the next few months to put the issue on the November ballot across Shelby County.
“Sandy,” a centuries-old American Indian artifact found in Wilson County in the 1930s, may soon become the official Tennessee state artifact under a bill moving through the state legislature. The stone sculpture of a kneeling man is believed to be one of the oldest pieces of Indian art ever found in Tennessee. The piece was made during the Mississippian Period, which ran from the ninth century through the 15th century. The University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum has owned the sculpture since 1940. House Bill 2443, sponsored by state Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, would add Sandy to Tennessee’s long list of official arts and crafts.
The state of children’s health in the tri-state region can usually be found at the bottom of national health rankings lists. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week heralded a nationwide drop in preschool-age obesity rates, Tennessee is one of three states where the problem actually has worsened in the last several years. One in three children in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama is overweight. And data collected on low-income children ages 2 to 5 in Hamilton County found that that more than 35 percent are at risk for becoming overweight. Among children with asthma, Alabama and Tennessee are tied for worst in the country, with one in eight children afflicted.
UT-Battelle and Oak Ridge Associated Universities, two of the U.S. Department of Energy’s major contractors in Oak Ridge, have recently revised their benefit programs to recognize same-sex marriages and to provide the same benefits afforded other employees in traditional marriages. The changes were designed to keep pace with evolving federal law and the changing social landscape. The contractors’ policies now roughly mirror what’s offered to direct federal employees who work for DOE or the National Nuclear Security Administration, the semi-independent part of the agency that oversees the nuclear weapons complex.
Once, Tennessee’s small towns and cities had hope. Sometimes there wasn’t enough work for everyone to make a good living. A dry spell might make it a tough year for the local farms. And sure, things could get boring. It’s all a part of living in a small town. But at least the towns were not ravaged by drug addiction and crimes committed to feed that addiction. The sickness of methamphetamine has gripped Tennessee by the throat and won’t let go. A series beginning in today’s Tennessean took journalists into some of these communities, from Dyer County on the Mississippi River to Carter County in the mountains bordering on North Carolina.
There’s a long Legislatorland tradition of “taking a walk” when an uncomfortable voting situation appears, but that seems to have been largely replaced by the increasingly popular practice of sitting on hands. The old way of dodging a vote requires a legislator, upon seeing a troublesome voting decision at hand, to physically exit the scene, perhaps declaring the need for a rest room visit or some such so that he or she is not present when the roll is called. This requires a public exit, which may be noticed and pointed out by colleagues, and has thus been a fairly infrequent occurrence. Hand sitting requires no physical activity whatsoever. The practitioner simply pretends he or she is not there, and it seems nobody ever notices or points this out.