This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Persistent worries about the cost of higher education are prompting state leaders to propose a new stream of plans to increase college affordability and expand access for their students. Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee drew national attention last month when he proposed providing two years of free community college to recent high school graduates. Also in February, the Mississippi House approved a similar two-year pilot program to cover gaps in community college tuition for students who have exhausted other aid. (However, the legislation to create the pilot died in committee in the Senate this week.)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam Thursday appointed Carma McGee of Savannah as chancellor in the 24th Judicial District, which includes Henry County. She’ll finish the term of Ron Harmon, who died in September. McGee will serve immediately upon her appointment, then the office is up for election in August. McGee has been chosen by Republicans in the 24th District as their nominee to run for the office at that time. The 24th Judicial District includes Henry, Carroll, Benton, Decatur and Hardin counties. “The people of the 24th District will benefit from Carma’s vast experience,” Haslam said.
Gov. Bill Haslam says he’s still no fan of a fast-moving effort by fellow Republicans in the Legislature to strip local governments of their ability to ban guns from local parks. The governor, a former Knoxville mayor, said last week the issue boils down to property rights and the Second Amendment. “City councils and county commissions have said, ‘OK, our taxpayers have paid for that park,’ and their elected representatives, I think, should get to decide what happens in the parks,” the governor said. “It’s not a Second Amendment right,” he said. “It’s the same right anybody should have with a property they control.”
State lawmakers believe in local control — except when they believe in controlling the locals. That would seem to be the message out of the General Assembly last week. Just as a Nashville mass transit project was gaining momentum, House Republicans decided to play engineer for a day and gave the city a little unfriendly design guidance. Around the same time, news emerged that a few GOP legislators had responded bizarrely, maybe frighteningly, to two women’s questions about a plan to stop cities from banning guns in local parks. But it wasn’t just a Republican thing. Two Nashville Democrats sponsored legislation to let downtown bars sell to-go cups of liquor and beer, which the Metro Council said would “endanger the public safety and ultimately harm downtown businesses.”
A proposal to have the state take over regulation of coal mining in Tennessee from the federal government, scheduled for its first legislative hearing this week, faces criticism as a drain on state financial resources and a weakening of environmental regulations. Those contentions are disputed by proponents of the move, which would reverse a state decision made 30 years ago to let the federal Office of Surface Mining replace the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation in regulating the coal industry.
Words buried deep in Tennessee’s wine-in-grocery-stores legislation are on track to take down a barrier that has lasted for decades. The closest wholesale liquor distributors supplying Northeast Tennessee’s package stores are in Knoxville, although a legislative effort has existed for years to allow Tri-Cities area business people to apply for a wholesale liquor license. But those wholesale distributors, represented by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee, successfully blocked the effort.
Ted Welch, the pre-eminent fundraiser in Tennessee Republican politics for four decades, whose unmatched ability to turn phone calls into big bucks for governors, senators and U.S. presidents made him a giant in the GOP, died on Saturday. He was 80. Mr. Welch died around 6:30 a.m. at Vanderbilt University Medical Center as a result of complications from a December fall, said his wife, Colleen Conway-Welch. A onetime door-to-door Bible salesman and longtime Nashville commercial real estate investor, Mr. Welch became a political money man of the South, helping the likes of Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Mitt Romney and others.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe indicates President Barack Obama’s proposed $3.9 trillion 2015 budget plan won’t fly with House Republicans although Roe adds Congress will not go back to passing temporary continuing budget resolutions. Obama’s budget plan calls for fresh spending to boost economic growth but also aims to raise taxes on the rich and further limit payments to health- care providers. Roe, R-Tenn., points out the spending plan would shrink the military and increase funding to support the administration’s climate change plan, which he believes is a continuing war on coal. He further contends the budget blueprint adds $8.3 trillion to the national debt over 10 years.
Tennessee manufacturers shed 3,400 jobs in January, a sign the state’s industrial resurgence has eased. Factories ramping up after the recession helped revive the state economy. Since 2009, manufacturers had added almost 38,000 jobs in Tennessee through December. Rather than rely on local clients for orders, manufacturers generally ship to customers in other states and nations. Once plants scale up and add employees, spending by factory workers can spur more jobs in local shops and stores. Manufacturing exports are still rising throughout the nation.
Faced with a draft 2014-15 budget that is $227.3 million less than this year’s, Shelby County Schools administrators propose sweeping changes that involve everything from increasing class sizes and selling buses to cutting driver’s education and prekindergarten classrooms. “When you cut $227 million from your budget, there are going to be consequences,” said Supt. Dorsey Hopson. “We tried to be very strategic with the limited dollars we had.” The district’s 2014-15 revenue is expected to decline 19.1 percent to $961.3 million, from $1.2 billion during the 2013-14 school year.
Are Tennessee’s lawmakers high on drugs? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. They’re high on drug money. Chas Sisk of The Tennessean recently tallied up how much drug companies have spent lobbying the Legislature over the past five years, and it’s easy to see who’s hooked on what. Big Pharma invested between $5.9 million and $15.2 million in making sure that no one in the statehouse gets too enthusiastic about controlling drug sales in Tennessee. If that figure seems a bit vague, well, that’s the way legislators want it. Lobbyists are required to report only a range of expenditures, so citizens can’t know exactly how much industries spend on lobbyists.
At one point during debate on a bill dealing with Medicaid expansion, state Sen. Doug Overbey declared that a colleague had engaged in “gross hyperbole,” and he was reasonably correct in that observation. It is submitted, however, that the hyperbole referenced by the astute Maryville Republican was not nearly as gross as some of the other rhetoric surrounding HB937. Indeed, the bill was born of political posturing, nurtured on fear and distrust, and became the subject of extravagant exaggerations at almost every turn from both sides of the Medicaid expansion melee. In all probability it is actually meaningless, a fine example of sound and fury signifying nothing.
When the Founding Fathers decided to make the United States a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy, they made a good decision. State Rep. Mike Sparks apparently doesn’t think so. Sparks, a Smyrna Republican, is sponsoring a bill that would put a property tax increase of 25 percent or more to a public referendum. The bill raises several questions and not just about representative government. Some members of legislative branches in Nashville and in Washington, D.C., are opposed to any tax increase, and they have every right to that viewpoint. No one, so far, however, has recommended a no-growth policy for Rutherford County, and with projected increases in population that some local officials say may be too conservative, the county and its municipalities are going to have to be ready to meet existing needs and future needs for services.