This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam planned to survey the devastation wrought by a deadly tornado in Lincoln County today. Monday night’s tornado started near the Alabama line and cut a path to the northeastern corner of the county, leaving two dead and at least 25 homes and one elementary school destroyed. “It was very chaotic for several hours,” Lincoln County Sherriff Murray Blackwelder said. “By the grace of God, we were able to get by with only two fatalities out of this mass destruction.” The National Weather Service has not yet made a final call on the on the strength of the tornado, but set a preliminary rating of EF-3 with winds between 136 mph and 165 mph.
Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to be in Lincoln County tomorrow (Wednesday) to view devastation first-hand, said Lincoln County Mayor Peggy Bevels, adding that officials continue to assess the impact of Monday evening’s tornadoes that touched town in eastern and southeastern Lincoln County. State and local Emergency Management Agency leaders gathered in Fayetteville this morning for a briefing with all first responders, and there will be a press conference at 3 p.m. this afternoon at the Howell Hill Community Center to provide the latest available information.
The all-clear sounded, but another tornado swirled up from nowhere. John and Karen Prince died in the confusion as storms with multiple tornado touchdowns ravaged Lincoln County on Monday. The couple lived in a manufactured home on family land and had taken refuge from the storm at her grandmother’s house. When they thought the danger had passed, they returned home. “We didn’t think there was any more coming,” said Noble “Sarge” Howard, Karen Prince’s father, who lives near the Princes’ residence on Tipton Road in Fayetteville. “We didn’t have any power. We were totally unaware of anything going on.” The Princes are the only two reported deaths from the storm, which injured seven others.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and his Democratic predecessor, Phil Bredesen, are kicking off a campaign in support of a constitutional amendment on the way Tennessee Supreme Court justices and appeals judges are appointed and retained. Haslam and Bredesen are scheduled to be joined by actor and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson at the Tuesday morning event in the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the state Capitol. The campaign dubbed “Vote Yes on 2” in in support of the proposed amendment that would largely mirror the system of having governors appoint justices and then having them stand for elections to either replace or retain them.
Backers of a constitutional amendment meant to settle decades of litigation over how Tennessee picks its judges launched their campaign to convince voters to approve it Tuesday with a gathering of high-powered political players at the state Capitol. Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson joined Gov. Bill Haslam to kick off the “Vote Yes on 2” campaign, an effort to win approval for the second of four amendments Tennesseans will decide on this November.
A campaign to solidify the way Tennessee chooses its 29 appeals court judges has brought together strange bedfellows – from Alberto Gonzales, President George W. Bush’s attorney general to the top Democrat in the state House, Craig Fitzhugh. This bi-partisan group of mayors, district attorneys, and state lawmakers that gathered at the capitol Tuesday wants to keep a system where the governor appoints judges, and then every eight years voters decide whether to keep them. “You would probably find a lot of disagreement on this stage about a lot of issues,” Governor Bill Haslam said.
Gov. Bill Haslam has signed into law legislation that would punish pregnant women who abuse narcotics and harm their babies as a result. He signed the bill in spite of a call from health and women’s organizations to veto the bill. The measure would allow women to be charged with assault if they abuse narcotics while pregnant and give birth to a child who is dependent on drugs or harmed as a result. National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a New York-based advocacy organization, says despite attempts by other states, Tennessee is the first to pass such a bill.
Tennessee women who use drugs while pregnant can be criminally charged for harm done to their infants beginning July 1. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation Tuesday after “extensive conversations with experts including substance abuse, mental health, health and law enforcement officials,” he wrote in a statement. “The intent of this bill is to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs.” The governor’s decision comes after a week of mounting nationwide opposition from civil and reproductive rights groups.
Governor Bill Haslam chose not to pick up his veto pen and instead has signed into law a bill that would punish pregnant women who refuse to stop using illegal drugs. The measure is meant to drive down the number of newborns who have to endure withdrawal symptoms. Haslam took all the time he had and ultimately signed off after extensive talks with mental health experts and district attorneys. “They’re the ones that are actually on the front lines of this,” Haslam said Tuesday morning. “They’re the ones – particularly the DA’s – who will have the prosecutorial discretion involved.” Under the law, a woman can charged with misdemeanor assault, which could include jail time.
In the end, Gov. Bill Haslam said it was district attorneys and drug court judges who convinced him to sign a bill that could mean throwing new moms in jail for their drug habit. The bill, signed into law Tuesday, makes it a misdemeanor assault charge for a woman to give birth to a drug-dependent baby hurt by her addiction to illegal drugs. Women risking the assault charge can enroll in and finish drug treatment programs to avoid jail time. “Those DAs and the drug court folks said this really will help us to encourage people to go get treatments,” said Haslam.
Although the governor’s transportation commissioner has called the state’s current gas tax structure an “archaic” way of keeping up Tennessee’s roads, Gov. Bill Haslam says he has no plans to restructure the levy. Last week, Commissioner John Schroer suggested to the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization the state would benefit from a system that shifted the tax to a usage fee based on miles driven and vehicle weight. When asked whether he would change the tax in his second term, Haslam said, “We don’t know that,” and later added, “Right now, we don’t have any plans to change Tennessee’s formula.”
Is Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration laying the groundwork for either a fuel tax increase or restructuring so that electric vehicles and cars that get high mileage out of a gallon of fuel pay more? The governor’s transportation commissioner, John Schroer, told a Knoxville audience last week that the current fuel tax system in which motorists pay a set tax per gallon of gasoline or diesel “is an archaic system” and needs to be replaced. “We have to have some sort of usage fee, using how many miles you travel and how much does your vehicle weigh,” Schroer was quoted by the Knoxville News Sentinel as telling the Knoxville Regional Transportation Organization last Wednesday.
Western Governors University Tennessee and Southwest Tennessee Community College have finalized a partnership that will allow graduates of Southwest to receive waivers on application fees and discounted tuition to WGU. “Southwest Tennessee Community College has long been known for providing adult learners with quality higher education,” Kim Estep, chancellor of WGU Tennessee said. “This partnership with WGU Tennessee will offer Southwest graduates and staff an even more affordable pathway toward achieving the dream of earning a bachelor’s degree.”
Progress has a starting point. On Tuesday that mark literally was in the Gray Fossil Museum parking lot. There — between sporadic rain showers — state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, County Commissioners Mark Larkey and Mike Ford, as well as Tennessee Department of Transportation officials, met to discuss plans to address stormwater issues in the Sulphur Springs area and dangerous road conditions near Daniel Boone High School. The problem area for both issues are on or near Tenn. Highway 75/Suncrest Drive.
A Sumner County woman was charged with TennCare fraud involving prescription drugs, after eluding authorities for seven months. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced Tuesday the arrest of 27-year old Laci M. Grogan, who also used the name Laci M. Griffin, of Hendersonville. The Sumner County Sheriff’s Office assisted with the arrest. Grogan is charged with 17 counts of TennCare fraud and seven counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud. An indictment says Grogan presented forged prescriptions for drugs at a local pharmacy, using TennCare to pay for them.
One of the Affordable Care Act’s successes is a provision that allows young people up to 26 years old to remain on their parents’ health insurance. Under a similar, but less-known provision, young adults who have been recently released from foster care can also get Medicaid coverage, regardless of their incomes. An estimated 180,000 foster care alumni became eligible on Jan. 1. About 26,000 young adults 18 to 22 years old are released from foster care each year and left to fend for themselves without state protections. The age that a young adult in foster care loses benefits varies across the states.
States that have not expanded their Medicaid programs as part of the Affordable Care Act risk larger-than-ever gaps in overall health between residents of their states and those that have expanded Medicaid, a report released Wednesday shows. Nine of the top 13 states in overall health have expanded Medicaid, while three in the lowest 12 have not expanded, according to the report by the Commonwealth Fund, a non-profit group studying U.S. health care. “There is money on the table for every state with the potential to close the steep geographic divide,” said Commonwealth’s senior vice president, Cathy Schoen.
Adam Smith says he was a frequent buyer of items from Amazon.com — until this year. Smith, a senior marketing publications specialist at Mueller Water Products in Chattanooga, says he is shopping elsewhere since Tennessee began imposing state and local taxes on Amazon sales in January, adding 9.25 percent to the cost of such purchases. “I very rarely shop at Amazon anymore, whereas in the past I used it quite frequently, if not weekly,” Smith said Tuesday. “No taxes plus free shipping [on most items] is what led me to Amazon. Now that I have to pay taxes, I choose to look elsewhere.”
Three weeks after Shelby County Schools leaders impressed the county commission with a budget designed to meet some of its biggest needs, including a stronger workforce, the school board is ready to live up to its aspirations. Tuesday, it approved Supt. Dorsey Hopson’s 80-90-100 goal. If Hopson and the board can marshal community support to make it happen, when this year’s first-graders are seniors, 80 percent will have the scores, study skills and the know-how to succeed in work or college, up from the 30 percent ready to succeed today.
Dexter Middle School teacher Michelle Ragle will never forget the call she made to a parent in December. “I had a student who was below basic and he became proficient,” said Ragle, a seventh grade language arts teacher. “When I found out it was during Christmas break, I couldn’t sit on it. I had to call and tell the dad the exciting news.” On Wednesday Dexter Middle School was given the Value-Added Achievement award from the Education Consumers Foundation. Dexter placed third among middle schools in West Tennessee. Across the state, 18 elementary and middle schools are being recognized for making the biggest annual gains on standardized tests.
Tennessee voters will have a chance Nov. 4 to have a say in how the state’s Supreme Court justices and judges on the Court of Appeals and the Court of Criminal Appeals are chosen. They should vote not to change the current system. By voting for the proposed constitutional Amendment 2 they have a chance to minimize the effects of partisan politics and campaign contributions on a layer of the state’s judicial system, whose jurists make so many rulings that are important to criminal and civil justice. Gov. Bill Haslam led a bipartisan group Tuesday calling for ratification of the amendment to establish how Tennessee’s 29 appellate court judges are elected.