This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Western Governors University crucial to Haslam’s Drive to 55 (Tenn./Manscar)
On Saturday, Miranda Good of Murfreesboro will don a cap and gown for the first time in 12 years. Good got her bachelor’s degree in special education from Western Governors University Tennessee on May 6. Three days later, Murfreesboro’s Bradley Academy hired her as a special needs resource teacher At the online nonprofit school’s first commencement ceremony on Saturday, she’ll address about 50 of her fellow graduates, whom she’s never met — a “nerve-wracking, but at the same time exciting” proposition. “I’ve gained a lot of confidence in myself after being able to complete college and go out there and find that first job,” she said.
Automotive parts maker to expand in Wilson County (Associated Press)
State officials say the expansion of an automotive parts manufacturer in Wilson County could create more than 200 jobs. Gov. Bill Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty announced this week that Southtec LLC will invest $24 million to add onto its existing facility in Lebanon, as well as develop a new property creating 210 jobs. The company produces stampings and welded assemblies for the automotive industry. It currently has 315 employees.
Southtec to add 200+ jobs in Wilson County (Nashville Post)
Auto parts manufacturer Southtec announced today it will invest $23.6 million in its Wilson County facility and expects to add 210 jobs. The company produces stampings and welded assemblies for the automotive industry. Its existing operation employs 315 people. That facility, located in Lebanon, will require an expansion of 30,250 square feet, according to the announcement. In addition, Southtec will rehab a portion of the existing facility, allowing it to bring its total Tennessee employment to 525 employees, a 66 percent increase over three to four years.
Alstom hiring 60 workers in Chattanooga (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Pare)
Alstom’s turbine operation in Chattanooga is reversing employee cutbacks, with plans to add about 60 more jobs through September at the plant. The jobs are related to gas turbine production at the Riverfront Parkway facility, said Alstom spokeswoman Fallon McLoughlin. She said Alstom has shops in Richmond, Va., and Jupiter, Fla., and the Chattanooga facility is working with those locations. The addition of the new jobs will put the company’s turbine plant at more than 170 workers, she said. The turbine factory, which opened in 2010, had been slashing jobs. In March 2013, it trimmed 80 positions because of lack of orders for nuclear power components.
MicroPort Orthopedics expanding in Tennessee (Associated Press)
State officials say medical implant manufacturer MicroPort Orthopedics Inc. plans to expand its operations in Shelby County, adding 171 jobs over the next five years. Officials say MicroPort will invest $100 million over the next five years in product design, manufacturing capability, and training and education facilities at its Arlington location. Company CEO Ted Davis says MicroPort plans to build a facility to educate new surgeon customers and sales team members. MicroPort Orthopedics designs, develops, and manufactures hip and knee implant devices at its Arlington campus.
NWS confirms EF-0 tornado touched down in Kingston Tuesday (WVLT-TV Knox)
The National Weather Service has confirmed that a tornado touched down Tuesday evening in Roane County. The NWS says an EF-0 tornado with winds around 80 mph near Kingston. The tornado brought down trees and power lines, some onto cars and homes.
Tennessee Revenue Collections Drop In May (Associated Press)
Tennessee Finance Commissioner Larry Martin says the state’s revenue collections recorded negative growth in May. Martin said in a news release on Wednesday that overall revenues were $40 million less than expected. He attributed the poor numbers mainly to a legal change in the timing of business tax payments, and the payment of a large sales tax settlement. May sales tax collections reflect business activity that occurred during April. The state’s general fund fell short by $42 million last month.
State revenues down again in May (Nashville Post)
Still struggling to recover from months of lower-than-expected state tax collections, the state fell $40 million short in revenues last month. Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin blamed May’s drop on a legal change in the timing of business tax payments and on the payment of a large sales tax settlement. “Tennessee’s sales tax collections continue to reflect a slow recovery from the recession, and require us to closely monitor collections and expenditures for the remainder of this year to end with a balanced budget,” Martin said in a department press release.
Tennessee’s GDP growth trails most of its neighbors (Memphis Business Journal)
Though GDP growth spread across nearly every state in 2013, Tennessee proved to be a laggard in the region. Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased in 49 states in 2013, according to new statistics released today by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. U.S. real GDP growth slowed to 1.8 percent in 2013 after increasing 2.5 percent in 2012. But even that 1.8 percent average would’ve been an improvement for the Volunteer State. Tennessee’s 2013 GDP came in at a sluggish 0.8 percent. Compare that to western neighbor Arkansas, which saw its GDP sail along at 2.4 percent.
Tennessee Housing Development Agency cuts mortgage rate (TFP/Flessner)
The number of home loans made this year could drop by up to 30 percent as borrowers worry about tighter lending standards and higher interest rates. But the head of Tennessee’s state-backed housing agency Wednesday urged would-be homeowners not to give up on the market too soon. “You could be closer to home ownership than you expect,” said Ralph Perrey, executive director of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency who toured Southeast Tennessee Wednesday to encourage bank lenders and home borrowers to consider THDA mortgages.
TDEC considered action at Knoxville College last year (News-Sentinel/Boehnke)
A state environmental worker raised alarms about a defunct Knoxville College science building that contained hazardous material — and even suggested leveraging an emergency order to clean it up — a year before the federal government moved in to do the job. In an email to colleagues, a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation employee pointed to a May 2013 arson fire at a vacant dormitory next to the science building as a reason for concern. “This fire is a near miss in terms of potential problems we could be facing at the site with the presence of this material, and possibly other unknowns, (if) a fire occurred in the right building,” wrote Mark Andrews, who works in TDEC’s Division of Radiological Health at the Knoxville field office.
EPA offers TN guidance on reducing carbon emissions (Tennessean/Barton)
In documents supporting their call for hefty reductions in carbon emissions from Tennessee power plants, federal officials suggest how the state can make the biggest strides — investing more in nuclear power and renewable energy such as wind and solar. Those just happen to be two items already on the agenda of the Tennessee Valley Authority, although environmentalists say its commitment to renewables needs to be much bigger. The Environmental Protection Agency stresses the strategy outlined for Tennessee is only a suggestion and the state remains free to devise its own plan for meeting the new standards.
Nashville Drywall Firm To Pay State’s Largest Worker Misclassification Fine (WPLN)
A $300,000 fine for misclassifying construction workers may be having a deterrent effect, according to officials with the Tennessee Department of Labor. The penalty was the largest to-date in a statewide crackdown on labeling full-time employees as contract workers. TJ Drywall of Nashville was doing $2 million a year in business but only paying five percent of what regulators say they should have been in workers comp and unemployment insurance premiums. The Labor Department’s Scott Yarbrough says the practice remains rampant in the construction industry.
Alexander, Corker split on student loans (Gannett/Barton)
Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee disagreed Wednesday about allowing debate on the refinancing of older student loans, legislation that would have been paid for with new taxes on millionaires. On a cloture motion, Alexander voted against letting the bill advance to the Senate floor. Corker supported the motion, which fell just four votes shy of the 60 votes needed to end the filibuster. The tally was 56-38, with six not voting. It’s the second time in less than two months the two lawmakers have disagreed on a major vote. In April, they split on a cloture motion related to an increase in the minimum wage.
At Bergdahl Hearing, Cooper Blasts ‘Prosecutorial’ Republicans (WPLN-Radio)
Nashville’s Democratic congressman blasted his Republican colleagues, during a hearing on the deal to swap five Taliban prisoners for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Jim Cooper told colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee that thought the hearing had become too partisan. Cooper begged his GOP colleagues to drop “prosecutorial questioning” of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and focus instead on what he saw as most important issue: why the Obama Administration didn’t give 30 days notice to the House Armed Services Committee: “Does the Commander in Chief, any Commander in Chief of either party, have the right to take action when time requires it to protect the life of a serviceman to perhaps circumvent 30 day notice requirements to this body?”
Voters Split Over Forgetting DesJarlais’ Troubled Past In Reelection Bid (WPLN)
The most competitive congressional race in Tennessee this year may hinge on forgiveness. Republican Scott DesJarlais has drawn a strong primary opponent for the first time. He was able to fend off a Democratic challenger two years ago, even after it came out that the pro-life, pro-family congressman had pressured a mistress to have an abortion. DesJarlais has been trying to shake accusations of hypocrisy ever since. And now he’s trying to shake Jim Tracy. At this year’s Mule Day, teams of hulking mules in ornate bridles clip-clop through the Columbia town square as DesJarlais stands atop a borrowed wagon.
After victory in Virginia, tea party sets sights on Alexander (News-Sentinel/Collins)
Steve Osborn thinks there are a lot of messages to be found in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat by a tea party challenger in Virginia’s primary election on Tuesday, but the most jarring one for politicians just might be this: “The grass-roots can actually swing an election, regardless of the money the GOP throws at them,” said Osborn, chairman of the Sevier County Tea Party. Cantor’s loss to political novice David Brat — a virtual unknown who had tea party backing but just a fraction of Cantor’s bank account — confounded the nation’s campaign cognoscenti and left many wondering whether it should be interpreted as a warning sign to other establishment Republicans facing their own re-election battles.
Carr: Cantor loss shows Alexander can be beaten (Times Free-Press/Sher)
State Rep. Joe Carr says U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss in his Virginia GOP primary election this week provides ample evidence that his own underdog tea party-fueled challenge to incumbent U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in the Republican primary can succeed. In fact, Carr said in a CNBC interview on Wednesday, “I think Sen. Alexander has a similar problem that Leader Cantor had in that he’s out of touch with his Republican base in Tennessee.” Carr faces Alexander in the Aug. 7 Republican primary.
Sen. Bob Corker one of three votes against VA bill (Tennessean/Barton)
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee was one of only three votes Wednesday against a bill to bolster veterans’ medical treatment by allowing them to seek care from private doctors and enable the Department of Veterans Affairs to move quickly to fire employees for poor performance. The bill passed 93-3. Also voting against it were fellow Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Tim Johnson of Wisconsin. “I value too much the sacrifice and service our veterans have given to our country to vote for a bill that was thrown together without any discussion by this body and increases the deficit by at least $35 billion,” Corker said in a statement.
Lawmakers push to approve unified veterans’ bill (Associated Press/Daly)
After two overwhelming votes in two days, members of Congress say they are confident they can agree on a bill to improve veterans’ health care and send it to the president’s desk by the end of the month. The Senate easily approved a bill Wednesday to help shorten wait times for thousands of military veterans seeking medical care, a day after the House unanimously adopted a similar measure. The Senate bill would authorize about $35 billion over three years to pay for outside care for veterans, as well as hire hundreds of doctors and nurses and lease 26 new health facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico.
VA hospital director pledges improvement (Tennessean/Wilemon)
Leaders of the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System listed what they’re doing to improve after three facilities, including the flagship hospital in Nashville, were flagged for further scrutiny in a federal investigation of veterans’ long waits to see doctors. Speaking publicly for the first time about the audit, system director Juan Morales said he did not know why the VA hospital in Nashville or clinics in Chattanooga and McMinnville are still under investigation. But he said he was confident that personnel were “doing the right thing” to accurately document wait times for patients.
Chattanooga VA clinic to get closer scrutiny (Times Free-Press/Harrison)
Veterans officials in Tennessee say they are enacting new policies to try to shorten the list of veterans waiting for care after four medical facilities — including Chattanooga’s outpatient VA clinic — were flagged for further scrutiny in the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ most recent audit. The audit found that in the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, which includes the Chattanooga clinic, new patients had an average waiting time of 71 days to see a specialist, and 58 days to see a primary care doctor — the sixth-longest wait among all U.S. facilities, according to an AP analysis.
Veterans talk about care at Memphis VA Medical Center (C. Appeal/Fretland)
In wake of the announcement this week that the Memphis VA Medical Center was flagged as part of the national Veterans Affairs scandal over the amount of time veterans are waiting for care, The Commercial Appeal spoke with area veterans about their VA healthcare. Many of the veterans reported problems scheduling appointments and waiting to see doctors. “We can check on it and see what the status is,” Memphis VA Medical Center spokeswoman Willie Logan said. “We can check and see what’s going on with it. We couldn’t talk to you about their specific cases but give you a general answer.”
Memphis VA hospital braces for wait-time diagnosis, cures (CA/Fretland, McKenzie)
Jon Graham is a 73-year-old veteran who said Tuesday that he called a Memphis VA Medical Center outpatient clinic for about two months and when this month began, decided to visit the facility to get an appointment. It’s set for mid-July. “If this spot on my face is cancer, it will be almost four months before I find out,” Graham said. “It just seems like they don’t care.” While the military veteran pondered his future, Dr. C. Diane Knight, the Memphis VA Medical Center director, briefed reporters about results of a national audit of appointment handling and wait times for care and an initiative to accelerate service.
Long waits for new patients at local VA facilities addressed (WKRN-TV Nashville)
The long waits for many new patients at local VA healthcare facilities were addressed for the first time Wednesday by top officials in the Middle Tennessee system with the promise “to do better” and an indication of “getting more resources” that could total $14 to 15 million. “We are committed to making change, making it right,” said Juan Morales, who heads the local VA healthcare system. “It’s been disappointing.” A federal audit released Monday indicated that new patients seeking a specialist in the Middle Tennessee system had to wait an average of 71-days. The report said it was the sixth highest wait time in the country for that category.
Tennessee VA Chief Unsure Why National Audit Flagged His Facilities (WPLN)
The head of the VA’s hospitals and clinics in Middle Tennessee says he doesn’t know why internal auditors want to take a second look at the Nashville facility. The agency is reviewing scheduling practices around the country after 18 veterans in Arizona died while waiting for an appointment. Tennessee Valley Health System Director Juan Morales doesn’t deny that he has some of the longest wait times in the country – more than 70 days on average. But he also says he has no knowledge of schedulers cooking the books as they have elsewhere to lower wait times and trigger bonuses.
Duncan to VA: Convert old St Mary’s to VA hospital (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
A Knoxville lawmaker has asked the Department of Veteran Affairs to open a VA hospital in the city. The VA has been under fire for long wait times and inefficient management. A recent audit found that VA hospitals in Murfreesboro and Johnson City were among the worst in the country for getting appointments for veterans. There is no VA hospital in Knoxville, but there are several outpatient facilities in the city and surrounding counties. Officials at Mountain Home Health Care System placed part of the blame for their lengthy wait times on patients coming from the Knoxville area. On Wednesday, Congressman John J. Duncan sent a letter to acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson requesting that the VA look into the possibility of opening an inpatient facility in Knoxville.
States Respond to Wealth Gap (Stateline)
The two U.S. counties with the worst income inequality couldn’t be more different. No. 1 is Manhattan. The second is a rural Native American reservation in North Dakota. The two illustrate how widely inequality is spread around the country, and how the issue presents itself in different ways. The far-reaching problem was a driving force behind a raft of proposals in the states this year, as lawmakers looked to address persistent wealth gaps exacerbated by the Great Recession and the subsequent years of halting economic growth. Polls show inequality to be a growing public concern. A Pew Research Center survey this year found 65 percent of all Americans believed inequality was growing, and Gallup found similar results.
The Mixed Picture of What the States Owe (Governing)
When it comes to getting your arms around just how much states really owe, there is no shortage of moving parts. There’s bonded debt, and then there are liabilities for pensions and for other post-employment benefits such as retiree health care. Dig deeper and you find that states set different periods over which they aim to pay down liabilities and that they assume differing rates of return on investments. Some states use fixed annual payments, but many use a gradually increasing schedule that results in payments being backloaded. A new report from J.P. Morgan performs an important service by showing how states would stack up if all of these major variables were standardized.
TVA to Study Value of Small Providers Like Solar (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Valley Authority is studying the value of electricity produced from small, dispersed sites, such as solar, wind or small gas turbine installations. According to a news release from the utility, the initiative will develop methods to set the value of distributed generation to the electric grid and the value of the grid to the small energy producer. TVA will undertake the study with the help of local power companies and other stakeholders. Solar energy will be the first resource investigated. The process is expected to last through the end of 2014.
Sullivan school board ‘getting closer’ to balancing budget (Times-News)
Sullivan County school leaders may have come up with a workable plan to bridge a $3.2 million budget shortfall for 2014-15 without additional revenue beyond the projected $79.6 million. “We’re getting closer to balancing the budget,” Director of Schools Jubal Yennie said Wednesday night after the Board of Education reached a consensus on a net $1.6 million in expenditure decreases during a work session. Six of seven BOE members present informally agreed to just less than $1 million in spending cuts proposed by central office staff — including elimination of 13 teaching positions through attrition — since a May 5 work session.
School restructuring could be a faster process (Jackson Sun)
Jackson-Madison County Schools officials are considering a more aggressive timeline for a restructuring process that would take a hard look at where money can be saved in every area of operations. Superintendent Verna Ruffin presented a restructuring plan and timeline to the School Board at Monday’s work session. Board members will discuss and possibly vote on their next steps at tonight’s meeting. When Ruffin and the board began talking about restructuring, they mentioned an 18-month time frame, saying that it would be unrealistic to do it faster.
Editorial: Cooperation to curb abuse of painkillers is refreshing (Jackson Sun)
With the political partisanship that has come to dominate Nashville and Washington, it was refreshing to see members of both political parties line up in favor of the same cause this week. Many Republican and Democrats agree that prescription drug abuse — particularly the abuse of painkillers — is a problem that has reached near-epidemic proportions. And they agree that something must be done to address the problem. We add our voice to the chorus and, just as importantly, applaud lawmakers for finding common ground on an important issue. In Nashville, Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed Prescription for Success.
Frank Cagle: Subjugated Court (Metro Pulse)
“Have we not, like Esau, sold our precious birthright, equality and freedom for a mess of pottage, a cheap, easy way to be perpetuated in office?” — Justice Allison Humphreys I do not know anything about Justice Humphreys except that he was a prophet who was not honored in his own time. When the state Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that the Legislature had the power to change the law to allow justices to be appointed rather than be elected by the people, and that a retention election was constitutional, he wrote the lone dissent. He noted that the plain language of the constitution required a vote of the people, but went further to warn the court that it was giving up its sovereign right to be a co-equal branch of state government with the Legislature and the governor.
Editorial: Study should end misguided effort to privatize TVA (News-Sentinel)
A study by a prominent financial consulting firm has found that selling the Tennessee Valley Authority would be detrimental to ratepayers and to the federal government, which should be enough to convince the Obama administration to scuttle the idea. In its budget proposal, the White House called for a review of TVA operations with an eye toward privatization. The federal utility hired Lazard Frères & Co., an international financial advisory and asset management firm, to conduct the review. Lazard has recommended privatization for government agencies in the past, but determined that TVA is not a good candidate for the private-sector.