June 27 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.

Howard Baker has died (Tennessean/Sisk)
Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, a Republican who reshaped Tennessee politics, played a leadership role in one of the nation’s darkest hours and contended for the presidency, has died. Baker, who was 88, passed away Thursday at his home in Huntsville, Tenn., following complications from a stroke suffered last week. His wife, former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, was with him. Howard H. Baker, Jr., served 18 years in the U.S. Senate starting in 1966, when he became the first Republican to be popularly elected to that body from Tennessee. Baker was also a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, an envoy to Russia under President George H.W. Bush and a U.S. Ambassador to Japan in President George W. Bush’s administration.

Governor Bill Haslam Statement about Howard Baker’s Passing (WDEF-TV)
“Tennessee has lost a hero and a distinguished statesman, and I have lost a friend and mentor. “Howard Baker made Tennesseans proud, and he taught me an important lesson when I worked for him 35 years ago. Anytime he was sitting across the desk from someone in disagreement, he told himself to keep in mind: You know – the other fellow might be right. Whether at home, in business or in politics, that is always good advice to consider.

Why Gov. Haslam is happy about the Ryman Auditorium expansion (NBJ)
Ryman Hospitality Properties’ $14 million investment in the Ryman Auditorium is another indicator of Nashville’s red-hot tourism market, but also a reminder that investment is critical to keep it that way, city and state officials said today. “Tourism is our second-largest industry and in a sales-tax driven state, if we want more money for education, or to fund better social programs, or any of the things we are trying to do, it really means brining in more sales tax dollars,” said Gov. Bill Haslam, speaking today from the Ryman Auditorium stage. “The very best way to increase those sales tax dollars, quite frankly, is tourism.

Ryman’s $14M expansion will add cafe, interactive tour (Tennessean/Rau)
The Ryman Auditorium is planning to embark on a $14 million expansion — the first in nearly two decades — that will add a cafe, a multimedia history tour and new event space, in addition to renovations of the box office, restrooms, concessions and merchandising area. Ryman Hospitality President and CEO Colin Reed said the actual music venue, with its wooden church pews and revered acoustics, will be untouched by the project. The expansion is necessary, Reed said, because the Ryman has some “inadequacies” that have hindered the building amid Nashville’s booming tourist growth.

Nissan’s Infiniti Opens First Dedicated Plant – And It’s In Tennessee (WPLN-Radio)
Executives and dignitaries marked the start of a new engine line in Decherd Thursday. The standalone building represents a step out from the Nissan nest. Infiniti has been trying to differentiate itself from its parent company, in part so its vehicles don’t appear to be just souped-up Nissans. The company recently opened an independent headquarters in Hong Kong. The new Tennessee plant making turbo-charged four-cylinders is another step in that direction. “Having our own manufacturing facility is an important confirmation of the very exacting requirements that are part and parcel of achieving ‘Infiniti-ness,’” Infiniti Motors president Johan de Nysschen said.

Gov. Haslam: Future of Huffman not on radar yet (Tennessean/Garrison)
Gov. Bill Haslam says he hasn’t even talked to Kevin Huffman, his embattled education commissioner, about Huffman’s future in his administration beyond November, when Haslam is likely to capture a second term. “I have 23 commissioners, and I just haven’t begun to have those conversations with Kevin or anybody else because it’s just not the right timing,” Haslam said Thursday. “I have a campaign to go through, which I’ll do, and some time this fall, if I’m re-elected, I’ll sit down with all 23 and talk about, ‘Do you want to keep doing this and is that the right thing both for you personally and the entire state?’”

Ed. Commissioner Responds To Critics; Doesn’t Divulge Future Plans (WTVF-TV)
Educators from across the country gathered at Vanderbilt University to laud Tennessee’s educational gains and learn from what’s happening here. Ironic as the pushback to the reform efforts is strengthening across the state. “We’re on the right path in Tennessee,” Governor Bill Haslam said. “But I also think it’s really important that we be listening to folks, other people who have different views.” Opponents include state lawmakers, superintendents and even teachers associations who have all called for Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman’s resignation.

State helps preserve history in Elizabethton with grant (Johnson City Press)
The Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library received a visit from Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett on Thursday morning. Hargett was in town to celebrate a recent grant from the state for archive preservation. The Elizabethton Library received a $2,400 grant from Hargett’s office to be used for the purchase of a steel five-drawer map cabinet and a large number of archival-qualify boxes to store old scrapbooks. The map cabinet will be used to store the blueprints and drawings from the old Bemberg rayon plant.

Davidson County sees unemployment rate rise to 5.2% (Nashville Post)
Davidson County saw its unemployment rate rise to 5.2 percent in May, up from 4.7 percent in April. Still, according to statistics the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development released today, the county registered the lowest May unemployment rate of the state’s four major metropolitan areas. Knox County (Knoxville) saw its May jobless rate increase to 5.3 from its 4.7 percent mark in April. Hamilton County (Chattanooga) had a rate of 6.2 percent, up from 5.6 percent. Shelby County (Memphis) was 7.5 percent, up from 7 percent. Tennessee’s unemployment rate for May was 6.4 percent, up from the April revised rate of 6.3 percent. The national unemployment rate for May was 6.3 percent, unchanged from the mark of the previous month.

Davidson County’s jobless rate up in May (Nashville Business Journal)
The jobless rate increased in 88 Tennessee counties in May, including Davidson County, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced Thursday. Davidson County’s jobless rate rose to 5.2 percent in May, up from 4.7 percent in April. That’s still the lowest among the major metro areas in Tennessee when factoring the unemployed seeking a job. A year ago, Davidson County’s unemployment rate was 6.6 percent. Statewide, the unemployment rate rose slightly in May, increasing from 6.3 percent in April to 6.4 percent. Compared to last May, however, Tennessee’s overall jobless rate in down from 8.4 percent.

Memphis unemployment ticks up in May (Memphis Business Journal)
After solid improvement in April, the Memphis area unemployment rate took a step back in May. According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the Metro Memphis unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in May, up from 7 percent in April. Though the rate is still an improvement over March’s figure of 8.2 percent, which was revised down from 8.9 percent. In May 2013, the Memphis’ unemployment rate was 9.2 percent. Across the state, the unemployment rate decreased in five counties, increased in 88, and remained the same in two. The Tennessee unemployment rate for May was 6.4 percent, and the U.S. rate was 6.3 percent; both were 6.3 percent in April.

May unemployment rate stood at 7.5 percent in Greater Memphis (C. Appeal)
The unemployment rate in the Memphis metro area stood at 7.5 percent in May, which is lower than the 9.2 percent of a year ago, but up from 7 percent from April, according to preliminary data released Thursday by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The number of people with jobs totaled 549,360, less than 1 percent below the same total for May 2013. However, the number of people in the workforce in May — 593,780 — was about 2.8 percent fewer than a year earlier. State and national unemployment rates are seasonally adjusted to tune out the effects of weather, school years, holidays and other events.

Jobless rates rise across Chattanooga area as students, grads seek jobs (TFP)
The unemployment rate rose across Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia last month from students and graduates entering the job market. Despite monthly gains in the number of workers on the job, the jobless rate rose in all but two of the 18 counties in the Chattanooga region during May, according to figures released Thursday by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Georgia Department of Labor. Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler blamed the rise in unemployment on the seasonal increase in the number of people seeking employment as schools got out for the summer and new high school and college graduates entered the labor market.

Woman charged with plot to defraud TennCare (WKRN-TV Nashville)
A Wilson County woman is accused of trying to carry out a plot to defraud TennCare and having the state pay her for grandfather’s home care. Angela Douglas, 45, was arrested and charged in Trousdale County with two counts of TennCare fraud and one count of theft of services. In a three-count indictment, Douglas is accused of transferring her grandfather’s assets and resources to herself. She then reportedly used power of attorney to make him eligible for TennCare benefits, which would include nursing home care. “Many people want to preserve their assets for children or other beneficiaries, but federal law prohibits this kind of ‘pauperizing’ of a person to trigger government aid for expensive long-term care,” stated Acting Inspector General Robert White.

Alexander adds Gingrich to list of establishment endorsements (TFP/Brogdon)
In the wake of a tea party push to oust Washington incumbents, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is getting primary support from a few big names from the conservative establishment. Former House speaker, presidential primary candidate and political pundit Newt Gingrich aligned behind Alexander on Thursday, helping the senator defend his seat against tea party favorite state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas. After House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s June 10 loss to political newcomer David Brat in Virginia, tea party candidates have been energized.

Republican candidates face off at Franklin Co. forum (Tennessean/Broden)
Republican candidates attended a forum sponsored by the Franklin County Republican Party on Thursday night, but only one of the incumbents was on hand to debate the issues. State Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, Steve Lane of Murfreesboro and Michael S. Warden of Fayetteville attended the forum along with the incumbent they are challenging in the 4th District, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburg. Also appearing was state Rep. Joe Carr of Lascassas. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, whom Carr is challenging in the Aug. 7 primary, did not attend. Carr spent much of his time talking to the crowd of approximately 175 people about the importance of the Bill of Rights.

Federal Health-Exchange Plans to Automatically Renew (Wall Street Journal)
The Obama administration plans to automatically renew for next year the health plans and premium subsidies that consumers obtained through the Affordable Care Act’s federal insurance exchange. The move, which will apply to most of the five million people who selected insurance through HealthCare.gov for 2014, will make it easier for consumers to stay in their plans and retain tax credits lowering the cost of coverage. It also will relieve pressure on the federal exchange, which was crippled during parts of its first enrollment period.

States’ Apps Target Health and Safety (Stateline)
Beth Stevenson was worried about the snowstorm approaching North Carolina this past January. She needed to travel from her home in Raleigh to the coast for business and feared that some of the roads would be impassable. So she pulled up ReadyNC, an app she recently downloaded on her smartphone that showed her exactly which roads were open and what the weather conditions were like. “Being from North Carolina, we don’t handle snow very well and it was a pretty bad storm,” said Stevenson, 31, a communications consultant for an energy company. “It was really good to know which roads were the safest to travel and which were closed.”

Carbon limits could boost nuclear power, former EPA head says (TFP/Flessner)
Carbon emission limits proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency should provide a boost to nuclear power, former EPA Administrator Christine Whitman said Thursday. Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who last week joined with three other previous Republican EPA administrators to urge prompt action on climate change, said the United States needs to build more nuclear reactors to help replace fossil fuel power generation. “Clearly, I think people now believe that there will be a limit on carbon of some sort and, while coal will remain part of our generation mix, we need other cleaner sources to address the huge challenge of climate change,” Whitman said.

Support positions lost as schools trim budget (Johnson City Press)
Athletic coaching supplements were narrowly spared from elimination during a Johnson City Schools budget meeting Tuesday morning, but other staffed positions weren’t as lucky. Among the $1.6 million in cuts used to pare down the district’s $2.8 million deficit for the system’s budget proposal to the City Commission was $175,000 used to pay three salaries formerly funded by Safe Schools/Healthy Students grants as part of the HEROES Initiative. The positions, a social worker and employability skills coach at the high school’s Alternative Center and a student support teacher who split her time between Indian Trail Intermediate and Liberty Bell Middle schools, were valuable assets to the schools, Board of Education members remarked Tuesday, but their loss allowed counselors and teachers to be spared.

 

OPINION

Times Ed: America — and especially Congress — needs more like Baker (TFP)
Tennessee and the nation lost a political legend Thursday when Howard Baker died at age 88. He was known as “the Great Conciliator” — and today’s Congress could use more lawmakers of his ilk. The Congress he prodded for 18 years to keep talking, working, cooperating and accomplishing things now seems in shambles, with members preoccupied with personal attacks and filled with partisan rancor. Most Americans know Howard H. Baker Jr. for his Watergate-era question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Baker served as vice chairman, and thus leading Republican, on the Senate Committee probing the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic headquarters and ensuing cover-up by the Nixon administration.

Free-Press Editorial: Baker, cellphones and good neighbors (Times Free-Press)
Senator first in a line For Tennessee Republicans, Howard Baker, who died Thursday at age 88, was the foundation, the trailblazer, the man upon whom the modern Grand Old Party in the Volunteer State was built. The Huntsville, Tenn., native and McCallie School graduate in 1966 became the first elected Republican senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction. From that election grew a state that today has two Republican U.S. senators (including Baker protege Lamar Alexander), a Republican governor and seven of nine Republican U.S. representatives. Baker, who went on to be re-elected in 1972 and 1978, served two terms as Senate minority leader and two terms as Senate majority leader.

Editorial: Howard Baker, Tennessee’s statesman (Commercial Appeal)
Crafting a sort of mission statement for the Washington think tank known as the Howard Baker Forum, its namesake wrote, “As a nation, we must never tire of reaching sound policies through bipartisanship, vigorous but honest debate, and a healthy respect for the other fellow’s point of view.” Sadly, the state of Tennessee and the nation lost one of its great statesmen Thursday with the death of Tennessee’s first Republican U.S. senator since Reconstruction, and one is left wondering if his likes will ever be seen again in a Congress so crippled by partisan extremism and failure to compromise. The kind of civility Baker exhibited throughout his career is also in short supply.