This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Several years ago, there were only about 50 people working at the ARC Automotive plant near Middlebrook Pike. That made it fairly easy for Andrew Walker, ARC’s director of operations, to know their names and talk to them about their families. But the company, which makes air bag inflaters for the automotive industry at its West Knoxville plant, has been adding people in the last couple of years. “We’ve grown a lot since then and I’m not able to keep up with everybody now,” Walker said. It’s not a bad problem to have. Demand in the automotive industry has picked up and the workforce of the plant has increased to about 130 people now, Walker said. “We started to see some signs of recovery in about 2010,” he said. Ali El-Haj, CEO of ARC, said the company has recovered the business lost during the recession and then some.
As Gov. Bill Haslam kicks off his first round of public budget hearings Monday, he finds himself caught between some fellow Republicans who want to reduce taxes and critics who say previous spending reductions have harmed some state services. Toss in demands from public employees for a pay raise, problems with two major business taxes and other woes, and it looks like Haslam will have his hands full first in shaping and then defending the spending plan he will present to the Legislature early in 2015. The governor, who will be inaugurated for a second four-year term in January, knows the drill. “It’s easy to say I’d like to cut taxes. I would, too,” Haslam told reporters earlier this month. “It’s easy to say I’d like to spend more. I would, too.” But, the governor said, “we have to present a balanced budget.”
State Rep. Rick Womick captured newspaper headlines recently by campaigning to be speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives and pre-filing a bill to require ultrasounds for abortions. A Rutherford County resident in the Rockvale community southwest of Murfreesboro, Womick said he’ll be asking the majority of the House Dec. 10 to elect him as the leader instead of retaining Speaker Beth Harrell, a fellow Republican representative who lives in Nashville. “I really don’t want to be the House speaker, but somebody has to step up and hold our current speaker, Speaker Harwell, accountable for the things she has done in her four years in office,” Womick said. A representative for the 34th District since winning the seat in 2010, Womick agreed to be interviewed at The Daily News Journal about what he seeks to accomplish in General Assembly.
On a hot August day during the first week of school, Heather Hobbs, a 26-year-old teacher at Andrew Johnson Elementary School in Kingsport, Tenn., asked her third-grade class to do something she knew that they wouldn’t be able to do. She handed out two passages, one about Eliza Scidmore, a writer and explorer whose idea it was to plant cherry blossom trees around the nation’s capital, and another about George Washington Carver, an African-American botanist born into slavery who taught poor farmers how to grow alternative crops to cotton. Together, the texts totaled more than 1,000 words, and an attached worksheet asked the students to write an essay describing the challenges that the historical figures had faced in their lives. “This will be difficult,” Hobbs said. “But if you give me your very best, I promise I’m going to teach you how to do this by the end of the year.”
A legendary Tennessee lawyer whose push for voting rights dated back to the civil rights movement died last summer, not long before a new federal report found evidence that he might have had a point about that state’s voter identification law. Now many of those who worked closely with him say they intend to keep the cause alive. George Barrett died in August, two months before a new report by the Government Accountability Office found that states — including Tennessee — which toughened their voter ID laws saw steeper drops in election turnout than those that did not. While there were few reports of voting problems in Tennessee following the Nov. 4 general election, voter advocates say the report justifies the need to examine the effects of the voter ID law in Tennessee, one of 33 states to enact laws obligating voters to show a photo ID at the polls.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett says he’s not running for governor in 2018. Hargett was among several Republicans included in early speculation after the Nov. 4 election about potential candidates to succeed Gov. Bill Haslam, since Haslam can’t run for a third consecutive term. But Hargett, who is in the middle of a four-year term, found such speculation uncomfortable and issued a statement Friday saying, “I am not running for governor in 2018. While I am honored to be mentioned and thought of in this regard, I am focused on being the best secretary of state I can be and the best one our state has ever had. The people of Tennessee deserve nothing less. I would rather focus on what’s now, rather than what’s next.
Delta Air Lines will eliminate dozens of Memphis jobs as it scrubs four nonstop routes next year. The airline will cut nonstops from Memphis to Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Dallas/Fort Worth and Washington Reagan National next year, but add seasonal service to Cancun, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. A second flight will be added to New York-LaGuardia in February. The Delta cuts, which will affect 84 Memphis employees, were part of a one-two punch that hit the airport Friday. Officials also announced Frontier Airlines will convert a Memphis-Dallas flight to a seasonal offering in January. Delta’s reductions bring the airline below a 30-flight threshold where airport officials believed it would bottom out following last year’s discontinuation of the city’s passenger hub.
Shelby County has more than a passing interest in a decision facing Gov. Bill Haslam — when and with whom to replace departing Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. Huffman plans to leave the post by the end of the year to pursue opportunities in the private sector. His replacement needs to have the ability to relate well to teachers on a personal level, bring school district superintendents on board for the implementation of much-needed changes, explain to the people of Tennessee why their education system is in need of reform, and, if necessary, help craft new legislation to improve the performance of the state-managed Achievement School District. Some have suggested that he or she would benefit, too, from a Tennessee background, which should not be a requirement but could — all other factors being equal — produce better relationships with stakeholders. Native or not, the new commissioner should be able to articulate the value of the Common Core State Standards.
Although the convening of the General Assembly still is a few weeks away, battle lines already are drawn over the future of Common Core State Standards. Gov. Bill Haslam, who is working to keep Common Core in place, faces the task of replacing Kevin Huffman as education commissioner, and presumably the new commissioner will be as strong a supporter of the standards as Huffman. Among legislators who have fought Common Core most fervently is state Rep. Rick Womick, a Rockvale Republican who is challenging state Rep. Beth Harwell for the post of speaker of the House. Womick is hopeful that when the Legislature reconvenes, it will move forward with the ending of state participation in Common Core. Bills already are in place to pursue that goal. Opponents of Common Core have many contentions in regard to that opposition, and many of those arguments are ideological rather than based on educational philosophy or practice.
There is good news and bad news about the war on meth in Tennessee. The good news: Meth lab busts are down. The bad: The illegal drug is coming into the state in a cheaper and stronger version from Mexico by the same drug cartels that export heroin and cocaine. Another piece of bad news: This war is far from over. While Tennessee law enforcement agencies appear to be winning the battle against home-grown methamphetamine, a more sinister fight is taking its place, posing another challenge for those agencies that concentrate on fighting meth. A recent story in The (Nashville) Tennessean reports that seizures of meth labs have dropped 41 percent this year, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Tennessee is not alone. Missouri and Oklahoma, two other states with a serious meth problem, also are experiencing downward trends. Missouri and Tennessee have been neck and neck in recent years for the dubious honor of leading the nation in the number of incidents involving meth labs. Law enforcement officials said the number of meth labs found in Tennessee in 2013 jumped 11 percent from 2012.