This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam is holding four days of budget hearings this week as his administration prepares its annual spending proposal to be delivered to Tennessee lawmakers in January. The Republican governor kicks off the hearings Tuesday with presentations from the state agencies responsible for human resources, safety, intellectual and developmental disabilities and commerce. On Wednesday, Haslam will hear from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the departments of revenue, transportation, veterans’ affairs, labor, finance and economic development. General services, agriculture, lottery and environment and conservation are up on Thursday. The Friday hearings begin with TennCare and the departments of correction, military and financial institutions. Up last on Friday afternoon are the K-12 education agency and higher education.
Gov. Bill Haslam and the state’s business community enjoyed a major success in the November election, and now face the challenge of navigating their agenda through the 109th Tennessee General Assembly. The election success was approval of Amendment 2, which assures the governor will appoint the state’s appellate judges — subject to confirmation by the Legislature and a statewide retention election when they seek new terms. With his own re-election a given, Haslam’s top priority was approval of Amendment 2. He co-chaired the “Yes on 2” campaign committee with former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, and the two made personal and television appearances in support of the amendment. Amendment 2 was also the top priority of the Tennessee Business Partnership, a nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization created nine months ago.
University of Tennessee architecture students need $3,000 to build wheelchair ramps, decks and other needs for low-income, disabled residents who have trouble entering their own homes. A group of female engineering students are looking for $800 to produce a commercial they hope will inspire more women to join their field. And five art graduate students need $2,500 to help pay their way to New York City, where their work will be on display in the Chelsea Art Gallery District. All three student groups are hoping to make their projects and trips a reality with the help of UT’s new crowdfunding website: VOLstarter.utk.edu. “This is a way, with smaller goal amounts, for donors to see their $5, $10, $20 gifts make a difference and see the outcome of that difference,” said Haylee Marshall, senior director of annual giving. “We have been wanting to communicate to alumni that every dollar really does make a difference for the university.”
Alisha McClarty sits quietly listening to a lecture on personal finances on a recent Tuesday afternoon. McClarty’s class is not the traditional classroom at Southwest Tennessee Community College. The freshman student is taking an “academic success” class as part of a group of freshmen learning about college life and what it takes to make it. This is one of many intervention programs the college is implementing to help students like McClarty graduate and not contribute to the college’s dismal graduation rate. “We work together. If one person needs help, the others help,” McClarty said. “It’s the little things that count.” Southwest has been struggling with a low graduation rate for years. In fact, the college has the worst graduation rate of any public college or university in the state, according to federal data.
State safety officials are urging Tennesseans to protect themselves against identity crimes this holiday season. Last year, identity theft accounted for 14 percent of all complaints recorded by the Federal Trade Commission, leading the list of top consumer complaints. “Internet scammers or hackers can easily access your private data, if you’re not careful,” said Tennessee Highway Patrol Major Stacy Williams, who oversees the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security’s Identity Crimes Unit. “Citizens should make sure websites are secure before entering any personal or financial information.”
A pair of Southeast Tennessee Republicans is in the cross-hairs along with state House Speaker Beth Harwell in upcoming leadership elections. Harwell, seeking her third term as House speaker, is facing attacks from the far right of her party from Rep. Rick Womick. Rep. Kevin Brooks, of Cleveland, is trying to hold on to his position as House assistant majority leader, and Rep. Cameron Sexton, of Crossville, hopes to hang as majority whip. Womick, of Rockvale in Rutherford County, has heavy weapons on his side: The head of the Tennessee Firearms Association is calling on his members to “demand” GOP legislators back Womick in his challenge to Harwell. “Conservatives must take action now to help define the leadership of the Tennessee General Assembly for the next 2 years,” Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris wrote in an email.
In recent disclosures, House Speaker Beth Harwell reports collecting more money than she spent before the November elections and now has more than $1.3 million banked in two campaign financing accounts. State Rep. Rick Womick, who is challenging Harwell for re-election as speaker, contended in a letter to Republican legislators that Harwell “compromised our trust and has abused the prestige of her office” by amassing the “personal political wealth.” The House Republican Caucus meets Dec. 10 to choose its nominee for speaker with Harwell heavily favored. The GOP nominee is virtually assured of being elected speaker when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 13, since Republicans hold a 73-26 House majority. “At the expense of the very legislators who elected her as speaker, she has quietly consumed large sums of available PAC money for her Harwell PAC and Personal Campaign Finance account,” Womick wrote. “Apparently, it has been for one self-serving purpose; so that she can run for and become the next governor of Tennessee.”
Arne Duncan received a lot of bipartisan praise the day he went before a Senate committee for his confirmation hearing as U.S. education secretary. One of those generously doling out the compliments was U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. “President-elect Obama has made several distinguished cabinet appointments,” the Tennessee Republican told the nominee, “but in my view of it all, I think you are the best.” A lot has changed in the six years since that hearing. Alexander, who in January is poised to become chairman of the Senate committee that oversees education issues, has been a frequent and vocal critic of the Obama administration’s education policy. Much of his criticism has been directed at Duncan, whom he often accuses of trying, in effect, to create a national school board. Has the senator changed his mind about Duncan’s talents? “I really haven’t,” Alexander said the day following the GOP rout in the Nov. 4 election, giving Republicans a Senate majority for the first time in eight years. “I think he’s a very good cabinet member. I just think he’s wrong on some very big issues.” Alexander knows better than most people what it takes to be a good education secretary. He held the post under then-President George H.W. Bush.
Lawmakers returning to Capitol Hill on Monday will have less than two weeks to figure out how to keep the government funded amid an acrimonious fight between Republicans and the White House over immigration. With government funding set to expire Dec. 11, top Democrats and Republicans had hoped to pass a so-called omnibus measure that would tie together tailored spending bills to fund the government through September 2015, the end of the fiscal year. Democrats, who control the Senate only until January, want to seal in deals that stretch as far into next year as possible. GOP leaders, vowing to avoid a repeat of last fall’s partial government shutdown, want to dispatch lingering 2014 business so they can begin the new year by showing they can pass Republican-leaning legislation. But it is unclear what Republicans will do to satisfy conservatives who want to express their anger over President Barack Obama ’s decision to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.
Y-12 officials, federal and contractor, gave the first real look at revised plans for the Uranium Processing Facility at the recent Business Opportunities Conference, which is hosted annually by the Energy Technology and Environmental Business Association. Even though the UPF has been scaled back from its original design — from one building to three smaller buildings — the construction project will still be one of the most expensive in Tennessee history. The plan is to keep the overall cost under $6.5 billion and be fully operational by 2025. “We’re on track,” said Brian Reilly, the project director for Consolidated Nuclear Security, the government’s managing contractor at Y-12. Reilly said the project will employ 2,400 at the peak of construction and create another 9,600 supporting or indirect jobs.
The Jackson-Madison County School System is developing a plan to improve achievement at its two priority schools and district-wide. Jackson Careers and Technology Elementary School and the Lincoln Magnet School for Mathematics and Science were put on the Tennessee Department of Education’s list of priority schools based on their achievement on the 2013-14 TCAP tests. Schools whose test scores are in the bottom 5 percent in the state are placed on the priority list. The state released district report cards in October showing various measures of growth and achievement for the district and individual schools. According to the report, Jackson-Madison County Schools rated among the “least effective” in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.
A member of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees has resigned, but university officials apparently think the public does not need to know the circumstances surrounding the departure. R.J. Duncan was the student representative on the board until he resigned abruptly earlier this year. A junior in finance and marketing from Nolensville, Tennessee, Duncan also withdrew from school. UT officials have refused to release Duncan’s resignation letter, claiming that a federal student privacy law prohibits them from making the document available. This misapplication of a legitimate privacy law undermines public confidence in the university and its governance.