This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
The Tennessee Board of Regents and Nissan have broken ground for a new $35 million training center in Smyrna. The board is building the 150,000-square-foot-plus center near Nissan’s Smyrna Vehicle plant. The facility will operate as an extension of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology campus at Murfreesboro, but the TCAT-Murfreesboro and Nissan will occupy it jointly. The center was included in the fiscal year 2014 budget as part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent by the year 2025. The center is scheduled to be completed in 2016. It will offer a variety of training programs, including automotive technology, mechatronics, welding and other programs related to advanced manufacturing.
The Tennessee Board of Regents broke ground today on a new facility across the street from Nissan’s factory in Smyrna. The $35 million building will serve as an extension of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Murfreesboro, as well as a training center for Nissan. Students here will work toward a certificate or credential related to advanced manufacturing. They won’t necessarily work for Nissan afterward — they might take a job at another manufacturer in the region such as Bridgestone. Jose Munoz, chairman of Nissan North America, says the level of training needed for this kind of job has gotten tougher. “They have a preparation that you cannot imagine. It’s more complex to do the job today than when I was a student of engineering,” he says. “So we’re qualifying people more and more and more.”
While there’s been progress in making Tennessee a safer state, much remains to be done, particularly on domestic violence, Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday. The Republican governor kicked off a public safety summit that also focused on Tennessee’s sentencing laws, homeland security concerns, drug abuse and trafficking and other issues. Haslam created his public safety subcabinet about four years ago to coordinate efforts to make Tennessee safer. Since 2010, the governor said reported domestic violence offenses in Tennessee have decreased nearly 14 percent. Last year, Tennessee was ranked the 10th-highest in the nation for the rate of women killed by men. “I’ll be really clear, they’re still too high,” Haslam said.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will be one of two commencement speakers Saturday at East Tennessee State University. Haslam is scheduled to deliver the address during the 2 p.m., ceremony at the ETSU/Mountain States Health Alliance Athletic Center, also known as the Minidome, according to a written statement. ETSU professor Alison Barton will be the speaker at ETSU’s 10 a.m. fall Commencement exercise. Haslam was re-elected as governor of Tennessee in November by the largest majority in modern Tennessee history. Haslam launched the “Tennessee Promise” – the only program in the country to give every graduating high school senior a chance to earn a certificate or two-year degree beyond high school free of charge and with a personal mentor.
Many students going to community college next year will have their tuition covered by Tennessee Promise, but that only pays for a portion of what their education actually costs. As higher education officials are reminding the governor, schools rely largely on state funding to pay the difference. While presenting a budget proposal Friday, Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said tuition covers a little more half of the total price tag of community college. The school still has to dish out about $3,000 per student. “While it is absolutely fantastic that students have the ability to pay their fees, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the institutions will have the resources we need to provide the services,” he said.
The city of Nashville may need to brace itself for life without its fictional TV counterpart, ABC’s “Nashville.” For the first time since “Nashville” came to town in 2012, there are no production incentives included in Tennessee’s annual film and TV budget beyond the minimum required by law: $2 million. “There is no money in our budget request for any special asks for film — ‘Nashville’ or otherwise,” said Clint Brewer, assistant commissioner, Communications & Marketing, for TNECD, in an email. The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and commissioner Bill Hagerty presented its new budget to Gov. Bill Haslam on Dec. 3, 2014. By law, the TNECD budget includes $2 million in recurring funds each year for film and TV productions. And, for the proposed 2015-16 budget, that’s all that will be available for film and TV projects next year.
Tennessee may just scrap a doomed computer system meant to determine who is eligible for the state’s Medicaid program and find a new contractor. That’s one of three options outlined by TennCare, who hired Northrop Grumman to build the system. It was supposed to be done a year and a half ago and remains nowhere near complete. In a hearing with Governor Bill Haslam, TennCare chief medical officer Wendy Long said it has become clear the $38 million price tag was never going to be enough. Other states have spent $98 – $184 million on similar systems. “It’s evident that our winning bid came in so far outside of the ballpark that the approach envisioned by our vendor likely had little potential for success,” Long said.
The Volunteer State is right in the middle of the pack, according to a new report by 24/7 Wall St. that ranked the best and worst states by their management quality. The report puts Tennessee at No. 23, just behind Kansa and West Virginia, on its list of best-run states in the country. The website acknowledges “selecting appropriate criteria to compare the 50 states is difficult because there is so much variation among the states.” To determine how well-managed states are, the finance site looked at several metrics falling into three categories: financial position, economic outcomes and social outcomes. Several key points include state GDP, revenue collection, debt per capita, state credit rating, the unemployment rate, median household income and poverty rate. North Dakota topped the list, followed by Wyoming and Nebraska. Illinois ranked last.
The Tennessee Board of Optometry has required optometrists located inside retail stores to separate their offices from the retailer by early next year. Under the new rule, optometrists can continue to lease space inside commercial establishments, but there must be a permanent physical separation, such as a wall, between the optometry office and the retailer. The optometrist’s office must have an entrance for patients that opens directly onto a public street, lobby, corridor or other public thoroughfare. The rule also says a retailer of ophthalmic materials should not attempt to control the practice of the optometrist. More than 10 Walmart and Sam’s Club locations in Tennessee will have to make structural changes to stores to comply with the rule, which is effective on Jan. 15. Optometrists and retailers must make the necessary physical changes by July 1.
The Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs (TDVA) is coming to Austin Peay State University on Dec. 10 to help honor a special group of graduating APSU students. At 5 p.m. that afternoon, the University will host its Fall 2014 Military and Veterans Graduate Recognition Ceremony in the Mabry Concert Hall, with Many-Bears Grinder, the state’s first female TDVA commissioner, serving as the keynote speaker. During the ceremony, veterans, reservists and active duty military personnel who are scheduled to graduate from APSU on Friday will receive a red, white and blue cord to wear over their academic regalia. They will also receive one of the University’s military coins. About 20 percent of APSU students have a military connection, and the coin was created to honor those individuals.
Two people are charged in separate TennCare fraud cases in Macon and Maury Counties, with both involving prescription drugs. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced the arrests on Wednesday, December 3: Shane Hostutler, 27, of Red Boiling Springs, accused of using TennCare to obtain Suboxone, a drug used to treat addiction to heroin and morphine, and selling a portion of the drugs to an undercover informant. Tracy A. Lankford, also known as Tracy Ann Gartee and as Tracy A. Ridings, 26, of College Grove, charged with TennCare fraud and forgery in an indictment accusing her of presenting an altered prescription for the painkiller Lortab at a pharmacy, and using TennCare benefits to pay for the forged prescription.
Traditionally an insider’s affair, the contest for the Tennessee state House’s most powerful post — the speakership — has been anything but that this year. With Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, challenging Republican Speaker Beth Harwell in Wednesday’s GOP Caucus election, various tea party groups, anti-Common Core activists and the Tennessee Firearms Association have been bombarding Republican representatives with emails and phone calls in support of Womick. Just last week, the Tennessee Republican Assembly and the heads of the Chattanooga and Nashville tea parties entered the fray, praising Womick as a “true patriot” and “true conservative” and arguing that his elevation to speaker “would further the true intention of Tennessee voters as expressed in the recent elections.”
Over the weekend, a Tennessee GOP establishment figure took a convincing re-election win against a challenger looking to lead the party in a more conservative direction. But that hasn’t resulted in state Rep. Rick Womick having second thoughts about taking on Beth Harwell for the title of House speaker. During the TNGOP’s leadership elections held in Nashville on Saturday, Chris Devaney, who has served as the state party’s chairman for the last 5 years, collected 47 votes from the executive committee. Devaney’s challenger, Joe Carr, a former state representative who unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow Lamar Alexander in the GOP’s U.S. Senate primary earlier this year, snagged only 17 votes.
Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t sure he’ll be able to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday when the president plans a trip to Nashville to discuss his recent action on immigration reform. Haslam told reporters Monday he has a couple events on his schedule Tuesday and his office just received the president’s schedule Monday. But the Republican governor doesn’t think not meeting with the president would be a snub or a political insult. “I spent last Thursday with them at the White House conference on education. So I think if you look at governors who’ve worked hard to try to keep a great relationship, I think we’d be at the top of that list,” Haslam said, in a statement provided by a spokesman. Haslam was invited to the White House last week to be recognized for the Tennessee Promise scholarship program. Obama also called Haslam to congratulate him in November when the governor won re-election.
President Barack Obama heads to Nashville Tuesday to discuss his recent action on immigration, but on issues related to religion and education, immigration plays a significant role in Tennessee politics as well. The state garnered national attention several years ago related to a push to ban Sharia law, the set of rules and laws based on Islam. A state bill in 2011 would have made following Sharia law punishable by 15 years in jail. After being accused of being “soft” on Sharia law, Rep. Diane Black, D-Tenn., supported federal anti-Sharia law legislation in 2012 and told NPR she understood the “devastation” Sharia law could mean to the U.S. Some local Muslim community leaders and immigration activists have been outspoken critics of such proposals, calling them fear mongering and blatantly misleading.
The political and practical impact of shielding millions of immigrants from deportation will intersect in Nashville on Tuesday when President Barack Obama celebrates the city’s embrace of international diversity but also confronts the Republican backlash to his executive action. Obama can expect a friendly audience at Casa Azafrán on Nolensville Pike, home to nonprofit organizations that help immigrants navigate their new surroundings in a city with a record of welcoming them into the workforce. One of those in attendance will be David Lubell, executive director of Welcoming America in Atlanta, a national nonprofit that originated in Nashville. “Nashville represents the future of the South,” Lubell said.
Attorney General Eric Holder was set to meet Tuesday with local officials and community leaders in Memphis, where protesters have been vocal but peaceful since the deaths of unarmed black men during confrontations with police in Missouri and New York. Holder has visited Atlanta and Cleveland in recent days to address issues such as racial profiling and community policing. His stop Tuesday in Memphis – the city where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968 – will include a speech at the My Brother’s Keeper Communities Challenge Summit and a round-table discussion with law enforcement, elected officials, and community and faith leaders.
The U.S. Supreme Court today will consider whether Alabama’s 4 percent sales tax on fuel used by freight trains—a tax trucks and barges don’t have to pay—is inherently discriminatory and violates federal law. While the case originated in Alabama, at least nine other states impose a full or partial sales tax on train fuel, including Arizona, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and West Virginia, according to the State and Local Legal Center, which keeps track of court cases affecting states. Several of these states and others filed a “friend of the court” brief. “It’s not a quirk in Alabama,” said Lisa Soronen, the center’s executive director. “A number of other states have similar situations. This is not an idiosyncrasy.” Alabama and the other states contend that they assess all kinds of different taxes—on fuel, on sales, on entertainment, to name a few—and the railroad diesel fuel tax is just another one.
Two nominees for the Tennessee Valley Authority are expected to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate today, but only after the pair made an unusual commitment Monday not to vote or involve themselves with any matter involving developer Franklin L. Haney and his effort to finance TVA’s unfinished Bellefonte Nuclear Plant. Virginia Lodge, a former commissioner for Tennessee’s Department of Human Services, and Ronald Walter, a Memphis television executive, are both Democrats nominated by the White House to fill two vacant seats on TVA’s 9-member governing board. Prior to the formal nomination announcement from the White House in late August, both Lodge and Walter acknowledge they talked with Haney or his representatives, who are urging TVA to finish Bellefonte through a private funding plan.
Two Tennesseans awaiting confirmation to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s board of directors have promised to recuse themselves from any matters involving a businessman who has been pushing a multi-billion-dollar business deal with the public utility. Ronald A. Walter of Memphis and Virginia Lodge of Nashville, who are scheduled to receive a confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, each submitted letters to TVA’s ethics officer on Monday after U.S. Sen. Bob Corker raised concerns about the nominations process. “While I respect the two nominees currently being considered, I have grown increasingly concerned by the nomination process and the potential influence — or perception of influence — that an outside investor who has proposed a multi-billion-dollar project to TVA has had on this process,” Corker said in a statement submitted for publication in the Congressional Record.
The Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl is kicking off a new era of post-season college football with two marquee names: LSU and Notre Dame. This year’s match-up will be the first of six consecutive games that will pit an SEC team against either an ACC or Big 10 team, under a new agreement reached last year. (Previously, the bowl game featured an SEC vs. ACC match-up). Scott Ramsey, president and CEO of the Nashville Sports Council and the bowl game, is optimistic this year’s match-up, announced S unday, will meet, if not exceed, the game’s average annual direct spending of $17 million. “I would say with the brands that are rolling in here from a college football standpoint, their fan bases are really known to travel well,” said Ramsey.
Nashville Shores announced Monday that it intends to make a multimillion-dollar expansion to its current attractions in early 2015 that will be available to the public on May 9, opening day. The largest of the additions the park announced — a 57-foot-tall, 530-foot-long four-passenger raft water slide called the Big Kahuna — will cost about $2 million, a spokesman for the park said Monday. Daniel Strobel, director of marketing, said the slide, which goes through dark tunnels and around quick turns, would be the first of its kind in Middle Tennessee and at the park. Strobel said the slide itself as well as other additions the park plans to make in 2015, such as new retail and concession locations and upgrades to the front gate and signage, are designed to increase the experience of the park’s guests.
The United Auto Workers on Monday qualified for the top tier of a new labor policy at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, giving the union its first formal role within a foreign-owned auto plant in the South. Volkswagen said that an independent auditor had verified that the UAW’s Local 42 had signed up at least 45 percent of workers at the Chattanooga plant. That will entitle the union to biweekly discussions with managers and to frequent access to the plant for meetings, notices and other organizing activity. While the policy doesn’t address collective bargaining, UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel called it a “starting point” for achieving that goal at the plant where he said the union already represents more than half the workers.
The United Auto Workers local in Chattanooga has met a level of support that for the first time will enable it to start biweekly face-to-face meetings with Volkswagen officials at the factory. VW said Monday that UAW Local 42 has signed up at least 45 percent of the plant’s rank-and-file workforce, a number verified by an independent auditor hired by the automaker. The number triggers new rights for the union, giving the UAW its strongest foothold yet in the Chattanooga plant. The next step is to have VW officially recognize the UAW, said Gary Casteel, the union’s secretary-treasurer. “In the initial conversations, the local union will remind human resources and the Chattanooga Executive Committee of the mutually agreed-upon commitments that were made by Volkswagen and the UAW last spring in Germany. Among those commitments — Volkswagen will recognize the UAW as the representative of our members,” he said.
State and Hamilton County officials used the words “disappointed,” “stunned” and “troubled” to describe their reactions to the Erlanger Health System board’s decision to give $1.7 million in bonuses to executives and management months after the hospital was in danger of ending the year in the red. “I felt betrayed. I felt embarrassed ” said state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. He said the decision flies in the face of the work local, state and federal lawmakers did to help procure $19 million in federal funding, money that contributed directly to the hospital ending the year in the black. “It will be difficult for [Erlanger] to come back and ask anything of us going forward,” Gardenhire said. Erlanger trustees approved a series of last-minute resolutions Thursday to pay out the incentives to 99 managers.
Thank goodness the Tennessee Fire Marshal’s Office stepped in to remedy an embarrassing situation in which the Memphis City Council favored a special interest over the safety of Memphis residents. The council, with passion on the part of some members, approved in October an ordinance that suspended seismic design and construction requirements from the recently adopted 2012 International Residential Code while a committee studied the issue. Council members said they took the action because the standards were much stricter and costlier than what they thought they were voting for when they adopted the 2012 code. Council members were also being pressured by representatives of the homebuilding industry, who maintain that the added costs of meeting the new standards will hurt homebuyers and put the Memphis market at a disadvantage to surrounding communities. Fortunately, Mayor A C Wharton vetoed the ordinance, citing an Oct. 23 letter from the Tennessee Fire Marshal’s Office.