This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee is making a greater effort to place children in state custody in family settings. A new policy report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation calls on child welfare agencies to increase efforts to place youth removed from their homes with relatives or foster families. State officials and child welfare advocates held a news conference at the state Capitol this week to discuss the report. Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry said 81 percent of children currently in state custody are in residential facilities, an increase from 61 percent in 2001. Linda O’Neal is executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. She said children do better in all aspects of their lives when they’re connected to a strong and nurturing family.
Ending months of speculation, Cummins Inc. will remain – and expand – in Memphis, according to state and company officials. Cummins and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development said the company would invest $6.7 million to expand its current parts and distribution center in Memphis, creating 70 new jobs in the process. “Our department isn’t just focused on recruiting new businesses to the state,” said ECD commissioner Randy Boyd. “We also work hard to nurture and support all of our existing industries, which is why it’s so rewarding to see Cummins Inc.’s continued growth.”
A task force formed to review student testing and assessment in Tennessee is meeting in Nashville on Wednesday. The group, which was formed in March, is charged with identifying best practices in testing and how those assessments align with required state tests. The task force will also identify best practices in assessment at the school and district level. The panel includes a broad spectrum of education leaders, teachers and stakeholders. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will convene the meeting, which will be the task force’s second.
Tennessee’s top education official sent a message to teachers Tuesday: thanks for another year of hard work, have a great summer break, and here’s some summer reading for you. In an email and video, commissioner Candice McQueen reminds teachers that the state will begin using a new standardized test next year, replacing the TCAP. In some schools, TNReady will be administered online instead of on paper, but the biggest difference is the way it will ask questions of students. Instead of everything being multiple choice, kids in grades 3 through 11 will essentially be given essay questions in every subject. It’s a paradigm shift, especially in math. As of today, McQueen tells teachers they can prepare for next year by accessing samples that show how questions will be asked on the tests.
State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen commended Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District during her keynote speech on state education goals at a Williamson Inc. luncheon Tuesday. Although these two districts perform well academically, the state as a whole still faces significant challenges, McQueen said. The state’s high school graduation rate, average ACT score and fourth- and eighth-grade scores are improving fast, but students are not entirely ready for post-secondary education and programs. Less than half of third-grade students and eighth-grade students read at or above grade level, and less than 40 percent of high school students are proficient or above English II, McQueen said. Tennessee students continue to struggle after high school.
Mary Cox was outside the Tennessee Career Center on Walnut Grove Road near Midtown scouring job listings in the hopes she could find employment. Cox, 20, had been commuting with a friend to Anthem Career College. When her friend became pregnant and stopped attending the sessions, Cox started showing up at the Career Center to look for a job. “I came here to get help finding a job so I can pay my bills and be independent,” said Cox, brimming with confidence and good manners. Now, officials with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development hope to make the job hunt easier. The department recently launched a new iPhone and Android mobile app that brings thousands of available employment opportunities directly to a smartphone.
The governor’s former fundraiser, who took on fellow Republicans crossing the administration, has won a second term as commissioner of one of the state’s most reviled government boards. Gov. Bill Haslam reappointed Bryan Kaegi to the Alcohol Beverage Commission, according to the governor’s office. He was first appointed in 2011. Kaegi served as principal of the direct mail firm used by the Advance Tennessee political action committee last year. The PAC spent $214,000 to combat select Republicans in the August primary election, according to PAC filings with the Registry of Election Finance. Kaegi has also raised money for Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell.
The kitchen and cutting garden at the Tennessee governor’s mansion has been recognized as the best demonstration garden in the United States and Canada by the International Master Gardener Association Search for Excellence program. According to a news release from the office of first lady Crissy Haslam, the garden was completed in September 2013. Since then it has grown to produce about 2,700 pounds of fruits and vegetables that are served in the home, known as the Tennessee Residence. More than 3,000 students and visitors have toured the garden and learned about gardening, composting and healthy eating. The garden is cared for by a team of volunteer master gardeners who select, plant and harvest.
They are conspicuous in their absence. Once the scourge of Anderson County — at one point even earning the county the dubious title of the Volunteer State’s methamphetamine lab capital — the illegal drug factories have all but vanished, reports show. Only three meth labs have been shut down this year in Anderson County, and all of those seizures occurred in January, said Mark Lucas, chief deputy of the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department. Two and three years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for several meth lab seizures to be listed among sheriff’s department incident reports each week. Those discoveries ranged from primitive “shake and bake” labs in 2-liter soda bottles discarded next to roadways and in wooded areas to sophisticated, working laboratories in homes.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and department commissioner John Schroer is traveling across the state on a Centennial Bus Tour. “Everybody wants to celebrate a milestone, and 100 years is a milestone,” Schroer said. “We want to bring awareness to our transportation department. We just think that it’s a time to celebrate our successes.” Schroer began his tour Monday in Memphis and stopped in Jackson this morning. During the tour, Schroer and local elected officials are unveiling commemorative signs marking State Route 1, the first state road built by TDOT. “We want people to know that we’ve got a road that was our first road that, as you can see, is a very busy, traveled road,” Schroer said.
Law enforcement agencies across the state will focus their efforts on seat belt violators just ahead of one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. The “Click it or Ticket” campaign will be held May 18-31. Director of the Tennessee Governor’s Highway Safety Office Kendell Poole will join East Tennessee law enforcement officers to officially kick off the campaign on Wednesday at the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office. The state reached its highest seat belt use rate last year at nearly 88 percent. But, more than half of the traffic fatalities were unrestrained at the time of the crash, according to the department. Last month, Governor Bill Haslam signed a new law that will raise the fine for seat belt violations. Starting January 2016, the fine for not wearing a seat belt will increase from $10 to $25.
Tennessee taxpayers have paid more than $200,000 in health insurance premiums for state Sen. Rusty Crowe and his family since 1992, according to new records obtained by The Tennessean. The Johnson City Republican topped the list for sitting lawmakers with the most state money going toward health insurance premiums. The new records show taxpayers have spent more than $8 million on health insurance premiums for sitting lawmakers enrolled in the state insurance plan since 1992. The top 10 lawmakers account for $1.9 million — nearly a quarter of the taxpayer funding spent on state health insurance premiums for sitting lawmakers since 1992. Out of the 116 sitting lawmakers currently enrolled in the plan, only 45 were in office and enrolled in the plan before 2008, according to state records.
A civil rights activist who pledged to make right-to-die legislation his final fight filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging state law that prohibits assisted suicide. Attorney, businessman and political candidate John Jay Hooker, who is facing his own terminal diagnosis, is undeterred by the Tennessee General Assembly’s choice to send the issue to summer study and is now asking a Davidson County Chancery Court judge to weigh the issue. He says the state law, which makes it a felony for a doctor or another person to assist in someone’s death, violates the state constitution. Hooker recites part of the first article of the state constitution from memory, focusing on one line: “Power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness.” “If I’m in a state to die, it’s just a question of what day and what month, and my happiness is involved, do I want to sit there in bed and be the prisoner of that pain?” Hooker said.
The Bradley County Sheriff’s Office has received the green light to stock electronic cigarettes in the jail commissary. The Bradley County Commission voted 11-2 on Monday to amend the county’s policy against the use of tobacco products and “vaping” devices in county buildings so as to allow the jail to sell e-cigarettes to inmates. “I believe [selling e-cigarettes to inmates] would be a good thing to thwart potential aggression, and I believe it will be a money-maker, as well,” said Commission Vice Chairman Jeff Yarber, who sponsored the measure. Commissioner Mike Hughes, who voted against the policy amendment along with Commissioner Mark Hall, said he simply wanted to have e-cigarette sales data from other correctional facilities and more information about potential health concerns.
Construction on a new Chickamauga lock should be revived this fall and startup work for the biggest construction project ever in Tennessee will continue next year under a spending bill endorsed Tuesday by a key Senate subcommittee. A Senate panel drafting next year’s budget for energy and water development projects unanimously endorsed a plan that provides $29 million to restart the stalled Chickamauga lock in Chattanooga and allocates $430 million for the new Uranium Processing Facility in Oak Ridge. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Energy and Water Development subcommittee, said funding is being increased for the U.S. Army orps of Engineers to finish more of the lock and dam projects it began but ran out of money to finish.
A federal spokesman at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant confirmed that the plant’s unclassified computer system had experienced a “service disruption” since Monday afternoon. Steven Wyatt of the National Nuclear Security Administration declined to comment on the plant’s classified computer system or potential impacts on production or security. “I’m not at liberty to discuss those systems,” he said. Wyatt said employees were unable to use email and perform other administrative activities normally conducted on the unclassified system. More than 4,300 people work at the national security facility in Oak Ridge. “We’re hopeful to have the system in full operation as soon as possible,” Wyatt said.
This may get Nashville’s competitive juices flowing just a bit. A new report from Glassdoor, an online job review website, ranks Nashville No. 25 on its list of the best cities for jobs, behind Memphis, Louisville and — yes — Austin. Glassdoor generated a 5-point scale and based its rankings on three equally weighted metrics: Affordability and cost of living; employee satisfaction based on reviews; and job openings to total population at the end of April. Nashville scored a 3.1, placing it at No. 25 on Glassdoor’s ranking. That makes Nashville one of the best cities in the country for finding a job, which shouldn’t come as a surprise for those keeping track of the recent expansions and new businesses planting a stake in Middle Tennessee region.
Amazon is quickly clicking its way to potentially becoming Hamilton County’s largest private employer. Hundreds of people turned out Tuesday for a job fair in which the nation’s No. 1 Internet retailer planned to hire another 500 workers for its Chattanooga distribution center. That’s in addition to more than 400 jobs it created in March. The company now has more than 3,000 jobs in Chattanooga, said Amazon spokesman Nina Lindsey. That’s all since it opened its Enterprise South industrial park center in 2011. “It’s all due to customer demand,” Lindsey said. Amazon has blown past its neighbor Volkswagen in terms of employee headcount. However, the German automaker plans to hire another 2,000 people to join the nearly 2,400 who already work at the factory to produce a new sport utility vehicle.
In a tense atmosphere Tuesday, the Shelby County Schools board got a list of significant and large steps it needs to consider to reduce its $1.4 billion liability for retiree benefits, a growing concern for a district continuing to lose students and the income they represent. The district currently pays $30 million a year against the cost of health and life insurance it has promised retirees, a fraction of the $120 million experts recommend it needs to be paying. Before dozens of retirees, Trinette Small, SCS human resources chief, outlined strategies to trim the liability by $871 million, including entirely dropping retiree benefits for employees hired after July 1. The package the board is being asked to consider also includes no longer covering spouses of employees starting Jan. 1, 2016, and in the future, eliminating health and life benefits for employees who retire after July 2020.
Tennessee senators went out of their way Monday to question TVA’s power generation mix because the utility’s new 20-year plan calls for adding wind power if it provides a cheap option. And at an estimated 4 to 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour, it looks as though wind will do just that. At that price, the wind energy produced by windmills in Oklahoma and Texas and delivered and sold to TVA by Clean Line Energy Partners would be below the average 6.6 cents per kwh price TVA charges its wholesalers for power now. What’s more it should be below some other new generation in the region, including new nuclear plants being built in Georgia and South Carolina, according to a Tuesday news story about TVA officials and Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker taking part in a roundtable meting in Knoxville. But Sen. Lamar Alexander, long a nuclear power supporter, brushed off those figures and admonished TVA to cut off its “romance” with renewable power — especially wind power.
Throughout the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, signed into law 82 years ago this week, are passages written to require TVA to seek low-cost power for its customers. Variously, it says “the objective [is] that power shall be sold at rates as low as are feasible”; that power shall be sold to secure “revenue returns which will permit domestic and rural use at the lowest possible rates”; and that TVA should be a “national leader” in “low-cost power.” It’s that message Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker wanted to remind TVA officials about during a hearing on the utility’s long-range power plans on Monday in Knoxville. Both senators warned that pursuing high-cost, less reliable wind and other renewable energy would be going against its mission.