This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee in 2013 ranked eighth nationally for its high school graduation rates. And the state isn’t far from reaching the U.S. goal of 90 percent by 2020, according to a new report. The report, “Building a Grad Nation,” found 86.3 percent of Tennessee high school students graduated on time, meaning getting their diploma within four years. The national rate was 81.4 percent. Iowa ranked No. 1 with an 89.7 percent graduation rate. “Tennessee overall is doing extraordinarily well,” said Jennifer DePaoli, a senior education adviser with Washington, D.C.-based Civic Enterprises and a co-author of the report, sponsored by several national organizations.
Seven community colleges throughout the state are getting more than $522,000 in grant funding to bankroll efforts to keep Tennessee Promise students in school this fall. The Tennessee Promise Forward Grants, awarded by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, will pay for a variety of programs designed to make it easier for students to navigate college and move successfully toward a degree. Judges awarded grants to projects based on successful approaches across the country. But all are new to Tennessee. “We want to focus on innovation. We’re asking them to think about doing things differently,” said Troy Grant, THEC’s director of college access initiatives.
Led by a record number of new business filings, economic indicators are “showing that 2015 will continue to be a very good year,” says Bill Fox, director of the UT Center for Business and Economic Research. That rosy outlook, presented Thursday in a report released by Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office in partnership with the University of Tennessee center, was based primarily on a 9.3 percent increase in new business filings in Tennessee during the first quarter, compared with the same period last year. It also showed an overall growth rate of 2.6 percent in active business entities compared with the same quarter in 2014. “We’re seeing record levels of initial filings,” Fox said. “They are much higher than at any point in the past 15 years, showing really fast growth.”
Tennessee’s unemployment rate has dropped to 6 percent, down from 6.3 percent in March and the lowest rate in seven years. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said it is the third consecutive monthly decline. The national rate for April was 5.4 percent, one-tenth of one percentage point lower than the previous month. Nonfarm employment increased by 6,400 jobs from March to April. Tennessee’s unemployment rate dropped from 6.5 percent to 6 percent in the past year, while the national rate declined from 6.2 percent to 5.4 percent. Nonfarm employment increased by 47,000 jobs in Tennessee in the past year. State figures show the largest increases from March to April occurred in accommodation/food services, administrative/support/waste services, mining/logging/construction and finance/insurance.
Tennessee’s unemployment rate for April decreased to 6 percent, the lowest rate the state has seen in seven years. The Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development said Thursday that the figure is down from 6.5 percent a year ago. Nationally, the U.S. unemployment rate for April was 5.4 percent, compared with 6.2 percent in April 2014. Tennessee has added 47,000 nonfarm jobs in the past year, the state said.
The Tennessee preliminary unemployment rate fell again in April, Tennessee Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips announced Thursday. The state’s jobless rate for April was 6 percent, 0.3 percent lower than the March revised rate of 6.3 percent. The U.S. preliminary rate for April was 5.4 percent, 0.1 percent than the prior month. Tennessee’s April unemployment rate is the third consecutive monthly decline and is the lowest rate in seven years. Over the past year, Tennessee’s unemployment rate decreased from 6.5 percent to 6.0 percent, while the national rate declined from 6.2 percent to 5.4 percent. Total non-farm employment increased 6,400 jobs from March to April. The largest increases occurred in accommodation, food services; administrative, support and waste services; mining, logging and construction; and finance and insurance.
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s mobile Career Coach will be at the department’s Cleveland office, 950 Star Vue Drive, on Tuesday to recruit for multiple companies and positions in the Bradley County area. The staff will be on-site to help people create resumes and register with Jobs4tn.gov where there are more than 90,000 jobs available, or to help people learn about obtaining general equivalency diplomas or training opportunities.
Kevin Triplett hasn’t been the commissioner of the state’s Department of Tourist Development for very long. On Thursday he celebrated his first month in office by meeting with community and tourism leaders from across West Tennessee at the Carnegie Center for Arts in Jackson during a listening tour. Jackson served as Triplett’s final stop of the five-city tour. The talkback had topics ranging from the need for more technology in the state’s welcome centers and rest areas to how the state can better staff the areas with more knowledgeable workers who frequently get asked directions and reviews. However, according to Lori Nunnery, executive director of Jackson’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, just having Triplett and his staff in Jackson was more than enough.
Drivers will see more police, including sheriff’s deputies and Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers, over the Memorial Day weekend as part of a yearly campaign against distracted and impaired driving, as well as seat belt enforcement. The Madison County Sheriff’s Department will participate in the West Tennessee “drive to zero” fatalities. Brenda Jones, with the Tennessee Governor’s Highway Safety office, said officers will put emphasis on seat belt use and impaired driving — including drinking, drugs and texting. “This will help our drive to zero by eliminating the number of impairment fatalities,” Jones said. More than 80 percent of drivers now use their seat belts, Jones said, but the Tennessee Governor’s Highway Safety Office has implemented a goal of 100 percent seat belt restraint.
The old cliche among marketing experts says “image is everything.” But an attempt to unify Tennessee’s hodgepodge of government agency logos under a single consistent visual design has proven consistently divisive. It has also become the target of ridicule. The non-profit group Tennessee Watchdog and Nashville television station WSMV reported Wednesday that the state paid a design firm more than $46,000 for a new logo featuring a red square, a blue bar, and the letters TN in white to serve as the new visual identity of Tennessee’s government agencies. Governor Bill Haslam’s office confirmed that as fact on Thursday. “As part of the redesign of tn.gov, there will be a new visual identity tied to that. We last updated the website in May 2013, so it’s a natural time to make sure it is updated in terms of look, feel and functionality,” wrote governor’s office spokesman David Smith.
The Channel 4 I-Team revealed the new logo for the Tennessee state government and how much it cost to create Wednesday. Now, online petitions are circulating seeking to keep the famous Tennessee stars in the logo. After the I-Team’s initial report, many Tennesseans took to social media with a sense of humor and a decent amount of outrage about the new logo. “I’ve got a 4-year-old granddaughter. She can do better,” Donna Levi said. The new logo comes with a $46,000 price tag that the state paid to Nashville marketing firm GS&F. Middle Tennessee State University student Kyle Elliott created the hashtag #SaveTheTristar on Twitter. “I think tri-star is timeless and I don’t think you can go wrong with it,” Elliott said.
Tennessee has spent $46,000 for the design of a new logo featuring the white letters TN on a red background. WSMV-TV reports that the state hired advertising and marketing company GS&F to design the new logo. “This is something a fifth-grader could easily produce on his or her computer at home,” Chris Butler, with watchdog.org, told WSMV. A spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam said the new logo is needed to give the state a more unified look on signs and letterhead. The governor’s office said the new logo will be gradually introduced as current stationary runs out. The new state branding follows a decision by the Tennessee Department of Transportation to replace a green-themed symbol introduced by Haslam’s Democratic predecessor Phil Bredesen.
At least 200 people turned out for a town hall meeting Wednesday, hoping to learn more about Insure Tennessee — and why the state legislature hasn’t made it a reality. The program, which will not cost taxpayers a single cent because of federal subsidy money, would provide health care insurance to nearly 300,000 Tennesseans. Those are the working low-income residents who make too much to qualify for TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, and don’t make enough money to pay for insurance on the newly established insurance marketplace created by the federal Affordable Care Act. A panel comprised of physicians, community leaders and two legislators addressed the attendees on different aspects of healthcare reform and it’s impact on Tennesseans.
For a party once accustomed to dominating state politics, the outlook for Tennessee Democrats is bleak. Over the past decade, Democrats went from controlling all three branches of state government to giving up GOP supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, losing two governor’s races by wide margins and watching as the state Supreme Court appointed the first Republican attorney general since Reconstruction. The heavy erosion of Democratic power has left them with little sway at the state Capitol on issues like Medicaid expansion, guns, education and abortion. And while Republicans in charge have pushed an increasingly conservative agenda, so far there’s been no sign of a new opening for Democrats.
Members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation are calling for an investigation of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Murfreesboro for “delays and denials in patient care” after it stopped providing acute care inpatient services. U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., in a press release called for an Inspector General investigation after “stunning reports of mismanagement and inefficiencies” at the Alvin C. York campus of the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System. She noted veterans have reported the emergency room closes at 8 p.m. and functions as an urgent care center. “As the mother, wife and daughter of veterans, I am outraged by this blatant disrespect for those who have worn the uniform of our country, and I will not relent in my fight to get answers and demand accountability,” Black said in the press release.
President Barack Obama has nominated U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III to be a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. The nomination of Stanton, who has been the chief federal prosecutor for West Tennessee for five years, was announced Thursday, May 21, by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis, who recommended Stanton to the White House after convening a screening committee of local attorneys. Stanton’s appointment is subject to approval by the U.S. Senate. Stanton is a 1997 graduate of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. Before his appointment as U.S. Attorney by Obama in 2010, Stanton had worked as an assistant city attorney, at two Memphis law firms and as senior counsel at FedEx Corp.
Major insurers in some states are proposing hefty rate boosts for plans sold under the federal health law, setting the stage for an intense debate this summer over the law’s impact. In New Mexico, market leader Health Care Service Corp. is asking for an average jump of 51.6% in premiums for 2016. The biggest insurer in Tennessee, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, has requested an average 36.3% increase. In Maryland, market leader CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield wants to raise rates 30.4% across its products. Moda Health, the largest insurer on the Oregon health exchange, seeks an average boost of around 25%. All of them cite high medical costs incurred by people newly enrolled under the Affordable Care Act.
A leaking reactor pool was discovered last September at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, prompting an urgent effort to pinpoint the source of the leak of slightly radioactive water and then a watchful eye to make sure the leak — about 100 drops per minute, collected in a basin beneath the facility — didn’t get worse over time. Now the U.S. Department of Energy and its cleanup contractor, URS-CH2M Oak Ridge, are taking steps to fix the problem once and for all at the Oak Ridge Research Reactor, which was built in the 1950s and shut down in 1988. Even though the research reactor ceased operation decades ago, the reactor pool remained filled with 125,000 gallons of water to provide shielding for some highly radioactive components stored in the pool.
Chattanooga has outpaced Knoxville in population growth since the 2010 census in the battle for East Tennessee’s biggest city, but the Scenic City’s rate of increase has slowed, new census figures show. And Chattanooga is surrounded by fast-growing company. Among cities in the region attracting the most people — and some of the top ones of their size in the country — are Atlanta, Nashville and Murfreesboro, Tenn. Knoxville still leads Chattanooga in total population as of mid-2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest estimates released Thursday. Chattanooga has 173,778 people, while Knoxville has 184,281, figures show. But from the 2010 census to July 1, 2014, Chattanooga grew at a faster pace than Knoxville: The Scenic City gained 6,104 people, up 3.6 percent.
Signal Mountain school board member Jonathan Welch estimates that Hamilton County parents spend between $3 and $4 million annually on school fees charged to students that fund everything from paper and pencils to cheerleading pom poms and marching band uniforms. “The range of school fees is mind-boggling,” he said at Thursday night’s school board meeting. “We couldn’t run the schools without this, and this is essentially another tax on parents.” Welch gave the example of a nurse at Signal Mountain High School sending out an email request for donations of Kleenex, because she had run out. “This is an example of how our budget’s held together with duct tape and bailing wire,” he said.
Sullivan North High School might be available for possible use as a Kingsport middle school as early as 2019, according to a proposal from Director of Schools Jubal Yennie. South High would be turned into a middle school the same year, while Central High would become a middle school that year and East High would continue, with renovations, until 2028. Those are part of the recommendations from Yennie given to the county school board Thursday. Although he is leaving the county effective June 30 for a new superintendent’s job in Albany County, Wyo., he said the recommendations would be the same if he were staying.
The following comment might rank as one of the biggest understatements about the recent session of the Tennessee General Assembly: “There is a major disconnect between the thinking of Tennesseans and the action of our state Legislature.” The remark was from John Geer, Vanderbilt University political science professor, responding to the results of a recent poll in which 78 percent of Tennesseans believe the full Legislature should vote on Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan to provide health care for some 280,000 residents who are not otherwise covered. Geer is co-director of the poll, conducted from April 23-May 9. The polling also showed that 64 percent of the 1,001 registered voters in the state who were surveyed actually favor Insure Tennessee as opposed to 19 percent who are against it. Insure Tennessee was rejected by two legislative committees and never reached the floor of either the House or the Senate.