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October 31 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.  

 

Haslam visits TriCities Tuesday; says state is on the right path (Herald-Courier)

Tennessee has developed a national reputation as one of America’s best-run and most-efficient states, but work must be done to contain the rising cost of higher education for state residents, said Tenn. Gov. Bill Haslam during a Tuesday luncheon speech to the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce at the MeadowView conference center. “We’re running the state well and we’re going to continue to compete,” Haslam said, citing Tennessee’s high-bond ratings, business-friendly approach, top-3 national rankings for low taxes and debt and sweeping work to reform liability lawsuits, civil service and secondary education.

Haslam, Alexander speak at Kingsport business luncheon (Times-News)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander spoke to about 175 business and government leaders during a Kingsport Chamber of Commerce luncheon to begin a swing through Northeast Tennessee today. Haslam, a Republican, talked about his recent business recruiting trip to Japan, a trip to New York to solidify the state’s AAA bond rating and legislative challenges in 2013. Alexander, also a Republican and former governor, talked about how the federal government could avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” or automatic spending cuts called for in last year’s Budget Control Act passed by Congress.

Governor Haslam: College costs a major issue for legislators (WCYB-TV)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam was in Kingsport Tuesday talking about issues the state will have to tackle during the next legislative session as the featured guest at the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce luncheon. He says one of the biggest problems the state is facing is the rising cost of college tuition. Governor Haslam blames Congress for not sending enough money to the state to pay for TennCare. That’s money the governor says would have gone to higher education.

Unicoi acquisition celebrated as state’s newest park (News-Sentinel/Simmons)

2012 marks the 75th anniversary of Tennessee state parks, and the year-long celebration is going out with a bang. On Tuesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander joined members of the General Assembly and elected officials from Unicoi County to celebrate the future conveyance of more than 2,000 acres in the Rocky Fork tract as Tennessee’s 55th state park. Located approximately 30 miles from Johnson City in northeastern Tennessee, the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork tract has for years ranked at the top of the U.S. Forest Service’s priorities for land acquisition.

Rocky Fork area to become new Tennessee state park (Johnson City Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam said he grew up not too far from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is the country’s most visited national park and is regarded for its scenic beauty. However, he said the sights and scenery offered in Rocky Fork, a portion of which is set to become Tennessee’s newest state park, rival those offered in the national park. “You see the waterfalls and incredible protected woodland area, it’s a great thing to have,” Haslam said.

New state park coming soon (WCYB-TV)

There is a state park within an hour’s drive of just about anywhere in the state of Tennessee, and a new one is coming to Unicoi County. Many gathered to celebrate the future of more than 2,000 acres in the Rocky Fork area, including the highest altitude of all Tennessee state parks. Rocky Fork got its name after the cool waters that run down its center, and Governor Bill Haslam says the land can hold its own against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Sevierville.

Haslam: State won’t get answers on TennCare until after elections (Times-News)

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that “two immediate decisions” state lawmakers face next year are whether to expand TennCare and also whether to form a state-run health insurance exchange. “We haven’t gotten the answers from the federal government. … They haven’t told us how it will work,” Haslam, a Republican, said of those decisions after addressing about 175 business and government leaders at a Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Both decisions are related to the federal health care reform law — also known as the Affordable Care Act — that could stand intact or be reshaped depending on the November presidential and congressional elections.

Haslam Appoints Siskin to 16th District Court (TN Report)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced the appointment of Keith Siskin to the 16th Judicial District Circuit Court, which serves Rutherford and Cannon counties. As a judge in the 16th District, Siskin fills the vacancy created by the appointment of Judge Don Ash to a senior judge position earlier this year. Siskin has been a Juvenile Court magistrate since 2004, presiding over both civil and criminal cases including parentage, child support, child custody and visitation, dependency, neglect, abuse and delinquency matters.

Local schools get grants to bolster safe transportation (Tennessean/Tamburin)

Tennessee’s Department of Transportation is doling out grants to schools in Wilson and Cheatham counties in hopes that they will encourage safety for students, parents and community members. Watertown Elementary is receiving $28,000 and Pleasant View Elementary is receiving $19,998, according to TDOT news releases. Both schools are charged to use the funds to develop school activity plans that teach safety education and healthy habits.

TDOT Commissioner Schroer laments decreased infrastructure funding (MBJ)

John Schroer says America’s infrastructure is going “to hell in a handbasket.” Schroer, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner, described shrinking infrastructure funding as “a national crisis no one is talking about” during his Tuesday morning address at the University of Memphis’ sixth annual Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute conference. Because of tighter budgets, TDOT is taking a closer look at state road projects. TDOT’s annual budget shrank by $100 million — to $1.7 billion — this year, a big challenge for one of five states in the country with a pay-as-you-go approach to infrastructure improvement.

State Agency Not Sure Its Funds Are ‘Public Funds’ (WTVF-TV Nashville)

Officials with Tennessee’s Housing Development Agency say they’re just spending money like lots of businesses do. That follows a NewsChannel 5 investigation that revealed the state agency has spent tens of thousands of dollars having fun. But THDA officials seemed confused about whether they’re really a state agency at all. For this year’s Governor’s Housing Summit, THDA brought in stand-up comedian and motivational speaker Ron Culberson. “Sometimes we have to look at things with the right perspective and say ‘so what?’ The government shuts your organization down, so what? OK, maybe not a good example,” Culberson said, drawing laughs from the attendees. His bill: $8,000, plus expenses.

Attorney discusses climate for change in workers’ comp (Times Free-Press/Leach)

A workshop addressing Tennessee’s workers’ compensation laws — which may be headed for some changes — attracted more than 30 safety and human resources professionals to the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. The symposium’s goal was to offer guidelines on best practices for employers when handling workers’ compensation issues and to discuss possible changes in state compensation law. While minimizing liabilities and insurance premiums are key fiscal matters for businesses, positively addressing workers’ compensation issues have an impact beyond a company’s bottom line, said Joe Lynch, a Knoxville attorney who addressed the assembly.

Task force may be model (Jackson Sun)

A multi-agency task force organized last year to significantly reduce gang activity in rural West Tennessee can be used as a model for efforts to create similar groups throughout the state, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn said Tuesday. Gwyn briefly addressed municipal leaders and law enforcement officials during a luncheon at the Jackson Country Club at 31 Country Club Drive. Other speakers included District Attorney Generals Jerry Woodall of the 26th District and Garry Brown of the 28th District. “As we’ve seen a proliferation of gang activity, we felt we’ve needed to do something,” Gwyn said.

Board policing drug companies has history of ethics issues (Tennessean/Roche)

Panel dropped probation for NECC before meningitis outbreak The Massachusetts board charged with regulating the drug firm blamed for an ongoing nationwide meningitis outbreak has close ties to the industry and a history of ethics issues, including one member found in violation of the state conflict of interest law. It was a little over a year ago when Michael Tocco, a pharmacist and member of the state Board of Registration in Pharmacy, was cited by the state Ethics Commission for approaching a pharmacy company twice on behalf of a hospital his consulting firm represented.

Court rules on tax dispute (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Leach)

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has ruled in a case involving the disputed division of sales tax revenues between Cleveland and Bradley County. On Tuesday, the appellate court addressed a revenue-sharing dispute with origins driven by sales tax increases implemented separately by the county and city in 2009. The disagreement involved whether revenue-sharing agreements dating back to 1967 — formulated on city and county student populations and whether the revenues were generated within city limits — applied to the 2009 situation.

Judge dismisses East Ridge fireworks lawsuit (Times Free-Press/Bunn)

A Tennessee Court of Appeals judge ruled Tuesday that there is not enough evidence to move forward with a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of a state law allowing the sale of fireworks in East Ridge. In his opinion, Judge Charles D. Susano Jr. affirmed a lower court’s ruling that residents and retailers failed to prove harm caused by the stores and dismissed the lawsuit, sidestepping the issue of the law’s constitutionality. “It is sheer speculation to say that some hypothetical fireworks store will impact the [citizens’] business, or lower their property values, or raise their insurance rates,” he said.

Jury to resume deliberations in case against former judge (NS/Satterfield)

A jury will return today to resume deliberations in the federal case against disgraced former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner. Jurors deliberated in U.S. District Court for just more than two hours before U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer sent them home for the night Tuesday. Baumgartner is standing trial on charges he lied to various officials to cover up his pill-supplying paramour’s role in a federal drug conspiracy. That mistress, Deena Castleman, was a graduate of the Drug Court program he helped found.

Bypassing Locals on Charters Looking More Likely: Harwell (TN Report)

If the Tennessee legislature approves a statewide authorizer for charter schools, House Speaker Beth Harwell said that charter students’ test scores — and the per-student money to educate those children — would flow away from local school districts into the state system. “Those children’s test scores would come out from the local school system and be counted in the state system — not the local,” Harwell told TNReport in an interview at her office Thursday. “In addition, the money would (follow the students) as well.”

Solar-reform sponsor: Tax concerns remain following Silicon Ranch apps (NBJ)

A top state legislator in the solar tax debate says he’s awaiting an attorney general’s opinion on the matter, but acknowledged that Silicon Ranch’s application for state tax breaks “very well could” whet Republicans’ appetite for repeal. On Thursday, the Nashville Business Journal reported that the company — run by top aides to former Gov. Phil Bredesen who helped pass the tax break — had applied for it in relation to eight projects. State Sen. Randy McNally, the Oak Ridge Republican who last spring carried a bill to change the tax arrangement, said today the bill could come back to an invigorated debate in the 2013 legislative session.

Memphis pushes back over library ID voting policy (Associated Press/Sainz)

Election officials have been making Shelby County early voters who show only a Memphis library card as their photo identification cast a provisional ballot, and an attorney for the city on Monday demanded the practice stop. Attorney George Barrett wrote in a cease and desist letter to Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper that state election officials are in “defiance” of a court order and the city of Memphis will go to court if the provisional ballot policy doesn’t stop. The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled last week that the voter ID law is constitutional but also said the Memphis library card qualifies as a government-issued photo ID.

City Sends Cease and Desist Letter in Voter ID Case (Memphis Daily News)

As national political pundits talked Tuesday, Oct. 30, about the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the Nov. 6 elections, a different kind of tempest raged between Memphis and Nashville over the state’s photo voter ID law. Memphis is the eye of the legal storm that is bound for the Tennessee Supreme Court. Less than 2,000 Memphians have the photo library cards issued by the city of Memphis starting in July. But whether they are valid ID in order to vote in the Nov. 6 elections is causing some confusion in the wake of an Appeals Court ruling last week.

Early voting in Tennessee ahead of 2008 levels (Nashville Business Journal)

Nearly one million Tennesseans have voted early in advance of Election Day next week, The Associated Press reports. State election officials said Monday that more than 999,000 Tennesseans had voted through Saturday, about 14,000 more than in the same time period in 2008. In 2008, about 58 percent of all votes were cast during early voting. Early voting ends Thursday.

Final Days of Early Voting Produce Long Lines (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Early voting continues to produce lines more than an hour long in some parts of Middle Tennessee. More than 1.1 million people statewide have cast a ballot early. On average, more than 100,000 people a day have been voting – so many that folks show up, see the line and decide to try again later. David Whitt voted early and is also volunteering for a candidate at the Sumner County Election Commission. The line snakes around the building’s hallways. Every spot in the parking lot is taken, and people are pulled up on the curbs.

Strong turnout seen in Memphis, Shelby; but off 2008’s pace (CA/McMillin, Smith)

Although early voting in Shelby County is running about 4 percent behind the record-breaking pace set in 2008, a strong few days of early voting and big election day could see the county exceed 400,000 votes cast for the second straight presidential election. Through Monday’s 11th day of early voting at 21 locations throughout the county, 171,331 people had cast ballots, including those who used absentee ballots — or 6,856 fewer than the 178,187 that had been cast at 19 locations after 11 days in 2008.

MTSU Poll: Young TN Voters Flock to Romney (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

President Obama has lost many of his younger supporters in Tennessee, according to a poll released Tuesday by MTSU. Nearly three-quarters of voters under the age of 45 say they’ll vote Republican. Even four years ago, Tennessee didn’t have quite the same youthful enthusiasm for Obama found in other parts of the country. MTSU’s poll finds even more young people are voting Republican – from 57 percent in 2008 to 74 percent this year. Phillip Nash is a 22-year-old from Hendersonville who voted early decked out in camouflage.

MTSU Poll: Young voters, independents leaning right (Daily News Journal)

Political independents and young voters statewide are shifting toward the Republican Party, and even as the nation crawls out of recession, Tennessee voters are more concerned with values than the economy as they approach the Nov. 6 election. MTSU Poll results released Tuesday show the continued reddening of Tennessee among several demographics as well as growing influence of “values voters.” “At least two trends playing out in Tennessee run counter to what seems to be happening nationally in this election,” said Ken Blake, director of the MTSU Poll.

Report: Health Care Improving in Tennessee (Memphis Daily News)

Health care is showing improvement in Tennessee thanks to some of the strongest health care plans in the South and an increased focus on patient-centered medical practices, according to the annual State of Health Care Quality report released Tuesday, Oct. 30, from the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA). Eleven commercial health care plans in Tennessee are accredited by NCQA and three plans – Aetna and CIGNA HMOs, and the BlueCross BlueShield (BCBS) of Tennessee PPO – rated “Excellent” in the 2012 report.

2nd Scott DesJarlais girlfriend says newspaper’s story accurate (TFP/Carroll)

The woman who acknowledged having a sexual relationship with U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais while he was her doctor in 2000 said the Chattanooga Times Free Press article that broke her story was accurate despite an earlier claim to the contrary. “There’s no inaccuracies with the story,” she said Tuesday, adding that she stands by everything she said in a recorded, face-to-face interview. DesJarlais, a Republican, is running for re-election against Democrat Eric Stewart in Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District race.

New call for Scott DesJarlais to resign rejected (Times Free-Press/Sher)

The chairman of the Tennessee Conservative Union called Tuesday for U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., to resign from Congress, saying the physician’s past actions reach “a level of hypocrisy that is simply untenable.” In a statement, Lloyd Daugherty said DesJarlais “has repudiated the beliefs of the Fourth Congressional District, rejected the long held core values of the state of Tennessee, shamed the Republican Party and accomplished something incredibly difficult.”

Deadline looms for Chattanooga hospital, insurer (Times Free-Press/Flessner)

Two months after Memorial Health Care System ended a costly payment dispute with Tennessee’s biggest health insurer, the Chattanooga hospital is fighting with another insurer over what it may charge for its services. UnitedHealthcare, Chattanooga’s second-biggest health insurer with nearly 90,000 area members, will drop Memorial hospital from its network on Thursday unless the insurer resolves its rate differences with Memorial today. That could force thousands of Chattanoogans to either pay much higher out-of-network charges to use Memorial’s non-emergency services or opt to get their care for less at other local hospitals.

School Board To Meet On Merger Recommendations Next Month (M. Daily News)

Countywide school board members will begin what several described as the “dirty work” of the schools merger to come at a special meeting Nov. 15. At that meeting, the board will vote on many if not all of the recommendations from the consolidation planning commission that ended its work in July.The special meeting kicks off a timeline brought to the board by Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken for the move to the August 2013 merger in three phases.

 

OPINION

Editorial: Jobs are the key to new economic development (Jackson Sun)

When it comes to economic development in the current economy, every bit helps. That’s why we were encouraged by news that Trenton will be the site of expanded manufacturing for MacLean Power Systems. The company will invest $12 million, and expects to hire about 250 employees over the next three years. That represents a significant boost to Trenton’s economy. MacLean is a Mundelein, Ill.-based manufacturer of electrical transmission lines and other electrical components that are sold throughout the world. The company will occupy two buildings in the Trenton Industrial Park that total nearly 400,000 square feet. The plant location was assisted by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Gail Kerr: Metro, please move on from Great Hearts debate (Tennessean)

I am as sick of the Great Hearts Academy debate as I am of political robocalls. Both have become endless. Both are annoying. And neither is accomplishing anything at this point. There’s nothing to be done about robocalls until next week’s election is over. But about Great Hearts, it’s past time for the Metro school board to move on. Instead, board members are in a staring contest over whether to sue the state. Great Hearts officials came to Nashville and filed an application to open charter schools nine months ago. The school system’s charter administrators ultimately recommended approval of the application, but only for one school. Great Hearts announced it would be located near Charlotte Pike and White Bridge Road, decidedly working class neighborhoods. But opponents quickly spread the word it would be a school populated mostly by wealthy, white kids from neighborhoods such as Belle Meade, Green Hills and West Meade.

Editorial: New judge will have to clean up after predecesors (News-Sentinel)

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals in Knoxville had little choice but to remove Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood from three of the Christian/Newsom murder cases last week. Blackwood obviously had set his mind on granting mistrials and openly clashed with prosecutors, albeit sometimes after they poked at him first. Now, barring unforeseen legal orders, the state Supreme Court will select Blackwood’s replacement. They should find a jurist who can dispassionately preside over high-profile cases charged with raw emotion and under intense public scrutiny. In dismissing Blackwood from the cases, the Appeals Court ruled a reasonable person could conclude the judge could neither impartially assess whether he could act as the “13th juror” in the cases, which originally were heard by disgraced Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner, nor could he be fair to prosecutors.

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