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February 21 TN News Digest

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

The GOP star you’ve never heard of (Politico)

You haven’t seen a YouTube video of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam berating a constituent at a town hall meeting. You probably haven’t watched him on Fox News. In fact, if you search the headlines for his name, you’re just as likely to turn up coverage of his brother: Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. But while attracting scant national attention and eschewing the camera-friendly approach of most up-and-coming Republican governors, Bill Haslam has amassed one of the most extensive conservative governing records in the country.

Gov. Bill Haslam is “GOP star you’ve never heard of,” Politico report says (Nooga)

Gov. Bill Haslam’s national profile just got a major boost from the Washington, D.C., press. The Tennessee governor is the focus of a laudatory profile published Wednesday by the news website Politico. The article was featured as the website’s top story Wednesday evening. The report presents Haslam as a potential model for Republicans to examine, particularly as governors prepare to gather for the National Governors Association’s winter meeting later this week.

Tenn. governors to discuss civility in government (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam, along with former Tennessee governors Phil Bredesen and Don Sundquist, will headline a public forum on civility and effective governance in Knoxville. The free event from 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday is sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association, the University of Tennessee Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, the University of Tennessee College of Law and the First Amendment Center. Memphis lawyer Bill Haltom will moderate the discussion at the Toyota Auditorium of the Baker Center.

Reform School: Tennessee’s Growing Debate Over School Vouchers (M. Pulse)

Three weeks ago, on a mild January evening in Nashville, Gov. Bill Haslam gave his third State of the State address at the Capitol. The speech was his longest to date—over 40 minutes—and several pundits also called it his best. But amid the talk of the economy and jobs, technology and health care, one topic overshadowed all the rest: education. Haslam spent a good third of his speech talking about education—14 minutes, in one reporter’s estimate.

Starbucks to lease warehouse in Lebanon (Tennessean/Ward)

Starbucks is finalizing a lease on a roughly 688,000-square-foot warehouse building that Duke Realty Corp. plans in Lebanon, a move expected to bring at least 150 new jobs to that area. The warehouse is planned for the southeastern corner of Central Pike and State Route 840. It would be the first building at Duke’s 158-acre site known as Park 840 East Logistics Center. Currently, the Seattle-based coffee giant has distribution operations spread across multiple locations in La Vergne totaling about 600,000 square feet.

New state highway map available (Associated Press)

The 2013 official Tennessee Transportation Map is now available. Among updates on the new map is the completion of state Route 840 that loops through Middle Tennessee south of Nashville. Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Shroar said the map is a valuable tool for motorists and can help them plan their route through Tennessee. The new map is free and can be picked up at any welcome center and rest area along interstate highway.

Traffic from Signal Mountain Rd onto U.S. 27 S. will use new lanes (TFP/Burkholder)

After months of squeezing through a narrow lane marked out by concrete barriers on southbound U.S. 27, drivers will get a bit of a change — but not by much. Motorists entering the highway from Signal Mountain Road have wondered for months how brand-new lanes they can see above them to their right would eventually fit into the traffic pattern. They’ll find out Friday morning. That’s when a lane shift will for the first time put tires to new pavement laid as part of the $104 million reconstruction project.

Meningitis outbreak: Clinic wants lawsuits heard by one judge (TN/Roche)

Attorneys for the Nashville clinic where dozens of patients were injected with a tainted steroid say that many more suits may be filed against their clients and they want all the cases, including the two already filed, to be merged before a single judge. In a motion filed Wednesday in Davidson Circuit Court, attorneys for the Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgical Center asked that the presiding judge assign the current and future cases to a single circuit or chancery court judge. The motion also was filed on behalf of the Howell Allen Clinic, which is a codefendant in the two recent suits.

TN bill to eliminate affirmative action in higher ed is delayed again (AP)

A proposal to eliminate affirmative action initiatives from higher education institutions in Tennessee has been delayed another week. A vote was expected on the measure in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday after being deferred for a week to work out language. The legislation would prohibit colleges and universities from granting preference “based on race, gender or ethnicity.” The main hangup appears to be what is meant by the term “preference.”

Senate Ed Committee Needs Another Week on Summerville’s ‘Equality Act’ (TNR)

A bill that would ban affirmative action in Tennessee’s colleges and universities stalled in the state legislature Wednesday for the second time in as many weeks. Heeding concerns raised by higher education officials about specific language and unforeseen administrative hurdles, members of the state Senate Education Committee put off voting on the measure. Sponsored by Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, the ”Higher Education Equality Act” would prohibit higher education institutions in the state from “granting preferences based on race, gender or ethnicity” in admissions or hiring decisions.

UT Says Anti-Preference Bill Would Be ‘Lawyer’s Dream’ (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Tennessee’s institutions of higher education are still trying to scuttle legislative tweaks to their admissions and hiring processes. A proposed law intended to make sure no preference is shown on the basis of race or gender was again delayed in a state Senate committee. Universities are worried about the possibly broad interpretation of what “preference” could mean. UT’s Anthony Haynes says it could become a “lawyer’s dream” for the thousands who are denied entry each year.

TN guns-in-trunks bill heads to House floor (Tennessean/Sisk)

A legislative panel ushered a “guns-in-trunks” bill to the floor of the state House of Representatives after testimony that the measure would not bar employers from setting policies on firearms. The House Civil Justice Committee approved House Bill 118 on a voice vote after less than 14 minutes of discussion, most of which centered on employers’ right to fire workers who bring guns to work in their cars. Lawmakers have offered different answers as the bill has moved through the legislature, but a staff attorney told committee members that, just as employers can bar drinking-age workers from consuming alcohol on the job, they will be able to fire workers who flout no-gun policies.

Gun bill heads to vote in Tennessee House (Times Free-Press/Sher)

The guns-in-parking lots bill could be on the House floor for a final vote next week after zipping through a major House committee Tuesday. House Civil Justice Committee members approved the bill on a voice vote. It allows handgun-carry permit holders to store loaded firearms in their vehicles on parking lots owned by businesses, schools, colleges, churches and most government agencies. Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, the bill’s sponsor, and a legislative attorney say the bill still would allow employers to discipline or fire workers who violate company policy.

Gun bill speeds toward Tennessee House floor (Commercial Appeal/Locker)

The guns-in-parking-lots bill advanced through another committee Wednesday on its fast track to passage in the Tennessee legislature, possibly next week. The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, told the House Civil Justice Committee that it would allow people with valid handgun-carry permits to keep their guns in their locked carts “on just about any parking lot in Tennessee” — including public and private school and college campuses — and not be subject to criminal penalties.

‘Guns-in-Trunks’ Headed for Final Passage Amid Questions (WPLN-Radio Nash)

Confusion remains around the so-called guns-in-trunks legislation as it heads for a final vote. The bill allowing loaded guns to be stored in parked cars passed another House committee Wednesday. It would no longer be illegal to keep a loaded weapon in a car if a person has a carry permit. But the sponsor in the state House says an employee could still be fired if in violation of a company policy. A state lawyer compares it to drinking on the job. But the Senate sponsor says he’s not so sure storing a weapon could be cause for termination.

Challenges to Federal Gun Laws Could Find Tough Time in Key Committee (WPLN)

A key legislative committee has put off a bill taking aim at federal gun laws. The measure would make it a crime for officers to enforce any national gun restrictions in Tennessee, but there are constitutional questions. Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet says the way she sees it, states have a choice about whether federal laws infringe on the right to bear arms. She argued her point before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which she chaired just last year. “I know many of you are lawyers, you’ve been to law school, and you believe the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of many of these laws. I don’t believe that.”

Concussion Policy Bill to be Heard in Senate (Associated Press/Johnson)

As the nation continues to debate increasing safety in contact sports, Tennessee lawmakers are looking at legislation that would require schools and other organizations conducting youth athletic programs to adopt concussion policies. The measure is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. A similar proposal failed last year. Rep. Cameron Sexton is the sponsor of the House version of the bill. Under the proposal, schools are required to “adopt guidelines … as approved by the department of health to inform and educate coaches, school administrators, youth athletes and their parents or guardians of the nature, risk and symptoms of concussion and head injury, including continuing to play after concussion or head injury.”

Concussion bill clears TN Senate Education Committee (Tennessean/Rau)

With the support of the National Football League, a bill to implement a new statewide concussion policy for young athletes cleared the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. NFL Senior Vice President of Law, Labor, Policy and Government Affairs Adolpho Birch, a Nashville native and Father Ryan High School graduate, appeared before the committee to offer the league’s support for the bill. Tennessee is one of seven states without a concussion law. Birch said the NFL recognized the dangers of concussions for its own athletes and sought to set an example for leagues at all levels of sports.  

Williamson County speaks out on education proposals (Tennessean/Giordano)

Williamson County school officials are trying to send a message to Tennessee legislators. Some of the 90 or so education-related bills before lawmakers will work for Williamson County Schools, but others simply will not. To make that message clear, county school board members voted Monday at their meeting on several resolutions to support or oppose proposed legislation. School officials said some of the proposals would create unintended consequences, such as merging financial operations with county government, or an open enrollment period for students at the beginning of the school year.  

Weekly Obsession: State GOP to Nashville: We’re the deciders (City Paper/Lind)

The threat of secession is the hissy fit of American politics. It is a sulking, childish response to a democracy’s worst side effect: that sometimes somebody else wins. It is also a toothless bluff. No matter which rights the crass and cynical politician warns are under attack by some fearsome Other, the very practical matter of governing requires the very necessary matter of money, which is why the blustery chatter of separation blows on like so much refuse in the wind.

Farragut traffic camera citations drop by almost 37 percent (NS/Willett)

A change in state law made a big difference in the number of citations issued by the town of Farragut using red light cameras during 2012. Statistics for the Traffic Enforcement Program from Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2012, show a big drop in the number of citations compared to the figures from the previous year, according to program manager Ben Harkins. According to the statistics released by the town this week, 4,086 citations were issued. The citations carry a $50 fine. “The number of citations is down almost 37 percent from the 2011 calendar year, due to the change in Tennessee state law that prohibits municipalities from citing violations to those who run red lights by failing to stop before turning right on red,” Harkins said.

Tax Zone Would Benefit Fairgrounds (Memphis Daily News)

The Tourism Development Zone that Memphis officials will seek in Nashville over the next three months would generate tax revenue from Cooper-Young, the Midtown Union Avenue corridor and Overton Square for the redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds. But the sales tax revenue captured also would be used long term for other areas within the zone, including the Beltline neighborhood east of the fairgrounds, Orange Mound, Cooper-Young and Overton Square. Memphis City Council members gave their formal blessing Tuesday, Feb. 19, to starting the TDZ application process.

Alexander to speak against Corps fishing limits (Associated Press)

Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is holding a press conference on Thursday to discuss concerns about an Army Corps of Engineers plan to limit fishing along the Cumberland River in Nashville. Alexander will be joined by members of the community and representatives of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. The plan could stop fishing in tailwaters below dams along the river, even when water isn’t spilling through the dams.

Partisan divide clear in Hagel nomination (Times Free-Press/Carroll)

An arm slumped over his chair in the Senate chamber, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander seemed absent from the proceedings, relaxing his wiry frame and chatting away. Grinning and equally laid-back was the colleague to his right: U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, an ideological ally, a Georgia Republican and another Southern-statesman type. As they whispered back and forth, a mainstay from the rival party, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., towered over the main podium. He offered an impassioned plea for former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Vietnam veteran, Nebraska Republican and, most recently, President Obama’s controversial nominee for secretary of defense.

Volkswagen plant could gain by trade pact, Alexander says (TFP/Pare)

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Wednesday he’s hopeful new U.S. trade talks with Europe over cutting tariffs will help Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant and other Tennessee exporters. “One good way to create new jobs is to have more free trade agreements,” the Tennessee Republican said after meeting with Chattanooga area manufacturers. VW officials say that such trade pacts make the Chattanooga plant more competitive within the automaker’s group. The city plant is vying for production of a potential new sport utility vehicle with VW facilities in Mexico.

Chickamauga lock funding a priority, Alexander says (Times Free-Press/Pare)

Funding the Chickamauga lock’s replacement is a high priority, and legislation to find money for such projects may have to be passed in pieces, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Wednesday. “We may have to pass it piece by piece but that’s not always a bad way to do things,” Alexander said after meeting with a group of Chattanooga area manufacturers. Alexander said he and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are working with Republican and Democrat senators on the American Waterworks Act.

Rep. Stephen Fincher gets reappointed to Agriculture Committee (C. Appeal)

Congressman Stephen Fincher, one of the few true farmers in the U.S. Congress, has been reappointed to the House Agriculture Committee after losing the post in his freshman year to join Financial Services. The House GOP leadership told the West Tennessee Republican, whose district includes much of the Poplar Avenue Corridor in East Memphis, that he will also be able to retain his coveted Financial Services spot. “I am excited to hit the ground running and continue to work on these important issues that matter most to our farmers,” Fincher said in a prepared statement Wednesday afternoon.

101st Airborne Division prepares for new role in Afghanistan (A. Press/Hall)

The 101st Airborne Division is headed to Afghanistan for the third time in five years, but Maj. Gen. James McConville, the division’s commanding general, says his forces have to be more adaptive and agile as they set the stage for the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. About 600 of McConville’s top staff are leaving to command NATO troops east of the capital of Kabul to join more than 5,000 troops from Fort Campbell already serving there. Unlike the division’s previous two tours, McConville told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday, this isn’t a return to the same deadly fights with insurgents in eastern Afghanistan that marked the last deployment in 2010 through 2011.  

Pay Boost on the Horizon for Some State Workers (Stateline)

State employees who stayed put through years of pay freezes, furloughs and layoffs could find good news in their paychecks this year. Modest pay increases have been promised at the bargaining table or are being considered in at least half the states. In many cases, the increases aren’t pay raises, but a restoration of pay cuts and other measures taken during the recession. For example, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, a Republican, announced during his state of the state address that in the coming fiscal year employees will have to take three furlough days a year instead of six, and can look forward to raises in 2014.

TVA pursues small nuclear reactor tests for Oak Ridge (TFP/Flessner)

The Tennessee Valley Authority, created 80 years ago to be a “living laboratory” for new government projects, plans to test a new type of a nuclear reactor designed to be smaller, simpler and less costly than America’s current fleet of nuclear power plants. TVA announced Wednesday it has signed a contract with Babcock & Wilcox and Bechtel Corp. to help pursue plans to construct a small modular reactor in Oak Ridge. Although TVA directors must still approve the actual building of such a facility, TVA will seek a construction permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by 2015 to build the new reactors on one of its properties on the Clinch River near Oak Ridge.

TVA tree-cutting upheld (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Marcum)

TVA said Wednesday that a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit against its tree-cutting policies upholds the right of the federal utility to manage plant growth under its power lines. However, the issue of whether TVA is in violation of environmental law through these policies remains to be settled. A July 8 trial date has been set in the case. U.S. District Court Judge Tom Varlan issued rulings Tuesday on a flurry of motions filed by plaintiffs and defendants in the May lawsuit by some Westminster Place residents against TVA over policies on clearing trees from its power line easements.  

TVA Moves Ahead on Small Nuclear Reactor Design (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The Tennessee Valley Authority is taking steps toward building the country’s first small modular nuclear reactor in Oak Ridge. It would produce about a sixth the power of a typical large reactor. The idea is a smaller version could use more parts built in factories and shipped to the plant site. And TVA says doing it underground could also make it safer and more secure. Senator Lamar Alexander has championed the concept. On Wednesday TVA announced a deal to move ahead with plant builder Babcock and Wilcox, and the two will seek approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Vanderbilt’s economic impact on Tennessee tops $8.5B (Tennessean/Moskop)

Vanderbilt University had an $8.6 billion impact on the Tennessee economy last year, according to a study the school is scheduled to release today. The study, which was conducted by research firm TXP Inc. of Austin, Texas, calculated the university’s direct and indirect economic output, including its direct spending, off-campus spending by students and visitors, as well as business spending resulting from Vanderbilt’s presence. The study also estimated tax revenue derived from Vanderbilt-related activity.  

Activist challenges Erlanger transparency (TFP/Brogdon, Harrison)

A community activist and former Erlanger employee called on Hamilton County commissioners to work against what he called “a catastrophe in the making,” referencing recent actions by the hospital’s board and proposed legislation to reform it. Patrick Kellogg, who Erlanger said left the hospital in March 2011, claims hospital trustees violated the state’s open meetings law on four occasions before appointing Kevin Spiegel as CEO on Monday. He said Wednesday he plans to file injunction paperwork against the board in Chancery Court by Friday.

International Paper lands tax break, plans to grow in Memphis (CA/Bailey)

International Paper on Wednesday received the $56.9 million tax break it sought to expand its headquarters in, and renew its commitment to, Memphis. “It’s almost like us renewing our vows to Memphis and Shelby County after 25 years, and we’d like to make another long-term contract to Memphis and Shelby County,” Thomas Kadien, a senior vice president for International Paper, told the Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis and Shelby County. The EDGE board voted unanimously to approve the payments-in-lieu-of-taxes over a 15-year period.

Hamilton County rushes upgrades to prepare for state online exams (TFP/Hardy)

The Hamilton County Schools system is working feverishly to move into the 21st century. The superintendent wants to put iPads or similar tablet devices into the hands of all 42,000 students. He wants all schools to be wireless and all students to have home Internet access. Altogether, the infrastructure and devices will cost close to $20 million. But pieces of that plan must be moved to the back burner because the state has put new requirements on school districts: They must be technologically ready for online state assessments by the 2014-15 school year.

Knox Co. Schools looking at Standard Knitting Mill for headquarters (NS/McCoy)

Knox County Schools could be moving its headquarters from the heart of downtown Knoxville to a former textile mill on Washington Avenue. Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre confirmed this week that he has had preliminary talks with owners of the former Standard Knitting Mill on Washington Avenue about moving the district’s central offices to the building. “From time to time, we hear from various developers or landowners who might have various options that might be available and we are certainly amendable to considering them,” he said.

Lewisburg pain doctor under federal investigation (Tennessean/Roche)

A Tennessee physician who recently ran pain clinics in Nashville and Murfreesboro is under criminal investigation by federal officials for his involvement with a Florida man who has pleaded guilty to federal charges of overseeing the operation of a chain of pill mills. Records in U.S. District Court show that federal agents seized $151,310 in a bank account maintained by Dr. Helmut Harnisch, charging that the money represented profits from illegal pill mills that the physician has run including a clinic at 5010 Linbar Drive in Nashville.

Georgia: Panel advances border bill in order to get TN River water (TFP/Omarazu)

Georgia State Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, hopes the 10th time will be the charm for Georgia in its longstanding border — and water — dispute with Tennessee. On Wednesday afternoon Geisinger presented the Senate Judiciary Committee with what he said is Georgia’s 10th bill since 1887 seeking to move the border north to the 35th parallel — smack dab in the middle of Nickajack Lake. Under what Geisinger said is a “generous offer,” Tennessee would keep 65.5 square miles of the disputed territory, including parts of East Ridge and Lookout Mountain, along with the 30,817 residents who live there.

 

OPINION 

Editorial: Let communities decide about wine sales (Tennessean)

From the shopper’s point of view, it’s a no-brainer to allow grocery stores to begin selling wine in Tennessee. The convenience of picking up a bottle of wine at the same location as the pasta to serve it with would certainly make lives easier. Currently, Tennessee has a wonderfully anachronistic law that limits wine sales to package stores, and package stores are limited to a single location owned by a resident of the county. Given the bitter battles that alcohol laws have engendered in the South, this law was likely inspired by the adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” A bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, would allow local communities to make their own decision on wine sale locations.

Editorial: Nullification bill on federal gun laws should be rejected (News-Sentinel)

A bill that would nullify federal gun laws in Tennessee and allow state authorities to charge federal agents who enforce them with felonies has been delayed by the Legislature’s Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, is one of several asserting the authority of the state government to ignore federal law, called nullification. Courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — have consistently rejected nullification, and state Attorney General Bob Cooper, who is reviewing the bill, should come to the same conclusion. Beavers’ bill aims to keep the federal government from enforcing federal firearms laws in Tennessee.

Editorial: No hotel per diem without a receipt (Daily News Journal)

State Sen. Bill Ketron is asking for a common-sense approach to reforming the state Legislature’s per diem system: no pay unless you stay. Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican who lives within 50 miles of the Capitol and would lose money for hotel allowances under pending legislation, is seeking a requirement that legislators who live outside greater Nashville show hotel receipts before receiving any lodging per diem or reimbursement. The Senate State and Local Government Committee was prepared to pass legislation last week ending hotel payments to lawmakers within the 50-mile doughnut when Ketron raised the other issue. A vote was delayed to get a better handle on the costs and language in the bill.  

Guest columnist: MTSU progress report: Higher grad rate is priority (Tennessean)

MTSU leads Regents universities in key areas MTSU entered its second century with a clear mission: To increase its already considerable commitment to provide quality education and, in doing so, provide even more college graduates for Tennessee’s workforce. That is why I was proud to note in my recently released President’s Biennial Report that MTSU was the top and most efficient producer of graduates among Tennessee Board of Regents universities in 2011-12.

Columnist: Lockdown: School Security Needs Fortification, Not Recrimination (MP)

Recent revelations of security system deficiencies at two Knox County schools need to be put in the rear view mirror, and the school system needs to move ahead with doing exactly what Superintendent Jim McIntyre called for in his Feb. 5 State of the Schools address. “I believe we must invest in having a more intensive and robust level of safety resources at each of our schools,” he stated. “At a minimum, we must have current-generation video monitoring systems… camera-buzzer systems, keyless entry and/or secure entrance vestibules at each of our facilities to enhance school access control; and yes, I believe we should have an armed, uniformed school resource officer or school security at each and every one of our schools.”

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