This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennesseans do not want their leaders to compromise, but they appear to embrace Gov. Bill Haslam, the state’s moderate-in-chief. That, at least, could be the takeaway from recent polling by Middle Tennessee State University. MTSU says that Tennessee Democrats want their party to stick to its guns, while Republicans want it to become more conservative now that it holds a supermajority in the state legislature and nine of the state’s 11 seats in Congress. “Democrats want their party to dig in, and Republicans want their party to double down,” Dr. Ken Blake, the poll’s director, said last week.
Dozens of people at a town hall meeting Saturday afternoon called on the governor to expand TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, because they say too many people don’t have access to affordable care. About 100 people showed up at Progressive Baptist Church for the hourlong event organized by AHealthyTN.org, a coalition of community volunteers formed about six months ago in support of an expansion. “Today we can stand together for insurance for all Tennesseans,” said Nicole Cochran, 42, of Franklin, one of four panelists who spoke at the event. Others were a doctor, a nurse and an official with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
DICKSON — They call it “Babyland.” It’s made up of two rows, one mostly complete, the second of which is still filling up. Along those rows are flowers, tiny crosses, balloons, toys and little grave markers, some of which have a teddy bear swinging on a swing next to the words “Playing in God’s garden.” It is here, in Baby¬land, that 18-month-old Somarah Smith may be laid to rest this week. Somarah was already dead when, on Thursday, she was brought to her great aunt’s home, by her mother’s boyfriend, who then took off, later telling authorities that he had fallen on her.
The death of an 18-month-old Dickson County girl last week highlights gaps in communication between law enforcement and the Department of Children’s Services, said one state lawmaker. And, unlike at least one other state, Tennessee lacks laws or specific guidance on what law enforcement should do when parents of children are arrested. Edward Benesch has been charged with reckless homicide and child abuse in the death of Somarah Smith.
CLARKSVILLE — Five children between the ages of 1 and 15, including one bound to a wheel chair, were found Thursday living in a house that was so full of trash that they couldn’t move around, according to a police report from Clarksville Police spokesman Officer Jim Knoll. Officers were called to do a welfare check on the 1812 Apex Drive house at around 3:40 p.m. Thursday after a neighbor saw children and garbage at the residence, Knoll said. When officers arrived, they were let into the house and saw what an officer described as the residence of a hoarder.
CLARKSVILLE — Two days after Dawn Garcia gave birth, a social worker with the Department of Children’s Services arrived at the Clarksville hospital and told the shocked new mom to hand over her son. At the time, the 22-year-old mother and her husband, Jose Garcia, a Fort Campbell infantryman, were under investigation for abusing their 21-month-old daughter — an accusation the couple vehemently denied. Neither parent was ever charged with abuse, according to Clarksville Police.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is scheduled to update lawmakers on progress toward keeping track of child deaths next week. But Democrats say they don’t expect enough tough questions. Two years ago, the legislature proudly abolished all of its joint committees as a way to cut $850,000 out of the budget. One of them had direct oversight of DCS – the select committee on children and youth. Without this special panel, Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville says there are few experts on child abuse and foster care at the capitol.
As legislation to allow wine in grocery stores moves forward, opponents and proponents alike are keeping watchful eyes on the bill as it passes through the legislature. House Speaker Beth Harwell broke a tie vote Wednesday to advance the bill to the full House Local Government Committee. The bill, which is sponsored by Rep. John Lundberg of Bristol, would allow cities and counties to hold referendums on whether to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.
Utility bills from companies such as Atmos Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas could climb significantly — without much government oversight — under a measure pending in the Tennessee legislature, state Attorney General Bob Cooper says. Investor-owned utility companies would be able to raise their rates every year and pass along new expenses to consumers without having to prove that such increases are really necessary under the legislation, which is being pushed by the Haslam administration, Cooper warned legislators in a letter this week.
FRANKLIN — If state legislators agree to expand the charter school and voucher systems in Tennessee, property owners in Williamson County will likely see a decline in the value of their home, according to the director of the county school system. At a Thursday evening event hosted by the Williamson County Democratic Party, Mike Looney, superintendent of Williamson County Schools, emphasized the relationship between home values and a thriving public school system. If taxpayer dollars are diverted from the district in support of charter schools, suggested Looney, a suffering school district will be suffered by homeowners.
MURFREESBORO — Rutherford County board members will be asked this week to approve a review team to assist in evaluating charter school applications. Board policy requires the board to appoint a review team each year made up of members of the administrative staff, community members and a board member. Schools Director Don Odom has recommended the team consist of administrative staff members Paula Barnes, Jeff Sandvig, Richard Zago, James Evans and Shirley Bell, community member Bob Bullen and board member Tim Tackett, who will chair the review team.
As he thumbed through records at the kitchen table of his Ooltewah home Thursday, David Machoka said he had never had any safety violations on his state inspections at Moraa’s Assisted Living Home for Seniors. Machoka and his wife, Agnes, said the six-bed home for elderly women they operate in Collegedale is their ministry. “Our family ties are so close, and when we grew up in Kenya, we were brought up on the biblical principle to respect your parents,” David Machoka said.
A legislative battle between eye care providers is heating up over a state bill that as amended would allow optometrists to use injectable anesthesia. The recently filed legislation sponsored by Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, has hit a nerve with ophthalmologists, who argue its passage would give their nonmedical counterparts the green light to perform more complex procedures like laser eye surgery or cosmetic work around the eyelids.
Whiskey entrepreneurs Joe Ledbetter and Tim Piersant are ready to begin work on their Chattanooga distillery this month, if a law that finally reverses Prohibition in the Scenic City is passed by the Tennessee legislature. The law’s passage would allow the Chattanooga Whiskey Co. to bring its bottling and distilling operations into Chattanooga by October and would open the door to other distillers who want to ply their trade here. “We’re going to bring in master distillers to ensure that our whiskey stays true to what we have today,” Ledbetter said.
Up and down the Downtown corridor, they form a heavy alliance of Memphis’ sports and entertainment industry. There’s the ornate Orpheum, the multipurpose FedExForum, the raucous Beale Street Music Festival and the influence of concert promoter Beaver Productions, to name a few. Their shows may be distinct, but their frustration is shared: a secondary market for their tickets that has evolved beyond what they say they can control as the Internet marketplace has flourished. So they’ve taken their fight to Nashville. They want passage of HB 1000 and SB 609 — what they call the Fairness in Ticketing Act.
SMYRNA — By simply relocating his office space at the Tennessee State Capitol, state Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, learned a whole new side to local history regarding Civil War spy DeWitt Smith Jobe. “I asked (Speaker Beth Hartwell) for a new office overlooking the Capitol and the Sam Davis Monument because Sam Davis kind of represents Smyrna,” Sparks said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to do a little research on the Coleman Scouts and I came across (an article) about DeWitt Smith Jobe.”
Georgia’s latest legislative proposal to end Atlanta’s water woes by tapping the Tennessee River rocketed out of the state House of Representatives in February with 171 yes votes and only two no votes. Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, was one of the popular proposal’s lonely opponents. “You’d have to get Tennessee to agree to move the state line,” Neal said. “If you pump water from there, you’ve got two mountains to get across.” While Neal’s objections didn’t slow the bill’s trajectory, it’s now in a holding pattern in the Senate Rules Committee, whose chairman is another local opponent: Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.
Trooper Lee Russell, 25, has been assigned to pilot the new Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter, which will be used to support law enforcement in West Tennessee. Russell is a native of West Tennessee and is glad he’s coming back home. “I get the best of both worlds. I get to come home, and I brought a helicopter with me,” he said during a news conference held by THP and the Department of Safety and Homeland Security on Friday to announce the addition of the new helicopter.
Tennessee teachers could have gotten annual raises of $8,367 over an almost two-decade period, if school boards had curbed growth in the number of administrators they employ. That’s the message in a new report by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, based in Indianapolis. The bump represents a 17.8 percent increase in pay on the $47,000 salary at typical Tennessee teacher takes home.
The naysayers may have been right. When officials launched the city’s single largest effort to squelch youth gangs last year, many wondered whether it would last. They had seen programs come and go. Politicians forget. Grants expire. Priorities change. And yet kids were still killing each other on the streets of Chattanooga. Now, six months after a 173-page report documented the depths of our gang problem and with a new administration waiting in the wings, the future of the city’s Gang Task Force seems to hang in the balance.
The first steps of Mayor-elect Andy Berke’s transition will be looking at the way city government operates and getting public input on how to improve it. Staffing for departments and his incoming administration will be the last thing considered, Berke said Friday in an interview. “Before we can be specific about every position in city government, we want to make sure the city government is set up to execute my priorities,” he said. “That means reviewing our city structure.”
Nashville (AP) — Most people quizzed recently about open-government laws did not know that only Tennessee citizens are guaranteed access to public records from state and local governments, according to the online findings. Nearly three-fourths of people who have taken the Tennessee Sunshine Quiz gave incorrect responses to a question about that portion of the state’s Public Records Act.
CLARKSVILLE, TENN. — The 19th Judicial District, made up of Montgomery and Robertson counties, will likely see drastic changes as the General Assembly works to rearrange all Tennessee judicial districts. In February, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey proposed the boundaries of Tennessee’s 31 judicial districts, created in the 1980s, be reorganized and new districts established. Many counties have experienced extraordinary growth, and Ramsey said the time was ripe as August 2014 elections approach and district attorneys, public defenders and state trial court judges will be elected by districts to serve eight-year terms.
Tennessee’s Judicial Nominating Commission, meeting Friday in Shelbyville, recommended three finalists for the position of circuit court judge for the 17th Judicial District. The names of attorney Forest A. Durard Jr. of Shelbyville, assistant district attorney Brooke Charles Grubb of Fayetteville and attorney Barbara G. Medley of Lewisburg have been submitted to Gov. Bill Haslam, who will make the final choice. Judge Robert Crigler announced in January that he will retire at the end of May.
When a 20-year-old man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., not only did he take the lives of 26 people, he also caused school systems nationwide to review and re-evaluate their guidelines on school safety and security. “What we thought was security prior to Sandy Hook has changed, and I think the national conversation is trying to define what we think security is. To me, we want our teachers, students and folks that use our buildings to be safe while they are in school,” said Lynne Fugate, a Knox County school board member.
Raymond A. McCoy — “Be sure and use that ‘A’ so people won’t confuse me with my dad” — has never had a credit card. He doesn’t believe in them. He’s looking forward to his federal income tax return because it will put him closer to the new car he’s saving for. McCoy, 45, makes a little over $12 an hour as a custodian at Shelby Oaks Elementary School. “Sometimes it’s challenging,” he said. “When you have to clean up messes when kids get sick, it kind of turns your stomach. But it’s a good job. It’s a good type of work. When payday comes I look at what I get after Uncle Sam gets his piece of the pie, and I feel good about it.”
As students in Memphis and Shelby County schools take their spring break this week and unified school board members get a reprieve from what has been a hectic meeting schedule, the administrative team leading the merger of the two systems will prepare another batch of recommendations for the board to consider when it returns to work March 19.
The challenge of finding and recruiting skilled, experienced candidates to fill open technology-related jobs has frustrated many Nashville employers, but it isn’t bad news for everyone. As companies look to rid themselves of what can be a time-consuming, costly search process, a growing number of tech recruiting and staffing firms are happy to take on their burden.
Three of the 16 bigger community banks in Greater Memphis have made large volumes of insider loans, a review of federal banking reports shows. No law bars loans to the people who control the bank, but the review by The Commercial Appeal highlights a little-noticed trend in banking. In an era when bankers generally have scaled back lending to heal and grow profits in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, a few banks are lending avidly to insiders.
Real estate agents have an understanding, a protocol of courtesy. If one arrives with a house-hunting client to walk through a house, but there’s already another agent inside with his or her client, the second pair waits to enter until the first leaves. And lately, Realtor Marina Brinkley and other agents have been killing a lot of time in their cars, waiting while parked outside the dwindling number of houses for sale in the Memphis area.
Spring may be the season for tomato seeds and tulips, but it’s not just plants that are growing as the temperature warms up. As Knoxville’s economy looks to shake off the lingering effects from the economic downturn, it appears that the housing market is once again on the rise.
Two out-of-town developers are planning major apartment complexes in East Brainerd that will add more than 500 units to Chattanooga’s rental market. The complexes are part of a host of new apartment buildings scheduled to open in the next year as developers aim to capitalize on the city’s booming apartment market.
THOMPSON’S STATION — The bloody battle of the blue and gray commenced to the thundering sound of Union cannon fire on Saturday. The horse-mounted cavalry began to line up as puffs of musket rifle smoke filled the air, and the Battle of Thompson’s Station was under way.
PIGEON FORGE — On Thursday, residents of this city — and some nonresidents who are registered owners of real estate — will vote on whether or not liquor by the drink will be allowed to stay. The campaign signs for and against the measure say much about the divisiveness of the issue here.
An open letter to Gov. Bill Haslam and state Attorney General Bob Cooper: How many more kids have to die before the people of Tennessee are given access to the procedures that the Department of Children’s Services employs to keep track of children who are under its protection? We ask this, as 18-month-old Somarah Smith is mourned after her death just three days ago in Dickson County. Somarah had been battered — with signs of trauma to the head, back and chest. Her mother’s boyfriend is charged with reckless homicide and child abuse. Somarah is the latest case of a child dying whose family was known to Children’s Services.
Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, an observance introduced in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to remind Americans of how precious a gift we have in open government, and why we all must demand it remain so. Sunshine Week is observed annually in March to coincide with the March 16 birthday of President James Madison, the father of the First Amendment. But the application of the concept of sunlight, as in shining light on government action, is traced to a quote in 1912 by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who told a magazine: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases.
More than 1,000 brand new children’s books purchased by Tennessee taxpayers are destroyed and tossed in the garbage every month in the Chattanooga area because of a newly enforced United States Postal Service rule. Statewide, about 51,000 books sent from the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation as part of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program will be make their way to the trash rather than to a child this year. The discarded books are meant for children from birth to age five to encourage reading, but some never reach their intended recipients — often because the child’s family moves without a forwarding address.
The calendar is gliding closer to the Aug. 5 start of classes for the new merged Memphis-Shelby County school district. The 23-member unified school board is struggling to find consensus on issues that need to be settled to create the 150,000-student district, which will be composed of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. The Transition Steering Committee, made up of administrators from both school districts, is helping the school board formulate action plans for the 172 recommendations the Transition Planning Commission laid out for creation for the merged district.
When Republican Winfield Dunn beat John Jay Hooker in the 1970 election for governor, Democrats were in a tizzy. Dunn was the first Republican in 50 years to win, and coming on the heels of Howard Baker Jr.’s 1966 senatorial victory, as well as Richard Nixon carrying the state in 1968, the Democratic state leadership feared that voters were disemboweling its years of government control. Tennessee was not the only Southern state to see a resurgence of the Republican Party in state politics during the early 1970s, but the Democrats here had a plan. The “Tennessee Plan,” an end run around the state’s 1870 constitution that would ensure that at least the state’s judicial seats would remain in party control, was concocted as a variation of the Missouri Plan, which that state’s voters adopted in 1940 after judicial elections were being influenced by Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast.
Higher property taxes. A return to a time when Nashville was divided between the haves and the have-nots. A kick in the pants to economic development efforts. Those are just a few of the devastating effects that could come if the legislature passes an ill-thought-out bill giving satellite cities including Forest Hills, Belle Meade and Oak Hill the power to create their own city services, Mayor Karl Dean predicted in an interview. It’s an effort being pushed by three out-of-county state representatives who live miles from Nashville but who suddenly feel the need to dip in our Kool-Aid. Why? The likely motivation is because they want the financial campaign support of rich Republicans in those three areas.
If a tornado approaches, we know to grab a battery-operated radio and head for a windowless room. At the mere mention of snow, we follow the drill: Empty all grocery store shelves of all bread. But for March 30, there is no emergency preparedness manual. What do you do when the Ku Klux Klan comes to town?
This was supposed to be an off year, a time to eschew talk of voting and catch our collective breath from the divisive and — in most Republican circles — surprising results of the 2012 national election. But the issue of voting rights never takes a year off, it seems. And two recent examples — one promising, the other mind-boggling — are testaments to that fact. The promising development is occurring in, of all places, the Tennessee legislature, where a rare case of reasonableness has seeped into the minds of a couple of lawmakers.
Medicaid expansion is the most important issue to face the Tennessee General Assembly in more than 20 years. This decision will affect the lives of more than 300,000 working men and women in Tennessee, and now is the time to make a decision — one that is based on people, not politics. Here are the facts: If we expand our Medicaid program, more than 300,000 Tennesseans will receive quality, affordable health care coverage. Of these individuals, 80,000 are children, and 35,000 are veterans, many of them our neighbors from the National Guard who don’t qualify for full VA benefits.
Those of us responsible for Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, have many duties. Board and staff are charged with the upkeep and preservation of more than 1,100 acres of presidential farmland, 25 buildings including Jackson’s mansion and tomb, and presenting interpretive tours translated in five foreign languages that meet the demands of our international audience. We oversee the logistics of 180,000 annual visitors and create programs that are engaging and exciting for children and adults from all walks of life and all corners of the world. All of this is secondary to our core responsibility: telling the story of a leader who was a pivotal figure during a very transitional period in our country’s history.