This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Harlow Sumerford, a legislative assistant and deputy press secretary to U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. for the past two years, is becoming East Tennessee field director for Gov. Bill Haslam. Sumerford, 35, will represent the governor in constituent outreach from Mountain City to Chattanooga, Haslam said in announcing the appointment. Sumerford has nearly a decade of experience as a TV news reporter, working in Knoxville at WATE, Channel 6, and WCYB in the Tri-Cities market.
Governor Bill Haslam says he’s getting up to speed on a proposal narrowly passed by the legislature that is intended to stop activists from doing their own undercover investigations into animal cruelty. “It’s not one that was quite frankly really high on my radar screen so I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to it,” Haslam told reporters following the legislature’s adjournment. “We’ve obviously already gotten a lot of calls and emails on it, so you can tell everybody to hold. We’ve got all we need on both sides.”
Middle Tennessee State University has an agreement to purchase the former Middle Tennessee Medical Center site near downtown. According to a news release from the university, the school will pay $11.1 million for the 17.4-acre site. It includes a 115,000-square-foot building, parking for nearly 600 and a large green space that was the site of the old main hospital. MTSU President Sidney McPhee says the university will use the building for academic purposes, but the school has not made a final decision on which units will occupy the space. The lot will remain green space for the foreseeable future.
The University of Tennessee may have abandoned tens of millions of dollars over the next decade from a proposed partnership that it is no longer pursuing with a proton therapy center in West Knoxville because of legislative and financial challenges associated with it. The proposal, which was strongly backed by key university officials, called for using the additional revenues generated to fund new academic and research programs and facilities that were considered a step toward becoming a top 25 public research institution, according to documents obtained by the News Sentinel through a public records request.
Lawmakers will see parent trigger, voucher plan in ’14 In the last few years, Tennessee hasn’t shied away from contentious initiatives as it seeks to remain at the forefront of education reform in the nation. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has even characterized the state’s efforts as “courageous leadership.” Two big initiatives were proposed during the 108th Tennessee General Assembly: an administrative proposal to create a school voucher program, and a so-called parent trigger measure that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school.
Connie Steere says something is always better than nothing. Steere, executive director of Kingsport-based CASA for Kids, was hoping for a statewide windfall for the Court Appointed Special Advocate program that recruits and trains volunteers to represent abused and neglected children in court cases. There was an opportunity through legislation filed by state Rep. Tony Shipley to get more than $1 million in new money for the program by increasing fines for the state’s seat belt law and earmarking that revenue for CASA.
Tennesseans will pay less tax on food, investment income and inheritance, worry a little less about police drones surveilling their backyards, send their children to new municipal school systems and keep their guns in their cars on most parking lots. But we still can’t buy wine at the supermarket, or use taxpayer money for private school tuition, or open for-profit charter schools — all due to the Tennessee legislature’s 2013 session, which adjourned for the year Friday. The state’s first legislature with a Republican supermajority will be known almost as much for what it refused or failed to pass as what it approved.
The Tennessee legislature has gone home for the year after a session in which big bills fell victim to intra-party politics. The supermajority’s squabbles came to a head in the final hours. On Friday the pet project of Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey was soundly defeated in the House. This was his own plan to reduce the number of district attorneys in the state by redrawing the judicial boundaries and the House voted it down to cheers. Then Ramsey blocked House Speaker Beth Harwell’s legislative baby by keeping it from coming to a vote after dozens of hours of committee hearings.
As the legislative session drew to a close, lawmakers spent some of their final hours on Capitol Hill debating whether it’s worth creating a state law largely in reaction to one school district defying the state. Speaker Beth Harwell, the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives and one of the most influential in the state, made assigning a state panel to review applications of rejected charter schools a priority this year after watching from the sidelines as Metro’s elected school board repeatedly turned down a favored charter school.
Nashville should focus more on encouraging redevelopment and urban infill projects, and less on sprawling residential subdivisions, as it charts growth for the next quarter-century, a “smart growth” advocate says. Suburban-style developments such as Bradford Hills use space less efficiently and cost taxpayers more for services than infill projects like the Gulch, said William Fulton of Smart Growth America, an advocacy group based in Washington. “People increasingly … are shifting away from conventional subdivisions,” said Fulton, the group’s vice president and policy development/implementation director.
After years of on-and-off again discussions, Knox County leaders are set to sign off on a plan to reconfigure a state-mandated panel that serves as a watchdog over local government. If approved, the new measures would change the makeup of the county’s Ethics Committee, refine its focus and eliminate some of the potential for conflicts of interest. “We heard a lot of concerns and the public said they didn’t want elected people on the committee, so we want to make this a citizens’ committee,” said Knox County Commissioner Richard Briggs, who also serves on the panel.
Yet another drug compounding company that holds a license to sell its products in Tennessee is recalling all of its sterile injectable drugs after federal inspectors found evidence of bacterial contamination in one of its products. The recall, announced Sunday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is being conducted by Balanced Solutions Compounding of Lake Mary, Fla. Among the products being recalled are vials of methylprednisolone acetate, the same spinal steroid blamed for a nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak that has killed 15 Tennessee residents and sickened more than 150.
The Senate is expected to vote as soon as this week on legislation allowing states to require Internet retailers to collect sales taxes, opening up a battle over a tax break that consumers love but that states say costs millions. The outcome is uncertain, largely because of opposition from some conservatives who see the move as a new tax and an unfair burden on business, and from lawmakers from states that don’t tax sales. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to move to a procedural vote on the proposal suggests its prospects are improving.
Police say pair suspected in Boston Marathon bombing had cache of guns, explosives Investigators believe that two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombing likely were planning other attacks, based on the cache of weapons uncovered, the city’s police commissioner said Sunday. As Boston-area residents came together in prayer and reflection after a tumultuous week, the surviving suspect in the bombing lay hospitalized under heavy guard apparently in no shape for interrogation.
When Luckey Harris learned a fire had broken out in this small town Wednesday evening, his first thought was to help the volunteer firefighters turning out to combat the blaze. Mr. Harris, a 52-year-old captain in the Dallas Fire Department who specialized in industrial fires, was visiting a friend who lives in West, David Pratka. The two men jumped into Mr. Pratka’s white Ford Explorer and took off toward the plume of smoke. But when Mr. Harris saw it was the local fertilizer plant that was on fire, he told Mr. Pratka to turn around and go home.
A government agency says a security officer patrolling the area outside a nuclear power plant in East Tennessee exchanged gunfire with a person. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says in a statement that the incident occurred more than a quarter-mile from the Watts Bar nuclear plant’s protected area. The Tennessee Valley Authority operates the plant. It notified the NRC that the shooting occurred near the Tennessee River just before 2 a.m. The NRC said in a later statement on Sunday afternoon that the TVA declared there was no further security threat after an inspection of the protected area and a helicopter survey of the plant and river area.
The FBI has joined the TVA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigating a trespasser who exchanged gunfire with a security officer on the property of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant early Sunday morning. It is unclear why the intruder — who escaped — was there, and investigators are saying little. But the nuclear plant, like all federal facilities, remains under high security alert in the aftermath of the Boston bombings last week, and investigators combed the area — even with helicopters and surveillance aircraft — for well over 12 hours Sunday.
A gunman is still at large following an overnight shootout with a security officer on the perimeter of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant site near Spring City, Tenn., early Sunday. The suspect fired multiple rounds at the Tennessee Valley Authority security officer who was on a routine patrol near the banks of Chickamauga Lake about 2 a.m. Sunday, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said. The officer first spotted the suspect near an old concrete boat ramp in a restricted area of the plant property about a quarter-mile from the site’s protected area, which houses the reactor and power production facilities.
With new municipal schools legislation awaiting Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald plans to resurrect the suburb’s Education Advisory Committee to prepare for opening the suburb’s potential school system as soon as possible. “I’m probably going to call the Education Committee back together and continue some additional work as they move toward the elections, all for the same reason we did last year,” McDonald said after last week’s General Assembly vote opening the door for municipal schools.
Superintendent Rick Smith says the equation is simple: New schools + new kids = new costs. While Volkswagen’s arrival and growth in other industries were an economic boon for the region, they also drove up the cost of doing business for Hamilton County Schools: Enrollment has increased nearly 5 percent over the past five years. That has meant new buildings in certain areas, along with teachers and staff to fill them. Smith says he won’t ask for a budget increase this year, but he wants county leaders to be aware of future needs.
Can the Knox County school board hire counsel outside the Knox County Law Department? That is the question school board Chairwoman Karen Carson has set out to answer for the body after a resolution potentially affecting the school system was passed by the Knox County Commission last month. “I just felt like if I had had my counsel there, he would have been able to say this is the potential effects for the Board of Ed,” she said. “I don’t want to antagonize. I do feel obligated to ask the questions and make sure that the board is aware of where we stand.”
Metro Police evacuated several rooms at the Hallmark Inn on West Trinity Lane Sunday, after a housekeeper discovered suspected chemicals used for making methamphetamine in one of the guest rooms. When the housekeeper entered to clean the room, a man was sound asleep on the bed, and she noticed Drano and other ingredients. The housekeeper’s eyes started to string immediately after she entered the room, police said. She alerted a hotel manager, who then called the police.
As our hearts have been burdened with the Boston terror bombings, the industrial accident in Texas that destroyed a rural community and the vitriol around the issues of the Second Amendment and legal immigration in Washington, a few things happened in Tennessee that should be praised. Recently, Chattanooga had its local elections and the transition of leadership has occurred. Despite the embarrassment of low voter turnout, the swearing-in ceremony at Chattanooga’s Tivoli Theatre featured a crowd hungry for Chattanooga’s success. In that crowd were those who worked tirelessly for their candidates. There were even some losing candidates graciously showing their support.
While our attention was trained on following the manhunt in Boston, the tragedy in West, Texas, and the unfolding drama in Knoxville, the Tennessee General Assembly, true to the predictions of its leadership, wrapped up its work and adjourned. It was a session far quieter than many observers on the left had feared, and perhaps less far-reaching than those on the right had hoped. And it ended with a little tit-for-tat as two prized bills, SB 780, a judicial redistricting bill pushed by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), and the statewide charter school authorizer bill favored by House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) fell victim to intraparty politics.
It looks like the state Legislature is headed home early this year. All we have to wait for now is harmony and peace in the political world around the Volunteer State. And, if you believe that is going to happen, then let me talk to you about a nice building lot in the Everglades. I am sure there will still be interesting happenings occurring up in D.C., but just maybe all of the promises made this past year won’t be fulfilled to make our hopes and dreams come true. Some legislation that occurs can even cause fear in many of us.
In a perfect world, when the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools merge into one countywide school district July 1, principals at all schools in the new system would be paid equally. Unfortunately, because the new district is facing a $35 million funding gap, the equalization may not occur in the upcoming school year. It would cost $11 million to equalize the pay, and that money would come out of spending for instruction. No one wants to see that happen. On average, county principals make $13,000 — or 11 percent — more than city school principals. Assistant principals make about $10,000 more, a 9 percent difference.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina apparently has a thermal-imaging device for detecting the motivation of the man arrested on suspicion of bombing the Boston Marathon. He and three other Republican lawmakers declared — without the benefit of evidence — that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be considered an enemy combatant, not a criminal, and should be held by the military without access to a lawyer or the fundamental rights that distinguish this country from authoritarian regimes. Mr. Graham’s reckless statement makes a mockery of the superb civilian police work that led to the suspect’s capture, starting with a skillful analysis of video recordings of the marathon.