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April 26 TN News Digest

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

 

Haslam OKs Adding Municipal School Districts (TN Report)

The governor this week signed a bill pushed by suburban Memphis lawmakers that will allow outlying, often wealthier communities in Shelby county to create their own municipal school districts rather than remain in a county-wide consolidated district that also includes struggling inner-city schools. The legislation was sponsored by Curry Todd in the House and and Majority Leader Mark Norris in the Senate, both of whom are Republicans from the Memphis suburb of Collierville. It passed 70-24 in the House and 24-5 in the Senate.

New municipal schools bill signed into law (Memphis Business Journal)

Wednesday Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed two bills which lift the ban on municipal schools statewide. According to WMC-TV, Memphis suburban leaders say that should circumvent any further court challenges Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy and the other suburban mayors are hoping to schedule a new set of referendums soon. “We were thrilled to hear the Governor signing,” Goldsworthy told WMC-TV. “It was anticipated, but it’s always good to check the next thing off the list of things”

Guv Inks Tighter Voter ID Provisions (TN Report)

Library cards and other types of county-or-city-issued photo ID cards are no longer enough to cast a ballot in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a General Assembly measure outlawing their use at polling places. The bill, sponsored by Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron, was an initially more extensive overhaul of the state’s existing voter ID law. Most notably, it aimed to add college ID cards — both for students and staff — to the list of acceptable forms of identification.

Sun shines on Oak Ridge solar project (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Fowler)

Venture is first of its kind in the United States He was just starting his remarks about a new high-tech solar array on a former uranium enrichment site when a whirr of machinery caused him to pause. Bob Martineau, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Environment and Conservation, glanced behind and above him to see a massive solar panel slowly changing position. “It’s shifting. The sun’s moving,” a smiling Martineau said of the gear, designed to track the sun’s path from east to west.  

Unemployment drops in most counties, flat in Davidson (Nashville Biz Journal)

Unemployment decreased in most Tennessee counties in March, but remained flat in Davidson County, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced today. Unemployment decreased in 58 counties, increased in 24 and remained flat in 13. Williamson County posted the state’s lowest unemployment rate, at 5.1 percent, down from 5.3 percent in February. Unemployment in Davidson County stood at 6.3 percent, unchanged from February.

Davidson County unemployment rate remains unchanged (Nashville Post)

Davidson County’s unemployment rate in March was 6.3 percent, unchanged from the February figure, according to statistics the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development released today. County unemployment rates for March and throughout Tennessee show the rate decreased in 58 counties, increased in 24 and stayed the same in 13. Six of the 10 counties with the lowest joblessness are in Middle Tennessee. Williamson County, as usual, led the state with a jobless rate of 5.1 percent.

Knox County jobless rate lowest in Tennessee (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Knox County’s unemployment rate in March fell to 6.2 percent, the lowest in the state. That was down from a revised 6.4 percent in February, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Thursday. The jobless rate for metropolitan Knoxville dipped to 6.6 percent, down from 6.7 percent the month before. The Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area includes Anderson, Blount, Knox, Loudon and Union counties. Nashville had the lowest unemployment rate among Tennessee’s largest metro cities at 6.3 percent.

Shelby County jobless rate rises in March (Commercial Appeal)

Shelby County’s jobless rate edged up in March to 9.5 percent from 9.3 percent in February, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported on Thursday. The estimates are seasonally adjusted and preliminary. One year ago in March, the unemployment rate in Shelby County stood at 9.3 percent. Within Shelby County, the estimated March unemployment rate in Memphis was 10.7 percent, up from 10.4 in February and 10.6 in March 2012.

TN Labor Department replaces top leaders (Tennessean/Gonzalez)

Division that pays out jobless claims criticized in audit Two veteran state employees have been promoted to top posts within the Tennessee Department of Labor and WorkforceDevelopment, where they’ll be tasked with correcting problems uncovered in a recent audit. The department named Dustin Swayne as deputy commissioner — the agency’s second-in-command — and Linda Davis as administrator of the Division of Employment Security, which oversees unemployment claims.

Audit finds contractors overbilled TN Developmental Disabilities agency (TN/Haas)

The state system that cares for severely disabled adults didn’t hold providers who broke the rules accountable for their actions, even when it happened repeatedly. Those were the findings of an audit, released Thursday, of the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. The $200 million state agency helps take care of more than 8,000 severely disabled adults who cannot get by on their own. The audit found a lack of accountability for contracted care providers, insufficient accounting of disabled adults adults’ personal funds and overpayment of more than $20,000 to providers that overbilled the state.

‘Pattern of serious errors’ undermined elections (Tennessean/Cass)

The outcomes of two 2012 primary elections in Davidson County might have been influenced by the bungling of new voting technology, a blistering state review of the county’s election process has found. And when the state began looking into how local officials handled the election, Davidson County Election Commission officials disciplined two employees in ways that may have hindered the investigation. Those findings are contained in a draft report, obtained by The Tennessean, which says the county’s elections were “marred by a series of avoidable errors and violations of law” throughout 2012 that undermined the credibility of the voting process in Nashville.

TBI participates in prescription drug take-back (Associated Press)

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is participating in an initiative Saturday sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day is a free event for individuals who have accumulated expired, unused or unwanted prescription medications. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the medications can be dropped off for safe disposal at the TBI headquarters, 901 R.S. Gass Boulevard in Nashville. During five previous drop-off events, officials say 2 million pounds of prescription medication were taken out of circulation nationally.

TN GOP says infighting typical of supermajority (Associated Press/Johnson)

Republicans, positioned to make major changes to state law with the governorship and a supermajority in the General Assembly, ended the session with some high-profile measures derailed by infighting. Leaders say it was to be expected, and they had been warning of it since winning more than two-thirds of the legislative seats in November. “Does it mean we’ll get everything we want, I don’t necessarily assume that,” Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said at the time.

Backer: Legislation would put stop to animal abuse ‘immediately’ (DNJ)

Legislation requiring animal abuse whistle-blowers to turn over pictures and video to authorities within 48 hours is needed to stop incidents “immediately,” a local proponent says. “It’s about turning that case in to take care of that very first animal,” said Brandon Whitt of Batey Farms in the Blackman community. “We don’t need to have hundreds of animals abused” before a case is reported. The House and Senate passed the bill this session and sent it to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk for a decision. If signed, it would create a Class C misdemeanor subject to a fine but no jail time.

TN House Dems Have Fingers Crossed for Longshot Haslam Vetoes (TN Report)

Tennessee House Democrats held a post-session press conference Tuesday voice their disappointment with much of what the GOP supermajority-controlled Legislature passed this year. Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley was joined by House Caucus Chair Mike Turner of Old Hickory and Memphis Rep. Antonio Parkinson to speak to reporters about what issues they wish the General Assembly would have acted on and new laws they think the state could do without. Turner charged that the session was a boon for the wealthy Tennesseans and corporations but “if you were in the middle class, it was a terrible session for you.”

With security tight, runners converge for Country Music Marathon (CP/White)

This Saturday marks the 14th annual Country Music Marathon & ½ Marathon, when more than 30,000 runners will pound the pavement from Centennial Park to LP Field and everywhere in between. In addition to those 30,000-plus runners — the majority visiting from out of town — more than 100,000 spectators will watch this incredible feat of fitness, proving that an event of this magnitude can be enjoyable for all. Let’s be honest: Not everyone can — or wants to — run 26.2 miles. Even the comparatively short distance of the half marathon is a staggeringly long jog.

Country Music Marathon means more for those who also ran Boston (TN/Organ)

Vance Poss already had a couple of pretty good reasons to run in Saturday’s St. Jude Country Music Marathon. He and his wife, Sanom, got married at the finish line in 2010. They celebrate with an anniversary kiss there each year. And this marks the seventh consecutive year Poss has been the pace leader for the popular 31/2-hour marathon group. He enjoys the satisfaction that comes with helping others complete the grueling challenge. He didn’t need any further motivation, but that’s exactly what he got after running the Boston Marathon when two bombs exploded near the finish line, killing three and injuring more than 250.

Jimmy Haslam’s calls to trucking firms not welcome (Tennessean/Roche)

Charging that Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam is trying to short-circuit a recently filed class action suit, attorneys for a Georgia trucking firm have asked a Knoxville judge to order the travel center executive to cease contacting trucking firms that may be victims of a rebate skimming scheme. In a six-page motion filed Thursday in Knox County Circuit Court, lawyers for Atlantic Coast Carriers charged that Haslam’s recent contact with the trucking executives “may constitute an improper attempt to coerce parties and witnesses under Tennessee law.”

Judge could rule Monday on restraining order sought against Pilot (NS/Lakin)

The trucking company suing Pilot Flying J accused CEO Jimmy Haslam of obstructing justice and buying off cheated customers in a motion for a restraining order filed Thursday. A judge could decide Monday whether Haslam and his company crossed a legal line from making amends to witness-tampering by offering to pay up the difference to any trucking companies shorted on fuel rebates as part of what federal authorities claim amounted to an interstate fraud conspiracy. Pilot’s lawyer calls the claims “outrageous” and unfounded.

FedEx CEO, a Pilot board member, backs Haslam (News-Sentinel/Collins)

Fred Smith, the CEO of FedEx and a board member of Pilot Flying J, on Thursday gave a vote of confidence to Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam. Interviewed following an appearance at the Cato Institute, in Washington, D.C., Smith was asked if he still had confidence in Haslam. “Of course,” he said. “I think Mr. Haslam and his father are first-class men.” Pilot saw its reputation take a hit last week when federal agents raided its Knoxville facilities. The government subsequently unsealed an affidavit which alleged that employees, with Haslam’s knowledge, had engaged in a scheme to defraud trucking companies.

Mayor kills probe into missing cash from his office (Knox News-Sentinel/Jacobs)

Mayor says missing cash just misplaced Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett has squelched the police investigation into the reported theft from his office of $900 that reappeared days later. Knoxville Police Department spokesman Darrell DeBusk said Thursday the mayor called Wednesday and said to discontinue the investigation into the errant nine $100 bills. “The mayor called late (Wednesday) and said he did not want to pursue it,” DeBusk said. “He said the money was found and there was no need to press forward. “Our investigation is closed.”

Alexander’s Reasoning For Keeping TVA In Fed Hands: It Has All Tritium (WPLN)

Sen. Lamar Alexander is now raising national security concerns over the possible sale of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The two-term Republican has been trying to head off the privatization of TVA, which is contemplated in President Obama’s budget released earlier this month. In a hearing, Alexander asked Neile Miller of the Energy Department if the country could find another source for weapons-grade nuclear material. “Defense needs would have to be taken into consideration before any movement could be done,” she said.

Republican lawmakers disagree over legal path in bombing case (TFP/Carroll)

Republican lawmakers from Tennessee and Georgia are at odds over the degree of legal protections owed a controversial American citizen — the Boston Marathon bombing suspect. Senior senators and elder GOP statesmen from both states said authorities erred in providing an attorney to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Instead, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander said, authorities should have interrogated the 19-year-old naturalized American citizen for a month in isolation to “learn what else he knows, what his connections are.”

Internet sales tax divides TN delegation (Tennessean/Barton)

Tennessee’s two Republican senators remain firmly at odds with the nation’s foremost anti-tax group on the issue of Internet sales taxes, while the state’s U.S. House delegation remains torn. At the center of attention in the Senate this week has been the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would give states the right to collect sales taxes from out-of-state marketers who sell goods via the Web to in-state customers. Many brick-and-mortar businesses say the absence of sales taxes on such transactions gives a significant price advantage to far-away firms that have no physical presence in the state.

eBay mobilizes users against Internet sales tax bill (Memphis Business Journal)

The online auction site eBay sent out an email blast to all its registered users this week encouraging them to contact Congress and voice opposition to the proposed sales tax on goods sold online. The email, signed by eBay president and CEO John Donahoe, calls the proposed online sales tax legislation “wrongheaded and unfair” and says that it will hurt small businesses. Though eBay is an online retailer, its auction service is a platform in which many small retailers operate.

Senate Moves to Stop Air-Controller Furloughs and Prevent Travel Delays (NYT)

Driven by bipartisan concerns over mounting airport delays, the Senate reached agreement on Thursday night to give the secretary of transportation enough flexibility to bring the nation’s air traffic control system back up to full strength. The legislation, which passed unanimously before the Senate left town for the next week, would allow as much as $253 million to be moved from other parts of the Transportation Department to the Federal Aviation Administration. Advocates said that should be enough to stop further furloughs and keep the air traffic control system operating at a normal pace through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.  

Wyoming Catches Lottery Fever; Online Gaming Eyed Elsewhere (Stateline)

States are cashing in on Americans’ love of gambling. States like Nevada and New Jersey, for example, are tapping into the billions of dollars spent on wagering online, while Wyoming is catching up by legalizing a lottery. The 43 states where lotteries were legal last year made more than $19 billion in profits. State and local governments reaped an additional $8 billion in taxes from commercial and racetrack casinos. And while the online gambling market is hard to estimate, potential revenue for states is in the billions of dollars.  

TVA sued over Gallatin power plant upgrades (Tennessean/Gang)

Environmental groups say cleaner options available A coalition of environmental groups sued the Tennessee Valley Authority on Thursday over its plans to spend $1 billion installing pollution controls at its coal-fired Gallatin power plant. In the lawsuit filed in federal court in Nashville, the groups contend TVA violated national environmental policy by not fully studying alternatives to the upgrades, including retiring the more than 50-year-old plant. “Too many people have suffered from this pollution already,” said Louise Gorenflo, a volunteer in Tennessee for the Sierra Club, one of the groups suing TVA.

Environmental groups sue TVA over coal plant (Times Free-Press)

A coalition of environmental groups is suing the Tennessee Valley Authority over its decision to continue operating a coal-burning power plant in Gallatin, Tenn. The TVA announced in August that it planned to spend $1 billion to retrofit the plant with scrubbers that will reduce harmful air pollution by up to 95 percent. John Suttles is a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. He said in a Thursday conference call that the coalition believes TVA’s actions violate the National Environmental Policy Act.

TVA Sued Over Plan To Retrofit Aging Gallatin Coal Plant (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The Tennessee Valley Authority is facing a lawsuit over its plan to spend a billion dollars retrofitting its Gallatin coal plant. Several conservation groups say TVA hasn’t done enough to publicly justify the project at the 50-year-old facility, and should look instead at shutting it down. A coalition including the Sierra Club charges TVA is legally obliged to either cut the Gallatin plant’s emissions by 2017, or close it altogether. But they say in choosing costly renovations, TVA didn’t do enough to explain its rationale.

Electrofishing part of TVA survey effort (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Connelly)

TVA conducts sport fish survey The waters at Fort Loudoun Lake were charged up early Thursday morning as the Tennessee Valley Authority conducted its spring sport fish survey using a shocking technique to collect the fish. Teams of two biologists combed the water, scooping up as many fish as possible in 30-minute intervals. They employed an electric current that temporarily stuns the fish so they float to the surface. Once a run is completed, TVA crew members measure, weigh and then release the fish. John Justice, a fisheries biologist who’s been with the TVA for 13 years, said he looks for a few things each time out.

FBI still investigating weekend shooting at Watts Bar plant (NS/Boehnke)

Investigators are running down leads in an early Sunday shootout between a security officer at Watt Bar Nuclear Plant and an individual who fired multiple shots from a boat on Chickamauga Lake near Spring City, Tenn., property. A spokesman for the FBI, which is handling the case because of the sensitivity of the nuclear plant, was scant on details and declined to say how promising those leads are. “The reason we’re involved is because of the critical infrastructure, and we want to make sure it’s not something that’s related to the plant,” said spokesman Marshall Stone.

Hamilton Commission eyes anti-union stance on Volkswagen plant (TFP/Brogdon)

The Hamilton County Commission may throw its weight behind opposing unionization at Volkswagen Chattanooga, after Commissioner Tim Boyd said Thursday that labor organizing at the plant could harm economic development. The United Auto Workers has been courting VW to organize its labor force, and the company has hinted at starting a German-style labor council at its Chattanooga plant in coming months. During an agenda session Thursday, Boyd asked Chairman Larry Henry to draft a letter for commissioners to sign supporting the anti-union stances of Gov. Bill Haslam, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association.

Jim Coppinger names 2 to Erlanger trustees board (Times Free-Press/Brogdon)

After months of political sparring between state and local officials over whether Erlanger’s governing board would be reorganized, County Mayor Jim Coppinger on Thursday tapped two Hamilton County residents to fill long-vacant positions on the hospital’s board of trustees. The move is a sign that the great Erlanger debate truly is tabled — at least for now. Coppinger nominated Tom Edd Wilson, a former Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce president, and Jack Studer, a Princeton-educated high-tech venture capitalist, to the 12-member board.

Electrolux, strengthening, to open Memphis plant with double-oven (CA/Bailey)

Electrolux’s first, Memphis-made cooking appliance — on schedule to roll off the line in June — will be the Frigidaire Gallery Double Oven. But the Swedish company announced an even more impressive multiplier with its quarterly earnings report on Thursday: Its North American profits more than tripled compared to last year’s first quarter. Profits rose to $71 million, a 262 percent increase. “It’s how we understand the different consumer segments,” Jack Truong told The Commercial Appeal in explaining the substantial jump. He’s president and CEO of Electrolux Major Appliances, North America.  

Hamilton Co. Schools reluctant to change starting hours for classes (TFP/Hardy)

Edwina Gower compares it to cigarette smoking. Nearly everyone agrees that it’s bad, yet thousands still light up. She sees a similarity in the county’s practice of ringing the first school bells in the dusky hours before 8 a.m. Not many think it’s ideal for teenagers to be at school so early, yet few are willing to change the current schedule. “There isn’t anybody on the other side,” Gower said. “It’s just like smoking. There are no pro-smoking people out there. There’s no one saying ‘Wow, smoking is really good for your health.'”

Hamilton school board OKs $393 million budget (Times Free-Press/Hardy)

Hamilton County school board members unanimously approved a $393 million budget Thursday, moving the current draft from their hands to county officials for approval. That figure includes separate budgets for food service and federal grants in addition to a $338 million general fund budget, the discretionary portion of school funds. That budget is up from about $331 million this year. The school system’s budget continues to rise, though officials noted that the 2014 proposal asks for no new county revenue, other than automatic increases from growth in sales and property taxes.

Unified Memphis, Shelby board can’t agree on cleaning contract (CA/Roberts)

After more than two hours of debate and a half-dozen votes, plus an impassioned plea from the interim superintendent, the unified Shelby County school board adjourned Thursday with no decision on who will clean schools in the new district. The board needed 12 votes to award a contract. It got 11 after interim Supt. Dorsey Hopson pleaded with board members to give up illusions that there was any other option.

School Board Votes Down Custodial Contract Twice (Memphis Daily News)

Countywide school board members twice voted down outsourcing custodial services in the merged school district to the company GCA Thursday, April 25, leaving undone the second step of the board’s February decision to outsource the services. Interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson “implored” the board to move ahead with the awarding of a contract or risk being ready for the Aug. 5 start of the first school year of the consolidated school district. “I implore you,” he said. “We really are at risk. We’ve got so many things to do. The information is here. Make a decision.”

 

OPINION 

Times Editorial: Bill pretends to help animals: Instead, it protects business (TFP)

Gov. Bill Haslam has weakly signed a lot of bad legislation into law this year, and he appears poised to sign more. He caved early, for example, on the guns-in-parking-lots bill that the NRA crowd adamantly demanded despite objections by employers. On Wednesday, Haslam signed into law the outrageously racist bill from Memphis legislators that overturns a 1998 state ban on creation of new school districts, and lets six Memphis suburban towns create their own school systems — all to evade the Shelby County-Memphis merger of the county’s mainly white school system and Memphis’ mainly black city school system.

Editorial: Legislators shirk duty to state’s judicial branch (News-Sentinel)

It seems incredible that Tennessee lawmakers can’t make a priority out of doing the state’s basic business. What is at issue is the Legislature’s adjournment earlier this month without renewing the Judicial Nominating Commission: It will cease to exist on July 1. The panel interviews applicants for the state’s Appeals Court and Court of Criminal Appeals as well the state Supreme Court. It then recommends three names to the governor, who selects one for appointment. The system has been in operation since 1994 and has withstood legal challenges and a rejection of one high court justice through the retention-vote process.

Editorial: Economic recruiters can’t sit and wait (Daily News Journal)

Critics of domestic job recruitment call efforts to lure existing jobs to our locale “interstate piracy.” We call it smart business. Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, considers it fraudulent for cities and states to claim to be creating jobs when they persuade companies to pull up roots in another state and move within their boundaries. We bet nobody in Franklin is complaining, though, about Nissan shifting its North American headquarters to Cool Springs from California. After all, isn’t it up to the company leaders to decide where they want to operate?

Columnist: Take me to your Pilot (City Paper)

When Bill Haslam was elected governor of Tennessee, he quickly signed an executive order eliminating a requirement for the governor and his top aides to disclose how much money they earn. Haslam had been roundly criticized during his campaign for refusing to say how much he made from Pilot Corporation, the parent company of Pilot Flying J, a national truck stop chain with annual revenues of around $29 billion. Now that the FBI has filed an 120-page affidavit accusing Pilot of defrauding its customers for years, to the tune of millions of dollars, by deliberately under-calculating earned rebates on sales of diesel fuel, a natural questions will be: “What did Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam know and did he participate in the alleged enormous scam?”

Pam Strickland: Affidavit highlights arrogance, stupidity (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

As the contents of the affidavit used to obtain search warrants for the April 15 raid on Pilot Flying J have sunk in, many have been in shock at the combination of arrogance and stupidity displayed by the national sales staff of the Haslam family-owned corporation. Made public April 18, the affidavit indicates that a number of Pilot Flying J employees were involved in a complicated scheme to defraud trucking company customers of thousands of dollars by enrolling them in a rebate program and then purposely miscalculating their rebates. The scheme allegedly targeted smaller trucking companies, including those that were minority owned.>

Editorial: American public no help in budget battle (Commercial Appeal)

Finally, there are three proposed federal budgets on the table for Congress to choose among, modify, combine features from or simply reject. Right now, the betting in Washington is that the lawmakers will go for the last option and the government will limp through fiscal 2014 with a patchwork of temporary spending bills. To simplify, the House Republican budget counts on steep and politically improbable spending cuts; the Senate Democratic budget includes modest tax increases, anathema to the GOP; and President Barack Obama’s budget mixes modest tax increases and spending cuts, managing to offend both Republicans and his own party.  

Columnist: Health Chaos Ahead (New York Times)

It was always going to be difficult to implement Obamacare, but even fervent supporters of the law admit that things are going worse than expected. Implementation got off to a bad start because the Obama administration didn’t want to release unpopular rules before the election. Regulators have been working hard but are clearly overwhelmed, trying to write rules that influence the entire health care sector — an economic unit roughly the size of France. Republicans in Congress have made things much more difficult by refusing to provide enough money for implementation. By now, everybody involved seems to be in a state of anxiety.

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