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May 8 TN News Digest

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

 

Workers’ Comp Reform Receives Haslam Signature (TN Report)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today held a ceremonial bill signing at Clarksville Foundry, Inc. for his workers’ compensation reform legislation, HB 194/SB 200, approved by the General Assembly. Workers’ compensation premium rates for employers in Tennessee are higher than the national average and higher than all of Tennessee’s bordering states, and the state is one of only two that adjudicated workers’ compensation claims in the trial courts, often delaying benefits to employees and producing inconsistent results.

Governor signs workers’ comp legislation (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a measure to change the way the state considers injured workers’ claims. The Republican governor held a ceremonial signing at a foundry in Clarksville on Tuesday. A major feature of the measure is that it removes workers’ compensation cases from the state’s trial courts and instead creates special panels appointed by the governor to hear claims and appeals. The legislation passed the Senate 28-2, and the House approved it 68-24. 

Haslam signs landmark Workers Comp Reform Act in Clarksville (Leaf Chronicle)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he wants the Volunteer State to be a place “where people make things,” so he chose a Clarksville business that has been making iron castings for over 165 years as the setting to sign landmark workers compensation reform legislation. Haslam and several key Tennessee legislators came to Clarksville Foundry on Red River Street Tuesday to sign the Workers Comp Reform Act of 2013. Owned by current Clarksville Area Chamber of Commerce Chairman Charlie Foust, Clarksville Foundry is one of the oldest foundries in America, having withstood the Civil War, Great Depression, technological changes and environmental mandates to continue operating today as one of the most successful companies of its kind in the nation.

What’s the governor reading? Haslam talks with bookstore crowd (Tenn/Sisk)

Gov. Bill Haslam says he began his time in office two years ago with a goal: finish 100 books before he completes his first term. On top of the newspapers, magazines and reports he has to read as governor, Haslam’s challenge to himself means he must maintain an ambitious pace of finishing two books a month. But the Republican governor says making the time to read for pleasure has been worthwhile. “Reading is the one thing I can look forward to at the end of the day, no matter how bad the day has been,” he said.

Haslam will encourage congressmen to support internet sales tax bill (CA/Locker)

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he will encourage Tennessee’s congressmen to vote for the internet sales tax bill, which faces a much tougher vote in the House of Representatives than it did in passing the Senate on Monday. The bill allows states to require internet retailers with over $1 million in annual sales to collect and remit sales taxes on sales made to residents of the state. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decades ago that states cannot force out-of-state retailers to collect sales tax on mail-order or telephone sales — and by extension, the internet — if they have no physical presence like a store or warehouse in the state.  

Winners and losers in online sales-tax fight (USA Today)

Major retail chains and local stores will be the big winners if the House follows the Senate in voting to require online retailers to collect state sales taxes on purchases. Winners Big box retailers say they are tired of being showrooms for shoppers who then use their smartphones to search for lower prices and buy online. They say they are at a 5 to 10 percent price disadvantage by having to charge sales taxes that online rivals don’t have to collect. And local retailers are sick of having to compete with out-of-state merchants who sell online but only have to charge sales tax to consumers in states where the merchant has a physical presence.

Local retailers see gains from Internet sales tax (CA/Dowd, Locker, Risher)

Although it may create compliance nightmares for big online retailers, some Memphis small business owners believe they could sleep much easier if the Marketplace Fairness Act becomes law. A measure passed by the U.S. Senate on Monday and now headed for a House committee would levy a tax on online purchases. While the House committee is expected to be skeptical of the tax, some Memphis business operators and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam favor its passage. Any regulation that affects growth of e-commerce has implications for shipping companies including FedEx and rival UPS.

Mayor Bragg favors Internet sales taxes (Daily News Journal)

Mayor Tommy Bragg backs the U.S. Senate bill to allow states to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases to make it fair for businesses that do collect them. “Tennessee’s prime source of revenue has for years been the sales tax, so I sympathize with our local business people and their families who feel they have been threatened by not being able to fairly compete,” the Murfreesboro mayor said. The Senate approved the bill Monday in a 69-27 vote. To become law, the majority of the U.S. House of Representatives would have to pass the legislation.

Tennessee rated best state for retirees (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Tennessee is the best state to retire in, according to a new study by the finance consulting firm Bankrate.com. The cost of living in the Volunteer State is the second lowest among the 50 states, behind only Oklahoma, and Tennessee’s favorable weather, economic and medical climate make it the best state for those who want to kick back and enjoy their retirement, Bankrate said. The rating service gave top ratings to Tennessee despite the fact that it rated Tennessee’s crime rate “among the worst” in the country.

Tennessee Named Top Choice for Retirement (Memphis Daily News)

Retirees considering where to spend their golden years might want to consider Tennessee. That’s according to Bankrate.com, the personal finance website, which this week ranked Tennessee at the top of its list of the 10 best states for retirement. The site’s analysts crunched numbers in several categories, including cost of living, taxes, health care, crime and climate. They combined all those results into a composite picture, and Tennessee ended up faring the best.

To Veto Or Not To Veto Animal Cruelty Bill (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Governor Will Wait For Tennessee Attorney General’s Opinion Governor Bill Haslam says he’ll decide by Monday whether or not to veto the so-called “ag-gag” bill. Thousands of people have called and emailed Haslam’s office, and some celebrities are urging him to stop it from becoming law. The proposal would require people who document animal abuse to hand their recordings over to police within 48 hours. Opponents say it would actually make it harder to prove patterns of animal cruelty. The argument has put a spotlight on Haslam’s next move.

‘Ag-Gag’ on Guv’s Desk; AG Yet to Opine (TN Report)

Rep. Mike Stewart, who voted against the so-called “ag-gag” bill, is still waiting for an Attorney General’s opinion on the constitutionality of the legislation, which arrived on Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk only just at the end of last week. Haslam has until May 15 to veto it, sign it or let it become law automatically without his endorsement. The bill, sponsored in the state House by Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and in the Senate by Somerville Republican Dolores Gresham, requires anyone who films or photographs animal abuse to hand the material over to law enforcement within 48 hours.

33,000 across U.S. sign petition opposing Tennessee ‘ag gag’ bill (TFP)

More than 33,000 people nationwide have signed an American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee petition urging Gov. Bill Haslam to veto a so-called “ag gag” bill that critics charge is designed to curb animal abuse investigations, the group says. Only 350 were from Tennessee, but the ACLU says the list continues to grow. Haslam is weighing whether to sign, veto or allow the bill, passed last month by state legislators, to become law without his signature. Various celebrities and a clergy group have urged him to veto it, as well.

Crissy Haslam joins Hamblen Co. kids in reading program (WBIR-TV Knoxville)

Tennessee’s First Lady went back to school and got in some reading in Morristown on Tuesday. Crissy Haslam is promoting the “Read20” program, which tries to get kids to read for at least 20 minutes a day during the summer. Union Heights is one of the leading schools in the program, with more than 100 kids achieving the 20 minute plateau. They got a medal for their accomplishment. Haslam says reading is key to succeeding in and out of the classroom and, like everything else, it’s all about practice.

SmartWay app sees more than 100K downloads (Associated Press)

More than 100,000 users have downloaded the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s SmartWay app since its launch in December. The app provides up-to-the-minute customized traffic information for Tennessee drivers. TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said in a news release that the real time traffic information it provides helps motorists avoid delays and also helps reduce congestion on the state’s roadways. The app allows users to customize the view to show things like current traffic speeds, accidents, construction delays and road conditions.

DCS says it followed its rules in supervision before homicide case (TN/Wadhwani)

The Department of Children’s Services is internally reviewing its actions in supervising a 17-year-old youth who police said gunned down a fellow high school student on his way to catch the bus to school, agency chief Jim Henry said this week. Police believe Eric Goodner shot and killed Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School senior Johnathan Johnson early on the morning of April 11 in North Nashville. At the time, Goodner was supposed to be supervised by DCS, but a caseworker testified at a juvenile court detention hearing that the agency had lost track of him.

Children’s Services to Appeal Ruling on Records, Wants More Money (AP)

The state Department of Children’s Services will appeal a Nashville judge’s ruling ordering the agency to release records at 50 cents per page. A group of media organizations led by The Tennessean and including The Associated Press is suing the agency for the records of children DCS was supposed to be helping who later died or nearly died between 2009 and mid-2012. DCS originally said it would cost the media more than $55,000 for about 200 records. That estimate included more than 7,000 miles of driving to hand-deliver documents from local offices and 600 hours of redacting by outside paralegals at a cost of $30 an hour.

State Sen. Douglas Henry will not seek re-election (Tennessean/Garrison)

State Sen. Douglas Henry, a giant of the state legislature whose tenure goes back six decades, will not seek re-election for his seat in 2014, marking the end of an era for the Tennessee General Assembly. The 86-year-old Henry, D-Nashville, initially confirmed he wouldn’t seek another term for his District 21 seat when The Tennessean contacted him by phone late Tuesday. He later said he hadn’t made up his mind and alluded to an announcement coming in Wednesday’s Green Hills News.  

Lawmakers’ Offices Lit Up 24 Hours a Day at $500,000 (Associated Press)

Tennessee taxpayers are spending more than $500,000 a year to keep the lights on 24 hours a day at Legislative Plaza and the War Memorial Building, where lawmakers have their offices. The Tennessee Department of General Services is in charge of maintaining Legislative Plaza. Department spokeswoman Kelly Smith told WSMV-TV the lights are needed so that people can find their way out of the building in an emergency. Legislative Plaza, which was built in the 1970s, does not even have light switches in the offices.

Revamped state pension is ‘credit positive’ move, says Moody’s (CP/Zelinski)

Tennessee’s decision this year to revamp its pension plan heads in the right direction to stronger credit, according to one of the nation’s largest bond rating agencies. Moody’s Investor Service said switching from a defined benefit plan to a hybrid system that weaves in aspects of a defined contribution plan is a positive credit move for the Volunteer State. “The legislation is credit positive because it lowers the state’s contribution to the new plan and provides the state with greater control of its future pension expenses,” said Julius Vizner, an analyst who contributed to Moody’s Credit Outlook report on credit implications of current events released May 6.

City Council approves police budget but question ‘full service’ mission (CA/Sells)

The cost of being a full-service police department has gone up in Memphis — from ammunition to promotions, helicopter parts to lawsuits — and at least one City Councilman said Tuesday the city may not be able to afford dispatching cops to false alarms, fender benders and loose dogs in years to come.. The Memphis Police Department’s $241.5 million budget request for fiscal year 2014 was approved by the Memphis City Council budget committee Tuesday — nearly $4 million more than last year’s allocation but $1.3 million less than what MPD expects to spend by end of the fiscal year that ends June 30.  

Council Moves on School Funding Standoff (Memphis Daily News)

Memphis City Council members want to try to resolve the Memphis City Schools $57 million court judgment against the city as well as the city’s legal counterclaim that the school system owes it more than twice that by the end of this month. Council members approved a resolution Tuesday, May 7, backed by the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. to have attorneys for the council, the city and the school board begin talks. Council member Shea Flinn sponsored the resolution as “an attempt to get all of those issues resolved wholesale.”

Bartlett aldermen consider budget with potential tax rate increase (CA/Bailey)

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald’s administration recommended an 18-cent increase in the suburb’s property tax rate Tuesday night in response to the recent reappraisal. The 18-cent hike from the current $1.49 would bring the property tax rate to $1.67 per $100 of assessed value. In addition to the property tax adjustment, the administration is asking for an increase from $22 to $24 on the monthly sold waste collection fee and changes to the water and sewer fee calculations. The administration also is seeking a 2 percent bonus for all employees in the budget presented to aldermen in a two-hour work session Tuesday night.

Flooding in 12South area persists; fix won’t be easy (Tennessean/Cass)

Josh and Jessica Jarrett are expecting to put about $10,000 of their own money into repairing their flood-damaged house. They’ve ripped out the drywall and the hardwood floors on the first story of their 2,100-square-foot home, where they plan to install tile and replace several doors. Now they’d like to see Metro government invest some of its money in keeping the water at bay. The Jarretts and their neighbors on Clayton Avenue, across from Sevier Park, have to contend with rising water more than most people.  

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam apologizes to fans (Associated Press/Withers)

Embarrassed by a federal investigation of fraud inside his truck-stop company, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam apologized to Cleveland fans and promised to bring the city a winning team. Haslam, who bought the Browns last year from Randy Lerner, was the featured speaker Monday night at the Northeastern Ohio Chapter of the National Football Foundation’s 25th annual scholar-athlete banquet. It was one of Haslam’s first public appearances in Ohio since the FBI raided the headquarters of Pilot Flying J, his family’s business, last month as part of an investigation into an alleged fraud scheme.

Senators’ golf game with president tees off tea party (Times Free-Press/Carroll)

When Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West unfurled his newspaper Tuesday morning, he scowled at what he saw: U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., grinning next to President Barack Obama on the golf course at Andrews Air Force Base. Across the state line, Atlanta Tea Party Patriots co-founder Debbie Dooley rolled her eyes when she heard all about U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s hole-in-one and presidential chumminess. “I won’t be surprised if he gets booed at the Georgia Republican Party state convention,” Dooley said.

DesJarlais: Obama hid Benghazi raid facts (Daily News Journal)

The day before a House hearing on the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais blamed President Barack Obama for concealing the facts surrounding the deaths of four Americans. “I believe al-Qaida took responsibility for it, and the motive for it was 9/11,” DesJarlais said in an interview with The DNJ Tuesday. “We had a president that was seven weeks from election who wanted America to think that bin Laden was dead, we had suppressed the threat of al-Qaida. And he didn’t want the people knowing the truth in this case and was hoping he could push it back until after the election or people would just get tired of the story and it would go away.”

Government Sequestration Means Cancelled Reservations (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The owner of Gaylord hotels says its feeling the effects of deep federal spending cuts, especially in the Washington DC area. Nashville’s Ryman Hospitality Group owns Gaylord National, a 2000 room resort hotel on the Potomac River in Maryland. In the past, the hotel hosted big meetings for government agencies like NASA and the National Institutes of Health. But with sequestration in effect, many have scrapped their plans for this year. “As of the end of April of this year, we only had 22,000 total government room nights left on the books for all of Gaylord hotels for the rest of ’13,” Ryman CEO Colin Reed said on an earnings call today.

Water treatment plant to prevent mercury seepage into creek at Y-12 (AP)

A $120 million water treatment plant that will keep toxic mercury out of a creek at the Y-12 National Security Complex is currently under design. Mercury was used at the complex during the Cold War in the production of thermonuclear weapons. That project ended in 1963 at Y-12, but mercury has continued to seep into the spring that forms the head of East Fork Poplar Creek. At present, the amount of mercury going into the creek is about eight times more than allowed by state water quality standards.

TVA tests verify equipment installed at Watts Bar Unit 2 (TFP/Flessner)

Equipment tests to verify the reliability of safety systems installed at TVA’s newest nuclear plant have not detected any problems so far, TVA officials told regulators Tuesday. In a status meeting with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Atlanta, TVA top nuclear officials said the utility has improved procedures and rechecked equipment at the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor being built near Spring City, Tenn. Last year, the NRC cited TVA with three apparent violations for installing thousands of parts at Watts Bar that were not documented or tested for nuclear-grade quality and for not following proper quality control to detect the documentation failure.

VW mulls SUV opportunity: Chatt. could begin producing vehicles (TFP/Pare)

Sport utility vehicle and truck sales are rising in the U.S. as gas prices retreat, creating an opening for possibly two new Volkswagen SUVs which could be made in Chattanooga. A five-seat SUV concept dubbed the CrossBlue Coupe, which is a cousin to the seven-seat CrossBlue unveiled in Detroit in January, was shown off by VW at a recent key auto show in China. According to Autoweek, production is slated for Chattanooga in 2015 if the automaker decides to move ahead with the CrossBlue.

Oreck files for bankruptcy, eyes sale (Nashville Post/Greenberg)

Vacuum cleaner company Oreck filed for protection from its creditors late on Monday, citing more than $30 million in liabilities, and is headed to the sale block. Officials at the company, which has been headquartered in Nashville since 2008, said in Chapter 11 court filings that they are in a “precarious financial position” and that sales are “quickly deteriorating.” “The Debtors intend to finance a potential sale of the Debtors as a going concern and thereby avert liquidation,” the filings read. In addition to Oreck Corp., eight other entities have filed for Chapter 11.

Oreck files for bankruptcy protection as it seeks sale (Nashville Business Journal)

Oreck Corporation, the Nashville-based vacuum maker, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and plans to sell the privately held company, the company announced today. Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows a business to restructure its debts and reorganize finances so that it can stay open. “Oreck will continue to operate in the ordinary course of business while the sale process takes place, with authorized and exclusive dealers and other trade customers continuing to receive product for sale to ultimate consumers,” reads a company statement.

Oreck Corp. files for bankruptcy, going up for sale (Tennessean/Moskop)

Oreck Corp., the Nashville-based manufacturer of upright vacuums and cleaning products, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and could reach an agreement to sell its assets in a matter of days, according to court filings. A Chapter 11 filing will allow Oreck to consolidate its assets and restructure its finances as part of an effort to sell the business, the company said in a statement released Tuesday. The statement provided few details and the company didn’t respond to interview requests, but Oreck’s bankruptcy filings paint a picture of a struggling company fighting to survive amid management departures and falling sales.

Nashville’s Oreck Declares Bankruptcy (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

A 50-year-old vacuum cleaner manufacturer named after its founder David Oreck and known for its infomercials has declared bankruptcy. A statement from Oreck Corporation – headquartered in Nashville – says the firm is consolidating its assets and restructuring its financing under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. The company is looking for a willing buyer. A spokesperson says day-to-day operations will continue “without interruption.” Oreck moved its manufacturing operations from New Orleans to Cookeville in 2006 shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.  

ABC’s ‘Nashville’ to pay dividends for decades, film professor says (NBJ)

Billy Pittard, department chair for electronic media communication at Middle Tennessee State University, admits he is biased when assessing the quality of the “Nashville” show. But, his local affiliation aside, he still thinks the ABC show is “excellent” and will pay dividends to the Nashville economy for decades, if the show sticks around. The show has a positive influence on how people perceive the city, influencing decisions to move here or visit, he said. “It gives Nashville a new cache, refreshes it and shows a different side of Nashville, making Nashville a celebrity itself again with a new broader audience,” he said.

BlueCross, Cigna submit plans for TN’s federally run health exchange (NBJ)

At least two commercial carriers have applied to sell health insurance on Tennessee’s new federally run insurance exchange, including the state’s largest carrier, BlueCross BlueShield. The deadline to submit plans to be offered on federally run exchanges was Friday. In addition to BlueCross BlueShield, Cigna has submitted plans for the Tennessee federally run exchange. Tennessee is one of five exchanges Cigna has chosen to participate in, four of which are federally run.  

Security tightens at Beech High School as school threat probed (Tenn/Easton)

School officials late on Tuesday night said there would be increased security at Beech High School today following a potential threat allegedly written on a bathroom wall. According to the Sumner County Schools statement, the Sumner County Sheriff’s Office determined the threat was not credible after an investigation, multiple student interviews and a search of the campus. “Out of an abundance of caution there will be an increased police presence at Beech tomorrow,” the statement read.

Changes in school start times set off alarms in Memphis (C. Appeal/Roberts)

Little drives a household schedule more than what time the kids have to be school. In homes across Shelby County, routines will go out the window when tardy bells begin ringing earlier or later than usual this fall. “The general consensus is ughhhh,” said Suzanne Johnston, whose East Memphis Moms blog has been buzzing with comments since the unified district announced the new times late Friday. For the first time in the city, schools will start at 7, 8 and 9 a.m., allowing administrators to schedule one bus for three routes and save $2 million in transportation costs.

Suburbs Start Again on Municipal Schools (Memphis Daily News)

Aldermen in five of the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County began the move Monday, May 6, to a July 16 referendum date for a second round of referendums on forming municipal school districts possibly as early as the 2014-2015 school year. The referendum ordinances were passed on the first of three readings by each board of aldermen in Millington, Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett and Arlington. Lakeland commissioners approved first reading of their referendum ordinance in April with the same July special election date.

 

OPINION 

Editorial: Confidence must be restored in Labor and Workforce Development (NS)

Gov. Bill Haslam has another troubled agency on his hands — the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The department’s administration of the $1.2 billion unemployment insurance program has overpaid recipients more than $73 million over a six-year period stretching back to the Bredesen administration, an audit conducted by the state Comptroller’s Office found. At least three wrongful termination lawsuits, two of them involving allegations of racism, have been filed against the department, the Tennessean has reported.

Editorial: Disclosure lite (Commercial Appeal)

It’s not clear how the loophole in Tennessee law that allows Gov. Bill Haslam to conceal vast amounts of personal financial information from public view was created. Ironically, it popped up in 2006 ethics reform legislation that tightened financial reporting requirements in the wake of the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz bribery investigation. For whatever reason, the provision allowed legislators, the governor and members of his cabinet a chance to keep assets off disclosure forms when those assets are part of a blind trust, as Haslam did after taking office in 2011.

Greg Johnson: Online sales tax collection an ‘issue of fairness’ (News-Sentinel)

Thanks to my cost-conscious, coupon-clipping wife, the Johnsons saved 10 percent when we braved Sevier County outlet mall crowds on one of my infrequent sartorial shopping excursions last weekend. As the clerk bagged our bargains, I asked if the coupon my fiscally conservative (and still socially liberal) much-better half presented counted on sales items. “Yep,” he said. “Cool,” I replied, “we saved the sales tax.” Ten percent is 10 percent, after all. And Sevier County’s 9.75 percent sales tax is about as close to 10 percent as you can get. And many Tennesseans are equally anxious to save almost 10 percent.

 

Charlie Daniel Political Cartoon: “Dear Senator Corker” (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

 

Editorial: State can do more to rein in cell phone use by drivers (Jackson Sun)

The most dangerous item you own might just be your cell phone, especially if you drive a vehicle while talking on it or texting. A recent report from the National Safety Council estimates that cell phone use in vehicle deaths is significantly underreported. Tennessee would do well to increase efforts to target unsafe drivers, strengthen state law regarding cell phone use and do more to promote public awareness of the dangers of cell phone use while driving. Most of this is common sense, but, as with seatbelt use, people continue to ignore the dangers of not using their heads when it comes to driving safety.

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