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May 17 TN News Digest

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

Haslam to attend veterans home groundbreaking (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam will help break ground Friday on the future Montgomery County State Veterans Home site in Clarksville. The event is scheduled for 1:45 p.m., and Haslam is expected to be joined by Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan are also expected to participate.  

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signs bills cutting taxes (Times Free-Press/Sher)

Gov. Bill Haslam signed two tax cuts into law this week, including a reduction in the state sales tax on groceries from 5.25 percent to 5 percent as well as a cut to the state’s Hall Income Tax for seniors ages 65 and older. The bills are among more than 50 measures the governor signed as he continues to plow through measures passed by state lawmakers that ended April 19. Among measures signed is a bill that authorizes local schools to allow teachers with law enforcement backgrounds and specialized training go armed in public schools.

Governor signs ignition interlock bill (Associated Press)

Tennessee’s ignition interlock law will apply to more drunken drivers under legislation signed by Gov. Bill Haslam. Currently, ignition-locking devices, which force drivers to pass breath tests to start vehicles and keep them running, are required for DUI offenders whose blood alcohol level topped 0.15 percent. This bill drops the level to the intoxication threshold of 0.08 percent and would require first-time offenders to get the devices. In turn, those convicted of DUI won’t get a restricted driver’s license and will be allowed to drive anywhere.

Gov. Haslam signs bill allowing armed personnel in schools (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a bill that allows school districts to let people with police training be armed in schools. The measure passed in the House 82-15 and was approved 27-6 in the Senate. The measure allows schools to hire retired law enforcement officers after they meet certain requirements, such as completing a 40-hour school security course. The legislation makes information about which teachers are armed or which schools allow the guns confidential to anyone but law enforcement.

Tennessee nets $5.53 million in drug case (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Generic drug maker Ranbaxy will pay Tennessee $5.53 million under a $500 million national agreement that resolves claims the company sold inferior drugs and made false statements regarding how the drugs were manufactured, State Attorney General Bob Cooper announced Thursday. Tennessee joined with other states and the federal government in what the Justice Department called the largest settlement in history about questionable drug operations involving a generic manufacturer.

THDA Makes Home Loan Discount To Vets Permanent (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

Tennessee veterans and their families can now permanently qualify for discounts on home loans worth an average of $100 a month. A state agency that promotes home buying has extended what was a pilot program to give military homeowners a break. Applicants would have to fall under certain income caps to get the half-percent reduction in their interest rate. Right now veterans could get loans as low as 3.1 percent. The Tennessee Housing Development Agency usually only works with first-time buyers, but it’s waiving that requirement as well under a new program called “Homeownership for the Brave.”

DCS to release remaining files ‘quickly as possible’ (Tennessean/Wadhwani)

The Department of Children’s Services said Thursday that it will release remaining files of child deaths or near deaths sought by The Tennessean and other media groups “as quickly as possible” and without waiting for a court order. “Now that the court has determined which documents are open to the public, we stand ready to produce the remaining 100 plus records to the court as quickly as possible without waiting on any additional orders,” DCS Commissioner Jim Henry said in a prepared statement.

DCS files: Older siblings’ neglect may signal risk (Tennessean/Hall)

Newborns are vulnerable in households in which state has taken other children Zackery Tyler Venable’s short life is contained in a smartphone his parents use for only one purpose. It can’t make calls or texts. It can’t connect to the Internet. But it can scroll through photo after photo of the 5-month-old baby they lost. There’s one of newborn Zackery in the hospital, covered in tubes and wires. Month-old Zackery finally home from the hospital, cradled in his daddy’s arms. Sleeping Zackery in his mother’s lap, nodding off to the gentle rocking of a park swing.

Donelson Pike could shift over to make way for growing airport (Tennessean/Gang)

As the Nashville region grows — and with the new Music City Center convention center opening Sunday — the number of people flying in and out of the city is going up. That means more cars, vans, taxis and buses headed to Nashville International Airport. All that traffic is good news for the airport’s bottom line. But for airport officials, there’s a problem: Donelson Pike is in the way. Airport officials have long pushed for a realignment of the road, providing more space for parking and giving passengers better access to terminals.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate returns to 8 percent (Nashville Business Journal)

The unemployment rate in Tennessee increased to 8 percent in April, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced today, up from a revised March rate of 7.8 percent. The national unemployment rate for April was 7.5 percent, down from 7.6 percent in March. April marks the fourth month in a row that monthly unemployment has increased in Tennessee, though April’s unemployment rate is the lowest for April since 2008  

State unemployment rate rises slightly (Nashville Post)

Tennessee’s unemployment rate for April was 8 percent, up from the March revised rate of 7.8 percent, Burns Phillips, acting commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, announced today. The national unemployment rate for April was 7.5 percent, decreasing from the 7.4 percent mark of the previous month.

 The state’s April unemployment rate is the lowest April rate since 2008. 

McGhee Tyson one of seven Tennessee airports to get grant funds (AP)

The Tennessee Department of Transportation announced this week that state aeronautics grants totaling more than $316,000 have been approved for seven Tennessee airports. Those receiving the grants include: Outlaw Field in Clarksville, McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Lafayette Municipal Airport, Humphreys County Airport, Lebanon Municipal Airport, Smyrna Airport and Tullahoma Regional Airport. The grants are made available through the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division. They will be used for infrastructure and other improvements.

SUV trailing governor’s vehicle damaged by gate (Associated Press)

One of the sport utility vehicles assigned to the governor’s office is getting more than $10,000 in repairs after getting caught on a security gate at the state Capitol. Surveillance video obtained by The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/10vdZ1u ) shows the vehicle carrying Gov. Bill Haslam passing safely through the gate, but a GMC Denali trailing the governor’s car didn’t make it. Security pillars rose up from the pavement, lifting the SUV slightly off the ground and making it swerve.

Rutherford County women accused of TennCare fraud (Murfreesboro Post)

Two Rutherford County women have been charged with TennCare fraud for allegedly selling prescription drugs paid for by the state, according to officials with the Tennessee Office of Inspector General. Eva Boutwell, 24, of La Vergne, and Brittany King, 22, of Murfreesboro, were recently arrested following a joint investigation with the Smyrna Police Department Narcotics Division. In a statement released earlier this week, Inspector General Deborah Y. Faulkner said the agency is committed to working with local law enforcement officials to halt abuse of the TennCare system, as with this case.

Clarksville symposium details workers comp reforms (Leaf Chronicle)

The state’s Workers Comp Reform Act of 2013 – recently signed into law in Clarksville by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam – is expected by proponents to create a better system for addressing compensation for on-the-job injuries and illness. The goal is a claims process that is “fair and efficient, with better outcomes for all parties involved,” said one speaker detailing the changes at a Thursday symposium on the topic. The free session at Fort Campbell Federal Credit Union on Lowes Drive featured an audience of local employers, safety managers and case managers who sought to learn more about the state-level changes in workers comp that officially take effect for workplace injuries or diseases that occur on or after July 1, 2014.

Sen. Stacey Campfield sees liberal bias on Tennessee campuses (TFP/Sher)

A conservative Republican lawmaker says he sees a liberal slant among Tennessee public university student and faculty councils choosing speakers and events paid for from student activity fees. During this year’s legislative session, Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, criticized “Sex Week” at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus. The university yanked state funding but the event went on, funded by student activity fees. At a Senate study committee hearing Thursday, Campfield amped up his attacks to cover public higher education events in general across the state.  

UT President Joe DiPietro, Stacey Campfield spar over ‘Sex Week’ (N-S/Humphrey)

Committee reviews April event University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro defended the Knoxville campus’s spring “Sex Week” program under critical questioning Thursday from state Sen. Stacey Campfield in a legislative hearing. “In my professional opinion, it is very, very important on a university campus to have some sex education going on,” DiPietro told the Knoxville Republican at one point, adding that if a single unwanted pregnancy or sexual assault was prevented as a result, that would justify the program.

Knox County Commission expects easy budget talks this year (N-S/Donila)

Each year something in Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett’s proposed budget — or something not in it — captures the public’s attention. Last year it was his refusal to cover a large increase for the school system. Another time it was the dollars he cut from the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. And a few years ago it was his battle with the Board of Education about whether to rebuild, rather than renovate, Carter Elementary School. But this year could be pretty quiet.

Anderson County committee gives OK to no tax-increase budget (NS/Fowler)

After hours of line-item reviews, a key Anderson County Commission committee Thursday night recommended a no-tax-increase budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. But an 800-pound gorilla remains in the room: a Sheriff’s Department budget that Sheriff Paul White contends doesn’t include enough money to adequately staff a 212-bed addition to the lockup that is to open in November. Also absent are funds for new department vehicles and other capital replacement needs. “I’m concerned we’re going to dig ourselves into too deep of a hole, and then we won’t be able to get out of it,” Chief Deputy Mark Lucas told budget committee members.

Blount County Commission holds off on prayer resolution (News-Sentinel/Wilson)

Panel was to react to challenge The Blount County Commission, on advice of counsel, delayed consideration of a proposed resolution that would have affirmed the body’s right to open its meetings with a prayer. Craig L. Garrett, Blount County attorney, said in a letter to commissioners that he is researching the issue and “will update the commission regarding the legal ramifications of this issue in the near future.” The resolution was on the commission’s agenda for Thursday night’s meeting but was pulled at the last minute on Garrett’s advice.

Haslam says 250 truckers may be owed money by Pilot Flying J (Tenn/Roche)

Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam told trucking executives today that he now estimates that 250 trucking firms may be owed money in the wake of an FBI investigation into allegations of a rebate skimming scam. Speaking to an annual conference of truckers in Indianapolis, Haslam said he personally was not aware of the scam prior to the April 15 raid on his company headquarters in Knoxville by FBI and IRS agents. “I take responsibility for what happens at PFJ as the guy at the top of the shop, but I was absolutely not aware of any of this,” Haslam said.

Haslam tells trucking industry leaders he knew nothing about fuel-rebate fraud (NS)

Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam told trucking industry leaders Thursday in Indianapolis that he knew nothing about nor did he participate in an alleged fuel-rebate fraud. He was responding to a question submitted in advance, and it was the first time he took questions about a federal raid on his company’s Knoxville headquarters. A month ago, FBI and IRS agents executed search warrants to seize files and records from the country’s largest travel center operator.

Alexander: Obama proposal for TVA already proving costly (AP, TFP)

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander says President Barack Obama’s plan to consider selling the Tennessee Valley Authority has already cost hundreds of millions of dollars — even if the nation’s largest public utility is never sold. The Tennessee Republican said TVA bonds lost about $500 million in value after the president’s announcement last month, largely because of uncertainty over whether the utility would be sold. Alexander said customers in the seven states served by the TVA will likely pay more for electricity as a result.

Cooper says federal funding of BRT doubtful; new opposition forms (CP/Hale)

As Mayor Karl Dean celebrates the completion of his signature project this weekend, doubts about his next one are surfacing. Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper does not believe federal funding will be available for The Amp, Dean’s proposed bus rapid transit project that would run along the West End corridor. The project has already been a source of contention, with some residents, business owners and Metro Council members taking issue with the proposed route. Members of an emerging group of opponents say Cooper shared his doubts with them during a recent meeting about the issue.

Sen. Bob Corker says decaying barge mars Riverfront (Nooga)

Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, is weighing in on an increasingly controversial tumbledown barge moored along the city’s Riverfront. The boat, which was floated down from Pittsburgh by developer Allen Casey in 2009, was originally supposed to be renovated into a restaurant. Instead, it’s rotted in place for four years. With the permitting process for the ramshackle watercraft under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Corker, who played a key role in the redevelopment of the Riverfront as mayor, wrote a letter asking Lt. Col. James DeLapp to consider the “significant negative effects” of the barge on the greater community as he reconsiders its licensing.

Fleischmann, DesJarlais vote to repeal Obamacare with Republicans (Nooga)

With Democratic colleagues calling the move nothing more than a sideshow, Republican House members, including Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais, voted for the 37th time to repeal, defund or amend the Affordable Care Act—President Barack Obama’s signature health policy. Tuesday’s vote was the fifth time the House has approved repealing the health law, commonly referred to as Obamacare, in full. The vote passed 229-195, with two Democrats joining. The measure is practically guaranteed to fail in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the White House has promised a veto should it reach Obama’s desk.  

TVA making improvements to Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant (TFP/Flessner)

With nearly two dozen regulators examining equipment and processes at the troubled Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant this week and next, TVA said Thursday it has made “continuous, sustainable improvements” to remove Browns Ferry from the worst performance rating of any U.S. nuclear plant by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We’re not where we want to be, but we are making progress and headed in the right direction,” utility spokesman Mike Bradley said after a briefing by NRC officials.

Music City Center arrives as debate still brews over viability (CP/Greenberg, Hale)

It’s finally opening. What started as primarily surface parking lots and a concept at the Metro Council is now an imposing, monolithic structure that encompasses three city blocks. It’s the result of Nashville’s largest-ever public investment. But for all the size, the Music City Center, which is slated to open this weekend, also exhibits a noticeable amount of finesse. A $2 million budget for art allowed for unique touches throughout the building. The cavernous convention space, which is about as long as an aircraft carrier, contrasts to a top-level ballroom space that is made to resemble the inside of a guitar.

Music City Center’s opening spurs hotels to ‘dress up’ (Tennessean/Allyn)

As Nashville experiences a hotel building boom, several of the city’s existing hotels have completed or are in the midst of finishing expansions and major renovations as the city prepares for the opening of Music City Center. Hotel experts say the only way current hotels will be able to compete with new ones is to offer patrons new amenities, and even some of the perks of boutique hotels, to make their properties stand out. Ample examples demonstrate that existing hotels around the Music City Center are gearing up.

Merger school board approves budget heavy on cuts (Commercial Appeal/Kelley)

A proposed $1.186 billion general fund budget for the new Memphis and Shelby County unified school district is on its way to the County Commission on the strength of a 17-3 vote of approval by the unified school board Thursday. Interim Supt. Dorsey Hopson urged as many members of the board as possible to show up before the commission Wednesday morning to lobby for approval. The spending plan carries a deficit of $30.2 million, reduced again Thursday by approximately $5 million as a result a $4.8 million increase in estimated state funding and a recent decision to eliminate a proposed District Initiative Department. 

School Board Sends Merger Budget to County Commission (Memphis Daily News)

Countywide school board members approved Thursday, May 16, a $1.18 billion budget for the consolidated school system in its first fiscal year, which begins July 1. The board approved the budget on a 17-3 vote, with no amendments to the budget plan proposed by interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson and his cabinet. At the outset, Hopson announced $4.8 million more in state funding than anticipated that would go toward a $35 million gap in funding for the budget.

Revised teacher ratios — middle schools gain, elementarys drop (CA/Roberts)

Much of what had been unknown in the school merger is laid out, black and white, in the staffing report the unified district released Thursday. For each of the 250 schools, the public can see how many teachers will be assigned in one column, and in another, the variation from today. The size of the negative numbers jumps off at the elementary school level, where combined the Memphis and suburban schools are losing 230 teachers.

Hamilton County charter schools reach milestone (Times Free-Press/Hardy)

There’s a disclaimer that students get before signing up for Ivy Academy: You’re going to get hot. You’re going to get cold. Your socks will get wet. And you’re going to get tired. That’s because students and staff at Ivy spend much of their days outdoors, trekking through the woods, studying trees, creeks and animal life up close. Here, the school’s environmental focus is more than just a theme. Forest clearings serve as classrooms, stumps and stones replace desks and trails get as much traffic as hallways.  

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith gets high marks (TFP/Hardy)

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith could be in line for a hefty raise after board members delivered mostly glowing evaluations and approved a new round of contract talks. The board voted unanimously Thursday evening to renegotiate Smith’s contract and come up with a new four-year agreement. Smith, 60, is in the second year of a four-year contract that has him pulling in about $160,000 annually. But that figure is some $58,000 less than what former Superintendent Jim Scales was making before the board ousted him about two years ago.

Experts offer input on Knox County school security (News-Sentinel/McCoy)

A committee has established a draft set of standards for security systems in Knox County Schools. “We’ve brought together a group of security and technical experts from around the region to help us think through those standards and have now actually developed a draft set of standards that we’ll be talking individually with the school board members about,” schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre said. He called the standards the “right ones for our schools to help us to do what we can to keep our kids safe.”  

 

OPINION 

Editorial: Ongoing disclosure about lobbyists is public necessity (News-Sentinel)

There are about four times as many lobbyists in Nashville as state legislators, and the amount spent on influencing the votes of lawmakers is almost twice the amount spent on the General Assembly’s operating budget — $67 million to $38 million, respectively. It is too easy sometimes to decry the money spent on lobbying efforts or to complain about the 525 lobbyists seemingly taking over the capital during the legislative session. However, almost everyone, including watchdog groups, accept the fact that money is part of doing business in government.

Greg Johnson: Tennessee senators keep pushing president (News-Sentinel)

Forty years ago today, televised hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee started, hearings in which the gentleman from Tennessee, U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., famously asked, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Now, Tennessee’s current senators have the opportunity to dig deeper, asking tough questions about two of the several scandals besetting the Nixon, er, Obama administration. Forgive the slip, but the last time the Internal Revenue Service was so blatantly employed as an instrument of political intimidation, Richard Nixon was president.

Editorial: New ignition interlock law will help make roads safer (Jackson Sun)

As states across the nation begin to consider lowering the allowable blood alcohol content level for drivers from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, Tennessee is taking steps to rein in drunken drivers by expanding the use of ignition interlocks. Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature on Monday ensures that anyone convicted of exceeding the 0.08 threshold, and who has his or her license suspended, will be required to equip their vehicle with a breath-test ignition interlock device before they will be allowed to drive under a restricted license. The new law is a step in the right direction that will help make Tennessee roads safer and better protect innocent drivers and passengers Earlier this week, the National Transportation Safety Board urged states to lower the threshold for drunken driving to 0.05, a standard adopted by more than 100 countries.

Editorial: New teacher evaluations represent the new reality (Commercial Appeal)

One of the consequences of having a stricter evaluation process to better measure teacher effectiveness will play out this summer. Memphis City Schools plans to fire 97 teachers and is scrutinizing the case against 46 others because of poor performance. Shelby County Schools plans to fire six teachers. The numbers show that the schools here are serious about removing low-performing teachers from classrooms. While no one should take pleasure in someone losing his or her job, the dismissals represent the reality of school reform efforts across the nation that place greater emphasis on getting effective teachers in classrooms to help children succeed academically.

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