This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Agencies in charge of safety, law enforcement, commerce and more will present their budgets to Gov. Bill Haslam and administration officials this week. Budget hearings resume Tuesday, after Haslam and the administration received proposals from the Department of Children’s Services, Tourist Development and other agencies last week. Every agency is supposed to present a trimmer budget this year: Haslam recently asked each agency to prepare budgets with a 7 percent cut, the largest such cut requested during Haslam’s time as governor. While those cuts aren’t guaranteed, they could prove worrisome for several agencies. The Department of Human Services is proposing to cut 300 jobs (many of which are vacant), and the Department of Health, Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services proposed eliminating some funding for outpatient substance abuse services.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga isn’t the best teacher’s college in Tennessee, and it isn’t the worst — it’s somewhere in the middle, according to a recent state report. That’s not good enough for Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, who at recent public meetings has called on UTC to improve the quality of the teachers it graduates. UTC provides the bulk of the 300 to 400 teachers the district hires annually, he said. “UTC’s got to get better,” Smith said on Nov. 1 at the school board’s annual retreat. “UTC must aspire to have the best teacher prep college in the South.” UTC officials aren’t taking offense. They’ve been working with school district officials to make changes at the School of Education, said Valerie Rutledge, who’s starting her second year as dean of UTC’s College of Health, Education and Professional Studies.
Felicia Burk’s phone rarely stops ringing. On one Friday morning at her Murfreesboro home, she fielded calls ranging from people calling for help to government officials wanting more details on the people she’s trying to assist get TennCare coverage. After a career in special education and spending decades as a foster parent, people see Burk as an authority — an advocate of sorts — to help navigate systems she believes are broken. She’ll help make calls and file applications and follow up on them when no responses are given, she said. Few things can keep Burk from at least trying to help those she can — not caring for the three children with developmental disorders she adopted and not even her daughter’s death earlier this year.
Tennessee was recently awarded $7 million in grants to fight prescription drug abuse among teens and young adults, especially in the eastern part of the state. The grants last for five years and target 10 counties in East Tennessee, with Sullivan and Washington counties among them. “There are lots of national indicators saying Tennessee has high rates of opioid use,” said Angie McKinney Jones, director of Prevention Services for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “That’s really the emphasis, that we need to bring these numbers down.” Most of the money from the federal grants will be funneled to county coalition programs, such as the Sullivan County Anti-Drug Coalition. The grants will be given in $1.3 million increments. Jones said the reason coalitions are receiving the money is because of past success in different parts of the state. She said previous grants to lower binge drinking among youth were successful because of coalitions.
The state comptroller’s office commended Shelby County government for its plans to refinance nearly $203 million of county debt, at a savings to taxpayers estimated at $26.2 million. As required by Tennessee law, the county submitted its refinancing plan to State Comptroller Justin Wilson’s office for review. The comptroller’s state and local finance staff analyzed it with a particular focus on whether the plan involves “balloon indebtedness,” where payment of principal is deferred for years and all or much of the debt comes due at once. The comptroller’s report just delivered to county Mayor Mark Luttrell’s administration said the plan does not involve balloon debt. Shelby County plans to issue just over $169.1 million in general obligation refunding bonds by competitive sale, at a premium of nearly $28.7 million, with contributions from the county of $22 million.
The University of Tennessee is refusing to release a letter from a student trustee who abruptly quit school and resigned from the governing board of the state’s flagship institution. R.J. Duncan, of Nolensville, Tenn., resigned less than six months into a two-year appointment by Gov. Bill Haslam. When asked, university officials would not say why he resigned or release his resignation letter, claiming the document was protected by federal privacy laws. But Frank LeMonte, with the Student Press Law Center, said the document should be released and that such laws apply only to educational records. “Anything that bears on his performance in trustee duties, by definition, is not a FERPA record,” said LeMonte, executive director of the First Amendment advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
A Tennessee death row inmate has died at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville of what officials say was natural causes. Department of Correction spokeswoman Neysa Taylor says 52-year-old Gregory Thompson was pronounced dead Thursday afternoon. Thompson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death on Aug. 22, 1985. Thompson and a woman were stranded in Shelbyville without money or transportation to get back to Georgia. Thompson kidnapped Brenda Lane at knifepoint on Jan. 1, 1985 at a Wal-Mart in Shelbyville and forced her to drive him and another person to a remote location outside Manchester. Prosecutors say once there, he stabbed Lane several times.
A legendary Tennessee lawyer whose push for voting rights dated back to the civil rights movement died last summer, not long before a new federal report found evidence that he might have had a point about the state’s voter identification law. Now many of those who worked closely with him say they intend to keep the cause alive. George Barrett died in August, two months before a new report by the Government Accountability Office found that states — including Tennessee — that toughened their voter ID laws saw steeper drops in election turnout than those that did not. While there were few reports of voting problems in Tennessee after the Nov. 4 general election, voter advocates say the report justifies the need to examine the effects of the voter ID law in Tennessee, one of 33 states to enact laws obligating voters to show a photo ID at the polls.
As Black Friday kicks off, shopping for health insurance is also starting to picking up steam. The Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, the largest local navigator group, has been slammed with “back-to-back appointments,” said Nancy Ridge, with the foundation. “We’re booked out through the first week of December.” The deadline is Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage starting Jan. 1. American Exchange, a Chattanooga-based broker that specializes in exchange coverage, has also seen “two and a half times” the call volume that the company saw last year, said Chief Operating Officer Andrew Hetzler. At BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee headquarters, “call volumes are high and we’re seeing very strong interest in our plans from existing members and new customers,” said spokeswoman Mary Danielson.
Since Oct. 1, the beginning of fiscal year 2015, Oak Ridge National Laboratory — like other federal installations — has operated under a continuing budget resolution that freezes spending at 2014 levels. So far, so good, according to ORNL Director Thom Mason, but he expressed concern about impacts later in the year if Congress doesn’t pass an actual budget. The continuing resolution approved in September is due to expire Dec. 11 and could be extended if there’s no budget agreement. In a recent interview, Mason said the lab wasn’t expecting big funding increases for FY2015, but the areas of most concern are the neutron sources — the Spallation Neutron Source and the High Flux Isotope Reactor.
The Model City’s pubic school system has made The Advanced Placement honor roll, one of only eight school districts in Tennessee to do so. Kingsport City Schools has made the 2014 College Board’s fifth annual AP District Honor Roll listing, putting it among 547 districts in the United States and Canada According to a news release from KCS Communications Editor Marybeth McLain, districts on the list are honored for increasing access to AP coursework while simultaneously maintaining or increasing the percentage of students earning scores of three or higher on AP exams. That generally allows those students to get college credit for the AP work. “We are fortunate to have a school community committed to the success of our AP program,” said Carmen Bryant, KCS director of secondary education.
Alcohol may not be single-handedly saving state and local budgets from the red, but it is certainly helping. Consider Kentucky. Coal mines in parts of the state are struggling to stay open, but here among the gently rolling hills of horse country, bourbon is booming. At the Wild Turkey plant, a new bourbon distillery is rising, the first built from the ground up here since Prohibition. Visits to the company’s tasting room, where guests can sip bourbon and gaze into a gorgeous valley, have doubled in the past few years. The company paid over $778,000 in real estate and property taxes to Anderson County this year, twice what it paid in 2010, making it the biggest taxpayer by far. “We’re lucky to have them,” said Brian Stivers, the property valuation administrator for the county. “Without their expansions we would have probably had to raise the tax rate.”
From the minute Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman’s departure was announced Nov. 13, the rumblings started about who would replace him. Three Northeast Tennessee school leaders, including two from the Tri-Cities, have been mentioned and emerged as possible appointees Gov. Bill Haslam might consider as he prepares for his second four-year term leading the state. They are Kingsport Superintendent Lyle Ailshie, Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie and Greene County Director of Schools Vicki Kirk. In addition, Knox County Superintendent Jim McIntyre also has made two lists. That makes four possible contenders from East Tennessee. Ailshie and McIntyre have shown up on at least two lists, albeit speculative lists at best, while Kirk and Yennie are on at least one.