This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam plans to make changes to the education system, which he said will support teachers and the Knox County Education Association president said she’s encouraged by the changes. “He’s taken the approach of listening to the educators across the state,” KCEA President Tanya Coats said. Coats said she believes Haslam’s plan reflects the concerns of teachers across the state. One initiative deals with aligning classroom curriculum with state testing. “We were teaching students here in the state of Tennessee Common Core standards but we were tested on Tennessee state standards,” Coats said. As part of Haslam’s plan, students will take a new test called Tennessee Ready starting in the 2015-2016 school year.
The State Funding Board is meeting Thursday to begin the process of projecting that state’s revenue collections in the upcoming budget year. The panel is scheduled to hear from professors Albert DePrince of Middle Tennessee State University and Bill Fox of the University of Tennessee, along with Revenue Commissioner Richard Roberts and a representative of the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee. The funding board is made up of the secretary of state, comptroller, treasurer and the state finance commissioner. After hearing from the experts on Thursday, the panel will reconvene on Dec. 16 to issue its consensus on how much money the state is expected to collect through the budget year that ends on June 30 and the one that begins after that.
Faced with flat revenue projections, higher education officials will have to find ways to cover costs at their institutions because the state won’t be able to help them anytime soon, a top economist said Wednesday. Bill Fox, director of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research, spoke at a meeting called by the Tennessee Board of Regents to discuss funding options. The board oversees six state universities, 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology. Last week, higher education officials told Gov. Bill Haslam at a budget hearing that they’ll be forced to continue raising tuition if the state doesn’t provide adequate funding to help with costs. They noted that higher education hasn’t received a substantive increase in state funding in about 30 years.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s office has joined the University of Tennessee in refusing to release the resignation letter of a student trustee who was appointed by the governor and who abruptly stepped down in recent months. R.J. Duncan, of Nolensville, Tenn., quit school Oct. 11 and resigned from the governing board of the state’s flagship institution less than six months into a two-year appointment. In her letter denying the News Sentinel’s request, Ashleigh Harb Roberts,deputy counsel to the governor, cited a state statute intended to protect student records “relating to academic performance, financial status of the student or the student’s parent or guardian, medical or psychological treatment or testing.”
There won’t be any changes to the leadership in Tennessee’s General Assembly. On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell were easily renominated by Republicans to lead the Senate and House, respectively. Republicans hold a 28-5 majority in the Senate, meaning Ramsey’s nomination ensures he will be elected for a fifth term as Lt. Gov. when the upcoming legislative session starts in January. “We have accomplished much but there is still much left to do,” Ramsey said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work to keep Tennessee a low tax, low debt state and the best place in the nation to own a business and raise a family.”
Establishment Republicans earned another victory Wednesday, as House Republicans nominated Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, over a tea party challenger to keep her leadership role. Senate Republicans also unanimously chose Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, to stay atop the Senate, with both House and Senate Republican caucuses meeting Wednesday to pick their leadership teams. Harwell defeated Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, by a 57-15 margin. All 28 Senate Republicans voted to nominate Ramsey and keep him as lieutenant governor and Senate speaker. Although the full House and Senate elect their own speaker, the Republicans’ supermajority in both chambers essentially guarantees their party’s nominee will win the leadership position.
House Speaker Beth Harwell easily defeated tea party challenger Rep. Rick Womick for renomination to a third term as speaker Wednesday when House Republicans met to select their leaders for the 2015-16 sessions of the General Assembly. Harwell won 57 votes to 15 for Womick, a Murfreesboro Republican who had charged that Harwell worked too closely with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and “establishment” Republicans. Harwell, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairman who has been in the House since 1988, will be re-elected speaker when the Legislature convenes next month because Republicans hold a 73-26 supermajority in the House — enough to pass bills and change rules without a single Democratic vote.
House Speaker Beth Harwell was nominated for a third term today after fellow Republicans overwhelmingly rejected a challenge by Rick Womick, who portrayed his effort as a blow for legislative independence. The vote for Harwell was 57 to 15 for Womick. Womick has charged that republican Gov. Bill Haslam and allies targeted five Tea Party incumbents in last summer’s primaries.
Senate Republicans this morning nominated Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey for a fifth term as the Chamber’s top Official. Given Republicans’ 28-5 dominance over Democrats, Ramsey, of Blountville, is virtually assured of being elected speaker when the General Assembly convenes in January. Ramsey had no opposition within the caucus. Majority leader Mark Norris of Collierville was also re elected without opposition as was Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro. Majority House Republicans hold their elections later this morning.
State Rep. Rick Womick’s quest to be the next speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives fell short Wednesday. The majority of his fellow Republicans remained loyal to incumbent Speaker of the House Beth Harwell. A state representative from Nashville, Harwell won election to her third term as House speaker by a 57-15 margin from her fellow Republican Caucus members against Womick, the 34th District representative who resides in Rutherford County’s Rockvale community southwest of Murfreesboro. Womick, who is known to be a tea party Republican, had challenged Harwell, saying that she was too closely tied to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
House Speaker Beth Harwell easily beat her opponent on Wednesday for control of the state’s lower chamber, marking the second time in a week that the Tennessee Republican Party overwhelmed a tea party effort to get into leadership. Harwell pitched herself to the Republican caucus members as someone who can bridge divides, not further fracture the party. Challenger Rick Womick took another tack. His message centered on keeping political distance between the legislature and Gov. Haslam. Too often, Womick said, Haslam meddles in the affairs of state lawmakers. In particular, the governor’s “flagging” of bills amount to a default veto, Womick said. Caucus members sided 57 to 15 with Harwell.
Tennessee is the sixth unhealthiest state in America, according to a new report. America’s Health Rankings, compiled by the United Health Foundation, ranked Tennessee 45th among all U.S. states in overall health. The state’s ranking was hurt by a high prevalence of both obesity and physical inactivity as well as a high violent crime rate, according to a news release. There are some bright spots, though. Tennessee had the lowest prevalence of binge drinking of all U.S. states, and the state was in the ranked 19th in the ready availability of primary care physicians. The healthiest state in America, according to the study, is Hawaii – a state that apparently hates Christmas, which Tennesseans love. (I wouldn’t put too much faith in a correlation, though.) The unhealthiest state is Mississippi, with Tennessee neighbor Arkansas coming in second-to-last, according to the report.
Despite the abundance of outdoor activities and a health care hub as its capital, Tennessee is lagging behind 44 states in overall health. According to America’s Health Rankings, Tennessee ranked No. 45 in the country for overall health, mainly because of the high prevalence of physical inactivity and obesity. It also had the highest rate of violent crime relative to other states, with 644 offenses per 100,000 population. But the state had a few redeeming factors: the lowest prevalence of binge drinking, low incidence of pertussis (whooping cough) infections and ready availability of primary care physicians. Compared to last year, Tennessee also had a drop in infant mortality, decrease in preventable hospitalizations, improvement in air pollution and increase in high school graduation.
East Tennesseans in Congress said Wednesday a new report that accused the CIA of using brutally harsh and illegal interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists — and then lying about it — was a perilous, partisan exercise that could put American interests and Americans themselves in danger. “We need balanced oversight of our intelligence agencies,” said U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., a Knoxville Republican. “Unfortunately, this was a very partisan and misleading report filled mostly with information already known, and I hope that it doesn’t cause violence and cost more American lives.” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Maryville Republican, raised similar objections to the report by the Democratic-led U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.
Nashville has secured $33 million in federal funding to boost and expand pre-kindergarten services, a development hailed as a giant step for an early childhood education program that has recently gained momentum. President Barack Obama’s administration announced Wednesday that Tennessee is one of 18 states to receive a Preschool Development Grant, which state officials pursued on behalf of Nashville and Memphis. The Shelby County Schools Consortium will receive the same amount. It will mean an initial infusion of $8.3 million for Metro Nashville Public Schools, which will add 400 seats for 4-year-olds, reducing a pre-K wait list in Nashville that is longer than 1,000 families each year. First priority goes to low-income students and Nashville’s rapidly growing number of English learners.
By spring, Shelby County Schools will be screening children for the 200 to 400 extra prekindergarten seats it will have by fall, thanks to a $70 million grant Memphis will split with Nashville over four years. The money will allow Memphis to serve a record number of 4-year-olds. In three years, when classroom space is at full capacity, a total of 6,300 children will be receiving a year of free preschool here, 1,000 more than the current capacity in the state-funded program. The news was announced early Wednesday at the White House Early Childhood Education Summit. It was celebrated at the Greater Memphis Chamber Annual Chairman’s Luncheon and echoed in conversations around town.
The U.S. Senate has confirmed two nominees to serve on the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility. Media report the Senate held a roll call vote on the nominations of Democrats Ron Walter and Virginia Lodge after some Republicans objected their appointment to the board. The measure passed Tuesday night 86-12. TVA serves 9 million people in parts of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. The vote came after Walter and Lodge signed a pledge to recuse themselves from any matters that come before the board involving Democratic real estate developer Franklin Haney, who is pushing a financial plan for the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant.
As promised, Hamilton County commissioners and school board members met Wednesday to rebuild some bridges and discuss the state of the county’s schools. It was the first such meeting between elected school and county officials in years. Commissioner Tim Boyd, who leads the commission’s education committee, said committee members and those on the school board’s facilities committee heard an update from Superintendent Rick Smith and school facilities manager Gary Waters about ongoing construction for several school projects. Waters said the new Ganns Middle Valley Elementary and additions at Sale Creek Middle-High and Wolftever and Nolan elementaries all are now in the design phase.
Target will seek incentives from Memphis and Shelby County as early as next week for an industrial project that could create up to 600 jobs, according to multiple sources. The Minneapolis-based retail giant has explored sites in DeSoto County and Memphis for a distribution center and is in the process of finalizing a lease for the 900,000-square-foot building at 5461 Davidson Road in Southeast Memphis. In addition to the 600 jobs, Target is expected to make significant capital improvements to the property, which was formerly occupied by Hamilton Beach. The city-county Economic Development Growth Engine, which offers tax incentives to businesses to locate or expand in Shelby County, is holding a meeting Wednesday, Dec. 17, and several officials said Target will be on the agenda.
Asurion, a Nashville-based company that provides cellphone insurance and replacements, is cutting 178 technology positions, mostly in Middle Tennessee. The jobs will be gone as of Feb. 8, according to a statement. Employees will be offered a severance package and placement assistance and will be able to apply to other open positions at the company. Close to 140 positions are open in the area. “We continually review our operations to ensure resources are aligned with the company’s strategic direction, enabling us to provide the best service to our business partners and consumers and align ourselves for future growth,” Bettie Colombo, Asurion spokeswoman, said in a statement. “While the changes position us to grow, this was a difficult decision, as Asurion values each and every employee.” Asurion moved its headquarters to Nashville in 2003, employing 600 Middle Tennessee workers.
Nashville-based technology company Asurion is eliminating 178 technology team positions, the company announced today. The majority of those cuts will occur in Middle Tennessee, where the company employs more than 3,000 people between five locations in Davidson and Rutherford counties. According to the release, the eliminated positions all support technology platforms that are being retired, and the organization as a whole is still committed to local growth. “The company has nearly 140 open positions in the area,” Bettie Colombo, an Asurion spokeswoman, said in the release. The job actions will be effective Feb. 8, the release says, and all impacted employees will receive a severance package, placement assistance and the option to apply for other open Asurion positions.
Let’s start with the good news: Tennessee leads the nation in our low prevalence of binge drinking. That’s right, we’re No. 1 — and that’s a good thing. We also have a low incidence of pertussis, or whooping cough, ranking 10th in the nation. As for availability of primary care physicians, we’re No. 19 — and that’s not too shabby. Now for the disturbing news: The Volunteer State nears the bottom of the list, at 45, for overall health, according to United Health Foundation’s 25th Edition of America’s Health Rankings. And the best we can say about that is — we beat Mississippi, holding at last place. Among our greatest challenges are obesity and physical inactivity, which often go hand in hand. Interesting to note they mirror two deadly sins: gluttony and slothfulness. And these health hazards are deadly.