This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam has scheduled a news conference for Monday morning amid speculation that he will announce a tentative agreement with the Obama administration on an alternative Medicaid expansion plan for Tennessee. The governor’s office spread word Sunday of the previously unscheduled news conference set for 10 a.m. Monday at the State Capitol but kept the subject and details under wraps. However, others said Sunday night he will discuss Medicaid, although they said they have not been given details. The governor’s office also hurriedly scheduled a series of meetings with newspaper editorial boards across the state during the rest of the week, bolstering the speculation of either a breakthrough with Washington or a decision against pursuing an agreement any further.
The holiday season may be a favorite for many, but Mother Nature surely takes a hit from increased waste and consumption of natural materials this time of year. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is providing tips to help reduce the season’s environmental impact, which includes decorating with recycled and natural materials such as popcorn and cranberries strung into a garland and limiting how long lights are aglow. Also, LED lights use 90 percent less energy than traditional incandescent lights and can last up to 100,000 hours. A shining example of TDEC’s tips can be found at the Tennessee Residence’s Home for the Holidays, which incorporates artificial trees with live trees and natural decor made from pine cones and other repurposed items found at all 55 of Tennessee’s state parks.
Two years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) released a report detailing mental health spending across the nation since the incident. According to the report, states cut mental health budgets by $4.35 billion between 2009 and 2012. In 2013, 36 states and the District of Columbia increased funding after “heightened public awareness of mental health needs”. Funding in 2014 increased in only 29 states. Tennessee was one of only five states to increase mental health spending in 2013 and stay at the same level in 2014. Ben Harrington, the executive director of the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee, said their organization receives some funding from the government to provide education and advocacy for mental health treatment services.
A political action committee that stirred controversy by keeping its donors secret while involved in elections to the state Republican Party’s executive committee has voluntarily ceased operations, but still faces an audit to determine whether it violated state campaign finance laws. The Registry of Election Finance board voted unanimously last week to conduct an audit of both Strong and Free Tennessee PAC and the nonprofit corporation that provided all of its funding, Strong and Free Tennessee Inc. The move was tied in with a vote, also unanimous, to hold a hearing on whether the two affiliated entities ran afoul of state laws. The issues first came up in a November meeting of the Registry board, where attorney Guilford “Gif” Thornton Jr. appeared to defend the PAC after complaints were filed against it by two conservative Republican activists and questions were otherwise raised about its financing.
Should the names of the execution team and pharmacists working with deadly drugs used in lethal injection procedures be kept confidential? The Tennessee Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on that question Thursday. At issue is a 2013 law keeping almost all details of the execution procedure secret. A group of 11 condemned inmates and their lawyers say that law does not apply to court cases,which are guided by other rules. The Supreme Court case grew out of — and essentially stalled — a Davidson County case challenging the constitutionality of the state’s execution protocol. The challenge claims lethal injection violates protections from cruel and unusual punishment. Previously scheduled execution dates have been taken off the calendar while a group of inmates has battled with the state. The Supreme Court decision will not end their fight. But it could make it harder.
Is God a Republican? The notion intrigues outgoing Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Roy Herron, a former United Methodist minister, who’s posed this and other provocative questions about faith and politics over the years. In 1987, in his first year in the General Assembly, his party ruled Tennessee: The governor, the speaker of the state Senate, the speaker of the House — all Democrats. But in the wake of the Republican revolution, chameleon Tennessee has morphed from blue to red, and Democrats are on the run. Still, Herron remains faithful. The author of “God and Politics,” an insightful book of wit and reason that seeks to reconcile his long-held interests in faith and the often unseemly world of politics, he believes God hasn’t deserted his party — and neither have the people of Tennessee.
The credit card reports look like someone went through them with Wite-Out. Blank spots cover all dollar amounts and descriptions of purchases. Among the few phrases left unaltered are the name of City Council member Wanda Halbert and the words “City of Memphis.” The Memphis city government censored the records about a former purchasing program that extended credit to a small number of employees and elected officials to buy anything they wanted, even if it had nothing to do with government business. The city finance director says 15 to 25 people were taking part in the American Express credit card program when it was discontinued this summer. He says that they were supposed to pay back the personal expenses themselves, that they did so, and that the city didn’t lose money.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is sponsoring a project that aims to digitize photographs, letters and other research material about Native American items that were uncovered beginning in the 1930s, when TVA dams were constructed. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports modern technology is giving the items at the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum a more secure future. In addition to scanning documents, letters, slides and photographs, the original items are being put into more protective storage. “Up until now, they haven’t been preserved properly,” said McClung Museum curator and UT professor Tim Baumann.
Tennessee Valley Authority engineers on Friday were still working to find the cause of water seepage at Boone Dam. TVA wants to maintain the Boone Reservoir water level of Boone Reservoir at approximately 12 feet below normal winter elevation as engineers investigate the cause of water and sediment seeping from the riverbank below the dam near Johnson City. The investigation began in October. Maintaining that water level would keep the lake at between 1,350 and 1,355 feet above sea level, though reservoir levels could be lowered further if conditions change. The duration of the drawdown will depend on the results of the ongoing analysis. TVA engineers, as well as independent engineering firms, are developing a preliminary repair plan as the investigation continues.
People should be able to show up at Hamilton County school board meetings and share their thoughts without having to ask officials for permission to speak three days ahead of time. That’s one of four “transparency and accessibility” changes being called for by UnifiEd, a Chattanooga nonprofit group whose goal is to get people more involved in Hamilton County’s schools. UnifiEd is also calling for school board meetings to be held across the county, instead of just at the central office on Hickory Valley Road, and demanding increased transparency. The school board’s meeting agenda — along with the packet of information that school board members get — should be posted online at least seven days ahead of the meeting, UnifiEd says.
According to recently published data, the highest four-year graduation rate at a community college in Tennessee, at Pellissippi State in Knoxville, is only 22 percent. The statewide average graduation rate at community colleges is an alarming 13 percent, with some graduating only 6 percent of their students. Despite these abysmal numbers, Governor Haslam created the Tennessee Promise program, which will funnel students and resources away from four-year colleges and universities and into community colleges using HOPE Lottery Scholarship money that was intended to keep the best and brightest students in Tennessee. Tennessee Promise is part of the Governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative, a plan with laudable goal of increasing the number of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate from 30 percent to 55 percent by 2025.