February 20 TN News Digest

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

UBS plans more jobs in downtown Nashville (Tennessean/Ward)
Swiss bank UBS plans to add 50 percent more jobs than originally targeted for its business solutions center in downtown Nashville. “We’re very excited about where we are today, and I’m very comfortable saying this time next year we’ll have 1,500 people,” said Bob McCann, CEO of UBS Wealth Management Americas. Separately, the company is looking to add a wealth management office in Williamson County that would have roughly 20 financial advisors plus support staff. UBS has eight wealth management offices statewide that have about 220 employees, a number that McCann also expects to grow to roughly 270 over the next year.

Haslam Wary of Gas Tax Hike (Memphis Daily News)
Despite low gas prices, a backlog on road projects and prevailing winds for fuel-tax reform, Gov. Bill Haslam is pulling back from a gas-tax increase this session. After floating the possibility of raising the tax in December, the Republican governor appears to be changing course, in part because of his loss in a Senate committee on Insure Tennessee, the Medicaid expansion alternative that failed to make debate in the full House or Senate. “Obviously, our thoughts were colored by the heavy lift of Insure Tennessee, some education things, etc.,” Haslam says.

State appoints assistant commissioner for rural development (Associated Press)
Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd has appointed the department’s first assistant commissioner for rural development. Boyd says Amy New will lead a new division within the department that reorganizes all community programs under her leadership. He says the move will allow the department to put a greater emphasis on assisting rural communities. New, a department veteran working with business and community development programs, most recently served as director of the department’s primary community development program ThreeStar.

New ECD position to focus on rural development (Nashville Business Journal)
New ECD commissioner Randy Boyd is backing his words on rural development with action. Boyd announced today the creation of a new position within the Department of Economic and Community Development: assistant commissioner for rural development. The position is held by Amy New, who most recently served as director of the department’s primary community development program, ThreeStar. As part of her new position, all of the department’s community programs will be placed under her leadership. “While TNECD has done many good things for our rural communities, from the ThreeStar program to the Select Tennessee site development efforts, I believe we need to double down on our efforts,” Boyd said in a news release.

Weather-related death toll rises to 11 in Tennessee (Tennessean/Buie, Meyer)
The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency has confirmed that 11 people have died from weather-related causes since a winter storm gripped parts of the state with freezing temperatures, snow and icy conditions. A 30-year-old Knox County man, a 38-year-old Overton County woman and a 34-year-old mother and her 10-year-old son in Williamson County all died in traffic accidents. A 63-year-old Hamilton County man, a 48-year-old Shelby County man, a 64-year-old Henry County woman, a 69-year-old Henry County man, a 44-year-old Roane County man and a 85-year-old Sequatchie man died after suffering hypothermia.

85 year-old Sequatchie County man dead from hypothermia (Times Free-Press)
An 85 year-old Sequatchie County man died of hypothermia, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency’s website. According to TEMA, the man’s death is one of 11 weather-related fatalities statewide during the latest winter storm. The man’s death is the third in the Chattanooga area since the winter storm began earlier this week. In Roane County, a 44 year-old man’s death was hypothermia-related, as was the death of 64 year-old Douglas King in Chattanooga.

Cold causes at least 2 deaths in Memphis (Commercial Appeal/Callahan)
The bitter cold that seemed to infiltrate every inch of Memphis this week has officially claimed two lives, with a third victim possibly to be added. About 7:15 a.m. Thursday, Memphis police discovered a man’s body in a vacant lot near the intersection of February and Horn Lake in Southwest Memphis. The medical examiner confirmed late Thursday that the unidentified man died from hypothermia. A second body was also found Thursday inside a vacant home in the 1600 block of Rayburn; the cause of death had not yet been determined. Police also identified the homeless man found frozen to death Tuesday morning as Jason Zetterholm, 45. Zetterholm was found lifeless behind a building on Jackson near Orchi in the National Cemetery area.

Crews balance saving resources, clearing roads (Jackson Sun)
Departments around West Tennessee are balancing the need to both conserve resources and clear roads quickly with another round of sleet and snow expected today. Buddy Crick, deputy superintendent of the Jackson City Street Department, said the department is working to purchase more road salt, having used half of its resources since Sunday.”People have got to get to work,” Crick said Thursday. “It can cost cities up to millions of dollars of lost wages because of icy roads. Also, the way we see it, the road salt … it’ll pay for itself in 25 minutes after you put it down because it reduces crashes and the cost of accidents.”

After The Ice Melts In Middle Tennessee — Potholes (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
The next phase of work for road crews is easy to predict: when all the snow and ice is gone, Middle Tennessee will likely be dotted with souvenirs of this week’s storm in the form of potholes. Moisture collects in, on and under pavement. Ice takes up more space than liquid water. So when moisture expands in a freeze, then shrinks in a thaw, a road’s surface can develop weak spots that crumble the first time a vehicle drives over. “Probably next week there’s going to be a lot of patching going on,” says Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman B.J. Doughty.

50 mailboxes damaged by TDOT snow plow in Williamson County (WKRN-TV)
Most of the major state routes in Williamson County are cleared of ice, but a lot of mailboxes got destroyed in the process. The Tennessee Department of Transportation estimates as many as 50 were knocked out by the snow plow, and the driver is going to have to repair them as punishment. It happened along State Route 46, also known as Old Hillsboro Road, from the Grassland community all the way to State Route 840. The snow plow driver left a trail of bent, smashed and destroyed mailboxes in his wake along the 15-mile stretch. Resident Allen Good didn’t realize his mailbox was destroyed until he heard from the mailman.

Agencies scrap over releasing lawmaker health plan info (Tennessean/Boucher)
Although a handful of lawmakers officially killed Gov. Bill Haslam’s controversial health care plan earlier this month, the battles related to Insure Tennessee aren’t over. Right now two state agencies are fighting over whether they must release details about the public health insurance benefits that go to most of Tennessee’s 132 state lawmakers. Those lawmakers continue to face scrutiny about their use of taxpayer-funded plans — which cover 80 percent of monthly premiums in addition to other benefits — after the death of Insure Tennessee. Haslam proposed providing federally funded health care to hundreds of thousands of low-income residents.

Judge removes DCS from ‘Bring Home Sonya’ case (WSMV-TV Nashville)
A juvenile court judge in Dickson has taken the Department of Children’s Service out of the picture in 10-year-old Sonya’s custody case. Sonya lived most of her life in Dickson before being removed by DCS and placed with her biological father, a convicted felon, in Nebraska. Sonya will now remain in Nebraska permanently, barring an appeal. At just one year old, Sonya was abandoned in Tennessee and taken in by David and Kim Hodgin. They raised her through her ninth birthday. Her biological father, John McCaul, was released from federal prison and asked for custody of his daughter. DCS granted that custody. Thursday, a juvenile judge allowed DCS to remove itself from Sonya’s life. This move leaves everything as it stands as permanent.

Some say state ignored criminals’ parole violations (WSMV-TV Nashville)
More questions remain about the punishment for convicted criminals found violating their parole. This week, a Channel 4 I-Team investigation revealed more than 300 warrants for parole violators initially denied by the state. Now, some claimed even when they tried to expose criminals violating parole, the state turned a blind eye. Social media postings and parole records obtained by the I-Team show parole officers in the dark about the violations of their own parolees and family members frustrated with a system designed to hold offenders accountable.

Tennessee joins fight against Sysco/US Foods merger (Tennessean/Barnes)
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has joined 10 other attorney generals in their fight to keep the two largest broadline food-service distributors in the nation from merging into one mega-industry giant. The states and the Federal Trade Commission believe the merger would violate antitrust laws by significantly reducing competition nationwide and in 32 local markets, including Memphis, for broadline food-service distribution services. Furthermore, they contend that food-service customers, including restaurants, hospitals, hotels and schools, would likely face higher prices and diminished services.

Gross Tennessee Lottery sales set new weekly record (News-Sentinel/Locker)
Driven by a national Powerball prize of $564 million and new instant-ticket games, gross Tennessee Lottery sales of $42.7 million last week set a new weekly record for the state lottery, officials said Thursday. Gross sales of $42,697,488 for the week ending Feb. 15 broke the previous record of $41,000,831 for the week ending March 31, 2012. Tennessee Education Lottery Corp. President and CEO Rebecca Hargrove said her organization’s “diverse selection of instant-ticket games is meeting with great success in the marketplace, and when combined with the interest generated by a big Powerball jackpot, the recipe for a record week is complete.

In Medical Marijuana Push, Democrats Hope To Find Republican Allies (WPLN)
Supporters of medical marijuana are planning another push this year in the Tennessee legislature, and they hope to find a few more allies this time around. A year after a medical marijuana bill got no farther than a committee hearing, Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville) is pursuing legislation once again. Her measure, House Bill 561, would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for a range of conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress disorder. But Jones’s bill isn’t the only one that deals with medical cannabis. Another measure, sponsored by two Republicans, would let Tennesseans bring low-potency cannabis oil into the state. Jones says that’s a sign Republicans are softening their opposition.

That Snow Day TN’s House Took? It Had To Get Senate’s Permission First (WPLN)
What happens when one half of the Tennessee legislature wants to take a snow day? It has to ask the other half’s permission. That’s exactly what happened Thursday morning, when the Senate was asked to approve a resolution cancelling a House session planned for the day. The idea of dragging House members back to the Capitol clearly appealed to senators who’d made the slog into work. The voice of Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Memphis) dripped with disdain as he presented the resolution. “Therefore” – heavy sigh – “I move the Senate suspend the rules…” A voice vote was held, and it sounded from the press gallery that permission might actually have been denied. But Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) gave the House the benefit of the doubt.

Tennessee Medical Association Unveils Legislative Agenda (M. Daily News)
Ahead of its annual Day on the Hill next month and fresh off the legislative defeat of a Medicaid expansion in Tennessee, the state’s largest professional association for doctors has unveiled its wish list for the 2015 legislative session. The list includes a mix of priorities that ranges from TennCare payment reform to improving access to quality healthcare. One of those is a payer accountability bill, which the group also championed in 2014. The association, comprised of more than 8,000 member statewide, also counts among the top priorities in its legislative package a bill that would reduce health insurance companies’ ability to change reimbursement terms in the middle of a contract.

Jeb Bush to Headline Tennessee GOP Fundraiser in May (Associated Press)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is headlining the Tennessee Republican Party’s annual fundraiser in May. Chairman Chris Devaney said Thursday that the Statesmen’s Dinner speech by the likely presidential candidate reflects that Tennessee will play a key role in the 2016 nomination process. Devaney called Tennessee a “good place to test a message” for presidential candidates because it will be among the early states holding primaries in 2016. Bush has been aggressively raising money as he weighs a presidential bid.

Nashville Chamber heightens focus on education, transit (Tennessean/McGee)
The last time the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce wrote its strategy for economic growth in the region, it was 2010, the country was still recovering from a recession and the focus was on how to tout the area’s strengths. Five years later, with an increasing national spotlight on Nashville’s growth, the chamber’s economic development initiative is expanding its focus to address the region’s top challenges — education and transit. Those issues, which have long been local touch points, will be studied more aggressively to help recruit more corporations to Middle Tennessee.

Militant threat places Corker in limelight (Associated Press)
Two years ago, Sen. Bob Corker wondered aloud whether the standstill Senate was worth a grown man’s time. Now the combination of Republicans’ political fortunes in last November’s elections and brutal terrorism overseas have put the two-term Tennessee lawmaker in the limelight. He heads the Foreign Relations Committee and is in charge of the weightiest question to ever face members of Congress: whether to authorize war. “I think all of us want to be productive in life. It was like watching paint dry,” Corker, 62, said of his first eight years in the polarized Senate. “Yes, I do find myself in this second term in a very different place. I’m very glad I ran for re-election.”

TVA sets record demand for February (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Valley Authority says cold temperatures this week drove customers to set a record for demand for February. TVA says the power demand hit an estimated 32,129 megawatts at 7 a.m. EST on Thursday. At that time, average temperatures in its coverage area hovered around 7 degrees. The previous record for February was 31,045 megawatts on Feb. 5, 2009. TVA’s all-time power demand in its 82-year history was set on Aug. 16, 2007, with 33,482 megawatts. The electric provider says meeting the high demand required a combined effort from its generating facilities and 155 local power companies and large industrial customers.

TVA sets new record electricity peak for the month of February (TFP/Flessner)
TVA set a new record electricity peak for the month of February today when the coldest temperatures so far this year in the Tennessee Valley pushed up power use from electric furnaces and appliances trying to cope with single-digit temperatures. TVA estimates that power consumers used 32,109 megawatts of power at 7 a.m. today when temperatures across TVA’s 7-state region fell to an average 7 degrees Fahrenheit. TVA had a higher power peak on Jan. 7 this year at 32,723 megawatts when temperatures averaged 8 degree. TVA set its all-time winter peak a year ago when power demand during the Polar Vortex jumped to 33,352 megawatts. But TVA has never had so much demand for power in the month of February.

Wal-Mart to lift pay for hourly workers (Commercial Appeal)
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest employer after the federal government, will boost wages for workers nationwide this year in a move that will likely aid most most of its 6,000 employees in metropolitan Memphis. The Arkansas-based retailer said Thursday that wages will rise in April for about 500,000 workers, or nearly 40 percent of its 1.3 million U.S. employees. Wal-Mart follows other retailers that have boosted hourly pay recently, but because it’s the nation’s largest private employer, the impact of its move will be more closely watched. Memphis economist John Gnuschke said the move reflects an improved economy and increased competition for high quality workers — and will help Wal-Mart by reducing turnover and attracting better quality employees.