February 25 TN News Digest

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

Unipres USA to add 435 jobs in Portland (Tennessean/Ward)
Automotive metal stamping parts maker Unipres USA Inc. plans an expansion at its plant in Portland that will create 435 jobs over the next five years. The overall expansion is expected to include adding 32,000 square feet of space to the existing manufacturing facility to house two new 2,500-ton transfer presses and one 600-ton blanking press. Unipres USA has had a presence in Portland since 1987. The company’s metal stamping parts plant on Kirby Drive employs 600 to 700 people, ranking it as that city’s largest manufacturing employer and among the largest employers in Sumner County. Unipres USA’s growth has come in part from its contract with Nissan. Pressed automotive parts from its Portland plant are used in making cars such as the Nissan Rogue.

Tennessee auto supplier adding 435 jobs (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
Auto parts supplier Unipres USA Inc. will expand its Middle Tennessee facilities by adding new presses and create 435 jobs over the next five years, officials said Tuesday. Unipres USA will renovate and retrofit a storage warehouse to house assembly equipment and materials at its facilities in Sumner County north of Nashville, according to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. “The momentum of our automotive sector is a direct result of the success of the many manufacturers, suppliers and other thriving automotive-related companies that call our state home,” said Gov. Bill Haslam in a statement.

Haslam promotes high state education standards (News-Sentinel/Locker)
Gov. Bill Haslam put in a plug Tuesday for maintaining high state education standards and for the changes he’s proposed in how state employees are paid. He told a meeting of economic development specialists from across the state that high standards are needed to prepare students for the post-high-school schooling — either a vocational certificate or college degree — they need for the workforce. Standards are under attack in the state Legislature. “We’ve been using the Common Core state standards and there’s a lot of controversy about that. Standards are what we expect children to know at each step along the way. We have 2,000 different state standards that we expect children to know, in every grade, in English language arts and math,” Haslam said.

Haslam plan uses old scores in some teacher evaluations (Tennessean/Boucher)
In one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s key legislative proposals, student test scores will still play largely the same role in the evaluations of certain Tennessee teachers. Haslam’s plan changes evaluations for teachers in subjects with standardized tests, such as math and English, and those without such tests, such as kindergarten or music classes. Starting next school year, the plan calls for the new state standardized assessment, TNReady, to account for only 10 percent of a teacher’s total evaluation if that teacher is in a tested subject. But state Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen confirmed that 35 percent of the evaluation for those teachers will still come from student test scores, as is the case now.

Haslam says he didn’t discourage enforcement at hog farm (Associated Press)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he would “never, ever” discourage regulators from enforcing environmental rules at a fellow Republican state lawmaker’s hog farm. The governor’s comments Tuesday follow a report by WTVF-TV reported last week that a state inspector who found several potential violations at Republican Rep. Andy Holt’s farm said “upper management” had dissuaded him from seeking to enforce them. Haslam told reporters after an economic development speech in Nashville that no such directive came either from his office or from the leadership of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Haslam: Check on your neighbors after storms (AP/Schelzig, Burke)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday urged people to check on their neighbors as the death toll from last week’s ice storm climbs and as the National Weather Service predicts a new storm coming in. Haslam and state emergency officials flew over parts of the Cumberland Plateau to survey the damage. At least 30 people have died across the state as a result of the ice storm and frigid temperatures. At least 10 are believed to have died as a result of hypothermia. “The best thing we can do is ask people to be great neighbors,” Haslam said. Many people, especially the elderly, either don’t have the resources to leave their homes or simply don’t want to go somewhere else, he said.

Tennessee’s winter storm death toll hits 30 (Times Free-Press/Bradbury)
Thirty people have died of weather-related causes in Tennessee during the past 10 days. Since officials declared a state of emergency on Feb. 16, at least 10 people have died of hypothermia, while the remainder died in vehicle accidents, fires and from medical emergencies in which access to care was hindered by the weather. It’s an unusually high toll in an unusually short amount of time — last year, only five people in Tennessee died during all of the state’s declared emergencies, and those people died in tornadoes and flooding, not from the cold or snow- and ice-slickened roads, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

TDCI warns of potential price gouging (Tennessean/Barnes)
Businesses looking to hike prices on essential goods and services in lieu of the recent winter storm that sent Tennessee into a state of emergency should think again. Tennessee’s price gouging laws make it unlawful for individuals and businesses to charge unreasonable prices on goods and services such as gas, food, ice, fuel generators, lodging, storage space and other necessities in direct response to a disaster, regardless of whether that emergency occurred in Tennessee or elsewhere. Additionally, the law makes it unlawful to charge a price that is grossly in excess of the price before the emergency. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency declared a state of emergency at 9 p.m. Feb. 16.

TDCI: Consumers beware of potential price gouging following winter storms (N-S)
The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance (TDCI) is cautioning consumers to be alert to potential price gouging following February’s deadly winter ice storms that swept across Tennessee. Tennessee’s price gouging laws make it unlawful for individuals and businesses to charge unreasonable prices for essential goods and services including gasoline, food, ice, fuel, generators, lodging, storage space, and other necessities in direct response to a disaster regardless of whether that emergency occurred in Tennessee or elsewhere. The price gouging law also makes it unlawful to charge a price that is grossly in excess of the price charged prior to the emergency. This price gouging act is triggered when a disaster is declared by the state or by the federal government.

Name-Change for State Veterans Department Approved by Senate Committee (TNR)
The administrators who run Tennessee’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs want to distance themselves from the federal agency of the same name. A proposal to change the official moniker of the state department to “Department of Veterans Services” easily cleared its first hurdle in the General Assembly Tuesday. The Senate State & Local Government Committee passed SB0116 with no discussion as part of its consent calendar. The administration-backed bill is scheduled to be heard by the House State Government Subcommittee Wednesday. The re-branding was suggested late last year by the agency’s head, Many-Bears Grinder, during her department’s preliminary budget pitch to Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tweaks likely in domestic violence ‘cooling off’ bill (Tennessean/Barchenger)
Changes are coming to a proposed bill that would eliminate a judge’s authority to release domestic violence suspects before the end of a 12-hour “cooling off” period. In a House Criminal Justice subcommittee meeting Tuesday, bill sponsor Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, said there would be an amendment and asked that the issue be tabled for a week. He later told The Tennessean those changes had not been finalized but would ensure the law is applied equally and consistently to all suspects. State law requires a 12-hour jail hold when someone is arrested on charges of domestic violence or elder abuse, but there’s a loophole that allows judges to waive the period.

Beer-sipping bill brings puns, skepticism from lawmakers (Tennessean/Tamburin)
Teenage students at local colleges would get the chance to sip — but not swallow — beer before they turn 21 if a Murfreesboro lawmaker’s bill wins approval. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Ketron, would allow underage college students to taste beer they make in a brewing course. The students, who would have to be at least 18, would be required to spit the beer out under the supervision of a professor. It’s a prospect that drew plenty of smirks — and puns — at the Senate State and Local Government Committee hearing Tuesday. Sen. Thelma Harper was among the lawmakers who seemed skeptical students wouldn’t swallow their brews.

Womick unable to give teachers evaluation break (Daily News Journal)
State Rep. Rick Womick’s attempt to give teachers a five-year evaluation break for Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS) scores failed today. The Republican lawmaker from Rutherford County’s Rockvale community southwest of Murfreesboro sought to introduce an amendment to a bill recommended by Gov. Bill Haslam at a time the state is making adjustments to standardized tests. The GOP governor would like to provide teachers with a one-year break by having TVAAS statisical scores that measure student growth on standardized tests count as 10 percent of the evaluation next year.

Families Of Sick Children Ask To Bring Cannabis Oil Into Tennessee (WPLN-Radio)
Tennessee lawmakers are reopening the debate on medical marijuana for the year by taking on a bill that would allow one form – low-potency cannabis oil. Backers say the oil holds promise for treating kids who suffer from devastating seizures. Gail Grauer’s granddaughter Chloe died shortly before Christmas from a neurological brain disorder. In a life that lasted barely three years, she suffered 75,000 seizures – many of which, Grauer believes, could have been prevented. “When people say time is of the essence, that’s not just a slogan,” she told lawmakers Tuesday.

Vanderbilt Chancellor Tangles With Warren During Higher Ed Discussion (WPLN)
Vanderbilt University spends $14 million a year complying with federal higher education regulations, its chancellor told the U.S. Senate Education Committee. His point: That number is too high. Nicholas Zeppos, along with the chancellor from the University of Maryland, presented a 144-page report Tuesday laying out how to fix poorly designed regulations from the U.S. Department of Education. According to the report, colleges spend too much time and money filling out outdated surveys, writing pointless policies and sifting through hundreds of pages of complicated federal mandates. Money Saved? But things got a little heated when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, asked Zeppos where Vanderbilt’s $14 million in savings would go. “

Report: Tennessee’s economy is growing (Daily News Journal)
More than 7,000 new businesses were formed in Tennessee during the final quarter of last year, according to a new economic report released Tuesday by the Tennessee Secretery of State. “The increase in the number of new business filings is a positive sign for the state’s economy,” Secretary of State Tre Hargett said. “It is one of several encouraging economic indicators that can be found in our latest report.” The number of new businesses created during the fourth quarter of 2014 was up 8.8 percent from the same time period during the previous year, according to the report. Rutherford County, specifically, saw a drop of 28 percent from the last quester and a 9.8 percent drop from 2013.

Tennessee Education Association Road Trip stops in Clarksville (Leaf Chronicle)
The Tennessee Education Association made a visit to Clarksville Tuesday evening to share important information about the many issues that affect the local school system at the state level. Their main goals was to educate the many educators who attended and solicit support as they fight to bring the best education to students in Tennessee and give teachers a voice. The TEA Road Trip stopped at West Creek High and discussed with about 25 people, majority of them teachers important issues that affect them personally such as the misuse of standardized testing, the state’s lack of investment in students and the need to improve respect of the teaching profession and public schools.

Cohen to boycott Netanyahu’s congressional address (News-Sentinel/Collins)
A West Tennessee congressman said Tuesday he won’t attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress next month, calling it “high theater” for Netanyahu’s re-election campaign and “political gamesmanship” by congressional Republicans trying to undermine President Barack Obama. “While we can disagree with our president, we as a nation should be as one on our foreign policy and any disagreements should be presented in a respectful, appropriate and time-honored manner,” U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, said. Cohen is one of several Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden, who plan to boycott Netanyahu’s address before a joint session of Congress on March 3.

The Government Workforce in an Era of Wage Stagnation (Governing)
There’s been a lot of talk lately about wage stagnation among middle-class workers, but there is growing evidence that this may be an even larger issue for state and local government employees — one likely to make it harder for these governments to attract and retain the workforces they need. Unlike the private sector, state and local government employment remains smaller than it was before the Great Recession. At its peak in 2008, these governments had 19,748,000 employees. In the six years after that, states and localities shed an estimated 565,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Volkswagen moves ahead on expansion at Chattanooga plant (TFP/Pare)
Volkswagen’s proposed Chattanooga engineering and planning center has found a temporary home as officials finalize a permanent site and prepare to start hiring more than 200 engineers. The center, a first for the German carmaker in the United States, is designed to bring VW closer to the tastes of American motorists and is part of the plant’s $900 million expansion project. The center will be located temporarily in the former Eastside Utility District building off Discovery Drive near the VW plant. On Tuesday, VW officials showed off the beginnings of the expansion to Mayor Andy Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. Work officially kicked off in January on the addition that will expand the Chattanooga factory by 512,886 square feet in order to build a new sport utility vehicle by the end of 2016. The plant currently produces the Passat midsize sedan.

Astec to close GEFCO plant in Loudon County (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Marcum)
A Loudon County plant that produces portable drilling rig equipment has apparently fallen victim to decreased oil prices and will be closed, eliminating 75 jobs, parent company Astec Industries announced Tuesday. GEFCO Inc., will close its Loudon County operation effective May 31, Benjamin G. Brock, Astec CEO, said in a statement Tuesday addressing Astec’s fiscal 2014 results. “We will work to place our Loudon employees with our other companies wherever possible,” Brock said. Chris Workman, GEFCO director of human resources, said some options include three other Astec operations in Loudon County — Astec Inc., Heatec Inc. and Roadtec Inc. — plus a GEFCO plant in Enid, Okla. The plan is to shift all Loudon County production to the Oklahoma plant.

Erlanger to delay vote on controversial $1.7 million bonuses (TFP/Belz)
Erlanger Health System’s chairman of the board is asking trustees to put off a revote of their controversial decision to award $1.7 million in bonuses until a later meeting. The board had planned to revisit its Dec. 4 decision to award the bonuses at its upcoming meeting Thursday, following a public outcry over the bonuses being planned in closed meetings, and after the state attorney general concluded that such closed-door discussions were not lawful But Chairman Donnie Hutcherson, who had originally called for the revote after the attorney general’s opinion, said in a letter to trustees Monday that he wanted to delay the vote after he met with former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

Shelby schools join districts ready to sue over funding (C. Appeal/Roberts)
Shelby County Schools is the third of the four largest school districts in the state to begin preparations to sue the state over how it funds schools. If the rancor does not result in legislation this session, board members from across the state are betting on their day in court. Hamilton County board members approved a similar measure last Thursday. The ball started rolling with a vote in early February by the school board in Knox County. Davidson County board members are expected to take up the issue in two weeks. Tuesday, SCS board member Chris Caldwell told his board peers he was hoping for a 9-0 vote. He got it.


Editorial: Thankful for state study of W. Tenn. economy (Jackson Sun)
We are hopeful that a $50,000 state grant to study the economy of West Tennessee will pay off for the unemployed in our region. The grant from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development was announced earlier this month. It has been awarded to the Southwest Tennessee Human Resources Agency to examine how West Tennessee’s economy compares to Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee. We hope the study will identify ways to improve West Tennessee’s unemployment rate, which has averaged about 8 percent, while the rate in the rest of the state has been about 5 percent. When the grant was announced, five of the 10 counties with the highest unemployment rates in the state were in West Tennessee.

Ferrell Haile: Common Core conversation marred by politics (Tennessean)
This past fall, I visited over 25 public schools in Davidson, Sumner and Trousdale counties and spoke at length with over 100 teachers and principals in those schools. During those discussions, I found that there is almost universal agreement that when speaking about Common Core, most people are not talking about one topic, rather several separate but connected subjects. These include standards, textbooks, curriculum, instruction, student testing and teacher evaluation. Critics, the media, and politicians have grouped all of these topics together in one conversation. That is unfortunate, since the conversation is then directed by politics, rather than facts and open discussion.

Editorial: Tennessee lawmakers take hypocrisy to a new level (Commercial Appeal)
As shameless as their performance has been on Insure Tennessee, our state legislators certainly don’t lack chutzpah. It was bad enough when seven Republican members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, including Germantown’s Brian Kelsey, buckled under the pressure of wealthy, ideologically driven interests such as the billionaire Koch brothers, who threatened lawmakers who vote for the plan with retaliation in their re-election campaigns. A “yes” vote on Insure Tennessee would have advanced a new health insurance program that 280,000 of the state’s working poor would qualify for and that would have been funded 100 percent by the federal government.

Editorial: New user fees on TWRA-managed land should vary (News-Sentinel)
People who ride horses, all-terrain vehicles and mountain bikes on lands managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will have to start paying “high impact” user fees beginning July 1. While expanding user fees to help pay for land management makes sense for the self-funded agency, TWRA should follow through on its intention to set different rates for its 100 wildlife management areas depending on local conditions. For example, the Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area in South Knoxville is a unique preserve and an integral part of the city’s acclaimed Urban Wilderness, with bike trails crisscrossing its 600 acres.