March 17 TN News Digest

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

Haslam to announce ‘significant’ economic development deal (Associated Press)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is scheduled to announce what is being dubbed as a “significant” economic development deal at the state Capitol on Tuesday afternoon. The Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro on Monday (http://on.dnj.com/1BJvbSJ ) quoted Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce President Paul Latture as saying an unnamed company planned to invest $100 million and bring 1,000 new jobs to Smyrna. Tennessee in recent months has celebrated several high profile development deals, including the expansion of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, the construction of a Beretta firearms plant in Gallatin and a new Under Armour distribution facility in Mt. Juliet. Haslam has said he wants to focus on economic development deals for rural areas in his second term.

Company to bring 1,000 manufacturing jobs to Smyrna (Daily News Journal)
An unnamed company plans to bring 1,000 advanced manufacturing jobs to Rutherford County. The company, codenamed Project Cedar, will invest $100 million and bring 1,000 new jobs to Smyrna, Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce President Paul Latture said Monday morning. “One thousand new jobs and $100 million investment is outstanding,” said Rob Lyons, IDB member and Murfreesboro city manager. The average wage will be $38,000, not counting benefits, Latture said, which is about $10,000 more than the current average wage in the county.

Official: $100M investment to create 1,000 jobs in Smyrna (Nashville Biz Journal)
Employment in Rutherford County is about to get a big shot in the arm. Murfreesboro’s The Daily News Journal reports that an unnamed advanced manufacturing company will invest $100 million to create 1,000 jobs in Smyrna. Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce President Paul Latture disclosed the investment, codenamed Project Cedar, during a special called meeting of the county’s Industrial Development Board Monday morning. Latture said the average salary of the positions is $38,000, about $10,000 more than Rutherford’s average salary, according to the DNJ. At today’s meeting, the IDB approved more an $18 million in tax incentives for the company, which will be used to abate property taxes over 20 years.

1,000 new jobs coming to Smyrna (WSMV-TV Nashville)
An unnamed company is bringing 1,000 new jobs to Smyrna. The average wage of the jobs will be $38,000. The company and the location of where the jobs will be located will be revealed during a news conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday. Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce President Paul Latture made the announcement Monday morning during a special-called meeting of the Industrial Development Board. “This is just another example of Rutherford County being red hot and people wanting to bring jobs and investments,” said Rob Lyons, a member of the IDB. Monday morning, the IDB approved more than $18,000 in tax incentives for what’s being called Project Cedar.

Company To Bring 1,000 New Jobs To Smyrna (WTVF-TV Nashville)
An unnamed company has announced plans to bring 1,000 new jobs to Rutherford County. Officials said the company, which has not yet been named, would bring 1,000 manufacturing jobs to Smyrna. All of the jobs were said to be full-time and were expected to be a significant boost to the local economy. Limited details were released Monday. A press conference has been scheduled for Tuesday at 3 p.m. at the State Capitol, where officials were expected to announce more about the project.

Tennessee Gov. Haslam not sure filing of lawsuits benefits BEP (TFP/Sher)
Already faced with recent votes by five local school boards to sue Tennessee over its education funding formula, Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday he’s “not sure that suing people ever helps the conversation.” Speaking with reporters, Haslam noted he expects to meet this coming Monday with school directors from Hamilton County, which last week voted to sue the state, as well as Knox and Shelby counties, where school boards are also contemplating litigation. Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Jesse Register, who has tried to hold his board back, is also expected to attend. Metro’s school board has given Register 30 days to get some kind of agreement from the state. The four districts represent the largest of the state’s 141 school districts.

Tennessee Education Chief Stresses Teachers are ‘Valued’ (AP/Johnson)
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has a message for the state’s teachers: You’re valued. That might seem intuitive, but teachers say it offers a refreshing contrast to her predecessor, Kevin Huffman. He left the state Education Department under fire last year for his aggressive approach to education reform. He was especially criticized for how he handled teachers, especially when he tried to tie their licenses to standardized test scores. McQueen says she wants teachers to help determine how the state measures what they do. “It’s extraordinarily important to make sure that teacher voice is being heard as we analyze the policy decisions that have been made over the last several years, and start planning for the future,” she said during a visit this month to a Nashville high school.

FEMA in East Tenn. assessing February storm damage (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is in East Tennessee, checking records to see how much area counties spent in response to February storms for possible reimbursement. The agency is expected to be here about a week. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said it has already completed an initial assessment of the damage and submitted it to FEMA. According to TEMA’s report, 40 counties throughout the state surpass the threshold FEMA requires to apply for assistance. Now FEMA is in East Tennessee to complete a joint preliminary damage assessment to confirm that TEMA’s report is accurate. It’ll work in conjunction with area emergency management agencies, according to TEMA spokesman Dean Fleenor.

Pothole repairs continue across Midstate (WSMV-TV Nashville)
Traffic jams are no longer the biggest complaint for Midstate drivers. The latest frustration seems to be potholes. Tennessee Department of Transportation crews were out on Monday patching the potholes left behind by the recent ice and snow. “I do want it done as soon as possible, but I do know they have a lot to do,” said Joyce White, a driver. Many drivers said the potholes have turned roads into an obstacle course. “I am swerving if I have to of I am kind of switching lanes if I have to,” said Hakar Haji, a driver. Several people have checked in on the Channel 4 Facebook page to let us know about trouble spots. Kasi Heflin saw crews patching potholes on Sunday, but wrote, “The thing is they were fixing small ones in between lanes, not the huge ones that you actually hit while driving.”

Pothole Problems: Tennessee Is Getting 10 To 20 Claims Per Day (WPLN-Radio)
The many potholes on state roads after the recent ice and rain means more cars with flat tires and bent rims. The Tennessee treasury department is seeing the effects as well: It’s the agency responsible for paying out claims for road-related damages. “We’re getting an overwhelming number of phone calls coming into our office,” says communications director Shelli King. “This is just beyond and above what we had last year.” The department is getting 10 to 20 claims a day, she says, bringing the total number since February to at least 300. But not all of those claims will be paid out. The damage has to take place on an interstate or state highway — King says many claims refer to locally run roads, and the agency denies those. (Local governments have their own claims divisions.)

Tennessee Celebrates National Agriculture Day on Wednesday (WDEF-TV Chatt)
Governor Bill Haslam has proclaimed March 18 as Agriculture Day in Tennessee. This day coincides with National Agriculture Day to celebrate the abundance provided by the farms and producers of America. “We thank Gov. Haslam for recognizing the influence of agriculture on our state,” Commissioner of Agriculture Julius Johnson said. “As the world population soars, the demand for food, fiber and fuel continues to grow. Tennessee is helping to meet that demand.” Agriculture contributes to almost everything we eat, use and wear every day. The purpose of Agriculture Day is to unite Tennesseans and to appreciate the role the industry plays in our lives.

State survey launched on Dunbar Cave (Leaf Chronicle)
Tennessee State Parks system wants to know what visitors think about Dunbar Cave State Park’s current condition and has launched an online survey to solicit opinion. The survey also asks about visitor’s thoughts on amenities, recreation activities and the various services they seek when selecting any park to visit. The survey takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes to complete, according to a news release from Shannon Ashford, communications and social media manager for Tennessee State Parks and Conservation. “All responses are anonymous and will be used to potentially make changes at Dunbar Cave or at other state parks – helping us deliver a better product and elevating our level of customer service,” she writes.

Business court to open in Davidson County in May (Tennessean/McGee)
The Tennessee Supreme Court is opening a new business court in Davidson County to resolve business litigation cases more efficiently. The Davidson County Business Court Pilot Project, which will begin taking cases May 1, will allow lawyers to better predict rulings and will ease docket congestion in other courts, according to an order. The court’s evaluations could shape additional business courts in Tennessee. Davidson County Chancery Court III will serve as the business court, and Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle will be the presiding judge. “Our court system must do a better job serving the needs of businesses that provide jobs to Tennesseans,” Chief Justice Sharon Lee said in a statement.

New business court created in Nashville by Tennessee Supreme Court (NBJ)
A new state court in Davidson County has been created to focus exclusively on complex business litigation, the Tennessee Supreme Court ordered Monday. The new court is designed as a pilot project to identify best practices for developing a future Tennessee Business Courts system, the court said Monday. It will begin hearing cases filed on or after May 1. Eligible cases include civil litigation with at least $50,000 in damages sought. They must “relate to the internal affairs of business,” including but not limited to shareholder rights, breach of contract, intellectual property rights and commercial property disputes, according to the Tennessee Supreme Court order written by Chief Justice Sharon Lee.

New business court to be introduced in Davidson County (Nashville Post)
In an order issued Monday, the state Supreme Court ordered the creation of a business court in Davidson County. Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle will be the judge for the court, which the Supreme Court calls a pilot project that will gather “data and information to identify best practices for development of potential future Tennessee Business Courts.” Broadly, the court — which will begin May 1 — will handle complex business litigation to expedite those cases through the system, as well as relieving other dockets of often time-consuming business cases.

Whiskey, weed and helmets: 5 issues to watch this week (Tennessean/Boucher)
As the General Assembly inches toward its expected end in late April, more potentially controversial bills are on committee agendas. That includes a handful of issues that could spark debate in committees this week. Marijuana Yes, the bill to legalize cannabis oil for medicinal uses is back in committee — the 10:30 a.m. House Criminal Justice on Wednesday, to be precise. But the much broader “Medical Cannabis Access Act” from Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, and Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, is also up in committee. At 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the House State Government Committee will take up the bill — which has failed several times in the past — as well as a bill from Rep. Harold Love and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both D-Nashville, that slightly increases the amount of marijuana a person can carry before it’s considered a misdemeanor.

School Vouchers May Finally Become Reality In Tennessee (WPLN-Radio Nashville)
A plan to start a school voucher program in Tennessee has been kicking around in the legislature for several years. And this may be the session it finally passes, even though Governor Bill Haslam abandoned his own proposal from years past. Haslam isn’t the biggest fan of paying private school tuition for students, but he does see some potential if a voucher program is limited to low-income families zoned for struggling schools. “I 100 percent believe in the concept of vouchers, that parents should be able to choose where their child goes, but I also realize this: we have a million kids in education across the state,” Haslam says. “We have a larger responsibility to the entire system.”

Capitol report: Lawmakers repeal 2001 “Intractable Pain” act (N-S/Locker)
State lawmakers on Monday night repealed a 14-year-old Tennessee law that was intended to give doctors broad authority to prescribe painkilling drugs to patients with chronic and intractable pain. The bill now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam, who is expected to sign it into law. The Intractable Pain Act of 2001 was enacted after years of debate about how to properly treat patients, some of them with terminal illnesses like cancer, with acute and chronic pain. Some physicians were leery of prescribing pain killers, particularly opiate-based drugs, for fear of prosecution. The 2001 law included a “Pain Patient’s Bill of Rights” declaring that a patient suffering from severe chronic intractable pain “has the option to choose opiate medications to relieve severe chronic intractable pain without first having to submit to an invasive medical procedure,” and if the doctor refused, must inform the patient that there are physicians who specialize in the treatment of severe chronic pain with opiates.

Self-defense bill against threatening animals up for Tenn. Senate vote (WKRN-TV)
Tennessee is just a few steps away from getting to what amounts to a self-defense “stand your ground” law against “threatening animals.” The measure, Senate Bill 0205 and House Bill 0135, which is scheduled for a vote in the Tennessee Senate on March 19, grew out of personal connections with at least two state lawmakers. Sen. Frank Niceley told News 2 he had a friend face a potential fine from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) after shooting a threatening bear while hunting wild boar. “Asking some prosecutors, I discovered Tennessee does not have a self-defense law to protect against you against threatening animals,” said Niceley, who is sponsoring the measure in the Senate. Rep. Jeremy Faison has a similar story, but it involved his children and a copperhead.

Whose Side Is Bob Corker On? (Politico)
The past week wasn’t an easy one for Bob Corker. “No doubt, it’s created a little drama,” the Tennessee senator tells me, referring to Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s March 9 letter to Iran’s leadership warning about making a nuclear deal with the Obama administration. A full 47 of Corker’s Republican colleagues signed the letter; he was one of the seven who didn’t. Slowly, patiently, Corker explains to me that he agrees in principle with GOP claims that President Barack Obama is trying to circumvent Congress by hammering out a deal that would lift sanctions on Iran without lawmakers’ approval. But the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also points out something else: There’s another deal to be made—and it doesn’t involve American diplomats or the Iranians sitting across the negotiating table from them. It’s the deal he hopes to strike with the Democrats within his own chamber—one that could rein their president back in by giving Congress the final word on Iran. And antagonizing them isn’t going to be helpful. “I just didn’t view the letter as constructive,” he said. “It’s nothing I ever considered.”

House Near a Fix for Medicare Payments (Wall Street Journal)
House leaders are closing in on a $200 billion package to permanently fix a flawed formula for calculating Medicare reimbursements to doctors and other health-care providers, but the emerging deal has come under fire from lawmakers in both parties. Under the agreement taking shape in talks between House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), Congress would avoid a 21% cut in doctor payments that is scheduled to take effect April 1. The plan, which would cost $200 billion over 10 years, is aimed at permanently solving a problem that has bedeviled Congress for decades.

Why Some Public Pensions Could Soon Look Much Worse (Governing)
Standing in a crowded hallway outside a committee room in the Kentucky State Capitol, House Speaker Greg Stumbo is surrounded by thankful teachers and skeptical reporters. It is mid-February and the committee has just approved his proposal to borrow $3.3 billion to shore up the state’s teacher retirement system. Stumbo has argued that current, historically low interest rates are a window of opportunity to solidify funding for the troubled system. But, notes one reporter, borrowing $3.3 billion would be a challenge since it would be the largest bond offering in Kentucky’s history. Yes, Stumbo counters, but the state already owes the money.

TVA strategy hearing Thursday in Chattanooga (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)
The Tennessee Valley Authority will host a public meeting and webinar from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday in the TVA Chattanooga Office Complex to hear public comments about the newly released draft of its 2015 Integrated Resource Plan. The power plan, which is intended to guide TVA’s decisions for the next 20 years, is scheduled to be adopted by the TVA board in August after input from public stakeholder groups and a series of seven public hearings. The integrated resource plan and its associated Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is a study of how TVA might meet future energy and capacity needs in a variety of future conditions.

Thomas Zacharia returns to high-level post at ORNL (News-Sentinel/Munger)
Thomas Zacharia, best known for helping build Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s scientific computing program to a world-leading position, is returning to ORNL after spending the past 2½ years in Qatar developing high-level research initiatives there. ORNL Director Thom Mason announced Monday that Zacharia will return to his old position — deputy lab director for science and technology — on April 1. The position has been vacant since Zacharia’s successor, Ramamoorthy Ramesh, left Oak Ridge last September for a position at Berkeley Lab in California. Zacharia’s return to ORNL has been rumored for months, and Lab Director Thom Mason joked that it was one of the worst-kept secrets ever.

Fortune cookie maker considers expansion in La Vergne (Tennessean/Ward)
The largest fortune cookie maker is considering adding new manufacturing operations in La Vergne, which would employ up to 70 people in the first phase and eventually produce 1 million to 2 million cookies daily. Wonton Food Inc. is also considering Houston or New York for the expansion, but Nashville is the front-runner pending Metro’s Industrial Development Board approving issuance of up to $10 million in industrial revenue bonds to help finance the $20 million project. “Our preference is to be able to invest in Nashville,” said Wei Chan, project coordinator for the expansion and an assistant to the board of Wonton, which is also seeking an unspecified amount of tax abatements.

Is Tennessee on list of worst states in which to grow old? (TFP/Flessner)
The number of Americans 65 and older grew from 35 million in 2000 to 44.7 million in 2013. By 2030, there are projected to be 72.1 million seniors in the U.S. Based upon comparative rankings for senior income, crime, disability and education, the worst states for seniors are: 1. Mississippi, median income of seniors is $29,511 (the lowest of any state) and 45.1 percent of seniors have a disability (2nd highest). 2. Louisiana, median income of seniors is $31,230 (2nd lowest) and violent crime rate (510 per 100,000 residents) is 5th highest. 3. West Virginia, median income of seniors is $31,543 (3rd lowest) and 45.5 percent of those over 65 have a disability (highest state). 4. Arkansas, median income of seniors is $31,959 (4th lowest); 42.4 percent of seniors have a disability (4th highest) and violent crime rate (446 per 100,000 residents) is 10th highest.

OPINION

Times Editorial: Don’t fall for empty promises of school vouchers (TFP)
I grew up in public schools. As a kid, that’s where I got my education, both social and academic. My family wanted me to get an excellent education and live the American dream promised by generations: living a life better than my parents. Now, as a social worker and Board of Education member, I try to fulfill that promise. Unfortunately, too many people today want to see money drained away from our public schools, hurting the chances of each student left in them. At exactly the moment when Tennessee has made progress — when Race to the Top has raised standards, test scores, and opportunity for our kids — those supporting vouchers would pull money away from public classrooms and send them to private schools, leaving fewer resources for the same number of public school buildings, teachers, classrooms, and ball fields. This makes no sense. Hamilton County Schools are making progress.

Editorial: Shelby County Schools has tough budget decisions on the horizon (CA)
As Shelby County Schools and the Shelby County Commission, which funds the district, edge closer toward beginning serious deliberations over approving budgets for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the district is sounding the funding alarm. SCS is facing more than $125 million in budget cuts for the coming year, and school board members maintain the district already has cut to the bone and any more reductions would impact what happens the classroom. Based on previous cuts since the legacy Memphis City and Shelby County Schools districts merged, there is no indication that school board members and school administrators are crying wolf.