March 18 TN News Digest

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

Nissan to build $160 million supplier park at Tennessee plant (Associated Press)
Nissan Motor Co. announced plans Tuesday to build a new $160 million supplier park at its Tennessee assembly plant that the Japanese automaker projects to attract more than 1,000 jobs. Nissan North America Chairman Jose Munoz called the supplier park a key component in the company’s drive toward capturing 10 percent of the U.S. market share. “Nissan has continued to invest in Tennessee because you have created a business environment that encourages growth and innovation,” Munoz said at a ceremony at the state Capitol. Gov. Bill Haslam noted that Nissan has more than 12,000 Nissan employees between its Smyrna complex and an engine plant in Decherd.

Nissan plans supplier park (Daily News Journal)
Gov. Bill Haslam announced Tuesday at a press conference in the Tennessee State Capitol that Nissan is the company behind “Project Cedar.” A $160 million investment will turn into 1,000 jobs housed in an expansion at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, the governor announced. “The success of Tennessee’s automotive industry brings with it growth in supplier networks,” Haslam said, “and we want to thank Nissan for this new investment in Smyrna and our state.” The project will be completed in phases with the first starting later this year to be complete in late 2016 with full completion slated for late 2017. Smyrna Mayor Mary Esther Reed said Nissan’s continued investment in Smyrna is welcome news.

Nissan to spend about $160M, create 1,000 jobs in Smyrna (Nashville Post)
State and Rutherford County officials announced today Nissan will invest about $160 million in establishing a supplier park at the company’s Smyrna assembly plant, a move that is expected to create up to 1,000 jobs. Plans call for the construction of a logistics center spanning more than 1.5 million square feet. The project’s first phase is expected to be completed in late 2016. The park is projected to be finished in full by late 2017. The park will house suppliers that work with Nissan both on bringing in production parts and processing returnable containers leaving the Smyrna plant. The announcement follows the Rutherford County Industrial Development Board’s approval Monday of $18 million in tax incentives related to the project.

Nissan to add 1,000 jobs in Smyrna (Tennessean/Ward)
The supplier park Nissan North America plans to invest $160 million to create on its massive Smyrna campus is part of a growing trend among automakers seeking to shorten the time and distance that parts have to travel to reach their assembly lines. Officials with Rutherford County’s largest employer, along with Gov. Bill Haslam and other state and local officials, Tuesday announced plans for the more than 1.5 million-square-foot integrated logistics center. Already, Nissan has 10 suppliers lined up to occupy space at the park, which should create more than 1,000 jobs.

Nissan to invest $160M in Smyrna expansion (Nashville Business Journal)
Nissan North America, already the largest employer in Rutherford County, is about to add to its local investment. Company, state and local officials announced Tuesday that the Japanese-based automaker, whose North American division is based in Franklin, will invest $160 million to expand in Smyrna, creating 1,000 jobs. The investment will create a new “supplier park.” The move comes after Nissan North America posted record U.S. sales in 2014. In December, the automaker partnered with the state to build an education and training center neighboring its Smyrna assembly plant. That facility is expected to take up more than 150,000 square feet and open in late 2016.

Nissan to expand in Smyrna, bring 1,000 new jobs (WSMV-TV Nashville)
Nissan will expand its vehicle assembly plant in Smyrna, bring 1,000 new jobs to the area. Gov. Bill Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, along with Nissan officials, announced the expansion Tuesday. Nissan will invest $160 million to build a new supplier park. “Nissan and Tennessee have enjoyed a long and successful partnership, and today’s announcement is another significant milestone in our history together,” Haslam said in a release. “The success of Tennessee’s automotive industry brings with it growth in supplier networks, and we want to thank Nissan for this new investment in Smyrna and our state.”

Nissan Wants Suppliers On Site, Even If They’re Selling To A Competitor (WPLN)
Nissan North America wants parts suppliers to set up shop as close as possible to its flagship plant in Smyrna. The Franklin-based automaker announced Tuesday the construction of a “supplier park” on its campus.vThe company plans to invest $160 million in the project, with substantial help from state and local government. Ten unnamed auto suppliers have already committed to establish operations on site, creating a projected 1,000 jobs. Already, 8,400 people work at the Nissan plant, which is considered the largest auto plant in North America. “My goal is to get these suppliers to invest in Tennessee near to that big car factory,” Nissan senior vice president for manufacturing John Martin said.

Why Nissan is betting large on its new $160M supplier park in Smyrna (NBJ)
Nissan North America isn’t simply betting its new supplier park in Smyrna will bring 1,000 new jobs. The Franklin-based automaker is expecting much more than that. “We’re not going to stop at 1,000 jobs,” said John Martin, Nissan’s senior vice president for manufacturing, purchasing and supply chain management said Tuesday. “I want to bring as much suppliers as close to the factory as possible.” “I’m not going to stop at 1,000 jobs,” Martin continued. “I’m going to keep on growing them until there isn’t any opportunity left. I think the sky is the limit.” The reasons, according to Martin and José Muñoz, chairman of Nissan North America’s management committee, is this: The more suppliers that Nissan can house on its Smyrna campus, the more money it can save and the more efficiently it can turn out vehicles.

Haslam names Kevin Triplett new tourist commissioner (Associated Press)
Gov. Bill Haslam has named Kevin Triplett the new commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. The 49-year-old Triplett is currently vice president of public affairs for Bristol Motor Speedway. He replaces Susan Whitaker, who announced her departure in December. Triplett’s first day on the job will be April 23. Tourism is one of Tennessee’s largest industries with a $16.7 billion direct economic impact in 2013, a 3.4 percent increase over 2012. Officials say state and local tax collections reached a new high of $1.28 billion for tourism-related businesses in 2013, which is the eighth consecutive year above $1 billion.

Haslam taps Bristol Motor Speedway VP to head tourism department (N. Post)
Gov. Bill Haslam today announced that Kevin Triplett has been named commissioner of the state Department of Tourist Development. The vice president of public affairs for Bristol Motor Speedway, Triplett (pictured) will replace Susan Whitaker, who has served in the role since January 2011. His first day on the job will be April 23, according to a release. Relatedly, Haslam also named Sande Weiss, president of Music Road Resort in Pigeon Forge, co-chair of the Tennessee Tourism Committee. Weiss (pictured) fills the role previously held by Dolly Parton Productions President Ted Miller. The tourism committee, which Haslam established in 2011, is chaired by Colin Reed, CEO of Ryman Hospitality Properties, and co-chaired by Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. CEO Jack Soden.

Haslam names NASCAR’s Kevin Triplett as tourist commissioner (Tenn/Barnes)
Gov. Bill Haslam announced Tuesday that NASCAR aficionado Kevin Triplett will join his cabinet as Department of Tourist Development commissioner. Triplett, 49, is vice president of public affairs for Bristol Motor Speedway. Prior to joining BMS in 2005, he worked in various roles for NASCAR, ultimately serving as managing director of business operations, guiding the operation and administration of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series “Tourism is one of our state’s largest industries, providing $16.7 billion in direct economic impact, and Kevin brings a lot of energy and passion to the industry with decades of experience pulling together different stakeholders and constituencies,” Haslam said in a news release.

Speedway executive named TN tourism commissioner (News-Sentinel)
An executive with the Bristol Motor Speedway has been named by Gov. Bill Haslam as commissioner of the Department of Tourist Development. Kevin Triplett, 49, is vice president of public affairs for Bristol Motor Speedway. Prior to joining BMS in 2005, he worked in various roles for NASCAR, ultimately serving as managing director of business operations, guiding the operation and administration of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series, and Camping World Truck Series. “Tourism is one of our state’s largest industries, providing $16.7 billion in direct economic impact, and Kevin brings a lot of energy and passion to the industry with decades of experience pulling together different stakeholders and constituencies,” Haslam said in a statement.

BMS official named commissioner of Tenn tourism development (Times-News)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam named Kevin Triplett commissioner of the Department of Tourist Development. Triplett, 49, is vice president of public affairs for Bristol Motor Speedway. Prior to joining BMS in 2005, he worked in various roles for NASCAR, ultimately serving as managing director of business operations, guiding the operation and administration of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series. He has twice been named one of NASCAR’s “25 Most Influential” by The Charlotte Observer. “Tourism is one of our state’s largest industries, providing $16.7 billion in direct economic impact, and Kevin brings a lot of energy and passion to the industry with decades of experience pulling together different stakeholders and constituencies,” Haslam said in a prepared release.

Triplett named Tennessee tourist development commissioner (Herald-Courier)
Kevin Triplett, a longtime executive at Bristol Motor Speedway, was named commissioner of the Department of Tourist Development on Tuesday by Gov. Bill Haslam. Triplett, 49, is vice president of public affairs for the speedway. He will replace Commissioner Susan Whitaker, who has held that post for 12 years and announced her departure in December. He begins work April 23, according to a written statement. “Tourism is one of our state’s largest industries, providing $16.7 billion in direct economic impact, and Kevin brings a lot of energy and passion to the industry with decades of experience pulling together different stakeholders and constituencies,” Haslam said in the statement.

Potholes Are So Bad That TDOT’s Commissioner Is Out Filling Them (WPLN-Radio)
Drivers in the Nashville area should expect to see rolling lane closures on interstates and state highways, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. TDOT is re-paving lanes on I-40 and I-24 around Nashville, where simply patching the potholes is not effective. It’s closing lanes in both directions until at least Wednesday. A new video from TDOT shows workers filling potholes with asphalt on 440, as cars closely roll by. Commissioner John Schroer, dressed in a bright yellow vest, cautions drivers to pay attention before taking a shovel and helping workers. “We’ve got all sorts of safety vehicles here,” he says over the roar of the highway.

TDOT’s backlogged road projects highlighted (Leaf Chronicle)
Ten planned state road projects in northern middle Tennessee are among a list of backlogged roadwork on the drawing board statewide, affecting most of the 95 Tennessee counties with a combined value of more than $6 billion. The Tennessee Department of Transportation released the list as it continues to make its appeal to the Tennessee General Assembly for more funding. The state has historically relied on a no-growth gasoline tax to raise revenue for roadwork, and TDOT, unlike many other states, has operated on a pay-as-you-go basis to build roads and avoid accumulating debt. But there has been a growing drumbeat to raise the gas tax or come up with alternatives, as traffic gridlock mounts and existing highways fail to adequately handle the load.

Agency should restart conventional loans for home buyers this year (TFP/Flessner)
Home ownership fell last year to the lowest level in 19 years as a growing share of young adults avoided the American dream of buying a home. With more student debt and less confidence in both the job and housing markets than their parents had at their age, homebuying has not bounced back with the overall economy since the housing slump caused the Great Recession of 2009-2010. But Ralph Perrey is eager to reverse the drop in home ownership, at least in Tennessee. As head of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, Perrey is touring the state this week to preach his message of hope for both home buyers and home lenders.

Nagging flu season not yet over (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Nelson)
It’s been a rough flu season for Tennessee — and health officials say it’s not over yet. “We are still seeing flu activity, mostly Type B, so the season is still underway,” said Shelley Walker, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health. That strain of flu is the “second wave” health officials warned of earlier this season when urging people to still get the flu shot even though it was a poor match for the Type A strain, especially H3N2, that was most common at that time. During the first week of March, Type B accounted for more than double the specimens tested — unlike earlier in the season, when the bulk of specimens tested were Type A.

Teacher evaluation bill advances in House (Tennessean/Balakit)
A bill that would gradually phase in the use of test scores from a new state assessment in teacher evaluations passed the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday with no objections. Gov. Bill Haslam proposed the legislation to help educators as the state prepares to administer a new state assessment. TN Ready, a Common Core-aligned test, will replace the state’s Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program next year. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, sponsors the bill. Student growth data, derived from yearly changes in student TCAP test scores, comprises 35 percent of teacher evaluations.

Revised workers’ comp opt-out plan sent to Senate committee (Tenn/Fletcher)
State Sen. Mark Green presented a revised workers’ compensation opt-out plan to a Senate committee Tuesday to address some of the questions that have been raised about the bill. Green and House sponsor state Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, have added or are in the process of adding provisions, including funeral service benefits and dismemberment. “This is not the definitive answer, either. If there are any recommendations on how we can make this better, we’re open to that as well,” Green, R-Clarksville, told the Senate Commerce and Labor committee. Representatives from the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System and from Brookdale Senior Living’s operations in Texas spoke in support of opt-out plans.

Tennessee school voucher bill headed for full Senate vote (Associated Press)
Legislation to create a school voucher program in Tennessee is headed for a vote on the Senate floor. The proposal sponsored by Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga was approved 9-2 in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday and is now being scheduled for a vote by the full Senate. The legislation is similar to a measure Republican Gov. Bill Haslam proposed last year that failed. Under Gardenhire’s proposal, eligibility would be opened to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent. Haslam’s proposal was approved in the Senate last year, but the House version was unsuccessful because it sought to expand eligibility.

Pro-voucher campaign gets parents to do the talking (Commercial Appeal/Roberts)
Felecia Dotson is a godsend for the school voucher movement in Tennessee. She is articulate, passionate and beyond simply saying she wants what’s best for children, she has sacrificed to send her daughter to private schools. Dotson is convinced her daughter is on track to succeed in college because she got personal attention in classes that were small to start with, first at New Hope Christian Academy in Frayser, and now at St. Agnes Academy in East Memphis. “Most parents in this part of town don’t have the money to even think about private schools,” said Dotson, part of knot of volunteers fanning across Airways Shopping Center off Lamar Tuesday to collect signatures on a pro-voucher petition, spearheaded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Memphis.

Tenn Weighs Opening Absentee Voting To Everyone, No Questions Asked (WPLN)
Voting absentee could become a lot easier in Tennessee. A plan making its way through the legislature would let anybody cast their ballot by mail, no questions asked. Current state law requires voters to give a reason when they apply for an absentee ballot, but the excuses can be wide-ranging. Advocates say opening absentee balloting to everyone boosts turnout and gives voters more time to research issues and candidates before making their selections. Many states have loosened restrictions on absentee ballots in recent years, and Oregon votes entirely by mail. The proposal, House Bill 553, stops short of vote-by-mail, but it would give the option to any voter who asks for it.

Plan To Seize Property Now Requires Terrorism Convictions First (WPLN-Radio)
A plan to let Tennessee officials seize property believed to have been used for terrorism is beginning to gain steam in the state legislature, following an amendment that made the bill a little more acceptable to Muslims in the state. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 9-0 to give initial approval to Senate Bill 180 yesterday, which would expand Tennessee’s asset forfeiture laws to cover terrorist acts. The move came after the proposal’s backers agreed to require a conviction before law enforcement groups could take property. That represents a step forward, said Paul Galloway, executive director of the American Center for Outreach, a Muslim advocacy group based in Nashville.

State lawmakers introduce marijuana decriminalization bill (WSMV-TV Nashville)
Some Tennessee lawmakers hope a small change will make a big difference when it comes to issuing jail time and fines for those possessing small amounts of marijuana. Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, introduced a new decriminalization bill. It has been an issue that’s been hard to get through the Legislature. “This is not a legalization bill,” Love said. “This is a decriminalization bill which says it is still an offense but we don’t want folks to have felonies on their records for possessing small amounts of marijuana, less than an ounce.” Currently those in possession of anywhere from a half-ounce of marijuana to 10 pounds is grouped together and face the same fines.

Secret ‘Pre-Meetings’ Become Commonplace in TN House (AP/Schelzig, Johnson)
Tennessee House committees are increasingly gathering in cramped, tucked-away conference rooms in the legislative office complex to hold secret “pre-meetings” to discuss pending legislation. The public isn’t informed or invited. No public notice is given for the time or location of the meetings held at odd hours by at least 10 of the 15 standing committees in the House. Supporters say the pre-meetings allow free-flowing discussion about bills without lobbyists, the media or parliamentary procedure. But without public access, it’s impossible to verify whether lawmakers are keeping promises that they are not predetermining the outcome of later committee votes.

Routinely held secret ‘pre-meetings’ in Tennessee House criticized (TFP/Sher)
In a major break from past practice, most Tennessee House committees are routinely holding unannounced, secret “pre-meetings” where they thoroughly vet pending bills prior to their public consideration in committees. The undisclosed meetings occur behind closed doors in far-flung members’ offices in the state Capitol complex, away from committee rooms where hearings are videostreamed for the public’s benefit. At least 10 of the 15 House standing committees are discussing bills first behind closed doors. Several House Republicans say the informal gatherings allow a freer flow of discussion and insist they are not taking actual votes on bills.

SPECIAL REPORT: Secret ‘pre-meetings’ routine in state House (N-S/Locker)
In tiny conference rooms tucked away in lawmakers’ office suites, most of the committees and subcommittees of the state House of Representatives are holding secret, unannounced meetings to review virtually all bills in advance of their public meetings. The “pre-meetings” do not appear on the Legislature’s weekly public calendars, are not held in the public hearing rooms that line the Legislative Plaza’s main corridor, are not streamed on the Legislature’s website nor recorded and archived for future public viewing as the public meetings are. But at least 10 of the House’s 15 standing committees regularly schedule at least one “pre-meeting” a week, reporters for The Commercial Appeal, The Tennessean, Knoxville News-Sentinel, Chattanooga Times Free Press and The Associated Press discovered this week. Reporters were initially blocked from this week’s first scheduled pre-meeting, of the House Civil Justice Committee on Monday afternoon in House Speaker Beth Harwell’s conference room.

Senate Committee Wants Glenn Funk’s Testimony (WTVF-TV Nashville)
District Attorney General Glenn Funk appears to be heading for a round of tough questions from a legislative committee. As even more questions surfaced Tuesday evening, senators said Funk has agreed to testify next week about a state job created for him, before he took office, to help boost his state pension and get health insurance for his family. That deal was first revealed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates. The request for Funk to testify came after a series of questions by the committee revealed that Funk’s deal even appears to have been a closely guarded secret inside the state agency where he got the part-time job. “Who knew what, when?” asked Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. For the second week, committee members had tough questions for officials from the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.

Sen. Bo Watson slams VW over labor policies, UAW recognition (TFP/Sher)
Top Volkswagen officials came under harsh questioning Tuesday from a Chattanooga Republican lawmaker who charged that the German auto manufacturer is a “magnet for organized labor, intentionally.” During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the state Economic and Community Development’s budget, which includes $165.8 million in proposed state incentives to the company, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, repeatedly drilled David Geanacopoulos, Volkswagen America’s general counsel, about its labor policies. Watson said the incentives for Volkswagen “will give Southeast Tennessee a big foothold in the automotive industry particularly in research and development and … development of a new line of VW vehicles” — a planned SUV.

Senators want answers about DA Glenn Funk’s pension (TN/Barchenger, Boucher)
The Senate Judiciary Committee wants details about a controversy surrounding Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk’s pension before funding the body that approved those benefits. The committee delayed funding the District Attorney’s Conference on Tuesday, and the committee members said they would wait for Funk to address their concerns at a meeting next week before approving the agency’s budget. The conference hired Funk to work as a part-time prosecutor after Funk was elected but before he was sworn in. In doing so, Funk was able to enroll in the retirement system before employee contributions increased.

Corker, Alexander to oppose nomination of Lynch for attorney general (TFP)
U.S. Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander today announced they will oppose the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general of the United States. “The job of the U.S. attorney general is to enforce federal laws as written, not as the administration wishes they were written,” Corker said in a news release. “While I believe Ms. Lynch is an impressive attorney and a committed public servant, nothing revealed during our personal meeting or at her confirmation hearing has assured me that she will be an independent attorney general and refrain from selective enforcement of the law, and therefore I will not be supporting her confirmation.”

Corker, Alexander-sponsored Tennessee Wilderness Act gets reintroduced (JCP)
The time is now for Tennessee’s Wilderness Act. Legislation sponsored by Tennessee Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander to protect approximately 20,000 acres of wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest is on the move again. Not only do environmentalists across the state hope for its success, but so do those expect to see its positive economic impact if it reaches President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed into law. Dawson Wheeler, who co-owns Rock Creek Outfitters in Chattanooga, said he’s feeling hopeful this time about the act, especially because it’s a standalone bill and not coupled with anything else that could muddy the political waters.

FEMA to test Emergency Alert System in 4 states (Associated Press)
Residents in Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio will have their regularly programmed television and radio shows interrupted Wednesday during a test of the nation’s emergency alert system. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said the only way to see if the system is capable of providing lifesaving messages and alerts during a real disaster is by testing it. The test will begin around 2:30 p.m. EDT and will last approximately one minute.

Winter cold pushes up power costs across Tennessee Valley (TFP/Flessner)
Andrea King used a couple of kerosene heaters this winter to help keep her East Chattanooga home warm, but the electric space heater she relied upon for most of her warmth still ended up costing her more than $728.87 to run over the past couple of months. “We live in the front of our house and closed off the back of the house but in the winter it just costs way too much to keep our house heated,” King said Tuesday while waiting at Metropolitan Ministries in Chattanooga to get some financial help to pay her power bill. “This time of year is always tough.” Consumers across the Tennessee Valley are paying the price these days for the frigid temperatures in January and February.


Columnist: State Legislators Misfire In Rush to Impress NRA Attendees (MDN)
With the National Rifle Association bringing 75,000 people to Nashville for its April 10-12 convention, the timing is seemingly right for the General Assembly to impress by passing a bevy of gun bills. But so far this session, passing firearms-related legislation has been like putting the wrong size bullets in a pistol. Even if it fires the first time, it’s probably going to jam on the second round. That’s despite Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate, which would seemingly prove more fertile ground for wide-open gun laws. Rep. Micah Van Huss’s measure allowing people to openly carry guns without a handgun carry permit failed recently on a House subcommittee voice vote.