March 20 TN News Digest

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

Pure Foods Selects Kingsport for US Headquarters (Associated Press)
Gov. Bill Haslam says Pure Foods Inc. has chosen Kingsport for its U.S. headquarters and manufacturing operations. The governor and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd announced this week that the specialty snack food maker is investing $22 million to build an 88,000-square-foot facility that’s expected to create more than 270 jobs in Sullivan County. Officials say construction has started on the Kingsport location, the company’s fourth facility in North America. Completion is slated for August 2015. Pure Foods produces nutrient-dense and low-fat specialty snack foods. The new facility will serve markets primarily in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Haslam joins Mule Day as grand marshal (Columbia Daily Herald)
Gov. Bill Haslam will lead the 2015 Mule Day Parade as grand marshal. The governor has been known to attend the festivities in the past, but this year, he will lead the charge in the annual equine event. “I always look forward to Mule Day, and I am incredibly honored to be this year’s grand marshal,” Haslam said Thursday. “This will be my sixth Mule Day, and it is one of my favorite Tennessee traditions.” The Knoxville native went to Emory University in 1976, where he met Crissy — a Memphis woman who would later become his wife. Haslam graduated from the university with a history degree.

Launch Tennessee plans return to roots to make 36|86 stand out (N. Biz Journal)
Tech and entrepreneurship conferences are a hot item these days. As South by Southwest rages in Austin (complete with Mark Cuban throwing shade at hospitals), Nashville is prepping for Inc.’s GrowCo in April and dueling Southland successors 36|86 and Pandoland this June. Meanwhile, other Southeastern cities have efforts of their own, like DIG South, a third-year Charleston conference that will feature speakers from TechCrunch, Buzzfeed, Twitter and lots of other notable venture, tech and media groups. So how will public-private economic development partnership Launch Tennessee differentiate its rebranded summer event, 36|86? First and foremost, LaunchTN CEO Charlie Brock said, the newly created Southern Series provides a “really unique” element.

TCAT Elizabethton offering sign-up days for Tennessee Reconnect grants (JCP)
The state has a new initiative to help adults who complete a postsecondary degree or credential. The program, called Tennessee Reconnect, is targeted at the 900,000 to 1 million adults with some college but no degree. Next week the Tennessee College of Applied Technology will be providing an opportunity for those adults to sign up for a Tennessee Reconnect grant. The program would allow those students to attend TCAT Elizabethton free of tuition and fees, beginning in the fall of 2015.

State DMV adds online services in attempt to reduce wait times (TFP/Healey)
One of the hallmarks of a trip to the DMV — long wait times — could go the way of the Dodo in Tennessee. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security announced a new statewide driver’s license system in a release Thursday that will “increase efficiency at state driver’s license centers.” It’s the first major upgrade to the state’s driver service system in 30 years. The new system, called “A-List,” was launched Feb. 17. It consists of a single Web-based screen meant to increase the speed license examiners can evaluate applications.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate ticks down (Nashville Business Journal)
The Volunteer State’s unemployment rate ticked down marginally in February, state officials announced today. According to The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the preliminary unemployment rate fell to 6.6 percent in February, down from January’s revised rate of 6.7 percent. The national unemployment rate, meanwhile, fell from 5.7 percent to 5.5 percent. Compared to a year ago, Tennessee’s unemployment rate has worsened — rising from 6.5 percent to 6.6 percent. The national rate, meanwhile, has fallen from 6.7 percent to 5.5 percent.

TN unemployment rate falls to 6.6% (Tennessean/Cowan)
Tennessee’s unemployment rate failed to make significant gains in February. The rate dipped slightly last month, falling to 6.6 percent from 6.7 percent in January, according to Tennessee Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips. The state’s numbers continue to exceed the nation’s unemployment rate, which dropped to 5.5 percent in February. While the national rate has dropped more than a percentage point in the last year, down from 6.7 percent in February 2014, Tennessee’s rate has increased in the same time period.

Tenn jobless rate falls to 6.6 percent (Chattanooga Times Free-Press/Flessner)
Unemployment in Tennessee fell a tenth of a percent last month to 6.6 percent, but remained well above the U.S. jobless rate of 5.5 percent. Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development said today that Tennessee added 60,400 jobs over the past year. Nonetheless, February’s jobless rate in Tennessee was still higher than the 6.5 percent in February 2014. Tennessee’s jobless rate is one of the highest among the 50 states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tennessee jobless rate stood at 6.6 % for February (Commercial Appeal/McKenzie)
The February unemployment rate in Tennessee was 6.6 percent, up slightly from 6.5 percent a year ago, state officials announced Thursday. Nonfarm jobs grew by 60,400 to nearly 2.85 million for the state in February, compared to the same month in 2014, according to preliminary estimates from the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development. The revised state jobless rate for January was 6.7 percent. Nationwide, the preliminary unemployment rate for February was 5.5 percent, compared with 6.7 percent a year earlier.

State may pay for some pothole damage (WSMV-TV Nashville)
Since the snow and ice storms beginning last month, potholes have been a big problem for Midstate drivers. The damage to cars can costs thousands of dollars, but the state might cover some of those repairs. “My deductible was $500 and the total bill was $5,000,” Rob Hampton said. Hampton said he hit a pothole driving home from work on Interstate 65 near Concord Road. “The hit was so hard that it almost made me hit the vehicle beside me,” Hampton said. “It threw me out. And the car almost instantly started vibrating.” At 70 mph, the large pothole cracked and bent several parts on Hampton’s car. “The strut assemblies, the mounting points, the wheel, the tire, the axle,” Hampton said. “I am sure it’s going to take a lick on my insurance rates, but what can you do?”

State probes mental health facility’s trashed paperwork (Tennessean/Cowan)
Rolling Hills Hospital, a mental health facility in Franklin, has reported that paperwork from an outpatient program was found in an off-site community dumpster, sparking a state investigation. An employee is on administrative leave after dumping a box of patient education material, blank paperwork and partially filled out forms into a public recycling dumpster about a mile and a half away, said Richard Clark, CEO of Rolling Hills, which is owned by Universal Health Services. Five items were copies of administrative forms that are released to patients.

TBI asks for public’s help in Chester County cold case (Associated Press)
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is asking for the public’s help in solving a Chester County cold case. On June 7, 1990, the Chester County Sheriff’s Department responded to a home in Henderson, Tennessee, where officers found the body of 40-year-old Jerry Lee Connor. He had died from a shotgun blast. A joint investigation between the TBI and Chester County officials revealed that Connor was shot during the early-morning hours of June 7 but not much else.

Nashville GOP senator to propose medical marijuana bill (Tennessean/Boucher)
A Nashville Republican senator is working on legislation that will, to some degree, suggest changing Tennessee law to allow marijuana for medicinal usage. Sen. Steve Dickerson, who is also an anesthesiologist, confirmed Thursday he’s working on the legislation with Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville. “We want to make sure that it’s medical appropriate, substantiated, and that it answers the real needs of Tennesseans,” Dickerson said. Dickerson said the details won’t be finalized until Monday, but the goal is to provide some relief to people suffering from conditions that might be alleviated through the use of medical marijuana.

Tennessee Republicans Eye Allowing Medical Marijuana, Within Limits (WPLN)
State Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville) says the views of his fellow Republicans on medical marijuana are evolving, like other Tennesseans’. “I think people have realized that there are medical conditions out there, people who are suffering, who don’t have to suffer.” So Green, a physician, believes the time is right for a proposal that would be a massive shift by legalizing some forms of medical marijuana. The main question—just how far do they want to go? Green is working on the plan with Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville), who is also a physician, and Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville).

Proposed bill could lead to digital driver’s licenses (WBIR-TV Knoxville)
A bill moving through the state Legislature supports usage of a digital license for Tennessee drivers. It would mean people could have their license on their phone, without the need of a physical copy. State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the House minority leader, is sponsoring House Bill 0556. The bill asks the Department of Safety to consider technology that stores your license on your smartphone. “There are some of these companies in which Tennessee is familiar that do this type of thing, so we are not the first, but we could be one of the leading firsts,” according to the Ripley, Tenn., Democrat.

Compromise Legislation Keeps Academic Standards (Associated Press)
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said an agreement has been reached on legislation that would keep the state’s current academic standards intact. The Blountville Republican told reporters on Thursday that the agreement was made this week. The state’s standards included the controversial Common Core standards for English and math intended to make students more competitive. Conservative critics argued that the standards represent federal intrusion in matters that should be decided by the state, while those on the left say they impose too many requirements on teachers.

Ramsey: Deal keeps Common Core standards for now (Tennessean/Boucher)
Lawmakers and advocates appear to have reached a deal on how to proceed with evaluating Tennessee’s education standards that won’t immediately nix the controversial Common Core standards. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who also serves as Senate speaker, told reporters Thursday about a compromise reached earlier this week on a bill that advocates for further review of the standards but doesn’t move Tennessee toward creating entirely new standards. “I’m not sure about the details of it. I just know that everybody seems to be happy and signed off on it,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville. In the past, Ramsey has been one of the most vocal critics of Common Core.

State NAACP urges support of Common Core (Jackson Sun)
Common Core is a step toward equity for lower income, minority students, according to a panel held by the Tennessee NAACP. “The needs for high standards and quality schools and teachers is universal,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP. “But in the United States low income students and students of color are disproportionately taught in low performance schools and are not gaining knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and the work force.” The forum was held Thursday at Lane College to discuss the Common Core State Standards.

Ramsey Says Senate Should Stay Out Of Investigation Into Nashville DA (WPLN)
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says lawmakers should stay out of the controversy swirling around Davidson County prosecutor Glenn Funk, at least for now. Ramsey says the state legislature could consider removing Funk from office if allegations that he improperly inflated his government pension are shown to be true. But he adds lawmakers shouldn’t conduct their own investigation. “Right now you’ve got the Metro Council looking into this, you’ve got the comptroller looking into this, the Board of Professional Responsibility are looking into this. Let’s kind of let that work out over the next month or so or however long that takes.”

House repeals Intractable Pain Act, last stop Haslam (Times-News)
Tennessee legislators have unanimously repealed the Intractable Pain Act in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, striking down a law local officials say has directly contributed to the prescription drug abuse epidemic in the state. All that is left to rid the state of this law, also called the “Pain Patient’s Bill of Rights,” is Governor Bill Haslam’s signature. Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus, a vocal critic of the 2001 law, was pleased to hear of the repeal. “It means we made one significant step in trying to combat prescription drug abuse in Tennessee,” he said. “It’s an important step, but not the last step.

Voting on bill to cut ‘75 percent rule’ delayed (Commercial Appeal/Bryson)
A bill that would have eliminated Tennessee’s “75 Percent Rule,” which requires local governments to fund prosecutors and public defenders at similar rates, has been effectively tabled until next year after lawmakers decided this week that the issue warranted further study. Since the introduction of House Bill 241 in February, public defenders statewide have rallied against the proposed elimination of the so-called 75 Percent Rule, with many saying the bill’s passage would strike a devastating blow to justice for the state’s poorest defendants.

Senate panel adds motorist protections to camera ban (Times Free-Press/Sher)
Last week, Sen. Todd Gardenhire got an icy response from Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy when the Chattanooga Republican brought up his bill seeking to ban Tennessee cities’ use of unmanned traffic enforcement cameras. This week the bill finally pulled out of the ensuing tailspin and passed through Tracy’s panel. But after Gardenhire and Tracy, a Shelbyville Republican, worked on it for “a couple of days,” the measure looks a little different. For example, it no longer bans unmanned traffic cameras. As amended, speed-enforcement cameras could not be used to issue the $50 citations to drivers unless the vehicle is going at least 15 mph above the posted speed limit.

State lawmaker pushes for towing fee reform (WSMV-TV Nashville)
A state lawmaker has plans to protect people from what he called excessive towing fees. William Ewing skidded off Interstate 24 in Smyrna during one of the recent ice storms. He wasn’t injured and the car wasn’t damaged, so a Rutherford County deputy called a tow truck to pull him out. “He said that would be $200,” Ewing said. Ewing has AAA and roadside assistance through his insurance company. He said in hindsight, he should have called one of them instead. “I think it’s important that people in these situations be treated fair and reasonably,” Ewing said. “Had the wreck driver said to me, ‘Sir, it would be $200 for me to pull you up on the road,’ I would have said, ‘Bye, you can go back to Murfreesboro or wherever you came from.'”

State lawmakers considering bill that would ban biosolids (WSMV-TV Nashville)
A decade after breaking ground, state lawmakers are considering a bill that could ban the very product taxpayers paid millions to create. It was billed as a way to save Metro money, at a time when crews were trucking liquid sludge out of the county around the clock. The idea was to take everything that was flushed down the toilet and turn it into pellets that could then be sold as fertilizer. However, if some state lawmakers get their way, once again, the city could be paying to haul all of the treated sewage to landfills. To make the pellets, Metro broke ground 10 years ago on the $118 million biosolids plant.

Sen. Bo Watson will support incentives for Volkswagen (Times Free-Press/Sher)
He still takes issue with Volkswagen’s neutrality toward labor unions, but Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said Thursday he will back Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed $165.8 million incentive package for the auto manufacturer’s Chattanooga plant expansion. “It’ll be part of the budget,” said Watson, the Senate speaker pro tempore, who grilled top Volkswagen officials during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday and called the German company’s policies a “magnet for organized labor.” The lawmaker, whose district includes the Volkswagen plant, abstained in the Commerce Committee from voting on the Department of Economic and Community Development’s proposed budget. The agency’s budget included the incentives for adding a second production line to build SUVs.

Exemption In ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ Law Raises Legal Flags (Associated Press)
A new legal opinion from the state’s attorney general questioned the constitutionality of the Tennessee whiskey law for granting a special exemption to a single distiller. The state Legislature in 2013 carved out an exemption for Kelso-based Pritchard’s Distillery from the law passed at the behest of Jack Daniel’s that for the first time established rules for which products could label themselves “Tennessee Whiskey.” Distiller Phil Pritchard argued that he shouldn’t have to follow a charcoal filtering requirement because it doesn’t follow the technique used by his grandfather.

Industrial Hemp Could Be Tennessee’s Next Cash Crop (WPTY-TV Memphis)
A new law is allowing a new crop to sprout for the first time on Tennessee soil. Many in the state’s agriculture industry are hoping the versatile hemp plant can become a cash crop. The future of hemp farming in west Tennessee gathered for a meeting Thursday to get potential growers in touch with experts. “The meeting today will link our Canadian farmers with our American farmers,” said Duane Phillippe, Ag Manager Tennessee Hemp Farm. Phillippe is one of those experts north of the border, and has been growing it since 1998. Once industrial hemp growth was legalized in Tennessee last year, he is now looking to become a hemp pioneer here.

VA report details probe on suicidal Tennessee veteran (USA Today)
A federal watchdog agency found problems with record-keeping and suicide prevention training at Nashville’s veterans hospital last year after investigating a claim that a suicidal veteran had been denied care, according to an internal report released this week. The agency, which handles health care inspections for the Veterans Affairs inspector general’s office, began investigating after the veteran said he had sought treatment at the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System in Nashville but was instead referred to a community hospital. He was admitted to the community hospital for five days, according to the two-page report by the Office of Healthcare Inspections.

Waiting for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (Stateline)
The federal-state Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) will run out of money on Sept. 30. Until recently, Congress showed little interest in paying for it. But this week, the House agreed on a bill that would continue the $13 billion program in its current form through 2017. In late February, Republicans in both houses issued a “discussion draft” outlining modifications they claimed would make the program more flexible for states, even though most governors say they don’t want any changes to what they consider a near-perfect health care program. The GOP proposal would have narrowed coverage to the lowest-income families currently served by CHIP and allowed states to cut back enrollment.

Williamson considers new math books as state weighs standards (TN/Balakit)
The Williamson County school board will consider adopting and purchasing new math textbooks in April. It’s a routine procedure — school districts in the state review new textbooks for each subject every six years — but this year, the school board must consider purchasing new textbooks while the state considers changing the current Common Core standards. If the school board decides to purchase new math textbooks, there is a chance the books will not be aligned to state standards if they change.

Proposal by Smith calls for tax hike to fund programs, teacher pay (TFP/Omarzu)
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith is proposing a 40-cent property tax increase to raise teacher salaries and make other improvements, such as providing art and foreign language classes in elementary grades. “It’s time,” Smith said. “We haven’t had any local [tax increase] for 10 years.” Smith presented a budget to school board members Thursday that increases the school district’s budget by about $34 million, to about $379 million. The budget proposal still needs school board approval on April 16. Then in May, the Hamilton County Commission would have to approve the tax hike of 40 cents per $100 of assessed value.

OPINION

Editorial: We can improve Tennessee’s poor voter turnout numbers (Tennessean)
Civic engagement and voter participation are essential to preserving and protecting our democracy. However, if the 2014 midterm elections were any indication, our nation — and our state — are in trouble. Last year saw the lowest midterm election voter turnout percentage since World War II, at 37 percent nationwide. Tennessee was in the bottom five, at 29.1 percent, according to the “America Goes to the Polls 2014” report released this month by Nonprofit VOTE. The Boston-based organization, founded in 2005, works with nonprofits across the United States to increase voter participation. This is the organization’s fifth biannual report, which is based on data from organizations such as the Pew Research Center and the U.S. Census.

Editorial: Campaign urges seat-belt use to prevent deaths (News-Sentinel)
There was a vigorous campaign in Tennessee not too many years ago to require drivers and passengers in all vehicles to wear seat belts. Some people balked at being told what to do by the state when they drove their own vehicle they had bought with their own money. The seat belt proponents won out, though, thanks to a strong education campaign, thanks to insurance companies touting the value of wearing seat belts and thanks to medical professionals testifying about the horrendous injuries one can receive if not buckled up. Now proponents might feel as though they have to fight the seat-belt wars again, especially in East Tennessee. That’s because traffic deaths in the Knoxville area have seen an increase for this year over 2014. At this time last year, 22 traffic-related deaths had been reported.

Editorial: Education is not a commodity (Jackson Sun)
“As low as $157 per month!” What does that sound like to you? An ad for a used car? A pitch for a new sofa? No, it’s a recent advertisement for college courses at an institution of higher learning. The ad reeks of crass commercialism and turns education into a commodity like bathroom tile or truck tires. But education — at least education worthy of the name — is not a commodity. Think about what our elementary and secondary school teachers do every day. They aren’t just teaching lesson plans, they are shaping, forming and molding entire generations of future citizens. What’s that worth? Chances are, among their students is a future physician, nurse, firefighter, college professor, judge, or mayor.