This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Rutherford County received several doses of good economic-development news last week with announcement of two developments that will bring $300 million in investments to the county and create more than 200 jobs. General Mills plans a $250 million expansion to its operations in Murfreesboro with the addition of two product lines and more than 100 jobs. Topre America, a Nissan supplier, plans a $50 million investment in Smyrna for a new facility to provide 100 jobs. Nissan this week again confirmed that its Smyrna assembly plant is the most productive in the United States, and the Topre America plans are in addition to Japanese automaker’s recent announcement of development of a supplier park near the plant that will provide at least 1,000 jobs in the county.
Tennessee’s push to improve access to higher education is a national example of “what progress looks like,” according to a new analysis of data tracking applications for federal aid. More than 61 percent of the state’s high school seniors filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by April 17, according to the analysis released Friday by Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping education organizations. The completion rate is the highest in the nation. Tennessee also had the highest year-over-year hike in FAFSA completion, jumping from a 49 percent rate at the same time in 2014.
After years of lobbying, millions of dollars from in-state and out-of-state advocacy groups and the support of the governor and other legislative leaders, school vouchers are still banned in Tennessee. Republican lawmakers and conservative groups are more likely to support what they call “opportunity scholarships,” public funds to offset the cost of private school education for some students. And with the GOP supermajority at the General Assembly, many issues backed by conservative groups have become law. But not always in education. Apart from a limited program to allow vouchers for special-needs students passed this year, there have been just enough Republican lawmakers to join with Democrats in beating back vouchers. The bill to let parents choose to transform their school into a charter school — known as the parent trigger bill — also failed.
Out-of-state interests have long sought to shape public policy in Tennessee, but some national organizations that are relative newcomers to the Volunteer State have added millions of dollars to the mix of political money and lobbying intended to achieve that influence. The apparent increase of involvement in attempts by groups headquartered elsewhere to sway decision-making by legislators had limited success overall in the recently completed session of the 109th General Assembly, a Tennessee Newspaper Network review indicates. But the outside interests are trying, engaged on such controversial issues as Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal and gun laws, all the way down to less-noticed matters such as experimental drugs and state subsidies to parents of children with specified disabilities.
Republican Rep. Kevin Brooks of Cleveland says all he did in January was ask fellow GOP lawmakers to keep an open mind on Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal. But the House assistant majority leader quickly found himself under attack in his own backyard from a barrage of radio ads, courtesy of the Tennessee chapter of a powerful national group, Americans for Prosperity. Nearly two years ago, AFP, associated with conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, planted roots in the Volunteer State, hiring a state director.
The big law-firm conference room was decorated with several pairs of red balloons forming the number “28,” the new number of Republicans in the 33-member Tennessee Senate. The office penthouse atop Nashville’s Fifth Third Center tower gave the Senate Republican Caucus a fabulous view of the city. Caucus members assembled there Dec. 10 to celebrate the electoral victories of the previous month and lay the groundwork for the 2015 legislative session convening a month later. Gov. Bill Haslam also spoke, about the state budget he was preparing. The caucus chairman, Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, addressed the crowd about the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual “policy summit” in Washington, D.C., which he and six Senate colleagues had attended the previous week.
The number of homes with a gun might be declining, but the power of the National Rifle Association across the country and in Tennessee certainly is not. The gun-rights advocacy organization boasts roughly 5 million members nationwide, including an estimated 100,000 in Tennessee, said NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker. They have influential lobbyists at the state Capitol, and a track record of picking off at least one influential member of the Republican party who stepped out of line. Here’s a quick look at the impact of the NRA on Tennessee politics.
The commanders of two of the state’s largest veterans organizations lashed out on Thursday and Friday at the governor’s office and Republican legislators At issue was the April 22 vote in the Tennessee General Assembly to amend a property tax relief program for disabled veterans and the elderly, among others, constituting the first major changes in the 42-year program’s history. Amendment 1 rewrote the bill, HB1197/SB1336, under the name, “Save the Tax Relief Act.” Future disabled veteran applicants and other groups in Tennessee seeking to take advantage of the program now face a reduced benefit and tougher qualifying rules.
It’s natural to sympathize with an estimated 221,000 Tennesseans who will lose driving privileges when a long-awaited system for annual insurance verification of all registered vehicles goes into effect. Just as it is quite natural to feel a bit sorry for those among us who can’t afford their own cars or, if they have cars, can’t replace the tires from time to time or buy the oil and gas required to keep their cars on the road. But advocates of universal auto coverage have maintained, correctly, that liability insurance coverage is one of the prices people must pay for the driving privilege, just like gas and oil and antifreeze.
Tennessee is safe again. Members of the General Assembly have gone home. The end of the legislative session was rather anti-climatic. With almost no serious debate, the General Assembly enacted the state budget and went home. While the primary responsibility of the Legislature is to approve a budget, its members often get so caught up in political theater that the serious business of the lawmakers gets put in the shadows of the many spotlights that the legislators shine upon themselves Although the biggest failure of the Legislature was the not approving Insure Tennessee either in special or regular session, Gov. Bill Haslam’s initiative to expand health insurance coverage in the state was not a case of bad legislation, but a failure of leadership.