This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and the Tennessee Historical Commission announced 36 Historic Preservation Fund grants were awarded to community and civic organizations for projects that support the preservation of historic and archaeological resources. Awarded annually, 60 percent of the project funds are from the federal Historic Preservation Fund and 40 percent of project funds come from the grantee. “These grants contribute to the study and protection of a wide range of Tennessee’s treasured historic places-buildings, archaeological sites and communities,” said State Historic Preservation Officer and Executive Director of the Tennessee Historical Commission. Patrick McIntyre. “These places help make our state unique and contribute to our quality of life.”
In 1986, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger designated April as Month of the Military Child to recognize military children for their personal sacrifices to the armed forces. Gov. Bill Haslam, Commander-In-Chief of the Tennessee Military Department, has continued to honor that commitment during his time in office. “Tennessee is home to over 40,000 military children. They reside in our communities, classrooms, and churches,” said Paige Major, Tennessee National Guard Child and Youth Program coordinator. “Our military kids may not be easy to identify because they do not wear the uniform each day, but they serve, too. We are honored to help recognize them.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has made available an additional $14 million to the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development coffers for film and television production incentives. The Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission will assist in the distribution of $4 million of that to local productions. The state will administer the money. “Memphis has been identified for several years as one of the ‘Top 10’ movie cities in the United States,” says Tennessee State Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), who carried the proposal as prime sponsor in the Senate.
A new company has purchased the former Alladin Plastics plant in Surgoinsville and will not only save the current 40 jobs there, but will also create an additional 25 jobs. Homeland Vinyl Products Inc. has purchased a facility at the Phipps Bend Industrial Park that was most recently occupied by Engineering Plastics Corporation (EPC). Clay Walker, who oversees Hawkins County’s industrial recruitment, said EPC had been phasing out its Phipps Bend operation, and the 40 existing jobs there weren’t going to last. “The reason that property was for sale was they had been relocating jobs to a newer facility in Alabama,” Walker said. “This is 25 new jobs, but ultimately its 65 jobs because we were going to lose those 40 jobs over the next several months. And, that’s just the beginning.”
State regulators issued 77 percent fewer enforcement orders against water polluters in 2014 than they did in 2008, according to the nonprofit Tennessee Clean Water Network. The network has been tracking actions the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation takes against polluters since 2007. In that year, the agency issued 219 enforcement orders. In 2008, it issued 231. But enforcement orders plummeted beginning in 2009, with just 53 issued last year. It’s not clear why enforcement orders have dropped, but Tennessee Clean Water Network attorney Stephanie Durman said there is no evidence it is because there are fewer violations.
Veterans have been a priority at Middle Tennessee State University for years, and this summer officials are planning to boost their investment in the specialized student group. University President Sidney A. McPhee announced this week plans to create a 2,600-square-foot center in the heart of campus that will cater to the needs of student veterans. Construction will coincide with the addition of a suite of new services for the students. McPhee said the Veterans and Military Center would “make MTSU not only a statewide leader but a national leader” in the effort to educate veterans. The center will give students one place to address a variety of needs, from financial aid to academic advising, with staffers who understand the unique challenges facing veterans, active military personnel and their families.
Lawmakers and state administrators blasted the state Benefits Administration decision to release information about the nearly $6 million Tennessee pays for health insurance premiums provided to members of the General Assembly. But in a letter released Thursday afternoon, Commissioner Larry Martin of the Department of Finance and Administration told lawmakers the information requested by The Tennessean isn’t subject to federal health privacy rules. “Therefore, because the information requested is not protected under the state open records law, we were required to release the information,” Martin said in the letter, obtained by The Tennessean. A Tennessean reporter spent roughly three hours Wednesday in a conference room at the Tennessee Tower reviewing the records on a state laptop — with two department employees watching. Based on that preliminary review, records show the state has paid nearly $5.8 million in premiums for lawmakers since 2008.
A 56-year-old Knoxville woman is accused of molesting her boyfriend’s teenage son while working as a paralegal for a state agency tasked with protecting children. Mary Lisa Woods is set to appear before Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee later this month on three counts of statutory rape by an authority figure and four counts of sexual battery by an authority figure. Woods worked for the state Department of Children’s Services for more than 14 years. She was serving as a paralegal with the Knoxville office of the agency when, in 2013, she allegedly began molesting the 15-year-old son behind her boyfriend’s back and continued even after the boy’s father died last year, records show. DCS spokesman Rob Johnson said Woods resigned in lieu of termination in February after a monthslong probe by the DCS Special Investigation Unit and Internal Affairs as well as Knoxville Police Department Investigator Keith Johnson. Johnson emphasized Woods, as a paralegal, had no supervisory role over children while employed at the agency.
Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell is being tight-lipped about her future political career. “We are keeping an open mind,” the Nashville Republican said when asked Thursday night if her political aspirations stop at being the leader of Tennessee’s House of Representatives. “That’s a long way off. It’s an honor to serve as speaker. … We’ll see when that time comes,” she said about the next gubernatorial election in 2018. Harwell was in Murfreesboro serving as keynote speaker at the second annual Empowering Women Event, sponsored by state Reps. Bryan Terry and Dawn White. The event at The Warehouse on Middle Tennessee Boulevard is part of the Republican State Leadership Committee’s “Right Women, Right Now” initiative, which is meant to encourage women to become involved at the local and state level of government, Terry said.
A ceremony at Fort Campbell Thursday was another reminder that the U.S. Army is downsizing. Soldiers from the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade gathered on the parade field in their black berets to mark the unit’s deactivation. “I want all of you to carry the 159 history and traditions wherever you go for the rest of your lives,” said Commander Gary Volesky. “Keep that legacy alive because you earned it.” The 159th was one of the younger brigades at Fort Campbell, created in 1997. It’s Apache, Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters deployed six times to Iraq and Afghanistan, participating in the largest air assault in history. The choppers dropped fellow 101st Airborne soldiers to seize the city of Mosul. The unit’s most recent deployment concluded last year.
For the onlookers who came out to say goodbye to the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade “Wings of Thunder” on Thursday morning, 101st Airborne Division commander Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky summed up the feeling of the day. “Forget bittersweet,” he said, “this is just bitter.” Since it stood up as a brigade in 1997, the “Wings of Thunder” brigade was one of Fort Campbell’s crown jewels. A second aviation brigade to compliment the mighty 101st Combat Aviation Brigade went a long way to securing the 101st Airborne position as the most powerful, lethal and capable division in the world. But with Army reorganization claiming three CABs, it wasn’t a great surprise that the 159th would be one of the losses, although that did nothing to tamp down the disappointment.
The Obama administration rebuffed Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to extend federal funds for hospitals that treat the uninsured, increasing the pressure on states that have refused to expand coverage for low-income people under the president’s health care law. The decision means Florida’s already acrimonious state budget process will likely become tenser. The standoff also has implications for eight other states, including Texas, which draw billions of dollars from the same pool of hospital funds. And like Florida, several are also refusing to expand Medicaid coverage. Republican leaders in those states are adamant about not expecting any federal money tied to Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Florida’s funding is the first to expire on June 30 and Scott has filed a lawsuit, with support from Texas and Kansas, alleging the federal government is breaking the law by coercing states to expand Medicaid in order to get the hospital funds. The hospital funds are an optional program, not entitlement programs like Medicaid, meaning the federal government has broad discretion whether to grant them, experts say.
The Tennessee Valley Authority will retire a coal-burning power plant in Stevenson about four years ahead of schedule to avoid having to comply with new coal ash regulations. The utility’s board of directors voted on Thursday to close the final boiler unit at the Widows Creek plant by October, when new federal regulations for storing the coal ash waste come into effect. Chief Operating Officer Chip Pardee said the new regulations will require significant reporting and be more costly than current rules. TVA retired the plant’s other seven units between 2012 and 2014. TVA had previously planned to idle the final unit in 2019. Pardee said closing and deconstructing the plant will provide continued work for some of the 90 employees there.
The Tennessee Valley Authority will shut down its Widows Creek coal plant in Alabama this fall, four years earlier than previously planned, to avoid having to comply with stricter coal ash regulations coming this fall. TVA directors voted Thursday to shutter the last operating boiler at Widows Creek by October when new federal regulations for storing the coal ash waste from operating plants come into effect. The 63-year-old Widows Creek plant, which once employed more than 300 workers and was one of TVA’s biggest power plants, now has only about 90 employees left operating the lone Unit 7 boiler. Those jobs will be phased out as TVA ceases power production and cleans up the riverfront site near Stevenson, Ala. “It’s going to be a huge hit for this entire region,” Stevenson Mayor Rickey Steele said after the board action.
It’s crunch time for a nuclear reactor in Spring City that’s been under construction for decades. Watts Bar Unit II is preparing to run tests with radioactive fuel and host Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors. Assuming nothing goes haywire, this will be the first nuclear reactor in the U.S. to start up in nearly 20 years. Tennessee Valley Authority CEO Bill Johnson told the utility’s board at it’s quarterly meeting Thursday that only a handful of people within the agency have been through this process before. “Now some of us gray-haired, white-haired and sparse-haired individuals can remember this. But I would just say the intensity, the complexity of this work at this point is unbelievable. Historically, at this point, that pressure, that intensity has crushed some teams.”
The TVA board today voted to authorize the sale of about 77 acres of land in Kingston that TVA had originally bought because of the 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill. The properties consist of 62 lots on Emory River Road, including 39 vacant parcels and 23 lots with houses. Board member Michael McWherter said these are properties that TVA acquired for use during the clean up of the ash spill and are no longer needed. In other action, the boad approved a recommendation to retire the last coal unit at the Widows Creek Fossil Plant in northwest Alabama earlier than planned because of new federal regulations dealing with coal ash storage.
After signing up what it says is a majority of hourly production workers at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant, the United Auto Workers wants to join with VW to form America’s first German-style works council in Chattanooga. UAW’s No. 2 leader, Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel, said Thursday the union has given VW a “vision statement” and outline of how the German automaker might join with the UAW in a works council involving both blue- and white-collar workers. “We think it’s an appropriate time to put this model forward and give VW the time to look and study this fully fleshed out model and move toward what we’ve all been looking forward to for a long time and that is to have a represented facility and the first U.S. fully functioning works council,” Casteel said.
As Volkswagen experiences a management shakeup in Germany, the United Auto Workers is pressing harder than ever to unionize VW’s Chattanooga plant. Top union leaders say they’ve been patient long enough. The UAW has struggled to get a majority of workers in Chattanooga to sign on as members. But now they have commitments from 55 percent of the blue-collar workers, according to official documents filed with the Department of Labor. Instead of calling for another plant vote, the union has drawn up a detailed agreement to get exclusive collective bargaining rights. It would be the first of its kind in the U.S., based on the German works council model.
Conduit Global will lay off nearly 600 workers in Memphis after spending $1.25 million in state incentives provided for construction and training. However, the company, which disclosed the layoffs Wednesday, is not yet in danger of having to repay the state of Tennessee. Conduit Global promised to provide 1,000 new jobs at the call center that opened last year, but the New York firm has until Dec. 15, 2018, to reach its jobs target before the state could seek to “claw back” any of its $1.25 million. “The grant term is five years, and the department is monitoring the project closely,” said Clint Brewer, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development assistant commissioner for communications and marketing.
The news that Conduit Global would lay off nearly 600 of its 700 Memphis call center employees happened so quickly that Mayor A C Wharton Jr. was caught by surprise when the word came Wednesday, May 6. A week after Wharton and his administration celebrated the end of the city’s decade-long quest to remake and reopen The Pyramid as a Bass Pro Shops megastore with other attractions and 600 permanent jobs, Wharton was on the other side of a fickle coin toss. There was no tax break for Conduit from Memphis or from Shelby County. But the state of Tennessee offered $2 million in incentives for Conduit’s $8 million investment and what seemed to be a long-term commitment by the company. Conduit Global attributed the layoffs to a contract loss. A new contract with Verizon prompted the business process outsourcer to open its Memphis store.
A Delta Air Lines Inc. subsidiary is expected to layoff 130 employees at Memphis International Airport, effective May 14. DAL Global Services provides ground handling, maintenance and cargo handling for Delta at Memphis International. The Department of Labor and Workforce Development issued a layoff notice April 13 for 130 workers at its facility at 2491 Winchester Road. The company notified the state on April 10. The employees at the facility are not represented by a collective bargaining agreement, the notice said. Delta laid off 84 employees in February when it cut four nonstop flights to Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Dallas/Fort Worth and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.