Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Bulk of Record-Setting Year from Comptroller’s Fraud Hotline Involved Just Two Cases

Of the more than $1.1 million in government-funded waste, fraud and abuse reported through the Tennessee Comptroller’s anonymous tipster hotline last fiscal year, more than 85 percent of that “record achievement” came from just two cases.

One in Benton County and the other in Marion County, they involved more than $960,000 in alleged fleecing of public funds.

The smaller of the two involved nearly a quarter of a million stolen taxpayer dollars from the South Pittsburg Housing Authority and the South Pittsburg Elderly Housing Authority.

According to a “special investigation” report published by the Comptroller’s office last July, “various employees misappropriated at least $228,980” between 2009 and 2014. The report noted that while the two Marion County housing authority programs were “separate legal entities,” they shared the same office space and staff.

“The amount of theft in this case is alarming,” Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said in a press release at the time. “While it’s easy to blame the criminal behavior of two individuals, housing authority officials must also take the necessary steps to shore up a number of issues which allowed these thefts to occur.”

In the other case, about $733,000 in “unauthorized administrative disbursements” was uncovered subsequent to investigators probing a Benton County nonprofit that was raking in government money through the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

The Comptroller’s office issued a report in March alleging that managers and employees of ABC Nutrition Program in Camden — a food-for-needy-children program run from a home basement by a woman and her two adult daughters — improperly collected compensation and bonuses to the tune of more than $606,000.

Another $127,000 or so was obtained by ABC Nutrition to pay for “unauthorized construction and improvement disbursements” for the woman’s home, as well as “additional unauthorized administrative disbursements.”

The state Department of Human Services OK’d all the suspect spending, the Tennessean noted in a lengthy story on the case back in July.

Participants in the operations in both South Pittsburg and Camden are facing criminal charges.

“Since its inception (in 1983), the hotline has received over 21,000 notifications, including 951 notifications between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015,” according to an information sheet provided to TNReport by the state Comptroller’s office. “The hotline received 779 telephone calls and 172 submissions through the online reporting website. Of the 951 total notifications, 486 concerned substantive allegations of fraud, waste, or abuse.”


Merry Christmas, Tennessee!

Jordan Ashburn, 24, and Seth Ketner, 27, both of Cookeville, get into the Yuletide spirit by crashing through the river flow on the day of the Night Before Christmas.

Featured NewsTracker

House GOP Caucus Meeting Planned to Discuss ‘Leadership Position of Majority Whip’

Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives appear to be formally preparing for possible disciplinary action against a ranking member of their caucus.

In a statement released to the media Thursday morning, GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Thompson Station announced that he is requesting a special meeting of the 73-member strong House supermajority when the Legislature convenes next month.

On the agenda would be a discussion about recently reported controversies surrounding Casada’s fellow Williamson County lawmaker, Jeremy Durham, who currently serves as the House majority whip.

“As Chairman of the Republican Caucus, I am calling a meeting to be held on January 12th to discuss upcoming legislative issues and the leadership position of Majority Whip,” Casada said in an emailed statement through the GOP Caucus communications office.

Durham has been drawing scrutiny for a couple of unrelated incidents that occurred in 2013 and 2014.

In one case, Durham was accused by state drug-enforcement police of illegally altering a prescription to obtain medication from a Kroger pharmacy.

A grand jury in Williamson County subsequently refused to indict him when the case was brought before them.

“This situation is from two and a half years ago and was fully vetted by 12 Williamson County citizens who quickly agreed that nothing illegal occurred,” Durham said in response to publicity the case has garnered. “I possessed two additional valid and current prescriptions for the same medication and dosage in question and never attempted to obtain anything I had not been prescribed by a doctor.”

With respect to the other matter, Rep. Durham wrote a letter in March of 2014 urging a judge to consider granting leniency to a local youth pastor who’d pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography.

Following press accounts of the case last week on the heels of stories about the grand jury’s consideration of the prescription forgery accusation, Durham said, “It’s pretty clear that the liberal media is just on another witch hunt.”

In a statement issued early Thursday afternoon, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said:

“I have received a number of requests from members of our Caucus for a full Caucus meeting to discuss Rep. Durham’s status as a member of Leadership. Certainly we will honor those requests and have a meeting to discuss this issue. I’m looking forward to putting this distraction behind us and moving on with the business of the state.”

Education Featured NewsTracker

Haslam Defends UT Chancellor Amid Latest Diversity Office Controversy

Gov. Bill Haslam voiced support Monday for the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus chancellor, Jimmy Cheek, who is facing resignation demands from GOP state lawmakers.

“My view is that you judge somebody on their entire body of work, and if you look at what Chancellor Cheek has done at UT, his entire body of work is impressive,” Haslam told reporters following a ribbon-cutting for a new Under Armor distribution center in Mt. Juliet.

The University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion is under fire from GOP lawmakers and leaders in the state Republican Party for recently posting a list of “Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace.” (Note: The original post by UT’s Office of Diversity has been removed and replaced.)

Included was a suggestion that participants at workplace parties refrain from playing “games with religious and cultural themes – for example, ‘Dreidel’ or ‘Secret Santa.'”

“If you want to exchange gifts, then refer to it in a general way, such as a practical joke gift exchange or secret gift exchange,” the post went on.

“Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture,” counseled the diversity office. “Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham are among those indicating they’ll press for Chancellor Cheek’s ouster if he had foreknowledge of the diversity office’s post.

“The Office of Diversity is not welcoming to all and hostile to none as they claim,” Gresham, R-Somerville, said in a press release Friday. “They are very hostile to students and other Tennesseans with Christian and conservative values. By placing a virtual religious test regarding holiday events at this campus, every student who is a Christian is penalized.”

Sen. Mike Bell dittoed Gresham’s indignation.

“This is a public university, supported by taxpayer dollars, where the precious resources provided to them should be directed at what we are doing to give our students a world class education,” said Bell, a Republican from Riceville who serves as Government Operations Committee chairman. “The people want us to ensure that their money is being spent wisely and we have lost confidence that this is being done.”

Ramsey, the Senate’s presiding legislator, took to Facebook on Friday to vent his vexation. “If this post was approved by Chancellor Cheek, he should resign. If not, the entire staff of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion should be dismissed. The reputation of Tennessee is at stake here.”

The Tennessee Republican Party’s state executive committee on Saturday approved a resolution calling on lawmakers and the governor to “eliminate funding for the University of Tennessee Office of Diversity and Inclusion in future state budgets.”

Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, looks to be planning to introduce legislation that’ll do just that.

This isn’t the first time the diversity office has drawn Republican ire. Last summer GOP lawmakers were angered when the office posted a “gender-neutral” language guide for avoiding gender-specific pronouns.

With respect to the diversity office’s future, Haslam on Monday said he continues to see “a role for them.”

The office ought to prioritize “making certain there is equal opportunity for people to attend UT, and graduating, and having great outcomes,” said the governor, who is a Republican and formerly the mayor of Knoxville.

Haslam does think the diversity office “went too far in telling adults how they should act at holiday parties.”

“In this case, I believe they went off into something that they didn’t need to be focused on,” he said.

The UT Faculty Senate is scheduled to meet Tuesday in what’s expected to be a show of support for Chancellor Cheek. Also, legislative education committees are meeting this week on Capitol Hill in Nashville where the matter is likely to get attention of a more critical nature.

Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Executive Budget Hearings Planned This Week

Gov. Bill Haslam is scheduled Monday to launch preliminary budget hearings with the various high-ranking administration officials whose departments make up the bulk of Tennessee state government.

Haslam’s Department of Finance staff, led by Commissioner Larry Martin, will assist the governor during the hearings, as will Chief Operating Officer Greg Adams and State Budget Director David Thurman.

As has typically been the case during his five-year tenure thus far, the Republican governor is asking that agency heads calculate spending-reduction “contingency” plans that are lower than last year’s outlays.

In August, Commissioner Martin instructed departments to plot out reductions of 3.5 percent “that will not affect the over appropriations,” wrote Department of Finance spokeswoman Lola Potter in an email to TNReport last week. Agency heads have also been tasked with listing “base reductions that would offset a proposed cost increase request.”

During much of Haslam’s time as governor, the state’s economy performed below expectations, and therefore brought in less tax revenue than anticipated. This year, however, state government is collecting more taxpayer dollars than anticipated when the current fiscal year spending plan was finalized last spring.

Tennessee’s State Funding Board recently estimated that sales and other tax over-collections could total nearly $350 million by fiscal year’s end next summer. Members of the state’s funding board include Haslam, martin, Comptroller Justin Wilson, Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Treasurer David Lillard.

The Haslam administration budget hearings will commence Monday morning and continue each day of the week until completion on Friday afternoon. The proceedings can either be viewed live online or later as archived files.

Below it the schedule:

Monday, November 30, 2015

9:45-10:45 a.m. Human Services
10:45-11:15 a.m. Tourist Development
2:45-3:15 p.m. Financial Institutions
3:15-3:45 p.m. Commerce and Insurance
3:45-4:45 p.m. Economic & Community Development

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

8:45-9:45 a.m. Health Care Finance & TennCare
9:45-10:30 a.m. Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities
1:30-2:30 p.m. Children’s Services
2:30-3:30 p.m. Safety & Homeland Security
3:30-4:00 p.m. Revenue

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

9:45-10:45 a.m. Education
10:45 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Higher Education
2:00-2:30 p.m. Education Lottery
2:30-3:00 p.m. Military
3:00-3:30 p.m. Labor and Workforce Development
3:30-4:00 p.m. Agriculture

Thursday, December 3, 2015

9:30-10:30 a.m. Correction
10:30-11:00 a.m. Environment & Conservation
11:00-11:30 a.m. TBI
1:30-2:30 p.m. Mental Health & Substance Abuse
2:30-3:15 p.m. Health

Friday, December 4, 2015

9:00-10:00 a.m. Transportation
10:00-10:30 a.m. Finance and Administration
1:15-2:00 p.m. General Services
2:00-2:45 p.m. Human Resources
2:45-3:15 p.m. Veterans Services

NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Surplus Remains a Roadblock to Gas Tax Increase

Gov. Bill Haslam went on the road again this week trying to pave the way for lawmakers to take up the politically combustible topic of increasing taxes on gasoline and diesel.

The governor popped in Monday on brief events across Tennessee aimed at raising awareness about sinking transportation-allocated revenues. Among his destinations were Alcoa, Kingsport, Chattanooga and Memphis before heading back to Middle Tennessee in the evening.

“We are talking about something that affects every citizen,” the governor said during his first East Tennessee pitstop. “It is how we get our kids to school, how we get to work and back. It is how goods that our farmers grow and our manufacturers build, how they get those products to their markets all across the state. So, this really is an issue that affects everybody in the state.”

“We have been the beneficiaries of some responsible people who came before us, and I would like for us to show that same sort of responsibility.”

Automobile drivers who fill up with gasoline in Tennessee pay about 40 cents a gallon in tax — 21.4 to the state and 18.4 to Washington.

Diesel users pay about 43 cents per gallon in taxes in Tennessee — 18.4 cents in state tax and roughly 6.1 cents a quart to the federal government.

The state’s current fuel tax rates have been in place since 1989.

The governor, his transportation department staff and the state comptroller’s office contend that gas and diesel tax revenues at current rates are insufficient to take care of existing roadway infrastructure.

“Cars and trucks are more fuel-efficient, construction and labor costs have risen, and Congress has not passed a long-term transportation funding bill in 10 years,” a Haslam press release Monday said.

However, the administration has yet to float even a ballpark per-gallon tax-increase figure for lawmakers to pitch to their constituents.

“We’re not there yet,” said B.J. Doughty, communications director for the state Department of Transportation. “We are just taking about needs.”

TDOT officials say they’re “backlogged” to the tune of more than $6 billion on unfunded projects. At each of the governor’s events he and Transportation Commissioner John Schroer spotlighted local road-expansion proposals on the to-do list.

The projects Haslam and Schroer set out Monday to call attention to were:

  • Alcoa Highway in Blount County – $271.7 million
  • State Route 126 in Kingsport – $98.7 million
  • I-24/I-75 Interchange in Hamilton County – $65 million
  • Lamar Avenue in Memphis – $229.1 million
  • I-40 in Lebanon – $61.6 million

“We do feel like it is important for the legislators to see these lists of projects and keeping the conversation going,” Doughty told TNReport Monday evening. “It is really a matter of, ‘Do you want these projects, and if so, how soon do you want them?’”

Making the situation more critical are projections that “Tennessee’s population is expected to grow by 2 million by 2040, which puts a greater demand on the state’s infrastructure,” according to the Haslam administration.

Nevertheless, when the Tennessee Legislature convenes in January, Haslam will likely knock up against the same political embankment that’s been a barrier to him the last several months.

A lot of Republican lawmakers in both GOP-run chambers of the General Assembly are in no way primed to try convincing registered voters in their districts that taxpayers ought to be paying more at the pump — especially given that Tennessee is on track this year to again overcollect existing taxes state government is budgeted to spend.

“I am not comfortable going to my constituents and explaining why we are going to raise taxes on anything when we have a surplus in the general fund,” Mark Pody, a Republican state representative from Lebanon, said Monday. “I would not feel comfortable with that at all.”

Pody was one of a handful of regional government officials and business leaders from around Wilson County who turned up at a Lebanon outlet mall off I-40 to hear the governor deliver his last spiel of the day. Due to inclement weather in the area, though, Haslam’s plane from Memphis was delayed and the event was cancelled at the last minute.

All the same, Pody said he’s not been unmoved by the case Gov. Haslam and state transportation officials have been making. He agrees additional funding is needed to maintain and improve Tennessee thoroughfares.

“We have to find a way to get TDOT more money,” he said. “I am very, very comfortable doing that. But we need to decide what the best way to do that is.”

Like many of the lawmakers already on record opposed to a gas-tax increase, Pody supports topping off the road-budget next year with at least $260 million in general-fund dollars. That’s roughly the amount transportation advocates in the Legislature say was inappropriately tapped a decade ago from the state’s gas-tax revenue tank and used to fuel other government programs.

Jim Tracy Bill HaslamJim Tracy, a Shelbyville Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, is leading the charge both to raise awareness about TDOT funding shortfalls and replace the “raided” $260 million.

Like Haslam, Tracy has traveled the state recently himself talking about transportation issues. He was also among those on hand in Lebanon waiting for Haslam in the rain. And Tracy opposes raising the gas tax in 2016 as well.

Pody intends to push legislation next year that would permanently allocate sales-tax money collected from consumer purchases of auto and truck tires in Tennessee toward TDOT. He said the bill will be sponsored in the Senate by Mt. Juliet Republican Mae Beavers, another foe of hiking the gas tax.

He acknowledged that dedicating taxes on tire-sales to roadbuilding won’t pay for all TDOT’s list of projects.

“It is not going to be tens of millions of dollars — it is not enough to do everything that we need done,” Pody said. Still, ideas like that are much more palatable to penny-conscious politicians and voters at this stage, he said. “Rather than raising the gas tax, I would rather do something like that.”

Haslam hinted Tuesday that he may be getting the message that support is lacking in the Legislature for a gas tax hike in 2016. “I don’t know that we have to address it this year, but we have to address it while I’m governor,” he said. “I’ll just put it that way. Or the state will really be behind the eight ball.”


Reaction to Passage of Fred Thompson

Below are statements from various political figures in response to the death of Fred Thompson, 73, an actor and former United States senator from Tennessee. He died Sunday from lymphoma.

Sen. Lamar Alexander: “Very few people can light up the room the way Fred Thompson did. He used his magic as a lawyer, actor, Watergate counsel, and United States senator to become one of our country’s most principled and effective public servants. He was my friend for nearly fifty years. I will miss him greatly. Honey and I and our entire family send our love and sympathy to Jeri and the Thompson family.”

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, R-Kentucky: “Fred Thompson lived life to the very fullest. The first in his family to go to college, Fred would go on to become Watergate lawyer, Senate colleague, presidential candidate, radio personality, and icon of silver and small screen alike, who didn’t just take on criminals as an actor but as a real-life prosecutor, too.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker: “Fred Thompson served the people of Tennessee and America with great honor and distinction. From the courtroom to Capitol Hill to Hollywood, his larger than life personality was infectious and had a way of making all of those around him strive to be better. Through his many different roles in public life, Fred never forgot where he came from, and our state and country miss his common sense approach to public service. I greatly appreciated his friendship and am saddened to learn of his passing. Elizabeth and I extend our thoughts and prayers to his wife, Jeri, the Thompson family and all those who were impacted by Fred’s life.”

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes: “The news of Senator Thompson’s passing gives me a heavy heart. This is a sad moment for all of us as our state has lost a larger-than-life figure. His quick wit, his hospitality, and his conservative beliefs reflected the best attributes of Tennessee. Senator Thompson was a statesman in every sense of the word. He will be missed as much for his friendship as he will for his leadership.”

Mary Mancini, Tennessee Democratic Chairwoman: “I would like to express my sincere condolences to the family of Senator Fred Thompson. Senator Thompson wore many hats but it was his life of public service that will leave an indelible mark in the Tennessee history books. He will be remembered fondly.”

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey: “An iconic presence in both politics and film, Fred Thompson was a proud son of Lawrence County and a thoroughly effective public servant. Whether it was on the screen or in the Senate, Fred always made you proud to be a Tennessean. I was truly fortunate to count him as a friend. He will be missed.”

Craig Fitzhugh, Tennessee House Democratic leader: “Pam & I were sad to learn about the passing of Senator Fred Thompson. From his time as a young attorney on the Watergate Committee to his years in the United States Senate, Fred Thompson leaves behind an honorable legacy of public service. Our thoughts and prayers are with his entire family, especially his son Tony, during this difficult time.”

Former Vice President Al Gore: “At a moment of history’s choosing, Fred’s extraordinary integrity while working with Senator Howard Baker on the Watergate Committee helped our nation find its way. I was deeply inspired by his matter-of-fact, no-nonsense moral courage in that crucible.”

The Bush family: “Fred stood on principle and common sense, and had a deep love for and connection with the people across Tennessee whom he had the privilege to serve in the United States Senate. He enjoyed a hearty laugh, a strong handshake, a good cigar, and a healthy dose of humility. Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio, or the town square of Lawrenceburg, his home.”

Bill Frist, former U.S Senate Majority leader: “Working at his side in the Senate for eight years, Fred embodied what has always been the best of Tennessee politics — he listened carefully and was happy to work across the aisle for causes that he believed were right.”

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell: “Fred Thompson left an indelible mark on this state. Over his long and accomplished career, he never forgot where he came from–he was a Tennessean through and through. I am honored and proud to have known him, and to have called him a friend. He will be missed. My thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Thompson family during this difficult time.”

Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday ordered government-building flags flown at half staff. He said, “Tennessee has lost a great statesman and one of her favorite sons. (First Lady) Crissy and I have always appreciated his friendship, and we will miss him.”

Featured NewsTracker

Judicial Advisory Panel Sends Haslam SCOTN Nominee Suggestions

The names of three potential nominees to the Tennessee Supreme Court were sent to Gov. Bill Haslam this week.

All three of the men, who were selected by the Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments, serve as state appeals judges. They are Thomas Radcliffe Frierson of Morristown, Robert H. Montgomery, Jr. of Kingsport and Roger Amos Page of Medina.

Frierson currently sits on the Tennessee Court of Appeals Eastern Section. Montgomery is a judge for the eastern section of the state Criminal Court of Appeals. Page is on the Criminal Court of Appeals Western Section.

Page is 59 years old, Frierson is 57 and Montgomery is 62. All three were appointed to their current appellate bench assignments by Gov. Haslam.

All nine of the applicants for the vacant Supreme Court slot — which was created when Justice Gary Wade unexpectedly retired in September — were asked why they’re seeking a seat on the state’s high court. Below are the responses from the finalists.

Robert Montgomery

“Nineteen years ago, I applied for a position on the Court of Criminal Appeals. While I was not appointed, I knew that if the opportunity ever presented itself, it was my career aspiration to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court. While I did not have then the depth of legal knowledge and experiences that I have today, the same reasons still exist for my desire to serve on the Supreme Court – to serve the public by determining how justice is administered, not just in one courtroom, but throughout Tennessee.

“Over the years as a prosecutor, a trial judge, and appellate judge, I have worked continuously to develop my legal skills and knowledge. I believe that my professional and personal background, my abiding interest in legal concepts, my temperament and collegiality, my attention to details, my willingness to reflect on and make informed and logical judgments about people and the law, and my desire to share my legal knowledge, provide me with the skills to be a valuable Supreme Court member.”

Thomas Frierson

“Serving the needs of others should be a lifelong endeavor. Judges, as public servants, play “a central role in preserving the principles of justice and the rule of law.” Tenn. Sup.Ct. R. 10, RJC Preamble. The opportunity to serve as a member of the Tennessee Judiciary is truly an honor.

“A broad spectrum of legal disputes currently require judicial review. Technological advances, enhanced access to information, and greater societal mobility mandate that a court respond to the call for justice in an effective, timely, and professional manner. Limited government resources must be responsibly extended so as to promote public confidence in the judiciary while preserving the integrity of impartial adjudication.

“I seek the privilege of serving as Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court to address the significant demands of judicial service to others throughout our State. I welcome the responsibilities of fulfilling judicial duties while seeking to promote public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary. No less significant is my focus upon encouraging civility and professionalism in the legal profession.”

Roger Page

“The short and easy answer is that I love the State of Tennessee. I can think of no higher honor than serving the people of our great State as a member of our highest court. Due to my unique educational experience of graduating from the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy and the University of Memphis Law School, I have met and now know numerous people in almost all ninety-five counties of Tennessee. In my father’s direct ancestral line, I am a sixth generation West Tennessean. My mother’s ancestral family is from Sevier County in East Tennessee. My sons and grandchildren all reside in Middle Tennessee. If I am selected for this position, I will represent all Tennesseans on the Court.

“I believe that my entire professional life has prepared me for this position. I have vast experience in both civil and criminal matters. As an attorney and judge, I have handled cases involving medical malpractice, personal injury, workers’ compensation, stockbroker fraud, collections, divorces, probate and estates, condemnation, contracts, zoning and real estate.”

Education NewsTracker

Religious Indoctrination Focus of Bill by Rep. Butt

Republican state Rep. Sheila Butt of Columbia wants to quell concerns among lawmakers and some parents around the state that Tennessee public schools may be inappropriately promoting Islam.

Under legislation Butt has filed for consideration in the General Assembly’s 2016 session, the state board of education would be prohibited from requiring that kids be taught “religious doctrine” prior to the 10th grade.

Sheila Butt
Sheila Butt

House Bill 1418 would also require that in classes where older students learn about “comparative religion as it relates to history or geography,” teachers take steps to ensure “no religion shall be emphasized or focused on over another religion.”

“If the curriculum standards in grades prior to grades ten through twelve (10–12) include a reference to a specific religion or the role and importance of a religion in history or geography, then the state board shall ensure that the reference does not amount to teaching any form of religious doctrine to the students,” Butt’s legislation declares.

Butt, a Christian motivational speaker by trade, is the Tennessee House GOP supermajority’s legislative floor leader. She also serves on the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee.

She told the Tennesseean this week that HB1418 is not an attack on religion in general, or Islam in particular. Rather, she is concerned with “balancing the teaching of religion in education.”

“I think that probably the teaching that is going on right now in seventh, eighth grade is not age appropriate,” she told the paper. “They are not able to discern a lot of times whether its indoctrination or whether they’re learning about what a religion teaches.”

The state’s Department of Education is in the process of reviewing social studies standards.

Butt said she’s encountered “quite a bit of confusion as far as who is in charge of standards and curriculum.” For that reason, state lawmakers need to get more involved in discussions over what subject matter is suitable for public school students, she said.

During a stopover in Butt’s Maury County district last month, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sought to clarify the roles between local and state education officials on setting classroom programs of study.

“Certainly, we are setting that expectation, but how’s it done, what instructional practices are used, what strategies are used, what curriculum is used is absolutely a local decision,” McQueen said in a Columbia Daily Herald story about her visit.

candice mcqueen 2015
Candice McQueen

“Our intent has been to use the standards to actually look at world religions and world cultures and see how it impacts world history,” McQueen continued. “The way a parent can then talk about that at home is certainly an approach that will be individualized. They should take that information and have those conversations with students through their own belief system and weigh that appropriately inside their own homes.”

Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Haslam, TN Lawmakers Optimistic VW Will Overcome Emissions Scandal

Volkswagen still has vocal supporters in Gov. Bill Haslam and Chattanooga-area lawmakers who joined him outside the carmaker’s Hamilton County plant this week to publicly display faith in the controversy-beset company.

Haslam paid a visit to workers at the southeast Tennessee factory on Wednesday to express his support for their hard work and focus in what are troubling times for the corporation as a whole.

“Everybody knows about Volkswagen’s struggles,” the governor told reporters gathered across the road from VW’s plant following his visit to the facility. “What is getting lost in that story it that there are some men and women right here in Tennessee, in Chattanooga, who are producing a great product, who have nothing at all to do with the problems that have been created. They are doing everything that they can to get past that.”

Haslam said he found it “impressive” that the plant is still “putting out a great product” in the midst of a roiling controversy that began recently when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had discovered about half a million VW automobiles were using emission control systems that were rigged to fool government pollution regulators.

U.S. Volkswagen CEO Michael Horn told a Congressional hearing Thursday that 11 million of the German automaker’s cars worldwide are fitted with emissions-test “defeat” software that can sense the difference between road-driving and lab-operating conditions.

But Gov. Haslam told reporters Wednesday that, “for better or worse,” Tennessee taxpayers are “married” to Volkswagen at this point.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the state of Tennessee divvied out an estimated $358.2 million of the original $577.4 million in incentives that Volkswagen wrangled seven years ago as a condition of building its billion-dollar facility in Hamilton County. The other $219.2 million was supplied from local governments. State and county taxpayers this year financed another $260 million in incentives to win the job of producing a new sports utility vehicle line for VW.

“We have a concern about taxpayer’s dollars that have been invested in this facility, really twice: in the original plant, and the second one when they agreed to build the SUV here,” Haslam said Wednesday. “Obviously, there is a lot of concern that taxpayer’s dollars are being protected. I think the mechanism is in place to do that.”

The governor said he supports enforcing so-called “clawback” provisions that allow the state to revoke and retract taxpayer funding from companies found not to be living up to promises they made in exchange for subsides and incentives.

Still, Haslam said he’s confident VW will ultimately put the current scandal in the rearview mirror and earn its way back as world leader in automotive sales.

Volkswagen is a “solid investment” for taxpayers, Haslam said.

Haslam rejected criticism that the VW scandal — as well as past failures by incentive-receiving companies to deliver on the promise of job-creation, like happened in Clarksville with Hemlock Semiconductor — shows why spending taxpayer dollars on corporate giveaways is a bad idea.

“I disagree with the conclusion,” Haslam said.

The governor said nobody in his administration — nor the administration of Democrat Phil Bredesen, the prior Tennessee governor who offered VW hundreds of millions in publicly financed support to locate in Chattanooga — anticipated such impropriety.

“I don’t think anybody could foresee this happening,” said Haslam. “I would love to know the person who could have told you this was coming around the corner.”

The Republican governor, who prior to winning election to Tennessee’s highest office in 2010 served eight years as mayor of Knoxville, said he still believes the state’s deal with VW was prudent. If the future proves otherwise, “we have the provisions in place to bring the money back,” said Haslam.

“We have to do our homework up front to make certain that we have the provisions in place to protect our taxpayers,” he said. “That’s No. 1. And No. 2 is that we are making wise investments.”

Among the lawmakers who participated in the press event with Gov. Haslam were Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson of Hixson and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, both Republicans.

Watson and McCormick have each been critical of Volkswagen management for flirting with the prospect of inviting the Detroit-based United Auto Workers union into the Hamilton County factory to represent Tennessee workers.

But on Wednesday, both backed Haslam in supporting the company in its time of trouble.

“I think you are going to see a sort of rise-from-the-ashes kind of story that comes out of this plant,” said Watson, vice chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

McCormick seconded that sentiment.

“This is going to be a bump in the road for them. There have been other car companies that have had problems much greater than what is happening with Volkswagen, and they have bounced back fine — and Volkswagen will too,” he said.

Other area lawmakers who attended the event were Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and Reps. JoAnne Favors of Chattanooga, Kevin Brooks of Cleveland and Mike Carter of Ooltewah. Favors is a Democrat, the others are Republicans.

A state legislative subcommittee is scheduled to meet Oct. 29 at the Hamilton County Department of Education to inquire into “the financial impact on the state from the Volkswagen misconduct.”