Monthly Archives: November 2016

Deal preserves 4,000 southern Cumberland Plateau acres

More than 4,000 acres on the southern Cumberland Plateau will be protected under an agreement involving the state, land conservation groups and property owners, reports the Times-Free Press.

The land includes more than 8 miles of streams in the Crow Creek Valley and other vital habitat for endangered species that live just north of the Alabama border.

The project also protects local mining jobs for the next 50 years and connects 25,000 acres of forest and wildlife corridor, according to officials with The Conservation Fund and The Land Trust for Tennessee, the nonprofit organizations that partnered on the effort with the state.

“The South Cumberland State Park area is unique in many ways,” Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for state parks and conservation, said in a statement. “By providing protection of the threatened species and preserving one of Tennessee’s most scenic lands, Tennessee State Parks will preserve and protect this wild place forever.”

The protected 4,061 acres lie along the eastern side of the Crow Creek Valley above the tiny town of Sherwood, Tenn. Sherwood is home to about 500 people and Sherwood Mining Co., the town’s longtime limestone mining operation that harks back to the days when the community was three times its present size.

The Conservation Fund, with support from The Land Trust for Tennessee, purchased 3,893 acres earlier this year from the mining company. The company retained the right to mine limestone underneath the property for the next 50 years, officials said.

…In an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the mining company donated an additional 168 acres to mitigate impacts from mining on the painted snake-coiled forest snail habitat. Franklin County is the only place in the world the animal lives. The habitat of the endangered Morefield’s leather flower and seven other rare species of plants and animals also is protected.

Tragedy revives legislator (and Haslam) interest in mandating school bus seat belts

After a three-fatality school bus accident in Knoxville, a Knoxville legislator proposed mandatory school bus safety belts legislation in the 2015 legislative session. The bill (HB770) failed.

After a five-fatality school bus accident in Chattanooga on Monday, at least two Chattanooga legislators – Democratic Rep. JoAnn Favors and Republican Rep. Gerald McCormick — are proposing mandatory school bus safety belts legislation be enacted in the 2017 session. And this time, Gov. Bill Haslam may be ready to join the effort.

From the Times-Free Press:

“It’s time to have that conversation” about Tennessee school bus safety, including seat belt requirements, Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday.

“We had a wreck last year in Knoxville with a school bus, last week in Nashville, and obviously, the tragedy in Chattanooga,” Haslam said. “I think it’s time to have all the parties come to the table and have a thoughtful conversation about what can we do to make our school buses as safe as we can.”

… “I don’t want to point fingers who was against it (the 2015 bill) because of the expenses,” McCormick said. “I’m sure it will be expensive. But this is an area where the state should certainly step in and help with the expenses and not [make local systems] shoulder the entire burden.”

The lawmaker added: “It’s unfortunate it took a tragedy like this to focus attention on it, but sometimes that’s what it takes to wake people up.”

Favors, the House Democratic minority whip, said she would introduce legislation to require seat belts in school buses when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

She, too, noted a school bus seat belt bill was proposed in response to a December 2014 Knoxville school bus crash that killed two students and a teacher’s aide. The bill was shipped off for summer legislative study in 2015.

It went nowhere in 2016, despite being restricted to only purchases of new school buses and extending the implementation date.

…McCormick said that with booming state surpluses during the last fiscal year, the state can afford a one-time expenditure for current bus fleets maintained by local school districts. And there should be money going forward as well to require new buses to have the safety features, he said.

“If you have the money, I can’t think of a better place to put it for our children going to and from school,” McCormick said.

Note: A further Haslam quote,  from WTVF-TV: “Traditionally, school buses have been the responsibility of the local education authorities, the counties and their school boards,” he said. “If the state passed a new law regarding that, would we take on some of the financial obligation. I think that is all to be discussed.”

The News Sentinel has a story on a UT professor promoting school bus seat belts, HERE. And from the look-back machine, here a News Sentinel story on introduction of the failed bill last session (bt then-Rep. Joe Armstrong) is HERE. House Speaker Beth Harwell tried similar legislation back in 2007.

Haslam gives OK to longer, wider loads of hay

News release from the governor’s office

NASHVILLE – With much of Tennessee and the Southeast coping with extreme drought, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has issued an executive order to ease restrictions on trucks hauling hay.

“Agriculture is critical to our state’s economy, and rain is a critical ingredient that farmers need to keep their businesses running,” Haslam said. “This order will allow haulers to move hay across and through Tennessee efficiently, so farmers can feed their livestock during these drought conditions.”

Haslam’s executive order increases the height of hay trailer loads to 13 feet, 6 inches and the width to a maximum of 14 feet during daylight hours on Tennessee highways. The average round bale of hay measures seven feet across. The increase in width allows haulers to transport standard round hay bales side by side, increasing the capacity hauled per truck without a special permit. Transporters must have the proper oversize signs and escorts as required by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and trucks and their drivers must be properly licensed. Maximum weight limits outlined in TCA, Section 55-7-203 remain in effect.

The executive order will expire January 31, 2017.

Continue reading

David Gerregano named state revenue commissioner

News release from the governor’s office

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced David Gerregano as commissioner of the Department of Revenue effective Dec. 3.

A 19-year veteran of the department, Gerregano, 46, is currently deputy commissioner, and he will replace Commissioner Richard Roberts, whose departure was announced earlier this month.

As deputy commissioner since 2011, Gerregano has helped oversee various departmental functions, including the audit division, enforcement and taxpayer services. Since starting with the department in 1997 as tax counsel, he has held multiple legal and legislative positions such as administrative hearing officer, general counsel and assistant commissioner.

Continue reading

Governor renews road revenue rhetoric, but still no plan

After almost two years of pitching the general idea that increased revenue for highway construction and maintenance is needed, Gov. Bill Haslam is renewing the rhetoric and focusing on state legislators – but still without giving any specific proposal.

Further from The Times-Free Press:

“What we’ve been doing so far is saying what are the needs, what will that cost us and let’s figure out different ways that we might pay for that,” Haslam told reporters. “And now it’s time to begin having those conversations again with legislators.”

He added “there’s no way on something this hard and big you do it without support of the legislators, so we’re going to begin those conversations.”

…Haslam and Transportation Commissioner John Schroer estimate Tennessee has a $6 billion backlog on previously approved projects with billions of dollars more in various transportation needs that have yet to get off the drawing board and be placed on an already very long line for inclusion.

… “Whether you live in downtown Nashville or you live in Pulaski, we have to have a plan that works for all of those,” he said, adding that the “challenging piece of that is obviously how are you going to pay for it.”

…Haslam, meanwhile, is still making the argument it would be better to deal with the issue now than leave it to confront his successor in 2019.

“Sooner rather than later is better when you have a governor in the last two years of his term rather than someone coming in new,” Haslam said.

Note: See also the AP story, which begins thusly: The dust may have settled on legislative elections and leadership votes, but Republican Gov. Bill Haslam doesn’t appear any closer to divulging his plans for boosting transportation funding in Tennessee.

And The Tennessean, which has this quote from the governor: “As I’ve said 100 times, our current path is not sustainable,” Haslam said.

CPA firm echoes Haslam outsourcing savings estimate

An accounting firm, hired by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration to review its estimate of savings through outsourcing some services on college campuses, has confirmed the estimates of $35 million in projected savings.

Further from The Tennessean:

After college leaders, including (UT President Joe) DiPietro and former Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, questioned the veracity of the state’s math, the Haslam administration agreed to hire Nashville-based KraftCPAs to vet those savings. The KraftCPAs review found the potential for $35.2 million in annual savings.

Terry Cowles, director of the state’s Office of Customer Focused Government, said the consistency between the two projections justified a continued push to pursue outsourcing.

“We appreciate the cooperation of all those who assisted this effort to improve services at state facilities while saving Tennesseans’ tax dollars,” Cowles said in the statement. “Now that we see a less than two percent impact to the overall potential savings from this objective report, we continue moving forward.”

But a spokesman for the United College Workers union called the KraftCPAs review “anything but independent” because of the company’s donations to Haslam’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns for governor. State records also show that a KraftCPAs manager donated to both of Haslam’s campaigns as well.

“KraftCPAs has multiple political and financial connections to the Haslam administration,” UCW spokesman Thomas Walker said. “It’s hard to imagine them conducting this work independent of those connections.”

Haslam refuted those claims during a conversation with reporters Monday.

“Kraft is one of the most respected CPA firms here in the state,” Haslam said. “They don’t need this work here to make their business.”

Critics have repeatedly blasted Haslam’s proposal to privatize facilities management for a wide range of state properties — including college campuses, parks and prisons — predicting it would translate to subpar services and slashed pay and benefits for employees. (Note: See,  for example, Tennessee State Employees Association Randy Stamps’ op-ed piece in the News Sentinel, HERE.)

Haslam has said the savings are possible without layoffs or cuts to pay or benefits, a sentiment he reiterated Monday. He also said the savings could keep tuition costs down in the future.

Wildfires cost TN $5M; Haslam vows to punish arsonists

Fighting Tennessee wildfires has already cost the state an estimated $5.5 million, not counting mention property damage, and Gov. Bill Haslam is vowing to go after arsonists believed responsible for setting at least half the blazes across drought-parched portions of the state, reports the Times-Free Press.

“We obviously are very concerned about fires in Tennessee, particularly the fact that it looks like the majority of them were set by arsonists,” Haslam told reporters. “I can assure you we’re going to pursue those folks with everything they can because the impact on our communities is huge.”

…U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., toured wildfire scenes in Hamilton County Monday.

(State Agriculture Commissioner Jai) Templeton and forestry officials told the governor that preliminary estimates indicate Tennessee stands to recoup at least $900,000 in federal emergency funds for money it spent on a three-fire “complex” near Soddy-Daisy in Hamilton County, Smith County in nearby Sequatchie County and East Miller Cover in Blount County. Because they have been federally designated, the federal government would pay 75 percent of costs.

Non-federally designated areas, however, are on Tennessee taxpayers’ dime with the state bringing in firefighting teams from other states. A Florida team made a huge difference in fighting the North Hamilton County fires, Templeton and other officials told the governor.

…As for what more punishments are in store for suspected arsonists, Haslam said, “I’ve actually asked that question. We’re trying to see what we can do there that we can do within the powers given us. But I would be in favor of doing it. I’ll obviously have to see what we can do.”

He said he may push tougher laws for future arsonists.

UT’s first woman chancellor will be UT’s highest-paid leader

For the first time in its history, the University of Tennessee has selected a woman to lead its flagship campus in Knoxville. Further, the News Sentinel reports Beverly Davenport, currently the interim president at the University of Cincinnati, also will become the highest-paid leader in the school’s history if her appointment is approved next month by the UT Board of Trustees.

Davenport signed an offer letter Monday, agreeing to a base salary of $585,000 annually, along with up to $95,000 in additional compensation in the first year. She also will be eligible for performance bonuses that could pay her as much as 15 percent of her salary, or $87,775, beginning July 1.

She will earn more than current Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, who announced his retirement over the summer and currently receives a salary of $454,000, plus $30,000 in housing and expenses. Davenport will report directly to UT President Joe DiPietro, who earns a base salary of $513,344 annually.

If approved, Davenport will become the school’s eighth chancellor on March 1. The trustees are set to vote at a special-called meeting Dec. 15 in Nashville.

She will start drawing a salary before that, however, earning $25,000 per month from UT in January and February to begin the transition into her new role.

…She beat out two other finalists, including Pamela Whitten, the provost at the University of Georgia, and Alexander Cartwright, provost of the State University of New York system.

Davenport has been interim president in Cincinnati since July after the sitting president left for the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She had been provost at the university for three years when the Cincinnati board of trustees unanimously selected her to serve as the school’s temporary leader at a salary of $625,000.

Harwell, Matlock on aftermath of House Republican leadership elections

Excerpt from a Times-Free Press report on the House Republican Caucus elections, headlined by Beth Harwell’s reelection as speaker by a 40-30 vote over Rep. Jimmy Matlock:

Asked by reporters after her victory how she would bring Republicans together, Harwell replied that “Jimmy Matlock and I were sitting together and having a good conversation” after the vote.

“When you get to be the super majority, when you’re 74 members strong, of course we’re going to, we’re having competition for every one of these seats,” Harwell added. “And they’ve been close every way. You would expect that and I actually think it’s healthy.”

As for how she would address any members who feel ignored, Harwell said, “I don’t lead the caucus. I’m the speaker of the House and I think all of the members of the House feel like I’m approachable. My door is open both to Democrats and Republican members of the House of Representatives.”

…(Former House Majority Leader Gerald) McCormick said he thinks talk about discord is overstated.

“I think you’ve got some people who are determined to be unhappy,” he said. “I think in general the new caucus is going to come around to the leadership team except for those who refuse to be happy.”

McCormick said personal ambition is part of the mix, adding “it’s virtually impossible to get 70 people, many of whom are ambitious,” to agree sometimes.

For his part, Matlock said he and Harwell are friends and he’s looking forward to working “with her and the entire caucus.” But he said he “absolutely” sees “philosophical differences” leading to problems.

“When I was speaking it was more what I felt and many, many others had told me [about Harwell’s leadership], not just all the right-wingers that’s been alleged,” said Matlock, himself a staunch conservative.

“I felt frustrations throughout,” he added. “But Beth’s pretty savvy politically. I think she’ll take that news and information and go back and say where can we find some common ground here that will maybe address some of these issues. And I fully expect her to try and do that.”

Corker: Enforce Iran trade deal before ripping it up

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker says that ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, as President-elect Donald Trump proposed on the campaign trail, is not a good idea, reports the Times-Free Press:

Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a critic of the deal that outgoing President Obama negotiated with Tehran leaders last year, said he expects the incoming Trump administration should and will do more to enforce what he said were ongoing violations of the pact by the Iranian government. But since the U.S. government and its allies have already returned billions of dollars of once-frozen assets to Iran, Corker cautioned against tearing up the deal once Trump is sworn into office in January.

“I don’t think that (repealing the deal) is a very good place to start,” Corker told reporters during a Chattanooga visit today. “If you tear the agreement up on the front end, it’s almost like cutting your nose off to spite your face because they already have access to all of their dollars.”

…Corker, who was briefly considered as a possible vice presidential pick by Trump this summer and is reportedly still a potential candidate for Secretary of State in the Trump cabinet, said the U.S. should first work with its allies to enforce the existing agreement before throwing it out and trying to negotiate a new pact.

“There is a new tone and a lot of actual action that a new president can take to push back on (the Iranian’s military) activities in the region, which is just the opposite of what the Obama administration is doing,” Corker said.

Corker said the Obama administration “knows there are these violations,” but he said “they are not going these things to push back” against the Iranian violations and are working with banks in Europe and elsewhere “to encourage them to do business with Iran.”

Corker opposed the Iranian deal last year, which Trump has repeatedly denounced and said he could scrap on his first day in office.

“One of the reasons that I opposed this treaty so strongly is that we gave up all of our leverage on the front end,” Corker said. “To me the best route for the new president to handle this is to push back on the violations that are taking place today.”