Monthly Archives: September 2015

Democrat leader calls for investigation of prisoner death

The chairman of the state Senate’s Democratic Caucus has called for Gov. Bill Haslam to order a “full and complete investigation” into the 2013 death of a 55-year-old state prison inmate who prison records say died of natural causes but whose autopsy found “multiple blunt traumatic and thermal injuries.”

Further from Richard Locker:

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said an article in The Tennessean newspaper on Sunday about the conflicting official reports on the death of inmate Elbert Thornton at West Tennessee State Prison raises questions about the “very integrity of the government and the Department of Correction’s credibility.” Thornton was found unresponsive in his cell on June 12, 2013, and he was pronounced dead later that morning at a Lauderdale County hospital. (Note: Previous post HERE.)

Yarbro said he hasn’t been able to review the documents himself “but the facts laid out are troubling if not alarming. The department has reported that Mr. Thornton died of natural causes when the autopsy required by state law found he died of multiple blunt trauma to the head and torso and severe burns. Obviously a natural death is not typically accompanied by chest fractures, head injuries and severe burns of that nature.

“We need answers and we need them now. If the administration has covered up torture or homicide in a state prison, that is a problem of the highest magnitude. If The Tennessean reporting is inaccurate or incomplete or misleading, we need to know that too. … And so today I want to call upon the governor to order a full and complete investigation of both Mr. Thornton’s death and the investigation that followed,” said Yarbro, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

David Smith, the governor’s press secretary, issued a statement Monday saying, “As with any inmate death, a full investigation was completed, and the death was reviewed by the mortality and morbidity panel. The case was presented to the local district attorney’s office for review, and it’s my understanding charges were not pursued.”

…Department of Correction spokeswoman Neysa Taylor said the agency cannot disclose an inmate’s medical history but said, “Mr. Thornton had multiple medical complications that contributed to the autopsy findings.”

Study finds pre-k brings academic gains that fade later

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that he’s still supportive of Tennessee’s pre-kindergarten program despite a study that shows academic gains made by some of the children enrolled fade in early elementary grades.

The five-year study, a coordinated effort between Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education, found that children in the state program made greater gains on a range of early achievement measures than comparable peers who did not attend pre-K.

However, by the end of kindergarten, the study found that children who were not in the program had caught up and there were no longer significant differences between the two groups. By second grade, the academic performance of both groups of children had flattened out and began to lag below national norms, according to the study. The latest round of results shows that this trend has continued through the third grade.

“We’re pretty stunned looking at these data and have a lot of questions about what might be going on in the later grades that doesn’t seem to be maintaining, if not accelerating, the positive gains the … attendees made in pre-K,” said Mark Lipsey, director of the Peabody Research Institute, and a professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Peabody.
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TN State Museum audit prepared, policy changes eyed

An audit of the Tennessee State Museum has been completed and will be presented to members of the museum’s board of directors at a scheduled meeting in Memphis on Oct. 5, according to a spokesman for Comptroller Justin Wilson.

The spokesman, John Dunn, said in a copy of the draft audit by the state comptroller’s office has been provided to the museum management, including Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell, for a response to findings. In accord with auditing policies, he declined to provide any information on those findings in advance.

But former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe said he understands informally that one curious finding is that the museum management keeps alcoholic beverages on hand without properly securing them.

“I didn’t even know we had alcohol there,” said Ashe, a member of the board officially known as the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission.
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TN school boards urged to reject request for Islam teaching records

The Tennessee School Boards Association is telling districts to fight a records request from a conservative legal group that’s trying to get school districts across Tennessee to divulge what they’re teaching middle-schoolers about Islam, reports WPLN.

The American Center for Law & Justice is sending records requests to all 146 school districts in Tennessee. The organization says a seventh-grade history unit on the early Islamic empire amounts to indoctrination.

“Imagine your child or grandchild forced to recite the Islamic conversion creed in school,” the group says in a video posted on its website. “It’s happening in Tennessee, public middle school students are being taught to write ‘Allah is the only God.'”

The TSBA isn’t responding to those claims. But it is giving districts a sample letter to send to the ACLJ.

The letter was originally written by attorneys at the firm Lewis, Thomason, King, Krieg & Waldrop, which advises many Tennessee districts, and says that because the ACLJ is an out-of-state entity, it’s not entitled to any records under Tennessee law.

Note: Previous post HERE.

On Knoxville mayor’s transgender write-in opponent

A write-in candidate for Knoxville mayor, named Jack Knoxville, tells Georgiana Vines he’s running as a write-in candidate against incumbent Mayor Madeline Rogero in Tuesday’s city elections because “I don’t think any candidate should run unopposed.”

He is transgendered — born Jessica Ann LeMin — and talks about the change freely.

Knoxville, a native of New York, said he spent most of his life in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and came to Knoxville about three years ago when “I was in the process of becoming Jack.” The name was legally changed in Chancery Court in January.

He said he is running because he is concerned about a lot of things and has a lot of ideas. He cited trash on the sides of roads that needs to be cleaned up.

“Knoxville is so beautiful,” he said.

Knoxville, 36, describes himself as a freelance web designer with a business, Smoky Mountain Media Group.

“I’m a jack of all trades,” he said.

He’s spent only $90, according to a filing with the Knox County Election Commission, and he donated the money. He hasn’t named a treasurer, which Elections Administrator Cliff Rodgers said is “inconsistent” with state law.

…In response to Knoxville’s comment about wanting the mayor to have an opponent, Rogero said she didn’t understand how running just to give an incumbent opposition “and without mounting any kind of visible campaign serves to elevate our city or public discussion.”

“I do think our city is served when candidates with a record of voting and civic involvement are willing to engage in vigorous outreach and the dialogue about our city and its future. That’s what I did in my four previous campaigns (1990, 1994, 2003 and 2011) and how I’ve served as mayor,” she said in an email.

Alexander to GOP senators: Save the filibuster

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander took to the Senate floor last week to preach once again about the virtues of the filibuster and to try to stop a push by some lawmakers to nuke it, reports Michael Collins. This time, he wasn’t lecturing Democrats. He was scolding his own party.

“Republicans who want to abolish the filibuster in the United States Senate are Republicans with short memories,” he began, launching into a nine-minute defense of the parliamentary stalling tactic, its long tradition in the Senate, its benefits in protecting the voice of the minority and the dangers that await any party looking to abolish it.

The speech was reminiscent of the good scolding he gave to Democrats two years ago, when they held the Senate majority and stopped Republicans from filibustering most of President Barack Obama’s nominees. The change did not prevent the filibuster of legislation, but Alexander was livid and accused Democrats of a power grab and labeled the move tyranny.

Now it’s some Republicans who consider the filibuster a nuisance, rendering them incapable of pushing their own agenda through a Congress in which, for the first time in eight years, they hold a majority in both the House and the Senate.

In the past two weeks, Democrats have successfully used the filibuster to stop the Senate from voting on bills that would block the Iran nuclear deal and end federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Record 1,263 TN deaths from opioid overdose in 2014

Tennessee recorded 1,263 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2014, a record number and well above the number dying in car accidents or gunshot wounds, according to the Tennessean.

“I would like to think the rate of increase has slowed, but quite frankly the 2014 numbers don’t really allow me to say that,” said David Reagan, chief medical officer of the Tennessee Department of Health. “It is at epidemic proportions in our state.”

There were more than 100 deaths in Davidson, Knox and Shelby counties, while 25 other counties had at least 12 deaths. All but four counties had at least one overdose death in 2014.

…Prescription painkillers and heroin are easily attainable illegally on the street. Hydrocodone costs $5-$7 per pill, Percocet is $7-$10 per pill, Oxycodone IR runs $30-$40 per pill, and Oxycontin comes in at about $80 per pill. Heroin is a less-expensive option, costing around $15 per bag, according to data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

…State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, was a sponsor of the 2012 legislation and wants the state to take further action. Yager would like to see some funding for addiction in the next budget.

“It is an epidemic of biblical proportions that we need to fight on every front,” Yager said.

“This just doesn’t happen to the poor kids in the slums or in the inner cities. This happens at the country club as well,” Yager said. “We have to realize that, as a society, the abuse of drugs doesn’t discriminate, whether you’re rich or poor or black or white.”

Haslam prepared to punt gas tax decision

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is opening the door to putting off a gas tax increase in an election year, but warns that officials need to stop “kidding ourselves” about Tennessee’s growing list of unfunded road projects.

Haslam stressed to reporters after an economic development announcement last week that he has yet to make any specific recommendations about how to begin tackling the $6 billion backlog.

“I mean, nobody wants to have a gas tax,” Haslam said. “But what I encourage folks is: Let’s look and see what the proposal would be and the road projects that would be impacted by doing something or not doing something.”
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Trend breaker: Direct PAC donations were down in 2014

Breaking a decade-old trend, Tennessee political action committees actually gave less money directly to political candidates last year than in the previous election year, according to the Registry of Election Finance’s official 2014 annual report, recently posted on the agency’s website.

But at the same time, PAC “independent expenditures” — money spent prompting or attacking candidates without coordination with the individual campaign — increased substantially, the report says.

Some figures from the 2014 annual report:

Direct donations to by PACs to candidates for state office totaled $6,820,079 in 2014, compared to $8,185,652 given in 2012 — a decline of $1,365,578.

“This breaks the trend that started in 2004 of rising PAC contributions when comparing election years (even numbered years) to election years and non-election years (odd numbered years) to non-election years,” says the report.
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Lawmaker questions UT diversity spending

A Knoxville legislator is questioning the University of Tennessee’s annual spending of more than $4.7 million on salary and benefits for employees involved in diversity programs, contending both the total and some individual salaries are excessive and should be reviewed with an eye toward cuts.

“If we could cut that $4.7 million by $1.5 million a year, that would be $15 million over 10 years,” said Daniel, R-Knoxville. “That would be saving a lot of tuition dollars and a lot of taxpayer dollars” for other university needs.

Margie Nichols, UT vice chancellor for communications, said the diversity efforts are largely mandated by federal law and cover a wide array of programs benefiting women and minorities. UT officials believe the expenditures are warranted and are open to a review, she said.

The $4.7 million total may overstate expenditures because it includes gross salaries of staff who have duties other than diversity matters. Only about $2.55 million in salary and benefits is directly attributed to diversity activities, though Daniel says all figures may understate actual spending because it does not include related employee travel and other expenses.
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