Tom Humphrey

Tom Humphrey

TRA to become TPUC (back to the future in names?)

The House has given final approval to a bill changing the name of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority to the Tennessee Public Utilities Commission. The measure (SB747) also declares that board member of the agency will be known as ‘commissioners’ rather than “directors.”

It was introduced at the request of officials of the agency, according to the sponsors, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville. On the House floor, Marsh told colleagues that Tennessee is “one of the few, if not the only” state in the nation where the agency vested with utility-regulating authority has board member known as commissioners.

As a matter of Tennessee history, the name change might be seen as a return to another era. The agency was initially established as the Tennessee Railroad Commission in 1897 with three elected “commissioners” to regulate fees charged by railroads. It’s duties were expanded to include broader oversight in 1919 and the name was changed to the “Railroad and Public Utilities Commission.”

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Bill set for passage bans local regulation of pet stores

A bill drafted at the request of Petlland, a pet store chain looking to expand franchise operations in Tennessee, includes consumer protection for purchasers of cats and dogs as well as protection of pet sellers from local government regulation.

The bill (SB519) is sponsored by Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, while opposed by animal advocacy groups. It has cleared committees in both the House and Senate and is scheduled for floor votes in both chambers this week.

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Chattanooga NPR reporter fired after legislator complaints

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has fired a reporter at WUTC, a National Public Radio affiliate, after state legislators complained about her reporting on the so-called transgender bathroom bill, reports the Times-Free Press.

Jacqui Helbert, 32, followed a group of Cleveland High School students as they traveled to the state capital March 7 to meet with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, about the legislation. They were advocating against the measure, which subsequently failed in a Senate committee.

(Note: The text of the offending story HERE. Much of it concerns a confrontation with Bell.)

The legislators say Helbert failed to properly identify herself as a reporter during meetings with the students. Helbert says it was “glaringly obvious” that she was, though she did not specifically say so, since she was wearing headphones, carried a 22-inch microphone and had an NPR press pass hung around her neck.

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Some James K. Polk kin oppose disinterring, moving body

The New York Times has done a lengthy article on the proposal to move the bodies of President James K. Polk and his wife from the Tennessee state capitol grounds to his parents’ home in Columbia, including comments from a Polk descendant lobbying against the relocation.

As the article notes, a legislative resolution (SJR141) declaring the General Assembly’s approval of moving the remains is scheduled for a Senate floor vote Monday evening.  It was scheduled for a vote Thursday, but the Senate adjourned before taking it up.


Supporters say the move will properly honor an unjustly overlooked president, a man who expanded the territory of the United States by a third, signed a law establishing the Smithsonian Institution and created the Naval Academy.

Opponents, including Teresa Elam, 65, a distant relative of Polk’s, are calling it nothing short of macabre, and an unsavory effort to promote tourism in Columbia, a city of 37,000 about 50 miles south of Nashville that is otherwise known for a colorful yearly celebration of its mule-breeding industry.

“They’re desecrating a grave,” said Ms. Elam, who has walked the halls of the Capitol with a sheaf full of historical documents, making her case to lawmakers. “It’s been on the Capitol grounds for about 124 years. It’s dishonor and disrespect.”

The Tennessean on Saturday, a day after the Times article appeared, did its own report on the issue, also quoting Elam along with another distant relative of the late president, Bill Mason.

Elam said she’s spoken to more than a dozen other descendants who are just as upset as she is. She described relocating the remains as “despicable” and only “using remains for a pony show.” Mason said it’s rare for any set of remains to be moved, much less three times.

“I wouldn’t want any relative of mine — lowly or high-born — treated that way,” Mason said.

Elam and Mason said there are very few ideas in their mind that would sway them. The only suggestion Elam offered would be to create a “complete total perfect replica” in Columbia of the memorial that lies on the Capitol grounds.

Note: A previous post HERE.

TDOT bills dead teen for damaging guardrail that killed her

The Tennessee Department of Transportation has apologized to a Loudon County man for sending his dead daughter a bill for nearly $3,000 to replace the guardrail that killed her in a car crash last November, reports The Tennessean.

In addition to refusing to pay the bill, Steven Eimers alleges the model of guardrail end involved in his daughter Hannah’s death is “horribly designed” and dangerous, and that “the culture at TDOT is more concerned with making up catchy slogans than actual safety.”

TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi said the bill was the result of “a mistake somewhere in processing,” and that TDOT “greatly apologizes for it.” The Eimers family does not have to pay, and another letter is being sent to explain the error, Nagi said.

Around 5:44 a.m. Nov. 1, Hannah Eimers, 17, was driving her father’s 2000 Volvo S80 on Interstate 75 North near Niota when the car left the road, traveled into the median and hit the end of the guardrail with the driver’s side door, according to a Tennessee Highway Patrol crash report.

Instead of deflecting the car or buckling to absorb the impact, the guardrail end impaled the vehicle, striking Hannah in the head and chest and pushing her into the back seat, according to the report. She died instantly.

The Volvo spun to the right anred “took out approximately 15 to 20 feet of guardrail” before it skidded to a stop…  Four months later, Hannah’s father received a $2,970 bill from TDOT, dated Feb. 24 and addressed to Hannah, for the cost of labor and materials to install 25 feet of guardrail at the scene of the crash.

Eimers said he was “flabbergasted” that TDOT would “bill my daughter for the defective device that killed her.”

The guardrail end Hannah hit was a Lindsay X-LITE — a model that TDOT had removed from its approved products list just one week (before her death)r…. due to concerns “about how the telescoping w-beam, slider assembly friction reduction systems may perform if impacted at higher speeds” than 100 kph or 62.2 mph.

ACLU wins first round in TN juvenile jailing lawsuit

News release from American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A federal judge today granted a preliminary injunction in an American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee lawsuit challenging the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. The injunction prohibits the county from subjecting children in its detention facility to solitary confinement as punishment while the case proceeds.

The lawsuit was originally filed on behalf of a 15-year-old pretrial detainee who was held in solitary confinement for five days at the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Facility. It is now a class action seeking to end the practice of solitary confinement for all juveniles in the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Facility.

“Being locked in a concrete cell alone for 23 hours a day with nothing but a mattress and a toilet can create lasting damage for a young person’s psychological, social and physical development,” said ACLU-TN cooperating attorney Mark J. Downton of Downton Clark, PLLC. “We are pleased that the court has recognized that subjecting young people to solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes is inhumane.”

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Veterans Caucus opposes tying tax break to gas tax

News release from Rep. Micah Van Huss

(NASHVILLE) — Representative Micah Van Huss (R – Gray) brought a statement before the Legislative Veterans Caucus on Wednesday.  The statement condemns the actions that amended the Governor’s Gas Tax bill (The IMPROVE Act) to include property tax relief for Veterans.

The statement, which passed the bi-partisan caucus unanimously, calls upon the Legislature to remove the amendment from the IMPROVE Act.  It also requests that 3 bills providing specifically for veterans property tax relief be given a fair vote.

“I am honored to lead this bi-partisan effort to ensure that our Veterans are not used as political pawns,” Van Huss said.

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Trump picks Bill Hagerty as ambassador to Japan

The White House announced Thursday that Bill Hagerty, former commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development, will be nominated as U.S. ambassador to Japan by President Trump.

Excerpt from the Japan Times report:

Hagerty, 57, who as director of presidential appointments helped select Cabinet members and other administration personnel, is expected to assume the diplomatic post following Senate approval. He will succeed Caroline Kennedy, who left Tokyo in January.

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Fall Creek Falls Park privitization to proceed with revised oversight

The State Building Commission will now have firmer control over building-related aspects of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s plans for outsourcing Fall Creek Falls State Park’s operations under amended rules for bidders approved on Thursday, reports the Times-Free Press.

But Treasurer David Lillard, a commission member, made it clear during the commission’s executive subcommittee meeting that the panel’s oversight jurisdiction does not extend to the request for proposals’ other major area: The outsourcing of hospitality functions at the popular Upper Cumberland Plateau park in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties.

Statutorily, those are “not within the Building Commission’s purview,” Lillard said, noting the excluded list includes current workers’ continued employment, pay and benefits in operational areas ranging from the park inn, restaurant and convention center to the golf course and gift shop.

But the SBC will retain strict oversight within provisions of the request for proposals over the park’s chosen vendor, who will be called upon to spend $22 million in taxpayer money to tear down the existing inn and rebuild it.

Members unanimously approved the tighter oversight in efforts to resolve a revolt by professional Tennessee-based architects and engineers.

…Critics see the revised request for proposals as the template for renewed administration efforts. Haslam’s proposed budget calls for new capital expenditures at several other parks.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, an outsourcing critic, said the amended request for proposals provides “more legislative oversight” over the park’s demolition and construction.

Note: The TDEC press release is below.

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Rep. Holt wins panel OK of traffic camera bill without noting 10 unpaid tickets

State Rep. Andy Holt has ten outstanding and unpaid traffic camera speeding tickets, but failed to tell members of a House subcommittee about them when winning approval of a bill that would make the tickets secret, reports WTVF TV of Nashville.

Holt, R-Dresden, got all ten tickets from traffic camera operations in the town of McKenzie. He’s long been a crusader against traffic cameras and last year posted a Facebook video showing himself burning one while suggesting others do the same. But he refused to answer questions about his tickets from a WTVF reporter.

They (the tickets) date back to October of 2015 and go through January of this year. He’s clocked traveling up to 54 miles per hour in a 40 mile per hour zone.

….McKenzie Police Chief Craig Moates wished Holt would just slow down.

“Obey the speed limit and then a violation would not be an issue,” Chief Moates said. He can’t believe the local state representative would advise people to burn traffic camera tickets.

As introduced, HB779 would prohibit city and county governments from blocking access to courts systems by people who have unpaid traffic tickets. An amendment added in the House Transportation Subcommittee would also block local governments from making public the names of persons with outstanding tickets.

According to the Nashville Scene, Holt told the subcommittee the legislation is needed because some  cities are “denying access to services such as a civil court because individuals have chosen not to pay their photo-enforcement citations.”

“That’s a problem. That’s a severe problem. When people are denied civil rights and opportunities because they have not paid an unenforceable — in my opinion, I’ll leave it at that — because they have chosen not to pay these photo enforcement citations, that too is a problem.”

The bill was approved by the subcommittee on voice vote. It’s scheduled for a vote next week in the full House Transportation Committee as well as the Senate Transportation Committee.

The same House sub killed a separate bill by Holt (HB780) that would have required law enforcement officers using a traffic camera to station themselves in “a clearly marked law enforcement vehicle that is visible from the road to approaching vehicles and shall give a signal of the operation of a manned traffic enforcement camera by use of authorized flashing lights.”


Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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