published Monday, January 30th, 2012

Haslam's proposed Tennessee budget boosts education, cuts Taft Youth Center

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    The Taft Youth Center is located north of Pikeville, Tenn.
    Photo by Jake Daniels.
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NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam today proposed a $30.08 billion state budget for 2012-13 that includes new funding in areas like economic development and education.

But it also eliminates 1,166 state positions across state government, including 617 of them which are filled. It calls for closing Taft Youth Center in Pikeville as well as the Lakeshore Mental Health Institute in Knoxville.

At the same time, it provides $3 million to plan a proposed $59.5 million life sciences laboratory facility at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Bradley County, meanwhile, is slated for a $23.2 million veterans community living center that local officials have sought for years.

Both projects are the result of a massive $696.1 million capital construction and maintenance program.

In his State of the State address to a joint convention of the House and Senate, Haslam said that in “many ways we are doing great.”

But he asked whether the current state of our state is good enough.

“I think the answer is no. I think we can believe in better. We can believe in better for how state government serves Tennesseans. We can believe in better when it comes to the education of our children. And we can believe in better when we talk about a stronger, healthier economy for our state.”

His proposals are designed to do all of the above, the governor said.

Other proposals call for 2.5 percent pay increases for thousands of state workers, teachers and higher education employees. Haslam also wants $70 million for FastTrack grants to help businesses.

He is providing $33 million to cut the Hall State Income Tax on stocks and bonds also which also would raise the exemption on the state’s inheritance tax. The budget provides $47.8 million in increases for formula growth in the state’s Basic Education Program school funding formula.

The plan provides $4.8 million for his initiatives to combat gang violence. Another $76.8 million is provided to open a new state prison and compensate local jails for growth in prisoners kept there.

Haslam’s proposed spending plan represents a 2.7 percent reduction from the current budget.

The administration projects Tennessee revenues in the new 2012-13 budget will return to fiscal year 2007 levels for the first time in six years. State revenues took a beating in the Great Recession and its lingering aftermath.

Still, inflation and population growth have eaten into the punching power of the estimated $9.4 billion in general fund revenues.

Revenue growth of $575 million is projected. Haslam’s plan accounts for every dime, among other things funding the pay increase with $123.8 million, restoring $50 million to the Rainy Day fund and restoring ongoing funding of $160 million for “core services” in areas like a coordinated school health program.

Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, called Haslam’s plan to shut down Taft Youth Center a “total mistake.”

Everyone across the state is “jumping up and down about the gang problems. And the governor’s starting a new gang program. Chattanooga’s trying to start a new gang program. Most gangs start with young people in their teens.

“And we’re shutting down the facility that most gang members would wind up in and are afraid of,” Harmon said.

Children’s Services Commissioner Kathryn O’Day has said Taft is the state’s oldest youth center, is inefficient and would require $37 million to bring up to current standards. The facility’s hardened teen residents will be transferred to other state centers, she said.

Department spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said Children’s Services is coordinating with the Department of Correction, which officials hope can hire many of Taft’s 169 employees.

Taft’s closure will come in phases with hiring at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex. It is slated to open in 2013 but will begin hiring workers this summer, she said.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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