Tennessee House OKs Taft Youth Center closure

Tennessee House OKs Taft Youth Center closure

April 27th, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

Taft Youth Center

Taft Youth Center

POLL: Do you agree with decision to shut down Taft Youth Center?

NASHVILLE -- A budget amendment aimed at blocking Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's closing of Taft Youth Development Center temporarily threw the House into a tizzy Thursday.

But the effort to save Taft eventually failed on a 60-38 vote.

The Republican-controlled chamber also defeated several Democratic attempts to change the budget and later approved Haslam's proposed $31.4 billion spending plan on a 66-30 vote.

The House version, however, has ignited a furor in the Senate because it deletes several Senate Republican "pork barrel" projects. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has accused House Republicans of going back on an agreement.

That is complicating final passage of the 2012-13 budget by the Senate for the time being. Senators adjourned for the day without acting on the budget.

Earlier in the House, Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, pushed his amendment restoring nearly $12 million in funding for Taft, a 96-bed facility in Pikeville, which employs about 170 guards, teachers and other personnel.

Haslam and Children's Services Commissioner Kathryn O'Day say Taft is inefficient, has highest costs per day of the state's five youth development centers and its tough teen residents can be moved to the other four centers.

Haslam says most employees should be able to find jobs at the new Bledsoe County Correctional Complex for adults, slated to open in January.

Critics of the move say Taft is home to older teens convicted of more serious crimes. About thirty percent of the inmates were moved to the facility because of major disciplinary problems at other centers, lawmakers said.

"What we're saying here is the closing of Taft could very well place employees and students' safety at risk at the other YDCs," said Sexton, who described how earlier this month an employee at another center was attacked by a resident with a shovel, splitting his hand and cracking his skull and an eye socket.

The student would normally be sent to Taft, but that will no longer be an option, he said.

He said his amendment would not cost the state more money because it simply directs O'Day to shift funding. Much of that would come from improvements to other centers to prepare them to handle the influx of more, tougher residents, he said.

Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, noted that Taft's closure is opposed by both the Tennessee Sheriffs Association and an association of juvenile judges.

"Every community in this state wants to see Taft stay open," Cobb said, later adding that many employees able to find work elsewhere in state government face smaller paychecks.

"Their families are going to be torn up," Cobb said. "They're going to lose their homes. They're going to lose their cars."

Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, a former sheriff, said Taft is "like the maximum security for the worst of the worst and if we're going to save a few hundred thousand [dollars], I don't think it's worth it."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, moved to table Sexton's amendment. He noted that Hamilton County and other Southeast Tennessee judges oppose Haslam's plan to shut down Taft.

His tabling motion failed on a 44-53 vote with 33 Democrats and 20 Republicans opposing it.

With confusion setting in, McCormick quickly moved to recess for 10 minutes. Haslam deputy Claude Ramsey and the governor's chief lobbyist, Leslie Hafner, began working members, including Sexton.

After the recess, the House returned to the Taft amendment and it ultimately failed when all but five Republicans voted against it. Among local Republicans, only Sexton and Cobb supported the amendment.

Republicans defeated a series of amendments offered by Democrats, who complained Republicans were refusing to acknowledge as much as $200 million in higher-than-expected revenues.

Haslam's budget also provides for eliminating the state's gift tax, and it begins to phase out the inheritance tax by 2016. Beginning July 1, the exemption from the inheritance tax rises from $1 million to $1.25 million.

The proposal provides pay increases for state employees and teachers and $572 million for capital projects, including $3 million to plan a new life sciences laboratory facility at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.