Republican Gov. Bill Haslam urged to restore cuts

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam urged to restore cuts

March 18th, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.

Photo by The Tennessean /Times Free Press.

UNDER THE GUN


Some of the slated cuts that concern advocates and lawmakers the most in the governor's budget:

Education

Family Resource Centers: $3.05 million

ConnecTEN: $2 million

Mental Health

Crisis services: $311,500

Peer support centers: $2.37 million

Child care consultation: $163,000

Planned respite services: $114,000

Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Family support program: $2.68 million

Health

Healthy Start: $3.06 million

Children's Advocacy Centers: $250,000

Commission on Children and Youth: $1.5 million

Source: Governor's office

NASHVILLE -- With state tax revenues rebounding, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is under pressure from legislative Democrats, some Republicans and social-service advocates to restore cuts proposed to programs they say help some of Tennessee's most vulnerable children and adults.

Areas slated for cuts in the coming fiscal year range from family resource centers, which coordinate support services such as food and tutoring for poorer students, to community services for the mentally ill. The 2012-13 fiscal year begins July 1.

"I think the first thing we ought to do is restore some of those things that were on the chopping block in this budget," said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, a former Finance Committee chairman.

For about $15.5 million, the state could restore or provide one-time funding for eight grant programs; give $1.5 million to the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth; and put up $2 million for a school Internet connectivity program, according to Fitzhugh's figures and budget documents.

In a $30 billion budget, Fitzhugh said, "it's a fairly insignificant amount. So I'm hoping that we, as Democrats, can get some majority support and the governor's support."

Tax revenues in the first seven months of the current general fund budget outpaced projections by $237.8 million.

But Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes said all but about $30 million of that has been accounted for in Haslam's proposed 2012-13 budget, which was built on revised revenue estimates.

With five months to go in the current fiscal year, he said, "I'm a little concerned about running out and spending money, even though we're ahead of the game right now. That's one thing we have to be watchful about."

The impact of higher gas prices on state revenues and the already "volatile" nature of business taxes, plus the uncertainty of the debt crisis in Europe, argue for caution, Emkes said.

Moreover, TennCare pharmacy costs are running $60 million over projections, he noted.

Haslam has said he wants to replenish the state's Rainy Day emergency fund, and he is proposing to use about $32 million to lower sales taxes on food and state inheritance taxes.

FAMILY RESOURCE CENTERS

The state operates 104 family resource centers in 64 counties. Following a recommendation by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, Haslam is eliminating all $3.05 million in funding for them.

Centers serve some 130,000 children and their families, the United Ways of Tennessee said in a fact sheet intended to build support.

"They're incredibly important," United Ways President Mary Graham said in an interview. "They serve the most vulnerable low-income families across the state."

Phil Acord, executive director of the Children's Home/Chambliss Shelter in Chattanooga, said he's "very concerned."

"At a time when we're on the 'race to the top' in education and we're trying to improve ... we pull one of our safety nets out from them, and it just doesn't make sense," he said.

Hamilton County Schools gets $140,000 for its family resources program, which operates four centers with services ranging from meals to school clothing and from tutors to a day camp for inner-city children.

Local coordinator Lakweshia Ewing said officials are "praying" funding doesn't stop.

"The biggest impact will be the social service activities we provide on an ongoing basis," Ewing said.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said the program is key in reaching Tennessee's goals to improve public education and raise test scores and graduation rates.

"As we continue to try to raise education attainment, we need to make sure children come to school prepared to work," Berke said. "The family resource centers make sure that students get to school ready to learn."

CHILD AND MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES

Bill Dobbins, who lobbies for the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Tennessee, said the group is "very appreciative" of what Haslam included in his budget compared to recommendations made by the Department of Mental Health.

"Nonetheless," he said, "there were about $3 million worth of cuts to the core community program that we still believe are vital."

That includes a $2.37 million cut for peer support centers, which operate like a daytime "halfway house" for people recently discharged from hospitals. They offer meals and a safe, structured place to go to "so they do not relapse" and wind up again in a hospital or jail, Dobbins said.

The state's 47 Children's Advocacy Centers face $250,000 in reductions.

"We're certainly aware of the budget crisis and everybody needs to cut back, but at the same time our mission is to partner with the government to do services they would have to do if we were not there," said Shelley McGraw, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County.

The center provides free services to children who have been physically or sexually abused. It offers a calm environment where experts and police can examine and interview children and provides counseling to the abused and family members.

The state Department of Children's Services wants to cut costs on two contracts worth about $6,000 to $7,000 to the Chattanooga center, McGraw said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said he, too, is concerned about the proposed cuts.

"We're trying to work with the administration and just to be on the safe side, we have an amendment drafted," said McNally, who recently visited a Loudon County center and came away "really impressed" with the "very effective" work done there.

OTHER CONCERNS

The ConnecTEN program that helps school systems pay for Internet services faces a $2 million cut. Fitzhugh said the $2 million attracts another $6 million in federal funding.

The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, which provides independent oversight of various departments dealing with children, could lose $1.6 million, said Acord, a commission member.

Officials face other needs including dealing with the federal health care reform in the 2015 budget.

Berke said lawmakers have been conservative with budgets in his time in the Senate and should continue to be that way.

But, if the money is there, he said, "we need to use those revenues to benefit our citizens as much as possible."