Gov. Bill Haslam opposes effort to keep Taft Center open

photo A motorist passes the entrance to the Taft Youth Center in this file photo. The center is located north of Pikeville, Tenn.
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - The Haslam administration is opposing a last-ditch effort by Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, to keep Gov. Bill Haslam from shutting down the state's Taft Youth Development Center.

Sexton has a budget amendment that would provide nearly $12 million to continue the Bledsoe County center for criminal teens.

Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes said Tuesday the administration opposes the move to preserve the 96-bed facility.

The administration, which hopes to save $8.5 million annually through Taft's closure, already is moving Taft's residents to the state's four other facilities.

"I think Taft was studied very carefully and we can offer the same service at a lower cost somewhere else," Emkes said. "We're trying to spend taxpayer dollars wisely."

He said many Taft employees will be able to work at the soon-to-open adult Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, which is located near Taft.

Sexton acknowledged getting colleagues to agree to the amendment in the face of administration opposition "will be extremely difficult."

In other action Tuesday:

• The House State and Local Government Committee approved Haslam's overhaul of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, converting the four-member full-time board to a five-member part-time board with an executive director appointed by Haslam and the House and Senate speakers.

Majority Republicans successfully moved to table a diversionary tactic offered by critics of the bill on a narrow 9-8 vote. The bill itself passed on a voice vote and now goes to the House Government Operations Committee.

• The Republican-controlled House Finance Committee approved a Haslam bill that would cut the state's sales tax on groceries from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent. Members also approved another Haslam bill raising the exemption on the state inheritance tax from $1 million to $1.25 million.

Haslam, a Republican, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, say cuts in the estate tax, which will lead ultimately to its elimination in 2016, will encourage wealthier elderly Tennesseans to remain and invest in the state.

Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, voted against the estate tax reduction, saying a group of Chattanoogans came and persuaded her that the "richest of the richest in Hamilton County" aren't leaving the area.

• Haslam's proposed overhaul of state civil service laws moved through the State and Local Government Committee. Passage was smoothed following a compromise announced Monday by Haslam with the Tennessee State Employees Association. Amendments were added reflecting the deal.

• A bill granting state recognition to six self-described Native American groups passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee after Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, walked in and broke a 4-4 tie vote to let the bill proceed.

Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, of Murfreesboro, sharply criticized the bill but passed instead of voting no, which allowed Ramsey to walk in immediately from an adjoining cloak room to break the tie.

Advocates for the six groups say their members are Indians who remained in Tennessee following the 1830s expulsion of Cherokees and other tribes. But members of federally recognized tribes called the groups seeking recognition "culture clubs" and not tribes.

One of the groups receiving recognition through the bill is the Central Bank of Cherokee in Lawrenceburg. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs said in a March 26 news release it had rejected the group's petition for federal recognition.

The news release says that while the group claims its members are descendants of Cherokees, "there is no primary or reliable secondary evidence to validate these claims."

"Instead," the agency said in the release, "the evidence shows that the group's ancestors were consistently identified as non-Indians, primarily White settlers coming to Tennessee in the early and mid-1800s from disparate locations."

The bill now goes to the Senate floor.

• On Monday night, the House voted 91-0 for another Chattanooga bill intended to promote closer cooperation between the Chattanooga and Hamilton County beer boards and the state's Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

The bill would require the local beer boards and the ABC, which regulates liquor sales, to take yes or no reciprocal action when the state or local boards suspend or revoke a beer or liquor license.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, at Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's request. The Senate bill is scheduled for a floor vote Thursday.

• Also on Monday night, a bill that would prohibit students from dressing in an "indecent manner" at school was sent to the governor for his signature. The Associated Press reported the so-called "saggy pants" measure passed the Senate 29-0.