Haslam Says Downtown State Workers to Stay Downtown

By Bill Dries

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has included funding in his budget proposal for a $62 million renovation at the University of Tennessee Center for the Health Sciences in Memphis and a $45 million center for the University of Memphis’s nursing and audiology programs.

The higher education funding notes were part of an emphasis on k-12 and higher education in Haslam’s state of the state address delivered Monday, Jan. 28, in the Tennessee capital in Nashville.

In his budget proposal, but not in Haslam's remarks is a plan to close the Donnelly Hill state office building in Downtown's Civic Center Plaza. Closing the high rise office building on the Main Street Mall was recommended last year in a state facillities study.

In Memphis Tuesday, Jan. 29, to speak at the University of Memphis, Haslam said his intention is that the 900 office workers in the building won't go far.

"It's our intention that those folks will stay Downtown," he said. "We just don't think that building is economical for the state and its taxpayers. We have to make certain we are not throwing good money after bad. It's our intention to stay Downtown."

Haslam told legislators Monday his budget includes $10 million in state funding to implement the settlement reached last week between the state and the U.S. Justice Department in the 20-year old federal court case over conditions at the Arlington Developmental Center.

Haslam called the settlement and the proposed funding a “significant milestone.”

“This lawsuit has literally cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars,” Haslam said.

In his third state of the state address since taking office in 2011, Haslam also said he will offer a proposed amendment to the Tennessee Constitution for voters to decide in 2014 that would keep the judicial appointment process for state appellate court judges as well as retention elections.

But Haslam is proposing a constitutional amendment that would give the legislature a confirmation vote on those appointed by the governor to the appellate courts similar to the U.S. Senate confirmation of judicial appointments made by the President in the federal system.

Haslam said he has made no decision yet on expansion of the Medicaid program as part of federally funded Affordable Care Act reforms from the Obama administration.

“The federal government is famous for creating a program and then withdrawing the funding years later,” Haslam said as he led into his rationale for waiting a bit longer on the Medicaid decision.

Haslam noted that many in the legislature, where both chamber have Republican supermajorities, are opposed to the Affordable Care Act.

“The decision to expand Medicaid isn’t as basic as saying ‘No ObamaCare, no Medicaid expansion,’” Haslam warned.

Last year, Haslam opted out of creating a state-run health care exchange, instead making Tennessee part of the federal health care exchange.

Haslam also acknowledged Monday evening that the schools voucher program bill his administration will back this year will also be “hotly debated.”

Haslam again outlined a school voucher program that is limited to vouchers to pay the full cost of tuition in private schools for low income families whose children attend low performing schools.

“I’ve heard the argument that this kind of program will drain resources from (public) schools that need them the most,” Haslam said. “But we are providing resources. We’re investing $47 million over and above the state’s annual funding to help those schools improve.”

Haslam also recognized the longest serving member of the Shelby County legislative delegation at the end of his remarks, honoring Democratic state Representative Lois DeBerry who was first elected to the house in the 1972 elections and first took her seat in the House 40 years ago this month.