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VOL. 128 | NO. 20 | Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Memphis Higher Education Included in Budget Proposal

By Bill Dries

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has included funding in his budget proposal for a $62 million renovation at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center 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 capitol in Nashville.

Not in the speech but in his budget proposal is a move of state offices and workers out of the Donnelly J. Hill Office Building in Downtown’s Civic Center Plaza.

Consultants who conducted a space use study for the Haslam administration recommended moving out of the building built in the mid-1960s. The budget doesn’t include specific amounts for leased or new office space or other options.

“It’s our intention that those folks will stay downtown,” Haslam said Tuesday, Jan. 29, at the University of Memphis, of the 900 employees who work in the building. “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 full intention to stay Downtown.”

The office building, next to the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, is one of four built in the mid- to late-1960s to house the offices of local, state and federal government in one city block on both sides of what was then North Main Street, later to be called the Civic Center Plaza.

The county administration building, at 160 N. Main St., is undergoing a complicated renovation after county support services cited the age of that building as a factor in utility costs that are close to $4 a square foot. That cost is compared to an office building average in the state of between $2 and $2.50 per square foot, according to Cliff Norville, deputy administrator of county support services.

The budget item comes one week after Pinnacle Airlines Corp. announced it would move its headquarters from the nearby One Commerce Square building to Minneapolis by May.

Pinnacle is the anchor tenant of the skyscraper.

In his state of the city address last week, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said his administration is also conducting a facilities study of its office space. The study includes a look at the state office building.

Haslam in a 40-minute speech to state House and Senate Members said his budget also includes $10 million in state funding to implement the settlement reached earlier 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.

“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 chambers have Republican supermajorities, are opposed to the Affordable Care Act.

“The decision to expand Medicaid isn’t as basic as saying, ‘No Obama Care, 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 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 Rep. Lois DeBerry who was first elected to the House in the 1972 elections and took her seat in the House 40 years ago this month.

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