By Chas Sisk
| The Tennessean
Gov. Bill Haslam said he would hire more agents to investigate child abuse claims, set aside more money for local jails to house state inmates and fund demolition of a downtown landmark, all as part of his budget for the upcoming year.
Haslam unveiled a $32.7 billion spending plan Monday that calls for increasing the 2014 budget for the Department of Children's Services by $6.7 million, money that would be used to hire 62 more caseworkers and investigators while increasing pay for those already on staff.
Haslam also said he would increase payments to sheriffs' departments that hold state prisoners by $48.1 million, a move meant to ease overcrowding in local jails.
Overall, Haslam's budget plan for the year beginning July 1 shows a $400 million increase in spending from this fiscal year's budget, paid for with growing revenue, but most of the additional spending would be taken up by TennCare, the state's Medicaid program.
The state anticipates more than $200 million in medical inflation and other health care costs for people already in the program. Officials also expect that 46,700 people currently eligible for TennCare will enroll once a new requirement that individuals have health insurance goes into effect next January. These new enrollees, who were previously eligible for TennCare but were not in the program, will cost the state about $56 million in the first year alone.
Haslam said his budget would increase education funding for kindergarten through 12th grade by $76.9 million, including $33.7 million for capital projects. He also called for a one-time, $51 million effort to upgrade computers and other information technology used by students, teachers and administrators.
Most other spending is small by comparison. Haslam's budget calls for spending $13.4 million on incentives for film and television, including the "Nashville" series. Haslam will set aside $600,000 for a new administrative system for dealing with workers' compensation claims and $1.2 million for a program to fight obesity.
The state would set aside $27.9 million to increase the pay for high-performing workers. All state employees would receive a 1.5 percent salary increase, at a cost of $22.1 million.
Additional DCS caseworkers
Haslam described his budget as a conservative approach to handling an expected 4 percent increase in state revenue. Most of his spending proposals took aim at problem areas in state government that had already been identified.
Haslam's plan to increase spending at DCS comes after the disclosure that more than 70 children died in 2012 after having some contact with the department. His proposal calls for increasing payments to service providers and foster parents, and for adding front-line caseworkers and investigators.
But other parts of DCS would be cut. Haslam's plan calls for eliminating 30 administrators and internal investigators, saving the state about $1.2 million. Factoring in those reductions, the department's budget would grow by 2 percent.
Similarly, Haslam had previously indicated he would boost payments to local jails.
Administration officials say the state historically has underestimated how many inmates the Department of Correction would need to shift to local jails, contributing to overcrowding in some counties.
Next year's budget estimates that 2,000 more inmates will be held in local custody than were in county jails in 2012. State officials say they are also exploring ways to reduce the number of inmates.
But the governor did not call for expanding the state's pre-kindergarten program, even after the government met with experts in the field during the summer. Democrats have said they plan to unveil a plan this spring to increase pre-K enrollment without increasing the program's budget.
Haslam would increase the state's budget for higher education. He plans to give $35.5 million to institutions that increase their graduation rates and $5 million to those that do not, a move meant to help bring them up to speed.
Historic building to close
In Nashville, the proposal with the most impact could be a plan to close and tear down the state's Cordell Hull office building.
The nearly 350,000-square-foot building lies east of the state Capitol grounds. Opened in the early 1950s and named after the Tennessee-born secretary of state under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the building is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Metro Historical Commission.
The budget lays aside $25 million to shut down the building and the adjoining Central Services building. Both would be demolished, and the land would be offered for sale.
The state hopes to save $45 million a year in annual maintenance by moving the people who work in the building to other offices.
Tim Walker, Historical Commission director, said the Cordell Hull Building contains art and sculpture rarely found in modern state buildings and was built so as not to obscure views of the Capitol from the east. He said it should be renovated for other uses.
"It's a building that is very substantial in many ways," he said. "It will be a real loss to have that torn down."