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Haslam announces budget plan
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NASHVILLE (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday presented a $32.7 billion annual spending plan to lawmakers that includes a staffing shake-up at the troubled Department of Children’s Services, a heavy investment in construction projects around the state, and a large deposit into the state’s cash savings fund.The Republican governor also formally introduced his proposal to create a limited school-voucher program in Tennessee to allow parents to use public money to send their children to private schools.“If we can help our lowest-income students in our lowest-performing schools, why wouldn’t we?” he said in his 43-minute speech to a joint convention of the General Assembly.According to legislation filed in the Senate on Monday, the program would be limited to 5,000 students in failing schools in the school year that begins in August, and grow to 20,000 by 2016.Haslam acknowledged the proposal will be “hotly debated,” and Democrats issued a statement criticizing the plan.“The administration is putting forward a radical, unfunded mandate in the form of a school voucher proposal designed to rip millions of dollars from public education,” House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said in the statement.Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, meanwhile, suggested lawmakers may want to go further than the governor’s proposal.“Parents know what’s best for their kids,” Ramsey said. “Whether you’re in a failing school or not-failing schools, if there’s a better school you can go to, you ought to be able to do it.”The governor’s budget proposal also includes the next steps in reducing the state’s sales tax on groceries, inheritances and gifts.