Associated Press

NASHVILLE (AP) — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has found nearly $31 million in recurring money to keep open a privately run prison in West Tennessee while making deep cuts to other areas such as TennCare and higher education.

Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen sought to close the Hardeman County Correctional Facility at Whiteville by December. But lawmakers added the money needed to run the prison through June, and Haslam in his budget address last week announced plans to restore permanent funding for the facility operated by the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America.

“We went back and weren’t certain that we would adequately be able to take care of the prison population that we needed to and do it at a cost that would make sense,” Haslam told reporters after a tour of a community college in Nashville last week. “We could have saved some money by closing that, but in the end we didn’t think it was the right thing to do for the corrections system.”

Haslam’s conclusions stand in contrast to Bredesen’s view expressed last year that keeping the prison open was “not really justified.”

Bredesen considered — but ultimately decided against — using his line-item veto power to eliminate the extra $15 million for the facility included in the current year’s budget to keep it open through July. Bredesen said Republican-controlled Legislature’s decision to overrule him on the prison was “a case of everybody wants to run government like a business until you actually run government like a business.”

Haslam said he agrees with Bredesen’s businesslike approach to governing, but that spending cuts were found in other areas.

“We did make a lot of those hard decisions,” Haslam said. “In the end you have to evaluate one versus the other and make the one you think are right when you’re the governor.”

Haslam has noted that the state is having to make do without $2 billion in federal stimulus money that has flowed to the state in recent years.

His budget proposal includes a $133 million in recurring expenses, topped by $40 million in cuts at the state’s expanded Medicaid program and $20 million at public colleges and universities.

CCA President and CEO Damon Hininger in a conference call with Wall Street analysts last year took a wait-and-see approach to term-limited Bredesen’s decision on the Whiteville prison.

“Obviously there’s going to be a new governor in the governor’s mansion in January of next year,” he said. “The Legislature will take it up and determine if that’s appropriate to not fund those beds.”

Hininger gave $2,000 to Haslam’s gubernatorial campaign and inauguration, while CCA gave the maximum $7,500 corporate contribution to swearing-in festivities, according to campaign finance reports. Company officials met with the governor at his Capitol office the week before his budget address, according to Haslam’s official schedule.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen called the visit with Haslam a “a meet-and-greet opportunity to give him an overview of the scope of services that we provide to the state.”

The contributions to the Haslam campaign and inauguration are in keeping with the company’s aim to “support elected officials who are either supportive of a public-private partnerships, or at least open to the concept,” Owen said.

Sen. Dolores Gresham and Rep. Barrett Rich, both R-Somerville, said they were pleased that the governor has included the funding in his budget.

“There’s a need, unfortunately, for that kind of institution,” said Gresham, who is the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

“And we happen to have one in Whiteville, so let’s not waste what we have.”

Rich said closing the prison could lead to shorter prison sentences among inmates and would have a negative impact.

“Keeping people in prison for the specified period of time is essential — I believe it curbs crime and protects the people of Tennessee,” he said. “Also, there’s a lot of jobs in my district and in Hardeman County and southwest Tennessee that would be affected.”

Owen, the CCA spokesman, agreed.

“It’s certainly a good indication for the community and for our employees at that facility, who do an outstanding job and services that they provide to the state,” he said. “The community certainly looks at CCA as strong partner and economic driver.” TAS