While Tennessee’s Constitution says that the Legislature has no power to enact a law for the benefit of a “particular individual,” Public Chapter 405 this year apparently did just that for an Oak Ridge man.
“This bill is to correct an injustice,” said state Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, in his initial presentation of the proposed legislation, then known as HB719, to a House subcommittee.
A review of recordings during the legislative proceedings shows the constitutional provision came up for discussion, but lawmakers ultimately decided that it could be appropriately bypassed to the benefit of James D. Harless, 67.
The bill passed on the House and Senate floors unanimously on the last day of the 2011 legislative session and was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam on June 6.
As a result, Harless, who was never named during the legislative proceedings, says he is receiving “around $31,000,” the first $14,000 paid July 1 into his 401k shortly after his retirement as an employee of the Department of Environment and Conservation.
n essence, the legislation declares that employees of the Oak Ridge Public Health Department during a 13-year stretch starting in 1959 shall be treated as if they were working for the state when calculating salary.
At the time, the state had mandated that Oak Ridge establish and pay for the department operations, Harless said in an interview, and he and other employees were subject to state oversight. As a practical matter, then, Harless says he was a state employee, and state retirement system officials have agreed for the purposes of counting his years of state employment – a total of 37.
But when the state Department of Human Resources calculated “longevity pay” supplements for long-time state employees, Harless was left out of a salary increase that applied to other veteran state workers.
The new law overrides Human Resources’ action and reimburses him for the pay he missed.
Fair deal or bad precedent?Harless said he tried, starting five years ago, to convince Human Resources officials that he was entitled to the omitted pay increase but was told initially that the officials “didn’t have the authority” to change the ruling. Later, the officials simply did not respond to his letters and calls, Harless said.
So he turned to Ragan and Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge. An attorney friend who also worked for the state helped him draft the bill and the legislators agreed to sponsor it, he said.
The bill cleared Senate committees with virtually no debate or discussion, but in the House both Majority Leader Gerald McCormick and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner raised questions about the Constitution’s provision, contained in Article XI, Section 8.
They were advised by Sally Swaney, a legislative attorney, that the provision has been interpreted by court decisions to allow bills drawing narrow categories of people — though not naming anyone specifically — so long as there is a “rational basis” for limiting the scope of the legislation.
In the case of HB719, the language effectively limits application to public health employees during Harless’ period of service in question.
Oak Ridge is not mentioned either, but the bill says it applies only if “the service (as an employee) was performed for a municipality for which public health services were performed by the federal government before the municipality was incorporated.”
Oak Ridge is the only city in Tennessee that meets that standard.
Swaney said Ragan’s description of the “injustice” to be corrected likely would likely pass muster in the courts.
“Sounds like a rational basis to me,” she said.
McCormick seemed satisfied after receiving Swaney’s comments, but Turner said he was still concerned that passing the bill “might be opening a can of worms,” setting a precedent for multiple bills dealing with a single employee’s situation even though the particular situation seemed to have merit.
Turner cast the only ‘no’ vote against the bill during committee hearings. He was counted as a yes, however, when the bill passed the House unanimously on the last day of the session.
Harless said that if any “can of worms” was opened, it was opened by the state Department of Human Services, in failing to address his issue through regular channels. He praised Ragan and McNally for taking up his cause.
Harless said he still has been shorted in salary by being left out of another state employee pay scale revision, dealing with so-called “compression” adjustments. But Harless said he will be working on that issue outside the legislative arena.
Text of Article XI, Section 8, of the Tennessee Constitution:
The Legislature shall have no power to suspend any general law for the benefit of any particular individual, nor to pass any law for the benefit of individuals inconsistent with the general laws of the land; nor to pass any any granting to any individual or individuals, rights, priviledges, immunities or exemptions other than such as may be, by the same law, extended to any member of the community, who may be able to bring himself within the provisions of such law. No corporation shall be created or its powers increased or diminished by special law, but the General Assembly shall provide by the general laws for the organization of all corporations, hereafter created, which laws may, at any time, be altered or repealed, and no such alteration or repeal shall interfere with or divest rights which have become vested.