(Note: This is a slightly revised version of a Sunday column written for the News Sentinel.)
Back when Democrat Ray Blanton took over as governor of Tennessee from Republican Winfield Dunn, there were mass firings of state employees with mass hiring under a brand-new system.
Blanton had an officially designated statewide “patronage chief” who oversaw the hiring and firing of state employees. Each county also had its own patronage chief, who reported to the boss in Nashville.
While that may not have been the worst part of Blanton’s legacy, it was still something that governors who followed did not want to emulate. GOP Gov. Lamar Alexander surely did not, and took pains to be fair with state workers.
Still, Democrats controlling the Legislature over the years, perhaps concerned about Republican governors, put in place a civil service system.
Today we find Republican Gov. Bill Haslam ready to get rid of that system.
One little piece of the 36-page, 52-section Tennessee Excellence Accountability and Management (TEAM) Act enumerates the 17 powers granted the commissioner of human resources. No. 17 is a catchall: “any other lawful acts that the commissioner considers necessary or desirable to carry out the provisions of this chapter.”
In other words, the commissioner — subject only to the governor’s approval — becomes a czar with extraordinarily broad powers. It’s broad enough that, well, he or she could become a patronage chief if directed by a governor so inclined. Haslam says he needs the flexibility to manage government properly.
When asked about the possibility of a return to the old patronage system, Haslam was rather dismissive. Not going to happen, he said, noting that he already has authority to fire “executive service” people for any reason or no reason. Only 15 percent of executive service employees who served under former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen have departed since he took over as governor a year ago, he said, which shows he’s not into that sort of thing. It’s all about efficiency in government.
Similarly, House Speaker Beth Harwell responded to a question on the possibility of a return to patronage, “We’re not going to do that!” And she has some credentials on that, too. The Legislature is already exempt from the civil service laws and can hire and fire employees without all the rules applying to the executive branch. Some had anticipated wholesale firings when Harwell took over as speaker, but they did not materialize.
The same could be said for Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who further contends “it would be almost impossible to have a patronage system with the size (in numbers of state employees) we are now.”
The Tennessee State Employees Association has a different perspective. “Dismantling the civil service system would thrust this state back into a time of patronage and political cronyism when state government jobs were distributed by politicians as rewards for campaign support and other loyal service,” said TSEA Executive Director Robert O’Connell in a flyer distributed by the organization.
This may overstate the case. The bill, if passed as written, would not automatically thrust the state back to those old days. But it would open the door. Haslam is no Ray Blanton, but what about the next governor?
The current system could use some changes. In selling the plan, Haslam focuses on one small part — the “bumping” system now in place. Basically, bumping provides that when layoffs occur, seniority is a focus. So if employee A is laid off, he or she can find a similar job held by a less senior person, employee B, and “bump” B out of his job. B can then seek another filled position held by someone with less time as an employee, C, and bump C out of his or her job. And so on. (See the Haslam presentation HERE.)
The Haslam bill would eliminate that, as well as the present “registry” hiring system, so that department heads could hire or lay off on the basis of merit, with the department head determining who has merit. It abolishes the independent Civil Service Board, which hears appeals of demotions and dismissals, and replaces it with a panel whose members can be hired or fired at will by the governor. And so on.
TSEA folks say they’re optimistic that Haslam is open to revising his plan. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, official sponsor of the measure, indicates that is the case, describing TEAM as “a first draft.”
But, as a starting point, the suspicion is that it’s a draft Blanton would have liked. It’s got the same flexibility he had back in the 1970s.