Sunday column: Haslam would take from senior state employees and give to preferred people

In his recent State of the State speech, Gov. Bill Haslam got a bipartisan standing ovation when he declared next year’s budget would include almost $100 million for a 4 percent teacher pay raise. There was a contrasting silence when he laid out his plans for state employee pay raises.

Indeed, some legislative leaders — notably including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent — have publicly expressed misgivings about one novel aspect of the proposal.

That provision basically amounts to taking from the state’s most senior employees and giving to those most favored by the “performance-based and market-driven” evaluation system for 40,000 or so state workers in accord with repeal of the state’s civil service law in 2012.

That law was euphemistically entitled the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management (TEAM) Act. The idea was to make government run more like a business, a notion widely endorsed by GOP candidates, and specifically and repeatedly hailed by our business-oriented governor. He has declared it as one of three top first-term accomplishments (the other two being a package of K-12 education reforms and the Tennessee Promise to pay community college tuition).

The catchphrase of this year’s State of the State speech was “full speed ahead.” But when it comes to full speed ahead for TEAM, the governor may be lacking a full team within the legislative supermajority. A bridge too far?

The situation is a striking contrast to Haslam’s other clashes with the supermajority, wherein he is deemed too moderate for more conservative members of the Republican caucus on matters such as Common Core education standards or Medicaid expansion. Here we find the governor deemed too radical in his reforming by Republican lawmakers, both establishment and strongly conservative folk.

The gist of Haslam’s plan is to abolish longevity pay for state employees. Currently, if you stay in a state government job for 36 months, you start getting an annual bonus of $100 per year of service up to a maximum of $3,000 annually. Haslam proposes to repeal that provision of state law. He would take half of the longevity bonus and make it part of the worker’s base pay.

So a 20-year veteran who now gets a $2,000 longevity bonus would instead get $1,000 put into base salary. The other $1,000 would go into the general fund pot to cover “performance-based” increases overall. The total pot of money in the budget for state employee pay raises is $47 million, or enough money to provide a 3 percent pay raise if it was an across-the-board pay raise.

But it’s not. Some employees could see their net pay cut. Others could see a big boost well beyond 3 percent if their supervisors rate them as “outstanding” rather than just “valuable” under the TEAM standards, and if their job is deemed important under “market-based” criteria.

That’s a “tough sell,” says Ramsey. Sargent observed — accurately, given other convoluted considerations — that the proposal would inspire senior employees to retire early or accept a vaguely proposed and interrelated plan for voluntary buyouts for supervisor-selected workers.

During a House Finance Committee hearing, Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, also voiced concern that the TEAM rating system makes a pay raise “unattainable for some of our state employees.” It’s all tediously complicated, but he’s probably right.

The upshot is that the governor’s proposal opens the door for a cleansing of state employee ranks of those not deemed desirable by the current administration. This is reminiscent of the reign of former Gov. Ray Blanton, a Democrat who in the pre-civil service 1970s set up patronage committees in all 95 counties to assure that administration-friendly people were hired while Republicans were fired.

Our “right-to-work” state allows a private business to fire an employee “at will.” The now-repealed civil service system made state employees different, setting up procedures designed to prevent hiring and firing on the basis of politics that was unquestionably overcomplicated.

The reasonable question raised by Haslam critics, though not explicitly so, is whether the governor is going so far in a business-like approach to government that he makes office politics in the business world the same as politics in the public world — and whether that’s a good idea.