Gov has no numbers goal in state employee buyouts

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has offered more than 2,000 state workers the chance for buyouts but has no set goal for how many employees must agree to leave their jobs before involuntary layoffs are ordered.

The Republican governor told reporters this week that the buyouts are part of his ongoing efforts to restructure state government. Haslam said the offers are based on job classifications that have become obsolete.

“We hired you to do X position and we had 20 of those, and we think we just need 15 of those now, due to technology or whatever,” Haslam said. “We’re re-examining state government like that, and where there are positions we say we don’t need anymore, those are the positions where we’re doing voluntary buyouts.”

Only full-time employees with at least five years’ experience are eligible for the buyouts, which include four months’ worth of base salary plus $500 for each year of service. Workers chosen for buyouts will also receive subsidized health insurance for six months and up to $15,600 in tuition assistance at public colleges and universities.

Haslam said about 300 workers have applied so far, but he expects that number to increase as the July 17 deadline nears.

Although the state’s buyout website warns that anyone who loses a job in an involuntary layoff would receive far less generous benefits, Haslam said he has no specific number of positions in mind.

“We don’t have a budgeted number of positions — that if we don’t get 1,000, we’re going to do this,” he said.

State agencies each determined which of their personnel would be eligible for the buyout. The departments with the most workers who can apply are 585 at Human Services, 511 at Transportation, 275 at Revenue and 141 at Environment and Conservation.

Haslam’s Democratic predecessor, Phil Bredesen, eliminated about 1,500 state jobs through voluntary buyouts in 2008, and another 850 employees were sent layoff notices in 2010.

The Tennessee State Employees Association worries that workers are confused about any consequences for those who choose not to apply for the latest buyout offer, with some wondering whether their job will be eliminated if they don’t agree to leave.

“There needs to be a complete understanding of what’s on the table,” association President Bryan Merritt said in an email.

The TSEA also raised concerns about whether the buyout will affect services offered by the state.

Haslam, who is exploring a gas tax increase to help jump-start transportation projects across the state, said the buyout offers at the Transportation Department are not related to flagging road funding.

The governor said Transportation Commissioner John Schroer’s efforts to realign the department “in terms of the positions we need and those we’d don’t” predate the buyout program.

“I think it’s just part of his tactical plan for how to do TDOT,” he said.

The state plans to inform those selected for the buyouts by July 24. Their last day in state government would be July 31. Anyone who accepts the buyout would be barred from state employment for two years.

Haslam has sought more flexibility in the rules of employment for state workers since coming into office in 2011. But lawmakers pushed back at the governor’s most recent proposal to do away with longevity bonuses for all state employees. They instead decided to apply the change to new hires only.