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Haslam, state workers association reach deal on layoffs policy

7:11 AM, Apr 3, 2012   |    comments
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By Michael Cass, The Tennessean

Gov. Bill Haslam's administration and the state employees association have reached a compromise on the TEAM Act, Haslam's proposed rewrite of the state's civil service rules, the governor said Monday.

Haslam also unveiled a proposed budget amendment that, among other things, would reduce the sales tax on food beyond what he originally recommended and provide $1 million for land acquisition and maintenance at Radnor Lake State Natural Area in Nashville.

"That is a huge shot in the arm to our fundraising efforts," said Charley Hankla, past president of Friends of Radnor Lake.

The governor said the Tennessee State Employees Association approached the administration last week and said that, with "minor adjustments," it could support the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management, or TEAM, Act. A deal was reached over the weekend.

"I think as we work our way through the committees this week, you'll see TSEA supporting us in what we're trying to do," Haslam said.

Robert O'Connell, the employees association's executive director, agreed that his group and the administration are "now on the same side of the issue."

"We're gratified to have been heard by the administration," O'Connell added.

Among the changes TSEA sought were:

• A chance to be involved in developing a new employee evaluation system.

• A move to make the required notice period for state layoffs 60 days in the first year of the new law, which would start Oct. 1. The notice period would still drop to 30 days eventually; it now stands at 90 days, O'Connell said.

• If an employee is laid off and a new position with his or her classification later opens up, the state will notify the employee and guarantee him or her an interview.

• Keeping seniority as a factor in decisions about which employees to lay off. O'Connell and Haslam said performance would be paramount, however, as the legislation moves forward to drop the system known as "bumping."

Bumping lets laid-off state workers move into positions held by less senior employees. The system can create situations in which the most recent person hired ends up losing his or her job, while longtime workers are virtually guaranteed a position, Haslam has said.

The proposed process would scrap that and replace it with "a system of merit and skills and ability being the first things considered," Haslam said Monday.

O'Connell said the employees association was pleased to see seniority would remain "in the mix."

"The primary consideration will be performance, which doesn't give us as much heartburn now as it originally did, because the performance evaluation system itself is going to be overhauled," he said. "We feel now we've got a better shot at that looking more objective."

Raises in budget

Haslam said the proposed 2012-13 budget includes a 2.5 percent across-the-board raise for all state employees.

The governor also announced a proposed budget amendment reflecting new projections of state revenues. The governor said his priorities include cutting the sales tax on food slightly more than he had initially recommended, reducing it from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent.

Haslam's original plan called for cutting the grocery tax to 5.3 percent. Making the further step down to 5.25 percent would cost the state roughly an additional $3.3 million.

The governor said the biggest reason for the additional cut involved cash registers, which can process increments of a quarter of a cent more easily when computing sales tax on a purchase. He said he wants to cut the grocery tax another quarter of a point to an even 5 percent in 2013-14.

Other highlights of the budget amendment include:

• Giving local jails $4 million, to increase per diem payments from $35 to $37.

• Putting $3.9 million toward Healthy Start and child health and development programs statewide.

• Making $3 million available to fund family resource centers across the state.

• Putting $375,000 into a poison control center providing statewide services.

• Using $122,000 to fund legislation requiring unemployment recipients to verify their job search efforts.

The $1 million for land acquisition and maintenance at Radnor Lake came as a big surprise to Hankla, who works in industrial real estate and lives near the 1,258-acre state park.

"That's the best phone call I've gotten all day," he told a reporter. "I'm absolutely astounded."

He said Friends of Radnor Lake would be able to use the money to help make strategic land purchases and continue work needed to recover from the historic flood of 2010, including rebuilding roads and shoring up bridges.

Haslam's announcement about helping Radnor Lake came nine days after The Tennessean wrote about the Friends group's efforts to acquire more land around the park and protect the popular area as it nears its 40th anniversary.

Haslam said the administration had about $28 million to $30 million to "play with" after revenue projections improved. It received requests totaling about $600 million as it put together the budget amendment, he said.

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