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Lawmakers Not Yet Ready to Give Bonuses the Boot

Legislative leadership says they are still working out ways to make some sort of employee bonus or incentive package pass this year.

Tennessee Republicans in both the House and the Senate have been saying they’re trying to purge this year’s budgetary process of the urge to fork out fresh pork, new fish hatcheries and one-time state-employee bonuses.

They’re now indicating an apparent interest in compromise on the latter.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said Tuesday a “major discussion” in state budget negotiations is underway involving state employees getting a little extra at the GOP bargain-basement bonus bin, beyond a certain amount of job security and a steady paycheck.

Some lawmakers have taken to weighing the investment value of a performance enticement of some sort — such as beefed-up health insurance, according to Norris, instead of an across-the-board gratuity as was originally proposed by Gov. Phil Bredesen in his state-of-the state speech.

“No, we can’t afford to give a raise now, but maybe an incentive-based raise in the future. It’s just an option. It’s not very well vetted,” the Collierville Republican said Tuesday. “We’re also looking at insurance benefits which may be tax free. They can have more significant impact than a $300 or $400 bonus.”

House Democrats released a budget plan Tuesday that includes $500 bonuses to state employees, teachers and university professors — a proposal that would cost the state $72.2 million. Government workers’ would see the bump to their bank accounts in the fall, likely a little before election time.

Opposition to Bredesen’s February proposal to give state workers a 3 percent bonus costing taxpayers $163 million seemed softer in the House than Senate when the governor first floated the idea.

“Is 3 percent too much? Is 2 percent too much? I don’t know. In my opinion there needs to be something, but how much?” Franklin Republican and House GOP caucus chairman Glen Casada said shortly after the governor made his budget pitch.

But a month ago, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he perceived a solid “consensus on both sides of the isle and both houses that now is not the year to be giving a bonus to state employees at the time you’re laying those state employees off.” Associated Press reports that Ramsey still thinks a bonus is “illogical” right now.

As many as 1,000 employees could be laid off under current budget proposals, but that number could change in the next few days.

“Paying bonuses right now is just a disconnect for most folks in Tennessee,” Norris said last week. His Senate caucus enjoys a 19-14 majority and has publicly hewn to the tough-economic-times-call-for-belt-tightening-not-bonuses viewpoint.

House Finance, Ways and Means Chairman Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, said members who helped draft their budget first thought of working in some alternatives to a pay bonus, but came to believe it would create a larger-than-acceptable workload to implement it.

Republican leaders, who hope to settle on a budget next week, have yet to decide how they want to handle any employee incentives or bonuses, Norris said.

“The main issue right now is what does the economic trend show? What can we afford and what can we not afford and our first priority right now is looking at the state employees,” he said.

The governor, along with Democrats, also wants to spend money on a number of smaller projects that have elicited unaccommodating reactions from Republican legislators. Topping that list is a $16.1 million expenditure for a fish hatchery in House Speaker Kent Williams’ home district.

Norris said lawmakers are still hashing out other aspects of the budget, such as how deep the state should dip into its rainy day fund, how much extra money to put aside for flood recovery and — in a late Tuesday night Senate Finance committee meeting — how to handle a sales tax exemption for flood victims.

One issue, Norris maintains, is pretty clear in the Senate.

“Fish pale in comparison to state employees, let’s put it that way,” he said.

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