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State Gov’t Workforce Overhaul Under Consideration

Gov. Bill Haslam is working on a plan to revamp how the state hires and pays employees, but it probably won’t be ready in time for next year’s budget.

A handful of state government agencies presenting their budget plans to the governor this week said they want to hire more workers even though the governor is asking them to prepare plans for 5 percent cuts.

“Sometimes that’s a question of personnel. Sometimes that’s a question of procedures,” the governor told reporters after the hearings. “I think you’ll see over the next year or two, the administration suggesting a different way of how we look at personnel, how we pay people, how many we hire, how we hire them.”

Over the last year, Haslam has at different points said that the state must do better at attracting and retaining high-quality workers, and his latest comments picked up on that theme.

“I do think we need to look at the salary structure across state government. Sometimes it’s a matter of the number of employees. A lot of times, to hire the people we want, we literally can’t afford them or they go somewhere else. And as the economy picks up, that’s going to get worse,” he said.

This year, Tennessee will likely have to bridge up to a $400 million budget gap as expenses like education and state employee health care increase faster than the state’s revenues.

While a strategy about state hiring is still in the works, other plans such as consolidating office space and revamping the state’s purchasing practices could be implemented a bit sooner.

“The easiest thing to do in government, though, is just to make a short-term decision because you’re only here a short term as governor or Legislature. But we really do want to try to make smarter, long-term things. I really intend to make some of those choices this year,” he said.

“We’re showing that 5 percent to see what our alternatives are. There’s a hope, a really good chance that a lot of that doesn’t happen, but we need to be prepared if it does. If it does, obviously we’ll prioritize,” said Haslam.

One such priority, he said, would be service at local DMVs. Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons has proposed eliminating 39 jobs at DMVs despite criticism that the lines are too long and the centers are ill-equipped to handle the thousands of people who now need to obtain photo IDs to vote.

Commissioners from Departments of Human Services and Labor & Workforce Development said in the budget hearings this week they’d like to fill vacant positions while other departments like Financial Institutions and Finance and Administration said their problem is keeping people from leaving for the private sector.

Not all departments fall in that boat. The department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the Safety and Homeland Security Department have no staffing increases written into their budget request.

“I think it’s one of the challenges that we have. … I do think we need to look at the salary structure across state government,” Haslam said.

The governor expects to present a roughly $30 billion budget early next year. His budget hearings will continue on Nov. 15 on Capitol Hill with the departments of Correction, Health, Mental Health, Higher Education, Environment & Conservation and Commerce & Insurance.

“Right now, revenues are tracking a little bit better than we expected,” said Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Mark Emkes, who joined Haslam at the budget meetings this week.

“I don’t think we can count on significant increased revenues so I think we’re going to have to do it with effectiveness, efficiencies and hopefully minimize the cuts. But there will be some cuts we have to do,” he said.

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