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AG Upholds Policy Limiting State Worker Raises

The head of the state workers’ union said Thursday he’s not likely to pursue any further challenge to a Haslam administration policy excluding problem employees from across-the-board pay raises.

The attorney general upheld the policy in an opinion released Friday. Bob O’Connell, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, which represents roughly a third of the state’s 46,000 workers, said the opinion concludes the matter.

“In my opinion, that probably means we’re not going to do anything else. There’s nothing further we can do,” O’Connell said, after listing the various channels exhausted by the group, which included meetings with the governor.

Last summer Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration determined that workers who within the past year had been written up at least twice, demoted or suspended would not be eligible for a 1.6 percent raise. The policy affected about 2 percent of the state workforce.

The AG’s office in its opinion said the administration’s inclusion of disciplinary history when considering “work performance” was reasonable, and that the policy does not get crossways with the budget bill or any other state law. The opinion was requested by state Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis.

For O’Connell, that signaled the end of this round.

O’Connell did say, however, that the association may lobby legislators to include language in this year’s budget that ensures any across-the-board pay raise truly applies to all employees.

Haslam has made rewarding state employees based on performance a central plank of his 2012 legislative package, as well as easing the transition to performance-based pay for teachers by eliminating state mandates weighted more on seniority.

The governor’s office said Haslam plans to include a pay increase in this year’s budget but would not say if such a raise would again be withheld from some employees based on their disciplinary history.

At the unveiling of his agenda Tuesday, Haslam said he didn’t think “across-the-board, nominal adjustments, that are given regardless of performance” were the best way to reward employees.

As for the proposed changes to the state’s hiring and employment practices, O’Connell said he’s read the bill – HB 2384 – all the way through, but hasn’t had time to compare it with current civil service laws. O’Connell did express concerns over the governor’s desire to do away with a seniority policy known as “bumping and retreating,” which allows a laid-off worker with the state for several years to take the job of a newer worker with no regard for actual performance on the job.

O’Connell said the policy protects against political patronage.

“I don’t think the governor wants patronage,” he told TNReport. “But the problem is human beings administer this.”

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Regulatory Boards Stuck In Political Debate

State boards regulating everything from auctioneers to K-12 educators are caught in a debate over how people are chosen to serve on those bodies.

Nineteen governing bodies, including the state Board of Education, are now set to “wind down” beginning next month, and could dissolve by July 1, 2011 if the Legislature fails to reach an agreement.

They run the gamut from the state Election Commission and Department of Education to the Air Pollution Control Board and Alcohol Beverage Commission.

All state boards, departments and commissions have a sunset date. As that day approaches, legislators review the governmental bodies and decide whether to extend their existence, or let them fade away.

The issue holding up this year’s batch boils down to whether the governor — or other leaders choosing board members — should be required to pull a candidate from a recommended list of applicants, or be able to pick appointees freely. If the issues aren’t resolved, said Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Sen. Bo Watson, “these boards will go away.”

Some say top officials should maintain the current practice of appointing some members to boards and commissions from a recommended list of candidates suggested by professional associations such as the Chamber of Commerce, Tennessee Association of Nurses or other organizations relevant to the subject of the committee.

Supporters of the system say it ensures candidates have a genuine expertise in the field and are respected among their peers — instead of letting the governor decide by himself who is the best for the job, said Rep. Susan Lynn, who chairs the House Government Operations Committee.

“This is their government. It’s not the governor’s government. It’s the people’s government,” she said, adding that that the practice deters “strictly political appointments.”

A nominee who has the blessing of a professional association would generally have more experience than someone appointed to the board because they contributed to a politician’s campaign, Lynn said.

Anyone appointed to a committee must be committed, she added, saying they take up complex issues, work long hours and make decisions that can often mean the end of someones career.

“The government literally owns the title to what you do and you cannot work unless you take the test and pay the fee and get licensed by them,” said Lynn, often a vocal opponent to many occupational license requirements. “And then the government, say a board or commission, made up of political appointees can apply laws and rules to you that these political appointees make up. And then they also judge you and then enforce discipline on you and they can even take away your ability to work by taking away your license.”

But other lawmakers — mainly Senate Republicans — say a professional association doesn’t represent all experts in a given field. Individuals who chose not to associate or pay dues for a certain group have no chance of earning an appointment to a state board or commission, said Watson.

Professional associations “should not control the process. They should have no greater standing than any citizen does,” he said. “We believe government should be open for all Tennesseans.”

To guard against political appointments, all selected board members should be held to a specific set of standards, Watson added.

“If you define the qualifications, then a governor, a lieutenant governor or a speaker of the House cannot pick their friends,” he said. “Furthermore, it’s patronage either way. (If) the Chamber of Commerce picks the person they like, who’s to say they’re not practicing patronage,” said Watson.

Legislators in both chambers had the option to renew the sunset dates for various control boards, but the measures were usually held up by the Senate. Those government bodies include: the Air pollution Control Board, Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Board of Dietitian/Nutritionist Examiners, Board of Examiners for Architects and Engineers, Board of Examiners for Nursing Home Administrators, Board of Nursing, Board of Pharmacy, Committee for Clinical Perfusionists, Council for Hearing Instrument Specialists, Council on Children’s Mental Health Care, Department of Education, Emergency Medical Services Board, Real Estate Appraiser Commission, Real Estate Commission, State Board of Education, State Election Commission, Tennessee Auctioneer Commission, Tennessee Medical Examiner Advisory Council and Tennessee Medical Laboratory Board.