NASHVILLE (MCT) – An administration pledge Tuesday to inform legislators in the future about any substantial state employee layoffs defused a push to require legislative approval of any major dismissals.
Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter announced the official policy change in a memo distributed to lawmakers before a scheduled House State Government Committee hearing on HB1748. As approved earlier in a subcommittee, the bill would require specific legislative approval for any layoff of 50 or more state workers.
Haslam had adamantly denounced the bill as an example of legislators "taking tools out of our hands" that are needed by an executive trying to manage state government while holding down costs.
After extended discussion and Hunter's appearance before the committee, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, announced he would drop his push for passage of the legislation.
"When someone offers you an olive branch, you don't set it on fire," Hill said afterward.
Hill characterized adoption of the newly announced administration policy as a "100 percent victory," saying the goal all along has been to keep legislators informed and provide transparency.
Last year, many lawmakers were surprised when Gov. Bill Haslam's administration dismissed 70 Department of Labor and Workforce Development workers shortly after the legislative session was adjourned for the year.
Before Hill announced he was dropping the bill, the committee had adopted an amendment that would have required the administration to send written notice to the chairmen of the House and Senate Government Operations Committee of any layoffs that were not part of the state budget approved by the General Assembly. The chairmen could then have ordered hearings on the layoffs by their committees, which continue to meet when the Legislature is out of session.
While that was seen as a softening of the earlier bill, Hunter said the administration still preferred to deal with the issue in a policy change rather than have something written into law.
"The 108th General Assembly has clearly articulated its desire for a process from the executive branch regarding legislator notification during a reduction in force," says Hunter's memo. "We concur and respond with the creation of an internal process during the reduction in force approval procedure.
"The Department of Human Resources will notify all legislators who represent the affected county of the pending reduction in force if such reduction exceeds 25 employees," she wrote, adding that the new policy goes into effect immediately.
Asked later why the department had never adopted such a policy before, Hunter said, "No one thought about it." The bill, however, got the department's attention and "as we thought our way through it, this was the most appropriate way" to address legislator concerns.
Committee Chairman Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, said the administration policy actually goes further than the bill or the proposed amendment, applying to 25 employees instead of 50 and having officials personally notify legislators rather than sending a letter to two committee chairs.
During the debate, Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, said pushing forward with the bill while the administration was offering its new policy would be displaying "distrust of the governor." He described himself as "a Democrat who trusts the governor."
Hill said "I vehemently disagree" that the bill showed distrust for Haslam.
"It's not an issue of not trusting the governor. It's an issue of wanting to know what's going on," he said.