Hundreds of state judges, assistant prosecutors, assistant public defenders and highway patrol officers will be getting bigger paychecks at a time when state officials intend to give most employees no increases and instead slash 2,011 jobs.
Because of laws passed over the years by the General Assembly, the judges, lawyers and highway patrol officers must get annual “step” raises, or cost-of-living adjustments, regardless of the state’s ability to pay for them, officials said.
Gov. Phil Bredesen set aside at least $3.87 million to fund the raises for these employees, an analysis of his original 2008-09 budget shows.
The governor since has detailed plans to trim $468 million in spending, including plans to cut 2,011 state employees through voluntary buyout packages that would save $64 million. The job eliminations could become layoffs if not enough employees respond.
But pay increases for judges, assistant prosecutors and others remain, Gov. Bredesen acknowledged Tuesday, noting he didn’t want to complicate the final days of this year’s General Assembly by changing state laws.
Increases mandated by law
Here are the categories of state officials and employees who will be getting pay increases at a time when the state is cutting $468 million from its budget:
* State judges: The 183 trial and appellate court judges will be getting 2.9 percent increases. The budget provides $972,800. Judges are not allowed to get other increases during their eight-year terms.
* Assistant prosecutors/investigators: The budget sets aside $1 million for “step” increases for assistant DAs. It is unclear how many are affected.
* Public defenders: About $556,000 is being set aside for assistant public defenders.
* Tennessee Highway Patrol: About 390, or 41 percent, ofcommissioned officers qualify for the “mandatory step” increase of 4.5 percent. The budget sets aside $802,300 for increases.
* Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency: About 322 employees will get a 4.1 percent increase, which also is a mandatory step increase. The budget provides $533,800 for them.
* Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper’s pay is linked to that of associate Supreme Court justices. The budget provides for a $5,600 increase.
Sources: State budget, Administrative Office of the Courts, Department of Safety, TWRA, Tennessee Attorney General’s office
“We just decided that, rather than generate what we thought would be a major issue in the legislature, to leave those in right now,” Gov. Bredesen said. “With the judges’ raises, we feel like there is a constitutional issue in that we are not allowed to decrease their compensation during their term.”
Increased pay for prosecutors, public defenders, some Tennessee Highway Patrol and some Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency employees “are less defensible,” he said.
House Majority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville, called the mandated increases troubling.
“At times like this, that’s where you examine those statutory increases, because I think it raises a fairness question,” Rep. Odom said.
Tennessee State Employees Association officials, who are battling the employee cuts and fighting for some pay raise for 47,000 employees, said they had hoped to address the issue.
“We requested the governor review those statutory requirements to equally share the money,” said Jim Tucker, the association’s executive director. “But he will not address those statutory requirements.”
Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox said the increased pay for assistant prosecutors and investigators “is not a raise. It’s experience-level based on the experience you have doing this sort of work.”
Mr. Cox, president of the Tennessee Attorneys General Conference, said he and other DAs “have to hire at a rate lower than any private firm in the area.”
Being able to show a prospective attorney how much he or she will be earning in five years “is an inducement for him to come to work,” Mr. Cox said. Repealing the statutory increases would be “a total betrayal of trust” for assistant prosecutors, he said, noting his own salary is not affected by the plan.
No figures were available Tuesday on how many assistant prosecutors and investigators will receive raises. The district attorney conference’s executive director, James “Wally” Kirby, did not return calls.
The administration’s budget sets aside a little more than $1 million in state funds for the increases. The budget also provides $4.4 million for “mandatory salary step increases” for assistant prosecutors involved in child-support collections. Hamilton County is not involved in the program.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...