NASHVILLE — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to overhaul state civil service laws and make it easier to hire, promote or fire workers passed its first House test Wednesday even though the bill is not yet complete.
State and Local Government Subcommittee members voted 6-3 to send the measure on to the full committee.
Top administration officials, including Haslam's deputy, former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, sat in the committee room watching.
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, was the lone Democrat to side with Republicans in supporting the measure.
However, earlier, Brown voted with fellow Democrats in an unsuccessful effort to strip out the bill's most controversial provision. It would have done away with the current law's layoff directives that protect the most senior employees.
Republicans including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga and Rep. Jim Cobb of Spring City voted to table the effort on a 5-4 vote.
The subcommittee did not put on an administration amendment that makes some concessions to the Tennessee State Employees Association.
Legislative Republicans and Haslam administration officials explained they plan to put the amendment on later in full committee.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said civil service protections were passed decades to "stop Democrats or the Republicans from coming in and getting rid of everybody."
Turner predicted that under proposed changes political patronage would eventually creep back in, although he said he doesn't think Haslam would do that.
"If we do away with these protections, it's human nature, we're not any better. ... My party would probably do it and your party would probably do the same thing," he said.
Haslam's legal counsel Herbert Slatery disagreed.
"We just felt it was a system designed for another day and the protections that were needed then are not necessarily the protections needed today," Slatery said of current civil service requirements.
He said employee performance today is "totally absent" from consideration in layoffs as well as in promotions.
A new evaluation system is being developed by Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter in which performance, competence skills and knowledge will be key factors with performance weighing in at No. 1.
But Hunter acknowledged the new evaluation system isn't complete. Changes would take effect in 2013.
"What you're asking us to vote for is something based on faith," Turner said.
State Employees Association lobbyist Sarah Adair told the panel she was at a disadvantage speaking about the bill because the administration's amendment was not on the table to discuss.
The group had been in discussions with the governor and administration officials and was willing to give ground on hiring and promotion issues but remained firm on placing a priority on seniority in layoffs.
Earlier this week, the TSEA announced it was breaking off talks.
Brown told Adair that "you're up against a tremendous institution -- the state of Tennessee. I salute you, but you're no match for the governor."
She complained the bill would be "going out of here with 99 percent of the folks here not understanding" what it does.
Earlier, Brown had chided members about the amendment not being discussed or put on in the subcommittee. Subcommittees are generally the best place to get a full discussion on the intricacies and merits of legislation, she said.
Asked later why she voted to move the bill on, Brown explained, "It was going on to full committee. We didn't have the votes to stop it."
She said she wanted the general public to see how the process worked -- or didn't.
"The process was corrupt," she said. "They refused to put the amendment on. So we might as well send it on."
Brown said Ramsey had assured her state employees would have opportunity for additional input on the amendment. But she noted he made it clear the administration doesn't intend to give on the "bumping" system in which senior employees in layoff situations can be moved into similar, filled positions occupied by less senior workers. Those workers can in turn "bump" other workers.
Ramsey said the intent of getting the bill through the subcommittee without the amendment was "moving the process forward."
"I think everybody will be pleased when they put the amendment on," Ramsey said, then added, "well, most everybody."
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, ...