NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam told state employees Tuesday he won't apologize for hiking his new commissioners' pay by 11 percent while proposing just 1.6 percent increases for the estimated 45,000 other state employees.
The governor, who took office in January, sought to draw distinctions between his Cabinet and the vast majority of state employees, noting his commissioners "were folks who were hired to come into government."
He told East Tennessee members of the State Employees Association that his commissioners "took over $1 million in pay cuts to come work for the state government."
Haslam's comments came after a state employee said that, while employees are pleased Haslam is proposing a 1.6 percent increase for them - their first in three years - they are upset by the 11 percent pay increases granted to seven new commissioners and 32 percent jump in pay for Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons.
"Do you understand why this would be demoralizing to state employees who've been on the job for years with no raise?" the employee asked. "And do you feel the commissioners need an 11 percent raise in order to stay employed?"
Haslam said his administration is committed "as much as possible" to making state salaries for regular state employees "market based." He said his proposed 1.6 percent increase is a start.
But as for the commissioners, Haslam said, "I won't apologize for that. My job is to get the very best people I can and help us as we have to cut $1.8 billion from the budget."
In other action Tuesday:
• The House Finance Committee approved a $106.4 million bond authorization bill that includes $29.4 million for infrastructure at Wacker Chemical's $1.45 billion plant in Bradley County.
The money, which is being funneled through the Southeast Tennessee Development District, is going toward acquisition of equipment and site preparation and development including but not limited to sewer, water, utility infrastructure and rail infrastructure.
Wacker is building the plant, which will employ 650 people, to manufacture polysilicon used in solar panels. The groundbreaking ceremony was held last week.
The remaining $77 million in bonds from the bill would go toward state commitments to a Electrolux Home Products plant in Memphis.
The bill now goes to the House Calendar and Rules Committee. It has not started moving in the Senate.
• Employers who allow employees to bring their guns to the workplace would get broad immunity from lawsuits under a bill approved on a voice vote by the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill drew criticism from Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, who charged that the amended bill says "a company shall never ever be liable for actions the company takes" that result in harm to co-workers.
"I'm not sure why we would say to a company, 'You will have no responsibility whatsoever for providing security to your employees,'" Stewart said.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Josh Evans, R-Greenbrier, countered that, if an employer's actions rise to the level of criminal behavior, the employer would still be liable.
But he rejected Stewart's call for an amendment that says an employer could still be sued if their actions or lack thereof constitute "gross negligence."