NASHVILLE - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's civil service reform bill passed the GOP-controlled House on Wednesday with some Democratic backing.
The changes came as a result of last week's compromise between the administration and the Tennessee State Employees Association.
The Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management Act was approved 74-19 with nine Democrats voting yes.
The legislation, one of the administration's highest-profile bills and scheduled to come up today in the Senate, makes it easier for the state to hire and fire, promote and demote workers. It also creates a new employee evaluation system and authorizes state officials to offer merit pay.
Haslam's deputy, Claude Ramsey; legal counsel Herbert Slatery; and Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter often sat in the front row of committee hearings during the bill's initial presentations and fights.
Haslam's proposal now includes about 20 changes sought by Democrats, a number of Republicans and the Tennessee State Employees Association.
"They have made what was a good bill even better," said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, the measure's sponsor.
One key battle settled by the compromise was how reductions in workforce will occur. Under current law, seniority is the lone determinant when the state lays off workers. Haslam's bill made performance the sole factor with secondary consideration given to seniority, ability and disciplinary record.
"It's what we do in the private sector," said Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville. "This type of reform moves government in the direction of performing like a business."
That drew fire from Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, who said government is not a business. He also warned the legislation could lead Tennessee back to the days of patronage and cronyism.
"One in five businesses fail. We don't need to do that. Business is there to make a profit. Government's not," Turner said. "I think that's a terrible comparison. ... We've taken a terrible bill and made it merely a bad bill."
Tennessee's original civil service laws date back to the 1930s. They underwent substantial revisions in the late 1970s as a result of political patronage abuses under Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton.
But a number of Democrats, including Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, of Ripley, voted for the bill. Fitzhugh said the measure has "come a long way" and thanked Dunn for allowing Democrats and the TSEA to "get some better points" into the bill.
Fitzhugh, however, cautioned that the eventual success of changes will depend on the outcome of the new evaluation system still being developed.
The bill provides for input from the state employees group on the system.
In other legislative developments Wednesday:
• School flexibility: A bill giving the state's education commissioner power to waive state regulations and laws to give well-performing public schools more flexibility ran into trouble in the House and was delayed.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Art Swann, R-Maryville, said the legislation would let the state treat well-performing schools in much the same fashion as public charter schools.
But Turner charged it would make Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman a "dictator" with the ability to set aside laws passed by the General Assembly.
Sensing growing problems, Swann delayed for the bill for a week.
• Horse slaughterhouses: A proposal that seeks to encourage horse slaughterhouses to locate in Tennessee temporarily was put out to pasture.
Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Kingsport, took the bill off notice in the Senate Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee until he sees what happens in the House, where a floor vote has been delayed until Monday.
Proponents say the bill is needed to provide a humane way to dispose of older or unwanted horses rather than shipping them by truck under poor conditions to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada.
Appalled critics have attacked the concept as well as a provision that requires anyone suing a slaughter or processing plant to post a deposit equal to 20 percent of the plant's value.
In a recent legal opinion, Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper said the requirement is constitutionally suspect.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.