NASHVILLE - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam made several concessions Tuesday on his proposal to end most civil service protections for state employees, including restoring hiring preferences for veterans.
But the move failed to mollify a Senate Democrat who charged the overall impact of the bill would plunge Tennessee back into the "old days" when new governors routinely fired existing workers and replaced them with campaign supporters.
"Well, that's what you're setting up to happen," Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, admonished administration officials during a sometimes-tumultuous debate in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. "You're setting up political firings to take place down in the depths of state government for employees who deserve better.
"That," Haynes said, "is what you're setting up under the pretense of doing good."
Haslam has said the move is necessary because the current civil service system is broken and leads to inefficiencies and a lack of nimbleness in addressing needs.
The governor's plan would make it easier to hire, fire, promote and demote some 35,000 employees now covered by civil service. It sets up a new evaluation system for employees and introduces merit pay.
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro quickly jumped in to defend the governor, saying "bold decisions take bold actions.
"I think every one of us in here ... believe in our state employees. This is not an action to hurt any state employees," he said. "But if you look around our planet now at what's happening, we were hired to take care of our state and make sure that our state survives."
The bill passed on a 6-3 party-line vote with all six Republicans voting yes and the three Democrats voting no. The latest version was discussed in House committee but delayed until next week.
The administration agreed to several changes, including partially restoring a preference for hiring and promoting military veterans. Elimination of the preference in the original bill and as well as an administration amendment drew fire last week from fellow Republicans, including Rep. Jim Cobb of Spring City who charged it was "almost an insult to veterans."
Another major concession involves reductions in force. Currently, the most senior employees get preference in layoff decisions, a practice Haslam calls virtually unworkable.
The governor wanted merit to be the determining factor. The compromise maintains that but requires other areas, including seniority to be considered.
Democrats and the Tennessee State Employees Association pushed for other changes, but they were hammered down in party-line votes.