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Gov. Bill Haslam gives his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam says he likely will be best remembered for his programs providing tuition-free community or technical college to Tennesseans, but he personally believes his No. 1 achievement is in a more controversial arena.

That is, the 2012 overhaul of Tennessee civil service laws that makes it easier to hire, promote, reward or fire state workers.

"I'm a party of one that thinks this, but I actually think the most important thing that we did in state government was changing the employment rules," the governor said at last week's winter meeting of the Tennessee Press Association.

Haslam said that, before the changes in Tennessee's civil service laws, when hiring, "instead of going out and recruiting and saying, great, TDOT [the state transportation department] needs a new engineer, how do I go find the very best one, you took whoever was next in line. So it was all by seniority."

The "old model," the governor argued, amounted to a situation where "you got hired or promoted by who had been breathing the longest. We paid everybody poorly, but you had great long-term benefits. What is the motivation in that? There'd be zero, right?"

Haslam's solution, approved by fellow Republicans in the GOP-controlled General Assembly nearly six years ago, was the Tennessee Excellence Accountability and Management Act, or TEAM Act.

It changed the rules on hiring, filling vacancies, laying off or firing workers as well as implementing a new appeals process for workers disgruntled over their treatment. And after a series of bumps and delays, the law resulted in a new employee evaluation system on which merit pay increases are based.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, a critic of the governor's policies toward state workers, said that while some civil service updates may have been needed because everyone wants "efficiencies, cost savings and high quality" in services, Haslam's remarks are "blatantly insulting to state employees.

"He implies that these folks were all unmotivated, unqualified, and lacking dedication to their public duty," Clemmons said. "These are broad and offensive generalizations that only someone completely out of touch with working families would dare utter out loud, and I take great issue with them."

Back in 2012, minority Democrats fought Haslam's TEAM Act, charging among other things that it opened the door to old-fashioned patronage hiring based on personal or party allegiance to whomever was in power. Clemmons was elected after the law passed.

The Tennessee State Employees Association opposed some provisions of the law — lawmakers made some tweaks — but the gist of what Haslam wanted got through.

Haslam told TPA members that while "obviously I'm a conservative Republican," he nonetheless expressed surprise at Democrats' opposition.

"It just amazed me that this other side, who actually are the folks who say we really believe in government, that they are the ones who fought for civil service," he said.

The governor said "if you really believe that government is critical in providing services that people can't get anywhere else — remember that we're a monopoly — if you really believe that it's important about providing services, you should say it should be about recruiting the very best people."

The term-limited governor, who leaves office next January, said if you ask any of his department commissioners "what changed the most" as a result of his administration it would be the impact of the civil service law changes.

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"Because now they go out and try to find the very best people they can," Haslam said. "We back that up, our average state employee makes $10,000 more per year than they used to."

While the governor didn't mention it, after the overhaul passed the Legislature his administration then embarked on a series of high-profile privatization endeavors, including the outsourcing of private facilities management of most state government building services.

That prompted a 2013 lawsuit from the Tennessee State Employees Association over workers losing their jobs. But a Davidson County chancellor ultimately ruled in the state's favor, finding the state didn't break any laws in its handling of the firings because it no longer had a legal duty to help employees find new jobs within state government.

Haslam later sought to outsource hospitality operations of the state's premier parks, including Fall Creek Falls State Park, but gave up when companies showed little interest because of the facilities' run-down condition.

Also last year, Tennessee universities mostly spurned a statewide contract Haslam's administration developed for facilities management at major institutions.

Randy Stamps, a former Republican state representative now the executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, had his own take on the civil service changes' impact.

"There is no doubt Gov. Haslam's civil service overhaul was a major change," Stamps said. "It ended due process and denied Tennessee state employees the basic protections given to most government employees."

But Stamps noted the administration since "has worked with TSEA to make improvements and adjustment to the original law. Those interactions have proven the value of our employees rights organization."

He argued, though, "there is little evidence the changes have improved the delivery of state services. What is most puzzling is that after the governor made those civil service changes he proceeded to outsource and privatize the jobs of a record number of state employees."

Meanwhile, Clemmons argued Haslam's "true motivations have proven to fall short of what most Tennesseans would consider noble. Time and again, Haslam has cut vital positions to departments across the board in the name of 'consumer focused government' while attempting to enrich private corporations, some to which he has or had financial ties."

Haslam, a billionaire whose family owns the nation's largest travel center chain, Pilot Flying J, disclosed that he once held a financial stake in real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle. The company won competitive bids for the general state government outsourcing contract and the higher education contract.

Most of the governor's non-Pilot Flying J holdings were placed in a blind trust, and the governor has said he has no idea whether his portfolio maintains any interest in the company.

While debate continues over Haslam's government-employee policies, at the national level the governor has won wide acclaim for his efforts to boost the percentage of Tennesseans with post-high school degrees and certificates by offering lottery-funded free community and technical college support.

That was done first with the Tennessee Promise for recent high school graduates and the later Tennessee Reconnect that extended the offer to all adults without a post-secondary degree or certificate.

The end result was that Tennessee became the first state in the nation to offer free community college or technical college education to citizens, a move other states are scrambling to emulate.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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