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Staff photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks Friday, June 5, 2020, as officials unveil a new COVID-19 emergency hospital ward in Nashville.

NASHVILLE — While thousands of Tennessee teachers, state workers and higher education personnel are seeing their proposed pay raises disappear from Gov. Bill Lee's budget as tax collections plummet, hundreds of officials and employees, including the governor, are still slated to see salary hikes.

The disconnect is attributable to years-old, stand-alone statutory provisions that dictate pay increases in at least 16 categories, officials say.

Besides Lee, a Republican who would see a $4,600 increase to his current $198,780 annual salary , the lengthy 16-category list includes Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, an appointed Republican who is getting a $4,500 boost to the $193,488 he now makes, according to the analysis done by Senate Democrats.

Hundreds of elected state judges would collectively see $794,900 in increases. State prosecutors and criminal investigators would get $656,600, half of what the budget originally provided before tax collections began imploding as a result of the coronavirus and its impact on state tax collections as economic activity fell as businesses closed and many Tennesseans stayed home.

Add all the remaining pay increases up — and state Senate Democratic staffers did just that — and it comes to an additional cost to taxpayers of $7.36 million per year.

According to the analysis, Lee's original budget unveiled in February before the subsequent spread of the coronavirus pandemic and its pounding of tax collections, called for pay increases totaling just under $270 million.

The money was to go to tens of thousands of local K-12 teachers and other education workers as well as 38,000 state employees, thousands of higher education workers, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, state troopers and more.

Categories for elected officials and workers who are still getting increases are based on requirements in state code, said Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, on Thursday.

"They're statutory raises," explained McNally, who said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, is already looking into the situation. It has upset K-12 educators and other government employees as Lee recommends whacking $1 billion in spending, including the rest of employees' originally proposed pay increases, from the state spending plan taking effect July 1.

"I anticipate there will be discussions about the very issue you've alluded to," Watson told a reporter Thursday. "I think the Senate recognizes that everyone should share in the discomfort that we're under, and I think we will attempt to take appropriate action to address that."

It wasn't immediately clear whether the House would go along. A number of job categories involve politically powerful groups such as district attorneys general.

Lee, a Republican, said Friday that he plans to give the $4,600 he's slated to receive to charity. His current annual pay is $198,780, according to the state's Transparency Tennessee website.

"I think guaranteed pay increases are a bad idea — in every circumstance I can think of," Lee told reporters as he and Metro Nashville, state and federal officials celebrated the completion of a COVID-19 emergency center built inside Nashville General Hospital. "Yes, if that doesn't get changed [by legislators], I'm going to donate the additional compensation of mine to charity. But I suspect that might get changed and that would be a good idea in my opinion."

In his original budget unveiled in early February as state revenues were roaring into the state's coffers, Lee proposed $117.36 million for the K-12 Basic Education Program salary pool for teachers, principals, other administrators, teachers' assistants, nurses and other pre-K through 12 staffers.

That was slashed by half to $58.68 million in the actual fiscal year 2020-2021 reduced spending plan Lee recommended to legislators, who passed it March 19 at Lee's urging. As legislators returned in late May, Lee on Thursday recommended new proposals eliminating the increase in its entirety as well as the remaining $24.9 million of the $39.2 million he originally recommended in February for higher education employees.

The governor had originally proposed $47.19 million for state employees along with an additional $20 million for market-rate adjustments intended to keep their pay competitive with the private sector. All of that was chopped in half in the no-growth budget approved at Lee's request by lawmakers on March 19.

And now, that is completely zeroed out in Lee's latest budget recommendation.

Besides state judges and DAs, others still getting increases, according to Senate Democrats' analysis, include public defenders, their assistants and criminal investigators who are now projected to get $656,600, or half of what was originally proposed.

Tennessee state troopers will see $587,100, or half of what was originally proposed, for salary increases. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife officers are slated for $656,500.

TWRA commissioned officers are still getting $619,400 of an originally proposed $1 million boost in pay, based on a salary survey.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 616-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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