Haslam Asks For Overhaul to ‘Broken’ Civil Service System

By: - January 31, 2012 12:00 am

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam used his state of the state address yesterday to call for remaking Tennessee’s state workforce rules, which he describes as outdated, cumbersome and not focused enough on merit. “This is about an antiquated system,” Haslam, a Republican,  said ,”that limits who we can hire and limits growth opportunities for current employees.”

The governor’s budget, which he introduced yesterday,eliminates 1,100 state positions, but also gives state workers a 2.5 percent salary increase. The changes that may have the most lasting effects on Tennessee’s public workforce, though, are Haslam’s proposals for the civil service system.

In a story earlier this month, the Tennesseean detailed the rules that Haslam is trying to overhaul, some of which date to the 1930s. Haslam wants to give managers more discretion on who they hire, eliminating the current system that requires them to hire off lists of qualified candidates. Haslam wants to eliminate the state’s Civil Service Commission as a way of resolving employees’ grievances more quickly. He favors streamlining the state’s current five-step process for firing workers.  

Plus, Haslam wants to eliminate the state’s “bumping” system. If an employee’s position is eliminated, he or she is allowed to take the job of a less senior worker, who can then take the job of someone who is even more junior, and so on. “Never once is performance a part of the decision about who keeps their job,” Haslam said in his speech yesterday.

Ironically, the reason many of these rules were put in place in the first place was to make hiring in Tennessee more focused on merit and less focused on political considerations. The Tennessee State Employees Association is skeptical of the changes. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel , one flyer the group is circulating quoted TSEA Executive Director Robert O’Connell as saying , “Dismantling the civil service system would thrust this state back into a time of patronage and political cronyism when state government jobs were distributed by politicians as rewards for campaign support and other loyal service.”

Supporters of the overhaul are sensitive to the charge that the changes would bring back political patronage. House Speaker Beth Harwell told the News Sentinel ,  “We’re not going to do that!” 

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Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman helps lead research on fiscal management and place-based economic development programs as part of Pew’s state fiscal health project. Goodman has served as a primary author for Pew studies that examine how states should evaluate tax incentives and maintain budget discipline when implementing those incentives.