Legislature waits for details on buyouts

On May 17, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

Unexpected break comes before state budget OK’d By THEO EMERY and JENNIFER BROOKS • Staff Writers • Tennessean.com May 17, 2008 After a week of marathon floor sessions, frenzied hearings and intense lobbying over state spending and policy, the legislature fell silent Friday. Offices closed, lawmakers returned to districts, and the flat-screen monitors in the […]

Unexpected break comes before state budget OK’d

By THEO EMERY and JENNIFER BROOKS • Staff Writers • Tennessean.com
May 17, 2008

After a week of marathon floor sessions, frenzied hearings and intense lobbying over state spending and policy, the legislature fell silent Friday. Offices closed, lawmakers returned to districts, and the flat-screen monitors in the hallways went dark.

The legislature called the abrupt pause to its end-of-session work in part to give Gov. Phil Bredesen a chance to collect more information about his plan to offer buyouts to about 2,000 state employees, allowing them to leave voluntarily without layoffs.

The proposed buyouts, which are a part of the governor’s plan to close a $315 million budget this year and trim $468 million in spending for next year, has become a sticking point as the legislature tries to finish its work for the year.

Some lawmakers have protested the lack of details in the governor’s plan and called for the administration to return next week with more details. Both the House and Senate have used 89 of the 90 days allotted to meet; under the state constitution, lawmakers don’t get paid if they run over.

The governor said Friday that he’s not hiding anything and is happy to comply with the request for more information. But creating the plan is legally and logistically difficult, he said, and it will probably take longer than next week to have the plans in place. He hopes to offer the buyouts in the first week of June.

“If they want to hang around two or three weeks, I guess they’d have all the details,” he said. “I think we ought to be able to satisfy them early next week with some additional details, and go from there.”

Dems uneasy on deal

One of the largest sources of resistance is from within Bredesen’s own party, the state House Democrats. At a caucus meeting on Thursday, members said they were uneasy about signing off on a deal that would affect thousands of state workers, without knowing full details.

“Tell the administration we have a very uncomfortable caucus,” said Rep. Phillip Pinion, D-Union City, who made a motion that the House recess until Tuesday to give the administration time to come up with more details.

Finance Committee Chairman Craig Fitzhugh outlined some details known about the buyout offer. Select employees will be offered a cash payment, plus an amount on their years of service to the state, funds to help cover health care and tuition assistance.

Some members wanted to recess until mid-June, when the administration planned to begin sending out its buyout offers. But Fitzhugh pointed out that the clock is ticking toward the end of the fiscal year.

“We don’t want to shut down Tennessee government if we don’t have a budget by June 30th,” he said.

Instead, both the House and Senate will have committee meetings on Monday, and their final floor sessions on Tuesday.

Unlike the uneasy Democratic caucus, Republicans in the House seem much more ready to accept the buyout package and let the governor hammer out the details.

“This is a voluntary plan that many members are very receptive to allowing,” said House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower. “As a member, I have lived through state layoffs in the past, and it seems voluntary buyouts are preferable, with the facts that we do know.”

Senator critical of mood

Sen. Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican and the Senate majority leader, called it “somewhat irresponsible” for the administration to come with budget revisions so late, then object when lawmakers raised questions.

“They birthed this baby at the last minute, and they are apparently not happy the legislative branch is exercising its responsibility somewhat independently,” he said. “Had they brought us these options or this budget sooner, it would have been easier for us all to continue working together.”

Bredesen said he has illuminated a path out of the state’s budgetary problems for the legislature, and while he expected lawmakers to change or improve his plan, he said they should “go ahead and get this thing behind us.”

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