Resolutions would allow Tennessee voters to change the state’s Constitution for merit-based appointment system for state’s Supreme Court and Appellate Judges with retention vote

On April 13, 2012, in News from Nashville 2012, by Mark Norris

April 13, 2012 Bill and Cindy Cox support the Paige Robbins Adult Day Care Center of Collierville with their winning bid for “A Day on the Hill” at the annual charity auction. Resolutions would allow Tennessee voters to change the state’s Constitution for merit-based appointment system for state’s Supreme Court and Appellate Judges with retention […]

April 13, 2012

Bill and Cindy Cox support the Paige Robbins Adult Day Care Center of Collierville with their winning bid for “A Day on the Hill” at the annual charity auction.

Resolutions would allow Tennessee voters to change the state’s Constitution for merit-based appointment system for state’s Supreme Court and Appellate Judges with retention vote

Action in the State Senate this week was highlighted by consideration of two proposals that would allow Tennesseans to vote on whether or not they want to use a merit-based appointment system for selecting the state’s Supreme Court and intermediate appellate judges, followed by a retention vote of the people. Senate Joint Resolution 183, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), and Senate Joint Resolution 710, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), were approved by the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday and moved to the full Senate for the first and second readings on Wednesday and Thursday. A final vote on the matter is scheduled for Monday.

The action follows an announcement made earlier this year by Governor Bill Haslam, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) that legislative action is needed under the present system for selecting appellate judges in order to be constitutionally correct. Article VI, Section 3 of Tennessee’s Constitution requires that Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state,” which concerns many lawmakers who believe the current system does not fully satisfy that mandate. Under the state’s current Tennessee Plan for selecting Supreme Court and other appellate judges, a 17-member Judicial Nominating Commission reviews applicants and sends the governor a panel of three nominees for consideration. The governor must then appoint one of the nominees or reject the panel and request a second panel. After being appointed through this process, the appellate judges must stand for approval by the voters after completion of their term, with the people deciding whether to “retain” or “replace” them.

Senate Joint Resolution 183 provides that as an alternative to contested elections, the legislature is authorized to establish in the law a system of merit-based appointments with retention elections for judges of the Supreme Court and the intermediate appellate courts. The changes set out in the resolution would only go into effect if the Constitution is amended by a vote of the people. First, the resolution must be approved by a simple majority of the legislature this year after three readings and must receive a two-thirds majority of both chambers in the following General Assembly. Then it would go to a vote of the people in 2014.

“This is the correct course of action for those of us who believe the Constitution means what it says and should be interpreted as written,” said Leader Norris. “We think that either the qualified voters of the state should elect the judges as it is written or if it is a merit-based system of retention, which is what we have or something similar to it, then the Constitution should be amended to reflect that – if that is the will of the people.”

“There are variations on what people would like to see in a merit-based system,” Norris continued. “This proposal does not get into that specificity; rather it gives the legislature the prerogative as to what the second step would be.”

The other proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 710, calls for appointment of state appellate judges in a manner similar to the federal model by allowing Tennessee’s Governor to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and state appellate courts, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly, for eight year terms.

“This plan follows the tried and true plan designed by our nation’s Founding Fathers. Judges are appointed by the executive and confirmed by the legislature,” said Senator Kelsey. “The resolution even improves upon the federal model by correcting for its one flaw: inaction by the legislature. The plan puts a 60-day clock on the legislature to act or the nominee will be confirmed by default.”

“The importance of a highly functioning and independent judicial branch is crucial to the small, efficient government our unified Republican majority continues to bring to Tennessee,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey. “Our current method of choosing judges is a very good system, but it is not constitutional. This effort will ensure that we finally have a constitutional method of choosing judges.”

The Senate honored Legislative Services employee, Homer Malone, during Session on Thursday.
The Senate honored Legislative Services employee, Homer Malone, during Session on Thursday.

Bills aim to make state government more efficient and effective

Several bills advanced through the State Senate this week aiming to make Tennessee’s state government more efficient and effective, including legislation to revamp the Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA) which regulates utilities across the state. The TRA is currently governed by four full-time members, called directors, with salaries of $152,000 per year. Senate Bill 2247, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), would replace them with five part-time members who are paid in the mid $30,000 range and a full-time executive director to manage the agency’s day to day operations.

The proposal for part-time directors follows deregulation of many industries previously governed by the TRA, including the trucking and phone industries and most electric utilities. The TRA does not regulate the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) or other utilities owned by local government. As a result, only 19 rate cases have come before the agency since 2003. The legislation also follows a comptroller report which showed the TRA needs a better management structure to optimize functions of the agency.

Under the bill, TRA directors would be appointed by the governor and the speakers of the House and Senate. The directors would then elect a chair and vice-chair from among themselves. The legislation requires monthly meetings unless waived by a majority vote. It also creates an executive director position to be appointed by joint agreement among the governor and the speakers of the House and Senate for the initial three-year term and establishes the minimum qualifications to ensure a high level of competency.

“Thirty one other states have an Executive Director at the helm of their similar agencies,” said Senator Faulk. “We want the new Executive Director to also do a top to bottom review of the TRA to see where further savings can be realized, while emphasizing a more effective agency for Tennessee rate-payers and the industries that come before them.”

Boards and Commissions / Efficient and Effective Government – In another effort to operate state government in a more efficient and effective manner, Senate Bill 2249, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) was presented for consideration to the Senate Finance Committee this week. The bill focuses on performance, accountability and effectiveness by making structural changes to 20 boards, commissions and licensing programs.

“We continue to streamline state government,” said Leader Norris.

Over the past year, heads of many of the state’s departments and agencies conducted a top to bottom review to thoroughly analyze operational and organizational efficiency. The review was fueled out of concerns that Tennessee must practice greater fiscal constraint due to cuts that will likely come from Washington and the need to downsize state government as state revenues are still below pre-recession levels. Through this comprehensive review, the departments were also asked to establish a culture of customer service, efficiency and effectiveness.

“With Tennessee facing significant budget challenges, we must reduce the size of government to make it work more efficiently and effectively,” said Chairman Bell. “At the same time, we are emphasizing customer service for Tennesseans who must access a wide array of state services, from driver’s licenses to TennCare. Senate Bill 2249 works to accomplish this.”

Currently, Tennessee has more than 200 boards and commissions, many of which have independent hiring and spending authority with little oversight. The legislation merges six boards into three for increased efficiency including the Conservation Trust Fund Board, which will absorb the Conservation Commission. The Oil and Gas Board and Water Quality Control Board would be combined to form the Board of Water Quality, Oil and Gas. The Petroleum Underground Storage Tank Board and the Solid Waste Board would be combined to form the Underground Storage Tank and Solid Waste Disposal Control Board. The proposal would eliminate 138 board positions, a move which will save money and increase effectiveness.

In addition, the legislation gives a Cabinet level commissioner oversight over five boards for increased accountability. They are the Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission; Tennessee Corrections Institute and Commission on Firefighting Personnel Standards and Training within the Department of Commerce and Insurance; the Council on Career and Technical Education within the Department of Education; and the Conservation Trust Fund Board within the Department of Environment and Conservation.

Finally, the bill gives the Governor hiring authority for four Commission’s executive directors including the Commission on Aging and Disability, Commission on Children and Youth, the Arts Commission, and the Higher Education Commission.

A vote is expected on the proposal in the Finance Committee on Tuesday.

State Government Efficiency / TEAM Act – The full Senate has approved legislation to update and reform the state’s antiquated employment system. Senate Bill 2246, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), is called the TEAM Act (Tennessee Excellence Accountability and Management Act).

A report released by the Comptroller’s Division of State Audit suggested Tennessee’s civil service system is inefficient, unfair and outdated. The system was also identified as cumbersome and inefficient by all departments in the Top to Bottom Review report ordered by Governor Bill Haslam.

“Passage of this Act prioritizes performance rather than seniority,” said Leader Norris. “It brings Tennessee into the 21st century and keeps our workforce competitive.”

Tennessee has just over 40,000 employees, of which 6,000 are executive service who do not have civil service protection, with the remainder as career service who do have certain protections under the system. Approximately 40 percent of Tennessee’s state employees will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.

“There are currently 549 registers for Tennessee State Government with over 100,000 applicants,” said Senator Johnson. “In most cases, applicants have remained on the register even though they may be deceased, found other jobs or moved to another state, which is a huge impediment for those who may legitimately be seeking employment or for existing employees applying for promotion.”

Johnson said the purpose of the TEAM Act is to establish a system that will attract, select, retain and promote the best applicants and employees in Tennessee state government. He said it also aims to give agencies greater flexibility in personnel management and would increase customer-focused effectiveness for citizens who access a wide variety of state government services.

Key provisions in the bill include:

Employees

  • Renames civil service as state service and career service employees as preferred service employees
  • Establishes methods for rewarding merit pay.

Hiring

  • Creates a new hiring system where agencies will be required to identify minimum qualifications for an open position and specify the specific knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies needed
  • Position openings would be announced for a minimum of one week
  • Newly hired employees in the preferred category will have a one year probationary period, upon completion of which they will obtain the preferred designation
  • Referred list of eligibles would include all applicants meeting the pre-established minimum qualifications
  • Agencies would be required to interview a minimum of three candidates with one of the three hired
  • Veterans will continue to be given preference in hiring and promotions for state jobs

Reduction in Force (RIF)

  • Employees affected by a RIF would receive a minimum of 60 days notice beginning Oct. 1, 2012 – Dec. 31, 2013 and will go to 30 days thereafter
  • In a RIF, the order of layoff would be based on performance first, then seniority, abilities and any disciplinary record
  • Veterans will get an additional 60 months added to their service
  • Covered employees affected by a RIF would be granted an interview for positions in the same classification they held prior to the RIF for a period of one year

Appeals

  • Provides a new mediation system to improve the lengthy and complicated process for appeals for those state employees who feel they have been treated unfairly
  • All preferred employees would have the right to appeal a dismissal, demotion or suspension identifying the law, rule or policy concerning the employee.
  • The bill sets up a 9-member Board of Appeals
  • The appeal process would have three steps, each with a time limit, ending with the Board of Appeals

Government Accountability / Reporting Fraud – The State Senate gave final approval to legislation this week that would require officials of any state agency to notify the Comptroller of the Treasury upon having knowledge of any act of theft, forgery, credit card fraud or any other unlawful act regarding public money, services or property. Senate Bill 3331, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), provides for state agencies to establish guidelines for the reporting of fraud to the Comptroller of the Treasury.

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