Gov. Phil Bredesen gave state employees the cold shoulder Wednesday, turning down their plea for Christmas bonuses from increasing tax collections in the slow economic recovery.
The legislature included one-time bonuses ranging from $150 to $1,200 in the state budget this year but made them contingent on meeting state revenue targets. Tax collections had to exceed budget estimates by $50 million by the end of the fiscal year in July. That goal wasn’t met, so the bonuses for the state’s approximately 40,000 workers were canceled.
In the past four months, however, revenue is running $65 million over budget. That includes November’s numbers, which were reported Wednesday, and added more than $5 million to the surplus.
In a letter to the governor, Tennessee State Employees Association president Phil Morson asked Bredesen to call a special session of the legislature to enact a law giving the bonuses, now that tax collections have improved. He described state workers as “crestfallen and disappointed” because “Christmas isn’t going to be what they were hoping for.”
“Is there a way, as a parting gesture, for you to help?” Morson asked.
The letter went to the governor in an email sent twice over the past 10 days, TSEA director Bob O’Connell said. After there was no response, it was posted Wednesday on the TSEA website.
Asked by The City Paper to respond, Lydia Lenker, the governor’s press secretary, said:
"Gov. Bredesen received the TSEA letter, and agrees that state employees have gone for years without a pay raise, despite their continued service to our state. That's why the governor committed to giving state employees a guaranteed bonus in the budget he introduced, but it became a contingency bonus during the legislative approval process. Given that our state is preparing to inaugurate a new governor in a matter of weeks, Gov. Bredesen believes it would be inappropriate to hold a special session this month on this matter."
In his original budget recommendation this year, Bredesen included a one-time bonus of 3 percent for teachers and state workers, whose pay has been frozen for the past three years. Republicans in the legislature removed that provision but agreed to bonuses tied to state revenue.
O’Connell said TSEA will ask the new legislature for the bonuses as soon as the General Assembly convenes in January.
“We’re certainly going to bring it up to the new legislature,” he said. “We will ask them to give us that bonus immediately because the money will be there.
“It’s an opportunity to make good on what all state employees out there thought was a promise to them. They said they’d give us the bonus if the money was there during a certain period of time. Well, it wasn’t. But now the money is available, so the spirit of that promise would suggest that they ought to come across. They can do it if they want to. It’s not an impossible thing to do. Just for once, think about state employees.”