State employees await Legislature's decision on budget

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Employees of the state of Tennessee could be looking at a three-day -- or longer -- weekend on Monday.
   The Tennessee General Assembly's inability to pass a budget before the state's fiscal year ends tonight could force a shutdown of non-essential government services and the effective layoffs of thousands of state employees.
   "We will not have any liability insurance or health insurance or benefits," said Joe Morrell, county supervisor for the Tennessee Department of Transportation's highway maintenance department. "If (the state) closes down at midnight, we don't have any insurance on our state vehicles. They told us to park it and go home and forget about it.
   "And that looks like what is going to happen."
   Possibly 22,000 of the state's 42,000 employees could find themselves sitting at home tomorrow if Gov. Don Sundquist is forced to shut down the government to only essential services, such as public safety and state prisons.
   Sundquist could keep essential services operating for five days past June 30, the end of the fiscal year, if lawmakers do not meet that constitutional deadline for balancing the budget. If the Legislature is still unable to pass a budget, the essential services plan could be extended.
   "We're sick," said Morrell of the potential state shutdown. "If the payroll is not in (Friday), we won't get paid for this past pay period. We've dedicated all these years and now we're going to lose everything."
   Morrell said his department operated 36 motor driven vehicles with 12 employees waiting to learn if they would show up for work on Monday.
   A state shutdown would fund only essential state services and would suspend the state's road maintenance work and many road construction projects around the county.
   "All these animals that are dead on the road, none of that will be taken care of. No trash or litter will be picked up around the state parks," Morrell added. "All state maintenance on the roads will end as well."
   He said he would be mowing along Highway 19E near the Chamber of Commerce property on Friday afternoon as one of the department's final endeavors.
   "That's probably the last thing I'll do before Monday," he said.
   Sen. Dewey "Rusty" Crowe, R-Johnson City, felt pro-income tax lawmakers in the House had effectively blocked any other legislation to fund state government except that which allowed a tax on personal income.
   "The situation is honestly, the income tax proponents are holding the whole state hostage," he said. "They are attempting to take us into a shutdown and force the issue of income tax."
   Crowe said Senate Speaker John Wilder's plan to impose a 6 percent flat income tax and repeal the state's 6 percent sales tax had some Senate support, but that he did not expect it to pass and he would not vote for it.
   The two-term senator also said the governor would likely implement a stop gap spending measure to fund essential services before midnight Sunday while the Legislature continued working to pass a budget. But he felt the Legislature had no legitimate reason to allow the shutdown to occur.
   City Manager Charles Stahl said this week that the city would freeze any expenses considered not essential to public welfare.
   "We would consider that first priority that we would have to do," he said. "We've already cut the budget 13 percent and made a bare bones budget out of what was an already lean fiscal year."
   The city council approved the $11.3 million budget that included a 13 percent cut to the city's general budget fund in May.
   The new city budget slashed 33 percent from the water/sewer budget last year. The city's budget includes a two percent cost-of-living raise for city employees.
   East Tennessee State University issued a news release reading if state government did go into a shutdown, students, faculty and staff should listen to WETS-FM 89.5 -- the university's public radio station -- for information about employment and scholastic issues.
   Assistant District Attorney General Mark Hill said the DA's office personnel had been told to report to work as usual on Monday when they would be notified if employee cuts were to be made.
   "I've been here for one month short of eight years," said Hill. "A lot of people have been here a lot longer than I have."
   The city of Elizabethton estimated loss of state-shared revenue represents $1.3 million, or approximately 15 percent, of the city's total general fund budget for the 2002-2003 fiscal year.
   The city receives state-shared revenues from the Hall income tax, excise tax, wholesale beer tax and a small portion of revenue from the gasoline tax.
   Stahl said there had been no talk of personnel reductions or layoffs of city employees at this point.
   "We're holding our breath like every other city and county government," said Stahl. "We are hoping for the best, and frankly, preparing for the worst."