Shutdown leaves some local offices empty

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Who's minding the state?
   Empty offices and lonely classrooms were found in many state offices around the area Monday after the state's fiscal year ended without a budget at midnight Sunday.
   "We were supposed to start classes today for the summer quarter," said Jerry Patton, director of the Tennessee Technology Center at the Watauga Industrial Park in Elizabethton. "We have furloughed all 18 members of our faculty.
   "I simply told them they were not to come in because they were not deemed to be essential workers at this time."
   The state of Tennessee furloughed roughly 22,000 of 42,000 state employees as the state went into operational shutdown Sunday night.
   Gov. Don Sundquist signed the Essential Government Services Act Sunday night to maintain bare bones government service including public safety, probation and parole, and mental health services.
   The Legislature must resolve a nearly $800 million deficit for the 2002-2003 fiscal year that began Monday. Lawmakers remain divided -- for the fourth consecutive year -- among those who support an income tax and those who want to raise other taxes or cut spending.
   Like the estimated 22,000 state employees deemed "non-essential," state employees in Carter County could not be found at some offices.
   Signs hung on the county's Agricultural Extension and Child Support Services division Monday afternoon reading that the offices would reopen after the state passed a budget.
   Patton said he had received information from the Tennessee Board of Regents Sunday night to send faculty members and students home until a budget was in place.
   "We would have had around 300 students that were coming today," said Patton. "We have basically a skeleton crew of six people working, which is what we were legally allowed."
   The Center's full-time faculty members teach nursing, electronics, welding, business system technology and auto mechanics. Faculty members would be paid through the week if they chose to take leave time, he said. New faculty members who had not accumulated leave time would not be so fortunate, Patton added.
   "We have several new instructors who are who flat out of luck," said Patton.
   He also said students could be facing a tuition increase of 15 percent at the Center and other higher education institutions to offset funding shortages regardless of the budget ultimately passed by the Legislature.
   "For students who pay the bill themselves, it's placing a big burden on them," said Patton, who noted that 60 percent of the Center's students received federal Pell grant aid.
   Patton said the Center could weather the partial shutdown if it didn't stretch into a second week. The Center was required to provide 54 days of instruction each quarter, he said.
   "It is going to be a logistics nightmare," said Patton.
   The essential services bill maintained the state's public safety and judicial departments, district attorney general's offices and public defenders to maintain the function of the judicial system.
   "I'm trying to do my best not to shut the court system down," Judge Lynn Brown told the Star after Criminal Court recessed at the Carter County Justice Center on Monday. "I told the court reporter to come on in and I'd pay her if the state didn't."
   The essential services bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by Sundquist Sunday night runs through Friday.
   Brown said if the state hadn't included the DA and public defenders offices, he would have appointed local attorneys to represent clients and keep the court system rolling.
   As a state employed judge, Brown's office is protected by a checks-and-balances safety valve built into the Tennessee Constitution. The state Constitution specifies that the state Legislature cannot increase or decrease a state judge's salary while he or she is sitting on the bench.
   A memo from the state Board of Probation and Parole notified judges that many of its employees had been furloughed. The memo classified "essential" officers as "those who supervise felony offenders in the community."
   The board's memo said services to the courts would be curtailed until staffing returns to levels prior to the partial shutdown of government services.
   The non-essential services measure could effectively remove probation officers from the courtroom by Wednesday. If that happens, Brown said probation sentencing for offenders would have to end.
   "I can't let anyone out on probation unless there is someone there to read them the rules," said Brown. "I can't let them out. The jail is already full."
   A flustered Brown felt the shutdown had done a grave injustice to the state's employees, damaging morale and threatening jobs altogether.
   "The greatest asset the state of Tennessee has is its dedicated state employees," he said. "It is a distinct shame the way these people have been treated by this shutdown."