Gov.-elect Bill Haslam was forced Friday to explain what he meant by one of the few pledges he has made since his election in November, conceding that he might lay off some state employees during his first year in office.
After touring the stage of Saturday’s inauguration at the Legislative Plaza, Haslam took questions from reporters and seemingly backed away from comments he made in an interview with the Associated Press this month.
Haslam said then he wouldn’t hand out pink slips, but would take a year to review state government to decide the proper staffing levels for each department. That drew criticism from some Republican legislative leaders.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told the AP that layoffs may be unavoidable.
“We have a billion dollar deficit here, and we’re going to have to make sure we balance that,” Ramsey said. “And it’s going to be tough to do without layoffs.”
Asked Friday about this, Haslam said he wouldn’t “make wholesale layoffs in the very beginning” but didn’t promise not to eliminate jobs during his first year.
“We’re going to be very slow about filling positions,” Haslam said. “I don’t know that anybody can say that the whole time I’m governor we’re not going to make layoffs because I don’t think you can say that. But what I learned is this as mayor. Come in, understand the situation before you make just wholesale changes like that, and that’s what our promise is going to be.”
When a reporter pointed out that outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen’s budget plan calls for some layoffs this year, Haslam said, “Obviously, his blueprint plan calls for some of those, and we’ll obviously look at that. The answer is not to come in right away and say we’re going to cut x thousand people because you shouldn’t ever make a decision that serious without doing your homework first.”
Under the current state budget, 314 state employees are paid out of one-time savings. Unless their positions are funded, they would lose their jobs when the next budget year begins on July 1. Bredesen also cut 1,500 state jobs in 2008 through voluntary buyouts and laid off about 850 more last year.
On other matters, Haslam said last weekend’s shootings in Arizona didn’t make him fear for his own safety or feel more insecure in public.
“Anybody in public life, it makes you more aware of that,” he said. “The Tennessee Highway Patrol folks who picked us up two weeks before the election are pros, and they’re great. I don’t worry about it probably more than any of us do.”
In fact, Haslam said he plans to continue his practice as Knoxville mayor of going jogging on the streets at any time of the day or night.
“One of the benefits of being the mayor of Knoxville is that you have a shower in your office and there is one here as well. I was glad to see that perk exists. Part of being in a city is being able to get out on foot and I’m not going to let security concerns keep me from doing that. It’s one of the negatives about being in public office now. It’s so hard not to live in that bubble. Unfortunately, security concerns make it to where that’s the tendency. We want to fight real hard not to do that.”