Salary of TN judges going up, but no raises for state teachers

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — If you’re a state employee in Tennessee, especially a teacher, and you’re pining for a raise, then what you’re about to read will probably make you mad.

You likely know you aren’t getting a salary increase for the upcoming fiscal year. But did you know the Tennessee General Assembly is about to give a pay raise to state judges, who generally make in excess of $160,000 per year?

SALARY INCREASE: State judges in Tennessee are going to receive a nice salary increase — but teachers and other state employees aren't.

SALARY INCREASE: State judges in Tennessee are going to receive a nice salary increase — but teachers and other state employees aren’t.

State Supreme Court rulings dating back to 1873 dictate that judicial salaries are fixed and can’t fluctuate during a judge’s eight-year term.

Technically, according to the bureaucrats, these state judges will resume getting a cost-of-living increase next year. Judges have been eligible for COLA increases, per state law, since 1991, said John Rader, who provides legal counsel to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Rader told the Finance Ways and Means Committee this week that, if they wanted to, legislators could change the law and not grant the automatic increases to these judges.

On top of that, according to the Tennessee Bar Association, state judges will also see salary increases of $5,800 per year in 2016.

General Sessions judges would have their pay increases delayed and adjusted according to the population of their jurisdictions, the TBA added.

“The salary increases proposed are for 2016, 2018 and 2020, and the reason we are proposing them this year is because if they are going to be proposed they have to be proposed before the judges start their term on Sept. 1, 2014,” Rader said at the committee hearing.

TSEA President Bob O’Connell

TSEA President Bob O’Connell

“Once they start their term we can’t go back next year and offer them a raise because that would be giving a raise within their term.”

Other state employees aren’t eligible for this type of COLA increase, Rader said.

“The reason for the COLA increase is because other state employees are able to get a raise from year to year, and that raise varies,” Rader told the committee. “Judges cannot receive those discretionary raises within their term. The COLA increase is hypothetically intended to offset a judge’s salary versus a state employee’s salary over an eight-year period.”

The pay increases will cost taxpayers $1.4 million, but they aren’t a part of this year’s upcoming fiscal budget, Rader said.

The two sponsors of this legislation, state Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, didn’t return Tennessee Watchdog’s requests for comment.

Two strange bedfellows, Tennessee Tax Revolt President Ben Cunningham and Tennessee State Employees Association President Bob O’Connell, have problems with the situation.

“I don’t think judges ought to be singled out for special treatment, certainly not in this environment, when taxpayers are having to cut back and when people are seeing less income,” Cunningham told Tennessee Watchdog on Friday.

O’Connell told Tennessee Watchdog on Thursday he understands that state law makes a pay increase for judges necessary, but he wishes other state employees were also receiving this perk.

“Teachers and state employees are getting zero,” O’Connell said.

Ben Cunningham, with Tennessee Tax Revolt

Ben Cunningham, with Tennessee Tax Revolt

“We’re in an awkward position at the TSEA also, and we don’t like to campaign for anyone’s salary to go down in any way.  However, there are some basic fairness issues. If any special group has a built-in cost-of-living escalator, well that’s fine for them, but we should all have it.

“State employees, even though for three years in a row they’ve gotten across the board raises, they’ve been very meager, and in each case below the cost-of-living increases for that year,” O’Connell added.

Republican State. Sen. Stacy Campfield, at another committee meeting this week, also complained.

“When we’re telling teachers we can’t afford to give them pay raises and they don’t make a fraction of $168,000, and we’re telling a lot of state employees, many of whom probably don’t make $20,000 to $30,000, that we can’t afford to give them pay raises,” Campfield said.

“I can’t justify giving a pay raise to someone who is making $168,000 plus benefits, even if it is just in the future.”

The Tennessean reported last month the state has a $160 million gap in this year’s state budget due to poor sales and business tax collections. Haslam announced that teachers and other state employees wouldn’t receive a raise as a result.

District attorneys and public defenders were originally eligible for the same raises the judges will likely receive, but they no longer are, according to the TBA.

“Salaries for those positions do not have the same constitutional protection,” according to the TBA.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org. or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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