Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday said he won't apologize for his decision to give many of his department heads big raises while proposing only a 1.6 percent increase for other state workers.
The Republican governor was asked after a speech to members of the Tennessee State Employees Association whether he understood that the disparity could be demoralizing for rank-and-file state employees.
Haslam responded that it was a fair question but the raises were justified because most of his Cabinet members are taking a pay cut from their previous private-sector jobs, totaling more than $1 million.
"I have commissioners who had very good jobs, making good salaries, and gave up something to work for the state," said Haslam, who took office in January. "I won't apologize for that at all. My job is to get the very best people we can."
The Associated Press reported last week that Haslam has raised the minimum salary for a dozen commissioners by 11 percent to $150,000. Eight other department heads' salaries were left unchanged.
"I'm going to do my very best to ensure that our jobs are all market-competitive," Haslam said.
Haslam's top-paid Cabinet member, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, now earns $200,000, while his predecessor in former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration made $180,000.
Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons is making about $178,000, an increase of nearly $43,000, or 32 percent, over the last person to hold the position.
Huffman made about $230,000 as a vice president of Teach for America in 2009, according to the nonprofit organization's latest federal tax filing, while Gibbons made about $144,000 in his previous job as chief prosecutor in Shelby County.
"These weren't people who were working for the government, and we gave them raises," Haslam said. "I actually went out and tried to hire the very best Cabinet officers that I could, understanding they can make help make the hard calls for the budget position that we're in."
TSEA President Phil Morson issued a statement last week declaring the organization was "shocked" to hear of Haslam's pay increases for Cabinet members.
"This is unfair," he said. "It is a slap in the face to the every-day state worker who has the same right as those at the top to be valued for their hard work and competence."