Friday, May 29, 2009

Tennessee to cut about 700 state workers from MH/MR programs

From The Tennessean:

State workers are again facing a sizeable round of layoffs as officials laid out a plan to cut Tennessee's payroll by nearly 1,400 positions over the next 13 months.

Two months after Gov. Phil Bredesen said layoffs could be pushed back until next year, budgeters from his administration said Wednesday that more job cuts will have to come after all — particularly to the state agencies that serve people with mental illnesses and mental retardation.

The reductions will help the state deal with a recession that has worsened in recent months, cutting expected tax receipts by $161 million since March.

"We just have to cut everything in sight," Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz said. "It's the sign in the window at the closing-business sales, 'Everything must go.' We're just in a very difficult circumstance. Unprecedented."

As many as 717 workers could receive layoff notices by June 30 of next year, with three-quarters of them coming in the state departments that serve people with mental illness or mental retardation. The Bredesen administration also called for eliminating 656 vacant positions statewide.

Tennessee employs about 50,000 state workers, not including higher education employees, with a payroll of nearly $3 billion.

Workers who lose their jobs will be eligible for severance pay averaging about $3,000 a piece and tuition reimbursements for two years. Cutting the state payroll will save the government about $30 million in the next fiscal year, budgeters estimated.

A spokesman for the Tennessee State Employees Association said the group would not discuss the layoffs until it receives more details from the administration.

Eighteen agencies will see their payrolls reduced, but the vast majority will come in two areas: the Department of Mental Health, which will lay off as many as 254 workers, and the Division of Mental Retardation Services, which will lose 298 workers.

Advocates had been bracing for cuts, and May 27 they said the reductions were not as bad as they had feared.

Much of the job losses are in state institutions, which have been falling out of use gradually as care has shifted to state-funded community and home-care programs.

"This would be OK, with the understanding that then we have an investment in the communities," said Sita Diehl, executive director of the Tennessee chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Some lawmakers expressed concern Wednesday that cuts in staffing and the number of beds in state mental hospitals will put more of the burden for caring for the mentally ill on local governments.

For instance, county sheriffs could be required to jail more mentally ill patients if they can't find room for them in state facilities.

"If the cuts become a tax increase on local government, what have we gained?" said Rep. Glen Casada, the House Republican Caucus chairman.

Another area that could see cuts includes support services for the families of children with learning disabilities. The program, which is run by the Division of Mental Retardation Services, stands to lose $300,000 in next year's budget and could be shut down entirely after that.

Supporters say the program is a cheap way to aid families. Its possible demise concerns people like Amanda Nipper, the mother of a 15-year-old son with mild autism from Cannon County who has turned to the family support program for help in dealing with her son's insomnia.

"It's been a relief," Nipper said. "If insurance won't pay for it, there's no way people like us can afford it."

Deputy Commissioner Stephen Norris, the division's head, said most of the agency's other services should not be affected because they are funded in large part through TennCare.

Budgeters also called for cutting funds to some school programs, including those that provide physical education and connect schools to the Internet. Schools had been left largely untouched in Bredesen's original budget proposal, and together, the two cuts will save the state about $6 million, Goetz said.

Meanwhile, state budgeters also increased funding for several programs. Among other proposals, the Bredesen administration suggested allocating $5.6 million for 13 projects in state parks, $13 million for a "megasite" industrial park in Haywood County and $21 million for the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medicine Hospital.

The proposal laid out several tax provisions that purport to close loopholes in the budget. These include raising sales taxes on business telecommunications services and charging sales tax on cable television boxes and software warranties.

Jim Brown, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said his group will study the provisions before taking a position on them.