House not likely to make major civil service changes

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – It appears the Mississippi House will not go along with the plan of Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves to remove civil service protection for state employees.
House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, has proposed making minor changes to the state Personnel Board, which provides civil service protection, but it’s not certain that proposal will pass the House. Frierson could bring it up before Wednesday’s deadline, but he conceded the vote would be close.
Reeves and Bryant advocate removing civil service protection for two years so agency heads can fire employees of their choosing to “right-size” their agencies. Former Gov. Haley Barbour also proposed eliminating civil service protection, but a Democratic-controlled House blocked it.
Republicans now control the House, but many members are still reluctant to remove the Personnel Board protection.
State employees have civil service protection to ensure they do not face the specter of being fired every four years after elections. But Bryant, Reeves and others say the Personnel Board makes it difficult for agencies to reduce staffing.
A recent study by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, reveals four states – Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina – do not have laws “requiring an impartial, independent and fairly managed state civil service system.”
Under Frierson’s proposal, an agency head “would have to look very closely at evaluation and job performance” during any reduction in force. “We want the main emphasis to be placed on job performance and less on seniority,” he said. “How is that unfair?”
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said under existing law the Personnel Board already could make those changes. Frierson said they may be in the works.
Many House Democrats conceded Frierson stops far short of what Reeves supports and what the Senate passed. Frierson admitted the slim 64-58 Republican advantage in the House and the reluctance of some Republicans affected how he crafted his proposal.
Rep. Donnie Bell of Fulton, who switched to the Republican Party late last year, said when doing so he would not vote to eliminate Personnel Board protection.
Plus, Frierson admitted he also believes civil service protection is important. “I think our most valuable resource…is our personnel,” he said. “When we have good people, we need to look for ways to reward them and protect them.”
Fear of what might come later is affecting support for Frierson’s bill. Some worry that when leaders meet to reach a compromise, the final product might be closer to the Senate bill. For that reason, Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said members should adhere to the legislative adage of “if you see a snake you cut his head off” by killing the bill.
About 29,000 of Mississippi’s roughly 36,000 state employees have civil service protection. In a few agencies, such as the governor’s office, all are at-will employees.
While the Senate bill would remove civil service protection for two years, Reeves had indicated he might favor doing away with it permanently.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com