By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – If the Legislature and Gov. Phil Bryant eliminate state civil service protection as it appears they will, Mississippi will no longer be in the mainstream when it comes to protecting state workers.
According to a 50-state study done by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, four states do not have laws “requiring an impartial, independent and fairly managed state civil service system.”
According to the study, which was released earlier this month, those states are Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina.
State leaders are looking to join that group by temporarily taking state workers out from under the authority of the Personnel Board, which provides the civl service protection in Mississippi. They say tight budget times require more flexibility for state agency heads to manage their payrolls.
Civil service protection was established years ago to end the practice of political patronage where newly elected officials hired their supporters upon taking office.
The Mississippi Senate has passed legislation to take employees out from under the Personnel Board for two years. The House is expected to take up the legislation in the coming weeks.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour favored removing civil service protection for most of his two terms. But his efforts were blocked by the Democratic majority in the House. With Republicans in charge of the chamber for the first time since the 1800s, many believe it will pass this year.
Bryant, a Republican, has endorsed the concept.
In Mississippi, most elected officials and agency heads have the option of hiring a certain number of political appointees, but most state employees have civil service protection. In a few agencies, such as the governor’s office, all the staff are at-will employees. But of the approximately 36,000 state employees, about 29,000 have civil service protection.
Last week, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic senators who oppose removing civil service protection spoke out on the issue.
Reeves said that while the economy is improving, the state still faces difficult budget decisions.
“That is why it is so important to give state agency heads the maximum amount of flexibility,” he said.
Bryant said agency directors must be able “to manage their workforces.” They say the current system makes it difficult to “right size” the state’s workforce because employees have certain protections, making it difficult for them to be terminated.
But state Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said on average it has taken 12 days to go through the process to lay off state employees during the recent budget woes.
A statement signed by 16 of the Senate’s 21 Democrats said the Personnel Board was created following scandals during the gubernatorial administration of Cliff Finch in the 1970s.
The Democrats point out that the nonpartisan Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee, an arm of the Legislature, wrote in a 2008 study, “All executive branch employees, except agency directors and employees who work under the direct confidential control of agency directors, should be subject to the authority of the state Personnel Board.”
The Senate Democrats’ statement also said the Personnel Board’s directors are all appointees of Barbour. If the rules to dismiss an employee are too restrictive, the appointees have broad authority to change the guidelines or ask the Legislature to make any changes in law needed to make the process easier to dismiss nonproductive employees.
Bryant said he and others would ensure that a political patronage system does not return when and if civil service protection is removed. He said people who believe they were released unjustly can pursue federal legal remedies.
While Mississippi would be out of the current mainstream, other states are looking to take similar action to remove civil service protection. According to news reports, Arizona is considering such a proposal.
News reports also cited Indiana as a state that removed civil service protection, but the same reports said that an appeals process was retained to make sure people are not terminated without reason.