OUR OPINION: Hesitation warranted on personnel bill

By NEMS Daily Journal

There are times to bemoan inaction by the Legislature, and other times to commend it. Here’s one of the latter. The House apparently will not go along with the Senate-passed bill taking away civil service protection from state employees. In this case, inaction is wise and prudent.
Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves want to at least temporarily eliminate that protection – provided by the state Personnel Board – to make it easier for agency heads to “right-size” their staffs by laying off employees without having to go through the normal process. The Senate passed a bill that would remove the protection for two years.
House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson of Poplarville, part of that chamber’s Republican leadership, isn’t behind that approach and proposes only minor changes to direct agency heads to emphasize job performance over seniority when considering layoffs.
Clearly the House leadership is uncomfortable with the idea of removing the Personnel Board protection for the 29,000 employees covered out of a total state payroll of about 36,000. They’re aware that it could be interpreted as a political power grab that runs counter to the concept of a professional, rather than political, state work force.
We take the governor and lieutenant governor at their word that this isn’t about politicizing employment in state government, which is why civil service protections for government employees came about in the first place. But there’s simply too much risk for mischief involved in such a change, and the evidence strongly suggests it’s not needed.
Senate opponents of the bill noted that since 2010, the state Personnel Board – dominated by appointees of former Gov. Haley Barbour – had approved every request for job reductions that had come before it, totaling over 500 employees, and had responded to each request within 12 days.
It’s a step that must be negotiated, but those figures don’t indicate any massive bureaucratic delays or roadblocks to agencies needing to reduce personnel for financial reasons.
Were the protections to be removed in Mississippi, we’d be among only five states out of 50 not to provide civil service protection for state employees. This is not about shielding incompetent employees, but about protecting the job security of high performers and cultivating a career public service track not threatened by changing political winds.
While the Democratic-controlled House blocked Barbour’s past attempts to remove Personnel Board oversight of employment decisions, the new Republican majority is far from uniform in its views on the issue. The discomfort some are feeling is valid. Why change the system when there’s no compelling evidence that it’s a hindrance to legitimate work force reduction?