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Governor, legislative leaders look to limit civil service protection

BRYANT

PHIL BRYANT

By BOBBY HARRISON

Both legislative leaders and Gov. Phil Bryant are proposing to limit Mississippi’s civil service protection, which has been a hallmark of most state governments for more than a century.

The civil service system was established to prevent elected political leaders from firing and replacing government employees with their supporters. In Mississippi, the civil service protection is granted through the Personnel Board.

In the budget recommendation for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1, the Legislative Budget Committee is recommending “removing state employees from Personnel Board regulations.”

Last week when the budget proposal was released, both House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who head the 14-member Budget Committee, said removing the civil service protection would make for a more efficient and less costly state government.

Gunn said numerous agency heads told legislators during summer hearings that removing them from state Personnel Board regulations would help them be more efficient.

With removal of Personnel Board regulations, “they are providing better services at lower costs. That is a good thing,” Gunn said.

In its budget recommendation, the Budget Committee estimates savings of $13 million by removing agencies from Personnel Board regulations.

With revenue collections remaining sluggish for almost a year, legislators and Bryant have been grappling with ways to save money. Numerous agencies already have made significant cuts, including the departments of Health and Mental Health. Department of Public Safety officials are concerned about the lower-than-normal level of troopers available to patrol state highways.

In its recommendation, the Budget Committee proposes deleting from state government 1,999 vacant positions. But it is not clear how removing Personnel Board protections would save $13 million unless additional layoffs of active state employees are made.

In his budget recommendation, Bryant said, “This budget recommends all agencies receive exemptions from the Mississippi State Personnel Board for the next 12 months. Safeguards should be put into place to ensure that Personnel Board flexibility is properly focused on right-sizing, not raises. “

The Bryant budget recommendation does not provide a figure of how much he believes such action would save.

But with both the legislative leaders and the Republican governor proposing to exempt agencies from Personnel Board regulations, no doubt, the issue will be taken up during the 2017 legislative session beginning in January.

When asked about just eliminating the Personnel Board, Gunn and Reeves said that would be a premature move.

Some agencies in the past already have been removed from Personnel Board oversight for a period of time – including the Department of Corrections. Last year the Legislature voted to remove the Department of Education from the Personnel Board, but Bryant vetoed the bill saying the agency was trying to give raises, not make cuts and become more efficient.

In most instances, the minority Democrats in the Legislature have opposed removing the civil service protection.

Sen Hob Bryan, D-Amory, has argued that the Personnel Board is governed by members appointed by Republican governors. If there are regulations in place preventing agency directors from making needed changes to be more efficient, the Republican members of the Personnel Board could change their regulations or come to the Republican-controlled Legislature to get the needed changes in state law made.

But Bryant said there is no need to completely remove Personnel Board oversight and protection.

To give raises and to fire employees were the reasons agency directors want to be exempt from Personnel Board regulations, Personnel Board Executive Director Deanne Mosley told legislators during the 2016 session.

But Mosley said her agency can and has acted quickly to accommodate agencies trying to reorganize to save money.

Earlier this year, Brittany Martin, the Personnel Board’s communications director, said, “For an agency that requests an expedited reduction-in-force, it is acted upon by our Board within 10 days, and following the established reduction-in-force procedures can aid in the prevention of lawsuits and at a minimum can result in significant cost savings for the state if a lawsuit is brought by an affected employee.”

The bulk of Mississippi’s about 30,000 state employees are under the auspices of the Personnel Board, but not all. There are employees who work at the will and pleasure of the governor of at least at the will and pleasure of the agency director. In Mississippi, many agency directors are appointed by the governor, but some are appointed by the agency’s governing board.

The effort to remove civil service protections has been undertaken in several states – mostly those under Republican control. They say the change is needed to allow government to be run more like a business. Others say the civil service protection is needed to prevent rampant political patronage.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com

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