That was evident on Tuesday’s deadline when a handful of Republicans joined with Democrats to kill legislation that would have removed civil service protection for state employees. Tuesday was the deadline for that bill and dozens of others to be passed out of committee in the chamber where the proposal did not originate.
For years, taking away Personnel Board protection, which is the equivalent of civil service protection in Mississippi, was viewed as part of the Holy Grail of the state Republicans agenda.
Surely, it appeared the perfect storm had arisen to achieve that goal. During the 2015 elections, Republicans were excited about garnering the three-fifths super majority in both chambers, though, they had to disenfranchise a handful of voters, based on rulings of the Secretary of State and Attorney General, in a Piney Woods House district to obtain that super majority.
The fact that the state budget is in chaos because of pitiful revenue collections would give the leadership the ammunition to go to its super majority and say civil service protection should be removed to give agency heads more flexibility in dealing with reductions in state funds.
Civil service protection, or the Personnel Board, of course, provides governmental employees protection from being fired for political reasons.
About 30,000 Mississippi state workers have civil service protection. The legislation that was killed Tuesday would have exempted some, such as sworn law enforcement officers and Department of Mental Health workers, from the removal.
But the legislation would have affected state employees in every part of the state, such as those working in the Department of Transportation, for Wildlife, Parks and Fisheries and for the Division of Medicaid.
The Republican leadership says the Personnel Board regulations make it too difficult for agency heads to fire employees and to make changes to save money.
That argument should not be discounted. Agency directors, many non-partisan, have made the same claim. A question, though, is whether the regulations are too burdensome of whether the agency heads do not want to do the due diligence needed to build their case for their proposed changes.
The Personnel Board cites numerous examples where it acted quickly to approve the dismissal of employees to deal with budget shortfalls.
But if the Personnel Board process is too burdensome to deal with issues like firing bad employees or being able to right-size to deal with budget issues, it seems there are alternatives other than just completely eliminating civil service protection.
After all, civil service protection is one of those bedrock issues that used to be non-partisan – supported by both Democrats and Republicans. It is a fundamental principle going back decades in America that a new president, a new governor, any new governor and new president, should not be able to just clean house and replace employees with solely his or her supporters.
There are a certain number of appointees, such as agency heads, who work at “the will and pleasure” of the political officeholder, but the bulk of the employees who perform the core functions of fixing the roads, taking care of the needy, providing law enforcement, looking after the environment, work for the government – the people if you will – and face no repercussions from the political leadership if they are doing their job.
But if there are problems with the Personnel Board, all of its members are appointed by former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and current Gov. Phil Bryant, who both have complained about the Personnel Board. It seems they could make a phone call to those members and ask them to ease up on the regulations while still protecting the basic principles of civil service protection.
Or if a change in state law is needed to ease some of the guidelines of the Personnel Bard while preserving the protections of the Personnel Board, hey, Republicans do have that legislative super majority.
They are supposed to be able to pass just about any bill they want.
» Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol correspondent. Readers can contact him at (601) 946-9939.
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