By John Celock
Following a debate that included whether or not to include provisions for returning nondiscrimination for employee sexual orientation, the Kansas House of Representatives gave preliminary approval to a plan to overhaul the state’s civil service system.
The House voted 71-53 Tuesday to advance legislation that would allow the state to reclassify classified open civil service positions as unclassified and allow voluntary transfers from classified to unclassified. The passage came after a debate that included unsuccessful Democratic amendment to overturn Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) repeal of sexual orientation as a non-discrimination clause for state employees. Supporters have argued that the bill will allow greater management discretion in hiring and tailoring jobs for particular skill sets, while opponents said the changes will politicize state employees. A final vote on the bill is slated for Wednesday.
“This bill is voluntary in the movement of classified to unclassified. If an employee is new to the state and the job they are taking is classified they will have a classified position,” Rep. Erin Davis (R-Olathe), who was carrying the bill on the House floor, said. “It is up to each individual agency if they want to move open positions from classified to unclassified. It is not incumbent on them to move it. This is a completely voluntary program”
The civil service changes are part of a series of changes to the state’s human resources policy outlined by the state Department of Administration last month. The bill will allow for the state to reclassify the classified positions as unclassified if they are open and will also allow for a classified worker to voluntarily move to an unclassified post. Under the terms of a bill a classified state worker who had already left government can be rehired in an unclassified post. The House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee removed provisions that would require that the state’s longevity bonus plan be funded by legislative appropriation and changes to the definitions for the state’s shared leave program.
Democrats said the changes would politicize the state workforce.
“The current merit based system for state employees provides a stable quality workforce,” Rep. Pam Curtis (D-Kansas City) said. “Moving to a non-merit based system puts state employees at risk and moves to a system where they would be subjected to political whims.”
Rep. John Carmichael (D-Wichita) tried to move the bill into a debate on Brownback’s repeal of including sexual orientation on the protected classes of state workers. Brownback signed the executive order in February, repealing a 2007 executive order from former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), adding sexual orientation to the list. At the time, Brownback said the issue was a matter for the Legislature to decide.
The House Rules Committee ruled Carmichael’s amendment not germane to the bill. Rules Committee Chairman John Barker (R-Abilene) told the House that the committee determined that since the bill dealt with classified and unclassified workers and not discrimination issues, Carmichael’s amendment was not germane. Barker said that Rules Committee Vice Chairman Tom Sawyer (D-Wichita) was in agreement on the not germane ruling.
Carmichael appealed the Rules Committee decision to the full House, prompting a debate where Democrats sought to paint the vote as one to allow a vote on LGBT non-discrimination, while Republicans tailored the vote as one, which related purely to procedural issues. The House voted 81-42 to sustain the Rules Committee decision.
During debate on the full bill, opponents painted it as an attack on state employees.
“They will be a throw away employee. They will have no right of appeal,” Assistant House Minority Leader Louis Ruiz (D-Kansas City) said of what will happen with the changes. “What we are doing to these state employees is heinous and needs to be reevaluated.”
Other lawmakers said that the program would not be voluntary. Carmichael said that if a classified employee wanted a promotion to an unclassified position, he did not see it as voluntary to give up civil service protections for the promotion. Rep. Annie Tietze (D-Topeka) said that she did not see it as voluntary since new hires would not have a say on whether or not the job they sought was classified or unclassified.
Davis stressed on several occasions that the program was voluntary in nature and a classified employee would not be forced to take an unclassified job. She also cited a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that maintains that a classified employee cannot be forced into an unclassified job, which she said would continue to apply under the bill.
Several Democrats argued that the bill should be defeated citing the longevity bonus and shared leave provisions that were no longer in the bill. Both were stripped out of the bill during Commerce Committee meetings last week and will remain the same. Republicans stressed the committee changes and noted that the state Board of Regents has had the unclassified program in place.
“For the third time longevity bonuses are not touched in this bill,” Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee Chairman Mark Hutton (R-Wichita) told the House. “Don’t get caught up in that. Longevity bonuses have been paid and will be paid out of the agency budgets. We are not touching that or their shared leave. The Board of Regents has been unclassified for years and the sky has not fallen.”
Democrats argued that the Legislature is hurting the longetivity bonus program by making budget cuts to state agencies. During the debate, lawmakers also rejected an amendment from Rep. John Alcala (D-Topeka) that would have given state employees an additional paid floating holiday a year.
Alcala had said that the bill would allow for lawmakers to show appreciation to state employees. Davis questioned Alcala on state employee paid leave policies, with Alcala admitting he was unsure of how much vacation time was given to employees. Davis noted that state employees receive 3.7 hours of vacation per paid period without a cap, along with one floating holiday and other paid days off. She noted that the governor was allowed to provide other floating holidays at his discretion. Hutton argued against Alcala’s argument that the bill would not have a fiscal impact, saying that it would impact the state pension system long term.
House Democratic Agenda Chairman Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) said that he believes there is no fiscal impact and said that with less state workers, the existing workers are taking on more work and need an extra day off.
“Knowing that giving people an extra day off because they are doing one and a half times more work in one day,” Whipple said. “There might be a fiscal note in theory but according to the revisor there is no fiscal note.”
Hutton stressed to the House that the bill would benefit the state long term and was not an attack on state workers.
“This is a tool that agencies can use to develop jobs to allow an employee to increase earnings,” Hutton said. “It frees them up to tailor jobs to the skill sets of employees. It is not mean spirited and it’s not union busting.”