Kansas Civil Service Overhaul Passes Committee

By John Celock

A Kansas Senate committee has advanced legislation that would overhaul the state’s civil service system to allow for positions to move from classified to unclassified.

The Senate Commerce Committee voted along party lines Tuesday morning to advance the legislation, which is a priority for Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) administration. The bill, which is opposed by organized labor, would allow for state employees to voluntarily move from classified to unclassified positions, along with making it easier for the state to move vacant classified positions to unclassified titles. Opponents have said that the bill is a way to return Kansas to political patronage and could place federal grants in jeopardy. The bill is part of a larger overhaul of the state’s human resources policy that was announced by the state Department of Administration earlier this year.

“We’re very pleased with the action of the committee this morning,” state Administration Department pubic affairs director John Milburn told The Celock Report. “We are pleased that they recognize the importance of this bill.”

Both Democrats on the Commerce Committee voted against the bill, while Sen. Molly Baumgardner (R-Louisburg) was the only Republican to pass on her vote. During the hearing and discussion Tuesday morning Democrats raised questions over whether the policy changes could jeopardize federal grants for the state that require a civil service system. Sen. Tom Holland (D-Baldwin City) cited a letter lawmakers received from the U.S. Department of Labor on Monday questioning if changes proposed to merit system employment in the Kansas Department of Labor in an unemployment bill could relate to the civil service bill.

Holland’s questions are in line with questions raised by union leaders. Last week, Rebecca Proctor, the executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the told The Celock Report that she questioned whether the civil service bill could hurt federal grants. Among the grants she cited were unemployment, Medicaid and funding for the Department of Children and Families.

Milburn said last week that the Administration Department has developed the policy in a way that would not jeopardize federal funding. He noted that the bill would not be mandatory and decisions would be made on an agency-to-agency basis and on each position.

Union leaders and bill opponents have also questioned whether the bill would be completely voluntary or if the state could develop a process that could force a state employee to choose between losing their job or becoming an unclassified employee in a reorganization. Milburn has stressed that the plan is completely voluntary and state employees would not be forced to give up classified status.

The Senate Commerce Committee did not make any changes to the bill, which was amended in the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee. The House panel removed two provisions proposed by the Administration Department to change the state’s longevity pay program and redefine the terms for when the state’s shared leave program could be used.

The bill will now move to the full Senate for consideration. Milburn said the Administration Department is pleased with Tuesday’s action.

“This is an indication for leadership support for this measure and the direction we’re looking to take the state workforce,” he said.