By John Celock
Legislation that would allow classified state government posts to become unclassified is on its way to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) for his expected signature.
The Republican-controlled state Senate voted 24-16 Tuesday to approve a bill that would overhaul the state’s civil service system and make it easier for classified jobs to be converted into unclassified ones. Republicans have championed the bill, saying it would provide more flexibility to state government and move the state more in line with the private sector, while Democrats have opposed the bill, saying it could lead to the return of a political patronage heavy state government.
“It would move the state of Kansas more in line with the private sector practice,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Julia Lynn (R-Olathe) said during the debate. “It will provide more flexibility to state agencies to better satisfy their missions and be better stewards of taxpayers’ money.”
Under the terms of the bill, state agencies would be able to convert classified positions to unclassified if the position is vacant. The state Department of Administration, which has pushed the legislation, has said that state employees would have to voluntarily agree to move from a classified post to an unclassified post. The Administration Department and legislative supporters have said that the bill would allow for jobs to be posted with greater flexibility in hiring, along with allowing for state employees to grow in their careers. Opponents, including the Kansas Organization of State Employees, have said that the bill will establish political patronage in the state and would not be voluntary. They have said that the new practice could force employees to choose between a classified job or a promotion to an unclassified position.
The bill was passed by the state House of Representatives in March.
During the Senate debate Tuesday, opponents expressed concern that the bill could jeopardize federal funds to the state. They said that federal rules mandating a merit system for state employees would not be in line with the provisions contained in the bill. Similar arguments were made during a Senate debate last week on a bill changing the state’s unemployment insurance system, which contains provisions that would change staffers in the unemployment division from classified to unclassified. During the unemployment debates, opponents of the change cited an opinion from the U.S. Department of Labor that said the federal funds for unemployment could be in jeopardy. The unemployment bill passed.
Sen. Pat Pettey (D-Kansas City) unsuccessfully offered an amendment that would have prohibited the legislation from impacting positions involved with administering federal funds, unless the agency develops a plan addressing the merit system and receives an advisory opinion from the federal government approving of the plan. She noted that $160 million in federal funds were on the line in 2015.
“This would allow those agencies to submit their plans to the federal department where they receive their funds,” Pettey said. “It is important as we look at our financial situation presently that we look for ways to protect our citizens.”
Lynn objected to Pettey’s amendment, saying that it would place the state under the control of the federal government. She also argued that the federal government looked to the governor to determine if a state had a merit system in place to conform to federal law.
“Let’s look at what this amendment does. It strips states rights from our destiny,” Lynn said. “It strips our sovereignty and gives it to the administration in Washington and it handcuffs us greatly. I would implore the body to vote against this amendment. It makes us subject to the federal government and they will be running our agencies if we allow this amendment to go on.”
Pettey said that her amendment would not allow the federal government to run the state. She noted the state already partners with the federal government.
Sen. Tom Holland (D-Baldwin City) noted that Pettey’s amendment was designed to protect the state.
“What Senator Pettey’s amendment does is she is trying to protect those millions and millions of dollars we get to administer those programs,” he said.
The Pettey amendment failed 10-29.
Pettey’s amendment was one in a series of unsuccessful amendments offered by Democrats. Sen. Tom Hawk (D-Manhattan) offered an amendment which would have allowed state employees to vote whether or not to allow positions to become unclassified in their agencies. The proposal is similar to a policy in effect at universities in the state under the Kansas Board of Regents.
Hawk, who also proposed allowing for due process rights to be established for unclassified employees under the bill, said that the amendment would allow employees to have a say in their agencies. He also noted that the due process rights would allow for protections for employees who were believed they were terminated unfairly.
“Why is due process protection important. It is important is if someone believes they have been unfairly terminated they have the opportunity to appeal that termination,” Hawk said. “A key principle that is fundamental to a democracy is due process.”
Hawk’s amendment failed 16-22. Lynn said that she believed the bill was more “democratic” in nature than Hawk’s amendment.
“Having a democratic vote by employees in an agency while it sounds like it would be a good thing, this bill itself is more democratic than that,” she said. “These employees can stay in classified service or exercise their personal freedom and move to an unclassified position without being a subjected to a vote of their fellow employees. This is personal freedom. We are opening this up.”
An amendment offered by Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau (D-Wichita) to establish an equal pay study in state government was one of the failed amendments. Faust-Goudeau faced questioning from Sen. Steve Fitzgerald (R-Leavenworth) who wanted to know how many genders Faust-Goudeau believed existed. Lynn expressed concern over the potential cost of reviewing state employee records and determining the data, while other opponents said that the issue has never been raised to the Senate Commerce Committee.
Faust-Goudeau said that while the issue has not come up in a legislative committee, she has talked to constituents who have said that they have seen women being paid less than men. She noted that at one restaurant in her district, female employees were being paid less than men. Faust-Goudeau noted that those who are being paid less often do not have the time to travel to Topeka to testify in front of the Legislature.
Sen. Marci Francisco (D-Lawrence) unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to restore sexual orientation to the list of protected classes under the state’s nondiscrimination code for state employees. The amendment was ruled not germane by the Senate Rules Committee.
A Department of Administration spokesman said the agency was pleased with the Senate giving preliminary passage Tuesday, saying it will help state government better service Kansans.
“We’re very pleased wit the outcome of the bill,” Administration Departmnet public affairs director John Milburn told The Celock Report. “We think this will give us the flexibility for the more efficient use of our human resources for our taxpayers.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley (D-Topeka) reiterated a history of the state’s civil service system, which he gave last week before the unemployment insurance vote. He noted that his Topeka district contains many state employees and he wanted to protect them from political considerations.
“This is bad public policy. This is a retreat from the protections that civil servants deserve,” Hensley said. “We are going in a backwards motion, we are removing those protections. We are telling them you are hired or fired on an at will basis and that is wrong.”