Thursday, March 22, 2012

State Senators speak out against return of spoils system to Mississippi

From a Mississippi Democratic Trust press release this afternoon:

On March 15, the State Senate passed a bill to return Mississippi to the “spoils system,” where political officeholders can give government jobs to friends as political favors and to entrench themselves in power.  These taxpayer jobs are handed out based on WHO a person knows, not WHAT he or she knows.  As Democratic members of the Senate, we oppose this proposal and want to tell you why.

Mississippi fought battles against the spoils system thirty years ago.  The State Supreme Court ruled that the state had no justifiable system to guard against discrimination claims and salary abuses.  Following scandals under Gov. Cliff Finch, the Legislature created the State Personnel Board to ensure that “state service” government jobs were based on merit and objective criteria.  Among its other duties, the Board does three things: sets basic qualifications for certain jobs, sets consistent salary ranges to prevent favoritism, and ensures that a person cannot be hired or fired for political reasons (such as involvement in political campaigns).

Senate Bill No. 2380 removes all state employees from policies set by the Personnel Board.  This bill is bad policy and ought to be rejected.  Mississippi and 47 other states have basic civil service protections to keep politics out of who is hired and fired in state government.  This bill would allow an agency head to fire an employee for no reason and to hire cronies without any competitive process.

Today, there are approximately 36,500 state jobs (both filled and vacant) from mental health workers to game wardens to accountants.  About 28,500 are state service positions and 8,000 are non-state service positions.  Non-state service positions (sometimes called “will and pleasure” jobs) are filled by appointment when new leaders are elected or appointed.  They are not subject to most Personnel Board rules.  For example, a new Governor gets to name his staff and leaders at many state agencies.  This is appropriate so that people elected to office can implement their agenda.  State service employees, usually at the lower end of the pay scale, provide continuity under different administrations.

In this way, government is fundamentally different from business: we have regular elections and need to retain qualified professional staff.  We shouldn’t throw everyone out every four years.

This practice is basic to modern government.  The bipartisan Mississippi legislative PEER committee wrote in 2008:  “All executive branch employees, except agency directors and employees who work under the direct confidential control of agency directors, should be subject to the authority of the State Personnel Board.”

The Personnel Board is composed of five members appointed by the Governor.  Today, all five members of the board were appointed by former Gov. Haley Barbour.  They set the rules.  According to PEER, the Board and former Executive Director Lynn Fitch (now State Treasurer) have “implemented changes … to make the agency less bureaucratic and more service-oriented.”  If there the current rules are cumbersome “red tape” then Gov. Barbour’s appointees ought to change them.

Since 2010, the Personnel Board has worked with agency heads to cut almost 600 positions.  The average time it took to approve these cuts?  Twelve days.  This is proof that current Personnel Board policies can work efficiently to reduce the size of government when needed.

One of the primary reasons for establishing the Personnel Board was get control of salaries. Without oversight, we will see outrageous salaries handed out to political friends and campaign workers.  In addition, basic qualification standards (such as academic credentials, experience) to hold any job can be easily circumvented.

Forty-eight states have basic civil protections for a reason.  Mississippi does not need to return to the days of political cronyism to fill the public payroll.  We ought to protect and improve the Personnel Board, not abolish it.


Senator Bill Stone – District 2
Senator Hob Bryan – District 7
Senator Russell Jolly – District 8
Senator Steve Hale – District 10
Senator Robert Jackson – District 11
Senator Derrick Simmons – District 12
Senator Bennie Turner – District 16
Senator Kenny Wayne Jones – District 21
Senator David Jordan – District 24
Senator John Horhn – District 26
Senator Hillman Frazier – District 27
Senator David Blount – District 29
Senator Sampson Jackson – District 32
Senator Albert Butler – District 36
Senator Kelvin Butler – District 38
Senator Deborah Dawkins – District 48

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