Miss. Senate OKs stripping most state workers of job protection

Published 8:23 pm Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Gov. Haley Barbour describes a bill that passed in the Mississippi Senate on Tuesday as a way to make government more efficient, but critics say the proposal does nothing more than clear the path for unfair firings and unnecessary pay raises.

The bill would exempt most state agencies from the oversight of the state Personnel Board, which sets job protection policies for many state employees.

The agencies would not have to adhere to the policies for one year. During that time, agency heads would have free will to hire and fire state workers.

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The bill passed 28-22. Most Republicans vote for the bill and most Democrats voted against it. The bill could come up for more Senate debate before moving to the House.

Among the agencies affected by the bill are the Department of Public Safety, the Division of Medicaid, the Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks and the Department of Education. Mississippi has about 32,000 state employees.

Barbour held a news conference Tuesday before the Senate debated the bill, urging lawmakers to pass it. Barbour said under the current system, an agency head might need months to fire an unproductive employee.

Barbour, a Republican, said sluggish state revenues are forcing officials to find ways to make government operate more efficiently.

“There’s no business in America that could make a profit if it had to operate under the rules that Mississippi agencies have,” Barbour said.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, said the purpose of the bill isn’t to target “certain types of people” or fire someone so that another person can replace that employee.

Bryant said once a person is fired, the position is eliminated.

The Senate debated the bill for more than two hours as critics said it would give agency leaders who have personality conflicts with some employees a means to fire them, even if they perform their job well.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the policy would create a “spoils system.”

“There is a great opportunity for pay raises and promotions. You don’t have to go through the personnel board to justify it,” Bryan said.

Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, argued that the job protection provided by the Personnel Board was a trade-off in many cases. State employees aren’t paid as much money as the private sector, but the “system provides stability.”

Tollison said there’s already a procedure in place that allows agency heads to streamline, if necessary, and it appears to they’re using it. In 2006, the state has 37,974 authorized job positions, but the average number of employees was 31,605.

“I feel like it’s a solution looking for a problem,” Tollison said. “This is going to be the lawyer employment act.”

Under the bill, an agency head must consult with Attorney General Jim Hood before dismissing an employee. Some senators warned that the policy would lead to a slew of lawsuits against the state for unfair firings.

Senate Fees and Salaries Chairman Terry Brown, R-Columbus, said the bill will save taxpayer dollars because it would allow agencies to deliver services more effectively.

“We’re not an employment agency,” Brown said. “We need a lean, mean machine working for the people.”

Brown repeatedly referenced the Department of Corrections, which was removed from the oversight of the Personnel Board in 2004. Barbour and others have said the agency saved $14 million because of the change.

However, Senate Corrections Chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, presented a graphic to lawmakers that showed that from fiscal year 2005 to 2006 the agency’s salary budget only dropped from $117 million to $112 million. The overall budget grew from $266 million to $284 million.

Simmons also told lawmakers about a pregnant MDOC employee who used to work at a prison gate. She was fired when the agency was exempt from job protection statutes.

“She was pregnant and had lost her job and had no insurance,” Simmons said.

The bill is Senate Bill 2680.