Union leader fears job losses under Barbour budget

Published 1:38 am Friday, November 27, 2009

Union leader Brenda Scott worries some current state workers will be shoved into the unemployment line if Mississippi legislators adopt Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposed budget.

Barbour, a Republican, said this month that he wants to give state program directors a chance to “right size” their agencies as Mississippi struggles with declining revenues amid a weak economy. He acknowledged that could mean eliminating some jobs.

The governor wants to lift state Personnel Board rules for two years, starting July 1. The rules provide job protection for tens of thousands of state workers by setting up procedures for hiring and firing, including an appeals process for employees who lose their jobs.

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Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, said if state government jobs are cut, some residents who rely on Medicaid, mental health care or other services might not get help when they need it.

“If there is a need for a reduction in work force, what is wrong with the policy that’s in place?” Scott said this week.

Barbour released his budget proposals this month and proposed several measures he said would save money as the state faces one of its toughest budget years in more than a decade. He proposes merging the eight universities into five, consolidating some school districts and merging some smaller state agencies into larger ones.

“When you look at living within your means, there are only so many ways to do it,” Barbour said.

The 14-member Joint Legislative Budget committee will release its own ideas next month. All 122 House members and 52 senators will get to vote on a final spending plan in early 2010, and it’s unclear how many of Barbour’s ideas will survive.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said he opposes lifting the Personnel Board protections for state employees, even temporarily.

“I’m not saying there might not be some layoffs because of the budget shortages. But it’s going to be nothing like what the governor is talking about doing,” Stringer said.

But the chairman of the Senate Fees, Salaries and Administration Committee said he’s willing to do what Barbour wants.

“The private sector is laying off people every day,” Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, said Wednesday. “Just because you work for government does not mean you’re immune from it.”

Scott said that’s an imperfect comparison.

“In the private sector, they are profit-driven. In the public sector we are service-driven,” she said.

In 2004, during Barbour’s first year as governor, legislators approved his plan to temporarily lift the Personnel Board protections from employees at the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

MDOC records show 154 employees were laid off and 413 staff positions were closed after workers retired or resigned. For the fiscal year that ran from July 1, 2004, through June 30, 2005, MDOC had 4,061 authorized positions. For the current fiscal year, it has 3,011.

Mississippi government had 92,499 employees for the year that ended this past June 30. That covers state agencies, universities, community colleges and schools.

The state employees union has about 3,000 members, Scott said. The state Personnel Board rules cover most agencies’ employees, regardless of whether they’re union members.