Like many aspects of state government, the classified employment system evolved in response to a need.
In this case it was a need to protect state employees from capricious political decisions and paybacks and to help provide the state a stable, professional workforce that wouldn’t experience major turnover every time a new governor took office.
It’s a system that has worked in the state for many years, but it now is under attack. Informally, the shift away from classified state jobs already has begun. In a number of cases, jobs or departments have been abolished to eliminate classified positions and replace them with unclassified jobs. The Kansas Department of Administration reported that one-fourth of state employees hired since July 2012 were unclassified and not part of the civil service system.
Legislation that was discussed last week in the House Appropriations Committee would formalize the state’s move away from a classified employment system. The bill would make all state attorneys, supervisors and information technology workers unclassified. After July 1, all new hires and all current state employees who move into different jobs would be unclassified. The legislation would lead to a complete phase-out of the system that currently protects classified state employees from being hired, fired, promoted or demoted based on “nonmerit” factors, including political affiliation.
Representatives of state workers told the committee that such a move would result in hiring and retention of workers being based more on politics than on merit. They also said it could make it harder to keep experienced employees in key positions, which could hurt continuity in state agencies. Interestingly, no one appeared before the committee to support the legislation. However, the committee’s chairman, Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said he had proposed the bill, which is patterned after one adopted in Arizona, because the state needed to start phasing out its classified system. His justification is that making all jobs unclassified would make it easier to reward high-performing employees. That’s probably true, but it also makes it easier to punish employees for political stands or other personal factors not related to their job performance or to get rid of experienced employees to make room for political cronies.
Some committee members also pointed out that Kansas University got rid of its classified employee system in 2005, but that situation was very different. First, the chancellor at KU isn’t elected in a partisan election every four years, as is the Kansas governor, and has no political debts to repay. KU also eliminated its civil service system based on a favorable vote of classified employees and established a civil-service type board to handle appeals of job dismissals or disciplinary actions.
There probably are weaknesses to the state’s civil service system, but abolishing it would clear the way for politically motivated hirings and probably lead to a less knowledgeable, less experienced state workforce. That’s not a step in the right direction.