Legislators push back against Gov. Brownback’s personnel changes

Bipartisan skepticism surfaced Tuesday among legislators on a regulatory advisory committee studying the Kansas Department of Administration’s plan for altering policy on employee layoffs and rehiring, annual performance ratings, and donation of unused sick leave.

The administration of Gov. Sam Brownback hasn’t recently raised the prospect of broad job cuts in response to tax revenue shortfalls, but one official said the policy overhaul was justified by the necessity to more closely align government with terms and conditions typical of the private sector.

“I have not been informed of any pending mass layoffs,” said Kraig Knowlton, director of personnel services in the Department of Administration. “I understand people’s concerns.”

A handful of Democrats and the Republican chairwoman of the legislative oversight panel said the proposed regulations were too vague, could be manipulated to weaken standing of the most experienced staff and might be exploited to deepen political patronage. Legislators on the committee were unhappy the Department of Administration hadn’t reached out to state workers or employee unions for input on policy reform.

“There are some very legitimate concerns that have been raised,” said Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican who chairs the committee. “It’s disappointing that the Department of Administration did not seek input from any of the employees or employee organizations regarding these drastic changes.”

The legislative committee serves in an advisory role and can’t block changes put forward by the Brownback administration. The public will be able to offer comment at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Landon State Office Building next to the Capitol.

The Department of Administration holds authority to implement the procedural changes without regard to criticism delivered by legislators or expressed at the upcoming public hearing. Proposals were vetted by the office of Attorney General Derek Schmidt for compliance with state law.

In 2015, the Legislature and Brownback agreed to expand the number of state workers hired as at-will unclassified employees without civil-service protections afforded to classified staff. The new personnel reforms apply directly to classified workers.

The Brownback administration would amend the method of computing layoff scores for each worker to place less emphasis on a person’s length of government service. The governor’s appointees would be given power to exempt employees with special skills from layoffs regardless of a worker’s layoff score.

The proposals would limit appeal of annual employee performance rankings to the lowest two marks of “needs improvement” and “unsatisfactory.” The “exceptional” rank isn’t subject to appeal because it is the top score. In the future, state government employees would no longer be able to challenge “exceeds expectations” or “meets expectations” evaluations.

At the same time, the administration would make these individual assessments more integral to determining who was hit by layoffs. Regulations would be amended to override rules entitling laid-off state employees priority when rehiring occurs within state government.

The Department of Administration also seeks to cap a retiring employee’s donation of unused sick leave at 80 hours. Currently, this sick leave time is provided to individuals confronting a life-threatening illness who don’t have paid time off.

Administrative leave, which is rarely used under existing state policy, would be modified to allow supervisors to give their workers paid time off as a reward.

Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat and member of the oversight committee, said a letter ought to be sent by the panel to the Department of Administration suggesting implementation be delayed until conclusion of the 2017 legislative session.

He withdrew that request because of concern among some Republicans that the committee didn’t have standing to make such a formal request.

The idea of postponing official action on personnel reform didn’t appeal to Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a conservative Republican from Grinnell who didn’t seek re-election in 2016. He noted strong voter hostility toward House and Senate GOP candidates aligned with Brownback and accused members of the committee of trying to drag down the personnel policy overhaul until a new Legislature could be installed.

“We’ve got a governor who is under fire,” Ostmeyer said. “I’m going to stand up for him.”

Ostmeyer said he was offended by comments from Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, in opposition to the administration’s personnel policy changes. KOSE serves more than 8,000 state workers.

“Who gives the other side?” Ostmeyer said. “Not everybody is a union person.”

Proctor outlined for the committee objections to each of the personnel reforms. She alleged employment decisions within the Brownback administration reflected political connection rather than professional acumen.

“We believe hiring decisions should actually be made on merit and not on who knows who or who is politically connected,” she said. “We see a lot of favoritism, unfortunately, in the agencies today. We hear from rank-and-file employees that people being brought in as their supervisors are people who do not have actual experience in the field in which that agency practices. That’s very concerning.”

She said the proposed reforms would have nominal economic benefit for the state if layoffs didn’t occur and would be viewed negatively by most state employees.

“They are understaffed. They are underpaid. This would be another slap in the face,” Proctor said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, told committee members there was irony that Brownback was attempting to dismantle a Kansas civil service system established in the 1970s by Republican Gov. Bob Bennett in response to widespread political cronyism embraced by Democratic Gov. Robert Docking.

“I believe these changes come at a time when employee morale in many state agencies is at an all-time low. I would say they add insult to injury,” he said.

This story is originally published by the Topeka Capital-Journal. Click here to view it.