Gov. Steve Beshear is asking the Kentucky Personnel Board to exempt 81 political appointees from a new budget-cutting law that would abolish their jobs Dec. 31.
The appointees are midlevel officials across state government. Beshear did not submit their names to the board, just job titles and agencies. They include "policy advisers," who start with a $75,729 salary on average under Beshear, and "special assistants," who on average start at $61,980.
The request rankles a group representing rank-and-file state workers.
"Many of these jobs don't actually do anything that serves the public," said Melissa Jan Williamson, vice president of the Kentucky Association of State Employees. "Most of the public service is performed by the merit workers, who are paid less and who are being furloughed."
Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said the administration remains committed to reducing the cost of non-merit, or appointed, positions by $5 million by the end of the fiscal year on June 30. But all of the 81 jobs in question are necessary, Richardson said.
"While some of these non-merit positions are called 'assistants,' they include deputy commissioners, deputy directors, general counsels, policy advisers and the chief public health nurse — positions that remain essential to the service of the agency or cabinet," Richardson said.
As to the furloughs, all state employees face six days without pay, including the governor and his appointees, Richardson said.
The Personnel Board heard Beshear's request in November but postponed action until it meets again Dec. 10. The board wants information about the appointees' duties and their necessity, said Chairman Cecil Dunn.
"We were told these are all, quote, kind of policy-making positions; they help decide policy," Dunn said. "I'm not sure I understand what that means. That's one of the things we're going to have to find out."
Beshear and other governors traditionally put hundreds of political appointees on the state payroll, often drawing from the ranks of campaign supporters, party activists, friends and family. Appointees serve at the governor's pleasure, unlike merit workers, and usually leave with the governor.
Last winter, in response to the state budget shortfall, the legislature tried to force Beshear to curb his political appointments. At the time, Beshear said the state had 826 full-time appointees. According to the most recent data available, that number had risen to 856 by Sept. 29.
Beshear vetoed a provision in the state budget bill that called for a specific reduction in the number of appointees. But he signed another bill into law that limited the midlevel appointees to no more than one per cabinet secretary, commissioner or office chief. Any positions in excess of that would be abolished Dec. 31 unless the Personnel Board granted them a five-year reprieve.
Although Beshear asked to exempt 81 midlevel positions, Richardson said the administration doesn't know how many other appointees are expected to lose their jobs Dec. 31. State agencies are cutting appointed positions through retirements, attrition and layoffs, she said, although she did not have numbers to provide.
Earlier this year, lawmakers said they worried about the growing cost of political patronage when essential state services are going on the chopping block. Some political appointees openly boast in Frankfort that they don't have any work to do, lawmakers said.
"Every governor is entitled to have some people around him who share his political philosophy. But it's our responsibility in the legislature to make sure that that doesn't get out of hand," Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, said this week.
"I hope that as it makes this decision, the Personnel Board considers the state of the economy right now, where we have 10 percent unemployment, as well as the state budget," Thayer said.
Williamson, of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, said she is skeptical the Personnel Board will deny Beshear's request. The board originally approved all the positions in the first place, she said, sometimes with little justification.
"I've never known the Personnel Board to not approve a non-merit position the administration requested," Williamson said. "There's not usually much explanation for why the position is necessary or what it will do. There's just a title, a salary and a start date, and it's approved."
Merit workers are especially unhappy about political appointees because of the furloughs this fiscal year, Williamson said. Beshear said furloughs are needed to trim payroll and balance the budget. But the state would be better served if Beshear eliminated the political jobs that provide negligible value, she said.