Politics & Government

State workers alarmed by layoff language in Kentucky Senate’s budget bill

Demonstrators hold signs and listen to speakers during a rally against the Republican proposal to reform the state’s pension system outside of the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Demonstrators hold signs and listen to speakers during a rally against the Republican proposal to reform the state’s pension system outside of the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Language tucked deep inside the Senate’s version of the state budget for the next two years would make it easier to layoff state employees and strip them of their right to appeal that decision to the Kentucky Personnel Board.

The language — a procedural outline for laying off, furloughing or reducing hours of state workers — is “an attack on state employees” for not supporting a Republican proposal to overhaul the state’s ailing public pension systems, said David Smith, executive director of the Kentucky Association of State Employees.

Smith and other critics say the proposal would circumvent the state’s Merit System, created in 1960 to ensure that all state merit — or non-managerial — positions are filled by the most qualified individuals, without political influence, and protects state employees to perform their jobs without political influence. There are about 30,000 state workers in the Merit System.

“If this bill passes in this form, job security, guaranteed by the Merit System since 1960, will be essentially dissolved,” Dan Egbers, a former general counsel of the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet under Gov. Paul Patton, posted on Facebook Wednesday.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, denied that the language was inserted into the budget bill as retaliation for opposing Senate Bill 1, the pension bill.

Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican who pledged to reduce the size of government as a candidate in 2015, had included similar language in his budget proposal in January, but the GOP-led House removed it from their version of the budget earlier this month. The Senate put it back Tuesday.

A special committee made up of House and Senate conferees is scheduled to start meeting at 9 a.m. Friday to work on a compromise state budget.

Senate budget chairman Chris McDaniel, R-Latonia, said the Senate included the employee language in its budget bill “simply to give us the option to discuss this in conference committee.”

He added: “We may or may not keep it in the final budget.”

The change would give agency heads, with the approval of the Personnel Cabinet secretary, the authority to lay off or furlough employees or reduce their hours for lack of funds, lack of work, the abolishment of a position, efficiency or changes in duties or organization.

Currently, agencies can only lay off state workers due to lack of work, the abolishment of a position or a material change in duties or organization after all other cost-saving measures have been taken and have failed.

Smith said the new language gives the administration too much power, especially with the addition of “efficiency” as a reason to lay off workers. The bill does not define what efficiency means.

The measure also cuts from five years to two years the time laid-off workers are kept on a re-employment register to be rehired over other applicants.

Another change is that layoffs, furloughs and hour reductions could not be appealed to the Kentucky Personnel Board or other applicable administrative body.

The seven-member personnel board hears appeals from state employees who believe they have been penalized without cause and conducts investigations of Merit System violations. The agency decided 246 cases in fiscal year 2016, including two that returned dismissed employees to their jobs and 6 that reversed the state’s decision to penalize a worker. Penalties against workers were reduced in 14 other cases and settlements were reached in 44 cases.

Smith said he hopes the budget conference committee “will get rid of any procedure for employee layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours.”

“We do recognize that the the governor needs to have the ability to have a say in staffing,” he said. “This should have been considered as a separate bill in a committee with public hearings.”

State Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said she is concerned about the broad power the proposal would give the governor.

“It definitely needs more discussion than what it has been given,” she said. “I’ve always been for some flexibility in state staffing but it has to be well-defined. I would hope this is not for bringing in substitute temporary workers to replace state workers.”

Chris Volz, president of Laborers Local 576 in Louisville, which represents some city workers, and his colleagues joined hundreds on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, in the Capitol Annex to protest Senate Bill 1, the pension bill.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics