Politics & Government

Beshear: Non-merit jobs essential, though some are vacant

Of 81 political appointments that Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has asked the state Personnel Board to save, 11 are vacant — two have been unoccupied since 2007 — and nearly 40 percent of the rest are held by campaign donors to Beshear, the Democratic Party or both.

The Personnel Board is scheduled to meet Friday to decide whether to allow the jobs to disappear on Dec. 31.

The appointees serve in management jobs across state government with an average salary of $74,457. A budget-cutting law the legislature passed this year caps the number of appointed mid-level managers unless Beshear wins exemptions from the Personnel Board.

Total salaries for the occupied positions are $5.2 million a year.

The Beshear administration said each job is essential to run state government. Nobody's political activity was considered when deciding which jobs to defend, said Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson.

"In reviewing these positions, we looked at positions, not people," Richardson said. "These positions — not the individuals filling them — are important to the proper functioning of state agencies."

The open jobs might be filled in the future if funds are available, and Beshear would like to retain the flexibility, she said.

"These positions cost nothing to the taxpayers to leave vacant at this time," she said.

Apart from the 81 jobs on the line, Richardson said the administration will allow three appointed positions to expire Dec. 31.

A group representing rank-and-file state workers challenged the value of the appointees, also known as non-merit employees. Some are simply political supporters who produce little of value for the public, said Melissa Jan Williamson, vice president of the Kentucky Association of State Employees.

"It's hard to see how they can justify keeping all of these non-merit positions at a time when we're cutting essential services to the public and many of our front-line merit workers are living in poverty, or close to it," Williamson said. "Some of these positions have been vacant for years and we're apparently rolling by fine without them."

The Herald-Leader this week obtained state personnel records identifying the names, salaries and assignments of the appointees in question. They show some offices with multiple "policy advisers," "executive advisers" or "special assistants," all serving at the governor's pleasure.

The state Office for Local Government, for example, awards money to cities and counties and has nine political appointees at risk of termination Dec. 31. Six have given money to Beshear or the Democratic Party; four of those are past Democratic politicians or party leaders.

The state Office of Homeland Security, with 17 employees, has an executive director and three deputy executive directors. The new law caps the number of mid-level appointed managers to one per office, so two of the three deputies will face the ax at the end of the year unless Beshear prevails at the Personnel Board.

One of those extra deputies, Aaron Horner, is a Democratic political consultant, party leader, fund-raiser and campaign manager. Horner has given $23,000 in campaign donations over the past decade, including $3,000 to Beshear.

Horner, who makes $74,235 a year, did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment. Homeland Security's Web site identifies him as "deputy executive director of external affairs," overseeing one employee, office spokesman Mike Embry said.

Horner does critical work, Richardson said.

"Some of (his) duties include all citizen outreach, information and education for safe communities programs across the state, managing the 'Eyes and Ears on Kentucky' program which connects citizen reports of suspicious activity to Homeland Security intelligence and acting as liaison for the Public Health Department and the U.S. (Army) Corps of Engineers," Richardson said.

In some cases, appointees included in Friday's appeal are classified as "policy adviser" in personnel records, but they have specific and high-profile jobs, such as the acting Medicaid commissioner and the deputy secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, she added.

"Clearly, these are critical roles that must be performed," she said.

The number of Beshear appointees dropped from 826 in January to 795 in October as he cut the state budget, Richardson said. Some appointees have been laid off; others left and were not replaced, she said.

However, Beshear's Republican rivals in the 2011 gubernatorial race accused him of wasting state money to protect friends and campaign supporters.

"Kentucky has over 10 percent unemployment and Gov. Beshear has furloughed thousands of state workers, and yet the only jobs he seems concerned about are those politically questionable ones belonging to his own political appointees," said state Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville.

"We are supposed to just sit by quietly while he kicks rank-and-file state employees off a lifeboat he has reserved for his political friends? I don't think so," said David Adams, campaign manager for Louisville businessman Phil Moffett.

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