FRANKFORT — At the request of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, the Kentucky Personnel Board on Friday voted to exempt 82 political appointments from a budget-cutting law that would have abolished them Dec. 31 and saved the state more than $5.2 million.
In most of the individual votes, the governor's five appointees to the Personnel Board did as his administration asked, including chairman Cecil Dunn, whose son was one of the Beshear aides at risk. Dunn said he would not act on his son's job but other wise participated in Friday's discussion and voting.
The two board members chosen by state merit workers voted against exempting nine of the non-merit jobs, saying they needed more information about why they are necessary during a state budget crisis. They sometimes were joined by David Stevens, a former Lexington-Fayette Urban County Councilman whom Beshear named to the board.
The 82 appointed positions, with titles such as "policy adviser" and "special assistant," are in mid-level management across state government. They get an average salary of $74,457. Nearly 40 percent of the appointees in question are campaign donors to Beshear, the Democratic Party or both.
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When the two dissenting board members asked Nikki Jackson, secretary of Beshear's Personnel Cabinet, to explain how certain appointed positions were justified — including two that have been vacant for three years — Jackson said she could provide them with no additional information Friday. But she assured them the jobs are necessary for state government to function.
"These are key functions," Jackson said. "We are not in the business of just handing out jobs for the sake of filling jobs."
"What you're asking us to do for all of these positions is take your word," board member Susan Gardner, who represents merit workers, later told Jackson.
In a statement issued later, Beshear said: "Certain positions are critical to the continuing function of state government, and the Personnel Board confirmed that today. We have committed to reducing $5 million from the non-merit payroll this fiscal year, and we will achieve that goal. Each position before the board was carefully reviewed to determine whether the position continued to fill a critical service."
The other board member who represents merit workers, Larry Gillis, pointed out that some of the appointees perform basic office duties or technology support that could be done instead by merit workers, who tend to be paid less and who don't serve at the governor's pleasure.
Gillis said state agencies also might be able to consolidate their appointed jobs. For example, he said, the state Office for Local Government had eight appointees on the list of 82 at risk. Could they make do with fewer, he asked.
About two dozen merit workers took a vacation day to attend the meeting in protest of approving the jobs. They wore stickers on their shirts that read "No to the 81." (Originally, the Beshear administration asked the board to exempt 81 appointments; it added an 82nd position, from the Labor Cabinet, before Friday's meeting.) Independent gubernatorial candidate Gatewood Galbraith and his running mate Dea Riley mingled with them.
"I'm not surprised," Melissa Jan Williamson, vice president of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, said after watching the votes.
"They're supposed to be an independent body, but they didn't act independently today," said Williamson, a lawyer with the Labor Cabinet. "They rubber-stamped what the governor wanted them to do."
Although some of the 82 appointed positions do valuable work, others appear to reward campaign supporters and provide little return to the public, Williamson said.
Last winter, in response to the state budget shortfall, the legislature tried to force Beshear to curb his political appointments.
Beshear vetoed a provision in the state budget that called for a specific reduction in the number of appointees. But he signed another bill into law that limited mid-level 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.
The Beshear administration said 84 non-merit jobs in the state's executive branch fell into this category, most under the governor but also a few under the attorney general, secretary of state and agriculture commissioner. Ultimately, it asked the board to exempt all but two of these jobs.
State Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who is challenging Beshear for his job next year, on Friday called the board's decision "very unfortunate."
Beshear ordered six days of unpaid furlough for all state workers, including the lowest paid, and yet he's fighting to keep his appointees on the payroll, Williams said.
The other Republican gubernatorial candidate, Phil Moffett, said, "A big challenge for 2011 is bringing the Tea Party influence to Frankfort. We clearly have a lot of work to do."
The number of Beshear appointees dropped from 826 in January to 795 in October, according to the governor's office. Some appointees have been laid off; others left and were not replaced.