Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Louisiana voters could decide if Gov. Landry gets more control over state employees

by BIZ Magazine

BY: JULIE O’DONOGHUE – Louisiana Illuminator

The Louisiana Legislature is close to approving a proposed constitutional amendment that lets state residents decide if Gov. Jeff Landry gets greater control over state government jobs and New Orleans city employees.

If lawmakers approve Senate Bill 181, Louisiana voters would determine on Dec. 7 whether the governor gets to shape the state Civil Service Commission in 2025.

The legislation would also allow the governor and state lawmakers to transform classified public positions into unclassified public jobs, from which workers could be fired more easily.

The measure is one of a few to give Landry more control over state boards than previous governors. Lawmakers are also considering measures to give him more authority over Louisiana’s higher education board and pick most of the members on the state ethics board.

Unlike those other proposals, however, the civil service changes require statewide voter approval. Civil service protections in state government and New Orleans are included in the Louisiana Constitution, which can only be altered through a two-thirds vote of state lawmakers and a ballot measure.

Sen. Jay Morris, the sponsor of the legislation, said he thinks the state’s civil service process makes it too difficult to fire public sector workers. In an interview earlier this year, Morris, a Republican from West Monroe, said his preference would be to do away with civil service entirely, even though his bill stops short of doing so.

Government employees, including a handful of firefighters, and state civil service commissioners disagreed with Morris in public hearings over the legislation. They said the current system shields government employees from political pressure.

“It’s a bad bill,” said Scott Hughes, a current civil service commissioner who former Govs. Bobby Jindal and John Bel Edwards appointed. “We moved to a civil service system to end a system of ward politics and political favoritism.”

Under current law, the governor appoints six out of the seven members of the state Civil Service Commission. Their picks must come from a list of three people each president of six private colleges and universities in Louisiana recommends. Classified state workers elect the seventh commissioner to represent them on the board.

“The use of college presidents as a nominating source for the governor was also by design to help ensure some level of neutrality,” Hughes said.

If approved, Morris’ legislation would allow governors to pick three of the seven commissioners directly. Private colleges and university leaders would still be involved in recommendations for the governor’s three remaining appointees, but the list of potential commissioners would include many more people for each slot.

The governor also wouldn’t be required to appoint someone recommended by each of the six university presidents. He could instead pick all three nominees off a list provided by just one school leader.

Morris’ legislation also calls for civil service commissioners to serve four-year instead of six-year terms, with term limits after eight years instead of 18 as currently required.

The proposal also specifically allows Landry to limit the time current commissioners serve on the board.

At the beginning of 2025, Landry would be able to assign commissioners already on the panel terms of one to four years, and he could replace any commissioner who has already served eight years on the board. Governors who come after him wouldn’t have this power.

The legislation would also give Louisiana’s governor and legislators authority to pass laws to shift classified state and New Orleans city employees into unclassified positions, where they could be fired more easily. Currently, only civil service commissioners at the state level and in New Orleans have that authority.

“It opens not a door but a floodgate to change [civil service] later,” said Andrew Monteverde, a firefighter who is the employee representative on the New Orleans Civil Service Commission.

Lawmakers have not entirely explained why city employees in New Orleans are being targeted, when no other municipality with civil service workers would be affected.

“I don’t understand why the state Legislature is interested in the civil system of the city of New Orleans,” Christina Carroll, an attorney for the New Orleans Civil Service Commission, said at a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

“Well, that’s an opinion I’ll have to keep to myself,” responded Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, who voted in favor of Morris’ legislation.

The proposal ran into some legislative roadblocks, albeit ones Morris has so far overcome. After the Louisiana House and Governmental Affairs Committee initially declined to vote on the proposal, it was moved to the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee, which voted 9-3 on Tuesday to keep it alive.

The vote was entirely partisan, with Republicans in favor of the measure and Democrats in opposition, though Hughes, the civil service commissioner, argued civil service should be popular with conservatives.

“You don’t have unions in the state of Louisiana. Why? You have state civil service,” he said. “I’m not a union guy, and I’m a state civil service commissioner.”

The legislation now moves to the full House for a vote expected by the end of the week. Two-thirds of state representatives will have to approve it. Then, it would have to go back to the Senate for consideration and another two-thirds vote in that chamber, before being placed on a statewide ballot.

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