A personnel reform plan championed by Gov. Jan Brewer sailed through the House on a party line vote, with a few tweaks to soften the blow for law enforcement officers and other state employees who will retain their civil service protections.
But the bill would still make sweeping changes to the state’s personnel system and would strip most current employees of protections they currently enjoy. Most new employees would also be at-will, meaning they could be fired for any legal reason.
After nearly two hours of debate today, the House voted 39-19 to approve HB2571.
Opposition from law enforcement unions didn’t sway any Republican votes, even those of GOP lawmakers who raised concerns in committee. However, Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, the bill’s sponsor, said he made several changes that should alleviate most of the public safety unions’ concerns.
Olson hailed the proposal, which Brewer has made a top priority for the session, as a modernization of the state’s personnel system that will bring government in line with private sector practices. Proponents say the bill will make it easier to fire employees for cause and make it easier to hire better employees as replacements.
“These reforms are modeled after the best practices of the private sector,” Olson said.
Democrats, however, warned of a future where government employees are hired and fired for political reasons. Rep. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, warned that government employees would become “political pawns,” while Rep. Ruben Gallego warned that the system would resemble his hometown of Chicago, where city employees are often hired based on their political favoritism.
“This is political cronyism at its worst,” said House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix.
Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, said his extensive experience with the public sector, including cities that use at-will employment, has demonstrated to him that such a system is more efficient and lacks the abuses that the Democrats invoked. Olson said the Democrats’ dire warnings are unrealistic.
“This is a culture change, and I recognize that. But this parade of horribles that I’ve heard described, reverting back to a spoils system, something that resembles a banana republic, are far-fetched claims,” Olson said.
Olson’s amendment removes a provision eliminating the Law Enforcement Merit System Council, instead expanding it from three members to five. The amendment also keeps officers from the Department of Public Safety in a separate personnel system from the rest of the state.
Both the council and the State Personnel Board will have the ability to recommend modifications to disciplinary actions, though only in situations where the facts and evidence don’t support the punishment. If a department head disagrees with the board’s recommendation, he or she must justify the decision to disregard it.
The change will not affect at-will employees. Under the proposal, most new state employees would be uncovered.
Olson said the change is meant to provide some appeals for merit protected employees, as well as safeguard their constitutional property rights to their jobs, while deferring to the judgment of supervisors and agency directors.
“The difference is that the board will not have the ability to replace the judgment of the board for the judgment of the director,” Olson said, adding that he and the Governor’s Office share concerns about the Personnel Board’s ability to modify disciplinary actions that they feel are “too harsh.”
In response to law enforcement groups who worried that their agencies’ civilian employees could face pressure from supervisors to provide false testimony or reach erroneous conclusions for political reasons, Olson said he strengthened the state’s whistleblower protection laws. While supervisors currently face steep fines and other penalties, including possible termination, for pressuring employees in such a way, Olson’s amendment would require firing and would prohibit the offending supervisor from working in state government again.
Olson said the whistleblower protection provision was meant to address law enforcement concerns about their civilian employees – though he emphasized that employees of the Auditor General’s Office, Child Protective Services and other agencies could face similar pressures – but the public safety groups didn’t get the change they truly wanted. Public safety unions had sought an amendment that would keep civilian employees at their agencies under merit protection, a change neither Olson nor Brewer are willing to concede.
John Ortolano, a lobbyist for the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, said his organization will still oppose the bill.
“We’ve basically told them we oppose the bill, but we will work with them to make a bad bill better,” Ortolano told Arizona Capitol Times after the vote. “We don’t think that they would amend it (in a way) that would make it palatable to our membership.”
Ortolano said he expected the bill to have a “rougher ride” in the Senate, though he wouldn’t say how many Republican senators he thought might oppose it.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hear HB2571 on March 20.
However, Ortolano said he didn’t expect the bill to get a vote in the full Senate until Republican leadership reaches a budget deal with Brewer.
“There’s no doubt that this is being used as a bargaining chip back and forth,” he said. “I venture to guess we’ll see both of them probably move forward almost simultaneously.”
Mike Philipsen, a spokesman for Senate President Steve Pierce, said there will be no correlation between personnel reform and the budget.
“It’s not a one-versus-the-other or any kind of timeline based on budget first, then personnel reform. Personnel reform is on one track and budget talks are continuing on the other track,” he said.