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Brewer’s state employee personnel reform will benefit all Arizonans

Kevin McCarthy

This is Arizona’s centennial year. It’s both a grand accomplishment to celebrate and an occasion that we should mark by making our state government more effective and efficient.

One of the biggest steps we can take toward modernizing state government is with a revamp of the outdated rules and regulations that govern its workforce. Our personnel system is practically as old as the state itself.

Patchwork fixes and incremental improvements won’t do. Now is the time for fundamental reform.

Fortunately, Gov. Jan Brewer has proposed such a reform with HB2571, a measure sponsored by Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa with an assist from Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa. This comprehensive measure strips away the reams of red tape preventing the state from hiring the most talented applicants, rewarding its best employees, and disciplining or, ultimately, terminating the weakest performers.

Why is this bill necessary?

Let’s start with the problems in hiring a state employee. Currently, it takes too long to hire a first-rate applicant because — in the interest of “fairness” — every job opening must be advertised, a minimum of three viable candidates must be interviewed, and layer upon layer of review and approval is required before a job offer can be extended. In the meantime, the best candidates often slip away as they accept job offers from private companies not subjected to a similarly- excessive hiring process.

Secondly, once an employee is hired into the current covered system, their opportunity to earn a salary increase is limited. Individual employees with covered status are generally not eligible for a pay hike, but instead, must wait for the Legislature to approve a salary bump for an entire set of employees. That means every employee, from the best performer to the weakest link, receives the same financial reward.

The result? Low employee morale and an ongoing disincentive to go the extra mile for taxpayers.

Worst of all, the current personnel system has hamstrung state supervisors in their ability to effectively deal with low-performing employees. The existing structure is bogged down with so many employee protections that it can take months, or even years, to remove a problem employee. Even after a rigorous process of reporting and incident documentation, an independent board can overturn a dismissal without a thought for how that action will impact the agency or the supervisor’s ability to manage the workforce.

Brewer’s plan will retain protections against unlawful discrimination and safeguard against political coercion. It will also go a long way toward making our state government function a bit more like a private business, with employee performance and accountability valued most.

With one-third of the state workforce eligible to retire within the next five years, it’s critical that we put in place a personnel system that allows the state to attract the best talent and retain the highest-performing workers.

Personnel reform has already been successfully implemented in Georgia, Florida and Indiana. In fact, agencies such as the Arizona Department of Gaming, Arizona Office of Tourism and the Arizona State Retirement System already operate with fully uncovered workforces. Now is the time to extend those reforms through the rest of state government.

This is something that will benefit all Arizonans, regardless of whether they work for the state.

Not surprisingly, some public employee unions are opposing changes to Arizona’s archaic personnel system, suggesting it will result in Tammany Hall-type favoritism in state government. However, I doubt that fear is shared by the hardworking state employees who work in a system that is so different from the private sector that it undermines the public’s confidence in state government.

Arizona taxpayers deserve a more efficient and effective state personnel system and so do the state employees who are trapped in a culture that not only doesn’t reward hard work, it reinforces the worst stereotypes of public employees.

— Kevin McCarthy is president of the Arizona Tax Research Association.


  1. I worked as a state employee for 21 years and there is no doubt the personnel system was outdated. Many governors looked at overhauling the personnel system while I was employed, but none followed through because it would have mean investing money to bring up thousands of underpaid workers. An average employee was underpaid by about 20% while I worked at the state, but many employees stayed in their job for many years because of the benefits and worker protections. But eventually they would seek other jobs because they couldn’t move up within their pay grade because the state rarely funded merit raises; a system that the state instituted during Gov. Bruce Babbit’s administration to move away from the \step\ system. But the state, however, never followed through on its end by funding the merit system, which is a way to reward the best employees. Gov. Symington lowered taxes over and over during this term, while ignoring pay raises, instead opting to lower the pension contribution rate, instead of paying for raises out of the General Fund. Eventually that led to the problems in the pension system in recent years. As for not being able to fire employees quickly, that is a myth of sorts, bec. I personally saw many employees fired within a short period for major infractions. For under performers they were given some time to improve, but remember the state was saving money to begin with by hiring people at the low end of the pay scale, some 20-25 percent under market. By not funding raises, the Legislature ended up costing the state millions of dollars a year in turnover (one of the highest rates among all states during the 1990s up until the mid-2000s). The new personnel system will just make it harder on state employees who have been under pressure because of recent layoffs and losing pay the past few years due to loss of merit benefit of 2.75% and furlough days. You think the state workforce is unhappy now, wait to only the \special/favorites\ get the good raises and you’ll see a lot more depressed workers who will leave state service. If ever there needs any overhaul, it’s with mid- and upper-management, who will be under pressure themselves if they don’t perform, and that will trickle down to the employees in terms of being under pressure and under paid. The final nail in the coffin will be when the Legislature goes after pension benefits for the average state employee. Then we’ll have a truly revamped personnel system that goes back to the late 1800s when the robber barons were in control. Only a very few will benefit from this \overhaul\. What’s needed is an overhaul of the Legislature and the Governor’s Office who are worried about contraception and guns on school campuses — and giving away as much tax revenue to corporations and private schools as possible. In a few years this state will near bankruptcy with their leadership.

  2. If done correctly, it might have worked. It’s the middle of 2013 and I can report the inmates are running the asylum. I’m the hell out of there before mgmt can cause a situation so FUBAR that the resulting backlash hits me.

    The “new” employee evaluations, OMG, what a joke. In my little corner of state govt, that means super secret memos instead, one of which was actually read out loud to me, no copy until I signed it? I don’t sign junk without reading it first. Is this for real? Secret documents? Requirements to “find” violations? Cheat to meet quotas? Told to “lean on” people and withhold information? You’d think this was the mob or some CIA black ops outfit instead of a bunch of middle aged paper pushers.

    A remote location run by rogue morons & upper mgmt at the capitol too busy patting each other on the back to realize it. Hoss, you need to ride out here every so often if you want to know what’s really happening on the Ponderosa. Hop Sing’s hiding in a supply closet too scared to chase you down with a warning. Personally, I don’t see much point in getting involved in a range war that’s liable to get me professional “killed”. The consensus: Doing a stretch as a WalMart greeter is unlikely to damage your resume more than being here when the **** hits. Saddling up & moving on, this ol’ cowpoke seen enough to know it’s time to go.

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