The civil service system, designed decades ago to insulate public employees from political pres-sure, long ago lost its appeal for Gov. Bobby Jindal. Since 2009, he has convinced lawmakers to pass eight new laws pulling hundreds of state workers out of civil service, stripping from them of a host of protections.
By law, public employees who are covered by civil service are considered "classified," which means they can only be fired for wrongdoing after a hearing and due process. When a position is removed from civil service, it becomes "unclassified" — and subject to the whims of top administrators.
As long ago as the 1940s, reformers pushed to create the civil service system to take politics out of government HR (human relations). Today, the vast majority of state jobs fall under the "classified" category. In recent years, however, politics seems to have made a comeback, especially in the arena of law enforcement.
In recent weeks, Jindal signed legislation that pulls several positions out of the civil service system, including that of the Houma police chief and the assistant police chiefs in Broussard, Carencro, Kaplan, Scott and Youngsville. These actions are a product of this year's legislative session, but they are hardly new developments.
The Harahan police chief was treated the same way last year, and Jindal endorsed a bill removing several city employees in Alexandria from civil service — but only those who work less than 32 hours per week.
In 2009, Jindal backed the original incarnation of the Houma police chief bill — this year's version was simply a renewal — and gave final approval to another measure stripping Mandeville's police chief of civil service protections. Additionally, the governor backed a constitutional amendment that year moving several hundred employees of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) into unclassified service.
Administrators complain that civil service sometimes produces pools of unqualified and/or unmotivated employees and creates costly removal proceedings. Supporters of civil service counter that the system's protections are there for a reason and that unclassified service gives too much unchecked power to people who may not necessarily need it — or wield it wisely. Both sides of this debate have merit.
Other recent changes have come directly from the state Civil Service Commission. Earlier this month, it approved a set of contracts that could eventually transfer nearly 200 more state jobs to the private sector.
The Department of Health and Hospitals is privatizing dietary-related operations at medical centers in Jackson and Pineville. That contract, awarded to the Pennsylvania-based Health Care Services Group, is expected to save the state $1.4 million.
Sallie Mae, formerly the Student Loan Marketing Association (which originates, services and collects on student loans), is in line for a five-year contract from the state Office of Student Financial Assistance to oversee collections on student loans. Savings there are anticipated to run nearly $1.3 million.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State's Office is in negotiations with Gallagher Security to outsource related services for the Old State Capitol and State Archives. Only a small handful of workers would be affected in exchange for $270,000 in savings.
Sometimes privatization eases public workers out of their positions. For example, LSU Health Sciences Center is handing over environmental duties in Shreveport to the Maryland-based Sodexo in hopes of realizing $1.6 million in savings. In that instance, all state employees are being allowed to stay on as public workers under private management — until they decide to retire.
Given Jindal's recent initiatives to sell off state assets such as prisons and hospitals, the governor's push toward privatization is part of a larger trend that we're likely to see grow in the next three years. While taxpayer savings are always applauded, there's a human side to this issue that's difficult to fully describe on paper. For that reason, this should be a territory where the administration and legislature tread lightly.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.