Gov. Wolf and senators from both parties seem to have tired of Pennsylvania’s Civil Service Commission, the independent, three-member body that oversees hiring for public jobs.
The bipartisan critics say it’s taken too long for the commission to put job applications on smartphones and otherwise update hiring. Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) has sponsored bill 1037, with bipartisan backing, which would take merit-based state job applications, hiring, exams, and promotions away from the independent commission and put it all under the control of Wolf’s secretary of administration, Sharon Minnich, leaving the commission as just an appeals board.
Minnich and Folmer told me this will move Pennsylvania hiring into the 21st century. Minnich, an ex-Deloitte executive, will testify for the change in a Monday hearing on Folmer’s bill in the Senate State Government Committee.
The bill is stoutly opposed as a political power grab by the Civil Service Commission, which is made up of Chairman Bryan Lentz, a Philadelphia lawyer appointed by Wolf; Gregory M. Lane, a Harrisburg accountant appointed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett; and Odelfa Smith Preston, a Pittsburgh banker first appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell and reappointed by Corbett and Wolf; and by past-Chair Marwan Kreidie.
These critics say the change would politicize hiring and allow future governors to favor, for example, pro-choice (or pro-life) social workers, upstate (or urban) prison guards, and conservative (or liberal) regulators as job candidates. And that passing this bill will open the door to the bad, old days of super-partisan governments that corrupted and degraded public services, they say.
Kreidie, who served on Wolf’s transition team, tells me he doesn’t believe Wolf would personally taint hiring. But dark forces, he adds, are always a threat in politics. He doesn’t like how Minnich, Folmer, and their allies have conjured data-challenged efficiency claims to justify big change. Kreidie says state data show that the Civil Service Commission has been far more likely than the agency Minnich now heads to hire veterans, as required by state law. And he showed me the state’s last attempt to measure — back in 2008 — showed civil service hiring was faster than for other jobs.
New Jersey stripped its old Civil Service Commission of hiring powers in 1986 — but resurrected the commission and put it back in charge of hiring in 2008, arguing, among other things, that it is cheaper than using a regular state agency. New Jersey public worker unions are top defenders of an independent civil service agency.
By contrast, in Pennsylvania, where nearly a third of public-sector jobs are already under the governor’s control and exempt from civil service hiring even without the proposed new law, no state union reps are scheduled to testify Monday. AFSCME officials I called had nothing to say, pro or con.
Labor sources tell me that’s because state union leaders are reluctant to oppose Wolf in an election year. They’re afraid to lose a Democrat who resists Republican budget cuts and protects automatic union dues checkoff.
So, Pennsylvania’s veterans are leading the fight for civil service. “We’re concerned about all of it,” Keith Beebe, chairman of the legislative committee of the Pennsylvania War Veterans Council, told me, after American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War state leaders sent me to him as the voice on hiring issues for their coalition of veterans groups.
Beebe on Wednesday sent senators the veterans’ carefully sourced 24-page review of the proposal. It urges the state to improve, not scrap, civil service hiring. The report notes there’s an “idealistic” view — which I heard from Minnich and Folmer — “that the private sector has a much more efficient hiring process,” and that some in government cite that notion for “a concerted effort to diminish” civil service.
But hiring for the people and with the people’s money needs extra care, the veterans argue. They cite a recent report by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity that found repeated attempts by Pennsylvania politicians to influence hiring, which the commission has resisted. The commission, they concluded, has in the past “accepted criticism and adapted.” Let’s do that again, veterans say.
To be sure, “Pennsylvania’s workforce planning, hiring, and retention system undoubtedly does need updating.” Software automation is part of the solution, yet it also creates new problems, that taking power from civil service won’t solve. Hiring “can be improved without major structural realignments.” But the Senate bill contains no “evolved human resources plan” for making that happen.
The Civil Service Commission members and staff “are doing a good job,” Beebe told me. He said the commission has worked to push for enforcement of merit hiring and to enforce the state’s veterans preference rules. He says veterans trust the commission and don’t see why it should be stripped of power.
“The legislation tries to essentially change the whole process of hiring,” Beebe added. “But ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Instead, you make the process better.”
If the politicians are intent on a reorganization, instead of gutting the commission they should “broaden their thinking” — to expand the commission’s hiring authority so it includes thousands of jobs that in Pennsylvania have been under the governor’s control. “Let’s create one merit system that allows streamlining, to roll all of these employees together,” he concluded.
Senior state officials, as well as commission members, have approached the veterans’ groups seeking support in the fight; they see it will be harder to pass the law over veterans’ objections.
Beebe expects that Wolf’s appointees and dependents will testify for the law Wolf backs. But as independent organizations that advocate for their members and for the public, “we have done a very comprehensive review of this thing, and that is where we stand”: with an independent Civil Service, not a state hiring system run by political employees under the boss’s thumb.
(The spelling of Sharon Minnich’s name has been corrected)