Base state hiring on merit

Tom Corbett's budget and HB 2129 threaten to gut Pennsylvania's civil service

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As former chairs of the Pennsylvania State Civil Service Commission, one appointed by a Republican governor and the other by a Democratic governor, we are very concerned about the Corbett administration’s commitment to the merit employment system in Pennsylvania.

The civil service commission is responsible for recruiting, hiring and protecting from partisan political pressure and interference roughly 70 percent of all state jobs and numerous local government jobs. Basically, it is supposed to hire qualified state and local government employees based on what they know, not on whom they know.

While most, if not all, state agencies have experienced funding cuts during the last three years, the commission has seen its budget substantially reduced, resulting in serious operational and staffing cutbacks.

The governor’s budget proposal for the commission for 2014-2015 may result in the closing of testing centers in Erie, Johnstown, Lock Haven and Scranton. The center in Allentown has already closed, resulting in thousands of test-takers having to travel to Philadelphia, Harrisburg or Scranton to take their examinations.

Rather than fully funding the commission, the Corbett administration’s solution would make matters far worse.

House Bill 2129, introduced by state Rep. Justin Simmons, R-Lehigh/​Northampton counties, and euphemistically called “Civil Service Efficiencies,” would change the law that established the commission as an independent state agency. It would mandate the outsourcing of the agency’s “administrative work.”

While this may appear innocuous, the expectation is that these functions would be brought under the control of the governor’s office. This would sound the death knell of an independent and viable merit employment system in our commonwealth.

While this would be unwise on many counts, it especially would be disastrous in a state like ours where former legislators, including two former speakers of the House, are either in jail or recently released, where judges have sold children to juvenile detention centers and where patronage scandals, such as the recent one at the non-civil service Turnpike Commission, seem to be almost weekly occurrences.

This proposed change in law is just the latest attempt to centralize control of all state hiring and make patronage the dominant method of hiring in Pennsylvania.

This is not a partisan issue — as both a Democrat and a Republican we would oppose these changes regardless of the governor’s party.

Studies have been conducted by the governor’s office that show the merit hiring system outperforms the non-civil service part of the state’s hiring process. Veterans also would be impacted negatively since about 24 percent of all new civil service jobs are filled by veterans on an annual basis. This contrasts with a paltry 3.5 percent of hires by the governor’s Bureau of State Employment, the state’s non-civil service hiring agency.

Recent legislative initiatives supported by the governor’s office that would have removed selected health care positions from civil service protections and jeopardized veterans’ preferences were grounded in false and misleading assertions about the efficacy of the civil service process.

We urge the Corbett administration to reject HB 2129 and to fully fund the Pennsylvania State Civil Service Commission, keep all regional testing centers open, reopen the Allentown center and maintain the independence of the commission.

Marwan Kreidie teaches at Villanova University and was appointed chair of the State Civil Service Commission by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, serving from 2006 to 2010. Retired Maj. Gen. John Stevens is a Lehigh University emeritus professor and was appointed chair of the commission by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, serving from 2011 to 2013.

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