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A House bill that would have removed civil service protections for about 20,000 state employees was killed by a Senate committee on Tuesday.
The bill, if passed, would have removed the employees from under the Personnel Board for three years, meaning those employees would have served at the will and pleasure of their agency bosses.
Legislative leaders presented the legislation as a way for agencies to trim their own budgets during the state’s “tough budget situation” while avoiding a cancellation or delay of public services.
Opponents said removing the employees from the Personnel Board protections could allow for mass layoffs and open the door to potential lawsuits against the state.
“We’re in a tough budget situation right now, and I don’t see revenues going up,” said Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, Senate appropriations chairman. “For agency heads to provide services, if they’re bound by certain rules, they’ll cut programs if they don’t have flexibility. This is just the way our system operates right now.”
Senators debated the merits of the House bill for about 20 minutes on Tuesday. Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, ultimately made the motion to lay the bill on the table, effectively killing it.
The Senate committee vote Tuesday was close: 13 senators voted for Simmons’ motion, while 11 senators voted against.
“These 20,000 employees – individuals who look like you and me – committed themselves to the state of Mississippi to perform duties assigned to them,” Simmons said. “We set up the Personnel Board to allow them to work under protection, which gives them certain rights. Chairman Clarke, who I respect greatly, has a real challenge to find money right now. But this is bad legislation.”
In early February, the House floor vote was also close: 62-57. A long debate there spurred conversation about whether certain employees should be exempted from the proposal. The House voted to exempt Department of Mental Health employees, as well as law enforcement officers for several state agencies.
House Appropriations Chairman John Read, R-Gautier, said earlier this month that many agencies, including mental health, already have undergone severe cuts.
In addition to final appropriations for each state agency last session, Gov. Phil Bryant has twice cut state budgets mid-year to make up for lagging revenues.
Read said under the bill, state employees would have more protections outside of the personnel board than under it. Clarke, in the Senate committee meeting on Tuesday, echoed that point.
“We would not have brought out anything that would jeopardize one employee of the state of Mississippi,” Read said in early February.