Election puts some state employee jobs in jeopardy as officials look to bring in their own people

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Tate Reeves votes during Election Day at Liberty Baptist Church in Flowood, Tuesday, Miss., November 5, 2019. Reeves, in the process of determining which of the employees who worked for Gov. Phil Bryant he wants to keep, says most are “capable and competent and do their job well,” and he will likely keep the majority of the workers from Bryant’s administration.

Hundreds of state employees, those with no civil service protection, had to enter the holiday season with at least a little more anxiety than usual about what lies ahead for the new year.

These are state employees who essentially work at the will of the elected official who oversees their agency. The changes in officeholders brought forth by the 2019 statewide elections mean state employees could be left without a job. New officeholders could bring in their own people.

The largest number of at-will employees, though not all, essentially work for the governor. Gov.-elected Tate Reeves has been in the process since his Nov. 5 election victory over Jim Hood of building his team. But Reeves has made it clear that most people who had a job in the administration of outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant, who could not seek re-election because of term limits, will continue to have a job.

Bobby Harrison

“You are talking about hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of individuals,” Reeves said soon after his election. “But the reality is we are not going to see the kinds of turnout where you can assume there will be 1,000 positions we are going to fill.”

The vast number of employees currently in those positions are “capable and competent and do their job well and we are going to try to keep those who fit those criteria,” he added.

Reeves already has announced that Maj. Gen. Janson Boyles who was serving as the adjutant general under Bryant will continue in that post, as will Greg Michel as executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. That most likely means that the 850 at-will employees serving in the state’s military and the 37 working for MEMA will continue to have jobs since they already are working for either Boyles or Michel.

And Reeves hinted other Bryant appointees might stay.

“Gov. Bryant has many capable people performing in many positions,” Reeves said. “We are working through the process to determine who wants to stay.”

Not all at-will employees serve at the governor’s discretion. The other statewide elected officials also have at-will employees working for them.

There are 275 at-will state employees in the office of the Attorney General, according to the state Personnel Board. Hood served four terms as attorney general before opting to run for governor.

Treasurer Lynn Fitch, who ran for and won the open seat of attorney general, is in the process of determining which of the employees who worked for Hood she wants to keep. The at-will employees include about 135 attorneys – the bulk of whom represent various state agencies.

“Attorney General-elect Fitch is working to assemble the very best team of qualified and talented individuals. This will include attorneys currently at the Attorney General’s office as well as some with a fresh perspective,” said Fitch consultant Morgan Baldwin.

Still, it is safe to assume those attorneys and others in the AG’s office have approached the holiday season with at least a little trepidation.

The same can be said of the  22 at-will employees in the treasurer’s office where Jackson businessman/attorney David McRae is succeeding Fitch or the 68 at-will employees in the secretary of state’s office where state Sen. Michael Watson of Pascagoula is replacing Delbert Hosemann, who ran for and was elected lieutenant governor.

But to be perfectly honest, that is the nature of the business. It would not be fair or sensible for newly elected officials to not be able to bring in at least some of their own people for certain key positions. But the question is how many new people is enough?

Mississippi has about 26,500 state employees. Roughly, between 16,000 and 17,000 are under the protection of the state Personnel Board – meaning they have civil service protection and cannot be terminated just because of changes in leadership brought on by election results. About 6,500 work at will and can be terminated for any reason, according to the Personnel Board. These include not only those working for politicians, but also at-will employees at agencies overseen by unelected boards, such as the state Board of Education.

Employees who have civil service protection must work for a year to earn it.

Just about every legislative session the Republican leadership tries to remove for a short time period (normally two years) the civil service protection for some or for all agencies. Sometimes they are successful. Other times they are not.

Legislators claim the removal of civil service protection makes it easier for agency heads “to right size” agencies and to make reforms.

There might be debate on whether that is true. But there is little debate that those with the civil service protection probably will have less anxiety this holiday season.