Column | Former chairs question Corbett’s commitment to merit system

As two former chairs of the State Civil Service Commission appointed by both a Republican and Democratic governor, we are very concerned about the Corbett administration’s commitment to the Merit Employment System in Pennsylvania.

The 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, its job is to hire qualified state and local government employees based on what they know, not who 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 operational and staffing reductions.

The governor’s latest budget proposal for the commission for 2014-15 may result in the closing of testing centers in Erie, Johnstown, Lock Haven and Scranton. The center in Allentown already has closed resulting in thousands of test takers having to travel to Philadelphia, Harrisburg or Scranton for their examinations.

Rather than fully funding the commission, the Corbett administration’s solution is far worse. House Bill 2129 introduced by state Rep. Justin Simmons, R-Lehigh, and euphemistically called “Civil Service Efficiencies” would change current law, which establishes the commission as an independent state agency. HB2129 would mandate the outsourcing of the agency’s “administrative work.” While sounding innocuous at first, the expectations are to outsource and merge these functions under the control of the governor’s office. This would be the death knell for an independent and viable merit employment system in our commonwealth.

This is unwise on many counts but especially disastrous to a state such as ours where former legislators, including two former speakers of the House, are either in jail or recently released, where judges sold children to juvenile centers, and patronage scandals such as the recent scandal at the non-civil service Turnpike Commission are almost weekly occurrences.

This change in law is just the latest attempt to control all state hiring and make patronage the dominant method of hiring in Pennsylvania. This is not a partisan issue, as both a Democrat and 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 annually. This contrasts favorably with a paltry 3.5 percent of hires by the Governor’s Bureau of State Employment — the non-civil service part of the state’s hiring process. Recent legislative initiatives supported by the governor’s office that would have removed selected health care positions from civil service protections and jeopardized veterans’ preference were grounded in false and misleading assertions about the efficacy of the civil service process.

We urge the Corbett administration to fully fund the State Civil Service Commission, keep all regional testing centers open, reopen the Allentown center and maintain the independence of the commission. Alternatively to HB2129, there are other options and better known solutions to this funding issue that should be supported.