Good Government

Government workforce reform remains far from certain

March 12, 2020

Ray Carter

Measures to overhaul the Oklahoma government’s human resources system quietly advanced this week without debate or question from lawmakers. But the bills’ authors indicated much work remains, suggesting the likelihood of significant reform is far from certain.

Three bills, which would gradually replace Oklahoma government’s “merit protected” workforce with “at will” workers over time, won easy approval in the Oklahoma House of Representatives and state Senate over the course of two days.

Those measures were House Bill 3094, Senate Bill 1780, and Senate Bill 1879. The House measure was authored by Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, while the Senate bills were authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

Both men gave only brief explanations.

Treat said his legislation “seeks to modernize human resources in the state of Oklahoma,” but added that the proposal remains “a work in progress.”

Osburn said negotiations are underway involving labor organizations, who have opposed dramatic changes to the system, and reform advocates.

“Literally every stakeholder is in the room,” Osburn said. “We’re talking about it. We’re trying to build an appropriate human-resources system for the state of Oklahoma.”

All three measures advance reforms sought by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has called for shifting all state jobs to “at will” positions, comparable to private-sector jobs.

The existing Oklahoma Merit System of Personnel Administration provides “classified” state government employees job protections above and beyond those typically found in the private sector. Oklahoma government had a total of 31,674 state employees at the close of the 2018 budget year, and 65 percent were in classified positions. Critics have argued the classified system makes both firing and promotion much too difficult in state government.

The governor’s plan would make all new hires “unclassified” positions, while individuals currently employed by state government who work in “classified” positions would retain the old “merit system” protections unless they transfer or are promoted to another position.

Over time, that reform would gradually shift the Oklahoma government’s workforce so all jobs are eventually “at will” positions.

Treat suggested the current system is overdue for review and overhaul.

“We have not updated merit protection since 1982,” Treat said.

HB 3094 passed the House on a vote of 92-1. SB 1879 passed the Senate on a 38-9 vote and SB 1780 passed that chamber on a 40-7 vote.