A legislative panel struggled Wednesday before barely passing a bill that would change hundreds of classified state employees — those protected by the state's merit system employees — to at-will employees.
Senate Bill 1124 calls for changing the status of the unfilled positions for 16 state agencies. Most of the changes involve a handful of positions for each agency but the measure calls for changing all positions with the Tourism and Recreation Department that are filled on or after July 1. The agency's approximately 400 employees are close to evenly split between classified and unclassified employees.
Rep. Mike Christian, a member of House of Representatives Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget, said the change could pose problems for park rangers, who are certified law enforcement officers. He said a park ranger without the protection of the state's merit system might be threatened with losing his or her job if an agency official, legislator or state official would be caught violating a law.
Rep. Don Armes, another committee member, said it could be a problem for a park ranger if a politician is upset that a relative was ticketed by a park ranger and wants the ranger fired.
“It's a serious concern,” said Armes, R-Faxon.
Christian, a retired Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper, said SB 1124 appeared to be another blow for state workers, who have gone nearly seven years without an across-the-board pay increase. The $7.1 billion budget awaiting the governor's signature doesn't call for any across-the-board increase or bonus for state workers.
“We beat the hell out of our state employees all session,” said Christian, R-Oklahoma City. “This body is intellectually bankrupt when it comes to our state employees.”
Tourism Department officials said switching all of the agency's employees to at-will positions will make it run more like a business. The Tourism Department lists 217 classified employees and 196 unclassified employees.
“There's no intent to fire any employee,” said Scott Lange, the agency's human resources director.
Claudia Conner, the agency's deputy director and general counsel, said federal laws now protect all state employees. The state's merit protection system is outdated and no longer needed.
“The classified service has become antiquated,” she said.
Terminating a classified employee is a lengthy process, she said.
The committee voted 13-11 to pass SB 1124. It now goes to the House Calendar Committee, which will decide if it gets a hearing.
Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, the House sponsor of the measure, said the Oklahoma Compensation and Unclassified Positions Review Board recommended the changes.
He said the status of an employee's job should be based on effort and work.
“It shouldn't be based on politics,” he said. “It shouldn't be based on who you know.”
Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association and a member of the seven-member review board, was the only member to vote against the changes for the Tourism Department.
He said changing workers to unclassified eliminates certain job protections and could promote cronyism by agency heads.
Deby Snodgrass, the Tourism Department's executive director, said about 60 percent of the employees in her agency are unclassified.
“They would tell you that there is no difference in our hiring process, in our disciplinary process, in our review process, whether you're classified or unclassified,” she said.