OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt on Monday signed legislation aimed at making it easier to hire, retain and fire state employees by overhauling the state’s civil service reform system.
Stitt said House Bill 1146, known as the Civil Service and Human Capital Modernization Act, updates the state’s classified and unclassified employee classification system, which he called outdated. He said hundreds of talented workers have been blocked from pay increases and promotions because they were “stuck in a broken system” that doesn’t prioritize hard work. State agency heads have had their hands tied when it comes to recruiting and retaining top talent, he said.
“This is truly a major milestone in helping make Oklahoma a Top 10 state,” he said.
The measure, which will go into effect Jan. 1, was one of Stitt’s keystone issues heading into the session.
It had the support of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.
“I call this bill, the unsexiest big deal of the year,” said state Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, the House author.
He said it isn’t an issue that fills up Facebook or Twitter feeds or something on which bloggers spend a lot of time.
“But it pervades everything and it affects the way state government operates at every level,” he said.
The measure will allow agencies to carve out 5% of administrative staff who will be excluded from the new system. It also eliminates the Merit Protection Commission, which is currently responsible for adjudicating grievances, effective Dec. 31, 2022.
The new law also tasks the Office of Management and Enterprise Services with crafting a new dispute resolution system for agencies and employees. Administrative law judges will adjudicate complaints arising from disciplinary actions by state employees. The measure also requires the creation of a confidential whistleblower program.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said critics complained that the measure makes it easier to get rid of employees, but he said it will make it easier to reward good work.
“I think the system being set up will mirror large corporations in the private sector,” said Tom Dunning, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association. “We believe this sets the stage for additional changes to create a system where employees can be rewarded for performance, financially rewarded.”
Dunning said the change sounds “more ominous” for state employees than it really is because it eliminates the labels of “classified” and “unclassified.”
Dunning also said 95% of all state employees will still have due process. Right now, roughly 40% of employees working as “unclassified” don’t have access to a system to tackle their grievances about issues such as terminations, suspensions or performance evaluations.
The group has been pushing for the overhaul since 2013.
“The reform is necessary because (the existing system) did not give agencies the flexibility they need in hiring in many positions in the agencies,” Dunning said. “They’ll have better flexibility in the front end to hire just the right people for the job based on qualifications. On the discipline side, this will give more state employees due process, and it will retain due process for the employees who had it.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.