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Pa. Civil Service takeover bill advances

Will the "breakup" of the Civil Service Commission speed electronic hiring, or should it "sound alarm bells for all of us"?

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on a May 2018 visit to Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on a May 2018 visit to Philadelphia.Read moreJacqueline Larma

In a bipartisan vote, the Pennsylvania Senate's state government committee Tuesday unanimously approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) and backed by Gov. Wolf that would strip hiring powers from the independent Civil Service Commission and put job selection under the control of the governor's Office of Administration.

In voting Senate Bill 1037 through for possible consideration by the full Senate in June, the committee blew past objections by the Pennsylvania Council of War Veterans, a coalition of membership groups that has questioned the reasons Wolf and Republican leaders have given for reducing the commission's powers.

The politicians' planned "breakup" of the Civil Service Commission, whose goal is to insulate state hiring from politics, "should raise alarm bells for all of us," Keith Beebe, vice president and legislative chairman of the Pennsylvania War Veterans Council, wrote in a letter delivered before the vote to Folmer.

The law, if approved by the full state Senate and House and signed by the governor, is supposed to speed the state's adoption of an online job-application system run by California-based Neogov and other efforts to draw more young job candidates to work as Pennsylvania prison guards, social workers, and in other state positions, according to supporters that also include Sharon Minnich, who heads the Office of Administration under Wolf.

In interviews earlier this year and in testimony before the committee, Minnich and other administration officials have echoed criticism by Folmer and other Republicans that it has taken Pennsylvania too long to make it easy for job applicants to apply online and by smartphone. They want to simplify and improve hiring so it more closely resembles a private-sector approach.

Most state agencies have already agreed to run Neogov, but the state still has to work out how the system will manage applications for the Department of Corrections and other agencies that require personal interviews and evaluations in addition to computer-based tests, according to Bryan Lentz, who chairs the commission.

The Folmer bill would leave the Pennsylvania Civil Service Commission as an auditing and review board with little power to stop partisan hiring, Lentz testified in a Spring hearing on the bill.

Lentz and his fellow commissioners, in letters and testimony before the Senate subcommittee, warned that gutting the commission and giving its powers to gubernatorial appointees invites a return of the corrupt patronage hiring practices of the 1800s. The Wolf administration and Folmer say state hiring would still be based on a candidate's merit, not connections.

Neogov, formerly used by dozens of states to collect job applications, was dropped in 2016 by Ohio, which shifted to the rival Taleo system, and Illinois, which planned to develop its own system. The city of Philadelphia dropped Neogov under Mayor Michael Nutter's administration. "The application was unable to meet the city's needs," said spokesman Mike Dunn. After attempting to build work-arounds and change business processes, IT officials found Neogov "system limitations were hard-coded in the software and not configurable," so Philadelphia replaced NeoGov with, Dunn added.

Beebe reiterated the council's position that the current Civil Service Commission has done a "satisfactory job" and has a "record of accomplishment" in hiring veterans in compliance with state rules that give ex-military preference for jobs when they are properly qualified, in a letter to Folmer before the vote.

By contrast, the state Office of Administration "is not a strong advocate" of the kind of merit-based testing the veterans support, Beebe added.

The veterans, who submitted a 20-page analysis of the proposed reforms at the hearing earlier this year, "believe the 'modernization' of the Civil Service Commission should not be your central focus" because it's already "modernized," according to Beebe.

Instead, the state's stated concerns and "frictions" result from "project management" issues, which Beebe said grew out of  state government's determination to implement Neogov at the risk of other hiring goals such as fairness, independence from political patronage, and veterans' preference.

(In earlier versions of this item Secretary of Administration Sharon Minnich's surname was spelled wrong.)