Battle Lines Drawn in Fight Over State Civil Service Job Protections

Joe Tyrrell | January 7, 2014 | Budget, More Issues, Politics
Christie, GOP push for ‘banding’ of positions decried by Democrats as threat to job security

Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Middlesex, Somerset and Union).
Even before the state Civil Service Commission has completed action on one of Gov. Chris Christie’s pet projects, altering employee job protections, Assembly Democrats have declared any such action unconstitutional.

With the commission scheduled to hold a hearing next month on its plan to group jobs together in “bands,” the Assembly voted 48-31 along party lines on a resolution prohibiting or invalidating such a change.

Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Union) said the proposal would undermine Civil Service safeguards created “to ensure that elected or appointed officials do not turn public employment into their own personal hiring agency.”

Commission Chairman Robert Czech last month described “job banding” as “a more effective option” for managers seeking to transfer or reassign employees. Under the current system, workers must pass tests to demonstrate their qualifications for specific posts.

Since unveiling his 2010 “tool kit” for local government, Christie has pushed for relaxation of Civil Service regulations. He cited them as a significant obstacle to municipal cost-cutting efforts, such as consolidations of local police departments.

In 2011, Christie vetoed Democratic legislation to establish a bipartisan commission to review job titles, calling it “meaningless.”

In place of more legislation, Christie launched an end run through the Civil Service Commission, whose members he appoints. While the commission cannot change the law, it does exert authority over the way the rules are administered. Last February, the commission produced a 96-page regulatory package, which promoted job banding as a way to streamline government.

A subsequent hearing provoked heated opposition from labor groups and others, and the comment period expired in May. The administration directed its energy to other issues, and during his successful re-election campaign Christie talked of Civil Service as an issue for his second term.

Suddenly, on Dec. 20, the commission announced a Dec. 23 presentation of proposed rules, with slight modifications resulting from the earlier hearing such as preserving a hiring preference for veterans.

But what supporters promote as reducing regulations, critics continue to view as inviting the sort of cronyism and patronage that the Civil Service system was created to prevent by setting qualifications for government jobholders.

“The proposed new rule is contrary to the spirit, intent, and plain meaning of the provision in the New Jersey Constitution that requires that promotions be based on merit and fitness to be ascertained, as far as practicable, by examination,” said Stender’s resolution, which was joined by a host of Democrats.

In the early days of the republic, even low-level government jobs routinely went to partisan supporters, an approach trumpeted by President Andrew Jackson as the spoils system.

But following the Civil War, patronage and corruption became an issue for voters across party lines. The reform movement grew with the 1888 assassination of President James Garfield by a frustrated job seeker. In the federal government, attempts to replace the spoils system led to the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.

In 1908, New Jersey became the sixth state to establish its own reforms. Twenty of 21 counties, excepting only Somerset, and 193 towns adopted Civil Service rules for their jobs.

But such measures have always generated a certain amount of buyers’ remorse in the political class. President Chester A. Arthur, who enthusiastically pushed the federal law, served only one term after being denied the Republican nomination in 1884.

The Assembly action survived a procedural move by Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris). Carroll argued that Stenders’ resolution was out of order because “the rule has in fact been proposed for amendment,” but the commission is not scheduled to complete action on it until February.

Stender responded that Democrats obtained a legal opinion from the Office of Legislative Services that legislators and the commission can act “concurrently” on the regulations.

Democrats contended that approach allows the commission to take legislative intent into account as it writes and adopts rules, and avoid infringement on the status of Civil Service as “enshrined in the state constitution.”

“The system has been highly effective for years in protecting qualified employees from political retribution and harassment and should not be unilaterally disbanded now,” Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), said in a statement.

But the Assembly vote is not even the last word in the Legislature, because the state Senate still must act on the measure. Even then, based on the Assembly vote, Democrats appear to lack the votes to overturn a Christie veto.

While the governor again seems poised to outmaneuver the legislative majority, Democrats are trying to make his task trickier in the long run. Couching their opposition as a resolution that states “legislative intent” and refers to s the state constitution, they provide phrasing that could be useful in a court challenge to the commission rules.