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Freeze another push to achieve Jindal pay plan reform

Two rookies on the State Civil Service Commission have found themselves in the thick of the action almost from the start as Gov. Bobby Jindal, shortly after their appointment and the reappointment of another of its members, took the next step in his quest to instill greater efficiency into the state’s bureaucracy.

The Jindal Administration forwarded a request, similar to last year’s, that no “merit” raises be given out among the state’s classified employees, where such pay increases come through rules set by the SCSC. The body is free to do what it wants, but if Jindal says his budget will not include money for those raises, its actions in this regard become greatly circumscribed. But now with a majority of its seven members appointed by Jindal (one is elected by classified employees who is also new because of the resignation of the previous holder of that spot), they likely will give some kind of formal assent to this.

Whether they will take the next step advocated by Jindal is another matter. Besides budgetary hard times looming over the state, for two years Jindal has sought fundamental reform about how classified employees are evaluated and compensated. At present, a one-size-fits-all rule exists that declares anybody who grades at least satisfactorily or better qualifies for a four percent hike, if the panel declares a raise. But this rule has helped pervert the system so that it has become used as a cost-of-living adjustment with over 99 percent of all employees receiving them when given.

(Part of that comes from the fact that actual cost-of-living adjustments, which have to be budgeted separately, have occurred only every few years which has set minimum pay in the state’s six functional job categories as low as 29 percent below the assumed private sector average and average as much as 22 percent behind. Even though such pay comparisons are hazardous in vailidity, merit increases masquerading as COLAs have been a response to this perceived inequity. But when factoring in other considerations such as health care premiums, vacation, and especially retirement pay, Louisiana civil servants do well in total compensation, if not in remuneration, when compared to the private sector, mirroring national trends.)

Jindal has wanted a system that creates different maximum percentages for each of the three highest categories of ratings, the higher the category the higher the maximum, with the ability of each individual agency to decide for itself whether to give up to that maximum or any at all. Twice he has initiated the process to implement this plan, and twice the SCSC under its former composition of members refused to give him exactly what he wanted even as it did make significant concessions in moving away from the current standard. A change in any rule must have both SCSC consent and the governor’s, and Jindal declined both times.

While this idea would save an uncertain amount of money in lower raise amounts, the incentives it creates to reform the evaluation process and to increase individual performance by better matching performance to reward and also overall system performance by encouraging marginal employees to leave the system will mean more bang for the buck for Louisiana taxpayers. And implementation of it serves as another motive for the pay freeze, with Jindal essentially saying he will not budget more increases until getting his plan adopted, with the state’s fiscal problems and predicted tight budgets for the next few years more than providing justification for this.

However, now Jindal is upping the ante. With his request comes another to change civil service rules to prevent agencies from reshuffling funds to give raises even when they are not budgeted to do so, as no specific prohibition exists and the power to determine whether to grant merit increases to employees rests in the hands of the agencies. This gives additional teeth to the inducement to change pay practices.

Yet even with expected Commission assents, the main battle still awaits and these agreements with Jindal may embolden him to try again soon. With his majority now, Jindal may feel confident enough by the March meeting of it to ask again that it vote affirmatively on his plan by its June meeting, meaning his reforms can be incorporated into the next fiscal year’s budget, potentially saving millions or even tens of millions more dollars.

Wins for Jindal at this week’s meeting well might presage he finally succeeds in getting his desired reforms into the rules later this year, and for Louisianans who have put up with the avoidable inefficiency and waste of money waiting on them, it would not come soon enough.

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