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New York’s civil service system in need of reform

Sunday, February 16, 2014
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Affluence projects power and authority. Having wealth gives the holder the ability to exact loyalty from others in exchange for a share of that wealth. This is patronage, a practice that seems more compatible with feudalism than with a self-governing democracy.

Political officeholders — though not “owning” wealth per se — nonetheless gain significant control over sizeable resources. They can reward supporters with government jobs and secure loyalty through their ability to hire and fire people at will.

This form of patronage is termed the “spoils system,” as in “To the victor belong the spoils,” a claim of entitlement actually coined by William L. Marcy, a U.S. senator from New York, following Andrew Jackson’s victory in the 1828 presidential election.

Public disgust over corruption peaked in the 1880s, finally causing New York to target the spoils system and become the first state to adopt a civil service system for its workers.

Fostered by Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt and Gov. Grover Cleveland, it established merit and fitness as requisite qualifications for most government employment and sought to instill professional objectivity by insulating public workers against improper political and financial influence.

Too many appointees

It is not a perfect system. Today, for instance, entire classes of public employees in state agencies are denied civil service protection because politicians ostensibly require “loyal” staff that will carry out their directives.

This has resulted in political appointees, rather than career professionals, holding most policymaking and upper-level management positions — even in state agencies that are supposed to operate with a degree of independence from executive authority.

Other moves to soften the system’s underpinnings come in the guise of “reform” — pension “reform” being the flavor of the day — and proposed restrictions on collective bargaining rights.

Meaningful reform would address instead two aspects of state service that work against the broader public interest: the revolving door and regulatory capture.

The “revolving door” refers to the regular, almost cyclical, movement of individuals between the public and private sectors. It exacerbates conflicts of interest and undermines trust in government by reintroducing the appearance of — if not real — cronyism. It also is a prime cause of “regulatory capture” — the gradual process by which a state agency charged with policing a particular industry becomes instead more its protector or advocate.

Pension reform

While most of what has been said and written about the state’s public pension obligations has been inaccurate and unhelpful, the right kind of pension reform could work for us in a number of beneficial ways.

Let us recall that defined-benefit public pensions originally were designed to encourage careers in public service and provide some security to public employees, who it was presumed were forgoing better opportunities in the private sector. Returning to that principle as a basis for future membership in the system would solve a variety of problems while shoring up the integrity of the civil service system.

Limiting defined-benefit state pensions only to those who commit to a full-time career in state or local government service would greatly reduce future pension costs and obligations.

Under such a scenario, withdrawing that commitment would result in refund of the individual’s contributions to the pension fund with no further mutual obligation.

A lesser commitment, such as part-time work or return to state service after having once left, could merit some lower-cost defined contribution plan. This would significantly reduce the pension rights of our future avowedly “part-time” state legislators; but if preservation of their outside employment remains a priority for them, it seems a fair exchange.

Special circumstances — such as layoffs, pregnancy, family leave and health issues — could be accommodated.

This reform would make the revolving-door phenomenon a little less attractive, potentially slowing one of the primary forces behind regulatory capture.

With the continual challenges presented to our representative democracy from unhealthy concentrations of affluence and political power, this idea’s “three birds with one stone” approach may be just a drop in the ocean. But it would be one for the good guys.

John A. Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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