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State Workers Brace For Bevin Transition in Frankfort

J. Tyler Franklin

Among Governor-elect Matt Bevin's tasks in the near future will be figuring out what to do with about 800 state government positions.

Most state government jobs are merit positions, set up to be protected against political interference. But hundreds more are non-merit jobs: appointments totally up the discretion of the state's elected executive.

Democrats have controlled state government for 40 of the past 44 years. And Bevin, a Republican, may be looking to clean house among those non-merit employees.

The realignment is a natural part of a new party taking office, said Dewey Clayton, political science professor at the University of Louisville.

“It goes back to the old saying, to the victor go the spoils,” Clayton said. “It’s not illegal for an administration to come into office and want to put its own people into administrative positions. That’s politics.”

Of course, this means those who currently hold non-merit posts in state government could be out of work in the months after Gov. Steve Beshear leaves office on Dec. 7.

Those non-merit employees are well aware that the results of a gubernatorial election may have changed their immediate career plans. Many non-merit workers are either looking for jobs in the private sector or are applying for jobs within the merit system of state government, said Dave Smith, executive director of the Kentucky Association of State Employees.

“They’re afraid that in their non-merit positions, that the new governor will come in and get rid of them,” Smith said. “So then they go become merit employees so that way, they can’t lose their job.”

Bevin and his transition team are still in the process of appointing the secretaries who will head up the 12 cabinets that make up the executive branch. Those secretaries and the managers they select will in turn conduct most of the heavy lifting in terms of hiring and firing of non-merit employees.

Smith said non-merit workers have already been applying for jobs, and by the end of January they’ll either be settled in new positions or “take a chance that they’ll get reappointed by the new governor.”

“As soon as [Democratic candidate Jack] Conway didn’t get elected, they started that process to moving into those positions,” Smith said.

The number of non-merit positions ranges from 23 employees in the Economic Development Cabinet to 142 employees in the General Government Cabinet. The non-merit political appointees manage more than 32,000 employees who fall into the merit system.

Republican strategist Scott Jennings said that layer of political leadership is instrumental in carrying out the governor's agenda.

"It makes sure that the machinery of state government is moving in a direction that is consistent with what the political leadership wants," Jennings said.

Because Democrats have occupied the executive branch for much of recent history, the transition from Gov. Steve Beshear to Bevin will take a little longer to complete, Jennings said.

It will also likely be exhaustive, he said.

"The transition is more stark than when you're going from one Democratic administration to the next," Jennings said.

If history serves as any indication, Bevin’s election could lead to non-merit employees switching parties in an attempt to secure their jobs.

Bevin's transition hiring website says he wants to select those “who share his conservative values.” A job application on the site asks for party affiliation.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s administration similarly asked for party affiliation of executive branch job-seekers when he became governor in 2003.

As the first Republican governor of Kentucky since 1971, Fletcher’s election led to dozens of non-merit state employees switching to the Republican Party, according to a 2004 Courier-Journal story. The list included the commissioner of the Department of Criminal Justice Training, the state’s deputy adjutant general and the regional development commissioner in the Economic Development Cabinet.

Later, members of Fletcher’s administration were indicted for improperly hiring political supporters to merit positions. Clayton said Bevin’s administration will be very careful not to follow Fletcher’s example, especially with a Democrat in the attorney general’s office.

“They know that all eyes are going to be on them,” Clayton said. “I’m sure they have discussed, ‘We’re going to have to be very careful.'”

Number of non-merit positions, by cabinet:

  • Cabinet for Health and Family Services: 86
  • Economic Development Cabinet: 23
  • Education & Workforce Development Cabinet: 91
  • Energy and Environment Cabinet: 46
  • Finance and Administration Cabinet: 87
  • General Government Cabinet: 142
  • Justice & Public Safety Cabinet: 63
  • Labor Cabinet: 29
  • Personnel Cabinet: 27
  • Public Protection Cabinet: 56
  • Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet: 47
  • Transportation Cabinet: 80

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