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Lansing – House Speaker Kevin Cotter faced criticism Thursday as he pitched a potential amendment to the Michigan Constitution that would make it easier for department heads to fire or discipline state employees.

The proposal would “empower good government employees who go to work every day” and are forced to pick up the slack for a few “bad actor” colleagues, Cotter said in testimony before the House Workforce and Talent Development Committee.

The Mount Pleasant Republican said an “overly bloated regulatory system” makes it difficult and time consuming to discipline employees unless they are charged with a crime, citing as an example a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulator who was paid while suspended for actions related to Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis.

But critics blasted the proposal as an attempt to gut longstanding protections for state employees under the Michigan Civil Service Commission, which is constitutionally charged with handling disputes involving public workers.

“State employees put it on the line every day,” said Ray Holman of United Auto Workers Local 6000. “…The idea that state employees are not held accountable is simply rubbish. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“We have a discipline machine going on right now in state government. And what’s happening is state employees are disciplined so often that common sense gets thrown out the door routinely … because if you don’t stay in your lane, you’re going to get your head chopped off.”

The proposal would require two-thirds majority support in both the House and the Senate followed by voter approval on a statewide ballot.

The proposal would amend the state Constitution by allowing department heads to fire or discipline employees “for conduct that directly and negatively impacts the department’s ability to accomplish its statutory duties in a fair, timely, equitable, and transparent manner.”

Companion legislation, sponsored by Rep. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway Township, would create a new grievance process for state employees disciplined by department heads. They could appeal their cases to the Civil Service Commission and, if they win, could be awarded back pay.

Lauwers said he introduced the legislation as he was “searching for a way to make our government more responsible and more like the private sector,” disputing any claims that the change would pose a threat to high-performing state employees.

Cotter, citing a 2015 House GOP action plan, said the new proposal was not a direct response to the Flint crisis, but he said the crisis provided an “egregious” example of the need for civil service reform.

Municipal water regulator Stephen Busch was placed on unpaid leave in late January for five days and then was suspended with pay – he earned $93,876 a year — from Feb. 1 through April 20 when he was charged criminally for his role in Flint’s lead-contamination crisis.

“That is what this will help address,” Cotter said.

State Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak, questioned why Cotter had not held oversight hearings on the state’s controversial emergency manager law and the appointees who were in charge of Flint before and during the crisis.

“I just have to wonder if this is really an exercise of trying to distract people from the real failures that the Flint water crisis revealed, which is the failure of oversight by the executive branch and the legislative branch,” Townsend said.

Cotter would need to pick up at least 10 Democratic votes to get his proposal through the Republican-led House, assuming he gets uniform support from his own caucus.

“That’s why they can’t help but talk about Flint,” Townsend said after hearing, “because they want to create this blame game where if you vote no on this, then you’re protecting scapegoats, but the whole underlying premise is wrong.”

About 44,500 classified employees work for the state, according to a recent report by the Michigan Civil Service Commission. They earn an average salary of $59,000 and have worked for the state for 13 years.

The commission, established in an earlier era of “patronage,” was initially designed to prevent a new administration from firing all state workers and replacing them with political allies.

It’s a “fallacy” that state workers are not regularly firedfor poor performance, said former Commissioner Charles Blockett Jr., who added 160 employees were dismissed between October 2015 and March 2016.

“Your unnecessary legislative overreach will weaken civil service and lead to bad government for our children and grand children,” Blockett said.

Committee Chairman Joel Johnson, R-Clare, ended Thursday’s hearing without calling for a vote on the proposal but said the panel may continue debate next week, depending on the legislative calendar.

“I understand people trying to protect their turf, and I think that’s a lot of what we saw here today,” Johnson said of the opposition testimony. “It’s a system that’s been in place for a long time, and any time you make changes, it’s going to be difficult. So if we are going to move forward with changes, we do need to make sure we’re moving in the right direction.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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