Does Michigan’s Constitution protect awful workers?

Jeremy Lott

‘The people of Michigan want better customer service from their government, better state employees who do a better job.”

The words came from Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for state House Speaker Kevin Cotter, in a phone conversation Thursday. He was promoting two related pieces of legislation, HJR MM and HB 5677, a referendum to amend Michigan’s constitution and a statute that would kick in if and when that passed.

Michigan’s constitution, ratified in the 1960s, includes serious civil service protections meant to thwart large-scale political patronage machines, which most people support. However, those same protections also make it very difficult to fire grossly negligent workers.

It can take nine months to a year to fire awful government workers and they draw salary the whole time. That’s enough of a budgetary and bureaucratic headache to deter all but the most determined managers from removing problem employees.

The legislative introduction to Cotter’s amendment says its purpose is, “to place before voters in the next general election a constitutional amendment to limit the power of a state civil service commission and give state government department heads the authority to discipline or dismiss any employee ‘for conduct that directly and negatively impacts the department’s ability to accomplish its statutory duties in a fair, timely, and transparent manner.’”

Many unions oppose the amendment but the Speaker’s office assumes if they can get two-thirds of legislators to sign on, the voters will be an easier sell. After all, this comes in the wake of the Flint water crisis in which children were subjected to lead- and heavy metals-heavy water because of government failure at many levels.

Several employees of the Department of Environmental Quality and other agencies were actually prosecuted by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette for their poor job performance. The crisis finally gave the government the ability to do a minor departmental shake-up involving a few employees.

Cotter’s spokesman stressed these are limited reforms which would leave many civil service protections in place, and would not be a back door way of getting government jobs for the politically connected.

It also promises that “Employees would retain the ability to appeal to the civil service commission, which would retain its authority to reverse the action if it is deemed arbitrary or capricious.”

When you stop to think about it, it’s actually startling that Michigan needs a constitutional amendment to do this, or that unions would put up any but the most lackadaisical of protests.

If managers don’t have the ability to fire grossly negligent workers without jumping through flaming hoops, they effectively have no way to compel good work. Good workers can get to feeling demoralized by being surrounded by folks who have stopped trying because there’s no penalty in not trying. When things go really wrong, the government is more prone to overreaction by doing things such as prosecuting workers rather than just letting them go find something else they’d be better at.

And yet, this small but potentially powerful change is considered a tough sell in the legislature this session. That’s unfortunate because most Michiganians would likely see it as a commonsensical reform.

Jeremy Lott is an adjunct scholar at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.