Osburn Interim Study Examines State’s Merit System Reform

11/15/2019 1:32:00 PM

Contact: State Rep. Mike Osburn
Phone: (405) 557-7360

State Rep. Mike Osburn (R-Edmond) hosted an interim study Thursday morning before the House Government Efficiency Committee to examine possible changes to the merit system for state employees.

State agencies use the merit system as their human resources management structure. Around two-thirds of the state’s more than 30,000 employees are classified within the merit system.

Osburn, who chairs the House Government Efficiency Committee, said he had concerns regarding how the merit system may hinder effective human resources practices. Osburn served on the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission from 1996-1999.

“The merit system was created to decrease political patronage and undue influence in state employment, and this should continue to be one of our main objectives,” Osburn said. “However, today’s system often ties managers’ hands and prevents them from taking action against inefficient employees or rewarding and promoting employees for their good work. It forces managers to treat every employee, both good and bad, the same, which works against effective human resources practices.”

Osburn said the majority of the policies surrounding the merit system haven’t been updated in 37 years. The system’s last major reform was in 1982 under Gov. George Nigh.

“With all the red tape, you’re at risk all the time of losing high performance employees because you can’t progress them at the pace you would like to,” Mike Jackson told the committee. Jackson serves as the executive vice president of government and political affairs at the State Chamber of Oklahoma.

He later said, “People who are in a system where, if they perform well, they get rewarded, they tend to be more happy with the job they have.”

Ellen Buettner, chief of staff at Oklahoma Health Care Authority; said the current classified system “creates an us vs. them culture.”

“The unclassified system creates opportunity for skills and mentoring,” Buettner informed the committee. “It’s not impossible to do in the current classified system, but it’s way more complicated.”

Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, pointed out that the Legislature already has some form of oversight of the merit system through their ability to appoint people to the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission, the board that oversees the merit system. The Commission is comprised of nine members: two appointed by the speaker of the House, two appointed by the president pro tempore of the Senate and five appointed by the governor.

Brian Kirtley, a retired human resources director at the Dept. of Transportation, and Casey T. Delaney, a labor, employment and employee benefits counsel at Fellers Snider Attorneys at Law, both shared their firsthand experiences with the merit system.

“Litigation in the courts is expensive and it is long, and the merit system is fast and it is efficient,” Delaney said.

Osburn said reforming the merit system would help streamline state government and cut burdensome red tape. He is considering legislation to address these concerns.

“As we begin to modernize this outdated system, we must bear in mind that the money spent on state employee salaries and benefits are tax dollars that the people of Oklahoma have entrusted to their government to manage wisely,” Osburn said. “So while we work to make management easier within our state agencies, we must take steps to preserve due process, accountability, transparency and fairness.”

The deadline to introduce new bills is Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. The second session of the 57th Legislature will commence Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.