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Can Kentucky's merit system survive Matt Bevin?

"To the victor go the spoils" once ruled the day in government employment. President Andrew Jackson is credited/blamed for instituting the spoils system of employment. Jobs were handed out to the faithful. Supporting the wrong candidate meant unemployment. It took the murder of James A. Garfield by a disappointed job seeker to move policy makers to create the federal merit system. Merit system employment is the opposite of the spoils system.

A merit system ensures that institutional memory is preserved and the day by day work of government proceeds no matter who sits in the governor's office. Employees can do their jobs protected from political pressures to campaign, donate, support one candidate or the other.

The merit system has been a fact of Kentucky state government employment since 1960. Those looking for a government job put their names on a register. In some cases, they take a test. Bosses go to the register to look for potential employees. Those who are best qualified according to a rubric are invited to interview. That's the idiot's guide to the Kentucky merit system and is by no means an exhaustive explanation.

Governor Bert Combs championed the idea of employees hired without regard to which political candidate or party they supported. Combs, growing up poor in Eastern Kentucky, understood well the dangers of supporting the wrong candidate or the wrong boss. Elections had dire consequences for those on the losing side.

One Frankfort native, remembering the beginning of the merit system, joked that Combs recalled the merit system as the best thing he had ever done and the worst thing he had ever done. Governors lose the power to fill many jobs that once went with the winning side.

Governors have the right to put in their own supporters in decision making roles. It makes sense that the top spots in government should go to those who support the governor and their vision. Non-merit employees don't have to take tests and they don't go on the register. The pay is significantly higher.

The carrot of a big paycheck and a big office is balanced with the stick that your boss leaves office, so do you. The migration of Beshear appointees from Frankfort as he leaves is the consequence of serving at the pleasure of the governor.

Republican Governor Matt Bevin now sits in the first floor office formerly occupied by Democrat Governor Steve Beshear. The new Governor has promised to shrink state government.

Shrinking government means that there will be fewer state employees - many of whom are merit system employees. To do it, he will have to thread a needle last successfully threaded by Democratic Governor John Y. Brown, who did it by reorganizing state government. In a nutshell, when the agency goes, so do the employees that work for it, merit and non-merit.

Bevin has yet to follow Brown's lead. Instead, he is shrinking the state budget and forcing administrators to reduce staffing. Ordering a 4.5% reduction in this budget and 9% in his proposed budget is causing pain at all levels of Kentucky governance. Yesterday, according to a CN2 report, Proposed budget cuts threaten political watchdog groups two women who share a first name and hold elective offices, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Treasurer Allison Ball told a House panel they cannot effectively operate under the proposed budget.

The battle for the House of Representatives is being waged in earnest. Four seats will be filled in a special election in early March. If the GOP wins all four, the House will be balanced 50/50 between the parties. It is not out of the realm of possibility that at least one Democrat will switch parties, giving the Republicans a majority in both legislative chambers.

If that happens, will the merit employment system survive Governor Matt Bevin and Republican rule?

The last Republican elected in Kentucky, Governor Ernie Fletcher, had great plans to overhaul state government. His efforts to put his people throughout government ran into the merit system. Fletcher's efforts were stymied and his administration failed to make the changes he espoused in part because of the opposition of merit employees.

Matt Bevin is no Ernie Fletcher. As he steered a quiet path through the primary process, sliding through the car wreck of the two leading GOP candidates running head long into each other, Bevin will manage to get around employees who believe that their right to employment because of their merit is contract inviolate.

The merit system is a series of laws.

Laws can be changed.

All it takes is a governor and a legislature that agrees with him.

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