By a 21-12 vote — three more votes than the minimum needed to pass — the Missouri Senate sent the House a bill Tuesday to reform Missouri's Merit System.
The vote came after a little more than an hour's debate.
On its webpage, the state describes the current system as "a personnel system established by law and designed to protect employees from arbitrary actions, personal favoritism, and political coercion."
State Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, sponsored the bill and reminded colleagues at the beginning of Tuesday's mid-day debate that 46 percent of Missouri's nearly 55,000 state employees aren't covered by the Merit System now.
"The attempt is to level the playing field and make the process less complex, and provide more opportunities for our state workers who are working their brains out to be recognized, and to continue to have a career with the state of Missouri."
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said she received numerous calls "from people throughout the state and in my district" who were concerned after the Senate gave the proposal its preliminary approval last Thursday afternoon.
"I do believe this bill is going in the wrong direction," she told the Senate. "What is called a reform — what in my heart I believe is taking several steps backward — would change the climate and the culture of our state employees."
State Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, told Kehoe that — with three state prisons in his district — he has constituents who "have a major concern about how this bill is going to affect them. I have had, literally, zero response from my district in support of this bill."
Romine acknowledged the Merit System also has problems, but he's not sure Kehoe's bill provides a better solution.
State Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, worried passing the bill could lead to other consequences.
"Basically, we're making (almost) all employees of the state at-will," he said. "There is nothing in here that says you can't be fired for political purposes."
After years of having political patronage in government, Schaaf added, "We realized that that wasn't really a very good way to go, so we put these protections in the Merit System into the law, so these people would be immune to any political pressure."
State Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton and one of the Senate's two attorneys, agreed with Schaaf that ending the Merit System as a benefit of employment could lead to a lawsuit against the state.
However, he couldn't put a dollar amount on what the damages might be.
"I think you have to have an awful lot of trust in the executive branch to be at all comfortable with this bill," Sifton told Schaaf.
Kehoe has said several times the proposal would allow Missouri government to be run more like a business.
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, asked senators to vote against the measure.
"It's been tried in other places. If you want to run this as a business, then that's what you have," Walsh said. "But, if you want to be fair to employees, civil service systems were designed to ensure that employees would be hired based on their merits, rather than their political affiliation."
Walsh agreed with Chappelle-Nadal that the bill felt "like we are going backwards."
After its passage, Kehoe said: "We'll see what the House thinks of it and what they think needs to be improved or if the bill stands as is. It's a conversation we wanted to get started this year, and I'm hoping we can get it to the end."
He acknowledged getting calls from state employees opposed to the idea.
"I would say they're more worried about it," he explained. "They think that this change might enable a bad boss — which a lot of businesses (also) could have — to maybe take out some kind of retribution without the protection of the Merit System."
However, Kehoe said, those state employees who aren't covered now by the system "have not seen that to be true. So the concern from state employees, I would say, is more about worry that this could open the floodgates to unfair treatment."
Putting all employees on the "same playing field," Kehoe said, "I think would (make it) much easier for us to work through the pay grids, to find a way for efficiencies and to get our employees paid at a better rate — and keep the ones and promote the ones who are working their brains out, which is the majority that I know."
He said his goal isn't to hurt Missouri government employees.