The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

November 9, 2012

Doing the governor a favor, or not

By Scott Mooneyham for the SNAP

Friday, November 9, 2012 — RALEIGH -- I suppose Republican state legislators thought that they were doing Pat McCrory a favor.

Perhaps it will work out that way. Perhaps not.

Months before the election, state legislators and every other political observer in the state knew that McCrory was the favorite to become the next governor.

So, no one was too surprised when a Republican-controlled legislature passed some measures giving the next governor more hiring flexibility than the current governor.

That hiring flexibility expands the number of what are known as "exempt positions," state jobs that are not subject to normal hiring and firing rules, from about 450 to up to 1,000. It also allows the governor to establish salaries for state agency heads and their chief deputies.

Jobs exempt from normal civil service protections are there because of a recognition that governors need loyal lieutenants running the government bureaucracy. Those at the very top of the state agency ladder, along with those working in the governor's office itself, work with the knowledge that their jobs are dependent upon the political fortunes of their elected bosses.

Back last summer, legislative leaders defended expanding those positions and providing more salary flexibility for some jobs by saying that the changes would allow the next governor to induce highly qualified people to fill top state government jobs.

The legislature, by the way, did not provide any additional money, so any higher salaries will likely have to come from vacant agency positions.

This public rationale for the change may prove itself over time.

A good argument can be made that a governor, particularly when it comes to complex health care-related positions like some jobs at the Department of Health and Human Services, could find more qualified people to fill top jobs with better pay.

Running a state agency more effectively and efficiently could more than make up for any higher pay going to the top bureaucrat at a particular agency. And if more hiring flexibility is required to make that happen, the public isn't likely to complain.

But what if that doesn't occur?

What if, in a state agency where the agency head is paid more and more existing state workers are turned out of their jobs because of a change in the governorship, the problems and the inefficiencies increase?

In that case, what the legislature has actually done is create a trap for the next governor, one in which higher salaries and exempt jobs will be used to bludgeon the state's chief executive each time a specific agency problem receives public mention.

And those added exempt positions will invite plenty of scrutiny regarding whether they are being filled with more qualified managers who can get the job done or just turning state agencies into dumping grounds for political patrons and party hacks.

In politics, sometimes it is better to be more wary of your friends than your enemies.