There have been plenty of newspaper headlines across Kentucky in recent weeks concerning state government's merit system - the system intended to ensure that state employment decisions are based on abilities and knowledge, rather than political connections. While some may think these stories mainly concern state employees, they actually should concern all Kentuckians because they raise issues about the way your tax dollars are spent.
Without the merit system, we would have no way to prevent the hiring of thousands of state workers based on who they know, rather than how well they can do their jobs. Without the merit system, there would be no assurance that state employees would keep their jobs after the election of a new governor who might be looking for positions for political supporters.
In fact, that's exactly what occurred in Kentucky prior to the establishment of the merit system in 1960. State government largely operated under a spoils system in which friends and political supporters of the governor were always first in line to receive state employment. Government work was not considered permanent in nature then because large numbers of employees were replaced every four years when a new governor took over.
Gov. Bert T. Combs was the first governor to successfully establish a merit employment system for state employees in Kentucky's law books. (Shortly before Combs took office, Gov. Happy Chandler established a merit system by executive order. But once Combs took office, he quickly repealed that system to make way for a permanent one that would have the strength of law.)
Combs consulted some of the nation's most knowledgeable public administration authorities to design Kentucky's merit system. In the end, they came up with a system that established clear rules for most employment matters, including hiring, firing, transfers and promotions. Since its inception the merit system has been credited with attracting more professionals into state government work, and that clearly benefits all Kentuckians.
The merit system also removed a burden for new governors. Instead of spending their first several weeks in office inundated with the task of finding jobs for all their friends and political supporters, they have time to pursue their legislative agenda.
Eventually, even the initial adversaries of Kentucky's merit system came to see it as a necessary tool for modern government efficiency. In short, the system has stood the test of time.
Like any set of laws, the merit system laws may need to be updated. If so, changes should be made legally and in the full public view.
Clearly, all Kentuckians have a stake in the merit system. News reports on efforts to change or possibly circumvent it should be taken seriously. I encourage you to share your thoughts by calling the toll-free General Assembly Message Line at (800) 372-7181 or by e-mailing me at email@example.com.