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    Bush pushes controversial civil service changes

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday proposed massive changes for the state's civil service system, including a controversial plan to make it easier to hire and fire state workers.

    Bush wants to abandon Florida's longtime system of firing someone only after the state has done a detailed review to determine "cause." Instead, state workers could be fired at the "sound discretion of an agency head." They would be entitled to an appeal, but the burden would be on the state worker to prove that the decision wasn't arbitrary or based on political patronage, party affiliation or discrimination.

    "There would not be firing of anyone because of how they look or what party they are from," Bush said at a news conference to promote his plan.

    Bush said his talks and e-mails with state workers have revealed a "climate of mistrust" between state managers and employees under the current system. His plan, he said, will make government more efficient and give state employees incentives to do well.

    The union that represents state workers issued a press release calling Bush's plan "nothing less than a full, frontal assault on Florida's hard-working state employees" and predicting that the proposal would weaken state services.

    Bush acknowledged that making changes to Florida's 1950s-era civil service system is controversial, and he immediately did statewide television interviews to promote the plan. He also paid a visit Thursday afternoon to the editorial board of the Tallahassee Democrat, the hometown newspaper for most top-level state workers.

    Florida has 125,000 employees around the state. Previous efforts to overhaul the civil service system have failed.

    "Surely there's going to be political opposition to this," Bush said. "This isn't ideological. This isn't partisan. This is what I talked about when I ran for office."

    Bush also wants to increase the number of state employees who are "at will," which means they could be hired and fired more easily. To do that, he would take all supervisors and managers -- about 16,300 employees -- out of the career service category and make them "at will."

    The governor also proposed a list of new incentives for state workers, including more pay raises and performance bonuses.

    His plan is more moderate than one proposed this year by some state legislators and the Council of 100, a high-powered business group. The legislators and the Council of 100 advocated making all state employees "at will," a proposal that sent shock waves through the state work force and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees -- the union that represents state employees. Bush's proposal comes as the state and the union are negotiating a new "master contract" for state employees. State workers are already nervous because Bush wants to shrink government by 25 percent during the next five years.

    Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, sponsor of the bill to make changes to the state work force, said he'll review Bush's recommendations and possibly incorporate some into his bill.

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