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Kansas lawmakers move to shrink civil service as Senate tackles pensions, power plant bills

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TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas is expected to reduce the number of state workers covered by its civil service system after the Republican-dominated Legislature approved a bill Tuesday making it easier for state agencies to reclassify jobs.

The Senate approved the civil service bill, 24-16. The House approved the same measure in March, and it goes next to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. The bill embodies an initiative from his administration.

Passage of the measure came as senators also approved a measure on public pensions and a bill requiring legislators to sign off on any plan from the state for complying with a new federal rule designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Following is a look at significant legislative developments Tuesday:


CIVIL SERVICE CHANGES

The civil service bill inspired a contentious debate, with Democrats strongly opposed and Republicans split over it.

Under the measure, newly hired state workers wouldn't be covered by the civil service system and current employees could voluntarily move into non-civil service jobs. Also, more than 30 agencies would be allowed to convert vacant positions to non-civil service jobs.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, said the changes would put state agencies more in line with practices in private industry. She said the changes will make it easier for agencies to tailor jobs to unique staffing needs.

"It will provide flexibility to state agencies to fill those positions, to satisfy their mission and to be better stewards of taxpayer resources," she said.

Kansas has about 13,000 civil service employees, who enjoy more job protections than other workers. The Department of Administration has said many current civil service workers will remain under the system even after the changes, but critics are skeptical.

"This is a retreat from the protections that civil servants deserve, and we're going in a backward motion," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.


POWER PLANT EMISSIONS

The Senate's vote on the power-plant emissions bill was 34-3. The House passed a version of the bill in March but must consider changes made by senators.

The Senate version would allow the secretary of health and environment to draft a plan for complying with the new rule from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has said that if a state doesn't draft a plan for lowering carbon emissions by next year, the federal agency will impose one.

Under the bill, the plan could include voluntary agreements with utilities to lower carbon emissions that have been linked by scientists to climate change.

But an 11-member legislative committee would have to approve the plan before the state could submit it to the EPA.


PUBLIC PENSIONS

The pension bill would rewrite rules for teachers, school administrators and other public employees who return to work after retiring.

The Senate's 40-0 vote Tuesday sends the measure to the House.

The state allows public employees to retire but return to work and earn up to $20,000 a year while drawing their pension benefits. If they earn more, their pension benefits are suspended for the rest of the calendar year.

Schools regularly use the program to bring veteran workers into hard-to-fill positions.

The working-after-retirement program expires at the end of June. The bill extends the program for two years but then makes changes, starting in July 2017.

The changes are designed to prevent workers and employers from setting up post-retirement jobs before a worker retires. Senate pensions committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said the IRS has told state officials that allowing such arrangements could jeopardize the tax-exempt status of all retirees' benefits.

Under the bill, starting in July 2017, retired workers would be allowed to earn $25,000 in their post-retirement jobs.


Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org


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