Senate Passes Bill Targeting Potential Political Influence in State Hiring

Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Baltimore, Howard) introduced a bill that would require reporting about the involvement of the governor’s appointments office in state hiring.

After a lengthy debate Friday afternoon, the Maryland Senate passed a bill that would require reporting about the involvement in the governor’s appointments office in state hiring decisions.

Senate Bill 751 was introduced by Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Baltimore, Howard), who is co-chair of the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight. For two sessions, he has been raising questions about state employees at Grade 19 or higher who were vetted by the governor’s appointments office before being hired.

He introduced a similar bill last legislative session in the House of Delegates that passed that chamber, but died in the Senate for lack of time. This year, the measure passed the Senate 26-17 on Friday and heads over to the House late in the session.

Lam and supporters of the bill say they are concerned that the appointments office is considering the political leanings of state applicants or other information that should not be relevant to their qualifications for employment. The lawmakers have received limited information about the role of the appointments office, including a statistic provided at a briefing on the topic last fall: between July 1, 2017, and Sept. 27, 2018, 346 of the 771 people hired by state agencies at Grade 19 or higher had been vetted first by the governor’s appointments office.

Lam said the applicants are being asked to fill out a form that’s meant for political appointees. The form, on the appointments office website, includes questions about peoples’ backgrounds, including positions they’ve taken on controversial issues, political involvement, and affiliations with clubs and associations.

“We believe that the information they’re receiving is questionable within the current law,” Lam said Friday.

A very small sliver of state government employees in Grade 19 are political appointees, Lam said. Having a large number of applicants go through a political hiring process for non-political jobs just doesn’t make any sense, he said.

In October, the Hogan administration said one of the roles of the governor’s appointments office is to — upon request — “perform basic vetting through use of publicly available documents to ensure that prospective employees for high-level, at-will positions are suitable for employment by the state.”

Under current law, the appointments office may not direct, overrule or otherwise take any action regarding the decision of state government hiring managers.

The bill would require a full report on the appointments office involvement in vetting state government job candidates and require the Maryland attorney general’s office to create an anonymous reporting tip line and email where violations of the state’s hiring process could be reported.

Republicans in the Senate said the bill amounts to the legislative branch micromanaging the executive branch.

“There is a difference between legislative oversight and legislative overreach,” said Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore), noting that she’s worked in both the legislature and the executive branch.

The Hogan administration did not provide a position for or against the bill at a hearing earlier this month.

Asked about the vote Friday, Hogan spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill said simply, “The governor will carefully review the legislation when it reaches his desk.”

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