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N.M. doesn’t need a Plum Book

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — “If I’m elected governor, I’ll fire every single political appointee.” Sound familiar? You’ve likely heard that promise from every single gubernatorial candidate for almost a year.

We’re down to only two candidates now and this is one campaign promise you can expect either of them to keep. Governors always do. They want their own trusted individuals around them, not the former governor’s buddies.

How would you handle it if you were the incoming governor? Wouldn’t you want your most trusted associates at your side to help implement your initiatives?

So before your term even begins, you would send a form letter to all your predecessor’s appointees thanking them for their service and advising them that if they are interested in further employment with the state, go stand in line at the personnel office.

And then you start hiring your own staff of exempt employees. But one word of caution: don’t go overboard. You’ll need an office staff and a slew of cabinet secretaries and some sort of executive assistant for each.

But resist the temptation to put hundreds more on the payroll no matter what the reason. Bill Richardson may have gotten the idea in Washington, D.C., which has many thousands of such jobs, advertised at the beginning of each administration.

It is known as the Plum Book. The ones I’ve seen are even plum colored. The message is that they are plum jobs.

The Plum Book was created by President Eisenhower back in 1952. After 20 years of Democratic control of the presidency, Republicans weren’t sure which were the patronage jobs and which weren’t. The practice has continued every four years since then.

With a good personnel system now in place, New Mexico doesn’t need a Plum Book. Its personnel office knows who the classified personnel are. It should also know who the exempt employees are but it claims not to keep such records.

And apparently neither does anyone else. Otherwise we would know the identities of the 59 political appointees that Gov. Bill Richardson told the Legislature he was cutting from the state budget.

Gov. Richardson did release a list recently showing 22 exempt jobs that have become vacant since he made his promise of cutting 59 appointees.

But that list isn’t like federal Plum Book jobs. These 22 jobs may not be filled by the next governor. It is up to each governor to decide what and how many political appointees are needed.

Or maybe it depends on how many political friends need jobs. Do you know of any friend of Bill who has been denied a job?

A few governors have retained cabinet secretaries or other exempt employees from the previous administration. But even when transitioning from one Democratic administration to another, few appointees are kept.

This was evident in December 2008, when it appeared Gov. Richardson was headed to Washington. Early in that month Lt. Gov. Diane Denish mailed a letter, reportedly to all exempt employees, notifying them that their service to the state would soon end.

Except where did she get that list?

It is possible to promote from within and not hire any political employees. But that often involves requiring classified employees, protected by the personnel act, to give up those rights in order to receive the promotion, higher pay and the risk of being fired immediately.

That seems to always be true of cabinet secretaries.  Governors just don’t seem to like giving orders to someone they can’t fire on the spot.

And there’s another little trick. A political appointee can transfer into a classified position at the end of a governor’s term. The catch to that one is that it takes a year to get out of probationary status.

All these political jobs may sound a little corrupt. But until the personnel act came along in the early 1960s, everyone was a political appointee.

Imagine the mischief that produced.

E-mail Jay Miller at insidethecapitol@hotmail.com.