Clout still counts in state hiring

Clout still counts in state hiring

A report from a good-government group shows that illegal hiring practices are a fact of life.

Hiring of state employees in Illinois is supposed to be based on qualifications, not clout, under a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Rutan vs. the Republican Party of Illinois.

But change doesn't come easy in such a determinedly corrupt state, as a new report by the Chicago-based Better Government Association demonstrates.

The BGA examined what is supposed to be nonpolitical hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation and concluded that hundreds of IDOT jobs have been filled over the past decade based on applicants' political connections, not job qualifications.

The BGA said the IDOT managers manipulate job descriptions to get around court-mandated hiring rules and that, once hired, the political hires did not carry out their required duties. The BGA also reports that IDOT suspended its improper hiring after learning last year that the state's executive inspector general was taking at look at IDOT's hiring practices.

But here's the real kick in the teeth, according to the BGA report. There's no real penalty for evading hiring rules, no continuing oversight to ensure that the rules are followed and nothing to ensure that violations won't happen in the future.

In other words, what we have here is political reform Illinois-style — no reform at all just, easily evaded written rules that signal good intentions to the public.

Political hiring once was common in state government at all levels. Workers came and went as Democratic or Republican administrations came and went.

Political hiring was supposed to end after the high court's decision in Rutan, with the exception of a relatively small number of jobs at top levels of state government that included policy-making or media responsibilities.

But the BGA discovered that political people are hired under phony job descriptions that often include those two excepted areas, even though their real responsibilities, assuming they even do whatever it is they are actually hired to do, are different.

The BGA reports that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich opened the door dramatically to political hiring at IDOT by creating vague "staff assistant" jobs designed to get around Rutan. The improper hiring has continued under Gov. Pat Quinn.

This approach shortchanges the public because it's not getting the necessary bang for its hiring buck. It's also unfair to IDOT's qualified workers because they have to carry the load of underqualified colleagues hired for political reasons.

This, of course, is how it's always been done in Illinois, pre- and post-Rutan. It won't end until the voters demand better, and there's not much sign of that happening.

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