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Hatch Act needs to be updated

September 1, 2012
The Inter-Mountain

The Hatch Act, passed in 1939, was intended to prevent federal employees from peddling their influence in exchange for favors and to prevent them from engaging in political activity. It came at the height of Works Progress Administration, when federal lawmakers were fearful jobs were being granted to curry favorite with local office holders.

Fast-forward to today, and the Hatch Act's influence has been extended to the state, county and local levels. Its "in-for-a-penny, in-for-a-pound" logic has started to wreak havoc across many local political races, including here in our region.

Because of the provision that prevents those whose salary is supplemented by federal funds or who oversee federally funded projects from seeking office in a partisan election, many candidates are being forced to choose either being a provider to their families or being a political candidate.

Upshur County Chief Deputy Mike Kelley had to choose between keeping his job and the health insurance benefits his family needed or going without a paycheck for six months in order to be the next sheriff. Weston Police Chief Rob Clem has decided to continue his bid to become a Lewis County magistrate, losing health insurance coverage for himself and his family in the process.

Both law enforcement departments have been reliant on federal funds to help keep the streets of their respective communities safe. Our question is whether the Hatch Act limits finding the best candidates to accomplish this important task.

There are other anecdotal sob stories involving the Hatch Act. The Office of Special Counsel gives examples of how a county ambulance authority employee was prohibited from seeking political office because the agency accepted Medicare and Medicaid payments for hauling patients. Another tells of how a K-9 officer was barred from being a candidate because a federal grant paid for the dog he used daily in his patrols.

Lawmakers have at least twice tried to amend the Hatch Act to better conform with today's society, and both attempts have been blocked by obstacles along the way. With more federal mandates being passed down the line to states, counties and cities, even more federal funds are being funneled into programs involving stimulus packages, highway safety, welfare, education and even Homeland Security.

When the Hatch Act was initiated, local agencies were far less dependent on federal funds than they are today. But, unfortunately, the law has not kept pace with modern times. In today's heated political atmosphere, it's getting much harder to convince qualified people to throw their hats into the ring. We would urge federal lawmakers to bring the Hatch Act into the 21st century to take away some of those obstacles and help our communities move forward.



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