SPRINGFIELD — Hundreds of state jobs that once were exempt from Rutan anti-patronage protections have been reclassified to remove them from political influence during the four years of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration.

In an interview with The State Journal-Register, Joe Hartzler of Chatham, who was special counsel to Rauner, said that most of his time with the administration was spent on eliminating patronage positions.

“The thing that I spent most of my time on, you can call it employment reform or hiring reform to reduce the number of patronage-eligible positions,” he said. “It is a radical change.”

Hartzler said that “we knocked out like 2,500 patronage positions.”

“More importantly, we drew a very bright line between people who could be appointed with political considerations versus those people who are, let’s just call them protected employees,” he said. “No administration can any longer hire its political people and saddle the next administration with them.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 Rutan decision essentially said that patronage or political affiliations should not play a role in most hiring, firing and other personnel decisions in government jobs. There are exemptions, however, for some policy-making positions and other key jobs where political considerations could play a role in who was hired or fired.

At one point, several thousand state jobs were considered Rutan-exempt and subject to patronage considerations. Hartzler said the number is now below 1,500.

Much of the change stemmed from the controversy involving hiring practices at the Illinois Department of Transportation under former Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn. Politically connected people were hired into “staff assistant” positions and then ended up doing work that should have been free from patronage considerations.

An investigation by the executive inspector general determined improper hiring was going on, although it did not say that Quinn specifically knew of the practice. Chicago attorney Michael Shakman, who has fought patronage in government for years, pressed the federal courts to appoint a special master to further investigate IDOT hiring practices. The court ordered the appointment about two weeks before election day in 2014, when Quinn was defeated by Rauner.

Hartzler said the investigation by Chicago attorney Noelle Brennan determined the problem went beyond IDOT.

“It included the whole state hiring system,” he said. “The state had these positions that were Rutan-exempt, but were covered by the personnel code or covered by union protection. One governor could appoint people into positions, they would have job protections and the next governor couldn’t get rid of them. Where we turned a corner was when we agreed that jobs that were Rutan-exempt should not have job protections.”

In other words, if a job could be filled through political connections it should not have the same protections as non-political jobs. Hartzler said most of jobs in question have not been filled under the Rauner administration.

The key then was to identify the jobs that absolutely should be Rutan-exempt. Those jobs were identified in a court filing last week for agencies except IDOT.

In a brief interview Friday, Brennan said Hartzler “was such an integral part of that whole process” in identifying jobs that should not be Rutan-exempt.

“Without him we would not have made the progress we made,” she said. “I think the state ultimately cut in half the number of exempt positions, and he was the primary motivator behind that whole initiative from the state side.”

Hartzler said that Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker’s transition team has been apprised of the situation. He said Pritzker is supportive of it.

Pritzker’s team did not respond to a request for comment.