Civil service system created to reduce political patronage

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Republicans are moving quickly to enact changes in Wisconsin’s century-old civil service system with Gov. Scott Walker calling it “common sense reforms” that will address the “bad actors” employed by the state.

Critics said it will expand patronage opportunities, suggesting that any “reforms” ought to have bipartisan study and support before being enacted.

The legislation would replace civil service exams, now the first step in state hiring, with a system based on written resumes. That clearly would place a focus on the references included with the resume. References from those with ties to the party in power likely would carry more weight in the first step in hiring.

Hiring would be centralized in the Department of Administration under the division of Personnel Management. Currently, each state agency makes its own hiring and firing decisions.

Critics said shifting the hiring and firing decisions to DOA might bring political considerations from the governor’s office into the employment equations. Both hiring and firing would be accelerated.

Perhaps the biggest change for the 30,000 persons covered under civil service would be the elimination of seniority protections and bumping rights. In hard times, it would allow layoffs of any employee regardless of how many years they have been in state service. Annual performance reviews also would be implemented.

Laying off senior workers would save more money because they usually have higher salaries than those recently hired. It’s a tactic often employed in the private sector. Whether the laid off workers would have any re-employment right could be another issue.

Under current bumping procedures, a worker facing the loss of his job can move (bump) to a lower paying job. Loss of the bumping protection could discourage veteran workers from accepting appointments to higher jobs or middle management positions.

Workers with families may prefer to just continue their current jobs even though they have the knowledge and skills for the higher positions in government. That reluctance, in turn, could open the door to hiring outsiders with politically acceptable resumes.

Walker contends that civil service protections would be “fully intact” if the Republican sponsored measure is enacted.

“If anything, we’re enhancing the benefits of the old civil service system. We’re just getting rid of stuff that’s outdated,” according to the governor.

Walker is best known for legislation which stripped power from public employee unions in 2011. The governor has said civil service laws would continue to protect government employees. He championed the union law changes during his aborted attempt to run for the Republican nomination for president. The changes made it easier to fire teachers and public employees, he had told audiences in Iowa.

Rick Badger, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said Walker’s earlier union-busting activities had placed the state’s tradition of clean government on “life support.” Civil service rules “exist to ensure state employment decisions are based on what you know, not who you know,” he said.

“Any changes coming from a governor who is clearly obsessed with silencing workers, punishing foes and concentrating on his own political power should be viewed with alarm,” added Badger.

The Wisconsin Legislature enacted a statewide civil service system in 1905, following New York State in 1883 and Massachusetts in 1884. The Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century pushed for its enactment to combat patronage systems of the 19th Century.

Ironically, the proposed changes could be an interesting political tool when Wisconsin elects a Democrat as governor. Republicans might be livid with what unfolds.

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