Democratic Reps.: Tune up civil service – don’t turn it into crony system

Earlier today Democratic State Reps. Jocasta Zamarripa, Christine Sinicki, Tod Ohnstad, Robb Kahl, and Rep. Jonathan Brostoff wrote an op-ed for the CapTimes outlining all the bad things Republican efforts to “reform” Wisconsin’s civil service laws would do.

Here’s a snippet.

While Republicans deconstructed Wisconsin’s historic campaign and ethics laws last week, two other destructive bills also moved ahead rapidly. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted on Oct. 21, Gov. Scott Walker returned just weeks ago and suddenly legislative Republicans introduced Assembly Bill 373 and Senate Bill 285. These bills take apart our state’s historic civil service, under the Republicans’ favorite umbrella reason: “reform.”

AB 373 and SB 285 pick up where the Republicans’ budget left off in this mission: that earlier bill moved the independent civil service office into the bureaucracy of the Department of Administration, where Walker has centralized other state functions. Dreams of centralized authority are typically gubernatorial; Govs. Tommy Thompson and Jim Doyle also made moves in that direction. As usual, Walker and willing legislative Republicans are taking it to extreme.

Their civil service “reform” bills remove the core traits of any civil service: rigorous hiring methods and criteria, and standardized hiring and lay-off processes. Gov. Bob La Follette adopted this civil service structure a century ago to protect the taxpayers’ interest in an era of infamous political cronyism. In doing so, he created a highly qualified workforce removed from political patronage.

AB 373 and SB 285 are hastily drafted bills that fail to replace these core infrastructures with anything except imagined improvements (the use of personal resumes, centrally), literally leaving it to the Department of Administration to figure out the details after the bills pass.

That void in these bills opens the door to political favoritism, to the possibility of allowing friends, campaign workers, and donors easy access to state jobs. With no secure evaluative hiring process in place, the governor and appointees could hire hangers-on to handle sensitive and complex information and functions such as our personal ID and financial data; the engineering of our roads and bridges; the protection of public health, from HIV to tuberculosis; even the protection of our children from abuse and trafficking.

Under the proposed bills, the current state workers responsible for these vital functions will be vulnerable to firing and replacement at the whim of every appointed administrator. For example, if the Department of Revenue were told to tighten its belt by laying off staff, its top appointees would be allowed to terminate experienced staff responsible for handling your personal tax information and retain a temp worker with next to no experience instead. Cheaper? Yes. Smarter? No.

One thing that’s stuck with me is the notion that Republicans have put forth their changes to Wisconsin’s civil service laws under the auspices that the changes they’ve proposed will make it easier and faster for the state to hire new employees to fill vacant positions.

However, what Republicans are conveniently ignoring is why the state has so many vacant positions to begin with, namely the fact that the changes Republicans brought about as a result of Act 10 – changes which left many state employees feeling demoralized and unappreciated – have caused many state employees to leave state service, either through retirement or because they found other employment. The cold hard truth of things is that Republicans can’t hire their way out of the problems that plague state government unless they’re willing to take an objective look at how their actions have negatively impacted the state’s ability to retain and recruit good employees.


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