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Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

The Republican Party of Wisconsin is lobbing criticism at Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, for his vote against 2015 legislation overhauling the state's civil service system, noting the measure codified sexual harassment as a fireable offense for state employees. 

The party argues Wachs passed up a "clear avenue" offered by the Legislature's Republican majority to take employees accused of harassment off the state payroll. 

Wachs, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2018, says he supported that element of the legislation, but not the bill in its entirety. 

In a statement, RPW spokesman Alec Zimmerman accused Wachs of being "all talk and no action."

Wachs called last month for a "complete overhaul of the training, reporting, and settlement procedures for sexual harassment and assault in the Wisconsin legislature." 

He accused Walker and Republican legislative leaders of dropping the ball, arguing there is "not a clearly defined, transparent process for addressing sexual harassment in the workplace."

Assembly employees attended a mandatory staff meeting late last month led by the Legislature's human resources director, to discuss sexual harassment prevention and response. Lawmakers were encouraged but not required to attend.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said last month they have agreed to make sexual harassment training a mandatory component of the ethics training given to legislators and staff members at the start of each legislative session.

Zimmerman said Wachs's "opposition to reforms that allow state agencies to crack down on government employees engaged in sexual harassment shows that the latest push by his campaign is nothing more than a cheap political ploy."

In an email, Wachs spokeswoman Olivia Hwang called the civil service legislation "an attack on Wisconsin workers."

"It eliminated protections for tenured civil servants and allowed Walker to fill government agencies with his political allies," Hwang said. "If Walker had it his way, government workers would all be political appointees. Taxpayer-funded jobs should go to qualified candidates not folks with the best political connections. While Dana did support making sexual harassment a fireable offense, he did not support the other parts of the bill."

The civil service legislation overhauled a century-old system established as a way to put qualified workers in state jobs and prevent political patronage.

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Advocates for the changes said the state needed a system that expedites hiring, rewarded outstanding performance and put clear and consistent rules in place across the board as a significant portion of the state's workforce starts to become eligible for retirement. Critics said the changes would erode worker protections and open the door for cronyism and corruption.

The new rules eliminated the state's civil service exam and replaced it with a resume-based hiring system, and shortened hiring timelines from 105 days to 60 days.

The changes also allowed for merit compensation and gave performance more weight than seniority in layoff decisions. They also clarified the parameters of "just cause" for termination, and allowed an employer to take action such as suspension without pay or termination, without using progressive discipline, for certain conduct, including theft of agency property and harassing another person.

Wachs's campaign pointed to several legislative efforts he has supported related to sexual assault, including co-sponsoring legislation in 2016 to make victims of sexual assault and bystanders who help report an assault immune from any disciplinary action related to underage drinking.

Wachs also co-sponsored legislation in 2015 and 2016 to protect the confidentiality of people who report sexual assault, domestic abuse, or stalking, and co-sponsored a 2014 bill to allow victims of commercial sexual exploitation to address their abuse in a civil court action.

He also voted in favor of Marsy's Law, an effort to add a package of constitutional rights for crime victims to the state Constitution.

His campaign also said as an attorney, Wachs has represented clients who were sexually assaulted by medical professionals. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.