Gov. Scott Walker proposes changes for civil service system

Gov. Scott Walker talks with Republican Assembly members Thursday after telling them of his support for changes to the state’s civil service system.

SCOTT BAUER -- Associated Press

Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers are calling for changes to the state’s century-old civil service system that would eliminate exams and seniority protections, centralize hiring within the Department of Administration and make it easier to fire misbehaving state employees.

Public-sector union leaders and Democrats said it’s Walker’s latest attack on workers.

Overhauling the civil service system is the first major policy initiative Walker has thrown his weight behind after ending his presidential campaign Monday. In his first public appearance this week, Walker told the Republican Assembly caucus that he supports the proposal and that it would be one of many bills he looks forward to signing as he completes his second term.

The move comes more than four years after Walker swept away collective bargaining for most public-sector employees, a proposal he defended by saying the civil service system is “the protection that workers have that’s the most important in the state of Wisconsin. … It was there long before collective bargaining, it’ll be there long after.”

About 30,000 state employees are part of the civil service system. It includes almost all state workers, but legislative staff, University of Wisconsin System faculty and academic appointments, and political appointees such as Cabinet secretaries, top agency administrators, lawyers and communications professionals aren’t covered.

Under the system, applicants for certain state jobs must complete one or more exams and candidates are hired based on test results and experience, rather than political affiliation. Employees can be fired only for “just cause” and there are protections that allow senior employees to bump others from jobs if their positions are eliminated.

In a statement Thursday, Walker said the changes are needed to help recruit and retain “the best and the brightest employees in today’s modern workforce.”

He cited as examples of problems with the current system, a short-order cook considered for a financial examiner position at the Department of Financial Institutions, a Department of Natural Resources employee who couldn’t be fired despite spending thousands of hours at work watching pornography, and a Department of Revenue employee under investigation for theft who fled to Canada but couldn’t be fired until missing five consecutive days of work, per state law.

Walker also said many agencies have taken months to hire their best candidate, only to find that person had taken a different job in the private sector.

“This legislation will implement common-sense reforms to our recruiting process to get the best in the door and will give state agencies the tools to retain their great employees, as well as to address the bad actors who abuse the system,” Walker said. “Through these reforms, we will be able to ensure state government is providing the highest quality services to our citizens.”

A state spokeswoman last year said Walker didn’t want to change civil service protections.

The bill to be introduced next week by Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, and Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, seeks to retain the principles of merit hiring and “just cause” dismissal and to streamline what they described as an “archaic process” with modern private-sector practices, the lawmakers said Thursday.

It will define “just cause” to include things like theft, falsifying information, being intoxicated or viewing pornography on the job or being convicted of a crime. But they said the law will continue to protect employees from being fired for things such as signing a petition to recall Walker or posting political material in an office cubicle.

The bill would also ensure hiring decisions are made within 60 days, and also that the appeals process for firing decisions lasts six to seven months, rather than up to two years.

Alternative to patronage

The civil service system was put in place during the Progressive Era by Gov. Robert La Follette to combat the patronage systems of previous decades in which politicians would hire based on political allegiance. Wisconsin was the first state to adopt such a system, according to retired UW-Madison political science professor Dennis Dresang.

Democrats decried the proposed changes, saying they would foster a return to such a system.

“The repeal of civil service protections is an invitation to more corruption in a Republican administration that continues to be plagued by scandals, cronyism and special interest influence,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse.

Wisconsin State Employees Union executive director Rick Badger called the proposal “another attack on Wisconsin’s tradition of clean government, a tradition this administration has already placed on life support.”

“These rules exist to ensure state employment decisions are based on what you know, not who you know,” Badger said. “Any changes coming from a governor who is clearly obsessed with silencing workers, punishing foes and concentrating his own political power should be viewed with alarm.”

Even with civil service protections in place, there have been accusations of political hiring under both Republican and Democratic administrations. A Democratic political operative tied to Gov. Jim Doyle was hired to run the state’s Edvest program. Cindy Archer, a longtime Walker aide whose Madison home was searched as part of a John Doe investigation into Walker’s Milwaukee County office, landed the top IT job in the state public defender’s office.

Roth and Steineke said the new law doesn’t strengthen or weaken current protections against political patronage.

According to a synopsis provided by Steineke’s office, the forthcoming bill would “streamline the hiring process to fill positions with qualified candidates more quickly.”

The proposal would:

  • Replace civil service exams with a resume-based system.
  • Centralize human resource functions in the Department of Administration under the Division of Personnel Management, which replaced the Office of State Employee Relations in the latest budget. Currently, individual agencies make their own hiring and firing decisions.
  • Implement a standard annual performance review across agencies in order to reward exemplary work.
  • Define “just cause” to eliminate a “gray area surrounding the state’s ability to terminate employment.”
  • Eliminate “bumping” rules that allow senior employees whose positions are cut to take a different position held by less experienced employees. That includes eliminating a provision that allows elected officials who were previously state employees to return to state employment after leaving office.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, is “fully supportive of this long overdue effort to make common sense reforms to Wisconsin’s civil service system,” spokeswoman Myranda Tanck said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he hasn’t reviewed the bill, but he supports the goals.

Jay Heck, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Wisconsin, said he didn’t understand the need to eliminate the civil service exam because it provides an objective measure to show that the best employees are being hired, whereas comparing resumes is more subjective.

He also questioned centralizing hiring decisions at the Department of Administration, where decisions could be more influenced by political considerations from the governor’s office.

“They’re not getting rid of the system, but they’re gaining more control over it,” Heck said. “Anything to do with civil service reform ought to be bipartisan and there ought to be input from all sides to make changes to the system that will be lasting and meaningful.”

Dresang, the UW-Madison professor who was involved in making changes to the civil service system in the 1960s that among other things created more specialized exams for different departments, also was surprised that the state would move to a resume-based system, saying “that won’t solve the issues that we really need to have solved here.”

“What they really might just as well do is hire people randomly,” Dresang said. “Put them in a job and see if they can do it. That’s not a far cry from using resumes.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.