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State Rep. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills

Members of the Wisconsin Legislature's budget-writing committee on Thursday rejected Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to axe the independent board that handles employment disputes in Wisconsin.

The Labor and Industry Review Commission dates back to 1911, when it was first formed as the State Industrial Commission. The independent agency resolves disputes over unemployment insurance, workers compensation and equal rights in the workplace, reviewing appeals of decisions from the state Department of Workforce Development and the state Department of Administration. 

Under Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget, the agency's functions would have been transferred to the governor's administration. Walker argued eliminating the commission would "remove an unnecessary layer of government" and streamline the timeline for decisions.

The Joint Finance Committee's Republican majority voted to preserve LIRC and eliminate 7.8 vacant positions. The committee also voted to request the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court conduct a review of the agency's decisions to determine which statutes are cited in its opinions and whether its opinions are later modified by circuit courts.

Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said committee members have heard complaints that some LIRC decisions have been overturned by circuit court judges because they were not based on current law. The report requested from the Supreme Court seeks to find out whether those complaints are true, she said. 

"We’re trying to find the balance here: Is LIRC a necessary function to preserve equal rights and safety, or is it an added layer of bureaucracy?" Darling said. "I think we need some information on that and if we look at the report and we decide we need to come back to this, we can."

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In 2016, 88 LIRC decisions, or 5 percent of the agency's decisions, were appealed to circuit court, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee voted against the measure, although they support retaining the agency, because of the elimination of vacant positions. If unemployment insurance or workers compensation appeals increase in the 2017-19 budget period, LIRC would not be able to hire additional staff without approval and additional funding from the Joint Finance Committee. 

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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.