State’s civil service system ends, let the cronyism begin

WiG editorial

An overhaul of the state’s 111-year-old civil service system leaves 30,000 state workers and an untold number of job applicants to face a return to the political patronage approach that the system was designed to eliminate.

Perhaps most significantly, the new system eliminates the use of objective testing to guide hiring decisions. That means state jobs can be handed out as political favors — no proof of knowledge required.

It’s not as if such patronage is unthinkable. Gov. Scott Walker’s administration repeatedly has gotten into trouble for just that. For example, the governor gave a high-level, $81,500-per-year job as a bureau director to the son of a donor who’d given Walker more than $120,000 in campaign contributions. Walker didn’t seem to mind that the young man had two drunk-driving convictions and neither management experience nor a college degree.

Faced with outrage, Walker changed his mind on that particular decision. Under the new law, we fear there will be too many patronage hires for the media to keep up.

Without using exams to ensure some level of competence, state agencies can hire applicants with partisan connections and oust anyone they believe disagrees with the governor’s policies.

“Showing up at work with the wrong bumper sticker on your car could endanger your career,” Rick Badger, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 32, which represents state and local public workers in Wisconsin, wrote in a recent opinion piece. “That’s the problem with a one-party control by shortsighted ideologues obsessed with stacking the deck and preserving their monopoly.”

In unveiling the plan last fall, Walker offered up an example of why “reform” was needed. Unfortunately for Wisconsinites, it was a patently false and inflammatory anecdote about the state’s railroad commissioner being prevented by civil service law from firing two railroad workers who had sex on state time and property. Trying again to justify civil service “reform,” the bill’s Republican authors said the measure would help agencies fill vacancies more speedily as Baby Boomers retire and ensure workers who behave badly are dealt with. We’ll see.

As The Associated Press has noted, the changes to the civil service system mark a trifecta for Walker when it comes to labor law.

He did away with almost all public workers’ collective bargaining rights in 2011 and last year signed a measure that made Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state. Under that law, employees can benefit from union-negotiated contracts without having to pay union fees. The ultimate goal of both laws is to starve unions, making labor cheaper for wealthy campaign donors.

And now, under the new approach to state employment, job seekers need no longer take competency exams but need only an application and a resume — and presumably, connections. Hiring decisions will be centralized within Walker’s Department of Administration and state employees will no longer be given preference when filling other state positions.

The law also allows agencies to fire, suspend or demote workers without imposing progressive discipline.

One portion of the law — creating a performance management system to measure performance — has yet to be developed. Walker’s administration told state lawmakers they’re giving agencies until Sept. 1 to develop the system, which will determine the order of layoffs.

Trifecta indeed.

In what has become a familiar pattern of deception, Walker said a year before gutting the civil service system that he wouldn’t touch it. He pulled the same stunt with making Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state, saying he had no interest in doing it about a year before he did it.

And, of course, Walker also said his euphemistically named “budget-repair bill” would leave collective bargaining “fully intact” before he gutted state unions.

Now Walker’s demolition of the civil service system leaves us wondering what’s next. With this governor, there’s always a big surprise around the corner, and it’s never one that moves Wisconsin forward.

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