The number of legislative proposals Gov. Scott Walker has publicly championed since his 2014 re-election has been relatively small.
The most memorable was a proposal to publicly fund part of a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, which the governor pushed for at a press conference in early June. Since then, he's spent most of his time on the presidential campaign trail — until Monday, when he announced he would exit the race.
Three days later, the governor publicly declared his support for a new GOP proposal to overhaul Wisconsin's century-old civil service system for state employees.
"Wisconsin needs to be able to compete for the best and the brightest employees in today’s modern workforce. 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 in a statement. "Through these reforms, we will be able to ensure state government is providing the highest quality services to our citizens."
The proposal, introduced by Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, would get rid of the state's civil service exams — which Roth called "archaic" — and replace them with a resume-based merit hiring system, eliminate the process of employees "bumping" others with less seniority to keep a job, shorten the hiring process, lengthen the probation period for employees and shorten the amount of time they have to file appeals for discipline or dismissal.
Walker sent a series of tweets Thursday and Friday promoting the bill.
The civil service system was established as a way to put qualified workers in state jobs and prevent political patronage, but advocates of the new proposal say the process has become too slow and outdated.
It was signed into law in 1905 under then-Gov. Robert M. La Follette, bearing the slogan, "The best shall serve the state."
Walker touted the system's strength in 2011, when he announced Act 10 — the controversial legislation that curbed collective bargaining rights for most public employees and sparked massive protests at the Capitol.
"In Wisconsin, the rights that most workers have have been set through the civil service system, which predates collective bargaining by several generations," Walker said in March 2011. "That doesn't change. All the civil service protections — the strongest civil service system in the country — still strongly remains intact."
Republican lawmakers said this week they're not attacking the system, they're just aiming to align it more closely with modern practices of the private sector.
Last year, officials in the Walker administration told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters multiple times they weren't looking at changes to the system. But records obtained by the paper in July 2014 showed early discussions were taking place.
In response to that report, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, sent a letter to Office of State Employee Relations Director Gregory Gracz requesting that OSER solicit input from public employees and voters regarding any proposed changes to the system.
Barca on Thursday called the proposal a "politically motivated attack on hardworking state employees."
"Also, this once again violates a giant promise the governor made during Act 10 that public employees would be protected by civil service," he said.
Walker, in support of the proposal, cited several examples of ways the current system is failing. He questioned the accuracy of the civil service exam, and said sometimes the hiring process is so prolonged that a top candidate will take another job while waiting for a response.
The bill's supporters listed several anecdotes showing failure of the system, including a probation officer watching 4.2 hours of pornography per day while on the job, a Department of Revenue employee who fled to Canada while under investigation and was unable to be fired and Public Service Commission employees having sexual relations in a conference room.
An aide to Roth directed questions about the incidents to each individual agency.
"A decision to terminate a DOC employee who viewed pornographic websites approximately 4.2 hours per day during work time was overturned," said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joy Staab in an email. "The arbitrator found the department had just cause to discipline the employee, but the termination was too harsh and the employee was reinstated. No discipline was imposed. The employee was given full back pay. The employee was terminated in 2004 and reinstated in 2005."
Public Service Commission spokeswoman Elise Nelson said the PSC incident that was referenced occurred in 2011, between two non-management classified employees. OSER recommended discipline short of termination, Nelson said, adding that PSC would not name the employees at this time.
George Althoff, spokesman for the Department of Financial Institutions, noted that in 2013, DFI was interviewing candidates to fill a financial examiner position. Based on the results of a civil service exam, a short-order cook qualified as a finalist, Althoff said.
"The relevant point is that a candidate who lacked the necessary skill set made it through a flawed and antiquated hiring process. As a result, DFI was required to interview that candidate, slowing down the process and perhaps depriving another qualified candidate from being interviewed. Had a resume-based process been in place, this more than likely would not have occurred," Althoff said.
A DOR spokeswoman confirmed that in 2012, an employee went missing for days without contacting his supervisor or other colleagues at the agency. The agency learned he had fled to Canada and stolen $1,530 from the agency that was meant to be a payment from a taxpayer. The employee was terminated and charged, but the case is pending because his whereabouts are unknown.
According to DOR, the employee had no other incidents of theft, and the taxpayer's account was credited to acknowledge the payment.
"The public entrusts us with their confidential information and payments. When an employee fails to show up for work and does not inform anyone for days of their whereabouts, it demonstrates a lack of respect for their coworkers and the citizens who count on us for service. And to steal from a taxpayer is deplorable and disgraceful," said DOR spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis.
Opponents of the bill say the anecdotes don't provide sufficient evidence that the changes will be for the better.
Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, pointed to examples of Walker aides sending racist emails on the job during his time as Milwaukee County Executive as a counter. Those emails were released as part of a John Doe investigation.
Ross and OWN deputy director Mike Browne said people need look no further than the embattled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to find out what happens when civil service protections are removed.
"I think we can all agree that ... WEDC is the poster agency for cronyism, incompetence and corruption," Ross said. "So doing this to all of state government means there will be a very clear message sent to state employees: you put the political considerations of this administration before the needs of the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin."
Walker replaced the Department of Commerce with the quasi-public WEDC after taking office in 2011. It was one of his top priorities, touted as a way to spur job growth.
Since its inception, it has been mired in problems with accounting failures, questionable loans and high turnover. An unsecured $500,000 loan to the since-dissolved Building Committee Inc. was not repaid, even as the company was collapsing. The loan was given after BCI owner William Minahan donated the maximum $10,000 to Walker's campaign, and records showed that top Walker aides had pushed for it.
The proposal is set to be released next week. Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 32, said it's an attack on the state's tradition of clean government.
“These rules exist to ensure state employment decisions are based on what you know, not who you know. 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,” Badger said in a statement.