ASSEMBLY (copy)

Rep. Jim Steineke, Assembly majority leader

The Wisconsin Assembly is set to take up a bill on Tuesday that would overhaul the state's century-old civil service system, but it's unclear whether this version or its Senate competitor will prevail. 

Committees in the two houses have passed separate versions of the proposal, creating an apparent stalemate. But bill author and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said he's confident some form of the bill will make it to Gov. Scott Walker's desk.

A key disagreement is over a "ban the box" provision in the original bill, which would remove questions about an applicant's criminal record from initial job application forms. Interviewers could ask about certain crimes later in the process.

The Assembly version would keep that provision, but an amendment to the Senate bill offered by Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, removes it. 

Steineke said his Assembly colleagues are looking at the Senate's changes, but will move forward on Tuesday with their own version.

"We're not necessarily going to change our bill just to accommodate them," Steineke said. "We want to make sure it's right for us."

Nass has argued eliminating the criminal history question could lead to wasted time if it turns out an otherwise-qualified applicant would be disqualified for a position by his or her criminal past.

His amendment, along with one offered by Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, requiring an audit of the new system, was approved by a Senate committee. Steineke said the ban-the-box provision isn't the most critical element of the bill, but it's an important one.

"I think it's important we give everybody equal opportunity to get through the interview process so we can find the best people who are available," Steineke said. "I think that’s the goal of including that in the bill. I haven’t heard a solid enough reason to take it out at this point."

The proposal, introduced in September by Steineke and Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, would scrap the civil service exam used for hiring and replace it with a resume-based hiring system, and would put in place a 60-day hiring goal. It would also implement a merit-based raise system and clarify the definition of "just cause" for termination.

Under the bill, layoff order would be based solely on job performance. Under current law, layoffs can be determined by seniority, job performance or a combination of the two. 

The bill would also allow 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.

The Assembly version was amended earlier this month to give veterans a preference in interviews and extend the probationary period for new hires to one year, rather than two. The current period is six months.

Support for and opposition against the bill largely falls along partisan lines, with Republicans favoring it and Democrats opposing it. Labor unions, left-of-center groups and good government advocates have also spoken against it.

Republican lawmakers have said they're not attacking the system, they're just aiming to align it more closely with modern practices in the private sector.

Critics argue the bill is a solution in search of a problem and would open the door for cronyism to run rampant in Wisconsin.

Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 32, has said it's an attack on rules that exist "to ensure state employment decisions are based on what you know, not who you know."

The state's civil service system was established as a way to put qualified workers in state jobs and prevent political patronage. It was signed into law in 1905 under then-Gov. Robert M. La Follette, bearing the slogan, "The best shall serve the state."

Steineke said he doesn't expect the Senate to take up the bill until after Jan. 1, but said he's confident it will eventually reach the governor's desk. Walker has publicly championed the proposal. 

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.