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Gov. Scott Walker civil service

Gov. Scott Walker, a chief proponent of the changes to the state's civil service system, is expected to sign the legislation.

The state Senate has voted to remake Wisconsin’s civil service system, enabling a supportive Gov. Scott Walker to sign the measure – the latest far-reaching change to rules governing the state workforce.

The Senate voted on party lines, 19-14, late Wednesday to pass the civil service bill. The state Assembly passed it in October.

Walker, a chief proponent of the bill, is virtually certain to sign it.

The bill applies to the state’s civil service, nearly all state workers except the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin National Guard. It replaces state civil service exams with a resume-based hiring system.

It also would determine layoffs from state agencies based on job performance instead of seniority, extend probationary time for new hires, outline specific offenses for which employees can be immediately terminated and centralize the hiring process within the Department of Administration.

The bill was a priority for passage in 2016 for Walker and his GOP legislative allies. They contend the state’s century-old civil service system is cumbersome, outdated and ripe for reform.

Democrats strongly oppose the bill, saying it could lead to cronyism in state hiring.

“State employees should be hired on what they know, not who they know,” said Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison.

Wisconsin’s civil service system was adopted in 1905 under Gov. Robert La Follette as a bulwark against political patronage.

By imposing a merit-based hiring system – including an objective hiring exam — and a “just-cause” requirement to fire state workers, it was meant to prevent state jobs from being doled out as favors to political allies.

Critics of the bill warned that it could send Wisconsin back to the patronage days of the 19th century.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, disagreed. He said the bill won’t erase an existing law barring workers from being hired based on “political affiliation.”

Roth said the state must fill many vacancies in coming years as baby boomer employees retire. He said his bill is needed to streamline the state’s hiring system and allow employees to be hired more efficiently.

“It does not strip away the civil service protections that our employees deserve,” Roth said.

Critics linked the bill to a series of bills passed under Walker and recent GOP Legislatures — starting with Act 10, the historic measure that curtailed collective bargaining rights for public employees — that they said diluted conditions and safeguards for state workers.

Walker has told at least two stories to justify the bill that haven’t been supported by state records.

One of them — that the current civil service system barred the state from firing two state Railroad Commission workers caught having sex in the workplace — was directly contradicted by former state human resource officials who served under Republican and Democratic governors.

Walker also claimed a short-order cook scored high enough on a civil service exam to be considered for a financial examiner job. But his administration couldn’t produce any documents to support the claim.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, cited the story about the Railroad Commission workers while urging his GOP colleagues to question the need for the bill.

“The things the governor is saying about this are not true,” Erpenbach said.

A Senate sticking point on the bill was removed Wednesday when a Republican senator announced he was ending his pushback to its so-called “ban the box” provision.

The provision, also included in the bill that passed the Assembly, bars the state from asking applicants about past criminal convictions on their initial job applications.

Applicants could still be asked about criminal convictions later in the process.

Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, announced his retreat in a news release Wednesday, about an hour before senators convened to take up the civil service bill.

Nass led the fight in the state Senate against the “ban the box” provision.

But Nass said in his release that Assembly Republican leaders “made it very clear that civil service reform would die if any amendments were added in the Senate.”

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.