Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Republican Spoils System

The bill to kill civil service aims to create a one-party government, from top to bottom.

By - Oct 8th, 2015 10:28 am
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Roger Roth. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2015-16.

Roger Roth. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2015-16.

Wisconsin was a national leader in civil service reform, in 1905 becoming the third state to establish a merit principle for hiring employees. The idea behind the law was not about entitling public employees, but about protecting all citizens by assuring that anyone — not just party loyalists — could apply for a government job. It was about ending the old Tammany Hall-style patronage in which politicians rewarded their party’s supporters with jobs and left taxpayers paying for less-qualified employees and second-rate government services.

The slogan used back in 1905 was that “The Best Shall Serve the State.” To ensure this happened, the system provided an objective system for hiring, promotion, evaluation, and firing of public employees. Positions were filled competitively to get the best possible person for each job.

Since the system was created in Wisconsin, 26 governors, including 17 Republicans, have held office, and none have sought to overturn it. Now, after the system has been in place 110 years, Gov. Scott Walker wants to throw out civil service. Yes, the proposed bill is being billed as a reform, but its real intent is to kill civil service.

It’s always a tipoff when the people proposing the change want to keep it secret. Back in June, we learned that Walker administration officials “told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel multiple times that they weren’t looking to change the state’s century-old system for placing qualified workers in public service and weeding out partisan hacks.” But the newspaper made public record requests and found that members of the Walker administration were discussing changing the civil service system. Then-Secretary of the Department of Administration DOA) Mike Huebsch had requested information from Tennessee, which had passed a law overhauling civil service.

The first step toward killing civil service was included in last summer’s biennial budget, which replaced the Office of State Employment Relations with a new Division of Personnel within DOA, the’s state’s most political department. The head of both that division and the Division of Merit Recruitment and Selection, which administers the civil service exam, are now appointed by the DOA secretary, rather than selected through a competitive civil service exam. They have effectively become political appointees.

Next comes the proposed reform bill, championed by Republican state Sen. Roger Roth and GOP Majority Leader Jim Steineke, which they’ve called “a plan to update Wisconsin’s civil service law.” It’s modeled on the Tennessee law.

The two legislators have offered little or no evidence that current state departments fail to hire the best people for the job or that state departments now provide poor service, which is the essential goal of civil service. Rather they have talked about modernizing the system to be more efficient like the private sector.

They have suggested civil service entrance exams for hiring employees are “flawed,” without explaining how. But the exams were always created by the Division of Merit Recruitment and Selection (now disbanded) in conjunction with departments doing the hiring. Why can’t the tests simply be rewritten, supporters of the system have asked.

Roth and Steineke have suggested applicants are able to “easily manipulate” exams, again without any explanation. But as Troy Bauch, staff representative for AFSCME Council 32 (which represents state employees) puts it, “If there is any problem, why wouldn’t they identify it and remedy it?”

They have suggested the civil service exam will be replaced by a “blindly scored resume process.” But how can someone review a resume without seeing if the applicant has held positions connected to Republican causes or organizations or individuals? “It will be a completely subjective review,” Bauch says. “It’s going to come down to cronyism, nepotism, favoritism, friendships.” If there is nothing to stop the party in power from hiring their friends, that’s what they will do, as American history has proven.

In the old system, Bauch explains, the top-scoring candidates testing for a job at, say, the Columbia correctional system would then be interviewed by an interim panel set up by the prison’s leaders. “It really does bring the best and brightest applicants into the system.”

Under the new system, all applicants for positions in any departments (and state government is huge) would all go through DOA. “The sheer number of applicants coming into one funnel will be huge,” Bauch says. And the politicians at DOA, rather than the experts at various state departments, who know their department’s needs, will make the decisions.

Roth and Steinke have argued the new process will be faster and more like the private sector. But as Bauch notes, the private sector isn’t driven by politics and simply hires based on driving revenue and profits. “Public service is not the same, because of partisanship.” Governments are run by politicians who will inevitably choose applicants based on political considerations, unless there is a system in place to prevent that from happening.

The new law will lengthen the probation period from three months to two years, giving supervisors plenty of time to fire anyone who doesn’t think Republican thoughts. It eliminates seniority rights, allowing DOA to make retention decisions based on politics. It adds funding for merit pay, but without civil service protections, what’s to stop DOA from rewarding party loyalists? It adds clearer language as to when someone can be fired (theft of property, violence on the job, etc.), but that could be added to the law without eliminating civil service. It “streamlines” the appeals process for employees under the direction of DOA, which is likely to mean less protection for employees Republicans want to dump.

Susan McMurray, lobbyist for AFSCME Council 32, says she was told by Republican staffers that the impetus for this new law came from department managers who want to get rid of “troublesome” employees. Back when Act 10 was passed Walker stressed that without unions employees would still be protected by civil service rules. Not any more.

Bauch says he’s already seeing many hiring decisions made based on politics. “Well-connected Republicans are ascending and Democrats are descending. I’ve never seen anything like this in the 21 years I’ve been in this position.” Long-term this will lead to one-party government.

If you think this is an extreme view, consider what the Republicans have done to date. Redistricted legislative districts to assure Republicans can win a majority of seats with a minority of votes. Eliminated public unions, the most important support for Democrats in Wisconsin. Proposed a law to eliminate public records, so there is no scrutiny of the Republican officials who hold nearly every important state office. (And they have not given up on this effort.) Proposed a law to decimate the Government Accountability Board, which is currently run by a board with a majority of Republicans, but was considered not friendly enough to the party.

As the British baron Lord Acton once put it, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are seeing that maxim in action in Wisconsin, to the utter detriment of democracy.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

12 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Republican Spoils System”

  1. Paul Berge says:

    How ’bout we all refuse to call it “reform” and instead call it “cronification”?

  2. Sunlight, the only cleanser that can scrub away the film of corruption. Put a streaming camera over every elected official’s desk. No secret negotiations or backroom deals. Transparency and democracy go hand in hand.

  3. John says:

    Outstanding investigative reporting once again, Bruce!

  4. Kent Mueller says:

    I’m sure their intentions are good. There is absolutely no chance that applicants or current employees who may be among the million or so signatories of the Walker recall petition would face any sort of prejudice or recrimination, Couldn’t happen…No, Sir!…Corruption? Out of the question!…(cough).
    There must be some way to send this crowd back to the Gilded Age where they belong

  5. Janet says:

    Isn’t there a requirement that all state programs receiving federal funds hire using the merit principle? Would these “reforms” require federal approval a la the state’s welfare drug tests?

  6. blurondo says:

    The elected people in the state capital including the supreme court, have no concern or interest in the wishes of the majority of Wisconsin residents. They were elected, after all, by the minority.

  7. bcoole says:

    Who’s to stop them from doing this or any other thing they can come up with? The Republicans control all three branches of government in Wisconsin. We have no checks and balances unless they come afoul of federal law. And of course, the federal Congress and Supreme Court are also majority Republican.

  8. Barb-West Bend says:

    Justification to change Civil Service law based on a few examples of arbitrated disciplinary rulings that allowed workers to retain their jobs isn’t reason enough to change the law. When arbitration is used as a tool to settle disputes both sides agree to accept the ruling of the arbitrator, who acts as a neutral party in making decisions. Arbitration is used by many businesses engaged in disputes with customers/clients…not just by employers and Unions

    Why are resume applications to be preferred over exams/tests in Civil Service job hiring? How is that better? The example of WEDC is one good reason not to go to a resume type system. At WEDC hard working taxpayer money was given to some business people applying for subsidies (using a resume type form) who were not fully vetted, and with no follow up. Several unworthy recipients gave donations to Walker’s campaign and it appears that was all that was needed for Walker’s WEDC to award them “free stuff.” WEDC is the organization that needs to change to protect the public sector. Tighter control of WEDC’s loose reins at giving free stuff to undeserving, crooked businesses is needed. Are legislators calling for a change at WEDC? Are legislators calling for WEDC applicants to be drug tested before granting “free stuff?”

    Wisconsin’s leaders want to encourage people to move to or remain here to start businesses. High skilled workers are needed. Why would workers or businesses want to remain in, or move to Wisconsin with its derogatory rhetoric and demeaning actions towards public education and teachers, along with its divisiveness and disrespect of the people by Gov. Walker and the Republican legislators? Republican legislators are the people who want to hide nefarious legislation from public view…and inflict it on citizens at the last minute with little time for citizens to take action. This administration is sneaky, underhanded, and untrustworthy. This is the magic of partisan gerrymandering. We need to look at how Iowa draws its voting districts.

  9. Jake says:

    Republicans or shall we call them corporate communists or parasites. Seems they don’t understand Democratic principles.

  10. Jim says:

    As a Milwaukee resident who is active in the city, I know of no public works employee outside of police or fire who isn’t a Democrat. I see lots of complaints about what “Evil Scott Walker”, will do but what I’ve grown up with is a city almost entirely run by Democrats and Socialists blaming the Republicans. When Johnny O was tossed from office for diddling the staff, we saw a flood of bad employees his created jobs for disappear. Same when Tom Ament skipped out under his terrible pension deal. This really isn’t a big deal but I’m positive it won’t change Milwaukee’s dirty politics when it comes to hirings.

  11. Gerald Braden says:

    Whiners Central Page. If the left does not get it’s way to retains control, they throw all kinds of rants and charge the opposition with many specious accusations. The ultimate statement of anger is “I did not get my way” The majority in this State are fed up with the overt bad behavior spewing forth from blogs such as UM. Thank God good changes are coming to this region to ease up the improper restraints that once held back this State from moving Forward, our state motto. Bruce, you use to write smarter and more fair. You have become what you judged.

  12. Vincent Hanna says:

    So whining about not getting their way is what Republicans are doing regarding the GAB right? They all loved it and unanimously supported it in 2007, but as soon as a nonpartisan watchdog does what it’s supposed to do and annoys them, they pitch a fit and dismantle it? According to you that’s exactly what’s going on.

    The GOP hardly moves the state forward by focusing on reducing transparency in elections, forcing campuses to allow guns in all buildings and classrooms, bullying transgender students, preventing vital medical research, etc. “Wisconsin GOP – If you loved 1950, we are the party for you.”

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