Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How Walker is Killing the Meritocracy

Talented workers are leaving or discouraged from applying, as party loyalists win favor.

By - Apr 27th, 2016 11:54 am
Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin

Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin

The news last week that large numbers of employees are leaving state government was alarming, but not surprising. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported there’s been a big increase in state workers leaving since Gov. Scott Walker was elected. Some 3,600 workers quit their state jobs in 2015, “which was 23% more than 2014 and nearly twice as many as in 2010.”

From the viewpoint of Walker and Republican legislators, that may not be a bad thing. Because all signs suggest their prime goal isn’t to hire the best and brightest in state government, but to hire party loyalists.

Act 10, the law decimating public employee collective bargaining rights, started things off by discouraging the best-paid employees from remaining in government. The idea that government workers were overpaid was never true. As a 2012 study found, “compared to private-sector employees, state and local government employees are under compensated by 5.6 percent.” What “overpayment” of public employees does occur is for the less-educated government employees, notably police and fire fighters, who were exempt from Act 10.

It is government workers at the top — the most skilled and best educated — who are paid the least compared to their private sector counterparts. But they did have job security, with protection by the state’s civil service system, and a good pension. Act 10 greatly reduced the value of public employee benefits and last year’s law killing civil service ended job security. For the best and brightest in state government, the major reasons to choose public over private sector employment are now gone. Small wonder some are searching for greener pastures.

That will only get worse as a result of the law ending civil service. Officials in the Walker administration repeatedly denied they intended to kill civil service, and all that secrecy was a tipoff they were worried about defending such a huge change. Once the bill was finally introduced, its Republican champions offered little evidence that state departments failed to hire the best people for the job or failed to provide good service, which is the essential goal of civil service. They suggested civil service entrance exams for hiring employees were “flawed,” without explaining how, or explaining why the tests couldn’t simply be fixed.

Finally, they argued that the goal was to “modernize” the system to make it more like the private sector. But the private sector isn’t run by politicians seeking to get reelected and looking to build power by hiring all the party loyalists they can. That’s why civil service was first created in America and why none of the 17 Republican and nine Democratic governors who have served since Wisconsin’s civil service system was created in 1905 had ever sought to overturn it. Because the alternative to civil service is a government run by party hacks whose prime goal is serving the party, not the people.

It was telling that the new law exempted the legislative service agencies, like the Legislative Reference Bureau, Legislative Fiscal Bureau and Legislative Audit Bureau. These highly-regarded agencies are crucial servants of the legislature, and are selected based on merit through the civil service system. Legislators wanted the best people to continue serving them, while they created a spoils system for the rest of state government.

For all the attention to Act 10, the law ending civil service will be far more destructive to Wisconsin. In the years to come, most new hires in state government must come from the millennial generation and Republican leaders will be looking to hire candidates likely to be party loyalists. They will be tough to find. Polls show a large majority of millennials support liberal policies like the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality and efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and tilt heavily toward the Democratic Party, while only about 15 percent are conservatives.

The private sector will be fighting to hire the smartest of these workers, whatever their political views, but in Wisconsin, as many as 85 percent of them may lack the world view required to work in the new Republican spoils system. You don’t hire the best and brightest when your career security depends on maintaining party power.

Cathy Stepp. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Cathy Stepp. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Even before civil service was ended, the Walker administration was aggressively searching for ways to promote people based on party views, according to Troy Bauch, staff representative for AFSCME Council 32 (which represents state employees). As he told me, “I’ve never seen anything like this in the 21 years I’ve been in this position.”

You can see the decline of the meritocracy in key appointments by Walker, a college dropout himself: As Madison’s WKOW-TV has reported, Ryan Murray, a former campaign staffer for the governor, became Chief Operating Officer at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation in 2012, “despite having no college degree and no real experience in economic development.” Former Republican State Senator Cathy Stepp was appointed Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, though she had no college degree and “no real background of expertise in the area of regulation her agency oversees.” Republicans also slashed the number of scientists working at DNR, to better assure its decisions aren’t made based on science.

Then there was Walker’s choice for his Secretary of Administration, former Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, another college dropout. In one of the more comic moments in the Walker administration, Huesch was cited by Walker as his legal expert as to whether the state could be sued if it approved a Kenosha casino. (Huebsch has since switched to a job with the Public Service Commission.)

You can even see a decline in education among legislators as Republicans took over a majority: while 81 percent of legislators had a four-year college degree or better in 2009, that dropped to 73 percent by 2015. Though Walker failed to banish the “Wisconsin Idea” from the UW System’s mission statement, the actions the governor and Republicans have taken will assure that decisions in future years are based less and less on expertise and more and more on political expediency.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

22 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: How Walker is Killing the Meritocracy”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    It’s the overall hostility toward higher education that concerns me more than whether or not a legislator completed a four-year degree. One doesn’t need to have a college degree to believe in its value and importance. It’s also enormously disconcerting to see people who lack even minor qualifications get jobs with huge responsibilities (see Stepp, Cathy). Not to mention didn’t she have a history of disrespecting if not hating the very agency she now leads?

  2. Joe says:

    “new hires in state government must come from the millennial generation and Republican leaders will be looking to hire candidates likely to be party loyalists”

    I could see that possibly being the case for top level appointees, but isn’t that the case with every administration across the country? There are so many other public sector jobs out there where it would be near impossible to discern the political affiliation of your applicants.

    What is the point of this article? That partisan governors hire people with the same viewpoints? Is this really that big a revelation?

  3. AG says:

    Bruce, why do you use one source to say that millennial lean heavily towards democrats (link showed 51% toward D, 35% toward R), but then use another source to say only 15% lean towards conservatives? Why the message mixing?

    Also, love that Walker’s picture on this site is in front of a hodag. I know you’re using it to portray a bad image of the governor, but anyone familiar with the hodag probably has the opposite reaction due to their affinity for the northwoods and Rhinelander.

  4. AG says:

    HA! Thanks for reminding me of that Vincent. I remember someone telling me that a hodag was a monster on Scooby Doo once. That’s fun!

  5. David Blaska says:

    The turnover in state government employment is almost entirely due to retirements in the aging state government workforce. There is no evidence that vacancies are not being readily filled. In fact, Act 10 now enables government to offer better pay for hard to fill positions, such as Info Tech professionals and tax auditors.

  6. swamper says:


    Once again blaska makes unsubstantiated claims. Check out any agency hiring engineering or science related positions. DOT and DNR can’t get the best and brightest because of low starting pay, ever decreasing benefits, and continual disrespect from administration. Don’t get me going on teachers, that will take all day……

  7. rg says:

    “Act 10 now enables government to offer better pay for hard to fill positions, such as Info Tech professionals and tax auditors.”

    How did Act 10 do that? Before Act 10 the State regularly conducted classification and compensation surveys, and when it found it was underpaying an entire classification of workers, it raised the pay of that classification.

    It is true that it was underpaying some of those “hard to hire” classifications but there is absolutely nothing that prevented them from raising the pay of those classifications without Act 10. And don’t say it was the Unions that were preventing it, because I was on the last bargaining committee (the one whose tentative agreement got killed by Act 10) for the Union that represents both of those classifications, and we would have welcomed a state initiative to bring the pay for those job classifications more in line with the private sector.

  8. Thomas says:

    Thanks, Bruce, for walking through the wreckage resulting from Act 10, the dismissal of civil service testing, and the ill effects of reactionary politics on public employment and on our public land. I wonder, for example, if Cathy Step could have passed a civil service exam to get an entry level job in the DNR. Now she leads an agency which promotes natural destruction.

    Apologists for the Walker administration on this site who say that state employees retired primarily because they were old are ignorant of the fact that many state employees retired earlier than they anticipated due to Act 10 and other measures hostile to public employees. Apologists for Walker who say that all governors and their minions hire like minded employees are apparently ignorant of the fact that civil service examinations were initiated to keep that from happening.

    I entered state service in 1984 as a consumer specialist at the inception of the vehicle emission inspection program due in part to earning a high score on a civil service test. I was impressed by the knowledge of most of my colleagues on the subject we were hired to address. We did not all agree on politics, but we all knew a thing or two about vehicle emissions and their effects on our environment. I am uncertain as to whether our state’s current head of our DNR understands anything about the effects of emissions from vehicles or other sources on our environment.

  9. Joe says:

    Aologists for Walker who say that all governors and their minions hire like minded employees are apparently ignorant of the fact that civil service examinations were initiated to keep that from happening.

    Slow down there, Thomas. In terms of all governors hiring like minded people, I Iimited my comment to “top-level appointees.” Do you dispute that?

    In terms of the thousands of remaining state employees, I questioned how Walker would even manage to kill the meritocracy and only hire conservative nurses, accountants, school psychologists, etc. I’m simply asking how that could be done, and/or if there’s proof of it happening beyond Mr. Murphy’s bald claim that
    “Republican leaders will be looking to hire party loyalists.”

    I am not a Walker apologist. The claim just struck me as odd. Try not pigeon-holing everyone into your typical conservative bogeyman.

  10. CindyV says:

    Joe: We already know that you will not get a job in state government if you signed the recall petition.

  11. Vincent Hanna says:

    Also don’t say global warming on the job.

  12. Joe says:

    Are these documented incidents? Genuinely curious to read about it if true.

  13. Vincent Hanna says:

    Wisconsin state officials on Tuesday banned employees of a state agency from discussing climate change, conducting any work on the topic, or even responding to an email about the warming climate, Bloomberg News reports.

  14. SteveM says:

    @Joe, it’s not just at the state level. I know first hand that one district in Ozaukee Co. had at least one board member who had the recall list out when interviewing for a new superintendent. So, yes, it is a blacklist. Another example:

  15. Joe says:

    Incredible, thanks for sharing.

  16. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Big deal, turnover is good. Most companies have found that out. New ideas, new blood, lower salaries sometimes keeps everyone honest.
    My company moved everyone around, all the time for that reason. Saves money in long run, from early retirements. More movement is better.
    Main thing is we are all tired of seeing public employees getting better salaries, pensions, health, dental, hours, days off, holidays, vacations, sick day and lots more than we do. I will never cry for public employees, they cannot even be fired if they are incompetent, which a lot of them are.
    new blood is good for all of us. Bruce they are paid a lot more than us journalists.

  17. Vincent Hanna says:

    “Us journalists.” I spit all over my computer. That might be the funniest thing I have ever read in my life. The irony of that coming right after a complete and total life (“I will never cry for public employees, they cannot even be fired if they are incompetent, which a lot of them are.”) is priceless. Just priceless.

  18. Willie Ray says:

    What’s truly “just priceless” is watching Governor Walker and his Legislative herd pass bills faster and more often then a rabbit mates. The law passing season for them begins in mid February and can continue through late summer. Famous for their reproductive abilities, Walker and the law makers in is warren have a much less then 30-day gestation period for their laws, and have several litters containing four to eight laws each year overwhelming their predators and precipitating a trophic cascade, which will lead to the complete destruction of the Wisconsin’s “Numen Lumen.”

  19. old baldy says:


    If public sector employment was so much better than what you had why didn’t you get a public sector job?? Under educated/qualified? Poor past job performance? Bad employee? Or are you just showing your long held jealousy?

  20. Thomas says:

    Re comment # 10,

    Re comment # 10:
    Yes, Joe, I dispute the notion that govt. hiring of like minded people is limited to top level positions. I have heard from credible sources that some $15 -$ 20 dollar an hour state jobs are already being filled by people who have not demonstrated the understanding of programs typical in employees who have passed civil service exams.

    I do not consider conservatives bogeymen. I rarely see or hear from conservatives these days. I regard many reactionaries as bogeymen. I consider Walker a reactionary. Christian Schneider is an example of a reactionary apologist. You may or may not appreciate these distinctions; nevertheless, I thank you for encouraging me to clarify my earlier remarks.

  21. Paul Calhoun says:

    As mentioned by AG, once again the standing of the mistakenly maligned hodag (revered in Rhinelander) is again diminished by an image next to a second rate presidential candidate.

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