Opinions were sharply divided during a public hearing at the Capitol Tuesday, on proposed changes to civil service law in Wisconsin. State Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) argued that the extensive overhaul of the century old system will eliminate existing protections.
“Other than you saying, ‘nope, nope, we’re still going to call it civil service’ . . . I’m not seeing the protections that are going to prevent wholesale cronyism and patronage,” Larson told the bill’s author, Senator Roger Roth (R-Appleton). “An employee, under this bill, still cannot be terminated, they can’t be docked in pay, they can’t be suspended, except for just cause. We just happen to define what some of those really bad things are,” Roth said.
A state employee who viewed pornography at work was a frequently cited example during the hearing, before the Senate Committee on Labor and Government Reform.
The GOP bill would replace the civil service exam with a resume-based process, speed up the hiring process for state jobs extend the probationary period for new hires from 3 months to 2 years, and make it easier to fire state employees for misconduct.
“When instances come where they’re physically harming an employee or viewing pornographic material, we want to make sure that our agencies have the flexibility to get rid of them if they’re that kind of employee,” Roth said.
Several state agency administrators testified in favor of the legislation. “Help me trust you here,” Larson said. “What are the specific protections that we’re going to have, to make sure that we’re not having streamlined patronage coming out of this?”
Ray Allen, Secretary of the Department of Financial Institutions, says the bill would allow his agency to narrow down the list of prospective job applicants. “Is there a possibility that somebody who might be politically connected to somebody else gets on that list? It’s possible,” Allen said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not. But that doesn’t mean they get hired.”
Cate Zeuske, Deputy Secretary with the Department of Administration, said the proposed changes would help state employees. “It allows for the best to be rewarded . . . and then it allows those that really aren’t interested in following the procedures, rules and the laws to be disciplined as necessary,” Zeuske said.
That assessment was not shared by Paul Spink, the new President of AFCSME Council 32, representing state workers. “When we’re told that this bill is to help us attract the best and brightest to work for the state, it isn’t the test that’s stopping the best and brightest, it’s not the time lines,” Spink said. “It’s the fact that for years now, public employees have been treated poorly and paid less.”
“This is about bringing us into reformation, it’s about bringing us into the 21st century, it’s about giving people who are qualified the opportunity to serve,” said Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine).
But Troy Bauch with AFSCME Council 24, said the proposed changes won’t help attract workers. “It is obvious that there is a serious retention and recruitment problem, and the reason why it exists is because it was created. You created it by demoralizing and demeaning public service,” through the passage of Act 10, said Bauch, who was especially critical of the provision extending the probationary period for new state hires, from six months to two years.
The committee chairman, Senator Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) has scheduled a vote on the bill (SB-285) for next Tuesday, October 13.