Following an often heated debate, the state Assembly on Tuesday approved legislation overhauling Wisconsin’s civil service system. However, Senate action may have to wait until at least January of next year.
The legislation would speed up the hiring process for state jobs and make it easier to fire problem employees. It sets a 60 day timeline for filling vacancies and establishes clearer standards for “just cause” in dismissing workers for on the job behavior. The bill also sets longer probationary periods for new hires and eliminates the civil service exams applicants are currently required to take.
Multiple Democrats criticized it as an effort to politicize the state workforce, clearing out protections that were put in place for more than a century ago by former Governor Robert La Follette. Rep. JoCasta Zamarippa (D-Milwaukee) noted that La Follette created the system so that “the best may serve the state,” but said Republicans were pushing through changes so that their “besties” may serve the state instead.
GOP leaders countered that the bill does nothing to change current state laws that prohibit hiring, promoting, or firing someone from a state job based on political affiliation. “Just because you say it over, and over, and over again, doesn’t make it true,” said Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), the sponsor of the bill.
Republicans stressed that the bill is about making it easier to attract workers, who may move on to other jobs when the drawn out hiring process leaves them waiting too long, while updating a system that has not seen a major overhaul in almost two decades. Rep. Mike Rohrkaste (R-Neenah) said the system needs to be adjusted for a new time. “This is not 1905, let’s bring us forward here in Wisconsin to 2015.”
The legislation passed on a party line 57-35 vote and now heads to the Senate, which is not expected to take it up until early next year because of a dispute over whether to include a so-called “ban the box” provision. The language would prohibit state agencies from asking applicants about their criminal history. The Assembly included it, while the Senate bill would make it optional for each agency. A spokesman for Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) said he hopes to work out the differences with the Senate author of the bill in time to take it up in the spring legislative session.