Governor signs bill overhauling Wisconsin civil service laws

AP News
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Posted: Feb 12, 2016 5:36 PM

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker signed a sweeping bill Friday that reworks Wisconsin's hiring and firing practices, brushing aside Democrats' complaints that the measure will lead to cronyism in state agencies.

The Republican-backed legislation dramatically rewrites the state's 110-year-old civil service system by eliminating job applicant exams, centralizing hiring decisions within the governor's administration and tossing so-called bumping rights, which protect more senior employees from losing their jobs during layoffs.

The new law also creates merit bonuses, allows state agencies to extend probation periods from the current six months to two years and specifies that layoffs will be based on job performance rather than seniority. The changes, most of which will take effect July 1, are expected to affect about 30,000 state workers.

"The legislation we are signing here today implements common-sense reforms to our recruitment and retention processes to get the best and brightest in the door and keep them there," Walker said in a news release after signing the bill at Manpower, an employment agency in Appleton. "These civil service reforms provide a more effective, efficient and streamlined hiring process to ensure state government operates at a good value for our citizens."

A handful of other states have also taken steps to roll back civil service protections, which are designed to keep officials from handing out government jobs as rewards to their political allies. Arizona, Tennessee and Colorado all passed legislation in 2012 scaling back those states' civil service protections.

But critics say the century-old civil service rules lead to inefficiencies, offer little incentive for hard work and unfairly protect employees who behave badly.

Democrats say the new law will open the door to patronage and favoritism in state agencies. They also say it's another attack on state workers by Walker, who quickly backed the bill following his short-lived 2016 presidential bid. Walker's administration said in 2014 that he had no interest in changing Wisconsin's system.

The governor — who made a national name for himself among conservatives by redefining Wisconsin's labor landscape — stripped almost all public workers of their collective bargaining rights in 2011, and later helped erase local prevailing wages.

"This is another sad day for Wisconsin's tradition of clean and open government," said Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 32, the labor union that represents state workers. "The problem isn't the civil service system. The problem is that public employees have been pounded on for so long by this administration that public service jobs today are far less attractive than they were just five years ago."

The bill's authors, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukauna and Sen. Roger Roth of Appleton, insist the changes will help state agencies quickly replace baby boomers as they retire. The new law calls for state agencies to complete the hiring process within 60 days.

The Republicans also contended, along with Walker, that the current system makes it too difficult to punish bad behavior. The new law defines just cause for terminations and lists infractions that would result in immediate firing, such as stealing or viewing pornography at work.

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