By Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Scott Walker signed a sweeping bill Friday that reworks Wisconsin’s hiring and firing policies, brushing aside Democrats’ complaints that the measure will lead to cronyism in state agencies.
The Republican-backed legislation greatly 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 out 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 related to job performance rather than seniority.
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.
Critics say the century-old rules lead to inefficiencies, offer little incentive to work hard and unfairly protect employees who behave badly.
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.
Republican supporters, along with Walker, also argue 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.
Democrats say the bill 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 supported right-to-work legislation and a vast overhaul of the state’s prevailing-wage laws.
The civil-service changes, most of which will take effect July 1, are expected to affect about 30,000 state workers.