When all eyes turned to New Orleans, I thought, finally, things will change.
Robert M. La Follette, as Governor of Wisconsin, addressing a large Chautauqua assembly in Decatur, Illinois, 1905
More than a century ago, the great progressive governor Bob La Follette helped create Wisconsin’s civil service system as part of a raft of Progresssive Era reforms. Gov. Scott Walker just signed legislation doing away with that system.
I was reminded of the importance of the history of civil service because my daughter has been studying Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed and the whole corrupt era of cronyism and bribery in government in the late 1800s for her high school history exam. She was making flash cards with words like “patronage” and the “spoils system,” just as the Walker administration and its allies were seeking to bring these concepts back.
Destroying key parts of the civil service system is the latest attack on good government and our state’s progressive ideals.
To understand how dangerous that is, you had to tune in to the Senate floor debate on the issue, which took place at 10 p.m. on Jan. 20, when most Wisconsinites were turning in for the night.
“It was absolutely the most disturbing testimony I’ve ever heard on the Senate floor,” says Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma). Vinehout’s colleagues testified about secret meetings with state employees from the Department of Corrections and the Department of Natural Resources who have been intimidated and threatened for daring to speak up about violence in the workplace, excessive amounts of overtime work in dangerous jobs, and hazards including pollution and safety violations their bosses don’t want them to disclose.
Under the new law attacking the state’s civil service system, “just cause” for discipline and firing state employees includes “personal conduct that is inadequate, unsuitable or inferior.”
“Here’s the question,” Vinehout says. “Is someone who works for Corrections or DNR who goes out for coffee and describes problems in the workplace to her elected representative on her own time committing ‘inadequate, inferior or unsuitable’ personal conduct?”
Targets of this clause could include whistleblowers. Consider the state geologist who says he endured unbearable political pressure at work and ultimately resigned after controversy erupted over reports of asbestos in rocks around the proposed Penokee iron mine. Or think of the Corrections worker who told a senator about an inmate strangling a psychiatrist.
That’s dangerous not just for employees, but also for the public.
Under civil service, public employees have long been hired based on merit. The early motto of the civil service system was “the best shall serve the state.”
Changes in the law open the door to cronyism and corruption. Take the case of Brian Deschane, the 27-year-old college dropout the Walker administration hired in 2011 to head the environmental and regulatory services division of the state Commerce Department.
Deschane’s qualifications included a one-month stint at the Department of Regulation and Licensing. He also worked for a couple of Republican legislators and for two business lobby groups. And his dad was the head lobbyist for the Wisconsin Builders Association.
Deschane was brought in to replace an administrator with a degree in chemical engineering and 25 years’ experience in the agency.
Controversy in the news over Deschane’s drunk-driving record ultimately led the Walker administration to send him packing back to his old job.
But the administration had the flexibility to move him around like that because he was a political appointee, outside the civil service system. This is the direction Walker has been taking the state.
In his first state budget, the governor moved 37 jobs out of civil service and into the classification that allows patronage.
Now so-called civil service reform allows him to turn all 38,000 civil service positions in Wisconsin into patronage jobs.
The main reason Wisconsin implemented civil service in the first place was to end the practice of politicians giving jobs to their friends and political supporters.
Civil service made Wisconsin a model state for clean environment, efficient commerce, safe food and water and high-quality public services
Now we are turning back the clock.
Bob La Follette built a loyal following among his fellow Republicans by criticizing party bosses and denouncing bribery in the state Capitol — including attempts to buy his own vote.
He championed tax reform, regulating corporations, and open government
He developed a relationship between the University of Wisconsin and state government and strove to appoint experts to state boards, including the civil service commission.
His main purpose, he said, was to “protect the people from selfish interests.”
We need that protection more than ever today.
Ruth Conniff is the editor-in-chief of The Progressive magazine. This piece was originally published in Isthmus.