Clean Government Means Saving Civil Service in Wisconsin

By Barbara Smith — Civil Service, a key tool for clean government, may end its distinguished run of 110 years at the state level this month. Or will we be able to rescue this Progressive Era policy? The Coalition to Save Wisconsin Civil Service invites you to act to save Civil Service, and the integrity in state employment practices that has served Wisconsin so well. Contact: WICoalitiontoSaveCivilService@gmail.com

The state's legislative session began Jan. 12, and Republicans appear ready to pass their Civil Service “overhaul” bill — http://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/proposals/sb285 — right away. In many ways it is an extension of GOP policies such as Act 10, Right-to-Work, dismantling the GAB and eliminating the dark money ban.

The good news is that Progressive Dane has joined labor unions and good government groups to form The Wisconsin Coalition to Save Wisconsin Civil Service at this crucial moment. The GOP's “overhaul” would increase corruption, influence-peddling, and cronyism in our state government, but the Coalition will be working to stop that.

Under Civil Service, public employees are hired based on merit, or “what you know” rather than “who you know”. Job applicants must pass objective, competitive exams. Rather than At-Will employment, Just Cause is the standard used to discipline or fire public servants under Civil Service. This prevents political appointees from purging whistle-blowers or employees who refuse to twist facts for partisan gain. It is a far better system than the alternative, the “spoils system” that rewards donors from the last election.

Did you know that the first Civil Service law passed in Wisconsin was an 1885 act establishing a Police and Fire Commission for the City of Milwaukee? Civil Service has been important at the local government level too, although what's at risk right now is Wisconsin's state level policy only.

The GOP bill is a radical change that could impact Wisconsin residents' ability to get any sort of fairness from public agencies. Shortly we will know the outcome of this fateful decision. Will the 38,000-plus state employee workforce be turned into a partisan army, or will principled, independent-minded public servants have a chance to continue serving the public fairly?

We can learn from the history of Civil Service in Wisconsin. After its passage under the Republican Bob LaFollette administration in 1905, Wisconsin Civil Service was almost dismantled in 1933, when the Democratic Party preferred to hand out state jobs as a reward to its faithful. State workers and their allies defeated the attempt.

An incredible part of the story is that this effort birthed the mighty public sector union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), not only in Wisconsin but nationwide.