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Walker’s power moves worry some

By Matt Pommer

Are public employee benefits a key target of Gov. Scott Walker’s bid to control all state administrative rules?

The governor wants the power to approve all state administrative rules, thus reducing the power of both independent agencies and those controlled by constitutional officials elected by the voters. Rule review now is conducted by the Legislature as check on executive branch powers.

Among the agencies that could be affected is the Department of Employee Trust Funds, which administers health insurance, pensions, and deferred compensation for state workers and many local government employees.

The 13-member Employee Trust Funds Board approves the administrative rules and procedures required to implement those benefit programs. One of the 13 members is appointed by the governor. Qualifications for that appointment are the person must have specific professional experience and not be a participant of the pension system.

Administrative rules are used throughout state government to implement laws already on the books. The Legislature now has the power to oversee and block administrative rules developed by state agencies.

Concern about changing ETF rule-making stems from Walker’s criticism of the level of fringe benefits for state workers. There may be plenty of potential controversy in the fringe benefit area. Would rule changes be needed to implement quick changes?

Walker’s move to consolidate power in his office is a rebuff to the new Legislature which has large Republican majorities in both the Senate and Assembly. There also is a conservative majority on the state Supreme Court.

Walker is demanding state workers contribute more to their fringe-benefit costs. He has raised the specter that he might ask the end of collective bargaining if the unions balk at that idea. On the other hand, Walker could move quickly to affect the fringe-benefit contributions of non-union state-government employees who are not involved in collective bargaining.

Editorial writers have correctly hung the label “power grab” on Walker’s desire to control all administrative rules. Most state agencies will be controlled by Walker appointees. He needs no law change to control their rules. A directive will suffice for them.

Walker’s plan also would give him a major role over the powers of the elected state superintendent of public instruction and attorney general. It also would give him a role in how the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Technical College System operate.

Any citizen of the state can challenge state-government administrative rules in Dane County courts. Walker wants to allow rule challenges in the circuit court of any of the 72 Wisconsin counties.

That would allow opponents of a rule to “court shop,” seeking a judge friendly to their views. It could lead to multiple challenges with different decisions leaving the statewide effect in limbo.

Republicans who think Walker’s rule idea is just wonderful need to remember that someday Wisconsin might elect a Democrat as its governor.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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