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The risks of overhauling agencies

By Matt Pommer

A whiff of patronage hangs over Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to create a quasi-private corporation to handle the job creation work of the Department of Commerce. That’s in contrast to the Department of Natural Resources, where a new administrative team has attracted controversy.

The Commerce Department now has 365 employees, and regulatory work it now does would be shuffled off to other agencies.

But Walker’s comments have cast a shadow over the Commerce workers. He said the current employees always could apply for new jobs in the proposed Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

The talk about reapplying for their jobs is sugar-coated a bit when Walker says, “There are good people there, and we will take them along.” But don’t blame the workers if they are paying more attention to the comment about needing to reapply for their jobs once the new corporation takes over.

Perhaps the new corporation will find folks with Republican credentials more attractive for lower-level jobs. “Real” Republicans could argue those folks would do better at attracting new businesses to Wisconsin.

Details of the transition to a private corporation will be important. Will the newly hired corporation employees get state benefits and civil service protection? That would insulate them from being fired when the political winds change.

But even bigger changes in state government could occur as former state Sen. Cathy Stepp, R-Racine, becomes secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. Stepp, who also had served on the Natural Resources Board, has been an outspoken critic of the DNR, which will continue to be a state agency.

“I wanted someone with a chamber of commerce mentality,” Walker said about the Stepp appointment. The deputy secretary of the department will be Matt Moroney, a former executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association of Greater Milwaukee. Another pro-business appointee in the top DNR management team is Pat Stevens, who has been environmental policy director for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

In June 2009, Stepp blogged: “People who go to work for the DNR’s land, waste, and water bureaus tend to be anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, Karner blue butterflies, etc.”

She also criticized state agencies’ use of emergency rules, using chronic wasting disease in deer as an example.

Outdoor columnist Patrick Durkin recently noted she didn’t mention that those emergency rules occurred when Republican Scott McCallum was governor and McCallum appointee Darrell Bazzell was DNR secretary.

Stepp’s challenge will be directing a staff whose work she previously has criticized. Don’t be surprised if veteran members of the DNR staff opt for early retirement.

Their early retirement may be exciting news for business and industry. But it comes with a potential disadvantage: Those retirees could serve as whistleblowers during a chamber-like stewardship of the state’s environment.

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

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