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Commerce Department starts shifting divisions

By James Briggs

Plans are under way to move the regulatory divisions of the state Department of Commerce to a new home, even though the transition lacks final approval from the Legislature and governor.

The Legislature has passed Gov. Scott Walker’s bill that would dissolve Commerce into a public-private board. Once Walker signs the bill, the Commerce divisions of Environmental and Regulatory Services and Safety Buildings will be orphaned.

Walker wants to move those divisions to the Department of Regulation and Licensing, but Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie pointed out Thursday “it will be up to the Legislature” to make it happen through a budget bill.

The two agencies involved aren’t waiting for final approval, though. In a memo sent to Commerce employees, Secretary Paul Jadin said the transition has begun.

“We have put together a transition team with the Department of Regulations and Licensing to work through the issues surrounding the movement of programs, people, budget and equipment,” according to the memo. “The plan is still to move all (the regulatory divisions) by July 1.”

A spokesman for Regulations and Licensing said he would not be able to provide details about such a transition until a bill has been drafted.

State agencies, though, don’t necessarily have to wait for a bill before shifting responsibility for certain operations, said Bob DuPont, a retired deputy administrator for the Safety and Buildings Division.

“What agencies can do is sign contracts between them to transition day-to-day management, with the governor’s approval,” he said, “so it can start before it is formalized in the budget bill.”

The sooner the better, DuPont said, because moving regulatory operations out of Commerce is long overdue.

“I think problems developed over time,” he said. “Subsequent (Commerce) secretaries seemed to spend less time on regulatory functions.

“It seemed to me when faced with the decisions of developing business, they would prefer spending time on that to spending time on the prickly issues of regulatory functions.”

Even lawmakers who voted against Walker’s plan for Commerce agreed ridding the agency of regulatory duties is a good idea. Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, said Walker simply should move those divisions out of Commerce and keep the rest of the agency intact.

“If you want to separate out permits and regulatory process that doesn’t have much to do with economic promotion, do so,” Jauch said.

The move also has strong support from the construction industry, said John Mielke, vice president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin Inc.

“I hope it’s simpler and quicker to get credentials, which is one of the things contractors are concerned about,” he said. “On the other end is the code development and implementation process, which I think worked fairly well at Commerce, and I hope the system stays intact.”

Both DuPont and Mielke said they think there will be little or no interruption to contractors during the transition, and processes such as inspections should become more efficient.

“If we can say it would not affect them much at all,” Mielke said, “that would probably be an endorsement of the move.”

Although the transition has a long way to go before becoming official, the state agencies involved are likely to move faster than the Legislature.

“It is still uncertain,” according to the memo from Jadin, “if or when a physical move will take place, but we hope to have a final resolution on this soon.”

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