Wisconsin residents have long prided themselves on the openness and transparency of the government that serves them.
After all, it’s the law, as Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen pointed out in his Sunshine Week column in the La Crosse Tribune.
But a portion of the recently approved budget-repair bill may end up clouding the issue of who the arbiters of openness truly serve — the governor or the people of Wisconsin.
First, let’s just say that if someone can explain why such a measure is contained in a budget-repair bill that was billed as critical for our state’s short-term financial health, we’d love to hear it.
Under the new law, Gov. Scott Walker will change more than three dozen civil-service jobs into political appointees. In fairness, he’s not the first governor to consider such a move.
Civil-service positions, in theory, are supposed to shield the position holder. In theory, the person should be able to focus on policy — on doing the right thing — instead of political pressure.
A number of those soon-to-be-appointed positions serve as legal counsel for state agencies.
Part of the job of a legal counsel for a state agency involves determining whether a document or meeting should be open to the public.
As Van Hollen wrote in his column: “Compliance with our state Open Meetings Law and Public Records Law is an essential duty of all Wisconsin government agencies, officials and employees.”
Will that concept still hold true when the people making that decision are beholden to the person who hired them?
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “I don’t think there’s any question that a political appointee, their inclination is going to be more toward protecting their boss than complying with an open records request.”
But there’s nothing in Wisconsin’s open-meetings, open-records law about protecting the boss. There’s an expectation that the people’s business should be conducted in public, for all to see.
In Wisconsin, that’s our heritage and our expectation.
It’s fair to note that Walker’s predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle, tried unsuccessfully to change some of those counsel positions into political appointees. In fact, one counsel ran afoul of a Doyle appointee for ruling that information be released to the public, and he was demoted.
It’s understandable that any executive would want to put together the team of people who represent you.
But when you’re the governor, that team also is charged with representing the best interests of the people of the state.
We can’t help but worry that the people’s business — the business that needs to be conducted in public, with the sun shining in — will take a back seat to the political realities of protecting the boss instead of preserving the integrity of the law.
La Crosse Tribune
Don’t rush municipal contracts
First the Democrats, in the waning days of their control over the state Capitol, tried to rush contracts into place for their union pals before the Republicans took office.
The hasty move blew up in their faces. No contracts resulted — just an embarrassing episode with name-calling and damaged public trust.
Then Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP came into power and tried to ram strict limits on collective bargaining through the Legislature in less than a week.
This blew up in their faces as well. Massive protests erupted. Senate Democrats bolted for Illinois to stop a vote. Though the Republicans eventually got their way, they’re now down in the polls, facing recall elections and a court challenge.
And here we go again: Public sector unions at the local level — across Wisconsin, but especially in union-loving Dane County — are pressuring school and municipal boards to quickly OK contracts before Walker’s bargaining limits kick in.
Anybody else see a pattern here? Rushing the public’s business backfires.
In Dane County, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and exiting County Executive Kathleen Falk may be politically smart to quickly give their powerful labor unions most of what they want before the spring elections.
But it’s fiscally irresponsible to lock contracts into place before understanding the full ramifications. The state budget, its many cuts, local tax cap and legal challenges are far from settled.
So without as much flexibility to control their costs under a tax cap, Madison and Dane County will face layoffs, painful cuts to public services, or both.
Municipal labor unions may be willing to sacrifice members with the least seniority to layoffs if that means most members get raises and better benefits than Walker and Co. would allow. But layoffs aren’t in the best interest of the public or the services they depend on.
We’re willing to cut the Madison School Board some slack — and even allow for some credit. They at least negotiated a contract with teachers that stands a good shot at avoiding layoffs while protecting classroom instruction.
That’s because the School Board used its new leverage — from the mere threat of Walker’s collective bargaining law — to negotiate significant savings with Madison Teachers Inc. The teachers will get only tiny raises based on years of experience and degrees. Their two-year contract also requires higher pension and health insurance contributions.
In addition — and this is big — the Cadillac health insurance option is phased out, which will save some teachers money. It had cost the district twice as much as a very good alternative plan through a local health cooperative.
Compare that to the county and city contracts — some of which stretch three or four years and, in the case of the city, include annual raises of 2 percent to 3 percent. That’s a recipe for layoffs.
The rest of Wisconsin should slow down and see how the state budget battle plays out before signing any more labor deals. Local leaders and especially the public deserve a better understanding of what’s really at stake.
Wisconsin State Journal