- Associated Press - Friday, June 24, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin state employees will face a new world when they show up for work July 1.

An overhaul of the state’s 111-year-old civil service system takes effect take that day, meaning 30,000 state workers and an untold number of job applicants will face new hiring and firing protocols.

Supporters insist the changes, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker, will enable state agencies to fill retirees’ positions quickly and impose proper discipline. Democrats and other critics say it trades a fair employment system for political patronage and cronyism.

“As of July 1, showing up at work with the wrong bumper sticker on your car could endanger your career,” Rick Badger, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 32, which represents state and local public workers in Wisconsin, wrote in an opinion piece this month. “That’s the problem with a one-party control by shortsighted ideologues obsessed with stacking the deck and preserving their monopoly.”

Republicans introduced a bill late last summer to overhaul the civil service system, following the lead of other states like Arizona, Tennessee and Colorado. The bill’s authors, Rep. Jim Steineke and Sen. Roger Roth, said the measure would help agencies quickly fill vacancies as baby boomers retire and ensure workers who behave badly are dealt with.

A year earlier, Walker’s administration said it had no interest in changing civil service, but Walker immediately went to work promoting the measure last year, calling it common-sense reform that gives state agencies the tools to recruit good people and fire employees who abuse the system.

The measure he eventually signed in February makes a host of changes. It eliminates exams for job applicants, instead requiring applications and a resume. It also does away with “bumping rights,” which protect senior employees from layoffs, extends probation periods and creates merit bonuses. Hiring decisions will be centralized within Walker’s Department of Administration and state employees will no longer be given preference when filling other state positions.

The law also allows agencies to fire, suspend or demote workers without imposing progressive discipline for a number of infractions, including harassment, assault, being drunk or high on the job, falsifying records, stealing agency property, being convicted of a crime that bears on the employee’s job and ethics violations.

One portion of the law - creating a performance management system to measure performance - is a work in progress. Walker’s administration told state lawmakers this week they are giving agencies until Sept. 1 to develop that system, which will be the primary factor in determining order of layoffs.

Without the exams to ensure at least some level of competence, critics contend, the agencies will simply hire applicants with partisan connections and oust anyone they believe disagrees with the governor’s policies.

“To best serve the public interest,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in an email, “state agencies should prioritize hiring and retaining the most qualified and experienced staff, not those with the best political connections.”

Roth countered that the law doesn’t change any of the old system’s prohibitions on discrimination, including discrimination based on political opinions or affiliations. He added that exams could still be among the tools agencies use to screen applicants after they submit their initial resumes.

“The goal of the legislation is to hire the best possible workforce for the state,” Roth said.

The changes mark a trifecta for Walker, who has made a name for himself by rewriting Wisconsin labor law. The governor did away with almost all public workers’ collective bargaining rights in 2011, and last year, he signed a measure that made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, meaning private workers can’t be forced to join a union.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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