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Wisconsin Politics May Foreshadow New Trends: Is American Public Administration Changing?

This article first appeared in the October 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. For a PDF copy or information on subscribing to PA TIMES, contact Editor Christine Jewett McCrehin at [email protected]

Mordecai Lee

If states are the American laboratories of democracy, then I have seen the future and it may not be welcome by our field. Ever since Governor Scott Walker proposed legislation severely limiting public sector collective bargaining in February, Wisconsin’s politics have seen upheavals and changes that are unprecedented in modern times. While these events have played out in the electoral and political realm, I suggest they are likely to have major impacts on public administration.

Some of the most astounding developments this year have been, in no particular order:

  • Recall elections against a quarter of the State Senate, with two recalled (both Republicans), the rest retained (three Dems, four GOP).
  • Some of the recall elections in August had turnouts approximating regular elections.
  • A sharp increase in public attention to state government news.
  • A sharp drop in undecideds. It seems like every citizen has an opinion about the governor’s and legislature’s actions.
  • A sharp increase in polarization, in that most citizens hold their views strongly rather than mildly.
  • An increase in the state capital of partisanship and absence of compromise and moderation.
  • In April, a nonpartisan Supreme Court election that was transparently partisan; with the Republican winning by 0.5 percent of votes cast.

What does any of this have to do with public administration? First, the de facto elimination of collective bargaining revives the need for an effective civil service system, which atrophied in many units of government because it was largely replaced by collective bargaining. There’s a need to have in place a modern version of the old-fashioned elements of a civil service regime: a merit-based system for layoffs (rather than last in, first out), a process to handle grievances, a re-balancing of worker and management rights, and a viable salary structure to replace the same-pay-for-all union approach.

Second, the governor completed the move to a Cabinet form of government that began here nearly 35 years ago. Now, every departmental secretary and almost all division administrators serve at the pleasure of the governor and the top staff positions in every department (general counsel, public relations and legislative liaison) also are at-will. Has the pendulum swung too far and too deep into what had been the senior civil service ranks?

Finally, the events in Wisconsin portend some developments that appear to be just around the corner, including:

  • Transformation of the pension system for almost all state and local employees to a 401(k) style, shifting from defined benefits to defined contributions.
  • •t’s likely that the legislative recalls will trigger more interest in recalls for other elected offices at the county, municipal and public school levels. If that’s the case, then we’re shifting from a U.S.-style form of government with elections at set intervals to a de facto parliamentary one, with elections just about any time and at short notice.
  • A revival of initiative & referendum, a kind of California-ization of the law-making process.
  • If nonpartisan elections have become thinly disguised partisan ones, there might be an effort to transform them (most county and municipal) to partisan ones. May as well make it easier for voters to recognize a candidate’s ideology.

The most important trend I see relates to public law. We seem to be in an era where there are two state legal codes: Republican and Democratic. Much of the work of the Republican legislature in 2011 was about repeal. They undid many of the laws enacted under the preceding Democratic governor and state legislature. Some of the repeals related to building a high speed train between Milwaukee and Madison; public financing of supreme court races; mandatory auto insurance levels of coverage; domestic partner benefits; corporate taxes (called combined reporting); early release of nonviolent state prison inmates; collection of racial information by law enforcement at all stops; wind energy siting rules; and the priority list for major highway projects in the next few years. The Republican legislature also passed items that Democrats had strenuously blocked when they were in power, including photo ID for voting, concealed carry, and expansion of private and religious school choice.

Presumably, if the Democrats ever get the legislative majorityship and governorship back, they’re going to repeal those Republican laws and de-repeal the Democratic ones. I’m concerned about professional civil servants tasked with implementing public law–the basis of public administration. In this new era of “repeal politics,” nothing is ever settled. Laws will be like revolving doors. Civil servants will be whipsawed by an on-again-off-again system of two legal codes.

If the essence of professional public administration is permanence and long-term focus, then the constant shifting between two partisan legal codes means that our daily work is built on sand, always on the verge of being toppled by the next tide. This is destabilizing and contrary to the aim of public administration to provide stability and progress toward permanent goals set by the political system.

I hope I’m wrong.

ASPA member Mordecai Lee is professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is author of Congress vs. the Bureaucracy: Muzzling Agency Public Relations (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011) and co-editor with Grant Neeley and Kendra Stewart of The Practice of Government Public Relations (CRC Press, 2011), part of the ASPA Series in Public Administration and Public Policy. Email: [email protected]

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