MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker established a program that has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in merit raises and bonuses to some state workers even as he preached cost-cutting and pushed through a law reducing most public workers' pay and eliminating their union rights.
An analysis of data The Associated Press obtained through an open records request showed Wisconsin agencies have handed out more than $765,000 in bonuses and merit raises this year to nearly 220 employees.
The awards are meant to reward stellar performance. But they come as the state faces a $143 million shortfall and after thousands of state workers took pay cuts through provisions in the collective bargaining law requiring them to contribute more to their pensions and health care.
Walker, who faces a June 5 recall election prompted by anger over the collective bargaining law, prides himself on fiscal restraint.
The Republican governor wasn't available for comment Friday. His spokesman, Cullen Werwie, referred questions to Walker's top aide, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, who said the governor established the program because he felt it was important to mirror the private sector and provide rewards for outstanding work.
"It is a tool for a manager to go in and say this person truly set themselves apart," Huebsch said.
Agency managers must find the money within their own budgets, he added; the state doesn't provide money specifically for merit compensation.
Still, Huebsch said he warned agencies run by the governor's secretaries to hold off on issuing bonuses or raises at least until the fiscal year ends June 30. Most did, but the Department of Workforce Development gave raises to two workers, one in January and one in April.
Huebsch said managers asked for special permission to make the moves because they were afraid the workers were about to leave for the private sector.
Marty Beil, executive director of Wisconsin's largest state employee union, said the group has always had problems with merit pay because it smacks of favoritism and Walker's criteria are too subjective and vague. Beil also said he doesn't know where state agencies can find the money.
"If agencies are giving merit out, they're doing it at the expense of something else," he said. "They're all supposed to be in this frugal mindset, which is kind of interesting."
According to the AP analysis, 218 employees across nine agencies received raises or bonuses adding up to $765,195 between Jan. 1, when the merit program took effect, and Tuesday.
The state Department of Justice, which couldn't find enough money to fully fund services for sexual assault victims last year, was the biggest spender, giving out nearly $300,000 to 94 workers.
Assistant Attorney General Maria Lazar, who defended Walker's collective bargaining law in an open meetings challenge and has handled the state's defense of Republican redistricting legislation, got a $1,000 bonus and a $1.50-an-hour raise in March, bumping her salary by more than $3,000 to $104,730.
Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John, who defended the collective bargaining law in front of the state Supreme Court, got a $2.51-an-hour raise in March that adds up to more than $5,000 per year and brings his pay to $134,307.
Thirty-seven DNA analysts, meanwhile, got raises worth $158,000.
The Justice Department handed out raises even after it warned budget cuts had forced it to reduce grants from its Sexual Assault Victim Services program by 42.5 percent. Walker later reduced those cuts amid an outcry from service providers.
DOJ Executive Assistant Steve Means defended the awards, saying the money came from not filling positions and the agency can't shift money from salaries to cover other expenses. Raises and bonuses are crucial to retaining star performers like Lazar and St. John, he added.
"If people understood why we're doing what we're doing, I don't think they'd be concerned about it. It's a good use of limited resources," Means said. "If Kevin St. John were to announce today he wanted to go work in private practice, he'd have at least a half-dozen law firms on the phone in 10 minutes offering him twice as much as he makes here."
The University of Wisconsin System, meanwhile, also gave out nearly $300,000 in raises and bonuses. Five employees, including a power plant superintendent at UW-Milwaukee and a UW Extension human resources manager, each received $5,520 bonuses, the largest ones anyone in state government received.
The bonuses and raises come as the system absorbs a $250 million cut in the 2011-13 state budget as well as another $46 million in additional cuts this year. Tuition has gone up by at least 5.5 percent across system campuses.
University officials have complained for years about prized faculty leaving for higher-paying positions, but professors and academic staff aren't eligible for Walker's merit program – they're covered under a separate plan. UW System spokesman David Giroux said the merit program is another way to keep other top employees and paying a few workers more isn't the reason tuition has risen.
"You're talking about people who have taken on additional responsibility and expanded work scope and in some cases getting competitive offers from elsewhere," Giroux said. "It's hanging on to the people we need to get the job done."
Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle suspended a program in 2008 that allowed state managers to give employees bonuses or raises to keep them from leaving or to equalize their pay. Most unionized state workers weren't eligible for that program, however. Walker's program, in contrast, covers almost all other state employees.