WASHINGTON -- Republican Gov. Scott Walker is steadily remaking the Wisconsin government, implementing conservative ideals and quietly consolidating power under the office of the governor. His actions range from the much-publicized move to strip collective bargaining rights from powerful public unions to the less-noticed efforts to add more political appointees at state agencies and take away responsibilities from Wisconsin's democratically elected secretary of state.
Supporters have praised what Walker and his allies are doing as a long-overdue steps to cut spending and unnecessary bureaucracy. But critics fear a loss of public input and transparency in the way the state government operates.
"It's a power grab," said Doug La Follette, Wisconsin's Democratic Secretary of State. "[Walker] wants to control everything."
"It's turning Wisconsin's state government from a body that is charged with serving the needs of the people of Wisconsin, into making its first priority serving corporations -- both inside and outside of Wisconsin," added Scot Ross, executive director of the progressive group One Wisconsin Now. "This is the most massive turn toward privatization of public services in not only the history of the state of Wisconsin, but possibly across the country."
Walker's office did not respond to a request for comment for this report.
TURNING THE DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES INTO A 'CHARTER AGENCY'
The Walker administration is developing a proposal that would turn the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into the state's first "charter agency," a designation that would make it a self-contained entity able to operate outside many of the bureaucratic guidelines other agencies must follow.
Most significantly, DNR would have wider latitude over the hiring, firing and merit pay of employees -- issues that also played out in the collective bargaining controversy a few months ago.
"We would be freed up from a lot of the red tape that slows things down," DNR spokesman Bob Manwell told the Wisconsin State Journal. "We would still be a state agency; we would just be operating under a different set of guidelines."
But what worries some environmentalists is how the agency will now view its central goals. According to a draft Walker administration document with "talking points" about the plan, DNR will be committed to "increasing customer outreach and assistance" and reducing "permit times for major air and water permits."
"It's implying that the customer is those who are seeking permits, so DNR employees will be encouraged to pump out permits with more leniency," explained Anne Sayers, program director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. "And none of that is about protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink or the places where we hunt, fish and hike."
"What really bothers me about it is, it sets up a pay-to-play mentality where they can reward DNR employees who are getting polluters sweetheart deals for their big contributors," added Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison), a member of the Natural Resources Committee.
Amber Gunn, the director of economic policy at Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Wash., has been one of the leading voices advocating charter agencies around the country. In 2007, she wrote that it's a "revolutionary concept" intended to "unravel the bureaucratic red tape that plagues many state agencies and replace it with results-driven motivation that promotes flexibility and innovation."
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Gunn said one of the reasons the charter agency model is being discussed more widely is that it's a way to cut spending without directly slashing services.
Washington's Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire has expressed support for exploring charter agencies. But according to Gunn, one of the reasons she wasn't able to move forward with the change was the state's strong collective bargaining laws, which have strict restrictions on contracting out for services.
"We would have to modify the collective bargaining agreements -- at least in Washington -- in order to oppose charter agencies. And no one wanted to touch that," said Gunn.
The changes Walker and his GOP allies in the state legislature made to Wisconsin's collective bargaining laws are currently on hold, while a court considers their legality.
Iowa has also experimented with charter agencies, but a 2011 report by the state auditor found that those agencies failed to deliver what they promised.
But what is most troubling to some Democratic legislators in Wisconsin is that this remaking of a government agency was originally going to be pushed through in an executive order -- without any say by the legislature or any public hearings.
"If we're playing our role as a separate branch of government correctly, we should -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- be questioning. How is it you can completely reform a state agency ... without an act of the legislature?" asked Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), one of the lawmakers investigating the legality of such a move.
STRIPPING POWER FROM THE SECRETARY OF STATE
The Joint Finance Committee is expected to vote Thursday on a proposal to scale back the responsibilities of the Wisconsin Secretary of State, moving its notary public and trademark duties to the Department of Financial Institutions (DFI). The Department of Administration, which is part of the governor's office, would take on other duties.
La Follette is adamantly opposed to the proposal, telling The Huffington Post that he was not consulted at all by the governor's office about the changes and is lobbying committee members to vote against it.
"It's a very dumb idea," he said. "First of all, it won't save money, which some people claim it would. Second of all, it will make Wisconsin difficult for people to do business. The governor's slogan is, 'Wisconsin is open for business,' and I'm all in favor of that. ... But in 46-47 states around the country, the Secretary of State has the responsibility for trademarks and notaries, and those are two of the functions he wants to move to this obscure agency called DFI. No other state has DFI."
GIVING THE GOVERNOR POWER TO CHOOSE THE VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY
Currently, one of the main duties of the seven veterans appointed by the governor to the Board of Veterans Affairs is to choose the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. But under a proposal being considered by the Assembly, that power would be transferred directly to the governor. The bill would also change the number and tenure of board members.
Walker has not directly taken a position on the legislation, however, he was critical of the board's membership during his campaign.
Veterans groups are divided on the proposal. The American Legion has said allowing the governor to choose the secretary would politicize the agency, whereas the Veterans of Foreign Wars has said it would "elevate this important role to a cabinet level position equal to all other agency heads where it rightfully belongs."
But what most upsets outgoing Veterans Affairs Board member David Boetcher, who was appointed by former Democratic governor Jim Doyle, is this provision in the proposal: "Under current law, all of the members must be veterans, and at least two of the members must be Vietnam War veterans. Under the bill, all of the board members must have served on active duty, but need not have served in any particular war or conflict."
According to Boetcher, that would bar National Guard and Reserve members from serving.
"It's like, I guess their military service just wasn't good enough for the governor, so he's blocking them out," said Boetcher, who himself was enlisted in the Wisconsin National Guard. "It's strange, because with a lot of the benefit programs, some of the major users are National Guard and Reserve members -- especially like the GI Bill. ... Either way, a lot of the people served by the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs are currently in the Guard and Reserve, but they're going to be locked out of being on the board. Which I think is very unfortunate."
Boetcher said there's a possibility that the Assembly, which has been adding amendments to the bill, may change the language and allow National Guard and Reserve members to continuing serving on the board. The sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Kevin Petersen (R-Waupaca), did not return a request for comment.
CONSOLIDATING MEDICAID DECISIONS
Tucked into the budget repair bill Republicans initially proposed earlier this year was a provision granting the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) sweeping authority to make changes to the state's Medicaid program -- which covers one in five residents -- with virtually no public scrutiny. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Walker administration can use "emergency" powers to allow DHS to restrict eligibility, raise premiums and change reimbursements -- all moves traditionally controlled by the legislature.
Part of the reason that advocates were so alarmed at the legislation was that the man who heads DHS is Dennis Smith, someone who has advocated for states to leave the Medicaid program.
Jon Peacock, research director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, equated it to if President Obama gave Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius total power to rewrite Medicare policy, even though it wouldn't save any money in the current fiscal year.
"That's what you have here," said Peacock. "If President Obama proposed that, there would be rallies all over the country, and we would be marching out there arm in arm with Tea Party members, protesting against it."
The legislation that was eventually signed into law eliminated the "emergency" powers but still gave the DHS administrator broad power to write regulations through the regular rule-making process.