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The Imperial Governor

Walker reshapes and emboldens the executive branch

Jun. 1, 2011
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In just five short months, Gov. Scott Walker has consolidated power in the executive branch like no other Wisconsin governor before him has. Instead of working within a system of checks and balances that has served the state well for decades, Walker has expanded the reach of an already powerful executive at the expense of the other branches.

“I have never seen anybody try to consolidate power the way that this governor has,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), who was first elected to the state Legislature in 1985.

In his budget repair bill, proposed budget, and favored legislation, Walker has been able to extend the governor's grasp over legislation, Medicaid programs and staffing—potentially being able to overrule or bypass the legislative function of the Legislature. Even more worrying, the Republican-led Legislature is going along with Walker's power grab.

“The Republican legislators are complicit in this,” Barca said. “I keep reminding them that these are permanent changes and won't expire when Walker's term does.”

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie views Walker's agenda differently. “Gov. Walker's budget makes the tough decisions necessary to balance Wisconsin's massive $3.6 billion deficit,” Werwie said.

An Environment Primed for Corruption

Perhaps the biggest shift in the power of the Wisconsin governor is Act 21, otherwise known as the “rules bill,” signed into law last week.

Although it may seem wonky and hopelessly mired in dry details, Act 21 represents a “huge shift” in how legislation is enacted, Barca said. Thanks to the new law, the Wisconsin governor now has the power to review all rules being implemented by state agencies. Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers have sold the bill as a way to increase democracy and oversight of all state rules.

But, contrary to the Republicans' assertions, the bill has the potential to circumvent the legislative process and block any bill passed by the Legislature.

Prior to Act 21, laws were enacted by the state Legislature and the rules implementing the laws—the fine print—were developed by the relevant agency. Those rules were then sent on to the appropriate legislative committee for review. Since the governor appoints agency or department heads—with a few exceptions, such as the state superintendent, who is an independently elected official—legislative review of the new rules is seen as a way to balance the powers of the executive and legislative branches.

Now, however, thanks to Act 21, Walker will be able to sign off on all rules written by his own appointees—as well as, potentially, the elected chiefs, such as the state superintendent—before those rules are sent to the Legislature.

That means that the governor would be able to rewrite or even kill any rule, thereby thwarting the power of the state Legislature.

Barca said he warned his fellow legislators that they were giving the governor the power to quash any bill they passed. What's more, they were creating a procedural step that could be exploited by special interests.

“It makes the governor's office—not Gov. Walker specifically, but the governor's office—ripe for corruption,” Barca said. “Lobbyists will be lining up at the door.”

More Power Grabs

But Walker's rules bill isn't the only example of what Barca called “an unprecedented power grab” that Capitol watchers say exceeds anything attempted by previous governors, including fellow Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, an undeniably strong executive.

Since taking office, Walker has:

  • Proposed that his appointed secretary of the Department of Health Services (DHS) take on broad powers to change Medicaid programs—powers so sweeping that the state attorney who drafted the proposal wasn't sure if it was constitutional. Prior to Walker's proposal, those changes would trigger public hearings and be debated and voted on by the full Legislature.

    Last week, the Joint Finance Committee modified Walker's proposal, but still would allow the DHS secretary to change Medicaid programs—including altering basic eligibility levels and premiums—as long as those changes are reviewed by the JFC.

    Jon Peacock, research director for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, said the effect of the JFC's motion was still unclear, but he was concerned about the lack of public involvement in the process and basic accountability.

    “The Legislature is abdicating its policy-making role to the executive branch,” Peacock said.

  • Killed funding for targeted education programs overseen by the state Department of Public Instruction while creating a new $600,000 third-grade reading initiative in the state Department of Administration (DOA), run by his appointee, former Republican legislative leader Mike Huebsch. The state DOA should have nothing to do with elementary school curriculum. That clearly should be in the Department of Public Instruction.

  • Created 37 new political appointee positions that don't need legislative confirmation.

  • Backed a bill that would make the secretary of Veterans Affairs a political appointee.

  • Inserted a budget provision that takes away main functions from the secretary of state and the state treasurer, constitutional officers who are independently elected, and shifted them to the state Department of Financial Institutions and DOA, which are run by his political appointees.

    Longtime Secretary of State Doug La Follette blasted the shrinkage of his office, saying it would cause confusion among businesses, create more positions for the governor's friends, and waste taxpayer dollars.

    “I've never seen anybody so intent on ripping the state apart and consolidating power,” La Follette said.

Bargaining in Bad Faith

But perhaps none of Walker's power grabs compares to his handling of labor relations.

This is familiar territory for the new governor.

When Walker was Milwaukee County executive, he attempted to unilaterally change workers' hours, wages and benefits without negotiating them at the bargaining table.

In May 2009, Walker issued an executive order implementing an across-the-board five-hour reduction in the workweek of county employees.

Unions filed suit, and their argument that Walker overstepped his authority has since been upheld.

In September 2009, as county executive, Walker's hand-picked director of Labor Relations, Greg Gracz, was authorized to enter into a tentative agreement with the county's largest union, AFSCME District Council 48, for a new contract that had been in the works for a year.

However, at the same time Gracz was told to finalize the contract, Walker introduced a new county budget that included $30 million in wage and benefits concessions that were radically different than what Gracz and the union had negotiated.

Spooked, committees of the county board declined to sign off on the tentative agreement and included at least some of Walker's proposed concessions in the final budget.

Since those concessions could not be implemented, Walker ordered that workers take up to 22 unpaid furlough days in 2010.

The union again filed suit.

Just last week the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission confirmed that the county had bargained in bad faith and has ordered the county to reimburse—with interest—workers' lost compensation from the unpaid furloughs.

The county is potentially on the hook for upward of $4 million.

“Walker's attitude toward the union or the law in general is that he didn't need to pay a whole lot of attention to it,” said District Council 48 Executive Director Richard Abelson.

As governor, Walker followed the same playbook when he called on the previous Legislature to refuse to approve pending labor contracts. Upon taking office, Walker introduced his budget repair bill, which severely curtailed public employees' collective bargaining rights, and wrote health and pension contributions into his proposed biennial budget. He's even appointed Gracz to be the director of the Office of State Employment Relations.

Likewise, the Wisconsin State Employees Union, AFSCME Council 24, AFL-CIO, has filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, alleging that Walker is refusing to engage in collective bargaining and is interfering with or preventing employees from exercising their rights.

“Walker is refusing to consider ways to balance the budget without busting unions,” Abelson said.

Time will tell if Walker gets away with this power grab.


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