Mostly False
Erpenbach
Says Scott Walker "said he wouldn't touch" the state civil service system but now supports overhauling it.

Jon Erpenbach on Friday, September 25th, 2015 in an interview

Did Scott Walker say he wouldn't touch Wisconsin's civil service protections for state workers?

Gov. Scott Walker spoke to employees at Apache Stainless Equipment Corp. in Beaver Dam, Wis., before talking to reporters about his support for a proposal to overhaul Wisconsin's civil service system for state employees. (Michael Sears photo)

Anyone who thought Gov. Scott Walker would ease back into his day job might have been surprised when, three days after dropping his bid for the presidency, he threw his support behind yet another reform aimed at public employees:

An overhaul of Wisconsin’s civil service system, which was created more than a century ago to eliminate patronage and cronyism in most state government positions.

The Republican governor's announcement drew quick denunciations from state employee unions and Democratic lawmakers such as state Sen. Jon Erpenbach of suburban Madison.

"He said he wouldn't touch the system, and now he's blowing it up," Erpenbach said in a Sept. 25, 2015 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

Leaving aside the "blowing it up" characterization, both Erpenbach and Walker would agree that the measure the governor supports would make significant changes to the civil service system.

The question is: Did Walker at some point say, as Erpenbach claims, that he wouldn’t make any changes to the system?

Civil service origins, proposed changes

The state’s first civil service law was passed in 1885, establishing a merit system for Milwaukee's police and fire departments, according to a legal article on the state’s court system website.

Ten years later, the Legislature passed a law forbidding bribery and other corrupt practices in state and local government. Then in 1905, under Gov. Robert M. La Follette, a law creating the civil service system was adopted, with the original slogan of: "The best shall serve the state."

The law created merit-based hiring as well as just-cause termination for virtually all state government jobs.

More specifically: Recruitment "must be an active, continuous process that is conducted in a manner that ensures a diverse, highly qualified group of applicants." Hiring and promotions "must be made only according to merit and fitness, which is generally ascertained by competitive examination." And procedures are in place for employees to file grievances and to have those complaints heard.

As for the scope of the new proposal, there is fierce debate about whether it would change the core principles of the system.

Erpenbach has described the proposal as "throwing away a merit based system and moving back to the days of political patronage appointments," while Walker has said "the civil service protections that are at the heart of the principle" would remain intact, with "no change to merit-based hiring."

The proposal would, among other things:

  • Drop the exams that job candidates for state government are often required to take in favor of a résumé system.

  • Define "just cause" for firing employees to make it clear that the state could immediately dismiss employees for showing up to work drunk, being physically violent, engaging in sexual harassment, stealing taxpayer goods or not showing up to work for three days in a year with no notification.

  • Shorten the appeals process by more than half for employees being disciplined or fired.

  • Put in place a single employee discipline system across nearly all state agencies

"Wouldn’t touch"

What Walker has said about his intentions for state employees has been an issue going back to before Act 10, the 2011 law that repealed most collective bargaining for most public employees.

In February 2011, as daily protests drew thousands to the State Capitol, Walker claimed he had campaigned on the provisions of Act 10. We rated that statement False. He did not go public with even the bare-bones of his multi-faceted plans to sharply curb collective bargaining rights.

But other statements Walker made led some to believe the governor was saying he wouldn’t touch the civil service system -- even if his statements never made such a promise.

On a number of occasions in February 2011, as if to reassure state workers outraged by Act 10, Walker said union contracts weren't needed because the civil service law would protect public employees from political favoritism or retribution. And he made a point to say that Act 10 would not change civil service protections.

Two examples:

  • On "Fox News Sunday," Walker said: "There is no state that has a better civil service system in terms of protections. That does not change in this. Worker rights will be maintained even after our bill passes."

  • In a televised address that has become known as his "fireside chat," the governor said: "It’s important to remember that many of the rights we’re talking about don’t come directly from collective bargaining. They come from the civil service system here in Wisconsin. That law was passed in 1905, long before collective bargaining, and it will continue long after our plan is approved."

But saying that Act 10 would not change the civil service system is not the same as pledging not to make any changes to the system. And Erpenbach did not cite any such statements from Walker to us.

Indeed, there have been signs that changes would be made.

In June 2014, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that in recent months, Walker administration officials had said multiple times they weren't looking to change the civil service system.

For instance, then-Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch insisted they were not considering any changes to the core principles of civil service. And a spokeswoman for Walker's Department of Administration said at the time that Walker had no interest in changing civil servants’ protections.

But the Journal Sentinel also reported that records it had obtained showed there had been early-stage discussions about removing red tape that slows hiring for state jobs.

And the next month, Walker didn’t directly respond to a request from the Journal Sentinel when asked if he favored changing current civil service protections.

Our rating

Erpenbach said Walker "said he wouldn't touch" the state civil service system but now supports overhauling it.

In arguing for Act 10, which repealed most collective bargaining rights for most public employees, Walker repeatedly cited the strength of employee protections in Wisconsin’s civil service system, and said his 2011 law wouldn’t change the protections.

That led some to believe Walker wouldn’t try to change the civil service system. But we found no evidence that Walker made such a pledge, and there have been indications in the past year that he might seek changes.

For a statement that contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, our rating is Mostly False.

More on public employees

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says every general City of Milwaukee employee "pays toward his or her pension, but approximately 88 percent of our police officers and firefighters do not." Mostly True.

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga says the University of Wisconsin System  "is larger than any business in the state of Wisconsin." Mostly True.

Walker says Wisconsin's pension system is the "only one fully funded in the country." Mostly True.