Fixing What Isn’t Broken in Wisconsin

Phil Anderson

Conservatives, like the ones currently in charge of Wisconsin, never seem to have any positive proposals to improve our communities or make life better for the average citizen. They don’t address the obvious major problems facing our society. Their legislative agendas are about cutting funding for existing programs, fixing what isn’t broken, or addressing non-existent problems.
Under the current administration Wisconsin has suffered a flood of ill advised policy changes. I wrote about this in a recent article about changing the civil service procedures. More examples include “fixing” the workers compensation system, which was an efficient, non-adversarial model for the nation. Neither did the top rated public retirement program need changes. Gutting the sensible, bi-partisan recycling program was counter productive for taxpayers and the environment. Some of their proposals, like eliminating the “Wisconsin Idea” as the mission statement for the university system, “reforming” the open meeting laws, doing away with the Government Accountability Board even drew conservative opposition. Since the GOP gained control of the legislature, it has enacted 128 limitations on local units of government. Local control used to be an icon of conservative philosophy.

Funding for local Veterans Service Offices (VSOs) is the latest example. Located in every county, these offices cost little and do a great deal of good by helping veterans. The offices are mandated by state law but most of the funding comes from local taxes. VSOs are an unfunded mandate, another aspect of “big government” decried by conservatives.  

The 2015-17 state budget changed the state funding method from a block grant program to a reimbursement process. The result was bureaucratic snafus and denied requests for reimbursement. Wisconsin Public Radio reported, in 30 counties sampled, 10 reimbursement requests were denied entirely and 14 others were partially denied. Douglas County had its original reimbursement request denied.  

Douglas County’s VSO has a 2016 budget of $258,679. It will receive local tax support of $159,816 and only $19,700 from the state (numbers provided by the Douglas County finance office). To put these numbers in perspective, the services of the VSO cost 1.6% of the county tax levy or less than 0.5% of the total county budget.

One wonders why a useful program, as uncontroversial and as low cost as VSOs, would be an issue. Brian Erickson, the Douglas County Veterans Services Officer, said the reimbursement procedure was very time consuming. The reasons for the denial were not well explained. All funding is important to a small budget. Mr. Erickson did not know why the funding process was changed.

After the press broke the VSO funding story, the administration scrambled for damage control. A deal was worked out between the administration, counties, and Veterans Services officers to simplify the reimbursement process. The deal did not restore the block grant funding which was preferred by the County Veterans Service Officers Association. But it did allow the Walker administration to take credit for fixing the problem they had created.

Another recent example of changing what isn’t broken is the current administration’s efforts to weaken the Superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Wisconsin’s constitution established this position as a non-partisan, independent, elected position. DPI is not under the control of the Governor as are other departments. The legislature and DPI set policy for public schools. In the past keeping public schools free from political influence was considered important. For similar reasons the Secretary of the DNR was originally appointed by the Natural Resources Board, a citizen oversight and policy setting board. This was changed under Governor Thompson to an gubernatorial appointment.   

In 2011 Act 21 was passed and signed by Governor Walker. The law required all state agencies, including the Department of Public Instruction, to get approval from the governor before drafting new administrative rules. Essentially it gave veto power over rule making to the governor. Act 21 was clearly an effort to increase to the power and control of the governor over all aspects of state government.    

For years Republicans have tried to reduce the authority and independence of DPI. Governor Thompson tried similar measures and was overridden by a unanimous state supreme court ruling in 1996. Governor Walker disagreed with DPI and Tony Evers, its popular current Superintendent, over Common Core state standards, expansion of school vouchers, and the state’s school accountability system.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently ruled again to uphold the independence of the Superintendent of DPI.  Changing the independence of the Superintendent of Public Instruction would require a constitutional amendment. As applied to DPI,  Act 21 was unconstitutional because it gave the governor the final say over administrative rules set by the superintendent, who is an independent constitutional officer.

This court ruling will not bring an end to conservative efforts to revise DPI. Republicans are proposing a constitutional amendment to make the DPI chief an appointed position. They still want complete control over educational policy.

Why must the current administration mess with long established, successful policy? Whatever their motivation, it seems nothing is sacred or too small for ill advised changes. They should remember the old adage “if it ain’t broken...don’t fix it.”