By Phil Anderson

In the last several weeks there has been an avalanche of policy changes floated by the Republican leadership in Wisconsin. All of them seem to be solutions looking for a problem.

Three prior attempted policy changes were the “Wisconsin Idea,” voter ID, and “reforming” the open meeting laws. None were the result of thoughtful, well researched examinations of problems facing Wisconsin residents. Nor were their “solutions” likely to do any good.

Given the Republican propensity to shove legislation through without much notice or public input, citizens will need to react quickly to the latest laundry list of bad ideas.

AB 269 and SB 213: An unfunded mandate for local government and school districts

AB 269 prohibits local government and schools from providing retirement health care benefits to any employee hired after January 1, 2016 unless the cost of the benefit is funded in a segregated account. It requires an independent audit of these accounts at least every four years at local expense.

Currently, these costs, if any, are funded through the regular budget process and are paid as incurred. Not all local entities provide health care benefits for retirees. When they do, it often amounts to allowing the retiree to stay on the group insurance plan by paying the premiums.

The current process is working fine. In fact the School Administrators Alliance, League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Wisconsin Counties Association and Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) all oppose this bill. They see the bill as an unfunded mandate that undermines local control. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities public testimony on the bill said,

“…there is no evidence that any Wisconsin municipality funding such benefits on a pay as you go basis has failed to pay for the benefits promised to its retired employees. AB 269 is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist” (emphasis added).

Changes to the Wisconsin Retirement System

Bills have been drafted to change the Wisconsin public retirement program (WRS). The Republicans want to (1) Raise the minimum age of retirementRetirement by two years for all job classifications and (2) change the way benefits are calculated, changing from the highest three years to the highest five years of pay.

The motivation for these changes is unclear given that WRS is one of the best retirement systems in the nation and is fully funded. The current rules are working fine. The effect of these changes will reduce retiree income while doing little to improve the stability of the system. Few public employees retire early. If they do they “pay” for it with reduced benefits. Changing the calculation of benefits formula is unlikely to yield any significant savings.

None of this will reduce taxes to the public as WRS benefits are not funded by tax dollars. Retirees, and their spending, are an important and growing part Northern Wisconsin’s economy. Again this is a solution looking for a problem.

Changing The Group Insurance Board

The Group Insurance Board sets policy and overseas the administration of insurance programs offered to public employees. It consists of the governor, appointees of the governor (who are stakeholders in the programs) and appropriate department or cabinet heads.

This bill introduces the Joint Finance Committee into the oversight process by requiring the Group Insurance Board (GIB), to submit all proposed changes to public employee group health insurance programs to the Joint Committee on Finance (JCF).

This is a needless, additional step that only adds more politics to the process. There is no evidence that the current process is not working. But it does increase the power of the Joint Finance Committee currently dominated by Republicans.

Changing civil service rules

A draft bill being floated calls for changing Wisconsin’s long standing, landmark civil service laws. Changes include:

  • Removing entrance exams for new job applicants and replacing them with a resume only based system
  • Giving hiring authority to the Department of Administration, a direct extension of the governor’s office
  • Extending the probationary period for new hires from 6 months to two years.
  • Changing the layoff process from seniority-based to subjective performance reviews.

These changes open opportunities for political payback and favoritism. By ending objective testing or experience ratings these proposals undermine the professionalism of public employees. The civil service rules have been the foundation of Wisconsin’s reputation for clean government for over a 100 years.

Bad public policy is not good for anyone. Citizens of all political persuasions need to contact their legislators to stop these proposals.