This Amanda Terkel–authored article on the Huffington Post yesterday has all the scandalous touchstones: A headline that accuses Wisconsin governor Scott Walker of “quietly” seeking to consolidate his “power.” Quotes from statewide elected officials that disapprove of Walker’s supposed “power grab.” A picture of Walker that looks as if the governor had just begun to regret his choice of huevos rancheros for breakfast.
Clearly, the article is written for an audience predisposed to believe the worst about Walker. It purports to uncover an insidious plan by Walker to consolidate power within his office, citing “democratically elected” Democratic secretary of state Doug La Follette, a leaked Department of Natural Resources memo, and Walker’s budget bill introduced in March.
The loaded language in the HuffPo piece is the real tipoff as to its true intent. The idea that Walker is “quietly” pursuing these changes is ridiculous. Most of the changes are included in his budget proposal, which contains thousands of provisions and has been public since March 1. The legislature’s Joint Finance Committee held a half-dozen public hearings on the bill, where they spent full days listening to hundreds of citizens testify. If the state’s media has chosen to focus on other aspects of the bill, it doesn’t mean Walker is going about anything “quietly.” Apparently, Walker will be accused of trying to “sneak through” anything that doesn’t draw people to the Capitol dressed as chickens and beating on drums.
Furthermore, the article’s reliance on Secretary of State Doug La Follette’s griping is priceless. The Wisconsin secretary of state is an office with virtually no duties — if Amanda Terkel had interviewed a ticket taker at a state parking garage, it would carry more weight than an interview with La Follette. If the office were eliminated completely (which would take a constitutional amendment), it wouldn’t affect the life of a single Wisconsinite — other than Doug La Follette.
Additionally, La Follette is known in the state as a bit of an oddball. A few years ago, it was discovered that La Follette was using one of the state-funded parking structures as a garage for his sports car, which sat idle for years under a tarp. La Follette has also been fined by the state ethics board for allowing his office to be used by a nonprofit group protesting U.S. policy in Nicaragua, and for using his office for political purposes.
Terkel also attempts to blow the lid off Walker’s plan to make the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into a “charter” agency, with more flexibility in personnel decisions such as providing merit pay to the agency’s employees and expediting the cumbersome hiring process.
Seven years ago, Wisconsin enacted what was then called the Jobs Creation Act, which allowed for an expedited DNR permitting process. Businesses would often sit for years waiting for a decision from the DNR as to whether they could expand their operations; the Act didn’t weaken any environmental regulations, it simply required the DNR to give businesses an up-or-down determination more quickly, so they could plan accordingly. The act was signed into law by Democratic governor Jim Doyle.
It doesn’t appear, however, that the spirit of the law is being carried out. One observer I talked to said the “overriding culture” at the DNR was still one of holding up building projects, which requires further personnel action, such as merit pay. Furthermore, more than 50 percent of the DNR’s employees are eligible for retirement — the bureaucratic red tape slowing down the hiring process could lead to massive employee shortages, which, regardless of one’s political opinion, does nothing to aid natural resources in the state. Environmental standards are set by statute and administrative rule — they cannot be changed without an extensive public input process. Walker’s DNR administrative reorganization doesn’t touch any clean water or air standards. It merely makes it more possible to carry out the agency’s mission.
Finally, this outrage over Walker’s plan is plainly selective. During Democratic governor Jim Doyle’s tenure, he routinely introduced plans to consolidate his power. Each of his budgets moved more and more agency attorneys into the Department of Administration, which he controlled. Despite the protests from environmentalists, Doyle refused to give up his authority to pick the DNR secretary. As governor, Doyle staunchly opposed weakening his own veto authority, contradicting his position as a candidate in 2002.
Concentrating their power is simply what governors do. Former governor Tommy Thompson stripped the Department of Public Instruction down to essentially a guy with a desk, pad of paper, and a pencil. Voters elect governors to carry out their plans, yet apparently they’re supposed to be in trouble when they use tools that allow them to implement their initiatives.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.